This weekend I made my annual trip to Barnegat Light, NJ to see some of the most beautiful ducks in the world who spend the winter months along this jetty. Barnegat Light is located at the northern tip of Long Beach Island, which is just south of where superstorm Sandy made landfall last October.
The prize for taking the long walk on this rock jetty, in 35 mph winds, with waves crashing across the rocks (making the rocks slippery and me quite wet in very chilly weather), with sand and salt spray stinging my face, and knowing that I would have to make the long walk back again, for me is the Harlequin Ducks (shown above).
We also saw the very handsome Long-tailed Ducks
Common (and also Red-throated) Loons
Purple Sandpipers, and so much more.
While these birds certainly are gorgeous, it’s also important to know that the health of these birds, and the ocean in general, can be directly linked to actions we take in our own gardens.
When we apply toxic substances like chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to our gardens, they do not stay just in our gardens. Every time it rains, these chemical toxins run off and into our streams and rivers, and ultimately into the ocean. We certainly don’t want to poison these beautiful ducks (or any other birds) by continuing to use these common garden poisons.
I had the great honor of participating in several long-term bird population studies monitoring winter water fowl and raptors while I was in grad school. Clay Sutton has been monitoring water health in New Jersey for over 20 years, thanks to the foresight and vision of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River who have been funding this important research.
Clay has discovered that river health can be directly correlated with the numbers of ducks and other waterfowl as well as the raptors who live here through the winter. An unhealthy river system does not support ducks, eagles, or the fish that they feed on.
We as wildlife gardeners can directly help maintain and improve the health of our rivers and waterways by discontinuing the use, and teaching our friends and neighbors also, of all toxic chemicals in our gardens.
I had heard from a friend that Razorbills had been spotted at the Manasquan Inlet the day before, so we left Barnegat, and travelled around to the next barrier island north along the Jersey Coast. I wanted to visit Island Beach State Park on the southern tip of Barnegat Penninsula, and then travel up to the northern tip to see the Razorbills at Manasquan Inlet.
What didn’t occur to me as we attempted to make this drive, is that this barrier island was where superstorm Sandy made landfall, and I was not prepared for the devastation I was going to see here.
Island Beach State Park remains closed three months after this storm, so we were not able to visit the park. The towns of Seaside Park, Seaside Heights, Mantoloking, and Lavellette took the direct hit of Sandy’s impact, and remain in a state of devastation that is heart-breaking to see. And sadly, the area north of Mantoloking remains closed to traffic, so I was unable to get up to Manasquan Inlet.
Seeing these devastated communities raises sorrow for these residents who have lost everything, and my heart goes out to them. It’s heartwarming to see the outpouring of support, donations, and volunteers who have come to this area to help these communities recover.
But it also raises questions about the most healthy way to rebuild. These barrier islands provide the same ecosystem functions that the wetlands of Louisiana provide the city of New Orleans. In fact, this area of New Jersey has been compared to New Orleans Lower 9th Ward, both in terms of the devastation seen from the storm, but also to the damage to critical ecosystem services.
The dune ecosystems serve to protect the coast from storms, high tides, storm surges, and high winds. When we destroy these ecosystems to build homes and neighborhoods along these barrier islands, we are removing the protections that these islands provide.
We need to take a very careful look at how we choose to rebuild these communities. And I hope that this rebuilding will include an in-depth assessment of the value of natural dune ecosystems.
Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.
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