Tag Archives: saltmarsh sparrow

Chafee NWR salt marsh restoration USFWS

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Jen White

(Click on an image above to launch the photo slideshow.)

Protecting coastal resources – for the people and wildlife that depend on them – has to be a priority when you’re a state with 400 miles of coastline and one of the highest ratios of coastline-to-land in the country.

In Rhode Island, one such effort involves restoring coastal marshes.

“Having a marsh is good because it can slow down waves that would be heading toward homes,” says Jen White, a USFWS biologist in Rhode Island. “If we lose the marsh, that will all turn into open water basically and you won’t have any protection.”

White is looking out at the Narrow River estuary, where FWS and partners are working on a marsh restoration technique called “thin-layer deposition,” which has been used widely in Gulf Coast states but is just recently gaining traction in the Northeast. Last year the partners used the technique on 11 acres at Sachuest Point NWR, and now are working on 30 acres along the Narrow River at Chafee NWR.

The objective is to dredge sediment from the estuary and spray it onto the marsh, raising the elevation of the marsh enough to allow it to keep better pace with sea-level rise.

“What we’ve seen here is a switch from high-marsh grasses to low-marsh grasses, so we’re losing the high-marsh habitat in this area,” says White. “By adding material we’re hoping to bring it back to high-marsh elevation and that will hopefully allow it to last into the future.”

The partners are aiming to add six inches of elevation to the marsh, which should allow the high-marsh grass to grow through. They will also re-plant the area with about 35,000 plugs of marsh grasses in the spring.

To achieve this delicate balance of elevation, the dredging and spraying machines are equipped with computer sensors that precisely monitor the process.

“The sand will be contoured so there will be hills and valleys — the hills will be where the high marsh will grow and where water will be able to drain off the marsh so we’re not creating any impounded water anywhere,” explains White.

Marshes are widely considered valuable assets for coastal protection – they buffer wave energy and absorb water. But they also harbor an amazing diversity of species. One important creature that depends on them is the saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus).

“Saltmarsh sparrows breed in the high-marsh elevation grasses, so that’s informed the restoration planning we’re doing. Willets (Tringa semipalmata) also breed at that elevation,” says White. “Sea-level rise is going to be a big issue for the saltmarsh sparrow. As sea-level rise increases, these birds will have fewer and fewer breeding opportunities. By raising the marsh we hope to provide salt marsh nesting species habitat into the future.”

White notes that researchers (Field et al. 2016) estimate the sparrow may go extinct as early as 2035, with populations having dropped sharply since the 1990s according to the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP), a group of academic, government and nonprofit researchers along the East Coast.

“Sea-level rise is really the main issue for marshes, whether you’re talking about the habitat they provide for the saltmarsh sparrow or their ability to protect coastal communities from inundation.”

This is the fifth in a series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In previous weeks we have looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons, combating climate change in the Chesapeake BayJulie Devers, assessing fish barriers and culverts in Maryland,  Kevin Holcomb and Amy Ferguson building living shorelines at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and Eric Schrading and Katie Conrad building living shoreline oyster reefs at Gandy’s Beach in New Jersey.

Tiny Technology That’s Making a Big Difference

Technology is amazing. Here in the Northeast Region, new advances in technology are allowing us to find out so much more about animal behavior than we have ever known before. Armed with this knowledge, we are able to make much better choices about how to protect these animals. One example of an animal that is benefiting from these technological advances is the saltmarsh sparrow.

JuvenileSparrow - Copy

Credit: Katrina Amaral

These are tough times for the tiny saltmarsh sparrow. Their only home, the saltmarshes along the Atlantic coast of the United States, are becoming increasingly scarce due to development and rising sea levels. With fewer places to live, saltmarsh sparrow populations are decreasing as well.

In order to determine the best way to help the sparrows, researchers need to know more about their behavior, how they are using the marshes, and which locations are most important to their survival.

Saltmarsh Sparrow

Credit: Bri Benvenuti

Because these birds are so small, only weighing about as much as 8 pennies, individual birds have been difficult to track with traditional tracking devices, which were much too large and heavy for them. However, researchers from several of our region’s National Wildlife Refuges, along with other partners, are using today’s tiny tagging technology to find out exactly what these birds are up to!

 

The MOTUS tracking system uses nano-tags, miniature radio transmitters that are extremely lightweight. All nano-tags transmit at the same frequency, but each tag has its own identifiable pulse rate.

InstalAntenna

Credit: Bri Benvenuti

Receiving towers pick up these pulses when a tagged bird flies within a radius of 12 kilometers. Researchers have installed these towers in an expansive network up and down the eastern coast of North America, among other areas. The yellow dots in the map below represent current tower locations.

FinalMOTUSMap

Credit: Bird Studies Canada- Motus Wildlife Tracking System, http://www.motus-wts.org

Partners

Credit: Kate O’Brien

 

One of the most exciting things about this system is the collaboration between researchers and organizations, all working together to collect and share data in an effort to conserve wildlife. The data that they are collecting is not restricted to saltmarsh sparrows. Researchers are studying bats, butterflies, and various other bird species using the nano-tag system as well. Data from the network of towers is downloaded and shared with researchers, providing a service to conservationists everywhere.

So what does this mean for our little saltmarsh sparrow?

SparrowInGrass

Credit: Brian C. Harris

Actually, we aren’t sure yet. This system is so new that data is just beginning to come in. However, we are already discovering some amazing things!

SuperBirds

Credit: Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program

For example, preliminary data shows that a few saltmarsh sparrows flew from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, ME to the Connecticut coastline, a distance of over 150 miles, in just one day!

TowerDetectionsSparrow

Migratory route of three saltmarsh sparrows. Credit: Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program

As we learn more about the behavior of these tiny birds, we will begin to answer many questions that we could only guess at before. This knowledge will guide us as we work to conserve their most important habitats in an effort to ensure their survival for generations to come.

This saltmarsh sparrow project is a collaboration of several partners, including the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Connecticut, and the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program.

For more information, please explore the following links:

Past blog posts about the Region’s nanotag programs

Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program

Motus Wildlife Tracking System

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook

Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex on Facebook

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook

Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook