A Field Season on Nantucket

by Andee Brendalen, Seasonal Botany Field Assistant

Andee with Black Cherry

This summer I served as a botany/ecology field assistant for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. My duties included conducting plant surveys, vegetation community surveys, tracking spotted turtles, monitoring horseshoe crab populations during spawning, and completing forest composition surveys in the Squam area. I really enjoyed all of these activities because I was able to utilize my plant identification skills, but I was also able to learn new sampling techniques and new skills like radio telemetry and navigation with a GPS.

Monarch Butterfly on Slender-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminofolia)

Monarch Butterfly on grass-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia graminofolia)

One of the most interesting jobs I had here at the NCF was monitoring rare plant species using the Element Occurrence data standard. The Element Occurrence (EO) data standard is a tool used by botanists, zoologists, and ecologists to collect information on plants and animals in a consistent way so that the data can be understood and used by all others in the field and analyzed and compared overtime. The elements I was searching for and collecting data on were rare plants found in various habitats on Nantucket.

The State of Massachusetts compiles a list of species that are ranked as Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern depending their rarity and risk of extirpation from the state. The Nantucket Conservation Foundation and other conservation organizations and land owners in Massachusetts are required to monitor these rare plants if they are found on their land. Nantucket has quite a few of the plant species on this list including New England Blazing Star, Creeping St. John’s Wort, and Eastern Silvery Aster. Many of these species are ranked as endangered and one, St. Andrew’s Cross, is only found on Nantucket!

Eastern Silvery Aster (Symphiotrichum concolor)

Eastern Silvery Aster (Symphiotrichum concolor)

Typically, I would receive a map of the location of the rare plant population from years ago when it was last surveyed. If and when I relocated the population, I would record the number of plants I observed, noted any obvious threats to the population, whether the population has increased or decreased and provided possible reasons for changes. Many of the plant populations are quite challenging to find as they are often in places not frequented by people and trails may not exist in the area. Often I found myself using a map and compass to orient through scrub oak thickets and coastal shrublands to find ponds or marshes containing the plant population. I found it extremely fun and exciting to navigate through a wild area and find often small plants and count the individuals and mark the extent of the population on a GPS unit. Once back in the office, I would complete a report to file with the Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program which is a division of the Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife.

Three-angles spikerush (Eleocharis tricostata)

Three-angles spikerush (Eleocharis tricostata)

Conserving as many plant and animal species as possible is important for the maintenance of biodiversity in our ecosystems. Biodiversity allows for ecosystems to adjust to changes in climate and survive after extreme events such as droughts or floods. Genetic diversity helps species adjust to changes in their environment and prevent disease. One of the most important benefits to humans that biodiversity gives us is that of ecosystem services like cleaning our water, making oxygen for us to breathe, and absorbing chemicals.

Though all of these are great reasons to conserve biodiversity and monitor rare species, my favorite is the wonder and beauty of it all. It is hard to drive past a field of wildflowers or walk past a pond complete with water lilies, grasses, and wetland plants and not be struck by the beauty and serenity of it all. I think intact ecosystems with a high abundance of plants and animals is one the most inspiring things in the world. There are hundreds of species on the Nantucket Conservation Foundation properties interacting and working with one another to create a resilient and breathtaking community. I look back fondly at my time here monitoring and managing land on Nantucket, feeling that I did my part to conserve some of the best places on Earth for anyone that wants to experience them.

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Science and Stewardship at the Cranfest this Saturday

New at this year's Cranfest--a calendar prepared by NCF's Science and Stewardship Department. And back by popular request: locally collected native plant seeds.

New at this year’s CranFest–a 2015 calendar prepared by NCF’s Science and Stewardship Department. And back by popular request: locally collected native plant seeds!

When you visit this year’s Cranfest at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Milestone Bog this Saturday, October 11th, please stop in at the Science & Stewardship table. We love to talk about what we do, and share our explorations of the Nantucket natural world!

To share a taste of the scientific research and natural beauty we enjoy daily, this year we’ll be selling a brand new calendar packed with photos of our conservation properties and many of the plants and animals we study and work hard to protect. From New England Cottontails to spotted turtles and horseshoe crabs, colorful wildflowers and winter scenes–it’s all in there! An unusual souvenir or a great gift for a nature lover.

June 2015 NCF Calendar page, starring the spotted turtle (Clemys guttata).

June 2015 NCF Science and Stewardship Calendar page, starring the spotted turtle (Clemys guttata) with photos of its natural habitat (forest floor and vernal pool).

