A sparrow’s story: Project looks at signs of climate change in Long Island Sound

Stonington - Chris Elphick squishes his way across the slick and sometimes muddy bottom of the salt marsh at Barn Island.

“Oh there’s a sparrow. Oops, just gone,” he says suddenly, interrupting himself. “It hopped up and it flew back down again. Sorry. That’s the way it is.”

The sparrow – which for the record, only he saw – was a saltmarsh sparrow. And the notion of “just gone,” has a deep double meaning and is the reason for slogging through marsh grasses on a hot and mosquito-y, but otherwise glorious summer morning.

Elphick is an ornithologist and professor of conservation biology and ecology at the University of Connecticut, and his decade-long study of tidal marshes and their birds is the opening gambit in a two-state project to better understand how climate change is affecting Long Island Sound.

Called the Sentinel Monitoring for Climate Change in Long Island Sound Program, it identifies signs, or indicators, of climate change – those natural characteristics that can be measured - to figure out what climate is doing to them. The project is looking at those indicators, which are being called sentinels, specific to the Sound and the area around it with the goal of helping the region manage climate change.

That little now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t nondescript brown sparrow is one of the biggest sentinels of salt marsh change we have. “It’s a cliché, but they’re the canary in the salt marsh,” Elphick said. “They tell us something about what’s going on in an entire system that will affect many of the other organisms in that system and will have repercussions for us, too.”

The irony – they may go extinct doing it.

Beginnings

The sentinel project came together over the last few years through the Long Island Sound Study, a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and state environmental offices in Connecticut and New York, including the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, its New York counterpart and federally funded Sea Grant offices that operate through universities in both states.

The first order of business for an initial six-member group from both states was figuring out what the sentinels should be and then how to go about studying and monitoring them.

“We had conference calls oh my gosh, probably every two weeks,” said Juliana Barrett, who is with the Sea Grant program at the University of Connecticut, a participant in the Long Island Sound Study and a key organizer in the sentinel project. “It took us about year to actually draft the plan.

“It took a lot of work to try to amass and try to figure out how do we think about all the resources within the Sound and all the things that can possibly impact those things that have some kind of a climate change driver? It was basically reams of paper.”

The initial 37 sentinels were combined into six priorities: birds, salt marshes, finfish, lobster, phytoplankton and coastal forests. There are core parameters for each, such as sea level, temperatures, salinity and other broad factors – with the option for adding and subtracting.

“Jellyfish, for example,” Barrett said. “If we were writing it now, we probably would add it to the list.”

The project incorporates existing data on the various sentinels, most of which was likely gathered for other purposes – like state-required fishing and lobster landings - as a kind of “before” for the “after” of new information. Such information already shows a movement of warmer water fish into the Sound, and an exodus north of some longtime Sound regulars, such as lobster.

In many cases, however, there is no earlier information so researchers will be gathering baseline data that may not prove its actual worth for decades.

The data will be analyzed to paint pictures of what is likely to happen in and around the Sound over time, and/or at least explain what communities and other stakeholders need to look for to figure out what’s happening. It will be made available on a website and through other communication.

“If we know how finfish populations, as an example, are going to change,” Barrrett explained, “If there’s any needed changes by the fishermen, the commercial fishing industry, restaurants in terms of what’s going to be available, it can help with that whole adaptation process.”

Mark Tedesco, director of the EPA’s Long Island Sound office, said he hoped the project merges with similar ones, especially on the East Coast, to enlarge the data pool and results.

“Our vision is that this sentinel monitoring is a network of monitoring in different locations up and down the East Coast,” he said. “And sharing information and ideas and knowledge will only strengthen the quality of the conclusions and information that is then available for local decision-makers.”

A national trend

It’s already happening. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has established five sentinel sites nationally – the closest to here is Chesapeake Bay – to amalgamate existing data for such purposes. The National Science Foundation is embarking on one that looks at conditions pre- and post- storm Sandy. Elphick, who is part of that project, said it will help him separate storm changes from long-term climate changes. He is also part of a marsh bird study project from Virginia to the Canadian border.

And that’s exactly how he and organizers of the Long Island Sound sentinel project were hoping research would dovetail. Limited funding – about $250,000 so far – has been made available from the EPA through the Long Island Sound Study for the first three studies in the Sound project, including Elphick’s. But the idea is to leverage it, as Elphick has, with other grants.

More than the sparrow

Elphick’s research involves more than just the saltmarsh sparrow. He and his team monitor the marsh itself for evidence of sea level rise - tagging trees, documenting the health of their canopy and setting ground markers using GPS so researchers know where they’ve been and others can find it years into the future. 

They are seeing marsh grass moving inland into upland areas. “The marsh plants extend back just a little bit, just into the first set of trees, not very far,” he said pointing to a strip of tall grass. “Whether it’s truly due to sea level rise, we’re not really sure, but we see this in various places.”

Other evidence he’s looking for are dead or dying trees in the marsh/upland transition. Trees don’t like saltwater, but part of what he’ll have to tease out in the research data, which he’s been collecting since spring, is whether the cause of their and other problems is sea level rise or the effects of the several severe storms over the last two years.

He’s looking at many marsh birds, but it’s the saltmarsh sparrow that may offer the most dramatic – and ultimately most devastating - evidence. There are about 30,000 saltmarsh sparrows worldwide – about a quarter of them in Connecticut, mostly in the Connecticut River mouth, Hammonasset Beach in Madison, the Guilford/Madison shore and here at Barn Island.

They build nests on the ground hidden in a marsh grass that sits higher enough in the marsh that it typically floods only with lunar high tides about once a month. That gives the sparrows barely the 24 or 25 days they need to lay eggs and have the resulting chicks grow strong enough to leave the nest.

The concern is that sea level rise – as well as more severe weather – will result in regular high tides moving into that slightly higher ground more frequently, causing eggs to float away and chicks to drown. It’s already been a tough year for them with excessive rain this spring and early summer. Elphick noted an equally rainy summer in 2009.

“One of my students found 210 nests that year,” he said. “Of those 210 nests, five young sparrows were produced.”

Elphick and his team are collecting information about the sparrows from about 150 sites around the Sound. They look for nests; check them every few days. They outfit them with temperature sensors that record the temperature decrease if the nest floods. And they tag birds with a metal ring.

“Even relatively small changes in sea level rise, a few inches, is the difference between this marsh being suitable for them and this marsh being unsuitable for them,” he said.

But they may have nowhere to go. Even if the marshes migrate inland, which is what marshes normally do as water encroaches, they may not be able to move fast enough. That’s if there’s even any place to move. With so much development on the shoreline, marsh movement, more often than not, is blocked by things like roads.

In the meantime, the data Elphick’s team collects will help it predict when the nests flood so often that the bird will no longer be able to reproduce. “Things don’t look very good,” he said. “It looks like this particular species maybe has at most a few decades before they’re extinct.

“It’s a species that I think the state has some responsibility for protecting. If we care at all about future generations or other organisms, this is one we should be thinking about in this state.”

Listen to WSHU's broadcast of this story.

 

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