‘Canary in the Mine’ for the Salt Marsh

— This article by Deidre Robinson, Wenley Ferguson and Steve Reinert first appeared in WildforaRI, Spring 2019

If you’ve never experienced the sunrise over a salt marsh, inhaling the distinctive fragrance of hydrogen sulfide given off by decomposing smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and hearing the dawn chorus of marsh birds, you might want to explore one sooner rather than later. The marshes are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The saltmarsh sparrow is an obligate salt marsh specialist, living only in the marshes along the east coast of the United States. Rhode Island provides critical habitat for several small pockets of this threatened species, whose population has plummeted by 75 percent since the 1990s. With accelerating sea level rises, tidal marsh losses of 0.5 to 1.5 percent annually are predicted, likely dooming this bird to extinction by 2040.

We first spotted this sparrow at Jacob’s Point Salt Marsh in Warren on a steamy July day in 2016 while conducting a survey of breeding birds for the Rhode Island Bird Atlas. She was stealthily returning to her nest to incubate four small eggs. Rather than fly directly to the nest and possibly reveal its location to a predator, she lands in a patch of salt meadow several meters from the nest, then zigzags through the grasses running much like a mouse, a strategy that has worked well for it for millennia.

Locating an active nest of this threatened species is always cause for celebration, but we had discovered a bird that had been previously banded–an extraordinary bonus. Contacting the Bird Banding Laboratory at the US Geological Survey in Laurel, MD, we learned that she had been banded in Florida in the fall of 2015. She had likely hatched at Jacob’s Point that spring, over-wintered in Florida, and returned to breed in Rhode Island the following summer. Weighing the equivalent of just three nickels, she made the arduous round-trip of 1440 miles and now holds the record for the longest migration distance for her species.

This discovery launched the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiative (SSRI), a local citizen-science project to document the breeding ecology of this vulnerable bird. With permission from the Warren Land Conservation Trust (WLCT) to access its marsh property, we began a five-year comprehensive study of the sparrow, including documenting changes in the marsh flora and measuring the elevation of nests, which are increasingly vulnerable to flooding. (Read much more about our research on www.SALSri.org.)

During the first two years of our study, we banded 88 adult saltmarsh sparrows and found 101 nestlings. We also documented the elevation and surrounding vegetation for each of the 56 nests we located. We found that nests are increasingly subject to flooding, a finding consistent with other studies that report rising tides as the major threat to this species, which cannot survive in any other habitat.

This obligate species thrives in a healthy salt meadow community of Spartina for nesting, intermixed with saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), saltmarsh rush (Juncus gerardii) and maritime marsh- elder (Iva frutescens). Its breeding strategy is one of promiscuity, with males often perching on the marsh-elder to scan for females. (Typically, nests contain eggs fertilized by two to three different males.) The male is simply the sperm donor, who copulates with as many females as possible; the female is responsible for nest-building and feeding her young. She removes their fecal sacs and hunts for invertebrates in the grasses and water pools within close range of her nest. Nestlings must grow rapidly to develop from naked hatchlings to fully- feathered young birds, strong enough to climb out of the nest to higher ground or perhaps onto a marsh-elder before the flooding tides occur.

Nests have a domed canopy, which does help keep eggs from flooding out of the nest at high tides. The birds need about 26 days from nest construction until fledging, and lunar flood tides happen at least once every 28 days; this leaves very little margin for survival. Increasingly, marshes are also flooding before the peak high tides and again at mid-cycle, which dooms many nests. By measuring the elevation of all the nests, we hope to determine how high above sea level they must be for eggs and nestlings to survive.

The ebb and flow of the tides are vital to the health of the salt marsh and thus the survival of the sparrows. At the southern end of Jacobs Point, tidal flow was greatly restricted by old stone culverts that had collapsed under an elevated roadbed built in the 1930s. Without the flushing of salt water, Phragmites australis, a highly invasive common reed, had spread into the marsh. Increasingly, marshes are also flooding before the peak high tides and again at mid-cycle, which dooms many nests.

Working with the Land Trust, Wenley Ferguson of Save The Bay acquired funding in 2009 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Coastal Resource Management Council to oversee the design and installation of three new culverts. These arched culverts have increased tidal flow and created saltier water and less suitable conditions for Phragmites by flushing out the nutrient-rich runoff it thrives in. The culverts also drained standing water from the southern high marsh, where the saltmarsh sparrow nests. However, standing water in the high marsh to the north was still killing off marsh grass and degrading the peat, thus destroying still more of the saltmarsh sparrow’s habitat.

Save The Bay documented similarly degraded high marsh in a region-wide assessment of salt marshes in 2012 to 2013. This widespread degradation is largely attributed to accelerated sea level rise. To deal with standing water in the salt marsh to the north, shallow creeks, called runnels, were dug by hand and with a low-ground- pressure excavator. The runnels now drain surface water off the marsh, and high marsh vegetation is recolonizing the bare areas. The Land Trust and Save The Bay obtained funds for this project from the Coastal Resource Management Council and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Another goal of this ongoing restoration effort is to protect a stand of native common reed, Phragmites americanus, from a highly aggressive stand of non- native Phragmites australis, which has expanded in the last two decades due to runoff from streets and development. Both Save The Bay and the Land Trust are meeting with property owners along Jacob’s Point to discuss better ways to keep storm water runoff from roofs and parking lots from reaching the marsh. Reducing runoff and restoring more of the high marsh habitat would give the saltmarsh sparrow a leg up in its race against sea rise.

In the first nesting cycle of 2017, only one nestling was strong enough to climb out of her nest before it flooded. After the Rhode Island state motto, we nicknamed her Hope. Her name also recalls the title of Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers…”

Authors Steve Reinert and Deirdre Robinson hold master’s degrees in Wildlife Sciences and Biology, respectively, from the University of Rhode Island. Both have spent decades studying birds on salt marshes in southeastern New England. At Jacob’s Point, Robinson and Reinert have worked with Wenley Ferguson, the Director of Habitat Restoration for Save The Bay, to help improve the ebb and flow of the tides through the salt marsh since the late 1990s.

Prescribed Burn – Rx for the Forest

  • − This article by Marne Lacouture first appeared in WildfloraRI,  Spring 2020

The pitch pine forest has been an important but declining Rhode Island ecosystem since the days when fire maintained it. Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is a fire-tolerant tree that thrives on nutrient-poor, dry soil often referred to as a pine barren. Its needles are in bundles of three, and its bark is thick and protective, able to sprout new growth after a fire. It can hold its cones for a long time, even years. Although some of the cones have a resinous coating that fire must melt to release the seeds, not all require fire. The dry, non-resinous cones release seeds that germinate in the warmth of the sun if not consumed by wildlife. Many birds and small mammals, including eastern towhees and red squirrels, eat them.

The pitch pine community, which includes scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), common lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), hillside blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) and other members of the heath (Ericaceae) family, is important for biodiversity. It provides habitat for wildlife, including tiger beetles, whip-poor-will, woodcock, New England cottontail, and box turtle. Many small birds including warblers glean insects from under the bark and inside the cones. Sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis), rare in Rhode Island, and yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), both of which grow in these dry sandy conditions, are the only hosts for the larvae of the frosted elfin butterfly, which is listed as state-threatened.

Pine barrens in Rhode Island are found along the southern coast
 at Ninigret Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown; inland in Coventry, Exeter, and West Greenwich; and on Prudence Island at the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Over the years shade-tolerant species such as white pine, oak, and maple have crowded out pitch pines; their needles and leaves create closed canopies in the forests and thick damp litter on the ground. Tanner Steeves,
 a Department of Environmental Management (DEM) wildlife biologist, used the term “overstocked forest” to describe this.

Most Rhode Island forests are 75 to 100 years old, he said—not young and not old. Restoring pitch pine barrens will add diversity.

In 2005 Rhode Island wrote its first Wildlife Action Plan, which allows 
the state to apply for federal grants. Steeves said that DEM has worked with the Natural History Survey and other environmental organizations to write the original plan and revise it in 2015.

Native Americans used fire to keep woodlands open for hunting and berry production. Early colonists burned large areas of forest to clear land for agriculture. More recently a friend recalled his grandmother burning the family cemetery plot each year. Now it has become risky to use fire as a land- maintenance tool, since development has encroached on much of our forestland. Together fire suppression and population growth have caused loss of pitch pine habitat. There were around 30,000 acres of pine barrens in Rhode Island before European settlement, but today only around 6,000 acres remain.

Forest fires are relatively rare in the East, where rainfall is plentiful, while drier conditions in the West have caused a build-up of debris resulting in raging fires that have destroyed houses and caused loss of life. Wildfires could also occur in the East during an extended drought, since over the years without fires, duff has built up on the forest floors. Recent winters that lacked snow cover, climate change with its warmer temperatures and sometimes violent storms, and insect damage that has killed large areas of trees may also be contributing factors.

In the spring of 2018 after years without fire, Nicholas Farm, a DEM property in Coventry, was the site of a prescribed burn on 25 acres over two non-consecutive days. The goal was
 to restore the overgrown pitch pine barren and also the adjacent meadow to encourage native warm-season grasses and pollinator-friendly wildflowers. A prescribed burn is sometimes called a controlled burn, but fire experts agree that this is misleading. A prescribed burn, the preferred term, is carried out according to an intricate plan written well ahead of the burn.

Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC (NE-FFM), headquartered in Sandwich, Massachusetts, works with state, federal and private landowners, and environmental organizations to restore habitat. It worked with DEM to write the plan for the Nicholas Farm burn, taking into consideration goals for restoration of the environment; specific weather conditions such as temperature, humidity, and wind direction and speed; the existence of rare species; and the safety of the community. The boundaries that form the burn unit were configured with plans for fire breaks, and the local fire chief signed off on the plan. About two years earlier, a contractor had removed the tall white pines, oaks, and maples using an excavator with a mulching head, or masticator. The wood was left on the ground to dry until spring of 2018 when conditions were right for the burn.

A prescribed burn is a team effort. The one at Nicholas Farm included expert firefighters and others from DEM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, local Coventry firefighters, and employees from NE-FFM. Prescribed burns are kept low to the ground since a fire in the treetops could be disastrous. On the first day of the Nicholas Farm burn, the operation shut down early after humidity dropped and temperature rose, creating unsafe conditions. The second day went according to plan, and the burn was successful.

It is a sunny cold afternoon in mid-February of this year. Olney Knight, Forest Fire Program Coordinator with DEM stationed
 at the agency’s Arcadia Forestry Headquarters, leads my husband and me through the burned area at Nicholas Farm. Knight grew up in eastern Connecticut, volunteering
 as a junior member with local fire companies. He knows about fires,
 in particular the local wildfires that happened long before he was born. He tells fire stories like an old timer, belying his 33 years. At home in the woods, he strides easily through the thick understory of scrub oak and lowbush blueberry that benefited from an initial release of nutrients back to the soil. We follow along, struck by the sight of new growth from the trunks of the pitch pine that are black a foot or two up from the understory. The open canopy, which allows light to filter in, is stunning. The Southern pine beetle, a destructive pest found in Rhode Island, will not move from tree to tree as easily now, Knight explains, and its pheromones may not be as powerful in the airy canopy. Warm season grasses, mostly little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and switch panicgrass (Panicum virgatum), have grown in the fire-blackened meadow and glow in the winter light. Common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca] came in last summer, Knight says with satisfaction.