Locally collected native plant seeds will also be available again this year to help you boost the wildlife potential and beauty of your island garden. New this year: peppermint-scented mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), which we have found to be hardy and deer-resistant in our restoration plantings, and hyssop-leaved boneset (Eupatorium hyssopifolium), a low maintenance plant topped with lacy white flower heads. Both are attractive to butterflies and bees, great for your pollinator garden! Seeds are collected from properties where the plants are abundant, and are a great replacement for non-native plants because they offer food for insects and on up the food chain.

All species of seeds that we offer have been grown out in our research greenhouse, and have been used in restoration plantings, where they have proven to be easy to grow and low maintenance. Seed packets are $5 each. Grasses are also available in a larger size for $10 per packet.

Returning favorites: common milkweed, coastal Joe-Pye weed, sweet goldenrod, Canada (blue) toadflax, golden sickle-leaf aster, pearly everlasting, white-topped toothed aster, goat’s rue, yellow wild indigo, little bluestem, rose mallow, blue flag iris, and switchgrass. Packets of mixed wildflowers: Monarch Meadow Mix, Moist Meadow Mix, and Sandplain Grassland Mix.

Don’t forget–next door to the Science and Stewardship table will be wool from our Squam Farm sheep flock. Pick some up for a project or a gift, and help support our sheep grazing land management program. Like the NCF cranberry bogs, the sheep management program helps the island maintain its agricultural history.


For sale at the Cranberry Festival – Wool spun from NCF’s sheep!

"Lamb Mountain" at Squam Farm, where the NCF sheep roam.

“Lamb Mountain” at Squam Farm, where the NCF flock roams.

See you Saturday at the Cranberry Festival!

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Summer of the NCF Shorebird Monitor

By Libby Buck, Shorebird Monitor and Invasive Species Field Assistant

I have a very unique position at Nantucket Conservation Foundation. For the first part of the season I was the Shorebird Monitor and as the shorebird season wound down, I became the Invasive Plant Species Field Assistant. I was able to be immersed literally in the fauna and flora of Nantucket.


Libby Buck, Shorebird Monitor and Invasive Species Field Assistant

Eel point is a very exciting place when it comes to shorebirds. Just this summer we had ten pairs of Piping Plovers, three pairs of American Oystercatchers, a Least Tern colony, and a  pair of Osprey that nested on the ground. The Piping Plovers fledged eleven chicks, American Oystercatchers fledged four chicks, and Least Tern colony was very successful too.

Having an Osprey nest on the ground is completely out of the ordinary, and it actually turned out very beneficial for all the nesting shorebirds. Where the nest was situated allowed the Osprey to be a “security system”, they were first to see anyone that decided to walk by whether it be people or predators, then they would take off into the air calling and alerting all the other shorebirds to be on guard. This nest successfully fledged one chick, and it can be regularly spotted perching on Pam Loring’s Tower at Eel Point.

Adult Osprey on nest on the beach at Eel Point

Adult Osprey on nest on the beach at Eel Point

Osprey chick in the nest on the ground at Eel Point

Osprey chick in the nest on the ground at Eel Point

One of my favorite tasks this season was banding the American Oystercatchers. Normally, I am observing from afar with either binoculars or a scope but having the chance to band these birds, allowed me to get up close on a personal level.

Libby Buck with a newly banded American Oystercatcher chick

Libby Buck with a newly banded American Oystercatcher chick

Now that the shorebirds are staging and beginning to migrate to a warmer climate for the winter, my time is spent battling invasive plant species.

A major invasive species that I try to conquer daily is spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), an invasive plant that loves heat and disturbed soil and can be found along road edges and bike paths. Also, this plant contains toxic chemicals which if handled without gloves can cause skin irritation and migraines. Since this plant loves constant disturbed soil, this makes it hard to remove without unsettling the ground. Elimination of this plant can only be done by digging up and getting rid of the plant entirely which includes its large tap root. Russells Way, Eel Point Road, and along the edges of Nantucket’s bike paths are just some of the areas where removals have been performed. I have never noticed spotted knapweed before I worked here. When I make trips home to Chatham, MA, I now notice it everywhere on Cape Cod and I can be a witness of how this plant literally can take over and become uncontrollable. I definitely support all the efforts that NCF & the Nantucket community have done and will do to prevent this invasive plant from spreading further.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis season has been so enriching and exciting for me and it’s not even over yet!  I have learned so much more about the shorebirds which I am privileged to oversee daily. Now I’m learning even more about Nantucket and its unique landscapes and fauna. Everyday I am challenged to expand my knowledge of our environment. All of our efforts to protect and preserve Nantucket matter and will benefit generations to come.


