As the storm surge rose, the waters flooded the underground burrows of two signature marsh species - tiny furry things, the meadow vole and rice rat. Naturalists later found an astonishing number of their little corpses in the high-water “wrack line” of marsh grasses and other detritus left by the storm.
And now, birders throughout South Jersey are seeing the upshot: a scarcity of northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, and other raptors that depend on a quantity of rats and voles for winter food. “This is the worst year for birds of prey on the bay shore that I’ve seen in 36 years,” said Pete Dunne, director of New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory. “The impact is dramatic.” Clay Sutton, who for more than 25 winters has been conducting bird counts on South Jersey’s Maurice River, is seeing the same thing.
And now, the numbers are in from a midwinter count of 15 salt marsh sites. Harriers - birds most intimately linked to the salt marsh - have numbered up to 135 in recent years, based on brief scans of the marsh just before and after sunset. This year, the count is just 63 so far, not expected to top 75 once the final two site reports are in, said Tom Reed, a bay shore birder who is heading the effort. Eagles, which eat fish and carrion, were not affected - good news for anyone planning to attend the daylong Cumberland County winter eagle festival Saturday at the fire hall in Mauricetown….
Even in the case of Sandy, no one thinks this is either a rodent or an ornithological Armageddon. With the dinner table bare, the birds simply moved on. They’ll return when rodent populations recover. Which could happen quickly. Rice rats can have about six litters - up to five pups each - every year, said Kent Edmonds of Indiana University Southeast. He sloshed around Delaware’s salt marshes while earning his doctorate - and his lifelong passion for rice rats - at the University of Delaware. Researchers know that meadow voles are impressively fecund as well. They are sexually mature when they are 20 days old. Gestation is less than a month, and the litter can be up to 11 pups.
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