Over 50 volunteers planted almost 500 native flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees in the field at Hopewell Borough Park on Saturday morning. Members of several organizations in the Sourland region (and beyond) pitched in to support the local ecosystem: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, National Honor Society members, Hillsborough High School students, CHS Hiking Club members, Sourland Conservancy members from as far away as Rahway dug deep into the dry Sourland soil to help provide food and shelter for a small, strange bird that most locals have never seen – the American Woodcock.
Caroline Katmann, Sourland Conservancy Executive Director, was on hand to help with the planting. “It was a gorgeous fall day and everyone worked really hard and had a great time! Thank you, all!”
Katmann noted that this project began with the seed of an idea. Sourland Conservancy Trustee Roger Thorpe was walking in the park fields with his wife, Clair, when he noticed autumn olive shrubs overtaking the former farm fields. As a D&R Greenway volunteer, he has worked in earnest to remove autumn olives from several Sourland preserves. He expressed an interest in removing the park’s invasive shrubs to his friend, Hopewell resident and Mercer County naturalist, Jenn Rogers. That portion of the park, formerly known as the “Ruhland Tract,” is owned and managed by the Mercer County Park Commission.
Jenn and Roger met with Laurie Cleveland of the Sourland Conservancy and Michael Van Clef of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space to discuss possible solutions to the autumn olive problem, and the American Woodcock Habitat Restoration Project was born. The team quickly realized that each of their organizations could offer unique skills to the project. “Rather than try to recreate a system that another organization already has in place, we chose to combine our strengths in partnership. We all work really well together, and we’re all learning a lot. This has been a great experience,” said Rogers.
Rogers contacted U.S. Fish and Wildlife for guidance on the project. “They were very interested in our idea. American Woodcock numbers have been steadily declining since the 1970’s primarily due to loss of habitat. They were happy to help.” The government agency provided 300 native plants this fall: bayberry, buttonbush, red cedar, black chokeberry, silky dogwood, elderberry, oak chestnut, northern red oak, white pine, spicebush, sycamore and arrowwood viburnum. They will donate more in the spring.
Katmann worked with Rogers to apply for a New Jersey Conservation Foundation grant to help offset the cost for tools, supplies and 200 additional plants for the project. They were awarded a Franklin Parker Conservation Excellence grant.
Throughout the summer, the Conservancy led volunteer teams to cut invasive autumn olive, Callery pear and Toringo crabapple and Japanese honeysuckle. They also pulled garlic mustard. The volunteer groups included Sourland Conservancy members, confirmation candidates from St. Mathias church in Somerset, Hopewell Boy Scouts, and Helping Hands from Bristol-Myers Squibb. They logged over 2800 hours! Rogers trained the Conservancy staff and volunteers to identify the targeted invasive species. The NJCF grant funded the purchase of several loppers, hand saws and gloves, and Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space generously loaned additional tools and gloves. FoVOS certified pesticide applicators also carefully applied herbicide to kill the invasive trees and keep them from spreading.
One important consideration for the site was the overpopulation of white-tailed deer. Loss of predators and habitat has caused the deer population to explode to the point that the local ecosystem cannot sustain them, forcing them into yards and parks to eat whatever they can to survive. This results in further loss of habitat for other native species. In order to ensure the survival of the new native plantings, the partners needed to consider the need for a deer fence and the cost of installation and maintenance. Jenn and Mike created an innovative plan to utilize the dead shrubs created by the eradication of the invasives.” We decided to try to save money and the environment by using materials that we now had in abundance. U.S. Fish and Wildlife was intrigued by the innovative idea, and they are very interested in the outcome. “I’ve been watching. We’ve had the plants in pots for two weeks in a planting area, with no deer browse. It seems to be working!” said Mr. Thorpe.
In addition to the species provided by USFW, the Sourland Conservancy also used the NJCF grant funds to purchase American hazelnut, big bluestem, blackhaw viburnum, common boneset, cutleaf coneflower, fragrant sumac, virginia rose, gray birch. eastern redbud, northern Indian grass, Joe-pye weed, New England aster, pawpaw, serviceberry, short-toothed mountain mint, thinleaf sunflower, Virginia mountain mint and wild bergamot.
“Kudos to Laurie Cleveland, Jenn Rogers, Roger Thorpe and Mike Van Clef for the excellent organization and execution of this endeavor,” Katmann said.
The American Woodcock Habitat Restoration Project is sponsored by the Sourland Conservancy, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space and the Mercer County Park Commission.