Tag Archives: coastal

Looking for Love in the Right Places

Today we hear from Elizabeth Rogers, with the National Park Service at Fire Island National Seashore in New York State. Elizabeth spent some time this spring and summer working as a Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sharing the stories and science of resilient coastal communities and systems. On her days off, she can be found exploring the outdoors or dabbling in the kitchen.

Millions of people come to beaches along the Atlantic Coast every summer to swim, stroll, and sunbathe. Piping plovers, federally protected beach-nesting birds, return to sandy stretches from Newfoundland to North Carolina each year to look for love.

When it comes to finding the right place to nest and raise their young, piping plovers are picky. Nests are often found along the upper beach in sparsely vegetated areas of sand, pebbles, or shells above the high tide line.

Piping plovers nest along the upper beach in sparsely vegetated areas of sand, pebbles, or shells above the high tide line. Credit: Dave Frederick/Creative Commons

Ideal nesting habitat has long been identified and protected with string fencing at federal, state, and local parks across the Northeast. Until recently, however, there was little information to help land managers understand the importance of local nesting habitat within the broader range of this species.

Two studies funded through Hurricane Sandy relief aid are helping to change that.

Since Hurricane Sandy struck, researchers from Virginia Tech have banded and monitored piping plovers near a channel, or breach, that opened during the storm within Fire Island National Seashore’s wilderness area in New York. The study shows that natural, unmodified channels like this breach are a big deal for breeding plovers. Annual surveys have shown that the breach shoreline and nearby overwashes and flood shoal islands are attracting new piping plover pairs.

Due to the dynamic nature of sandy coastal environments, there is an abundance of flat, open habitat with little vegetation. An ample supply of potential nest sites and edible insects make the shoreline near the natural inlet a draw for an increasing number of piping plovers.

Over the course of the five-year Virginia Tech study, more than half of the adult birds have returned to the site year after year. One adult flew over 30 miles from its nesting site to feed near the breach and was observed the following year nesting at the wilderness breach. This year, two adult plovers banded as chicks from different nests have returned and paired up —  a true summer love story.

An inventory compiled for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NALCC) by coastal geologist Tracy Rice identified piping plover habitat on a regional scale during three distinct time periods: before Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and after the storm in 2013 and 2015. The Fish and Wildlife Service is a supporting partner in the NALCC.

The inventory shows how sands — and potential nesting habitat like natural tidal inlets — have shifted over time across the Atlantic Coast. With a broader view of breeding grounds, the location of prime piping plover habitat and the impacts of habitat modification come into clearer focus.

Little Egg Inlet on Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey is one of just two unmodified tidal inlets in a 350-mile stretch of coastline within the breeding range of the piping plover. Credit: Google Earth

Rice’s inventory found the wilderness breach at Fire Island and Little Egg Inlet, an opening into Great Bay in the wilderness portion of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, are the only natural, unmodified channels in a 350-mile stretch of coast from Montauk, New York, to Chincoteague, Virginia. Beaches near natural inlets, shaped and reshaped by the tides, can provide an abundant supply of nesting habitat and food resources for shorebirds. Identifying these natural assets on a regional scale provides land managers an important perspective.

Taken together, these studies deepen our understanding of how landscape change within a species’ range can influence breeding success. This new information will guide how shorebird nest sites are protected in the future. Good news for piping plovers looking for love along the Atlantic Coast.

Rhode Island River Revival

To celebrate National Rivers Month, we asked Tim Mooney, marketing and communications manager for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island to share some good news about rivers in The Ocean State. An avid hiker and birder, he managed two of the Conservancy’s flagship nature preserves from 2007-2016 and previously served in the Washington and Providence offices of U.S. Senators John Chafee and Lincoln Chafee. He lives in Cumberland, R.I. with his partner, Chris Audette. 

Rhode Island’s environmental champion (and dear friend of the Fish and Wildlife Service), the late U.S. Senator John Chafee, was fond of saying, “Given half a chance, nature will rebound. But we must give nature that half a chance.”

For the past several years, The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter has worked with the Service to give nature half a chance on the Pawcatuck River. Winding 34 miles through southern Rhode Island, the river abounds with wildlife, from osprey to otters and herons to herring. It’s hard to beat the meandering Pawcatuck River for summertime family paddling. Scientists describe it as the last and best semi-wilderness river system in the state.

Nevertheless, the lower reaches of the river were choked by the White Rock Dam. Two miles upriver from a municipal boat ramp in downtown Westerly, R.I., the dam, a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, blocked kayakers and migrating fish.

The White Rock Dam was on the Pawcatuck River, on the border of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

Although no longer serving a commercial purpose, the 6-foot-high concrete wall diverted the river into a long bypass canal. In spring, the river rushed through the canal with tremendous force, creating dangerous conditions for inexperienced kayakers. It also prevented all but a handful of river herring from migrating upstream to their traditional spawning grounds.

In 2015, the Conservancy and the Service, supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience, came together to remove the dam and close the bypass canal. Two years later, the river is back on its natural course. Paddlers and fish are passing easily, and local flooding has been reduced. The lower Pawcatuck River has been set free for the first time in 250 years.

The dam removal in 2016 was supported in part by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

We want nature to thrive everywhere — not just “wild” places, but in our neighborhoods and historic waterfronts, too. For most of the 20th Century, the Crawford Street Bridge covered nearly ¼ mile of the Providence River in downtown Providence, R.I. Just upstream, the junction of the Woonasquatucket and Moshasseck rivers, which join to form the Providence, was hidden beneath the John O. Pastore Federal Building and Post Office.

The waterways below, which feed into Providence Harbor, were heavily polluted with industrial waste and sewage and, quite simply, stank. All of upper Narragansett Bay was horribly polluted. It was hard to imagine anyone sailing, fishing, or kayaking in those waters.

Today, thanks to an ambitious revitalization project in the 1980s, the Crawford Street Bridge is gone, replaced with a series of smaller spans, and the Woonasquatucket and Moshasseck meet in the open. Providence River is the cleanest it has been in seven generations, thanks to the vision, foresight, and hard work of many people and organizations. And public access to Providence’s natural resources is valued more than ever.

The Nature Conservancy oversaw the design and construction of the Gano Park boat ramp on the Providence waterfront. The project was supported in part by funds from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, administered by the Service. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

In 2014, The Nature Conservancy partnered with the City of Providence and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management to open a new boat launch at Gano Park — the city’s first public ramp. Using funds from the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, decades of illegal dumping were reversed, and the area was made safe again for people and wildlife.

The Conservancy helped design and manage the project, using innovative strategies to keep polluted storm-water run-off from entering the estuary. The ramp never would have been possible, however, without the support of the Service and countless hunters, archers, and anglers across the United States, who fund the WSFR program through taxes on sporting equipment, electric boat motors, and fuel.

A river remembers its natural, free-flowing course after 250 years. A boat ramp rises from a dumping ground as a neighborhood gateway to Narragansett Bay. Nature does rebound, just as Senator Chafee said. Across the state, Rhode Island’s waterways are bouncing back, and I hope you will celebrate nature’s resilience by exploring these special places this summer.

The Spy Who Came in From the Marsh: New Sensors Gather Intelligence on Storms Like Joaquin

October 2, 2015

Dear Joaquin,

I’ve been watching the news coverage of your impending arrival. They’ve been interviewing coastal scientists in the mid-Atlantic states. They’re onto you. Head out to sea!



Intrepid scientists from FWS and USGS venture out in Nor'easter conditions to to deploy sensors designed to measure wave dynamics during storms.

A team of intrepid scientists from US FWS and USGS venture out in Nor’easter conditions to deploy sensors designed to measure wave dynamics during storms. Credit: Laura Mitchell/USFWS

If you happened to be at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, October 2 — just 48 hours before the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Joaquin — you might have wondered if you were witnessing a qualifying event for the next season of “Survivor,” or perhaps just an ill-advised dare.

