The Cold Winter – 1977


By Ernest A. Choate

On February 3. 1977 Atlantic City featured an article, “How Cold was It,” It pointed out that the eastern two-thirds of the nation had experienced the coldest January in 177 years according to the National Weather Service, and that if the cold continued through February and March, it would be “the coldest since the founding of the republic.” In Cape May County 85.6% of January’s hours were below freezing, being so continuously from January 11 to 23. The high for the month was 51 degrees and the low 0 degrees F.

The prolonged and intensive periods of cold were due to strong high pressure systems. Coming from the northeast, these centers of descending cold air spread winds radiating in a clock-wise direction. Coldest when the cold front breaks through, these northwest winds gradually diminish as the center of the cold front arrives. Varying in intensity, they average about 25 to 30 miles per hour. They intensify the cold and the combined effect is rated in the chill factor. Our highest wind of 61 miles per hour dropped the wind chill factor to 54° below zero.

The periods of continuous temperatures below freezing resulted in an increase in the depth to which the water and ground were frozen. An average temperature for several days at the same level with the temperature rising above freezing during the day would not have done so. The first water to freeze was in the comparatively shallow fresh water pools. Those at the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge were frozen over by January 1st and reached a thickness of 16 inches by the end of the month. Lily Lake in Cape May Point, with the exception of a small area about 50 yards in diameter that was churned up by waterfowl, was frozen from early in January till the 23rd of February.

Soon after this, the brackish bays and estuaries were frozen over. The fairly persistent northwest winds concentrated blocks and pans of ice along the New Jersey side of the Delaware Bay and the ocean up to Cape May. A few of the more adventuresome walked and climbed out to the concrete ship at Cape May Point. Freezing of the canal and ferry slip closed the ferry service. Winds whipping the ocean spray over the jetties covered them with an icy coat. A wall of ice made up of chunks from the receding tide and by augmented by freezing spray lined the beach. As the freezing temperatures reached deeper into the earth many homes in the area lost their water.

The depth of snow for Cape May County in January was 8.5 inches.  A three inch fall on January 24th at the time of the long sub-freezing temperature period was particularly hard on wildlife. By the next day however, wind cleared extensive areas, although heavier snow fifty miles northward persisted over a longer period.

Birds are able to withstand cold with impunity. Feathers, once grown, have no circulation of blood and hence receive no further nourishment.  Those that need oil spread it from their oil gland with their bill. The outer coat of feathers, impervious to air, is raised as temperatures drop making between it and the body a larger downy blanket which is a nonconductor of heat and an efficient insulator. Oil, mentioned above, makes the bird’s coat waterproof. We, therefore, find birds in the coldest weather dry and comfortable in their natural cocoon. The exposed beak has no more circulation of blood than a fingernail. Waterfowl and gulls spend long periods standing on ice which does not melt under them and in cold water without it chilling them. The reason for this is that they have a secondary compensatory circulation which maintains a circulation a few degrees above freezing in their feet and legs. A few ducks at times get into difficulty when leaving water. For they squat almost immediately on ice and find that the water adheres, freezing them to the surface. Witmer Stone, puzzled by the number of dead crows found in the vicinity of their roost in very cold weather, finally came to the conclusion that in flying to the roost from distances of often over a mile, their eyes became frozen and the bird blinded.

Almost the exclusive handicap that cold creates for birds is its interference with their food supply. This hazard varies with the bodily structure, diet, habits and habitat of a species. Migrants who leave the area in the fall escape, while our winter visitors and permanent residents meet the problem with varying success. The following comments are limited to the birds on whom the effects of the cold were most evident.

Both the Common Loon and the Red-throated Loon are fairly common winter visitors. Breeding to the north and west, both migrate to the ocean shores as cold weather sets in. More common during migration, several individuals of both species may be found any day throughout the winter just beyond the breakers floating on the water and diving for fish, their main food. When the bay ice covered the water around Cape May Point and Cape May during  January and early  February, the loons disappeared from the immediate area but were still to be found northward where the ocean was open. None were found dead. The horned grebe, a fairly common winter visitor to our coast, also left the immediate area, as did the pied-billed grebe, a less common winter visitor,  more inclined to stay in the bays than the ocean.

Although most herons leave in the fall, a few, particularly the great blues and black crowneds, winter over and may be seen on the salt marshes.  Most of those remaining starved this winter.  Several, along with the sandpipers and sparrows were found dead. When the shallow bays and estuaries froze over, those remaining found that supplementing their usual diet of fish with rats and meadow mice was too meagre to sustain them. One Great Egret Jabbed repeatedly, evidently at a fish he could see beneath the ice on which he was standing, only to have his bill Jolted to a very abrupt stop.

