Tag Archives: SHARP

Saltmarsh sparrows

Chasing saltmarsh sparrows

Kim Snyder is a writer by trade and a biologist at heart. She is currently working as an Outreach Intern at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Kim Snyder is a writer by trade and a biologist at heart. She is currently working as an Outreach Intern at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Jumping across channels and squishing through mud at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, we advanced. Spread in a long arc, we all stepped forward in a circle, walking deliberately towards a series of mist nets stretched across the marsh. Someone began to clap.

A flash of movement drew our attention to the channel. A small brown bird fluttered out of the grasses and darted away across the marsh. We clapped louder, pushing it towards the net. Running forward, we herded the small bird closer until at last it encountered the woven fabric of the net.  A member of the banding crew rushed to remove it, gently detangling the fine holes of the net from around the sparrow. The bird was placed in a soft drawstring pouch and carried to our banding station: a yoga mat in the shade of an umbrella strewn with measuring devices, pliers, and tiny metal bands.

Bri measuring and tagging saltmarsh sparrows

Bri measuring and tagging saltmarsh sparrows

Bri Benvenuti, a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, carefully removed the bird from the pouch. There were no bands on the birds’ legs. This was one Bri and her colleagues had not caught before.  It was quickly fitted with a uniquely numbered metal band on its left leg and a plastic red band on its right leg. Bri’s analysis was quick and methodical, collecting data on the bird’s size and health and calling out her findings to Dr. Adrienne Kovach, her advisor and data-recorder. Since the rest of us were not trained to handle it, we watched quietly, squatting in the grass as Bri explained what was so special about these birds.

Saltmarsh sparrows are elusive, bold-faced birds that barely sing to define themselves. Their entire lives are spent within the confines of salt marsh grasses and on the schedule of the tides. They nest in rapid cycles, trying to fledge their nestlings between high tides associated with the new moon. The nestlings grow quickly and are capable of flight 15 days after hatching. This leaves Bri a very short window to examine nests and gather data on breeding success for her thesis.

Saltmarsh and Nelson's sparrows

Can you tell the difference? One the left is a Nelson’s sparrow and the one on the right is a saltmarsh sparrow

Bri works with the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP), a collaborative effort between governmental, academic, and non-profit organizations to advise management options for the conservation of birds like the Saltmarsh Sparrow that rely on tidal salt marshes for habitat. USFWS has provided much of the funding for SHARP, either from State Wildlife Grants or Hurricane Sandy funds. The first modern surveys for this species occurred as part of a partnership with USFWS, U. of Maine, the refuge, and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in 1997.

Between sea-level rise and the loss and degradation of habitat, these birds are vulnerable. For her thesis, Bri is investigating the sparrow’s nesting adaptations as well as testing the effectiveness of floating habitat islands for providing flood-free nesting habitat in the face of sea-level rise.

Saltmarsh sparrow fledgling

Saltmarsh sparrow fledgling

Bri was very excited to catch this bird, a fledgling, in her mist nets. This means a new generation of chicks successfully beat the double handicap of short breeding periods and climate change to fly safely across the patches of salt marsh they call home. Hopefully, the band Bri attached to this nestling will be one she reads next season as well. She gently removed her hands from around the bird and it dashed away, flying back to the obscurity of the channel.

Conserving Their Home and Ours

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.

As high tide is pulled into the marsh, a nest of young saltmarsh sparrows keep their heads above water. Credit: Jeanna Mielcareku/UConn SHARP

As high tide flows into a Connecticut coastal marsh, young saltmarsh sparrows keep their heads above water. Credit: Jeanna Mielcarek/UConn SHARP

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.

Newly hatched salt marsh sparrows nestle together in the temporary safety of their nest at Barn Island WMA. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

Newly hatched salt marsh sparrows nestle together in the temporary safety of their nest at Barn Island WMA. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

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.

A Nelson’s sparrow and a saltmarsh sparrow at Barn Island in Conn.  Credit: Chris Elphick/Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

A Nelson’s sparrow and a saltmarsh sparrow at Barn Island in Conn. Credit: Chris Elphick/Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

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.

Read more about the SHARP program’s work

View photos from the Stronger Coast projects

Research Specialist Christina Cerino measures a captured bird for the SHARP survey. Credit: Charlotte Murtishaw/USFWS

Looking SHARP: Students, salt marshes, and that elusive sparrow

Charlotte and ZucchiniABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charlotte Murtishaw is a Student Conservation Association and Hurricane Sandy youth story corps intern, serving as a communications specialist for the Service’s Hurricane Sandy recovery program. She grew up in New Jersey and currently attends Barnard College in New York, where she’s an American Studies major focusing on postwar media and culture as well as environmental history (independently and in conjunction with each other). You can find her biking, swimming, and hiking around the Pioneer Valley this summer, usually on the way to the next best bookstore.


Emma Shelly probably wakes up earlier than you.

