Rare Natural Communities and Habitat Types

Pine Barrens Communities

Large areas dominated by forests and woodlands of pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and associated species, generally referred to as pine barrens, occur throughout the northeastern United States. Pine barrens are typically found on acidic, well-drained, sandy soils of the Coastal Plain in southern New England, Long Island, and New Jersey, as well as in more limited inland areas on glacio-lacustrine (glacial lake) and glacio-fluvial (glacial river) sandplains and shallow soils on ridgetops (Figure 11). Within the region, these communities have in common a tree layer of pure pitch pine or pitch pine and mixed oaks, an understory dominated by ericaceous (heath) shrubs, and a sparse herbaceous layer. Pine barrens are distinctive for their dry pine, oak, and heath communities that occur in a humid, temperate climate which, at other sites, is typically dominated by deciduous forests. The presence of pine barrens in the humid Northeast is the result of the evolutionary adaptation of its principal plant species to areas of low nutrients, droughty soils, and high frequency of fire, and the success of species such as pitch pine and scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia) in invading and maintaining themselves competitively on edaphically-limited sites such as coarse sands and rock outcrops. Pitch pine is adaptable to a wide range of conditions but is easily out-competed on less stressful sites where nutrients and moisture are more available. Factors that determine whether and where pine barrens occur include land use history, fire history, topography, soil type, drainage, and moisture regime. In the New York Bight watershed, extensive pine barrens areas occur at only four locations: the New Jersey Pinelands, by far the largest (pitch pine) pine barrens in the world; the Long Island Pine Barrens; an inland sandplain site at the Albany Pine Bush (part of the larger Hudson Valley sandplain); and, on the Shawangunk Ridge, the largest ridgetop pine barrens community in the world (Figure 12). Detailed descriptions of each of these pine barrens sites may be found in the individual habitat complex narratives (New Jersey Pinelands, Long Island Pine Barrens, Albany Pine Bush, and Shawangunk - Kittatinny Ridge).

Although pitch pine-oak forests and woodlands are broadly distributed throughout the Northeast, extensive stands are relatively limited. Within pine barrens areas, dwarf pine barrens communities are even more limited in extent, and occur at only three sites in the New York Bight: within the Long Island Pine Barrens, the New Jersey Pinelands, and the Shawangunk Ridge. These communities are unique and distinct from the typical pine-oak forests and woodlands of pine barrens and are considered critically imperiled globally (G1) by The Nature Conservancy. These three dwarf pine barrens communities, though widely separated geographically, are similar to one another in overall structure and appearance; all are composed of pitch pines and co-dominant trees less than three meters in height, but each has different co-dominant tree, shrub, and herb species. In the dwarf pine plains communities that occur on Long Island, scrub oak is co-dominant; in the pine plains communities in New Jersey, blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) is co-dominant, along with lesser amounts of scrub oak; and on the Shawangunk Ridge, the dwarf pine ridges community does not have a co-dominant oak species but has instead a shrub layer dominated by black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata). These communities have evolved under severe environmental conditions, including frequent fires and nutrient-poor soils. On the Coastal Plain, these communities are found at the most xeric (dry) and fire-prone sites in the pine barrens. Pitch pines that occur in these areas have evolved traits adapted to these stressed environments, including a high percentage of cone serotiny (closed cones), long-lived seeds, rapid growth, epicormic branches (sprouting from the roots), thick, fire-resistant bark, and an extensive mycorhizzal root system to facilitate nutrient uptake. Human disturbance, including repeated clearing and burning, has played a large role in the vegetational history of these areas. These dwarf pine barrens communities and other fire-maintained communities support a number of rare insect and plant species (Table 10). The populations of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) are especially significant, and include the federally listed endangered Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) in the Albany Pine Bush.

Pine barrens ecosystems include not only the characteristic pitch pine-oak forests and woodlands such as the dwarf pine communities described above, but also encompass a wide range of other upland and wetland communities occurring within this pine-oak matrix, e.g., vernal ponds, Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) swamps, pitch pine lowlands, pine barrens savannas, and pine barrens streams and rivers. Pine barrens ecosystems are distinctive for the mosaic of different plant communities occurring in close proximity to each other in an area of low topographical relief. The uplands and lowlands support communities that are quite distinct from one another, controlled primarily by soil moisture differences. The many rare communities and species found within pine barrens ecosystems are too numerous and complex to fully describe here; many of these are further described in individual habitat complex narratives, and only a few highlights are included in this section. Riverine lowlands in the New Jersey Pinelands, such as the Batso River, contain numerous rare species, for example, the federally listed threatened swamp pink (Helonias bullata) and Knieskern's beaked-rush (Rhynchospora knieskernii), federal candidate bog asphodel (Narthecium americanum), and globally imperiled New Jersey rush. Coastal plain pond and vernal pond communities in the Long Island and New Jersey pine barrens contain an unusually high concentration of rare plant species (see also section on coastal plain ponds). Pristine headwater streams in the Pinelands are highly acidic and support a unique assemblage of flora and fauna adapted to these areas. Pine barrens rivers, including the Mullica, Great Egg Harbor, Peconic, and Carmans, are a key component of the productive estuaries in New Jersey and Long Island. The New Jersey Pinelands and Long Island Pine Barrens are also extremely important as groundwater recharge areas, overlaying large coastal plain aquifers.

General Threats and Conservation Considerations

Suppression of wildfires that are so essential to the maintenance of the pine barrens ecosystems could result in marked vegetation changes through succession and subsequent loss of the characteristic pine barrens biota, including many of its rare species. The suburban development of lands in or near these pine barrens often results in fire suppression to protect houses, property, and human lives, and limits the ability to use prescribed burning to maintain the ecosystem and reduce out-of-control wildfires. Inappropriate development in the pine barrens would also degrade water quality, increase turbidity, alter hydrology, and increase discharges of pesticides or hazardous materials into rivers or ponds, to the ultimate detriment of aquatic species. Eutrophication caused by runoff from fertilizers, septic tanks, roads, farmlands, and cranberry bogs is of considerable concern, as such over-enrichment of naturally acidic and nutrient-poor waters could lead to invasions and dominance by exotic, nutrient-loving, weedy plants and consequent displacement of the native flora.

The New Jersey Pinelands, Long Island Pine Barrens, and Albany Pine Bush all have existing management plans that are being implemented by commissions and state and local agencies; these management plans and commissions should continue to be fully supported. All proposed activities in these pine barrens areas should be scrutinized for impacts to the entire pine barrens ecosystem. Development should be excluded from the firesheds of the pine plains communities in the New Jersey Pinelands and the area within and around the dwarf pine plains in the Long Island Pine Barrens, for both human safety and ecological reasons. Fire management plans for prescribed burning need to be specifically developed and implemented for the full spectrum of ecologically-significant sites occurring in all pine barrens areas; these should focus on ecological restoration and long-term continuity of the pine barrens ecosystem. A better understanding of the factors that maintain the structure of the dwarf pine ridge communities on the Shawangunk Ridge is necessary, and any attempts to manage this community through controlled burns or other means should be done on a limited basis until the effects are well-understood. Monitoring the impacts of prescribed burns, as well as wildfires and other events, is essential to better understand and manage these unique areas. Inappropriate development in the "protection area" of the New Jersey Pinelands and the "compatible growth area" in the Long Island Pine Barrens will affect the ecological integrity of these ecosystems and should be avoided.

References:

Breden, T. 1989. A preliminary natural community classification for New Jersey. In E.F. Karlin (ed.) New Jersey's rare and endangered plants and animals, pp. 157-191. Institute for Environmental Studies, Ramapo College, Mahwah, NJ.

Cryan, J. 1980. An introduction to the Long Island pine barrens. The Heath Hen 1(1). Journal of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Smithtown, NY.

Grossman, D.H., K.L. Goodin, and C.L. Reuss. 1994. Rare plant communities of the conterminous United States: an initial survey. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA.

Kiviat, E. 1988. The northern Shawangunks: an ecological survey. Mohonk Preserve, Inc. New Paltz, NY. 108 p.

Olsvig, L.A. 1980. A comparative study of northeastern pine barrens vegetation. Ph.D. thesis, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. 479 p.

Olsvig, L., J. Cryan, and R. Wittaker. 1979. Vegetational gradients of the pine plains and barrens of Long Island, New York. In R.T.T. Forman (ed.) Pine Barren: ecosystem and landscape. Academy Press, New York, NY.

Reshke, C. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York Natural Heritage Program, Latham, NY.


Return to table of contents


Calcareous Habitats

In the New York Bight watershed, outcrops of calcareous (calcium-rich) bedrock such as limestone, dolomite, and marble are limited to relatively small areas in the Appalachian Ridge and Valley physiographic region and adjacent portions of the Allegheny Plateau, Taconic Highlands, New England Uplands, and the New York - New Jersey Highlands (listed below in Table 11 and shown in Figure 13).

Table 11. Primary Areas of Calcareous Bedrock in the New York Bight Watershed Study Area

Location Primary Bedrock Types
Wallkill River/Paulins Kill Valley (part of Great Valley) shale and limestone
Eastern and northern edge of the Allegheny Plateau (including Helderberg Escarpment) limestone
Taconic Highlands (including Harlem Valley) interspersed bands of dolomite, sandstone, shales, and limestones
New York - New Jersey Highlands, Manhattan Prong marble

Groundwater and soils found in association with calcareous bedrock are generally rich in mineral nutrients, especially calcium, and are slightly acidic to slightly basic (pH ranges generally from 6.0 to 7.8). The relatively high nutrient levels and pH contrast with the more acidic, nutrient-poor conditions found in surrounding crystalline rock areas. High cation levels in calcareous soils and groundwater (calcium, iron, and magnesium) may also directly or indirectly inhibit the growth of some plant species and favor others. The vegetational communities growing on these habitats are thus often distinct from surrounding areas. Especially in wetlands and on mesic soils, these habitats frequently support lush vegetation and unique assemblages of calcicolous plants, i.e., those plants able to grow and develop on calcareous soils. Some upland communities growing directly on calcareous outcrops with thin, xeric (dry) soils are sparsely vegetated, have few trees, and are dominated by dry, prairie species. In the New York Bight watershed, carbonate outcrops are often juxtaposed with other sedimentary or metamorphic bedrock of different erodibility, resulting in a variety of ridgetop, slope, and lowland habitats within the same general landscape. Several of the wetland and upland communities and plants found in association with calcareous bedrock are globally or regionally rare (Table 12).

Rare calcareous wetland communities

Fens can generally be described as groundwater-fed wetlands dominated by graminoid (grass and sedge) vegetation in early successional stages, and by forbs and shrubs in later stages. Fens have little or no Sphagnum mosses, in contrast to bogs where there is generally a Sphagnum mat or ground cover. Calcareous fens are shrub and herb-dominated communities that occur in areas of calcareous groundwater seepage. Several different calcareous fen communities have been described and delineated by the New York Natural Heritage Program and are outlined below. These sub-types are grouped under the general name calcareous fens by the New Jersey Natural Heritage Program, and usually occur as part of a matrix of calcareous wetland and upland habitats.

Rich shrub fens occur in low areas with calcareous groundwater seepage and may contain substantial woody peat development (partially decomposed organic matter derived primarily from woody plants). These are shrub-dominated fens (50 to 90% shrub cover) characterized by such species as shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), swamp birch (Betula pumila), willows (Salix candida and others), poison sumac (Toxidendron vernix), red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), and other shrub species. Red maple (Acer rubrum) and tamarack (Larix larcina) frequently occur as saplings or stunted trees in these habitats, and a layer of sedges (Carex spp.), cattail (Typha latifolia), marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris), and other herbaceous species is often present. A recent survey and classification of rare communities by The Nature Conservancy classifies these communities as calcareous fens or shrubby cinquefoil-northern bayberry-swamp birch sparse shrublands and ranks them as globally imperiled (G2) due to the few known occurrences and geographically restricted range (see Appendix II).

Rich graminoid fens also occur in low areas with calcareous groundwater seepage; there is generally substantial graminoid peat development (partially decomposed organic matter derived primarily from grasses and sedges). In contrast to rich shrub fens, these fens are dominated by sedges (Carex aquatilis, C. lasiocarpa, C. flava, C. hystericina, and C. prairea), as well as cattails (Typha latifolia and T. angustifolia), grasses (Muhlenbergia glomerata), rushes, ferns, and other herbaceous species. Shrub composition is similar to the rich shrub fen described above but with less than 50% cover of shrubs.

Rich sloping fens, or seepage fens, are small wetlands occurring on slopes of calcareous glacial deposits or bedrock; these fens are fed by groundwater seepage and, unlike the other fen types described above, have little or no peat development. There is generally a continuous layer of herbs and mosses with very high species diversity, and scattered trees and shrubs with less than 50% cover. In New York, rich sloping fens often grade into rich hemlock-hardwood swamps in the lowlands. Seepage fens (shrubby cinquefoil-northern bayberry-tufted hairgrass sparse shrublands) are considered globally imperiled (G2) by The Nature Conservancy due to few occurrences and restricted range.

There are two regions within the New York Bight watershed that have notable concentrations of calcareous wetland habitats, including fens: the upper Wallkill River valley in northwestern New Jersey and the Harlem Valley in the Taconic Highlands near the three-state junction of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. These areas contain important habitats for two regionally significant groups, rare plants and bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii), and are probably also important for several groups of rare insects. Rare plant species associated with these calcareous wetlands include handsome sedge (Carex formosa), blunt spikerush (Eleocharis obtusa var. ovata), Torrey's bulrush (Scirpus torreyi), hemlock-parsley (Conioselinum chinense), blazing-star (Chamaelirium luteum), Virginia bunchflower (Melanthium virginicum), swamp birch, larger Canadian St. John's-wort (Hypericum majus), spreading globe flower (Trollius laxus ssp. laxus), hoary willow (Salix candida), and marsh valerian (Valeriana sitchensis ssp. uliginosa), as well as several others mentioned earlier. Other globally rare plants such as the Schweinitz sedge (Carex schweinitzii) occur in wetlands in adjacent areas of Connecticut and should be looked for in the Harlem Valley. Surveys of similar calcareous wetlands in Connecticut have revealed an amazing diversity of insects, with over 500 species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and over 50 species of Odonata (damselflies and dragonflies), including many rare species. Insect surveys of calcareous wetlands in the New York Bight should be conducted to determine if there are comparable areas of high species diversity that warrant immediate protection.

The bog turtle, a high priority species of concern both in the region and throughout its range and a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, is closely associated with calcareous wetlands at the northern end of its range in the New York Bight watershed and adjacent areas of southwestern New England. Bog turtles appear to prefer open graminoid fens where the vegetation at peak growth is generally less than 1 meter (3 feet) high, where there are substantial areas of bare soil, and where vegetation tends to be tussocky or hummocky. In typical sites, fen water levels tend to be stable (or the vegetation-soil mat floats up and down on the water table) and surface water is present in small, shallow pools and rivulets. Bog turtle fens are associated with extensive calcareous wetland complexes that often contain mixtures of grass or shrub fen, wooded swamp, marsh, beaver pond, and other wetland types. Fens, over time, tend to develop taller herbaceous or woody vegetation; thus, extensive areas of wetland are needed to maintain and perpetuate the patch diversity and developmental mosaics that provide sufficient open fen habitat for the long term, as bog turtles require open, sunny areas in which to bask and warm themselves when ambient air temperatures are low. Juveniles, particularly, seem to require open areas, though the adults may spend considerable time beneath the shade of a canopy of trees or other tall vegetation during the summer. Eggs are laid in a small nest cavity dug in the top of a sedge tussock or a sphagnum hummock. Adults overwinter in the wetland soil, often beneath woody hummocks or stone walls or in animal burrows, and adults may also retire to such retreats during the active season.

Rare Calcareous Upland Communities

Limestone glades (classified as red cedar rocky summit communities in New York) are mainly herbaceous communities dominated by little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) and side oats gramma grass (Bouteloua curtipendula) with a sparse tree cover that is typically eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). These communities occur on dry ridgetops or hillsides where the bedrock is calcareous. Limestone glades (red cedar-hop hornbeam-side-oats gramma sparse woodland) are considered globally imperiled (G2) by The Nature Conservancy due to the restricted range and the small size of the occurrences.

In the New York Bight watershed study area, limestone glades occur in the upper Wallkill Valley, the Harlem Valley calcareous wetland complex, and the west side of the Shawangunk - Kittatinny Ridge along the lower Neversink River. Rare plant species associated with these glades include both typical calcicolous species and dry prairie species, such as glade fern (Athyrium pyncnocarpon), Bicknell's sedge (Carex bicknellii), Bush's sedge (Carex bushii), large twayblade (Liparis lilifolia), side-oats gramma grass, whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), New England blazing-star (Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae), stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida), Virginia false-gromwell (Onosmodium virginianum), hairy rock-cress (Arabis hirsuta), Carolina whitlow-grass (Draba reptans), rough pennyroyal (Hedeoma hispidum), grooved yellow flax (Linum sulcatum), yellow harlequin (Corydalis flavula), long-headed anemone (Anemone cylindrica), purple clematis (Clematis occidentalis), early buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis), small bedstraw (Galium trifidum), and dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia).

Calcareous cliff communities occur on vertical exposures of calcareous bedrock, often with ledges and talus slopes. Vegetation is sparse and varies depending on the slope, exposure, rock structure, frequency of rock fall, and steepness of the escarpment. Characteristic and dominant herbaceous species include ferns such as cliff-brakes (Pellaea spp.) and spleenworts (Asplenium spp.); characteristic tree species include eastern red cedar, northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and maples (Acer spp.).

Calcareous cliffs and talus slopes in the New York Bight occur primarily in the limestone outcrops along the edge of the Allegheny Plateau, such as the Helderberg Escarpment and the Great Vly Wildlife Management Area near the Hudson River in Ulster County, New York. Smooth cliff-brake (Pellaea glabella) is a rare plant species often associated with these cliff communities. Solution caves that are created in these outcrops, as well as mines, serve as winter hibernacula for bats such as the small-footed bat (Myotis sodalis), northern long-eared myotis (Myotis septentrionalis), and the federally listed endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis). A limestone mine near the Hudson River has one of the largest hibernacula for Indiana bat in the eastern United States.

Other rare calcareous communities that occur in or adjacent to the New York Bight study area include limestone woodlands, calcareous shoreline outcrops, calcareous riverside seep communities, marl fens, calcareous seepage swamps, and rich hemlock-hardwood swamps. Several areas just outside the New York Bight study area have significant areas of calcareous bedrock, including the upper Hudson River valley in northern New York, the upper Housatonic River watershed in western Connecticut (the "marble valley" region), the Paulins Kill valley in northwestern New Jersey, and the Neversink and Delaware River shorelines along the western slopes of the Shawangunk - Kittatinny Ridge.

Threats and Conservation Considerations

Calcareous fens and their wetland matrices apparently are in delicate balance with their physical, chemical, and biological environments. Some fens have been destroyed outright by filling, dumping, impoundment, mining, or other alterations. Many habitats appear to have been degraded by nutrient loading from agricultural runoff, stormwater drainage, dump leachate, or other source, and siltation. Road salt runoff or other highway runoff may be a problem locally, as may pesticide runoff from farms, golf courses, or lawns. Significant vegetation changes have resulted from overgrazing by livestock, mowing, pond construction in the fen, farm road construction across the fen, invasion by tall weeds such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and common reed (Phragmites australis), overgrowth by tall shrubs or trees such as red maple, or partial drainage for agricultural purposes. Vegetation changes may also have occurred due to cessation of light livestock grazing that formerly kept tall vegetation from invading. Flooding as a result of beaver dams changes the water levels; following the abandonment of a beaver pond, increased nutrient levels may result in the rapid development of tall swamp vegetation that shades out many of the rarer elements. Many of the rural areas containing calcareous wetlands and uplands are under high development pressure, especially for second home development. Fragmentation of habitat complexes, natural corridors, and species populations is a serious threat from roads, pipelines, buildings, certain types of fences and walls, and other structures.