For the restored pitch pine barren
 at Nicholas Farm to remain viable, future burns will be needed. After several longtime DEM foresters with fire knowledge and experience retired, Knight has relied on help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forestry Service. He hopes to fill an open position at DEM, but hiring is stalled for now. If spring conditions cooperate this year, there may be a couple more prescribed burns on state land, but first plans must be written and funding sourced. Meanwhile Knight’s attitude is philosophical as he muses aloud, “I spend a lot of time wondering what these forests want to be.”

References:

Kuffner, Alex. (May 18, 2018) “What
in Blazes? They’re burning R.I. Forests, Turning Back the Clock.” The Providence Journal. Available: https://www. providencejournal.com/news/20180518/ what-in-blazes-theyre-burning-ri-forests- turning-back-clock–video

Gucker, Corey L. 2007. Pinus rigida. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/ tree/pinrig/all.html [ 2020, March 4 ].

Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan (2015): http://www.dem.ri.gov/programs/fish- wildlife/wildlifehuntered/swap15.php

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, 1983.

Entrup, Alex. (2018, No.1) “A Prescription for Fire.” Massachusetts Wildlife, Vol. 68, pp. 18-24.

 

 

 

 

Outdoor Learning: RIWPS Education Grant

A few years ago Charlestown Elementary School chose Outdoor Learning as a focus. The site was to include a short existing trail that ran through the woods, a large sand area and the parking lot.

Spring sightings

Spring is an exciting time to be in woodlands because a lot is happening on the forest floor – in plain sight! That’s when the herbaceous layer gets unimpeded, warming sunlight, and when I can’t wait to get into my woods every morning to see “what’s up” – fiddleheads uncurling, spring flowers emerging, mystery plants appearing, planted species surviving, and old-faithfuls spreading.

Climate Change: A View Over Thirty Years

This article by Lisa Lofland Gould first appeared in WildfloraRI, Winter 2018

In October 1988, the fledgling RI Wild Plant Society sponsored my attendance at a conference in Washington, D.C., The Consequences of the Greenhouse Effect on Biological Diversity. Among all the bigwig academic institutions, government agencies, and NGOs present at the conference, RIWPS was the only state plant society represented—kudos for foresight! My original article, a brief overview of the conference, is reprinted here, followed by a bit of commentary.

Scientists have been talking about the greenhouse effect for many years, but only recently has the term captured the public’s imagination, aided partly by 1988’s unusual summer of heatwaves and freak storms. That the greenhouse effect does exist is not seriously disputed, although its exact consequences are impossible to predict with current data. Just what is the greenhouse effect? When certain gases build up in the atmosphere, their increased presence has the effect of holding more of the sun’s energy within the atmosphere, rather than the energy radiating back into space. Carbon dioxide is the major component of the greenhouse gases, which also include nitrous oxide, methane, ozone, and fluorocarbons.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased about 25% since pre-industrial times and in the past 30 years has increased fairly dramatically. This trend is expected to continue during the next century (some predict a doubling of carbon dioxide within the next 50 to 60 years) and into the foreseeable future unless drastic measures are taken to control emissions into the atmosphere.

Most of this excess carbon dioxide comes from living things. Carbon dioxide is given off by the respiration of both plants and animals and is released when plant materials (such as wood) and fossil fuels (such as oil and gasoline) are burned. As the human population increases, so does the demand for advanced technology; the greater the use of technology by each person, and the larger the human population, the greater the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And the problem feeds on itself; the increase in greenhouse gases increases the temperature of the earth, which increases the speed at which living materials decay and release gases into the atmosphere.

All this might not be quite so bad, if it weren’t for another activity going on at the same time: deforestation. Just as the human population is growing and using energy at unprecedented rates, we are stripping the planet of the major absorbers of carbon dioxide, the forests. In a balanced ecosystem the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is no more than the amount absorbed by plants during photosynthesis. Currently, however, there is an annual net increase of three billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we could stop all burning instantly and reforest, it would reduce the annual carbon release into the atmosphere by 50%.

