December 6, 2013
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Where Do the Robins Go?

By Michele S. Byers

With the onset of the first winter storm, you’re probably envious of robins’ and other birds’ southern migration to warmer climates.

And you may wonder how American robins arrive back in our gardens so quickly in March.

But you may be surprised to learn that the first robins of spring, especially the males, don’t leave this state we’re in during winter in the first place! They just go into hiding – congregating in New Jersey’s maritime, or coastal, swamp forests, where abundant native fruits make up their winter diet.

Visit the magnificent holly forests of Sandy Hook in the Gateway National Recreation Area on a calm winter day, and you’ll see huge flocks of robins devouring holly berries. American Holly berries start to ripen now, during cold weather after Thanksgiving.

American Holly and many other shrubs and vines have co-evolved with fruit-eating birds that winter in New Jersey. Each helps the other.

Many plants, especially those with large seeds, have evolved chemicals to discourage seed-destroying mammals from gnawing or chomping their fruit. American hollies, for example, have big seeds that taste bitter to humans and other mammals. But birds love them!

Fruit-eating birds have no teeth or gizzards, so seeds pass quickly through their guts unharmed. In fact, their digestive juices vastly improve seed germination by providing an initial breakdown of the seed coating. Experiments reveal that frequency of germination may increase by as much as 50 times if seeds first are digested by a fruit-eating bird!

Bayberry, juniper and poison ivy plants have wax in their fruits as a reward, instead of sugar. Many species of birds possess enzymes that digest this wax. For instance, cedar waxwings devour the waxy, berry-like cones of a juniper or red cedar. Yellow-rumped warblers consume waxy bayberries all winter. Robins, northern flickers, tree swallows and eastern bluebirds eat all these fruits during winter months.

The few remaining forests that once covered the entire stretch of the Garden State’s Atlantic coastline are dominated by trees, shrubs and vines whose seeds are dispersed by fruit-eating birds. From holly and hackberry to black cherry and red cedar to poison ivy and Virginia creeper, almost every woody plant that you see on a barrier island forest germinated from a fresh bird dropping. No better way exists for seeds to colonize shifting, ever-moving sand dunes after a nor’easter, than to be dropped by a winged seed-pooper!

A Closer Look At The Water Bill

This winter, visit New Jersey’s barrier island forests at Sandy Hook or Island Beach on a nice day and witness hundreds of thousands of years of co-evolution: the interdependence between birds and woody plants!

And when you wake up to the see first robin of spring – its head cocked to one side, listening, looking and feeling with its toes for the stir of an earthworm – know that it spent the winter in New Jersey, feasting on native berries!

To learn more about preserving land and natural resources in New Jersey, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at


Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. 


For This, We Give Thanks…

By The American Shore & Beach Preservation Association

Seems like the right time of year to look at our coastal lives and remember those things we have good reasons to be thankful for – along the coast, for the coast or because of the coast.

Therefore, here’s a starter list for which we give thanks:

1. That a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) is moving forward even in a deeply divided Congress where precious little is getting done. This underscores both the bipartisan allure of the coast and the understanding that our coasts are a national resource and neglect of our shorelines holds the potential for great harm on many levels.

2. That recovery for the communities and coasts slammed by Sandy is taking hold – and taking steps to make what is rebuilt to be better than what was blown down or washed away.

3. That no major tropical storms made landfall on the U.S. this season. A year after Sandy, the heartbreaking images from the Philippines were a stark reminder of the havoc these storms can wreak – havoc no one wants to endure and everyone wants to avoid.

4. The growing (or, sometimes, reawakened) recognition of the value of our coasts for economic necessity, environmental vitality and recreational opportunity. It’s too easy for some to take our coasts for granted, so a reminder of their importance to all of us is welcome.

Commentary: Not a Moment, A Movement

5. The gradual changes in federal coastal efforts – specifically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – that are starting to make federal coastal management a more timely and effective effort. By expediting review and marshaling resources, the Corps is become a more effective coastal steward, advocate and player, which is vital for the health of our coasts given the significant role the agency plays.

6. The long-overdue changes in the National Flood Insurance Program, even though the sticker shock of those changes caught many coastal property owners unaware. Putting this program on sounder financial footing is crucial for coastal protection and recovery… if it can be done without breaking the property owners’ banks.

7. The evolving technology that is making coastal management more precise and more possible. The knowledge we have about how our coasts work and how what we do – or don’t do – on them has an impact grows every year, with more science helping to inform more decisions in coastal management.

8. The growing awareness that proper coastal management can lessen catastrophe and lessen loss of life and property. The mantra needs to be: Wide beaches, higher dunes and better buildings can help communities better survive most storms.

9. The very dedicated and talented people who are drawn to protect and preserve all our coasts, by working, living, supporting or enjoying the diverse life of our shorelines. For many, it’s a labor of love – for they, like so many of us – are drawn to the shore, to the beach, to the river, to the lake.

10. Finally, we are always thankful every time we can get to the beach. We hope you are as well … and we hope you’ll add your own coastal kudos for which you give thanks.


Founded in 1926, the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA) advocates for healthy coastlines by promoting the integration of science, policies and actions that maintain, protect and enhance the coasts of America. For more information on ASBPA, go to 


Two River Moment

Comment-red bank sleighs on broad street

Horse-drawn sleighs pass each other on Broad Street in Red Bank in this snowy turn-of-the-century photograph.

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