Regional environmental officials are meeting in Cape May, N.J., this week to discuss protecting the Delaware Estuary.

Scientists there say the wetlands are getting a little more love than usual.

For years, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary has focused on how to protect the area's wetlands from climate change and rising sea levels.

Science director Danielle Kreeger said places where fresh water from the Delaware River mix with salty water from the Atlantic are important -- yet fragile -- natural habitats.

"For years, in many ways, it's been difficult to get attention to many of those issues we think are important for our regions, to protect against flooding, to help sustain coastal fisheries, and so forth," Kreeger said.

The destruction wrought by superstorm Sandy has been a game-changer, Kreeger said, opening eyes to the importance of wetlands in absorbing flood waters.

"At this point, folks are coming to us that we've reached out to in the past, and saying 'OK, we understand now,'" Kreeger said. "We really need to do something."

At this week's conference, much of the talk has been about how to capitalize on that new-found interest.

Lillian Armstrong, head of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River, said fallout from Sandy has taken over this year's conference.

Her group presented a report indicating that a lack of prey is keeping some South Jersey birds away from their typical wintering spots this year.

"People were finding all kinds of interesting dead rodents, dead turtles mixed up in the rip-rap," during Sandy cleanup, Armstrong said. "And there was some concern that would affect the winter raptor population."

Early evidence suggests that is, in fact, the case.

Surveyors along the Maurice River in Cumberland County observe that red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, and short-eared owls are not as plentiful as they have been in past years.

Good news from the group's report, which has tracked many bird species for 25 years: bald eagles and peregrine falcon populations are way up in their survey area.

According to Armstrong, 25 years ago there was just one nesting pair of bald eagles in New Jersey.

There were 131 last season.