Scientists predict that this increase in gases in the atmosphere is changing global climate. Now climate change is nothing new; it’s been going on since the planet formed. Since the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, the Earth has warmed approximately 5 degrees centigrade [41 degrees Fahrenheit]; if current predictions hold, scientists expect global temperature to rise by 3 to 5 degrees centigrade within the next 50 to 75 years. It is this rate of change that has scientists alarmed; what has been happening over tens of thousands of years will be occur- ring over a few decades and in conjunction with other global changes (such as acid rain and ozone depletion) brought on by human activity.

Predicting the extent of climatic change, where specific changes will occur, and how organisms will be affected, is much more difficult. Scientists are using computer models to make these predictions, but the models are only as good as the information put into them. In many areas of study, decades of underfunding in basic research have led to major gaps in our knowledge of ecosystems and how they function. In general, however, the models predict the following kinds of changes:

  • The Geosphere. Warming is predicted to be greatest at the highest latitudes (probably twice as great at the poles as in the equatorial regions) and to increase the most during winter months. This is likely to cause some melting of the polar ice caps and a rise in global sea levels of 30 centi- meters to 1.5 meters. (To put this in perspective, go to the beach and imagine the sea level 4.5 feet higher than it is at high tide; then imagine what coastal areas such as Florida would be like.) There will also be altitudinal climate shifts; for example, the present climate at 3000 feet of elevation on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire will be found (roughly) at 6000 feet.Because the warming will not be evenly distributed over the globe, there will be changes in the circulation patterns of winds and ocean currents and therefore changes in rainfall distribution patterns. This moisture redistribution is predicted to produce less rainfall in the northern hemisphere and more in the southern hemisphere. Over the planet as a whole, there may be a 7–10% increase in rainfall. Weather patterns will become increasingly erratic, with an increase in the frequency of severe storms and new highs in storm surges.
  • The Biosphere. During the last ice age, spruce-fir forests, moving ahead of the glaciers, extended into the southern states; Rhode Island was covered with a sheet of ice. As the glacier melted, the boreal forest retreated north, leaving only scattered remnants on the highest peaks of the southern Appalachians. These forests had thousands of years to adapt to the changing climate, and even given this much time, many species—both plants and animals—became extinct. With a comparable climate change predicted for the next century, scientists have far more questions than answers about how the living world will be affected.

There is serious concern for any species that is slow growing, unable to migrate in the face of change, and/or has a limited habitat (which includes most of our rare species). Kirtland’s Warbler, for example, nests only in the Jack Pine forests of Michigan. If the climate changes as predicted, these forests will be gone by 2040, leaving Kirtland’s Warbler without its breeding site. For many species of trees, the mature tree can withstand a fairly broad range of temperature and precipitation, but the juvenile stages—the seeds and seedlings—tend to be much more sensitive, especially to changes in moisture patterns; this leads scientists to predict that some forests will lose diversity or change to other types of ecosystems. Overall, the composition of forests will change from within, with some species dying out in a particular area, and other species able to tolerate the changes.

As the vegetation changes, so will the animals and microbes. In the tropics, for example, many insects reproduce when certain plants are in flower or fruit; those plants, in turn, flower and fruit in response to seasonal rainfall patterns. We do not know if tropical plants will be able to change their reproductive patterns as rainfall patterns change, or if the animals that rely on the plants can make similar changes, but most scientist who are aware of the current “extinction spasm” occur- ring right now in the tropics are very gloomy about the tropics’ ability to with- stand the combined effects of deforestation and the greenhouse effect.

