Tag Archives: National Park Service

Weathering the storm: piping plovers flock to Long Island beaches

If you live in the Northeast, you won’t soon forget 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. But there is one storm story you may have yet to hear.

Along some areas of the Long Island coast, strong winds and waves washed over the beaches, spreading out sand to create the sandy, open spaces that the island’s winged residents rely on for nesting. For biologists, the restored beach habitat was a sign of hope for the threatened piping plover, whose numbers had been precariously low in New York.

An example of an overwash area on Fire Island Wilderness area Photo credit: USFWS

Researchers from Virginia Tech investigated the effects of Sandy on Long Island with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Suffolk County, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In comparing 2010 and 2015 plover habitat areas and population abundances, they found a substantial increase in suitable habitat and a modest population increase. Notably, more than half of the new habitat on Fire Island and Westhampton Island was created during the storm, with the rest of the habitat engineered by the Corps.

Outreach Coordinator Bret Serbin with Long Island Field Office biologists at the Fire Island Wilderness area. From left: Steve Papa, Kerri Dikun, Bret Serbin, and Steve Sinkevich. Photo credit: USFWS

This increase in available habitat likely contributed to the 40.6 percent increase in plover population on Fire Island and Westhampton Island since the hurricane. This boost is a welcome addition for the bird, which faces numerous threats and is struggling to reach the goal of 575 pairs set out in the federal recovery plan. The researchers also found that the number of nesting pairs in the area has increased over the past 5 years, and they are optimistic that 2018 will be a year of continued productivity for the birds in the area.

Since piping plover chicks have to forage for themselves, plovers like to build nests on flat open beaches close to the shoreline where they have easy access to the tiny invertebrates that they feed on. By creating a number of new overwashes and breaches, Sandy helped expand the territory where plovers and their chicks can live, eat, and grow before their winter journey.

A rare sight: an abundance of piping plovers! Photo credit: USFWS

The reaction from the local plover population has been telling: among new and returning plovers at each beach in the study area, more than 80 percent chose the newly-created habitats to build their nests. And the new plovers exclusively nested in these new areas, completely avoiding the less favorable habitat that existed before Sandy’s contributions. The Hurricane Sandy beach redesign seems popular among the plovers.

This new habitat inches the birds one step closer towards recovery. But what the researchers call a “modest increase” in population is still a long way off from the desired plover population on Long Island. And since much of the newly created habitat is not in protected areas, only time will tell how long and how much the birds will really be able to enjoy these new spaces. To recover this species and others that depend on storm-generated habitat, we must look for solutions that balance shorebird habitat creation while protecting human infrastructure so that we can both weather the storm.

Salamander Fairyland: Conserving a unique treasure in the Blue Ridge Mountains

On a cool, crisp evening, Liberty University professors and their students trek through the damp understory of the Jefferson National Forest as the sun falls behind the treeline.

By the time they arrive at their study site among the trees, it is completely dark and lightly drizzling. Equipped with headlamps, they creep along transect lines, scouring the vegetation for glimpses of gold.

They are hunting for the Peaks-of-Otter salamander. Often beginning at eight o’clock and working until one in the morning, they search for the salamander while it hunts for worms and springtails – its invertebrate prey.

Professors Norm Reichenbach, Paul Sattler, Tim Brophy and David Marsh have been working with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service to study the Peaks-of-Otter salamander for nearly two decades. Their research not only allows students to experience the species up close, but also helps federal and state agencies to better understand and manage this unique amphibian.

“This is a great partnership that helps secure the future of the Peaks-of-Otter salamander,” Reichenbach said. “Since most of the range of this salamander is in areas managed by the Forest Service and NPS, universities working cooperatively with these agencies can engage in research that aids in the conservation of these species.”

Reichenbach and Marsh study a variety of subjects regarding the species’ ecology, such as how habitat changes like timber harvest might affect the salamander or how other species, like the eastern red-backed salamander, might impact the Peaks-of-Otter salamander.

Known as “sit and wait predators,” this salamander often forages while perched atop forest vegetation, unintentionally revealing itself to the researchers and students that seek to round them up, at least for a little while.

The metallic, brassy flecks that speckle this critter’s dark brown body help the students to identify and grab the salamander before it scoots to a hiding spot under the damp leaves that coat the forest floor.

“You have to see them before they see you,” said Reichenbach, professor of biology at Liberty University.