You would have been witnessing something much more exciting: coastal resilience science in action.

In spite of the conditions — extreme high tides, poor visibility, gale-force winds — a team of scientists from the Coastal Delaware National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the U.S. Geological Survey were out on foot and in canoes installing wave sensors at docking poles, many of which were under water at the time.  

Perhaps it’s a little misleading to say the scientists went out “in spite of” the conditions; they went out because of the conditions. Prime Hook is one of dozens of study sites in the Surge, Wave, and Tide Hydrodynamics (SWaTH) Network – an effort initiated in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to measure wave height, force, speed, and extent during hurricane-induced storm surges. It’s just one of a suite projects supported by Department of Interior Hurricane Sandy Recovery Funding to help natural and human communities weather the storms that are predicted to become increasingly frequent and intense as a result of climate change.

The data collected by the SWaTH sensors will be used to refine storm-surge models, create more accurate flood forecasts, design more effective flood-protection infrastructure, and develop wiser land-use policies.

Although Joaquin veered off into the Atlantic before reaching Prime Hook, the preceding Nor’easter provided useful wave data for SWaTH, that will also provide positive reinforce for another project inspired by Hurricane Sandy: the restoration of 4,000 acres of marsh that had been impounded in the 1980s to create freshwater habitat for waterfowl.

Just after the turn of the 21st century, a succession of major storms breached the barrier dunes between Delaware Bay and the impoundments, inundating them with saltwater to the dismay of the freshwater vegetation within.

“Sandy was the final nail in the coffin,” explained Restoration Project Manager Bart Wilson. “About four breaches turned into seven, and suddenly we had this huge area of free-flowing water between the bay and the refuge.”

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Prime Hook received resilience funding to dredge 1.1 million cubic acres of sand from a historic salt marsh to restore natural flow, and ultimately, restore the system's natural capacity to serve as a buffer for storm surges.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Prime Hook received resilience funding to dredge 1.1 million cubic acres of sand from a historic salt marsh to restore natural flow, and ultimately, restore the system’s natural capacity to serve as a buffer for storm surges. Credit: Richard Weiner

But Sandy was also an opportunity. Prime Hook received $38 million in recovery and resilience funding to fill the breaches in the barrier dunes, and dredge more than a million cubic yards of sand from the historic salt marsh channels.

“Once the breaches have been filled, and we have natural channels flowing again, the water level will drop, exposing mud flats that will recolonize with saltmarsh vegetation over the next several years,” Wilson said.

Bart Wilson

Prime Hook Restoration Manager Bart Wilson. Credit: FWS

Although the primary motivation for the project was to restore salt marsh habitat, Wilson pointed out that in the context of future storms, local communities will reap the benefits as well. Literally. As a result of severe flooding from storms, farmers neighboring the refuge have seen the edges of their fields go fallow. Thousands of acres of healthy saltmarsh would have provided a tremendous natural buffer for upland areas.  

“If we had a giant marsh where we have open water now, we wouldn’t even blink an eye during these storms,” Wilson said. “Seawater would wash over the dunes, saltmarsh grass would catch the sand, life would go on.”

It’s a plausible scenario, but Wilson explained that the added value of Prime Hook’s participation in the SWaTH Network is that it will enable them to quantify the value of the restoration project in terms of increasing storm-surge protection. By continually deploying the sensors in advance of storms throughout the multi-year restoration process, scientists will be able to measure how wave dynamics change as the area transitions from open water, to mudflats, to 50-percent vegetation, to a fully restored marsh.

“We can say that salt marshes reduce wave action and flooding, but it will be great to have data to back that up,” he said.

In time, that data can be used to support similar salt marsh restoration projects that will help fortify human and natural coastal communities that are most vulnerable to sea-level rise and major storms.

Considering climate change predictions, Wilson noted, “It’s great timing that we’re doing this now.”

Spread the word, Joaquin.