Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary
Birding Community Newsletter

Issue 2017-13 | Wednesday, August 16 2017 | 994 Subscribers
The Brink
Hazy, Hot and Humid Summer in the Marshland of the Rumney Marshes ACEC takes on New Meaning
Green eyes with a bite like a firecracker, Independence Day marks the eight-week season when wanderers dare not step foot in the marsh.  Surviving in the shadow of giants, diamonds in the rough face the brink in their ever-changing world.  Remnants of our roots form hurdles for our rising future.
 July 22, 2017 Saltmarsh Sparrow Survey
Rumney Marshes ACEC
Diamond Creek Marshes
Revere, Essex County, Massachusetts, US

July 22, 2017
9:15 AM - 12:15 AM

Protocol:  Paddling

3.0 Mile(s)

34 Bird Species

Launching from Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary in Saugus and Kayaking into the Diamond Creek Marshes of Revere.

Canada Goose  2

American Black Duck  3

Double-crested Cormorant  15

Great Blue Heron  4

Great Egret  6

Snowy Egret  4

Black-crowned Night-Heron 1

Osprey  3     

Could only see one chick.

Red-tailed Hawk  1

Killdeer  4

Least Sandpiper  15

Peep sp.  25

Spotted Sandpiper  2

Greater Yellowlegs  4

Lesser Yellowlegs  7

Herring Gull  10

Common Tern  3

Mourning Dove  6

Chimney Swift  15

Northern Flicker  2

Willow Flycatcher  1

Blue Jay  2

American Crow  4

Tree Swallow  8

Barn Swallow  15

American Robin  5

Northern Mockingbird  2

European Starling  10

Cedar Waxwing  3

Saltmarsh Sparrow  20     

Five seen by Geoff and Alan. Zack had a conservative count of 15 at a separate location on the marsh, two of which were heard singing.

Song Sparrow  2

Bobolink  1

Red-winged Blackbird  10

American Goldfinch  4

House Sparrow  10

The Saltmarsh Sparrow

Shy and reclusive, this reluctant mascot for sea level rise is not a species someone would likely happen upon by accident.  The Saltmarsh Sparrow spends their days a hop, skip, and a very long jump out from the shore and the concrete towers that dot the coastline.   This grassland sparrow lives by the tide, deep in the secluded interiors of the salt marshes that the towers overlook. 

Our good friend Alan’s gorgeous peek-a-boo birdie pictures say it all.  The Saltmarsh Sparrow, would rather not be found.

Formerly known as the Sharp-tailed Saltmarsh Sparrow, and before that, the Sharp-tailed Finch, this species only inhabits salt marshes along the East Coast, and a small region of the Gulf Coast of the United States.  Partners in Flight estimates that the breeding population has declined by 9% per year for more than a decade.  

The range of the Saltmarsh Sparrow is very limited, breeding only from Maine south to Virginia. They winter in a narrow arc along the coast from Cape Hatteras south through Georgia, skipping over the inland sections of Northern Florida, to an isolated pocket in Florida's Forgotten Coast. 

Life in a changing world

The sparrow is, of course, completely indifferent as to the causes of climate change.  It does, however, live with its feet in the marsh, and is therefore feeling the effects of sea level rise with its more frequently occurring coastal storms.  

Hidden in the grasses, mom handles all the housekeeping.  Her open cup nests are just a few inches above the surface of the high marsh.   The preferred nesting sites seem to be just below the elevation that the Black Needle Rush grows, in areas where the Salt Meadow Hay is lush enough to form cowlicks consisting of a mixture of senescent and live stems.  

Their nesting sites are well below the elevation of the highest of high tides, and, as everyone knows, tide waits for neither man nor bird.  In the best of times, brooding is a race against a 2-3 week tide window when the high tides do not reach the height of the nest.  As each day slips by, the tides inch higher and higher.  It is during this critical window, if an offshore low pressure front passes through the Gulf of Maine, causing even a minor storm surge of 6-8 inches, that the nest could be lost.

There are a number of factors at play here.  It is thought that the primary factors for the increase in flooding may be the slowing of the Gulf Stream Current , combined with, a minor storm surge caused by a passing low pressure front.  The combination of these factors can create a high tide that floods over the surface of the marsh during the neap tide cycle, which is when the sparrows are breeding.   