The Mute Swan from the Old World is now established as a breeding bird from Long Island to southern New Jersey. Although non-migratory, it, like, to gather in flocks after nesting and roam about the local countryside frequenting freshwater lakes and ponds.  Although preferring the roots and stalks of aquatic plants, it readily accepts corn and other grain, and in so doing appears semi-domesticated.  When one cold spell set in, one showed up at Lily Lake and finding the human largesse to his liking, remained till the end of February. A few of our native Whistling Swans winter in southern New Jersey n such places as the waters about Wading River, Tuckahoe and Mannington Meadows.   Two arrived at Lily Lake on February 17th.  They stayed on the ice out in the middle of the lake and did not join the birds at the free lunch along the shore.

With the settlement of this country, the Canada Goose ceased to be a breeding bird in New Jersey. Stone stated in 1933  that although a few geese may be seen from time to time during the winter, there are a few weeks when they are absent. The geese are again breeding in New Jersey, several hundred young being raised annually in the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge. Tuckahoe had seven broods in 1976. Birds are being released to establish breeding populations throughout the state. The New Jersey Division of Fish and Game states that they are more abundant than ever in the Atlantic Flyway, numbering near one million. With a plentiful supply of underwater plants and grazing available in many areas, increasingly large numbers of geese have remained in the area in the recent stretch of mild winters. As this winter’s long period of cold froze fresh and brackish water and snow covered most.fields north of Cape May County, the geese proved their adaptability. Various sized flocks moved south to graze in the state’s most southern county, particularly in the bean fields planted with a cover crop of rye. Not unduly apprehensive to the presence of people, they benefited by the distribution of food, mainly grain which was quite extensive.  At Lily Lake, a distribution center, people fed increasing numbers geese and other birds over a hundred pounds of grain, green pellets, bread, and civil defense emergency rations daily.  Beginning in the middle of January with six Canada geese, the number rose to 69 until February 22nd when a succession of warmer days ended the cold spell.  There seems to have been no great loss among the Canada geese during the stretch of severe weather.

In contrast, their close relative, the Brant, suffered severely. Breeding on the most northern shores of  the Arctic, the coasts of Greenlend and islands around the Gulf of Bothnia, adverse weather conditions result in a poor nesting season. Evidence of the dearth of young birds were shown in the age count made in New Jersey in the fall of 1976 when out of 7,159 Brant, only 8.9% were immatures.  Brant were removed from the game list of birds allowed to be taken by hunters. The winter range of the Brant is almost entirely in southern New Jersey, before 1930 it was concentrated in the brackish bays 40 to 50 miles from Absecon and Reed’s Bay to the northern end of Barnegat Bay. Here eelgrass, their almost exclusive winter food, grew abundantly. A blight attacked the eelgrass in the late 1920’s, practically eliminating it as a food for the birds by the 1932-33 winter. It has been estimated that the Brant population was reduced from around 100,000 to about 30,000, almost one-third. Those that survived, managed to do so by switching to an unaccustomed food, sea lettuce, and by moving in substantial numbers to the brackish water to the south in Cape May County where the sea lettuce was abundant. As the eelgrass recovered and the birds retained their added favorite food of sea lettuce in their extended winter range,  it took only a few good breeding seasons to raise their numbers beyond their former high level. By 1967, there were over 200,000 from Barnegat Bay to Cape May. There followed eight years in which the Brant maintained these high numbers which were probably the maximum obtainable in their summer and winter range.

In the summer of 1976 Hurricane Belle passed northward along the coast. Its winds tore loose vast quantities of eelgrass which were washed out to sea and diminished the food supply to a large extent. Even this as well as the sea lettuce was denied the birds as the bays and estuaries were almost completely frozen over early in January and remained so until the latter part of February. In their extremity the birds resorted to the meagre fare afforded by grazing on lawns and fields which were freer of snow cover in the southern part of the state. After January 15th two separate flocks of 10 to 25 birds were seen daily in the South Cape May Meadows.  A small flock appeared in Cape May Point Circle and birds in two’s and three’s were on lawns in Cape May and the Point.  Approximately 4,000 birds grazed in the fields about West Cape May and remained in fairly good shape throughout the freeze.  400 in a flock could be seen day after day in the area.  Gaylord Inman, manager of the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, after a survey by helicopter estimated that 75% of the Brant would not survive the winter.  Fred Ferrigno of the state Division of Fish and Game estimated that in South Jersey their numbers declined from 85,000 in January to 28, 000 later in the month. With the grasses coverd bysnow and frozen, birds moved onto the lawns of housing developments where they died of starvation by the thousands right in peoples back yards.

Attempts to mitigate the Brant’s plight  were with very small exceptions futile. Although when starving they lost most of their fear or people, they remained wary and those trying to feed them found it difficult to find food they were willing to eat.  Birds too weak to fly were picked up and attempts made to resuscitate them. Mark and Martha Pokras of Stockton State College had 125 under their care in their Avian Rehabilitation Center.  They had to force feed some at first and pulled through about 75% of the birds under their care. They released these on February 15th when the ice began to break up. After experimentation they found that commercial turkey mash and horse pellets were accepted as food by their tempermental charges. The Wetlands Institute staff helped about 80 birds get through the cold spell. Flying counts of Brant on November 15, 1976 were 115,1400 and on February 5, 1977 were 52,400. Their numbers continued to drop after this.