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A Summer on Coatue

By Neil Foley, NCF Coatue Ranger/Shorebird Monitor

Those who have had the opportunity to visit Coatue this time of the year know how gorgeous and interesting the property is, separated from the bustle of downtown and covered in windswept cedars, blooming native flowers, and flocks of birds.  The beautiful beaches and marshes, wealth of interesting wildlife, and native plant communities are a treat for lovers of nature and great scenery for those wishing to spend a relaxing day at the beach.  As a birder and an appreciator of coastal ecosystems, the last few months on Coatue have been very enjoyable for me.  I have loved exploring the habitats of Coatue, watching the great birds that nest all over the property, and interacting with many visitors by boat and 4 wheel drive vehicle.

An American oystercatcher chick

An American oystercatcher chick

13 pairs of American oystercatchers nested on Coatue this season.  Despite harassment by gulls and high tides washing nests away, these attentive parents successfully fledged a total of 11 chicks.  We managed to band 4 of the chicks before they were able to fly off.  Hopefully we will see these newly-hatched oystercatchers making nests of their own in a few years.

An adult American oystercatcher being banded

An adult American oystercatcher being banded

The piping plovers on Coatue were very unsuccessful this year. All three of our nests failed due to gulls, crows, and high tides.  While there is little we can do about these natural causes of nest loss, we can hope that our protective fencing improves their chances next year.

An adult piping plover

An adult piping plover

One interesting success story on the beach this year was the large colony of beach nesting double-crested cormorants.  The colony was recorded in May at 340 eggs in over 100 nests, a dramatic increase from the 42 nests observed last year.  These hardy birds have a tendency to experience sharp population booms if there is enough available food.  There are also very few native predators on Nantucket, making it likely that this colony will continue to grow in size.

Double-crested cormorant chicks

Double-crested cormorant chicks

The Foundation’s Department of Science and Stewardship has focused efforts on the removal of several invasive plant species on its properties across Nantucket, and Coatue is no exception. There are many interesting plant communities on Coatue and many important native plants to protect.  This summer, I spent a lot of time removing horned poppy, a non-native, invasive flowering plant from the Black Sea region and Mediterranean Europe.  Over the course of July and August, I pulled over 11,000 of these poppy plants with some help from a few of our fantastic volunteers.  This huge number of now-evicted plants makes a significant dent in the invasive species count on Coatue, but the battle is far from over!

Horned poppy

Horned poppy

All in all, I have had a blast living and working on this beautiful property. Through the course of the summer I have learned so much about this island and the cool birds that are found here as I experienced a lot of the natural wonders that Nantucket has to offer.  Thank you to those who have come out to Coatue and shared their experiences with me.  I am looking forward to coming back!

Neil Foley (NCF Coatue Ranger/Shorebird Monitor) releases a just-banded American oystercatcher chick on First Point

Neil Foley (NCF Coatue Ranger/Shorebird Monitor) releases a just-banded American oystercatcher chick on First Point



The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us! www.nantucketconservation.org


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Blueberry Season


Highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) growing on bushes around the pond.

Highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) were abundant on bushes around the pond.

By Sara Mack, NCF Science & Stewardship Volunteer

Last week, my coworker Andee and I set out to Almanack Pond to check for two rare plant species. As a volunteer with the Science and Stewardship department this summer, one of my jobs has been surveying Nantucket Conservation Foundation properties for rare species and recording information about the plants we encounter. It is important to count the number of rare species and determine their location in order to update the status of the plant and keep up with conservation efforts.

Working with NCF this summer has been a blessing in a way I did not foresee. Although Nantucket is small, I didn’t realize that there were many places I had never been to, or hadn’t visited in quite some time, until I began my summer volunteer work.


Doing field work in these remote landscapes has brought me back to places where I grew up playing when I was young. I never completely understood just how fragile and important these environments are until just recently. I hate to say it, but I had not driven down Almanack Pond Road in years until last week. My family used to take me down there when I was little to go to the Windswept cranberry bog to look for turtles and go blueberry picking. I loved the feeling of the road; sandy and winding, and the trees growing alongside of it seemed to create a tunnel. Years ago, I remember driving down that road, overwhelmed with the scent of fox grape, excited to find turtles and frogs lurking in the bogs.

Almanack Pond and a painted turtle sunning itself on a rock.