Every morning, the University of Connecticut PhD student gets out of bed at 4:30 and hops in the car. She leaves her home near UConn, and drives nearly an hour to Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in the coastal town of Stonington, Ct., picking up her assistants along the way.

The early start does have its perks for the group, though.

“The mornings are really beautiful,” says research specialist Christina Cerino. “You catch a lot of good sunrises.”

Site leader Emma Shelly, flanked by her research specialists Chistina Cerino (L) and Jeanna Mielcarek (R). Credit: Charlotte Murtishaw/USFWS

Site leader Emma Shelly, flanked by her research specialists Chistina Cerino (L) and Jeanna Mielcarek (R). Credit: Charlotte Murtishaw/USFWS

Emma and Christina are both in their second summer working for SHARP–the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program. The program was founded by a group of academic, governmental, and non-profit collaborators to provide critical information for the conservation of tidal-marsh birds. It evolved from more than a decade of saltmarsh sparrow surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, states and other partners on national wildlife refuges throughout the Northeast, ultimately expanding to more than 900 current sites. The Refuge System’s Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) program is supporting development of standardized data collection methods and a database that will help SHARP participants evaluate population and habitat status and develop targets for future conservation needs.

Last year SHARP gained additional resources through a Hurricane Sandy grant from the Department of the Interior for a comprehensive tidal marsh bird project. The money not only continues to support SHARP efforts to gauge the effects of climate change on threatened species like the saltmarsh sparrow and clapper rail, but also engages youth and graduate students with Sandy projects. Opportunities often involve hands-on field experience collecting data, such as the work at Barn Island.

Because the project had already gathered so much data on tidal marsh birds and their habitat before Hurricane Sandy hit in October, 2012, researchers are able to make easy comparisons between healthy habitat and current conditions, such as sea levels and bird populations. But SHARP isn’t just for the birds. With more than 20 sites stretching from Maine to New Jersey, the program is a chance for students in environmental fields to get hands-on experience in conservation, as well as dabble in their own research. While she works on SHARP as a crew leader, Emma also gathers information for her Ph.D., on the mating preferences of the notoriously polyamorous saltmarsh sparrow.

In the field, Emma, Christina, and another research specialist, Jeanna Mielcarek, set up fine mist nets to catch incoming birds, and band the female saltmarsh sparrows with identification tags. They take weight, wingspan, and other measurements at the same time, and comb the marsh for nests to flag and track.

Other animals pop up in the salt marsh, which is among one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, ranking up there with the tropical rainforest. Jeanna finds a praying mantis, and retrieves a bright goldfinch from the mist net. At Barn Island, anything goes.

“We catch a lot of birds we aren’t targeting for,” Christina says. “There are surprises every day.” Blackbirds, she said, are grabby and nippy; male sparrows are more aggressive (but she hastens to clarify all observations are anecdotal).

Christina got her start last summer under UConn professor and site leader Chris Elphick. “[Christina] came out as a volunteer last year and learned some basics and this year has picked up a lot more,” said Elphick, who’s been birding since childhood. “We have to stagger experience a little bit so we’re training people we can hire next year as the more experienced person.”

SHARP is a breeding ground for burgeoning biologists and conservationists. Though the main corps is made up of graduate students, UMaine assistant professor and principal investigator Brian Olsen emphasizes that exposing students to hands on experience is built into the framework of the project.

“We try to slide in an undergraduate or two as well to train somebody up, so we usually have at least one person who’s never done anything on the crew and then that mixes in with the experienced hands,” Olsen said.

In Emma’s case, that meant assisting as a field tech last summer before being promoted to her leadership position.

“I was really grateful to come out here the year before to learn the ropes and how to set up the arrays and do all the bird handling and things like that,” she said.

Now, she’s in charge, arranging the schedule and making decisions while shouldering her personal research. “You work really hard, but you don’t have anyone breathing down your shoulder about it, so it’s all up to you to be self-motivated.”

On-site, it doesn’t seem like anybody needs much extra motivation. “This is sort of what I want to do as an actual career, wildlife conservation,” Christina said.

“Everyday you’ll do something new. Every day there’ll be something exciting that happens, even small things, and it’s never boring. You do feel satisfied with your job, even if you’re tired and muddy and really hungry at the end of the day, you still had a great time out in the marsh and got to interact with animals.”

A salt marsh sparrow nest, full of newly hatched babies, is nestled in the tall grasses at Barn Island WMA. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

A salt marsh sparrow nest, full of newly hatched babies, is nestled in the tall grasses at Barn Island WMA. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS


View a video clip about the SHARP surveys at Barn Island

Read more about USFWS-funded avian science and the SHARP program

View more photos from the SHARP Barn Island survey


SCA intern Charlotte Murtishaw is part of the Service’s Hurricane Sandy youth story corps, which provides communications experience to college interns as a part of our agency’s commitment to engaging youth in conservation.