In order to preserve bog turtle populations in calcareous wetland complexes, as well as the other rare species and habitats these complexes support, it is necessary to maintain habitat quantity and quality in large reserves, and to reduce collecting and predation. The large wetland complexes providing the essential habitat matrix for bog turtle fens and connecting corridors must be preserved, along with the upland buffer zones that help keep excess nutrients, weeds, predators, and collectors out of the fens. More accurate mapping and delineation of wetlands and improved enforcement of federal and state endangered species and wetlands laws are needed to better protect bog turtle populations and habitat complexes.

Off-site and cumulative impact assessment is also badly needed for development proposals near to or up drainage of bog turtle habitats. It will probably be very difficult, if not impossible, to create artificial bog turtle habitats because of the peculiar hydrology and vegetation of these sites, but it may be possible to restore partly damaged habitats or to enhance habitats that have become less favorable due to succession. Experiments and field testing are needed to determine the best means for restoring degraded habitats. A comprehensive calcareous wetland/bog turtle habitat mapping and assessment should be done by the federal and state agencies, along with local conservation organizations, in the two major concentration areas, the Harlem Valley/Taconic Highlands/marble valley region, and the upper Wallkill Valley/Paulins Kill region, including adjacent areas outside of the New York Bight watershed. Such an assessment would build upon existing efforts of the states' endangered species programs. It is especially important to determine all existing and historical populations and connecting corridors, current ownership, and types and degrees of threats in order to set priorities and implement a habitat conservation plan for plants, animals, and rare communities associated with calcareous habitats throughout the region.

References:

Breden, T. 1989. A preliminary natural community classification for New Jersey. In E.F. Karlin (ed.) New Jersey's rare and endangered plants and animals, pp 157-191. Institute for Environmental Studies, Ramapo College, Mahwah, NJ.

Dowhan, J.J. and R.J. Craig. 1976. Rare and endangered species of Connecticut and their habitats. State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut, the Natural Resources Center, Department of Environmental Protection. Report of Investigations no. 6. Hartford, CT.

Grossman, D.H., K.L. Goodin, and C.L. Reuss. 1994. Rare plant communities of the conterminous United States, an initial survey. Prepared by The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

Isachsen, Y.W., E. Landing, J.M. Lauber, L.V. Rickard, and W.B. Rogers (eds.). 1991. Geology of New York, a simplified account. New York State Museum/Geological Survey, the State Education Department, the University of the State of New York, Albany, NY.

Kiviat, E. 1994. Profiles of the bog turtle and Blanding's turtle for the New York Bight coastal habitat study: report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hudsonia Ltd., Annandale, NY.

Klemens, M.W. 1993. Amphibians and reptiles of Connecticut and adjacent regions. State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut, Bulletin No. 112.

McVaugh, R. 1958. Flora of the Columbia County area, New York. New York State Museum and Science Service Bulletins 360, 360A. 433 p.

Reschke, C. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, Latham, NY. 96 p.

Robichaud, B. and M.F. Buell. 1973. Vegetation of New Jersey. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 340 p.

Sneddon, L. and K. Metzler. 1992. Eastern regional community classification, organizational hierarchy, and cross-reference to state heritage community. The Nature Conservancy Eastern Heritage Task Force, Boston, MA.


Return to table of contents


Traprock Ridge Communities

In the New York Bight study area there are several prominent ridges of erosion-resistant igneous rock, composed of either diabase or basalt and commonly called traprock, that are of regional biological and geological significance (see physiographic setting chapter). These ridges, including the three Watchung Ridges in New Jersey and the Palisades Ridge along the Hudson River in New Jersey and New York, rise above the otherwise level landscape of the more readily erodible sedimentary sandstones and shales in the Piedmont Lowlands section of the Piedmont Physiographic Province (Figure 14). The ridges contain some of the last open space in the heavily developed region of northeastern New Jersey as well as several rare communities, e.g., traprock glades, cliffs, and talus slopes, and rare species that are specifically associated with these ridges (Table 13). For additional detail on specific areas, see the habitat complex narratives for the Palisades and Preakness Mountain.

Traprock glade/outcrop communities are dry, open areas dominated by grasses and forbs that occur on south and west-facing slopes of traprock ridges. Three subtypes of the traprock glade/outcrop community have been distinguished by The Nature Conservancy in New Jersey based on relative amounts of exposed bedrock, herbaceous species, and trees: traprock outcrop, traprock glade, and traprock savanna. The most abundant species on the exposed traprock (outcrop) include crustose and fruiticose lichens and mosses. Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and various grasses and forbs often grow in the cracks and crevices. A recent survey and classification of rare communities by The Nature Conservancy refers to these communities as traprock balds or red cedar-poverty grass-Canada bluegrass sparse woodlands, and ranks them as globally imperiled (G2). Similar communities occur on traprock ridges in the Central Lowlands (Connecticut River valley) in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

Traprock glade/outcrop communities occur at several locations along the Palisades Ridge, most notably on South Mountain at the northern end of the ridge in New York State and along the cliff edge in the New Jersey portion of the ridge. The South Mountain site supports several rare plant species including Torrey's mountain mint (Pycnanthemum torrei), hay sedge (Carex argyrantha), Bicknell's sedge (Carex bicknelli), slender knotweed (Polygonum tenue), and dittany (Cunila originoides.). New Jersey state-listed endangered and species of concern in the traprock glades and surrounding hickory-ash-red cedar woodlands at Preakness Mountain (at the northern terminus of the Second Watchung Ridge) include Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria), whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Dewey's sedge (Carex deweyana), Willdenow's sedge (Carex willdenowii), hazel dodder (Cuscuta coryli), long-awned smokegrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), basil-leaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum clinopodioides), Torrey's mountain mint, large-fruited sanicle (Sanicula trifoliata), few-flowered nut rush (Scleria pauciflora), small skullcap (Agrimonia microcarpa), rock spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris), and narrow-leaved vervain (Verbena simplex). Traprock glade communities have also been documented at two locations on the southern end of the Second Watchung Ridge: Chimney Rock, which supports several rare plants including side-oats gramma grass (Bouteloua curtipendula), Willdenow's sedge, small skullcap, and narrow-leaved tinker's-weed (Triosteum angustifolium); and Seeley's Pond, which supports long-awned smokegrass. Other small occurrences of traprock glades likely occur in other open space on the Watchung Ridges. The majority of the open space on the traprock ridges in New York and New Jersey is vegetated with dry-mesic (moderately moist) open woodland and dense forest. These linear, relatively continuous, forested ridges are important for migrating and breeding raptors and songbirds as well as for amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Vernal ponds on these ridges support breeding by several species of mole salamanders (Ambystoma spp.).