Almanack Pond with a painted turtle sunning itself on a rock.

Now that I am older, my mission last week while traveling to Almanack Pond was different, and in that moment, I felt an unexpected nostalgia. I reveled in the fact that my relationship with Nantucket’s natural landscapes has evolved to include a well-rounded understanding with goals of conservation. As Andee and I began to hunt for these rare plants, it didn’t take long for us to mention how beautiful the area was. The pond looked like glass and there was a mist gently coating the surface. A rock near the center of the pond was home to a tiny painted turtle and dozens of blue dragonflies darted to and fro.

A blue darner found floating in the pond allows a close look at these fast flyers.

A blue darner found floating in the pond allows a closer look at one of these speedy insects.

Iridescent spider webs among the grasses glimmered with morning dew. I couldn’t help but notice the highbush blueberry that lined the shore of the pond; these bushes were brimming with plump, frosty fruits, begging to be eaten by a couple of girls on the job.

Highbush blueberry, otherwise known as Vaccinium corymbosum, is the most widely cultivated fruit in North America and is native to Nantucket and many other parts of the continent. Highbush blueberry loves to grow in the acidic soil of wet, forested areas on the island. It’s comforting to know that this year has been a great blueberry season, as picking blueberries is a favorite pastime for many. Depending on who you talk to, there may not be as many scallops or bluefish as in the past, but there are still heaping amounts of blueberries to be picked. Even in a fairly dry summer like this one, blueberry shrubs growing around wetlands get enough water to produce plenty of fruit. And areas that were recently burned along the south shore of the island had lots of lowbush blueberries, too.

Blueberries haven’t just been a favorite in my lifetime; the Native Americans reaped many benefits of this shrub, too. In addition to eating the berries, they made a tea from the leaves and used the flowers and rhizomes to cure infant colic and to induce labor, and to even purify their blood!

Bell-shaped flowers of lowbush blueberry, a related species of Vaccinium found in drier habitats.

Bell-shaped flowers of lowbush blueberry, a related species of Vaccinium found in drier habitats.

Bees also have a love for blueberries, which helps in the pollination process because the bell-shape of blueberry flowers does not encourage self-pollination. Blueberry bushes produce much more fruit when they can cross-pollinate (exchange pollen) with other bushes growing nearby. We can attribute much of high bush blueberry’s success to the help of pollinators such as the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera), but before European colonists arrived with their hives of domesticated honey bees, there were already thriving populations of native bee species which co-evolved with our native blueberries. Check out this article from the University of Maine on native bee species that pollinate blueberries. In addition to bees, there is also assistance below-ground to ensure the success of blueberry shrubs. Endomycorrhizal fungi live inside the blueberry’s roots, while long filaments called ‘hyphae’ extend beyond the root and into the soil. These filaments act like root hairs and aid in nutrient and oxygen uptake. In return, the fungi gain starch and sugars from the plant. Mycorrhizae have a mutualistic relationship with most plants to some degree, however they are especially important in allowing blueberries to thrive in harsh environments.

Early lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, which grows only a couple feet high in open dry areas.

Early lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, which grows only a couple feet high in open dry areas.

While birds aid in seed dispersal, they can also cause destruction to the bushes as they eat away at the berries, buds and leaves. On Nantucket, catbirds, robins, crows and red-winged black birds (to name a few) feast on the berries in the mid to late summer. Once the berries ripen, it’s a race against the clock to pick them to make pies and pancakes before the birds get them all!


Blueberry picking is one of my fondest childhood memories. I distinctly remember picking with my grandpa, who gave me an old yellow peanut butter container with a snarly rope so that it could hang around my neck. I would get tired in the August humidity and plop down in the sphagnum moss and eat most of what I had picked. And even now, fortunately for me, I’ll never go hungry when I’m out in the field!

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Sailing into Science with NBI this Summer

Jackson Pt Madaket, KAOThis coming weekend (July 25-27th) will be a busy one for island scientists, and you can join us in our work! The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative (NBI), which is made up of Nantucket’s conservation organizations, has scheduled a number of events this coming weekend to bring visiting scientists and the public together for a Citizen Science event. It’s the sixth Biennial Biodiversity Assessment event hosted by NBI, and the first one ever to take place in the summer!

Sail Into Science 2014 Page 1

Check out the full schedule of events online here: Sail into Science Event Schedule. Sign up for survey events using the online form. Sign-ups are required for field trips, and are optional (but suggested) for the evening presentations.

