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Home » SCIENCE AND NATURE in CT » CONNECTICUT (all topics) » The Connecticut Ecosystem
The Saltmarsh Sparrow
The Connecticut Ecosystem

Part 5 - Protecting Birds and Their Habitats

By Mark B. Oliver | October 14, 2010

Previous Article in this Series

Birds are seemingly abundant and seemingly everywhere. Yet increasing human development is threatening the survival of many bird species.

Loss of feeding and nesting grounds reduces bird numbers and global warming can change migratory patterns and raise sea levels threatening coastal habitats.

The Historical Record

The Bent of the River Center

The National Audubon Society is named after the ornithologist and naturalist, John James Audubon, who catalogued and described North American birds in his famed book ‘Birds in America’.   Since its incorporation in 1905, Audubon, whose mission is to ‘to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity’, has established offices in over 30 states and has numerous local chapters.

Patrick Comins is the Director of Bird Conservation for National Audubon and has held the position for over a decade. He is based at the Bent of the River Audubon Center in Southbury, Connecticut.   The center, which lies on over 660 acres of breathtaking land, comprises over 15 miles of walking trails and offers numerous programs to help visitors reconnect with nature.

Working with Partners

Patrick works closely with a myriad of partners, from State and local government, to land trusts and conservation groups to ensure that Audubon’s three stage approach to conservation (science, policy & lobbying and education) are fulfilled.

The Grounds at The Bent of the River Center

The simple truth of the situation is that as land values have continued to rise, it is simply not viable to purchase an endangered 50 acres.   Partner co-operation and the assistance of landowners are essential to protecting natural habitats.   Some landowners are environmentally minded, others simply own the land surrounding their homes while others own land to generate profit.   These different motivations require fresh and innovative approaches to ensure that the habitats can be maintained and the ecosystems preserved.

Patrick explained why the preservation of birds, plays such a pivotal role in conservation efforts generally.   “Birds are the umbrella under which other conservation efforts fall.   They are easy to monitor in that a lot of people can identify and relate to a number of species, unlike say, salamanders.   There are over 400 recorded species of birds in the United States and each rely on a variety of different habitats.   Birds species are as diverse as mammals.   To sustain appropriate bird populations, their habitats must also be flourishing and the underlying ecosystems must be healthy.”

There are a large variety of habitats that birds rely upon (from beaches to forests) and none of these can be cast aside without irrevocable damage being caused to both bird species and populations and unique ecosystems.   Connecticut is blessed with diverse habitats and Audubon focus on tidal marshes, beaches, The Long Island Sound and forests for maximum impact.

The Saltmarsh Sparrow

A Bird atop a Feeding Station

The Saltmarsh Sparrow, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature is a globally vulnerable species.   Only found between Maine to Virginia, the Saltmarsh Sparrow has a global range of less than the size of Connecticut which is at the heart of its habitat.   Around 20% of the global population of Saltmarsh Sparrows rely upon Connecticut habitats.   The Saltmarsh Sparrow is a small sparrow and it’s colorings can be seen clearly in the photo that accompanies this article.

As its name indicates this small bird relies upon tidal marsh habitats for both foraging on the ground or in marsh vegetation.   They eat mostly insects, aquatic vertebrates and seeds.   In other parts of the marsh the birds nest and mate.   If the tidal marshes are protected, so are the whole suite of insects, plants and other species that rely upon the tidal marshes, not just the Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Saltmarsh Sparrows arrive back in their nesting grounds in May and promptly nest just above the high tide line.   As the waters rise these nests, simple open cups, wash out as the area floods with the spring tide.   After the tide recedes, the sparrows all nest at once.   The birds have just 28 days to build their nests, mate and to raise the chicks to the stage that the fledglings can move beyond the flood line.   Most do not survive.   These birds are already stressed by their very narrow window of opportunity which is exacerbated by the loss of tidal marsh land, both in its entirety and by the marshes no longer stretching as far inland.

Patrick implements a multi-pronged approach to protecting the tidal marshlands.   The watersheds that surround the marshes and the upland buffers are essential to the survival of the marshes.   Sea levels have been rising for a long time and global warming may accelerate this process but at the very least rising sea levels will continue.   As sea levels rise, the saltwater marshes slowly move inward.   This natural process is threatened by increasing development pressures.   If the land behind the marshes has been developed, the saltwater marshes can no longer move inland.

The Piping Plover

There have however been several recent success that Audubon, together with numerous partners have been able to achieve.   Earlier this year the citizens of the town of Guilford overwhelmingly voted to acquire 624 acres known as the ‘Goss property’. The town acquired the property and will manage it as the East River Preserve. This creates protected open space within the East River watershed that includes the Guilford Salt Meadows Sanctuary, Guilford Land Conservation Trust properties, municipal lands and the East River Wildlife Management Area.   Having no impervious services or septic systems, it also provides an important buffer for water quality in the East River with its marshes, meadows and forest.

Similarly a 50-acre parcel of land known as the Guilford Sluice is being conserved following a deal signed in 2009.   The land comprises high-quality spartina patens wetland and mudflat habitat, and is well known for its large concentrations of migrant shorebirds that feed in the wetland. Audubon, in a joint project with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, seeks the assistance of residents several times a year for the Great Backyard Bird Count, which provides invaluable data on migratory patterns, bird populations and movement.

Audubon can be assisted in several ways; by donating, by becoming a member or by volunteering.   Additionally, Patrick urges residents to sign up to one of the many advocacy alert centers such as the Audubon Action Center .   “Ten to fifteen emails to a legislator can often appear to be a landslide of public opinion and residents should never feel that their efforts will be a waste.”

Failure to protect bird species and their natural habitats can often have unforeseen and devastating consequence not just on the birds in question but the environment as a whole.

In the penultimate article in this series, we look at the Naugatuck River and its journey back to health.

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