Because a large percentage of the Saltmarsh Sparrow's breeding population is found in Massachusetts, we have an important role to play in its fate.  

The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Breeding Bird Atlas 2, found that the Saltmarsh Sparrow population in Massachusetts was increasing during the years between the 1979 Atlas 1 survey and the 2011 Atlas 2 survey.  It is thought that our large tidal range may have the ability to buffer some of the minor fluctuations in the tides.

Unfortunately, a broader 2016 study that estimated populations of five tidal marsh birds from Maine to Virginia found that the species population as a whole is continuing to decline.  The 2016 study estimated the current Saltmarsh Sparrow population at 53,000.

The 25-year projection for the Saltmarsh Sparrow is for a continuing population decline.  Without intervention this stunningly handsome sparrow may dwindle into extinction over the next 50 years.

In many ways, the Saltmarsh Sparrow is our 'Canary in a Coal Mine' because they are facing some of the same climate change challenges that we are.  We are fortunate to have this species breeding in the Rumney Marshes ACEC.  

A great many thanks goes out to the US Fish and Wildlife Service,  the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the University of Connecticut, The University of Delaware, The University of Maine, the Audubon, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, MassWildlife, the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and all of the fine folks exploring ways to save the salt marshes and the Saltmarsh Sparrow.  By doing so, they will preserve the ecosystem services that salt marshes provide for our coastal communities.  If you have a minute to reach out to these folks to let them know how much you appreciate their efforts, everyone will greatly appreciate it.

For more information on the plight of the Saltmarsh Sparrow, please visit the Audubon Society’s fantastic website with the link button below. The pictures on the website are fabulous.
Runner up this week goes to a 1 inch bloodletting freight train known as the Greenheaded Horsefly. 

Visitors to the salt marsh usually follow their first encounter with a Greenhead by belting out a colorful song.

From July 4th to August 15th, folks who are caught out on the marsh during the middle of the day, need to be prepared to defend themselves.  

What the enemy lacks in stature, he makes up for with an anticoagulant saliva laced punch that feels like your skin just burst open.  The hotter it gets, the faster they fly, and the larger the piece of flesh they try to take from you.  

No matter how hard you try to swat them, they just shrug it off.  Only a swat with a swipe will get the job done.

Most marsh folks agree, after somewhere around 10,000 bites, you can hardly feel them anymore.

You gotta be tough if you're gonna make it in a salt marsh.

For more information on Greenheads, we suggest clicking on the button below and reading Annie Graves wonderfully humorous article published by Yankee Magazine on July 15, 2013.   


What are Salt Marshes?

Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal, salt marshes are not places to be afraid of.  No monsters waiting to take you away, no quicksand, just acres of grass peppered with the early life stages of between 75-95% of all commercially harvested fish and shellfish.

Their expansive kelly green plains are divided by meandering creeks that carved out shares in a willy-nilly fashion.  When the tide is in, the moist, cool air is invigorating with an indescribable fragrance like fresh salted herbs.   As the tide recedes, the air takes on the curious scent of sweet grass and matches. 

Salt marshes are floodplains that fill and empty twice in about 25 hours, 24 hours and 50 minutes to be exact.  In this region, the highs and lows of both of the day’s tides are different than the preceding and the following.  Over the course of a month, the tides of each week string together into a series of tides that either trend up toward flood or fall back to neap.  The month-long transition from neap to flood and back again is gradual, tide by tide, ticking away the inches in one direction or the other. 

In undisturbed marshes, if you can find such a thing, the landscape has been sculpted by the push and pull of the tides.  Fine sediments carried in by the tide filter into the grassy surfaces to form rolling plains with soft edges.  Straight, hard edges of any kind, water, grass, or the lack thereof, are relics left behind by the nearly forgotten practice of harvesting salt hay.

A Long History of Impacts

Salt marshes have always been improved and then harvested.  As far back as we can look, indigenous people would improve the marsh with elaborate fish weirs. Like Boston’s Boylston Street Fishwiers that dates back 5,200 years.