Exceptional examples of talus slopes occur at the base of the cliff escarpments of the Palisades along the west bank of the Hudson River and consist of large, barren traprock boulders that have fallen from the exposed rock of the ridge above. Large rock slides of 1,200 to 1,500 tons of rock are common and typically occur in the spring. Water, snow, and ice trapped under the boulders create microhabitats with temperatures 6 to 8C (10 to 15F) below the ambient temperatures. Dominant trees and shrubs occurring between the boulders on the talus slopes include paper birch (Betula papyrifera), black birch (Betula lenta), white pine (Pinus strobus), Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), American basswood (Tilia americana), and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Talus slope communities of this type occur in only a few locations in New Jersey and the New York Bight region. The only known remaining population in the New York Bight watershed of Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister) occurs in the Palisades talus slopes, further emphasizing the regional biological significance of this community type. The talus slope community also provides dens and basking areas for regionally rare reptiles including copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) and five-lined skink (Eumeces fasciatus). Historically, peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) nested on the Palisades cliffs.

The most serious threat to rare traprock glade communities, especially at Preakness Mountain, is the trampling of plants and soil erosion caused by illegal motorized vehicle use on and off the trails and trampling by hikers. Invasive weeds are also a problem at all the traprock glade sites. Development of land around the parks in the Palisades and Watchungs is fragmenting the forest and may result in loss of rare communities and plants. Existing protected open space on the Palisades and Watchungs should be managed to preserve and enhance rare traprock communities and species. These areas all receive intensive recreational use and should be managed to ensure the long-term protection of rare communities while also accommodating, to the extent possible, the nonconsumptive recreational needs of the public. The globally rare traprock glade communities and rare plants should be protected from human disturbance through rerouting trails and public education. Furthermore, any remaining unprotected open space on the ridges should be protected through acquisition, conservation easements, or other means. Rare plants and traprock glade communities should be carefully monitored, and research conducted on glade succession, fire history, and rare plant life history. Management plans should be developed and implemented to control non-native invasive plants.

References:

Breden, T. 1989. A preliminary natural community classification for New Jersey. In E.F. Karlin (ed.) New Jersey's rare and endangered plants and animals. Institute for Environmental Studies, Ramapo College, Mahwah, NJ. pp 157-191.

Dowhan, J.J. and R.J. Craig. 1976. Rare and endangered species of Connecticut and their habitats. State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut, the Natural Resources Center, Department of Environmental Protection. Report of investigations no. 6.

Grossman, D.H., K.L. Goodin, and C.L. Reuss. 1994. Rare plant communities of the conterminous United States, an initial survey. Prepared by The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

Isachsen, Y.W., E. Landing, J.M. Lauber, L.V. Rickard, and W.B. Rogers (eds.). 1991. Geology of New York, a simplified account. New York State Museum/Geological Survey, State Education Department, University of the State of New York, Albany, NY.

Nichols, G.E. 1914. The vegetation of Connecticut III: plant societies on uplands. Torreya 14:167-194.

Puffer, J.H., J.M. Husch, and A.I. Benimoff. 1992. The Palisades Sill and Watchung Basalt Flows, Northern New Jersey and Southeastern New York: a geological summary and field guide. New Jersey Geological Survey open-file report OFR 92-1, 27 p.

Reschke, C. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, Latham, NY. 96 p.

Robichaud, B. and M.F. Buell. 1973. Vegetation of New Jersey. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 340 p.

Slowik, N. and S. Bonardi. 1994. A comprehensive survey of a talus slope, a unique natural community on the Hudson River. Greenbrook Sanctuary, Alpine, NJ.

Walz, K.S. 1996. Ecological community inventory of High Mountain Park, Wayne Township, Passaic County, New Jersey. The Nature Conservancy, New Jersey Field Office, Chester, NJ. 125 p.

Windisch, A.G. 1995. Preliminary natural community inventory of High Mountain Preserve, Wayne, New Jersey. The Nature Conservancy, New Jersey Field Office, Chester, NJ. 25 p.


Return to table of contents


Tidal River Communities

Tidal river or freshwater tidal communities occur in those sections of major coastal rivers subject to the rise and fall of the tides and where the salinity is less than 0.5 parts per thousand. There are only a few major tidal rivers in the southern New England - New York Bight region, and extensive, well-developed freshwater tidal communities are rare, although south of the New York Bight watershed, from New Jersey south to Georgia, tidal rivers are much more common and extensive. Dominating the New York Bight watershed, the Hudson River is tidal for 250 kilometers (155 miles) inland from the New York - New Jersey Harbor north to the federal dam at Troy. About half that length, from Poughkeepsie to Troy, the Hudson is a freshwater tidal river; downstream the river becomes increasingly brackish, though the position of the salt front varies seasonally. Although greatly diminished in total area due to dredging and filling, substantial shallow subtidal and intertidal areas still occur along this reach, especially at the mouths of tributaries and in embayments separated from the river by railroad tracks. Small freshwater tidal marshes also occur in a few locations south of Poughkeepsie in the mid-Hudson River estuary. Other less extensive tidal river communities occur within and along the Mullica and Great Egg Harbor Rivers and their tributaries, and other coastal rivers in the Atlantic coast drainage of the New Jersey Pinelands (Figure 15). The natural communities and rare species of these areas are described in detail in the individual habitat narratives (Upper Hudson River Estuary, Mid-Hudson River Estuary, Mullica River - Great Bay Estuary, and Great Egg Harbor Estuary). A general summary of these communities and associated rare species is presented here.