Our goal is to expand our knowledge of the interesting creatures and plants of Nantucket Island, many of which are active during the summer, but not during the time frame of past NBI survey events. Scientists use “surveys” (searches for particular species or groups of species) to develop species lists and better understand a local ecosystem. This summer’s event will have targeted surveys of a number of species and groups of organisms — from plants, to marine and beach invertebrates, to dragonflies and leaf mining insects, to birds — at selected locations around the island.

We will be kicking off this weekend of Science Exploration at the Dreamland Theater in downtown Nantucket on Friday July 25th, from 6:30-8:30 pm, with a series of brief presentations from visiting researchers, followed by refreshments. Presenters will discuss their topic of research and describe what they will be searching for during the event.

The final wrap-up event will be at 5:00 pm on Sunday July 27th, at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation at 118 Cliff Road, where we will share a potluck meal and will discuss the most interesting finds from each of the surveys. Bring your favorite food and drink to share!

Special thanks to ReMain Nantucket, whose sponsorship has made this event possible during the busy summer season.





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Middle Moors Scrub Oak Mystery

Areas of Middle Moors showing recent frost damage, with the VOR near Altar Rock in the background.

Areas of Middle Moors showing recent frost damage, with the VOR near Altar Rock in the background.

A visit to the Middle Moors this spring, particularly a walk or drive along Pout Pond or Altar Rock Road, will reveal some strange new patterns on the landscape. This past winter, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation began creating larger brush-cut areas to act as firebreaks. These areas were selected strategically to protect homes from wildfire, and to improve our ability to perform prescribed burns to enhance habitat for rare species of plants and wildlife. The low vegetation in the firebreaks, combined with the sand of the existing roads, act as an excellent obstacle to fire — limiting the areas where it can spread and giving firefighters safer and easier access with firefighting equipment as necessary. The use of water is always limited by how much fire trucks can carry or how quickly they can be re-filled, but the firebreaks do some of the work all by themselves. Fortunately these brush cut areas are also valuable habitat for low growing species that can’t compete with dense scrub oak cover, like the rare lion’s foot plant (Nabalus serpentarius), or the Eastern silvery aster (Symphyotrichum concolor).Sym concolorJPK

Lion's foot (Nabalus serpentarius), a rare plant that is found growing in some brush-cut areas on Nantucket.

Eastern silvery aster (Symphyotrichum concolor) and Lion’s foot (Nabalus serpentarius), rare plants found growing in some brush-cut areas on Nantucket.

But, unless you are just returning to the island for the summer, the huge brush-cut areas are old news. Just a few weeks ago, there was another new pattern that appeared across the landscape of the Middle Moors. Huge areas of vegetation apparently withered over night. “Was it some sort of aerial herbicide spraying,” people began to ask, “or maybe some type of oak disease?” Before theories about aliens or the scrub oak equivalent of crop circles get too far, we thought it might be a good idea to explain what’s really been going on–because it is actually a very interesting natural phenomenon.

Close-up of the dividing line between frost-withered scrub oak and those with undamaged leaves.

Close-up of the dividing line between frost-withered scrub oaks and those with undamaged leaves.

Frost Pockets and Radiational Cooling

Cooler heavier air settles overnight in hollows and dips in the landscape on calm nights. These areas are called “frost hollows” or “frost pockets” because they often have temperatures that dip below freezing during the growing season — long after a region’s predicted “Last Frost Date.” The “Last Frost Date” gives gardeners an estimate of when it will be safe to plant their tender veggies or flowering annuals. Of course it’s just an estimate — sometimes the frost comes unexpectedly late in May, though on Nantucket, usually after mid-May you are safe to plant out crops that can’t tolerate frost (temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or below 0 degrees Celsius). Having a garden in a low-lying area means that you could be gardening in a “frost pocket,” which could really cramp your gardening style.

To complicate matters further, sometimes the pooling of cold air coincides with clear skies and a lack of insulating cloud cover, typically at night; when that happens, the ground that was was warmed all day by the sun radiates the heat away quickly. The combination of cold pooled areas of air (the “frost hollows”) and the lack of an insulating “cloud blanket” means that temperatures can drop below freezing across both hollow and level areas, even after a warm summery day when people spent the day soaking up the rays on the beach. And that’s what happened in the Middle Moors recently — low-lying areas, as well as areas along the recent brush-cut firebreaks were enveloped in cold air and the leaves were frost bitten overnight.

Low-lying spots in the Middle Moors with "frost pockets" as darker brown areas where leaves have withered.

