National Wildlife Refuge Manager Talks About Ever-Changing Holgate

Forsythe Lands Celebrating 80th Anniversay

Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge Manager Virginia Rettig points to the wildlife drive, an 8-mile causeway past fresh and salt ponds that draws birders to view waterfowl. Photo by Pat Johnson.

Holgate — The Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. The actual date when the refuge acquired the first piece of land was Sunday, Oct. 27, 1939; that is the parcel where the headquarters and wildlife drive are located today in Oceanville, Galloway Township. But the refuge is almost 48,000 acres of wetlands and adjacent uplands that stretch from Galloway in Atlantic County up to Brick Township in Ocean County. Locally, the federal refuge holds sway over the southernmost tip of Holgate, wetlands and marshland along the Tuckerton, West Creek bay shore, Bonnet Island in Stafford and bayside areas in Barnegat.

Refuge manager Virginia Rettig spoke about the priorities the refuge is focusing on now that a new administration building and updates to the visitors center in Galloway are complete and cleanups from Sandy are done.

“Now that Hurricane Sandy is behind us – we had five years of funding to clean up the whole bay shore – now we can pivot and look forward to what we are looking to accomplish on the refuge,” she said during an interview in the new administration building on Friday, Nov. 1.

The refuge will be focusing its efforts on three priority areas. The first is the Galloway parcel with the wildlife drive and visitors center; the second area is in Brick Township, where the refuge has opened a 2-mile hiking trail, named for local conservationist William DeCamp. The DeCamp Trail traverses the largest piece of remaining forested area in Brick, said Rettig.

And then there are Holgate on Long Beach Island and the Cedar Bonnet Island hiking trail in Stafford. The hiking trail is on restored habitat that used to be a confined disposal site for dredge material. Forsythe has restored 18 acres of salt marsh and has opened the area for passive recreation: hiking and bird watching.

Since the early 1970s, the beach in Holgate has been closed during the shorebird beach-nesting season from April 1 through Aug. 31. This is to protect the endangered piping plovers and other declining shorebird populations.

This past spring and summer have been the best year for hatching piping plovers on Holgate because of an over-wash area in the middle of the peninsula that is attractive to nesting shorebirds. The lack of vegetation means the plovers and other shorebirds can see predators.

“The shoreline is always changing,” said Rettig as she perused aerial maps from various years. “But this over-wash situation has created the best habitat in decades for beach-nesting birds.” Rettig said 29 pairs of plovers nested on Holgate.

Plovers nest in scrapes they make in the beach and blend into the surrounding detritus. But unlike other birds, plovers do not feed their chicks. “When the chicks hatch, they jump up and have to feed themselves,” said Rettig. “And we are finding that they prefer to go to the bayside to forage, and that makes sense when you consider the crashing waves on the ocean. They also go to the ocean areas, too, but they love the bayside.

“When you look at the shorelines in New Jersey over the long term, Holgate and Little Beach are the only areas where over-wash can occur, and that increases their importance.

“On the flip side we also know there is sea level rise occurring. When flooding occurs while birds are nesting, they adapt and will re-nest. We monitor this; we spend a lot of time collecting information on what impacts the birds while they are out there – what stresses them and what, if anything, we can do to help.

“We have been banding plovers for four years, and that has been very informative. We have seen that when they arrive in March they are not just migrating through on their way to another site, but are our nesting birds returning. That is why we want vehicles off the beach by March 15,” Rettig said.

Holgate is a national wilderness area and is open only for fishing and for those who want a serene walk on a wilderness beach during the colder months.

The dune and vegetated areas are off-limits all year, but because of the over-wash area that has occurred, about a mile and a half down the beach the refuge recently opened a new trail, called the Clammers’ Trail, which traverses the peninsula from the ocean to the bay. At its narrowest; the over-wash area is only 800 yards wide from ocean to bay.

“We marked it out last week,” Rettig said. “It goes through the wilderness area above the mean high water line, and it’s an opportunity for the public to go back there. We don’t know for how long the trail can be there. Every year the beachfront could change, but we will see what comes. This is a changing barrier island.”

The trail is open only when the refuge is open to the public, and people have to stay on the trail, not wander all over the area.

“We know how important Holgate is to the public for outdoor experiences that enjoy an undeveloped shoreline, but our biological program of providing sites for nesting shorebirds is our area of most concern,” said Rettig.

The changing nature of wilderness barrier islands fascinates her.

“We acquired the Holgate section 50 years ago when it was 250 acres. In the mid-1990s it grew to 550 acres. In 1995, Holgate extended 2,000 feet south, and you can see it getting thinner. Now we have 450 acres, still more than we used to have.

“It’s critically important habitat, and we’re very aware of the dynamics, but over-washes are beneficial for the birds. Yet we are still monitoring this phase, and we are cognizant of the changing landscape. We are mindful – and I understand others’ positions, but we are paying attention. This is a great time in biological history. We have access to data we never had before: tracking devices on birds, mapping tools, and as we move forward, we are studying the issue closer. If we will do anything different, I don’t know that right now. “

Rettig said she is working with the Long Beach Township Environmental Commission on ways to share the refuge story throughout LBI. “I’m always willing to share information and answer questions. I also like to listen and learn from people. We’re at a great place in our history.”

The refuge also has a vibrant educational piece at its headquarters in Oceanville, and has a variety of nature-inspired programs throughout the year. Find these on the Facebook page. Also find videos of rare birds and bird behaviors posted by refuge staff and visitors.

— Pat Johnson

Reposted from The Sandpaper