Warblers and other spring migrants are starting to return to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, which is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy's storm surge and winds last October.
The refuge's popular wildlife drive remains closed as construction crews continue to rebuild the dike roads surrounding the refuge's sprawling impoundments.
New Jersey's coastal parks were at the storm's mercy as it barreled across beaches and wetlands, wiping out roads, knocking down trees and depositing tons of manmade debris along marsh edges.
Most of these natural lands were surprisingly resilient and reopened to the public almost immediately. Some remain closed indefinitely.
Don Freiday, director of visitor services at the refuge, told The Press of Atlantic City that Forsythe's wildlife drive will reopen in a matter of weeks, although the exact date has not been announced. Visitors are welcome to hike the refuge's trails in the meantime. The park's daily use fee has been suspended.
"We're hoping to be open for at least part of the spring migration," he said. "We're coming to the end of the time when the waterfowl like migrating ducks and geese are here. The next wave will be shorebirds like semipalmated sandpipers and plovers."
Forsythe is a popular attraction in South Jersey, attracting 100,000 visitors to its wildlife drive and another 150,000 to its beaches in Holgate, Freiday said.
Heavy trucks last week continued to grade newly rebuilt dirt roads. But Freiday said the bigger job will be to remove the tons of flotsam that washed up in the Oct. 29 storm: docks, wood piles, plastic of all kinds, roofs torn off houses in Long Beach Island and even recreational boats still wrapped in blue plastic for their winter storage.
"We're talking tons and tons of debris," Freiday said. "The marsh has to be cleaned up. There is some concern about hazardous waste from fuel tanks that are sitting on the marsh. We need to deal with that."
Elsewhere, New Jersey's state parks and wildlife management areas sustained varying degrees of damage.
The worst in South Jersey occurred at Island Beach State Park in Berkeley Township, Ocean County, said Bob Considine, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
"The goal is to have the whole park opened by the peak of the summer season. We're not committing to a specific date," he said.
Crews quickly removed tons of sand that washed up over roads. But debris still lines many beaches and several boardwalks and lifeguard stations were damaged or destroyed, he said. Likewise, many of the dune crossovers that provide public beach access are missing completely.
Portions of the 3,000-acre park reopened to beach walkers and surf fishermen in January, albeit with limited access because of the restoration efforts.
The Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in Middle Township and Corsons Inlet State Park in Ocean City were spared significant damage, despite their waterfront locations on the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean, respectively.
Cape May Point State Park, a beachfront park in Lower Township, reopened almost immediately after the storm. Ironically, several of the park's largest trees blew over during a northeaster after the hurricane. The park's freshwater ponds were spared saltwater intrusion from the storm, which could have been disastrous for the ducks that winter there.
Several wildlife management areas continue to have limited vehicle access, including Heislerville in Maurice River Township and the Lester G. McNamara Wildlife Management Area in Upper Township. Like Forsythe, both Heislerville and McNamara have a network of dirt roads surrounding their impoundments that were damaged by the storm.
The state erected steel barriers preventing vehicle access to the dikes.
The DEP is not sure when full access will be restored to these areas, spokesman Larry Hajna said.
These sites are popular destinations for many wildlife enthusiasts, especially during the spring and fall migrations.
New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory had no choice but to move some of its popular birding programs to other locations after the storm, Program Director Mike Crewe said.
"The reason for visiting those locations is to go around those banked impoundments," he said. "We've had to cancel a couple events in the winter. But mostly we've been able to shift to other locations."
Crewe, of Cape May Point, said the hurricane's extreme flooding is believed to have wiped out rodents such as meadow voles that make their home in South Jersey's marshes. As a result, birders have not seen as many over-wintering hawks and owls that feed on them.
"It's been a quiet winter for hawks and owls," he said. "They'll come here during the fall and if they can't find food, they will just winter somewhere else."
Crewe said he is looking forward to the reopening of New Jersey's state and federal lands. Spring migration provides an early-season tourism draw, especially on the weekends. The group has a full schedule of spring walks, tours and events planned.
"We're very upbeat now," Crewe said from his office at the Cape May Bird Observatory in Cape May Point. "The second before you phoned, I had the window open and we had a Louisiana waterthrush turn up here. There have been a few ospreys reported. Tree swallows. Pine warblers. It's an exciting time in March."
Source: The Press of Atlantic City