The greatest improvers were those that brought the Old World improvement methods with them.  From the moment the colonists set foot in the New World, all the way up until cars replaced horses, farmers all across New England intensively improved and then harvested the salt marsh.  Digging drainage ditches to control the grasses that grew.  Pounding tree-sized stakes into the marsh to dry and store the hay on. Building berms to limit the tide’s ability to flood the marsh.  Then finally, larger berms to block off the tide entirely to grow sweetwater crops.  Then, for all intents and purposes, it just stopped, leaving behind three centuries of scars that had been etched into the landscape. 

But, that’s not the last the marsh has seen of improvements. In an attempt to control the salt marsh mosquito and the devastating arboviruses it can spread, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) maintained and expanded upon many of the agricultural ditching in the late 1930s.  Some of these areas are still maintained today.

Hand in hand with our past, our coastal communities, and of course, the Saltmarsh Sparrow, face a new future, because it is the scars left behind by all these improvements that are now proving to be a considerable hindrance for the salt marshes to adapt to sea level rise.  

Why are Salt Marshes Valuable?

In New England, salt marshes are more than just homes for a small population of handsome sparrows, they are major socioeconomic drivers for the entire local seafood industry.  They are our protection against the storm, absorbing both wave energy on our open shores, and the floodwaters that would pour through our neighborhoods without them.  On the good days, salt marshes filter pollution and pesticides from our nearshore waters while providing a home for local wildlife and the untold recreational opportunities that are intrinsic to a good life.  A timeless remnant that has persisted in a coastal landscape that grew up around it. Salt marshes provide a multitude of ecosystem services simply because they exist.

But at this time, that future is uncertain.  Salt marshes as we know them in New England only exist in a very narrow fringe between Mean Sea Level (MSL) up to the upland edge.  During past periods of fluctuating sea levels, salt marshes migrated horizontally up into the upland as this narrow zone changed position in the landscape.  


In New England, and many other parts of the world, our 21st century shorelines are not willing or able to accommodate the salt marsh as it transitions up into our coastal shores.   Armored shorelines, concrete retaining walls, parking lots, upscale properties and property owners willing to fight tooth and nail will all be trying to hold them back. 

For all practical purposes, in New England and throughout much of the world, if we want to keep our salt marshes, and the seafood industry, storm damage protection, and our quality of life that depends on them into the future, there is no place to go but up.

Are We Going Up?

Salt marsh restoration projects in Southern New Hampshire that date back into the early 1990’s indicate that Smooth Cordgrass, the biggest of the big three salt marsh grasses in our region, does have the ability to grow a peat foundation at many times the rate of sea level rise.  So in theory, Smooth Cordgrass could dominate the marsh platform and grow the surface of the marsh vertically at the same rate as the sea is projected to rise.  However, there are a few obstacles, including the scars left behind by our forefathers, which will need to be addressed to ensure that as our potential future.

Sinking Salt Marshes

Regardless of their objective, drainage ditches are intended to drain the water out of the pore spaces in the soil.  By definition, when the water drains out of the soil, the voids are then filled with air.  When air, and the oxygen it brings with it, becomes available in wetland soils, the naturally occurring microbes in the soil develop the ability to feed on and decompose organic matter in the soil that was resistant to decomposition without the added oxygen.  This process, known as complete decomposition, happens when the soil microbes switch from anaerobic decomposition to aerobic decomposition which allows the soil bacteria to feed upon lignin, the rigid cell wall tissue of plants that held them upright in life. 

In spongy salt marsh soils, as much as 80 percent of the soil volume can be organic matter, comprised of lignin and other plant parts in the process of being decomposed.  The agricultural ditches in the surface of the salt marsh allow oxygen to enter the soil column and accelerate the rate of the decomposition of the organic matter in the soil.  In salt marshes where the agricultural and mosquito control ditching persist, the upper portions of the soil column can actually be decomposing at a faster rate than the plants and sediments can build new soil.  This process is one of many factors that can lead to a lowering of the surface of the salt marsh, known as salt marsh subsidence.  

Waterlogged Salt Marshes

In ditched salt marshes that receive large volumes of suspended sediments, a very different, yet equally concerning natural process can occur. 