Low-lying spots in the Middle Moors with “frost pockets” as darker brown areas where leaves have withered.

Research by Harvard Forest scientists Motzkin, Ciccarello and Foster (2002) shows that even level sandplain areas (like much of Nantucket) can radiate enough heat to cool quickly and experience an unexpected frost. In fact, the researchers concluded that these frosts can happen at any time of the year on the flat sandplains, and often happen repeatedly in June. The same phenomenon can occur in the large flat areas of the island’s cranberry bogs — a big problem in June, while the plants are in full bloom. A hard frost at this time can be disastrous for a cranberry crop, so the bog managers run sprinklers overnight that help keep the flowers from being frost killed. The University of Massachusetts Extension has a great fact sheet explains how cranberry growers handle this potentially devastating situation and keep most of their fruit crop intact. The water from the sprinklers actually releases heat and helps keep the tender new foliage and flowers from freezing during this critical time. The Nantucket Conservation Foundation Cranberry Bog crew works hard to ensure that we have a good harvest by keeping a sharp eye on the weather.

The Middle Moors Scrub Oak Mystery

The frost damage that we observed recently here on Nantucket was a result of one or more of these events, on a larger scale than we usually see. The same thing occurred on Martha’s Vineyard around the same time, according to entomologist Paul Goldstein, who has been searching for larvae (caterpillars) of barrens buckmoth (Hemileuca maia), which are usually found in clusters on the freshly emerged leaves of scrub oak. The NCF Science & Stewardship staff was out looking for clusters of the youngest of these spiny creatures which gave us the chance to see the magnitude of the frost damage across the Moors.

Barrens Buckmoth (Hemileuca maia) caterpillar at a larger growth stage.

Barrens Buckmoth (Hemileuca maia) caterpillar at a larger growth stage.

Barrens buckmoth (Hemileuca maia) adult male.

Barrens buckmoth (Hemileuca maia) adult male.

Since the scrub oaks and other shrubs had just leafed out when the recent frosts occurred, their tender leaves were especially vulnerable to the cold temperatures, and the cells inside the leaves ruptured with the freezing temperatures, leaving large areas of the scrub oak barrens to wilt and turn brown the next day. So, not a good June for buckmoth larvae over much of the Middle Moors. When we were out there, we noticed a pattern of distinct frost bitten areas in the hollows, but also along the freshly cut firebreaks, so it’s possible that the newly cut areas increased the radiational cooling and added to the areas that would normally be affected by a late frost. It’s also possible that most of the roads simply follow lower ground, and that explains the pattern. It would be very interesting to see aerial photos of the Middle Moors after the frost events, so if anyone snapped some photos while they were flying over the island, please email us. We would love to share an aerial view on the blog!

Scrub Oak as Vital Habitat

Did you know that the scrub oak barrens, which cover vast areas of the island, are actually a rare and valuable plant community in the Northeast? Surprising, but true: these nearly impenetrable thickets provide great habitat for shrubland birds which have been declining elsewhere in the Northeastern U.S. And they are also home (and a tasty, nutritious food source) for the larvae of many rare butterfly and moth species. These much-maligned scrub oak barrens are home to 41% of Massachusetts’ rare butterfly and moth species. Check out this Forest Ecology & Management article by Wagner, Nelson and Schweitzer to learn about a variety of rare insects that just can’t get enough of scrub oak.

So, while a lot of our work at NCF focuses on reducing the amount of scrub oak and other tall shrubs, with the goal of enhancing the even rarer sandplain grasslands, we would never want to eliminate scrub oak shrublands from Nantucket. They’re a vital part of our coastal ecosystem.

And, in case you were wondering, most of the scrub oak that were frost-withered this spring will leaf out again soon, using stored energy reserves in their root systems. In fact, some are already doing so, as shown in the picture below, where the tiny bright red oak leaves have begun to unfurl. The bright red pigments (anthocyanins) in the new leaves are thought to help protect the leaves from environmental stresses such as UV-B light and drought, both very useful adaptations for a dry June on sandy Nantucket.

Scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia) leaves emerging after frost damage.

Bright red scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia) leaves emerging to replace frost killed leaves.

Frost events like this one, along with droughts, salt spray from large storms, and years with huge caterpillar populations all contribute to the patchy nature of the vegetation on the island and enhance its biodiversity. Keep an eye out for events like this to learn more about the cycles of the natural world. It’s an interesting story.


The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us! www.nantucketconservation.org







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