The aerial view of an Atlantic coast saltmarsh depicts an intricate labyrinth of marshland grass and sediment. From 20,000 feet the marsh appears static, unchanging. Yet at ground level, there is an evolving struggle for survival that happens twice a day during high tide.In a recent PBS documentary episode “Animal Homes: Location, Location, Location,” the drama plays out as a female saltmarsh sparrow is shown strategically weaving her nest into the top layer of marsh grass. Her goal is to build her nest high enough to protect offspring from the danger of high tide. But the combined forces of climate change, rising sea levels and increased storm intensity have caused nest flooding to become a very real threat. Hatchlings are unable to climb out of the nest until they are about five days old, according to Chris Elphick, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partner and Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of Connecticut. So many may not survive to see low tide or their mother’s return to the nest.
From Maine down to Virginia, salt marshes provide a home to species like the saltmarsh and seaside sparrow and act as a buffer to counter the effects of sea-level rise and storm surge. In Hurricane Sandy’s wake, many of these coastal areas have deteriorated, leaving both wildlife and people more vulnerable to the forces of future storms.Three projects included in a larger research study, A Stronger Coast, are supported through federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and work together to pinpoint coastal refuge lands’ strengths and weaknesses along more than 70 miles of shoreline. A portion of these efforts will also determine the current stability of 30,000 acres of Atlantic coastal marshes. Staff and partners are using the latest monitoring technology and surveys to analyze current status, changes and trends for sandy beach shoreline, dunes, coastal marshes, and waterbird populations, which builds on data gathered more than a decade by the Refuge System’s Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) program. Collectively, this will provide critical scientific information to help manage refuge lands, waters, plants and wildlife for future conservation. Elphick, who is a research partner in another Hurricane Sandy funded tidal marsh bird research project, says studying the saltmarsh sparrow can provide important information about the ecosystem as a whole. His work is connected to a program founded by a group of academic, governmental and non-profit collaborators known as SHARP – the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program – which provides critical information for the conservation of tidal-marsh birds. Understanding saltmarsh ecology, Elphick says, also helps scientists understand how the resource contributes to a range of vital natural benefits, from human food consumption to recreation.
In the end, the simple truth is that the steps we take to conserve the saltmarsh sparrow’s home can help conserve our homes, too.