Because the salamander can also be found under downed logs – or any other place where moisture is naturally trapped and the ground is cool – professors and students spend many hours hunkered over, flipping over anything that may reveal a golden prize.

An hour or less from their classroom, Reichenbach’s students learn about conservation hands on in the biologically rich Appalachians, which just so happens to be right in their backyard.

“You can be in one spot that has one species, walk as little as a few hundred meters, and then find a completely different species,” said Marsh, professor at Washington and Lee University. “You can think of the Southern Appalachians as a sort of salamander Galapagos.”

With a world-wide distribution of only 12 miles, this salamander’s range is contained almost entirely in Virginia’s Peaks-of-Otter region within the Jefferson National Forest and the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

Not to mention, it’s found only at elevations above 1600 ft.

The salamander’s limited range has landed it on the radar of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been working with the National Forest and Park Service to better understand the status of this at-risk species.

The U.S. Forest Service has been managing the Jefferson National Forest with the Peaks-of-Otter salamander in mind for nearly 20 years. In 1997, a conservation agreement between the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service established primary and secondary conservation areas to guide timber harvesting and manage this sensitive species.

The Peaks-of-Otter salamander, like all plethodon amphibians, has no lungs – breathing entirely through the tissues in its mouth and skin. Preserving adequate canopy cover to prevent the sun from drying out soil and leaf litter is crucial as the salamander relies on adequate ground moisture to keep their skin moist enough to extract oxygen from the air.

In the primary conservation area no trees are cut, and in the secondary area timber harvest activities must meet guidelines for protecting Peaks-of-Otter habitat, such as leaving at least 50 percent of the canopy intact and leaving large woody debris on the ground.

These guidelines were informed by the research of the local professors and students who continue to study the Peaks-of-Otter salamander and its biology on an continuing basis.

“Ongoing research has enhanced our understanding of the species and helped to shape many of the existing management practices in place today,” said Rose Agbalog, Service biologist.

“Partnerships are critical to conservation efforts,” added Fred Huber, retired Forest Botanist for the Jefferson National Forest. “By sharing knowledge, combining resources, and coordinating research, we can move more quickly and effectively to protect species.”

Partnerships like these between universities and federal agencies take the conservation of at-risk species to new heights, potentially precluding the need to list them under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to the devoted conservation efforts underway, the Peaks-of-Otter salamander is abundant within its limited range.

One night after a recent rain, Reichenbach recalled that the moss-covered boulders along the side of a ridge were strewn with this alluring critter. Huber and Reichenbach found sixty salamanders in just two hours, remembering it fondly as a “fairyland of salamanders.”

“The U.S. Forest Service and the Blue Ridge Parkway have worked for over 20 years to conserve important habitat for the Peaks-of-Otter salamander,” said Agbalog. “With continuing collaboration and conservation efforts from these agencies and local university partners, we hope to secure the future of this unique species.”

Remembering the Kennebunkport Fire

October of 1947 in the Northeast was not the typical autumn we’ve grown to love and celebrate today. Seventy years ago this month, portions of New England were facing catastrophic wildfires, some stretching eight miles in length along the coast of Maine, shaping the landscapes of today including sections of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. The fire that became known as the Kennebunkport Fire destroyed over 200 homes and caused $3,250,000 in damages, which is valued at over 35 million dollars today.

Photos courtesy of Brick Store Museum 

If a fire in New England of this magnitude were to occur today, one can only begin to fathom the devastation this could cause. The thickly settled houses and communities lining the east coast drastically increases risk to the homes and people living in the area. In efforts to prevent a fire of this magnitude, it takes a group effort, combining resources from, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service to safely manage the North County Interagency Fire Zone. Fire managers work closely with partners to share equipment and personnel. They also rely upon each other for expertise and help in managing lands for habitat, reducing the risk of wildfire, and responding to wildfires. Together, they also spread awareness and fire education to communities.

In the Northeast Region, the Service had a total of 58 staff, mostly collateral duty, that led fire and assisted on over 105 fire incidences across the country this year alone, some spending three months or more away from home or responding to multiple incidents. While a relatively small portion of the Service, they often have highest number of duties and take on crucial roles in responding to these emergencies.

To recognize the first responders that raced through the area and the current staff that work to keep us safe, events are being held this week in multiple communities in Maine. When it comes to fire, we all work together to ensure the health and safety of communities, firefighters, wildlife, and habitat.

Learn more about the history of the Kennebunkport Fire.