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!


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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!







Posted in Frost Hollows, Frost Pockets, Prescribed Fire, Scrub Oak Barrens | Leave a comment

Meet our new Seasonal Field Assistants and Volunteer

Plants are starting to flower, spotted turtles are moving around and our 2014 field season is in full swing.  Each year we hire a crew of seasonal field assistants to help us conduct all of the field work required by our many and various research and management projects.  Our seasonal shorebird monitors have been active out on our beaches for the past month and they introduced themselves a few weeks ago.

Science Staff checking out the ocean at Tuppancy Links

Science Staff checking out the ocean at Tuppancy Links

In addition to our shorebird monitors, we have 2 full time Ecology and Botany Field Assistants and 1 amazing part-time volunteer helping out with all of our other projects. Katherine Culatta and Andee Brendalen will be working as our Seasonal Field Assistants and they will be helped out by our volunteer Sara Mack.  These guys will be working on a variety of projects throughout the field season from tracking spotted turtles, to documenting rare plants, to treating invasive species, to monitoring forest composition and a whole lot of other projects.  They will be with us all season and you might see them out on NCF properties, so please say hi!

Katherine Culatta

Katherine with yellow star grass (Hypoxis hirsuta)

Katherine with yellow star grass (Hypoxis hirsuta)

Originally from the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, I am thrilled to have the beautiful island of Nantucket as my introduction to coastal ecology.   I hold a BS in Biology and a BA in Art from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where I first discovered my love for all things botanical.  While at UNC-Asheville, I worked on a variety of projects with the botany research group, including invasive species control, monitoring and mapping of threatened plant populations, and writing a plant identification guide for beginning botany students.  My undergraduate research project examined the effects of decreased cloud immersion on the physiology of high-elevation rock outcrop specialist plants.

Ready for an adventure and a change of scenery, I am excited to be working for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation this field season.  I love the challenge of a new habitat with new plants and I am especially looking forward to broadening my experience with environmental monitoring and animal biology through the NCF water salinity and Spotted Turtle projects.  Land conservation and stewardship are of extreme importance in our ever-changing world, and I feel lucky to get to experience the inner workings and day-to-day operations of a vital and successful conservation organization.

When I’m not botanizing, I enjoy bird watching, hiking, quilting, and drawing.  I look forward to learning all I can about the natural and cultural world of Nantucket!

 Andee Brendalen

Andee with black cherry (Prunus serotina)

Andee with black cherry (Prunus serotina)

I was born in New Mexico, grew up in Ohio, went to college in Vermont, and am working on Nantucket for the summer.  Ten years ago you could not have told me that my life would take me to such different and beautiful places as it has.  I grew up playing tennis and riding horses in Ohio and did not see an ocean until the age of 12!  Now, on Nantucket I see and work with it every day and can see why some people come here and never leave- ‘they get sand in their shoes’ as they say.

At the University of Vermont, I studied environmental science and really took a liking to anything having to do with botany and ecology.  I think I am in some version of heaven when I am working with my supervisor in a coastal heathland/grassland searching for a rare species called, Blue-eyed grass.  I look up from the beautiful plants only to look out onto the ocean and the blue sky with the ocean breeze gently blowing in my face. Sometimes I just have to smile and think how lucky I am.   I have the opportunity to learn about these amazing and rare habitats that the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and the other conservation organizations on the island are working to protect for everyone to enjoy for generations to come.

I decided my sophomore year in college that I wanted to work outside or at least for an organization dedicated to conservation and teaching others about nature and protecting open space in a time when it seems we need as much as we can get.  Since then I have worked on an organic farm, studied groundwater/phosphorous pollution, tested soil and water, worked as an ecology assistant at the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, and now as a field assistant for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.  Now more than ever, I adore every part of the work I am doing in the name of land conservation.  Even the tedious and sometimes disappointing tasks on which I am working make me feel that I am doing my little part to protect what I love and also get to share it with everyone who enjoys these lands that the NCF manages.

When I am not looking for spotted turtles or working on a rare species inventory, I am likely reading, cooking, or taking a beautiful walk somewhere on the island!