The key issue for all organisms and ecosystems is their ability to respond to climate changes occurring at an unprecedented rate. Species interact with one another in all ecosystems; nothing, includ- ing human beings, stands alone. The changes we expect from the greenhouse effect will influence all ecosystems, from the tropics to the poles, from the highest mountains to the oceans; and human endeavors will certainly be affected. Agriculture, fisheries, lumbering, and recreation are often mentioned, and there is concern over changes in where people will live, as both coastal waters and the human population rise. Climate change will bring shifts in the ranges of parasites and disease organisms that plague people and their livestock and crops. With human systems already failing miserably to feed, clothe, house, and heal the world’s people and giving even less respect to the rest of the planet, how will we respond to far greater pressures? ”

“We are headed into a new biological world,” stated one of the conference speakers. We cannot halt the climate changes—for the next fifty years or so, the stage is set—but we can work on slowing down the rate of change. The time has come for new ways of looking at the world. We can no longer view the planet as an endless source of resources for human beings to exploit but must take our place among all living things. If we act now, each of us can help heal the Earth.

As I reread this article, I was struck by how spot on the conference presenters were, those thirty years ago. Think of the intense hurricanes of the past decade or so; salt-water incursion on calm days in places like Miami and Virginia Beach; wildfires in the West; the movement of Dengue, West Nile, and Zika into temper- ate zones; and the fact that the 10 hottest summers recorded since 1880 all occurred since 1998. It’s now estimated that atmo- spheric CO2 has increased by 45% since pre-industrial times. The USDA revised its Plant Hardiness Zone Map in 2012 and entire states were placed in warmer zones. Arctic ice is melting, and scientific stations in Antarctica have had to move further inland, away from collapsing ice shelves.

Other pressures are also bearing down on the Earth’s ecosystems, as global trade has carried myriad species around the planet and increased the introduction of invasive species. Development and human population growth bring habitat destruction and more impact on ecosystem health. While the Clean Air Act helped to reduce acid rain in North American waters and forests, oceans have experienced approximately a 30% increase in acidity since pre- industrial times due to the interactions be- tween CO2 and calcium compounds. This especially affects shelled animals (think clams, oysters, corals, etc.), resulting in a huge impact on sea life and corresponding impact on people who rely on the ocean for jobs and food.

I could continue to update facts and figures, but the sentence that really struck me in that article was “That the greenhouse effect does exist is not seriously disputed.” Weren’t those the good ol’ days, when our nation’s leaders actually listened (sort of) to the scientific community? I don’t begin to understand how the political pendulum has swung so far toward irrationality and disregard for scientific process and data, but I fear that such attitudes are seriously compounding the problems we face.

But Hurrah for states like Rhode Island, whose Division of Planning now has an Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council and a Chief Resiliency Officer to help deal with climate-change challenges! Young people are also involved, via the RI Student Climate Coalition, as is the faith community—Rhode Island Interfaith Power & Light will hold its 10th annual interfaith conference on climate change this fall—and Rhode Island’s fine array of academic institutions and environmental organizations. Keep up the good work, folks. You are serving as a great model for other states to follow!

And to end on a happy note, thanks to management of Jack Pine forests and control of Brown-headed Cowbirds, the Kirtland’s Warbler population has actually increased in recent decades, and the warblers have been reported breeding in Wisconsin as well as Michigan. Let us all work toward ensuring that not all the direst predictions come true and help our citizens and leaders understand that forward movement comes not from denying reality but by facing it squarely.

Lisa Lofland Gould majored in Biology at the University of North Carolina and earned an MS in Zoology at the University of Rhode Island, where she taught biology for many years, was a research associate in the Department of Natural Resources Science, and a co-founder and first executive director of the RI Natural History Survey. She was also a co-founder of the RIWPS. Among other publications, she is a co- author of Vascular Flora of Rhode Island and Coastal Plants from Cape Cod to Cape Canaveral (UNC Press). Now that she is back in North Carolina, she enjoys participating in the Audubon Society of Forsyth County, Audubon NC, the Piedmont Land Conservancy, the Carolina Butterfly Society, and the NC Native Plant Society.