Scientists Find Some Surprises In Northern Union County Parks

UNION COUNTY—For Frank Budney, it was the sighting of an Indigo Bunting, a reclusive bird know for its secretive habits.

For Daniela Shebitz, it was finding so many outcroppings of Pyrola Americana, with their delicate greenish  flowers .


For Holly Jantz, it was finally finding hard evidence of coyotes.

In June, scientists, many of them from Kean University, naturalists from Union County’s parks department and dozens of volunteers converged for Bio-Blitz 2009.  The 24-hour event is an intensive effort to measure the biodiversity of a targeted section of parkland by surveying the plant and animal life, said Betty Ann Kelly, an environmental specialist with the county parks department who coordinates the annual event.

This year’s Bio-Blitz, now in its fifth year, focused on Briant Park in Summit and Hidden Valley Park and the old Houdaille Quarry in neighboring Springfield.   While this year’s parks,  nestled in the Watchung Mountain range, might appear to be removed  from  the ecological stress of more developed areas, scientists said their findings once again showed the effects of the region’s environment.

“No matter where we go, we’re going to have an impact from urbanization, whether we see it or not,” said Prof. Sylvio Codella.

“What was surprising was that the water wasn’t cleaner,” said Dr. John Dobosiewicz, who teaches earth sciences at Kean.  Dobosiewicz said runoff from area roadways, including Interstate 78, likely plays a role. But some of the causes are even closer. The excessive nitrogen and phosphorous found in the water is also due in part to run off from nearby lawns that have been treated with all sorts of fertilizers.

For Dobosiewicz, having the Houdaille Quarry opened to the public enabled visitors to better understand the geology of the mountain ridge.
“It’s one of those things you wish more people could see. It’s a rare opportunity to have that kind of exposure,” he said.

For Jantz, the quarry also provided conclusive evidence of the coyotes that scientists knew were in the areas. And from the droppings it also became pretty clear that they were dining on a host of smaller mammals, from rabbits to mice. Jantz, a graduate student at Auburn University who participated in past Bio-Blitzes, said that the mammals team found a woodchuck den, which they had not found at any of the other parks.

“One of the things that strikes me is that I always find new things,” said Codella, who studies insects. “These little pieces of land can have their unique communities.”  For Codella, it was the discovery of a parasitic wasp that he had not seen in other county parks.

Biology Professor Daniela Shebitz was surprised by the diversity of plantlife.  “There were a lot of native and non-native species,” Shebitz said. “I think the biggest surprise was that the understory was very intact, that there wasn’t such a heavy deer presence.”

The plant teams found Pyrola Americana, False Lilly of the Valley, Canada Mayflower and other native species, which was a good sign, Shebitz said, because when deer herds grow too large for an area, they will consume all the native species. And that has not happened, said county naturalists, because the city of Summit not only conducts an annual deer culling in the area to control the size of the herd but predators in the quarry also likely take their toll.

Shebitz said that aside from the science aspects of Bio-Blitz, she enjoys the fact that it is a way for “people to be aware of what’s in their backyards” and the need for the parks “to be protected.”

Budney, a retired Union Township police officer, is a regular volunteer at Bio-Blitz. An avid bird watcher, even he was surprised when the bird team spotted an Indigo Bunting.

“They’re kind of secretive. They’re a species most persons wouldn’t see,” Budney said. The blue-colored bird looks to nest in wooded areas on the edge of open fields,” he said.

While the scientists will be sharing their data in the coming months, Kelly said that for as much as people thought they knew the parks, there were surprises. It was also rewarding to have significant numbers of new people participate in the event who had never heard of the annual event.

“That was really nice. We opened some eyes,” Kelly said. “I would be willing to bet that most people would be surprised by the number of plant and wildlife species that actually live in Briant Park.”

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