In healthy, sustainable salt marshes there appears to be a delicate balance between channel size and the size of the marsh that the channel services.  A simple ratio of marsh size to channel volume.  If the ratio changes, natural processes will try to restore that ratio.  If the marsh size increases, erosion will increase the channel size correspondingly.  If the marsh size decreases, sediment deposition and if possible, plant growth within the channel will decrease the channel size correspondingly.


The past ditching practices within the salt marsh have dramatically upset this balance by significantly increasing the channel volume for the marsh area.  By ditching a marsh and increasing the number and volume of the tidal channels, there has been a reduction of flow and velocity in all of the channels within the salt marsh area. 

The reduction of flow and velocity diminishes the ability of the water to carry suspended sediments which are then deposited in the ditches.  Over time, the sediments being deposited in the ditches can fill portions of the channels with sediments, preventing the marsh from functioning sustainably.

In some lucky salt marshes where the sediments are filling the ditches, the natural process of tidal action can restore a balanced hierarchy of tidal channels within the ditch network.  The reestablished primary, secondary, and tertiary channels adapt to the new flow patterns, allowing the marsh to adapt and carry on.  In not so lucky locations, the ditches within the marsh area clog uniformly and create waterlogging conditions that negatively affect plant growth.

In salt marshes where waterlogging persists, another form of salt marsh subsidence can occur through a series of cascading processes that prevent plants from growing over large areas. 

In a waterlogged area of a salt marsh, water enters the area through multiple clogging channels and sheet flow across the surface of the marsh during flood tides.  After the tide turns, the water slowly exits out of the area at a slowed rate through the clogging channels.  As the process continues, water trapped in the salt marsh soils exceeds the saturation tolerance of salt marsh plants, and unvegetated areas begin to occur. 

In the soils of the unvegetated areas, the volume of live roots is reduced, and the formerly turgid live roots become flaccid, collapse, and decompose.  This process can allow a shallow depression that can retain water to develop, further exacerbating the waterlogged conditions. 

As the depression increases in size, the volume of live roots in the soil column is reduced allowing the depression to deepen.  Over time, multiple depressions across the surface of the marsh will connect to create large open water areas on the surface of the salt marsh. 

The shallow open water areas can continue to expand, creating large shallow ponds that are contained by a margin of salt marsh grasses surviving where the outer edge soils drain into an adjacent channel.

Ponding Salt Marshes

The large shallow ponding areas can persist on the marsh surface for very long periods of time.  Typically, these ponding areas form cycles where they retain water and breach periodically. 

In a process similar to a natural salt marsh panne cycle, soil saturation, and soil and water chemistry periodically combine to create unfavorable growing conditions at the locations of the pond retaining berm that are prone to breaching. 

As the conditions persist, the vegetation’s decline in vigor allows the pond to breach into an adjacent tidal channel.  Over time the flow and velocity of the water entering and exiting the breach location will widen the opening until achieving equilibrium with the pond basin’s capacity.

Tidal flow directly into the pond basin allows for a direct flow of suspended sediments into the pond depression.  Combined with improved growing conditions, plant growth and additional sediments increase the surface elevation of the pond basin.  When the pond basin is not breached, there is very little opportunity for the pond basin to increase in elevation.

Over time, as the robust plant growth increases, plant growth in the breach location blocks off tidal flow into and out of the pond basin. The blocked breach-way allows the pond basin to retain water again. 

The exact duration and progression of the pond cycle varies widely from location to location.  In some cases the cyclical effect can be short or in others, persist over decades.  Breaching cycles can also vary and consist of a single breach location, multiple breaches at once, multiple partial and full breaches, or only partial breaches.


It is important to note that the breaching cycle is vitally important for pond basins to increase in elevation.  When a pond basin is in the retaining water part of the cycle, the salt marsh grasses associated with creating a peat foundation cannot grow within the pond basin, and the sediments entering into the pond basin are first filtered through the grasses growing on the pond margins.  The pond basin can only achieve significant increases in elevation while a breach in the retaining berm draws down the water level, allowing plant growth and a direct flow of sediments into the pond basin.

How Can We Fix It?