Sara Mack, Volunteer

Sara holding a painted turtle found at Medouie

Sara holding a painted turtle found at Medouie

I am delighted to have the opportunity to volunteer with the Nantucket Conservation Foundation on the beautiful island of Nantucket. Lucky for me, I can call Nantucket my home. I can attribute my interest in the natural world to my childhood on Nantucket in which I developed a close relationship with the ocean. When I was just a toddler, my dad and I would go for walks at Quaise Beach and I would ride along in a backpack. I was fascinated by horseshoe crabs and would yell “Shoo shoo crab!” and kick until my father let me down so that I could inspect them. They have been my favorite animal since.

I had the chance to help Dr. Sarah Oktay at the UMass Field Station on Nantucket and to intern at the local aquarium while I was in high school. I was introduced to local marine-related and environmental issues at an early age, such as the decline of eelgrass beds in the harbor and the subsequent decline in bay scallop populations. Now I am going into my senior year at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida to wrap up my undergraduate degree in Marine Science with a focus in Biology. No matter how far I am from Nantucket, the island is still relevant and comes up in my studies. This past year I did a project on the effect of the proposed Cape Cod wind farm on the harbor porpoise population in the Nantucket Sound. During my undergraduate time, I have helped with turtle sampling in the natural springs of Florida, dabbled in wetland mitigation and gone on research cruises in Tampa Bay to collect samples for trace metal and water quality analysis. In January, I was lucky enough to spend the month abroad in Micronesia diving at some of the top sites in the world.

While my primary interest is that of marine life, I have come to realize with experience just how important conservation is. I am grateful to spend time volunteering with NCF and gaining experience in the field, which feels more like my backyard. Lately I have been trekking through the Medouie marsh tracking spotted turtles, marking the rare blue-eyed grass at Smooth Hummocks and assisting shorebird monitors. In the future, I can see myself teaching or working within the realm of environmental education/marine conservation. In my free time during the summer I like to venture in my family’s boat, go for bike rides, visit Tuckernuck Island and explore all of Nantucket’s secret natural places.


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!


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Fires of Spring

IMG_5410 watermarked

Green is the color that most of us associate with spring and early summer- but in some of the island’s conservation areas, black is the first color of the season. Spring and fall are when many open space managers in the northeast, including the Foundation, conduct an important ecological management practice called prescribed burning. As the name implies, a prescribed burn is the controlled application of fire to the land to accomplish specific conservation and/or land management goals. Although setting fire to the landscape may seem counter-intuitive to responsible stewardship, the majority of the vegetation communities found on our properties are fire-dependant. This means that the native plants and animals that they contain, some of which are quite rare, are dependent on periodic fires for their reproduction, growth and survival.

Ecologists call these types of habitats “early successional communities.” They occur in areas where frequent disturbances – both natural and human-caused – take place. Nantucket’s early successional habitats include sandplain grasslands, coastal heathlands, and scrub oak barrens, all of which are designated as uncommon and exemplary “Priority Natural Communities” by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program. They also help to define the unique and special character of our island’s open spaces.

On Nantucket, the disturbances responsible for creating and maintaining these communities took the form of centuries of human land use practices. Native Americans were known to burn the land to open up sites for agriculture and stimulate the production of native berries. The first European settlers harvested wood for home building, ship construction, and fuel. This was followed by many years of continuous grazing by sheep and other livestock, resulting in the creation of vast expanses of open grasslands and heathlands. In 1854, the famous naturalist Henry David Thoreau visited Nantucket and wrote “There is not a tree to be seen, except such as are set out about houses…..This Island must look exactly like a prairie, except that the view in clear weather is bounded by the sea…”

Anyone who is familiar with the island today will likely agree that this is no longer an accurate description of Nantucket. Virtually all of these activities have ceased over the last century, allowing tree and shrub species associated with forest habitats to expand into many areas that once contained early successional plant communities. As a result, our grasslands and heathlands have become quite rare and are now mostly limited to sites on the south shore of the island, including Ram Pasture, Head of the Plains, and Smooth Hummocks, where constant salt spray has slowed the encroachment of taller shrubs and trees. If left unchecked, even these habitats will slowly disappear, resulting in the loss of rare species.

