Me and my sparrow
Taking the high road
Where ever we go, everyone knows,
It’s me and my sparrow (*)
(*) With deference to the late great Harry Nilsson, and his song “Me and My Arrow”
The boat drops us thigh-high in the frigid water of the North Atlantic off the eastern coast of Cape Cod – the shifting sandy shoals of the barrier island make for treacherous beach landings so we have to wade the 30 meters or so to shore. Scores of greater black backed gulls are nesting on the dunes, and they scold their greetings and dive at us before we even reach the beach.
I smile broadly and take a deep breath of ocean air, tinged as it is by that special pungent perfume of seabird droppings.
This, without a doubt, was one of the perks of being a Biologist…occasionally gaining access to those “special” areas that are off limits to the public during sensitive periods like breeding or migration seasons, or off limits entirely in preserves. In a world literally overrun and thoroughly impacted by humans, these preserves and seasonal access restrictions are essential to the survival of a large number of wildlife species across the globe.
For the next several hours of this sunny day in mid-May, my coworker Julie and I would trudge where few are allowed or would bother even if they could: across broad saltmarshes (or tidal marshes) and mud flats, jumping or snaking around wide and narrow creek channels, and skirting dense thickets on the backside of dunes, walking north to south across 2,000-meter long North Monomoy Island, part of the Monomoy Island National Wildlife Refuge off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
We had permission to be on the island to count birds in the saltmarshes as part of a study gathering information that’s critical to the long-term conservation of tidal marsh birds. This Salt Marsh Habitat and Avian Research Program, or “SHARP,” is a cooperative effort of a number of universities, state and federal wildlife agencies, and private organizations, that’s attempting to get a handle on how saltmarshes are going to fare in the face of anticipated sea-level rise and continued heavy development of coastal shorelines and watersheds.
Global warming and sea level rise are at the top of the news these days, and most stories and concern are centered on the impacts on ourselves. We worry “what will happen to low lying coastal communities?” and “what will the impacts be on economic development?” and we wonder at the increasing severity of storm events. You have to dig well beyond these headlines to grasp the myriad of ecological issues and challenges brought forth by this human-induced rapid change in climate.
Even when ecological issues are discussed, there’s a good chance it’s about the impacts of global warming on “charismatic megafauna,” like how the loss of arctic ice is squeezing out polar bears.
In the encyclopedia of climate change issues, it may not be until the footnotes at the end of the book that the story of a nondescript little sparrow is told. The saltmarsh sparrow is a small, mostly gray-brown bird with a range restricted to saltmarshes of the northeastern United States. When flushed, these shy birds “skulk” out of view and instead of flying, they more often dip their heads low and weave through the grass of the marsh surface – much more like a mouse than a bird.
When they sing, they sing from just above the ground, often on a tangled tussock of salt meadow cordgrass, (Spartina patens) or from a prickly stem of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Its’ song, if you want to call it that, is described as a dry, soft, gurgling “ts ts ssss-tsik,” which, well….doesn’t exactly qualify it as a rock star of the bird world. Even when you hear it, you’re not really sure you heard it.
Somehow, though, the song is perfectly appropriate, paired as it is with the subtle soundtrack of the wind as it sweeps through the saltmarsh grasses.
A typical bird enthusiast may spend hours dreaming of peeping-tom encounters with New Guineas’ birds of paradise during their courtship display, pegging tanagers foraging in a fruit tree in Costa Rica, or hunting the honeycreepers of Hawaii. It’s a hardcore birder, for sure, who heads out with a primary mission to locate and learn about the humble sparrow.
But the saltmarsh sparrow is aligned with a habitat that’s immensely important to the ecology of the earth, and to humans everywhere. That habitat is saltmarsh. Saltmarshes are in the transition zone between land and ocean, and they’re one of the most productive habitats on earth. They play a vital role in the health and water quality of coastal waters, and their dense vegetation helps to stabilize shorelines and buffer against wave damage and contain flooding during coastal storms. They also provide critical fisheries habitat, providing food, structure and refuge from predators for smaller sea life, including the young of many species that are harvested commercially and recreationally as adults.
Despite this importance, saltmarshes have been degraded almost from the time Europeans settled on Americas’ Atlantic coast. They’ve been drained, ditched, filled, and polluted. Located on the coast as they are, they’re prime locations for people to crowd on the edge to build homes. Who doesn’t love to look out over a mix of open marsh grass and water from their back decks? Of course, people don’t like to deal with biting insects, so ditching and spraying pesticides on the marshes to control insects has become routine.
Saltmarshes also are in the front line facing sea level rise that’s resulting from global warming. That’s not particularly a new problem for saltmarshes – they’re dynamic ecosystems that have advanced and retreated in response to wide swings in sea levels that have come with the advance and retreat of glaciers throughout history. But there’s a game changer on the scene, and it’s called coastal development. This time the landward creep of marshes is being met by homes, roads, walls, and trucked-in fill. It’s a squeeze play that’s certain to make coastal saltmarshes an increasingly rare habitat in the near future.
There are plenty of species of wildlife that use saltmarsh habitat in some way, but there are few habitats on earth that have such a limited number of species that are totally restricted, or obligated, to it. In the case of birds and the saltmarshes of the eastern U.S., there are about five. Accordingly, the little saltmarsh sparrow looms large, and takes on symbolic importance on par with penguins and the pack ice of Antarctica.
As the saltmarsh goes, so goes the saltmarsh sparrow.
Monomoy Island is a windswept and at first glance desolate place. Barrier islands are dynamic environments shaped by ocean currents, wind, and deposition of land-based sediments and ocean sand that change with every storm event. Monomoys’ existence appears tenuous even for a barrier island, as if a single sneeze from a nor’easter storm could make the whole place disappear into the mists of the Atlantic. There’s a medium-sized ocean beach facing the Atlantic that’s backed by a relatively small dune, which grades down to a narrow band of back dune scrub and into saltmarsh, and, finally, back to water. The north island never gets more than about 500 meters-wide.
This is the first of three visits we’ll make to Monomoy – it’s the spring breeding season and birds are taking full advantage of their protection behind the off-limits signs of the National Wildlife Refuge. As we walk, we pass through more large nesting colonies of harshly protesting gulls. Least and common terns dart across the sky on their bouncing angular wings, chattering raspy calls as they locate and dive bomb schools of small fish. American oystercatchers, one of the true “Princes of Chill” in the bird kingdom, hang out in small numbers on the bay side flats. Shorebirds are everywhere, and we’re treated to the sights and calls of willets, black-bellied plovers, golden plovers, least sandpipers, and yellowlegs.
We walk down the central spine of the island, stopping at predetermined census points to listen for 5 minutes, and play recordings of secretive marsh birds like rails and bitterns for another 5 minutes, noting everything we hear and see. Along with the saltmarsh sparrows, we’re especially interested in willets, seaside sparrows, clapper rails, and black ducks, the other saltmarsh “obligates.”
The marsh, like a clinging parent, seems hell bent to make sure our progress is slow. The wavy cowlicks of the tousled Spartina patens grass grab and snag your boots if you deviate from the necessary high-step march. Step into a narrow ditch hidden by a collar of Spartina alterniflora grass, and you find yourself up to your crotch in water or mud. Those channels that are too wide to hop across need to be scaled at low tide…down the boot-sucking mud of the channel walls, to the often surprisingly firm bottom, and up the other boot-sucking side. Forget to point toes up, and your boots are all-too easily left behind under a foot or more of mud, recovered only after deep surgical extraction. Add to this the vicious saltmarsh mosquitos, midges and greenhead flies and.…let’s just say this work may not be for everyone.
We have three points on this section of Monomoy. The first two turn up red-winged black birds, savannah and song sparrows, common yellowthroats, willets and plovers, but no saltmarsh sparrows. Things change as we walk from point 2 to point 3 as we start to flush sparrows, several of which sing once in a kind of sparrow all-points-bulletin before skulking away. As we near the point, one holds tight to his low perch, periodically marking his presence with his quiet “tsiks, acks, and chi’s.” He gains the honor of being the first bird entered on our data form.
This bird has done its “job” helping us to document its status in the study. It’s a status that, if projections for saltmarsh loss become realized, is likely to become tenuous and in need of serious attention in coming years.
We finish the last survey point and continue our trek across the marsh, heading for our rendezvous with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife boat at our directed meeting place at the highly precise location of “somewhere on the southern shore.” The birds of Monomoy had a busy day that day, as volunteers joined regular USFWS staff in performing surveys of gull nests, while others monitored activity of the American oystercatchers. Just offshore Monomoy, it was a busy day for fishermen buzzing back and forth in their boats in search of early season striped bass.
A visit to Monomoy during bird breeding season is a special privilege. It’s one of those wonderful places where you feel like you’re an insignificant thread within the overall tapestry of nature….a visitor to a place that writes a wonderful story mostly lacking in people.
That feeling and “story”, however, are somewhat fleeting and largely fictional.
The truth is that humans have so altered the natural environments of the earth that places like this are highly endangered and often in need of major life support or protection. Monomoy would likely be overrun by beachgoers and campers if the off-limits signs disappeared. In the absence of monitoring and research and the concern of nature lovers everywhere, species like the saltmarsh sparrow would quietly disappear at a rate well beyond the already disturbing loss of biological diversity.
The USFWS boat locates us and we gather our gear from the beach and wade back out. Having paused in the sun and sand to reflect on the very cool discoveries and experiences during our walk across Monomoy Island, the stinging cold of the ocean reinforces the serious and urgent nature of the work we did that day. Over a thousand of these point surveys were being completed along the coast, from Canada to Maryland, and we had plenty more to do here on Cape Cod alone.
The boat pulls away, the engine roaring its cynical fossil-fuel counterpoint to the quiet song of the saltmarsh sparrows that we’d heard gently braided within the breeze blowing across Monomoy Island.
If you get a chance to volunteer to assist an organization like the USFWS, I encourage you to do so. It’s a financially-strapped agency that’s being carried on the overworked backs of its dedicated staff to ensure continuance of our natural heritage. If not the USFWS, there are untold numbers of conservation non-profit organizations or land trusts working hard to preserve our resources.
You may find yourself collecting water samples in a creek in the middle of suburbia, or you may find yourself behind off-limit gates assisting with wildlife surveys that are directly tied to the survival of an endangered species. Either way, the reward is immense and I guarantee that your next excursion in nature will be all the more satisfying.
For more information on the SHARP study, check out http://www.tidalmarshbirds.org/
For more info and a great read on salt marshes, check out the classic book “Life and Death of a Salt Marsh” by John and Mildred Teal.
For more info on the risks salt marshes are facing, check out:
Threats to the Salt Marsh Environment. http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/cp/documents/cp-08.pdf