In the Hudson River and other tidal rivers in the New York Bight, the vegetational and faunal communities found in and along the river are determined by both depth and salinity. The deepwater tidal river zone occurs below those depths able to support vascular plant growth, about 2 to 3 meters (6 to 10 feet) in the turbid Hudson. Primary production in this zone comes only from phytoplankton. These deepwater zones generally have swift currents and rocky bottoms. The shallow subtidal zone occupies that area of the river between the deepwater zone and mean low tide where there is sufficient light at the bottom to support rooted plants. This zone occurs in narrow, shallow, subtidal bands along and above the deepwater sections of the tidal river, on flats in the middle of the river, in backwater channels, and in bays along the river. This shallow subtidal zone supports beds of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) such as water celery (Valisneria americana). The tidal zone in these rivers is the intertidal area of the shoreline between low and high tide, and can be subdivided into freshwater intertidal shore, freshwater intertidal mudflats, and freshwater tidal marsh zones. Freshwater intertidal shore communities occur only along steep rocky shorelines, and within the New York Bight study area are found only along the Hudson River. Characteristic species of this zone include smartweeds (Polygonum spp.) and beggar-ticks (Bidens spp.). Intertidal mudflat communities are found along more gentle sand and mud shorelines above mean low water; these flats are often sparsely vegetated and are dominated mostly by arrowheads (Sagittaria spp.), bulrushes (Scirpus pungens), and a variety of other species. Freshwater tidal marshes can generally be divided into lower and upper marsh zones. The lower marsh zone generally experiences large daily fluctuations in water levels and is characterized by peltate-leaved plants (broad leaves on long stalks arising from the base of plant) such as spatterdock (Nuphar advena). The upper marsh zone is at a slightly higher elevation and is, therefore, only partially flooded during the daily tidal cycle; it is characterized by an emergent marsh community dominated by narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia) and river bulrush (Scirpus fluviatalis), with wild rice (Zizania aquatica) and rice cut grass (Leersia oryzoides) in wetter areas. Inland of the marshes and along the lower portions of some tributaries in the Hudson are forested freshwater tidal swamp communities dominated by green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), black ash (Fraxinus nigra), red maple (Acer rubrum), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), and American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). Scrub-shrub swamps often occur in association with these forested swamps, with a dense shrub layer, fewer herbaceous species, and an open tree canopy.

Freshwater tidal communities display a much higher diversity of plant species and life forms than do salt and brackish tidal marshes and also exhibit a great deal of seasonal variability, especially in the mudflat and low marsh communities. Freshwater tidal marshes and swamps also tend to be broader and more laterally extensive than nontidal riparian wetlands, which are generally confined to narrow bands paralleling river channels. Freshwater tidal communities in this region often contain one or more regionally or globally rare plant species, such as Parker's pipewort (Eriocaulon parkeri) and southern estuarine beggar-ticks (Bidens bidentoides) (Table 14). These areas are also important spawning and nursery areas for anadromous fish, including the federally listed endangered shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) (Table 14) (see endangered species and anadromous fish chapters for details). The high structural diversity and high productivity of freshwater marsh and swamp communities result in a high diversity of bird species using the marsh for breeding, migrating, or wintering. Selected breeding birds are listed in Table 14. Birds nesting in intertidal freshwater marshes include rails such as the Virginia rail (Rallus limicola) and dabbling ducks such as the American black duck (Anas rubripes); migrating and wintering birds include piscivorous (fish-eating) species such as the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and the federally listed endangered bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Turtles such as spotted (Clemmys guttata), wood (C. insculpta), and map (Graptemys geographica) are found in the larger marshes, and small mammals such as muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) are locally common. In addition to their value to plants, fish, and wildlife, freshwater tidal wetlands also act as buffers for water quality, filtering out nutrients and suspended solids from the tributaries and adjacent uplands before they get to the rivers and estuaries.

Threats and Conservation Considerations

Dike construction, dredging, and dredged material deposition have all greatly changed the historical distribution and extent of available tidal wetland habitat in the upper Hudson River estuary. The largest changes were in the reduction in shoreline length, loss of intertidal and shallow water habitat, and loss of river islands. Another major threat to freshwater tidal communities is the displacement of native plants by invasive and exotic species, including Eurasian milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) and water chestnut (Trapa natans), which have invaded submerged aquatic vegetation beds in the Hudson River estuary, and common reed (Phragmites australis) and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) which have invaded freshwater tidal marshes throughout the New York Bight watershed. The exotic zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) is now found throughout the freshwater portion of the Hudson. Zebra mussels displace native benthic species and greatly reduce the amount of available phytoplankton.

There is tremendous potential and opportunity to restore brackish and freshwater wetlands along the extensive mid and upper Hudson River estuary. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently conducting a multi-year study and restoration effort focusing on the tidal Hudson River. This effort should be supported by agencies and organizations in this region. Additional coordinated efforts to restore freshwater and brackish tidal marshes, mudflats, submerged aquatic vegetation beds, and swamps should be a high priority for federal, state, and local conservation agencies and organizations. The freshwater and brackish marshes along the Mullica and Great Egg Harbor Rivers are relatively undisturbed and should be protected from future disturbance. Control of common reed and purple loosetrife may be necessary in these areas.

References:

DeVries, C. and C. B. DeWitt. 1986. Freshwater tidal wetlands community description and relation of plant distribution to elevation and substrate. In Polgar Fellowship Reports of the Hudson River National Estuarine Sanctuary Program, 1986, E.A. Blair and J.C. Cooper (eds.). Hudson River Foundation, New York, NY.

Elzinga, C. L. 1989. Freshwater tidal wetlands, Hudson River: vegetation description, investigation, and preservation. Master's thesis, Institute of Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.

Institute of Marine and Coastal Science. 1993. A national estuarine research reserve for New Jersey: a report and preliminary recommendations. Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Report #93-19. Rutgers University - the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Department of Commerce NOAA. 1993. Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve final management plan. Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, Sanctuaries and Reserves Division, Washington, D.C.

New York State Department of State and The Nature Conservancy. 1990. Hudson River significant tidal habitats: a guide to the functions, values and protection of the river's natural resources. New York State Department of State, Albany, NY.

Odum, W.E., T.J. Smith III, J.K. Hoover, and C.C. McIvor. 1984. The ecology of tidal freshwater marshes of the United States East Coast: a community profile. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service FWS/OBS-83/17.

Reschke, C. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, Latham, NY. 96 pp.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 1995. Hudson River habitat restoration, Hudson River Basin, New York: reconnaissance report. New York District, New York, NY.