The Black Duck is with us all year, estimated at about 45,000 in New Jersey. On one Christmas Count 8,000 were recorded in Cape May County. In winter they dabble in shallow water for aquatic plants and small molluscs. With their normal food supply cut off by the freeze, they would have perished in numbers second only to the Brant had not their hunger overcome their caution, allowing them to benefit by the distribution of food, which cut their loss to probably less than a thousand. The state was covered by ten feeding stations whose work was coordinated by five state biologists who supervised many individuals and organizations, among them the New Jersey Audubon Society, the National Humane Society, United States Waterfowl Organization, Ducks Unlimited, The Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Friends of Animals, New Jersey Beach Buggy Association, Avalon, Ocean City, Cape May Point, the Brigantine National wildlife Refuge and many others. Around 50 black ducks were among birds fed daily at Lily Lake.

Witmer Stone, in Bird Studies at Old Cape May, observed that before 1935 the mallard “remained until the first freeze drives them south.” This is no longer true as the practice of feeding birds at Lily Lake has become common the year round.  A dependent population of about 125 mallards stays on at the lake throughout the winter, and drops down to about 25 in the early spring when the birds disappear to breed.  Milling about they keep a patch of water free of ice along the west shore.  All kinds of grain, bread and hot dogs disappear quickly down their ravenous maws.  The increase in the feeding at Lily Lake designed to help birds in distress who normally make a go it on their own has been of great benefit to the mallard welfare population.

One Pintail, four Oldwsquaw, six to eight Widgeon and two American Green-winged teal fed regularly on the food distributed at Lily Lake during January and February and possibly would not have survived without it.

On January 21 there  were eight redheads and six Canvesbacks on the small patch of open water in Lily Lake. Their numbers increased to 25 Red heads and 15 Canvasbacks on February 9th and a week later to about 50 of each species. Normally feeding on eelgrass and wild celery in the waters now frozen over, they came readily to the distribution of grain and bread. This is the highest number of these birds ever recorded in the county in winter where they are comparatively scarce, only one or two being seen on most Christmas counts. The artificial feeding most likely saved the lives of these birds.

For the most partthe scaup, common and king eider, oldsquaw and the three scoters that frequent the bars and ledges just off shore are regularly seen, although few in numbers. Feeding mainly on mussels, they had to dive for them elsewhere as the bay ice completely covered the area. As there was open water easily accesible both up and down the coast, the local freezing probably did no harm to these birds.

The Common and Red-brested I’Iergansers, both fish eaters, adjusted by moving from the bays, which they normally prefer, to the ocean. One or two of each species took advantage of the open water in Lily Lake. The Coot prefers to feed on the plants growing beneath the surface in the shallows but is not adverse to browsing on grasses on land. In addition to cutting off his favored food, the frozen surface of the water adds to his prob lems when he winters over. To become airborne, he has to accelerate to aenough speed to take off. He obtains this by paddling rapidly along the surface augmentlng the speed of hls wings. Deprived of a long enough water runway, he is grounded.  With snow covering much ground, quite a few perished but not the 30 odd that had already joined the permanent residents at Lily Lake where they have long appreciated the handouts.

Dunlin, our most common winter shorebird, a swift and ready bird on the wing, fed on the ocean beaches when ice covered the bay flats to avoid any appreciable loss in numbers.

The numbers of Woodcock recorded on the Cape May Christmas counts have at  times been the highest in the nation. Wintering here, they probed successfully for worms in unfrozen ground during our recent mild winters. The long frigid period of the past winter froze the ground several inches deep even in the most protected spots.  Most woodcock perished, several being picked up dead on the lawns of Cape May Point.

From 50 to 200 Herring Gulls and about an equal number of Ring-billed Gulls augmented by a few Black-backed members of their family were in daily attendance when Lily Lake was mostly frozen over. When surfeited with the food readily provided, they sat  out on the ice contentedly resting for long periods. They do this so often and conspicuously, that they have earned the reputation of being the champion avian loungers. Omnivorous scavengers, having increased in numbers in past years, they came through this winter with undiminished numbers .

The birds that have learned to take advantage of the many backyard feeding stations suffered little difficulty. Those remaining common were the Mourning Dove, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Starling, House Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Crackle, Cowbird, Cardinal, Purple Finch, Goldfinch, Junco, Tree Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow.

An interesting feature of the big freeze was the enthusiasm the effort to help the birds brought out under the coordination of the state Division of Fish and Game. The Press reported that “hundreds of people throughout the area donated time, money and effort to spread several dozen tons of corn andassorted grain at designated feeding stations.”