On back to back Saturdays in the beginning of September, the members of the Native Plant Society joined with the members of the Biology Teachers Association of New Jersey to spend two spectacularly wonderful days combing the grounds at Island Beach State Park. The weather was ideal as we toured the nine plant communities found on this five thousand year old barrier beach that is one of over four hundred barrier beaches found on the east coast. Trish Schuster, Supervisor of the Interpretive Center at IBSP, was our super tour guide for these two weekends. Trish reminded us that dunes don't grow in straight lines but rather in a staggered fashion so as to absorb much of the oceans energy as the waters wind in between the dunes. There is even a two-foot a year roll of the barrier beach towards the mainland. Dunes, she said, protect us. They can be recreated but it costs when you lose them so that people can have a view of the ocean. Trish prophetically asked "do you want to have a view of the ocean through your house?" This was a question that many pondered as hurricane Fran came to our state. A tour of the Primary Dune had us viewing the American Beach Grass plants whose roots go down to the base of the dunes holding the dunes together. Some of these plants are one hundred years old. When people walk the dunes they destroy this plant in areas that are termed blow out areas. Naturalized Dusty Miller plants are also found here because they can tolerate the salt spray and the sand that gets blown on them. Japanese sedge and the fleshy and succulent Sea Rocket were also observed
On the Secondary Dunes you will find swails where the lens effect of the sun concentrates energy that may produce temperatures that are over twenty degrees higher than the surrounding area. Beach heather is the inhabitant of this area. Next Memorial Day, plan on taking a trip to IBSP to see their yellow blooms.
As we moved into the Thicket the temperature was cooler. This is where most animals are during the day. The animals that are found here are smaller in scale and exhibit an adapt or die type of behavior. There are many vines and many birds. It is here where we see the effect of salt spray pruning that is a reflection of the dune in front of the thicket.
It is an interesting effect to view at this site.
Along the Edge, the road's edge that is, we find the largest plant community. It is an every changing display of wildflowers with new seeds constantly coming in via cars, bikers, and any other traveler who works their way from one end of the barrier end to the other. Crossing the roadway one walks into the Maritime Forest where the oldest and rarest plant community is found. Cedars and Holly are the typical flora.
The forest leads to the Freshwater Wetlands half of which has been lost since the arrival of the Europeans. Over ten tons of nutrients are produced here. These wetlands are critical habitat areas for the return of the many birds that can be viewed here. The Tidal Marshes develop in the back bays. While these are fragile systems they are very productive and house numerous species. The Bayshore is filled with fragmites that help stabilize the sand. Rafts of eel grass and wigeon grass are apparent and are important food sources, oxygen sources and hiding places. Trish told us about how eel grass has been used for packing, insulation, linings of furniture and coffins. It doesn't burn when it is dry and was once a very lucrative cash crop. However, a wasting disease caused by a parasitic protist has decimated it.
Arriving at the Bay we find brackish water. In a comparison of salt conemotents , the ocean has 31-35 ppt (parts per thousand) salt concentration compared to fresh water with an 18 ppt while at the Bay it is 25-28 ppt. It is a place where salt and fresh water meet. From the Cedar Creek to the inlet we find an increasing salt content. This area is frequented with problems like jet ski's and non point pollution. A source of optimism was the return of the brown pelicans.
The Coastal Heritage Trail can be accessed at Parking Lot A7. This trail runs from Keyport to Delaware. Other trails at IBSP bring you in direct contact with Bayberry. Besides the beautiful fragrance and wonder candles, bayberry is an all American fever treatment. Japanese Sedge (grass) is smaller than the Beach Grass growing in the dunes. It is clearly recognizable by its yellowish color and the curled leaves that predominate when the plant is dying. Trish indicated to us that this plant arrived at IBSP after a 1960 storm transported it from Massachusetts to Virginia
An interesting character that lives amongst these plants and areas is a famous fox called Roadkill. Foxes have caches of food. They have cat like canines and tend to lunge and pounce. They are prone to stalk and spring up and land on their front feet. Their small stomach increases their ability to land Roadkill is a panhandling female who is found at times lying in the road. She often attracts a lot of attention and food in this manner. Roadkill has also trained her pups to exhibit the same behavior. You may notice the signs that warn all visitors NOT to feed the foxes.