Image by Wolfgang Wander (http://www.pbase.com/wwcsig/image/47346264) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Quinnipiac Meadows nature preserve is a 35-acre area with high levels of biodiversity ranging from its coastal forest and grasslands to the tidal salt marsh along the Quinnipiac River. As a testament to the importance and success of the New Haven Land Trust’s conservation efforts, it has been discovered that a rare species of wetland bird lives and breeds within this salt marsh, which is a threatened habitat type along the eastern seaboard of North America. This bird, the Salt Marsh Sparrow (scientific name: Ammospiza caudacuta) is an elusive species, which makes tracking and tagging it very difficult work for researchers. But ongoing monitoring efforts, established in 2011 by the Salt Marsh Habitat and Avian Research Program (SHARP), have lead to a greater understanding of its life cycle.
The Salt Marsh Sparrow spends most of the day in the grasses of salt marshes hunting insects. During their breeding season, however, they only nest in a very small area of coast between Maine and Virginia. Within these few wetlands, they are even further restricted because they can only nest on the highest part of a tidal marsh. They build their nests in spots where their young can hatch and mature just in time for the area to be flooded by high tide, which destroys the nest and brings new food to the marsh. If the nest is flooded too early, the young chicks are swept away. Due to this unique breeding system, the Salt Marsh Sparrow is possibly the most endangered salt marsh bird species along the eastern seaboard.
The breeding of the Salt Marsh Sparrow is normally synchronized with the tides and moon cycle, which allows mothers to accurately time the flooding of the marsh. But as a result of sea level rise, fewer and fewer marshes remain that are high enough to avoid complete flooding. Climate change is also making storms and weather more unpredictable, making it difficult or impossible for mother Salt Marsh Sparrows to time their nesting.
With their current population estimated to be around 50,000, this species could be extinct in 50 years if strong efforts for the conservation of their habitat are not implemented. Beyond simply restoring salt marshes, which have been lost mainly due to the overdevelopment of beaches, communities and coastal landowners must make sure that salt marshes are being restored at elevations that are high enough to combat sea level rise. This is why although over 140 square miles of wetlands have been restored in the US over the past decade, Salt Marsh Sparrow populations have not increased. Fortunately, a better understanding of the Salt Marsh Sparrow’s behavior and habitat is leading to more vigorous conservation efforts, and there is hope for the future of this species.
But there’s no need to wait years to see this fascinating bird. Quinnipiac Meadows, one of the few suitable habitats left for Salt Marsh Sparrow breeding, is open and free to the public year round. You can enjoy the two walking trails on this nature preserve and take a break in the bird blind watching station, which overlooks the salt marsh. Here, hidden from birds, you may see Salt Marsh Sparrows the next time you visit! For more information on the many bird species and other wildlife that call Quinnipiac Meadows home, visit the New Haven Land Trust’s webpage for the preserve: http://www.newhavenlandtrust.org/preserves/quinnipiac-meadows
Thank you to the donors that have helped make this preserve such a success as well as the staff from the Audubon Society and the US Army Corps that brought the importance of the Salt Marsh Sparrow to our attention.