We are happy to say that there are many good folks watching over and helping the salt marshes in Massachusetts to adapt.  Recently, the fine folks with the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts and the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, received the 2016 US Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Leadership Award in Green Innovation for developing two salt marsh restoration techniques to address the salt marsh ditch impacts mentioned above. 

Together with the University of New Hampshire and their partners, the US Fish and Wildlife Service developed a way to control and advance the breaching cycle in waterlogged and ponding marshes.  The technique, known as Runneling, allows for the pond basin to receive sediments directly from the adjacent tidal channel and increase the primary production in the pond basin, and the pond retaining berm, to increase the pond basin and salt marsh surface elevation while the pond basin is still retaining water.

The second technique addresses the ditches themselves.  Ditch Remediation uses the naturally occurring salt marsh grasses as a filter medium to trap sediments and create salt marsh soils down in the bottom of the ditch where plants cannot grow.  Over a series of a few years, layers of the new soil material increase the bottom height of the ditch and forms a growing medium for salt marsh plants.  As the process continues, the roots of the salt marsh plants bind the new soil materials into the surrounding soils, stabilizing the ditch area as the new soils develop into salt marsh soils.  Eventually, the salt marsh plants completely take over the process, elevating the ditch bottom based on the site specific growing conditions.

Special thanks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Stories from Ipswich, Earth Rocks, Maine Sea Grant, Ecosystem Based Management, NCBI, Restore America's Estuaries,, New York State Wetlands Forum,, and all the other great organizations that maintain natural resource databases free to the public, including the many outside links embedded in this article.  Their dedication to environmental stewardship and the resources they dedicate towards these purposes are exceptional.   

We would also like to send out special thanks to Sue, Nancy, Kate, Dave, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of New Hampshire, and their partners for their dedication and sacrifices, including all the little pieces of themselves that they left out in the marsh, to develop ways to ensure that salt marshes and the fisheries, storm protection, and water quality improvements that are intrinsic to them, will be with us long into the future. 
Take a Minute
We would like to ask everyone to take a minute to show their appreciation to the researchers and resource managers in their area.  Around this time of the year, the bugs, and the sun, and the heat, and of course, don't forget the bugs, start feeling a little old.

If you are not sure where to start, we would suggest Salem Sound Coastwatch and the Boston Harbor Ecosystem Network.  Aside from being great people, who would love to hear from you, both organizations work with just about everyone in the North Shore and Metro Boston Regions through their affiliations with the Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Program.
 The  next scheduled nature walk is:
Sunday, August 20 at 9 a.m.  

NOTE: The Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary is open to the public for guided tours only.  If you would like to visit the sanctuary, please attend one of our regularly scheduled nature walks, or contact us to arrange a private tour.   Thank you.
Special thanks to Soheil, Savannah, Tim, Alan, Sean, Zack, Sebastian, Sarah, Melanie, Cameron and everyone else who contributed pictures and support this week.  Without your help, this publication could not be produced.

Additional pictures from this July:
The Wheelabrator Saugus Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary is a 370-acre property abutting a 2,274-acre estuary on the outskirts of Boston, located in the heart of the Rumney Marshes ACEC. Maintained and managed grasslands, salt marshes, shrublands and maturing woodlands combine as one of the largest bird migration staging areas on the North Shore and a habitat for nearly 200 bird species, as well as other wildlife such as coyotes, foxes, raccoons and snakes. Visitors can enjoy the more than 14,000 feet of walking trails that permeate the site, a half-acre exhibit garden, and meeting and lecture areas, which are scattered throughout nine of the restored ecosystems. Situated directly behind Wheelabrator Saugus, the Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary is maintained and managed by Geoff Wilson of Northeast Wetland Restoration. Follow along with us as the birds change with each passing season!  
This edition of the Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary, Birding Community Newsletter is dedicated to a longtime dear friend of the sanctuary, Frank.
A gentleman and a scholar, Frank's knowledge of coastal ecosystems was very influential in the final design of the sanctuary.

Mentor to many, including this friend of the sanctuary, one of his greatest lessons was, and I'm paraphrasing, "Careful observation is more valuable than what you think you know."

Until we can sit on a porch again...