Declining Bird Species Find Welcoming Home in NJ's Post-Industrial Landscapes

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Biology Researcher Embarks on Multi-year Study of Post-Industrial Bird Habitats

It’s no secret that many animal species in the Unites States and around the globe are endangered as their habitats fall prey to human activity and global warming. Habitat loss in the eastern U.S. has been especially marked due to pollution, deforestation and overdevelopment—no place more than in New Jersey, the most urbanized state in the nation.

Birds have not escaped this predicament. Our avian friends along the eastern seaboard have experienced population decreases for decades, including the American Woodcock, which has been declining at almost 2 percent per year since 1968, when constant-effort monitoring began.

So when that species was repeatedly observed in the highly polluted interior forest of Liberty State Park, in Jersey City, around 2014, it raised eyebrows. How was it possible for a grassland bird species such as this one, which are among the fastest declining avian groups, to take up residence in such conditions?

RU-N doctoral student Kathy Farley began investigating to see if the Woodcock’s presence was random or indicative of a greater trend, and soon confirmed it was the latter.

Two years later, her early observations have morphed into a multi-year research project involving dozens of similar sites throughout northern New Jersey to determine American Woodcock breeding success, and whether the species is making use of post-industrial landscapes to make a comeback.

“Post-industrial landscapes such as old rail yards, landfills, former industrial complexes and superfund sites have begun to replace former forest and field habitat for North American wildlife, particularly in the east,” Farley says. “Since Woodcock are an ‘indicator species’—meaning they have the same habitat requirements of other hard-to-find birds—we know that when they succeed, so do these other species.”

These include New England Cottontail, Golden-winged Warblers, Ruffed Grouse, Hognose snakes and Brown Thrashers, among others.

If ecosystems can re-emerge and thrive in these post-industrial sites, then they can potentially mitigate the loss of older animal habitats, which has implications for conservation management efforts in highly urbanized regions.

Farley is conducting this research under the auspices of her dissertation advisor, RU-N Biology Professor Claus Holzapfel, who first detected the presence of American Woodcocks in Liberty State Park. Her team included up to a dozen people helping with data collection across 30 sites during Phase I of the project, in 2016.

This year, a smaller team will begin Phase II: monitoring 2-3 post-industrial and non-industrial sites, and finding and tagging males with radio transmitters to study their territory acquisition and courtship rituals for a year, along with survival and return rates. The team will also find and tag nestlings to determine how well they fare in these human-altered environments. Farley will use radio transmitters and detection dogs, which are far more adept at finding American Woodcock nests than humans are. Her project will run through 2018.

“Studying Woodcocks can help us better understand other species that are severely declining due to significant habitat loss, and perhaps reverse the trend,” she says.

Farley, who was raised in Lake Ontario, NY, got into birds while a junior studying ecology and natural resource management at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. After graduating with a B.S. in 2006, she taught middle-school science in the Newark public schools for six years and started a masters-degree program in biology, with a focus on ecology and evolution, at Montclair State University (MSU), which she finished in 2013.

While there, she also worked part-time at the Tenafly Nature Center, running educational programs and organizing camps, and was involved with the Alliance for NJ Environmental Education, along with an American Kestrel nesting research program run by a professor at MSU.

She arrived at RU-N to do a Ph.D. in biology in fall 2014, expanding on her ecology and evolution studies while continuing to concentrate on birds.

“I fell in love with ornithology from a class in my junior year at Rutgers–New Brunswick, then got a summer position at the University of Arizona as a research assistant doing avian field research,” says Farley. “I haven’t looked back since.”