Return to table of contents


Coastal Plain Ponds

Coastal plain ponds are small, groundwater-fed ponds with gently sloping shorelines that occur on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. In the New York Bight, these ponds occur in both the glaciated Coastal Plain Lowlands on Long Island, where they occupy shallow depressions, or kettle-holes, in the moraine and outwash plains, and in the relatively flat landscape of the non-glaciated Coastal Plain in southern New Jersey. Concentrations of these ponds occur in Cape May, the southern New Jersey Pinelands, the Peconic River headwaters in the Long Island Pine Barrens, and the Long Pond Greenbelt on Long Island (Figure 16). The water levels in these groundwater-fed ponds fluctuate seasonally and annually with the height of the water table. The fluctuating water levels result in an intermittently exposed shoreline, the regionally rare coastal plain pondshore community, which supports a distinctive assemblage of plants. Those ponds that dry up completely in the summer are referred to as intermittent or vernal ponds, as opposed to ponds that usually retain at least some water throughout the year. Fluctuating water levels are necessary to maintain the characteristic herbaceous structure and composition of the plant communities; periods of high water kill seedlings of woody plants that invade from surrounding uplands, and periods of low water expose bare substrate for seed germination and growth. There are distinct vegetation zones in these areas from the upland forest to the center of the coastal plain pond based on elevation, soil moisture, and duration of flooding. The coastal plain ponds in Long Island and New Jersey are generally surrounded by pitch pine-oak forest, with a wetland shrub thicket often occurring between the surrounding pitch pine-oak forest and the herbaceous coastal plain pondshore community and the coastal plain pondshore community occurring between the shrub thicket and the permanently flooded pond. This community is characterized by concentric zones of herbaceous vegetation from upper to lower elevations (dryer to wetter), and includes a seasonally flooded herbaceous fringe, a semi-permanently flooded sandy pond bottom zone dominated by annual species, and an intermittently exposed organic pond bottom zone. The coastal plain pondshore community varies from year to year and site to site. In years of low water, exposed coastal plain pondshores support a diversity of sedge, grass, and flowering herb species. The permanently flooded coastal plain pond is dominated by emergent and floating-leaved species, while its upland borders are dominated by shrubs and trees.

There is a diversity of rare plant species, mostly dominated by annual sedge and grass species, associated with the coastal plain pondshore community and vernal pond communities. The ranges of many of these plants are restricted to the Atlantic Coastal Plain and several of them, such as the quill-leaf arrowhead (Sagittaria teres), pine barren bellwort (Uvularia puberula var. nitida), rose tickseed (Coreopsis rosea), and creeping St. John's-wort (Hypericum adpressum), are globally rare (Table 15). The concentration of rare species at these sites is unusual in the region. Although each pond has a unique assortment of species, there are many characteristic species common to several sites on Long Island and in New Jersey. Coastal plain pondshore communities also support several rare species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). In some years, the coastal plain ponds and vernal ponds dry up completely, making them uninhabitable for fish but ideal breeding habitat for amphibians, including salamanders such as the regionally rare eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma t. tigrinum), frogs, and toads. The absence of predatory fish is perhaps the most important aspect of these amphibian breeding pools. During non-breeding periods, the amphibians occur in the moist woods surrounding the ponds, depending on the unfragmented, undisturbed complex of wetlands and forest.

Throughout the Bight region, encroaching development threatens coastal plain ponds and vernal ponds that are not already protected. Human disturbance of wetlands includes illegal dumping of household and commercial waste, the use of all-terrain vehicles on trails and shorelines, disruption of pondshores, and removal of plants. Significant changes in the water quality or hydrologic regime of the coastal plain ponds through water withdrawal, sewering, and other human influences would result in the loss of rare species and degradation of the ecological character and value of pond and pondshore communities. Permanent drawdown of the water table would result in the invasion of woody species into the pondshore zones, while prolonged flooding would inhibit the germination and growth of pondshore plants. Nutrient enrichment from various sources such as septic tank leachate, lawn and farm fertilizers, and road runoff, would likely result in replacement of native pondshore plants with other species. Concentrations of swans and geese feeding in the coastal plain ponds may destroy native plant populations, especially spikerushes.

It is critical to protect the entire assemblage of coastal plain ponds from a landscape perspective, including the surrounding matrix of wetland and forest to maintain water quality, reduce effects on groundwater levels, and provide year-round habitat for amphibians. Stormwater runoff into wetlands, including runoff from roads and lawns, should be reduced or eliminated by incorporating natural vegetative buffers of at least 300 feet around all ponds and wetlands. Agencies and conservation organizations need to work with landowners to voluntarily establish natural vegetative buffers, maintain or improve septic systems, reduce lawn fertilizer and pesticide use, and refrain from human disturbance. Hydrology and its effects on the coastal plain pondshore communities should be monitored at a variety of sites in order to better develop and implement management plans.

References:

Breden, T. 1989. A preliminary natural community classification for New Jersey. In E.F. Karlin (ed.) New Jersey's rare and endangered plants and animals, pp. 157-191. Institute for Environmental Studies, Ramapo College, Mahwah, NJ.

Reschke, C. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Latham, NY.

Schneider, R.L. 1994. Environmental controls of plant species diversity in coastal plain pondshore communities. Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

The Nature Conservancy. 1995. Long Pond Greenbelt draft management plan. Long Island Chapter, Cold Spring Harbor, NY.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1991. Northeast coastal areas study: significant coastal habitats of southern New England and portions of Long Island Sound, New York. Southern New England - Long Island Sound Coastal and Estuary Office, Charlestown, RI.

Zaremba R. and E.E. Lamont. 1993. The status of the Coastal Plain Pondshore community in New York. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 120:180-187.


Return to table of contents


Beach Strand Habitats

Beach strand, the transitional sandy shoreline area between the land and the ocean, is commonly called coastal beach or seashore. It borders estuaries, sounds, or open ocean, and is characterized by four zones: nearshore bottom (submerged areas below mean low water to 9 meters); foreshore (intertidal areas between mean low water to the high tide zone); backshore (exposed sandflats above high tide line to dunes, but occasionally submerged during storms or exceptionally high tides); and dunes (areas of wind-blown sand ridges or mounds above the highest tide line and exposed to wind action). Beach strand habitat lines the entire 400-kilometer (250-mile) coastline of the New York Bight from Cape May north to Sandy Hook and from Coney Island east to Montauk Point (Figure 17). The majority (about 75%) of this coastline is barrier beach, the narrow, linear system of islands and spits, composed of unconsolidated sands, that parallels the coast a few miles offshore and is separated from the mainland by open water (coastal lagoons) or marshes (see coastal plain section of physiographic region chapter for additional detail). The New Jersey coast barrier beach-backbarrier lagoon system extends for 154 kilometers (95 miles) along the New Jersey coastline from Cape May north to Point Pleasant, and the Long Island barrier beach-backbarrier lagoon system extends for 138 kilometers (86 miles) along the south shore from Breezy Point in New York City east to the eastern end of Shinnecock Bay. More than half of the beaches in the New York Bight coastline have been developed and the shorelines and beach zones greatly altered. There are about 150 kilometers (93 miles) of natural, undeveloped beaches remaining in the New York Bight; these beach segments have been designated under the federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act which prohibits incompatible federal financial assistance or flood insurance. The largest sections of undeveloped barrier beach remaining in the Bight include North Brigantine, Little Beach Island, Holgate, Island Beach State Park, and Sandy Hook in New Jersey, and Breezy Point, Jones Beach, Gilgo Beach, Robert Moses State Park, Fire Island National Seashore, Tiana Beach, and Napeague Beach on Long Island (Figure 17).