Some may say that this is a natural process, and that Nantucket’s early successional communities are themselves unnatural because they were created by historical human activities. While there is some validity to this argument, the increasing influence of people on the landscape has disrupted the natural processes that once allowed these habitats to be maintained without intervention. Prior to human habitation, grasslands and heathlands likely occurred as small, transient patches created by natural disturbances such as fires and hurricanes. As older patches became overgrown with shrubs and trees, new ones would be created elsewhere and the rare species associated with these places would persist.

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The situation today is very different. The historic range of these habitats along the coast of the northeastern United States is now heavily developed, leaving few open space locations for these natural ecological processes to play out. Nantucket is the exception, as we are fortunate to still have a great deal of undeveloped land protected by the Foundation and our local and regional conservation partners. For this reason, the largest, contiguous acreages of sandplain grasslands, coastal heathlands, and scrub oak barrens found in the country occur on our island. But in order for these areas to persist, we need to conduct management that mimics the natural processes and historic human land use activities that once maintained them. That’s where prescribed fire comes in.

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Fire is a natural and effective means of managing grasslands, heathlands, and shrublands. Many species associated with these habitats bloom profusely following burns, and some actually require fire to reproduce. Grasses, sedges, and perennial wildflowers are able to survive burns because they have extensive below-ground root systems. Although most shrubs are capable of re-sprouting after a fire, this management practice top-kills them, thereby preventing grassland and heathland species from being out-shaded. Birds and large animals such as rabbits and deer can easily outdistance the flames and find cover in adjacent unburned areas. Smaller animals, such as mice, voles and shrews, seek shelter in underground burrows where they can avoid heat. Burns are timed to avoid periods when birds are nesting and young animals are likely to be vulnerable.

Although mowing and brushcutting can and often are used as an alternative habitat management practice, they result in a uniform impact over the managed area. In contrast, fire produces a patchwork of burned and unburned habitats due to the variability in its temperature, intensity and rate of spread. As a result, older, unburned plants are distributed within newly-burned habitat, thereby creating a mix of cover and forage conditions that benefit many species of wildlife. Fire also creates patches of bare soil that provide suitable sites for germination of grass and wildflower seeds, while mowing produces a dense layer of cut vegetation that functions as mulch and can inhibit seedling establishment.

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Prescribed fire has many benefits, but it is expensive to implement. It requires specially-trained personnel and high levels of pre-planning and coordination with other organizations and the Nantucket Fire Department. Liability, public safety risks, forecasted weather conditions, smoke management, and crew and equipment availability all need to be considered and responsibly addressed. Despite these many obstacles, the extensive ecological benefits of this management practice motivate Nantucket’s open space managers to take advantage of the rare occasions when all the stars align correctly and we are able to successfully and safely accomplish a prescribed burn.

One of these occasions occurred on April 5, 2014 when the Foundation, working with our colleagues and partners at the Nantucket Land Bank, Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC, and the Nantucket Fire Department, conducted a prescribed burn on 78 acres of sandplain grassland and heathland habitat in Ram Pasture. This site is located in the southernmost portion of our popular Sanford Farm, Ram Pasture and The Woods property, along the southwestern shore of the island and just to the west of Cisco. When combined with our adjacent Head of the Plains property to the west, this area represents the largest, contiguous acreage of rare grassland and heathland habitats under Foundation ownership. Ram Pasture has been periodically burned and mowed since 1986 and is one of the first locations where prescribed burning was initiated as a management practice on Nantucket. For this reason, it is one of the largest and best examples of ecologically intact sandplain grassland and heathland habitat remaining in the northeastern United States.

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Due to the hard work and professional efforts of our staff and prescribed fire partners, the burn was conducted safely and effectively achieved all of the land management objectives outlined for this unit. A large portion of the taller shrubs were top killed and most of the grassy patches burned completely, creating exposed bare soil sites suitable for seedling germination. Within a few weeks following the burn, grasses re-sprouted vigorously, triggered by solar warming of the blackened soil surface and the addition of nutrients from ash.

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If you are looking for a nice spot to go for a walk and enjoy this lovely weather, visit our Ram Pasture property to see the results of this management first-hand by comparing the burned unit to adjacent unburned patches. This area can be accessed from Sanford Farm to the north or through the west gate parking area off Barrett Farm Road (a left turn off Madaket Road just past the bike path water fountain). You can download a trail map at the Foundation’s website or pick one up at our offices at 118 Cliff Road. Happy hiking and happy spring!

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!


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