Walking down a dirt road through the pine barrens in Brendan Byrne State Forest, all of a sudden, the woods open up, and we’re standing in a sandy open area with virtually no vegetation. People lucky enough to be familiar with the area know that “pine barrens” is a bit of a misnomer given the vibrant plant and animal communities that thrive there. But my first impression of this clearing is that it’s, well, pretty barren.
A small group of participants in the Rutgers Environmental Stewards Program is touring the pine barrens, and Emile DeVito, ecologist and Manager of Science and Stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation is our guide. And we couldn’t ask for a more knowledgeable one.
What we’re standing on, Dr. DeVito informs us, is a paleolithic sand dune, a remnant of the forces that shaped the landscape during the last ice age. While the ice sheets themselves never reached this far south, the spot where we were standing was only about 70 miles from a wall of ice thousands of feet high. Hurricane-force winds regularly scoured the sandy former sea floor that makes up southern New Jersey’s coastal plain. Sand from wetlands was piled up into nearby dunes, many of which persist today.
And sure enough, just a couple hundred yards from the dune area is a vernal pool. Inundated in the winter and spring but mostly dry in the summer, it has no outlet or connection to nearby waterways, and therefore no fish. So it makes an ideal breeding ground for frogs and toads. I made a mental note to bring Mae to this spot in the spring to hear the frog symphony.
As for the dune itself, despite appearances, it’s far from barren – in fact it’s a haven for several rare species. In this particualr area, Dr. DeVito points out a population of Pickering’s Morning Glory (Stylisma pickeringii), one of the many rare species of plants that can be found in the pines. There are only a handful of populations left, and off-road vehicles are a particular threat. The plants were going dormant now, but we did see a number of seedpods, which will hopefully lead to new seedlings in the spring.
Dr. DeVito also pointed out the den of a northern pine snake, another threatened species and an excellent burrower. Growing up to five feet long, their coloring allows them to blend easily with the forest floor. Off-road vehicles are a threat to the snakes as well, as are poachers (they’re prized as pets for their docility and long life span). The New Jersey Conservation Foundation is using radio transmitters to track a number of female pine snakes to identify and protect their winter dens, where up to 30 individuals will pass the colder months. On our dune, we can see that a female had laid eggs this year and the young had shed their skins upon emergence. Didn’t spot any actual snakes though.
Later that day, at another spot a few miles away, we did get a chance to radio track a female snake. After tromping through the woods for about 20 minutes listening for the beeps of the transponder, we were able to locate the snake. Since it was warm, Dr. DeVito was hoping it would be out and about, but she was below ground in her burrow. This particular snake was living very close to a popular area for off-roading spot, so we hoped it could stay safe as it moved about in search of food and a winter den.
Other ancient dunes are scattered around the pine barrens, and they’re yet another great reminder of the surprises these landscapes always seem to have in store.