There are a number of species closely or exclusively associated with beach strand, many of which are rare or declining throughout their range. Table 16 contains a list of selected rare beach strand species and communities that occur in the New York Bight, with a focus on nesting species, native plant species, and invertebrate populations occupying the backshore and dune zones of coastal beach strands, particularly those species that are sensitive or vulnerable to direct human disturbances (pedestrian and vehicular traffic) or human-related disturbances (pets, feral and nuisance animals, invasive plants). This group is described as disturbance-sensitive beach strand species. Strictly migratory or transient species passing through these areas are not included. Migratory shorebirds that flock in large numbers on these beaches are discussed in a separate chapter. Four beach strand species that occur in the New York Bight, piping plover (Charadrius melodus), roseate tern (Sterna dougallii), northeastern beach tiger beetle (Cicindela d. dorsalis), and seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumulis), are listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and are discussed in the federally listed species chapter; an additional nine beach strand species are listed by one or both states.

One group of species that has received a great deal of attention in recent years is beach-nesting birds, especially the piping plover, which often nests in association with least tern (Sterna antillarum) and is widely distributed in small numbers on beaches in the Bight. Other birds that typically nest on beaches in the New York Bight include roseate tern, common tern (Sterna hirundo), black skimmer (Rhynchops niger), and American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus). Several plant species, including seabeach amaranth and seabeach knotweed (Polygonum glaucum), occupy the same backshore zone of the beach as do the beach-nesting birds. These plant species are annuals whose seeds are distributed by wind and water. Locations of both plant and bird populations shift from year to year, and it is therefore necessary to protect potential habitat as well as known locations in order to maintain these populations over the region. Several other rare plants occur in the beaches, dunes, and interdunal swale (wetland) communities and, while not strictly beach strand species, they are commonly found here. Efforts to preserve beach plants and beach-nesting birds should be coordinated or combined where appropriate and focused on the protection of the entire beach strand ecosystem. Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemmys t. terrapin) forage in bays and estuaries and nest on barrier islands, most frequently on the bay side of these islands, but occasionally on the ocean side as well. Maritime woodlands and forests, which occur in the secondary dunes and backsides of barrier islands, are quite rare along the Atlantic coast, and several community types are considered globally imperiled by The Nature Conservancy. In the New York Bight, maritime forests include the oak-holly forest at Sunken Forest on Fire Island, the holly-dominated forest on Sandy Hook, and the red cedar-dominated forest on Island Beach.

Natural beach strand habitat is in critically short supply due to the loss and degradation of this habitat from development and shoreline stabilization. The demand for developmental and recreational uses of these areas is intense; the result is an alarmingly high rate of habitat loss and the rangewide decline of virtually all beach strand plant and animal species. Coastal development attempts to force a permanence on a fragile landscape created and maintained by constant change. The removal of dunes is one of the most damaging aspects of development. With the loss of dune habitat, the beach strand cannot effectively absorb large waves, nor can it supply the sand needed to adjust the beach profile during storms. Without the natural process of sand removal and replenishment, erosion predominates, and developed property ultimately requires increasing artificial protection. Costly engineering projects provide only temporary solutions. Seawalls, groins, bulkheads, jetties, and other human-made structures all seek to "harden" beach sands to keep them from shifting or moving. These projects fail invariably because the natural forces exerted upon the beach cannot be changed. Any future efforts to control erosion on barrier beaches in the New York Bight should recognize and maintain the dynamic nature of the beaches and natural processes such as overwash and breaching, as well as the needs of the natural communities and the fish, wildlife, and plant species that occur in the nearshore waters, on the beaches and dunes, and in the backbarrier bays and marshes. More information is needed on the impacts on the beach resources of various existing and proposed erosion control options, including groin fields, dune stabilization and berm elevation projects, and inlet management; consideration must be given to the beach resources, especially the federally listed endangered seabeach amaranth and the federally listed threatened piping plover, and associated bay resources before these projects proceed.

Human recreational activities in the beach strand can cause severe damage to this fragile habitat and to its plant and animal life. Walking or driving off-road vehicles on dunes destroys stabilizing vegetation and contributes to dune erosion. Driving on the beach face destroys the rare plants that grow there, and vehicle and foot traffic on the beach often destroys the nests, eggs, and young of beach-nesting birds. These activities may cause nesting birds to leave their nests, exposing eggs or chicks to summer sun and predators, including human pets. Although the area exposed by low tide is the least damaging place for foot or vehicle traffic, it is also where young birds forage for food. They cannot tolerate prolonged interruption by humans. Disturbances to beach-nesting bird populations need to be minimized or eliminated entirely during the critical nesting and brood-rearing periods. Human intrusions into beach nesting areas during the critical nesting season (April to August) should be minimized, using a variety of methods including protective fencing, posting, warden patrols, and public education. Because of the large degree of privately owned lands, public education and cooperative approaches with landowners are essential to successful protection of beach species in the New York Bight. When predation is determined to be a problem, predator control and/or removal should be instituted. Those tasks and objectives of the piping plover, roseate tern, northeastern beach tiger beetle, and seabeach amaranth recovery plans that are applicable to the beaches in the New York Bight should be undertaken, including restoration or enhancement of degraded sites, where appropriate. Fencing and protection of beach-nesting birds should be expanded to include protection for seabeach amaranth, seabeach knotweed, and other rare plants where appropriate.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ecosystem teams consider beach strand habitats and their dependent species to be a priority resource concern along the Atlantic coast. Working with other federal agencies, coastal states, and private partners, the Service is identifying important remaining beach strand habitat and working to eliminate or reduce threats to coastal habitats and species through education, conservation, protection, and restoration.

References:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1996. Beach strand: habitat at risk. Brochure. Southern New England - New York Bight Coastal Ecosystems Program, Charlestown, RI.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1995. Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) Atlantic coast population revised recovery plan, technical/agency draft. Region 5, Hadley, MA.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1995. Technical/agency draft recovery plan for seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus Rafinesque). Southwest Region, Atlanta, GA.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1994. Northeastern beach tiger beetle (Cincindela d. dorsalis) recovery plan. Region 5, Hadley, MA.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1989. Roseate tern (Sterna dougallii) recovery plan, northeastern population. Region 5, Newton Corner, MA.


Return to table of contents