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!

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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!







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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

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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.

Ram Pasture Post Burn May 12 2014 by KCB 024 watermarked

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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Meet our new shorebird monitors!

Over the last few months we have been watching shorebirds return to Nantucket – as Karen Beattie mentioned in her previous blog post, we are happy to be welcoming back our shorebird friends! By now, you may have noticed that we’ve erected fencing on our beaches to protect the nests and young of American oystercatchers, piping plovers and least terns – despite a cold and windy spring, the shorebird nesting season is geared up and we have our first nests on the ground!

Our new seasonal shorebird monitors have also started up with us for the season, have hit the ground running and are busy searching for nests. Neil Foley is our Coatue Ranger and Shorebird Monitor this season and Libby Buck will be monitoring the birds on all the other NCF-owned beaches. If you see Neil or Libby, feel free to introduce yourself, welcome them to Nantucket and ask them questions. They would be happy to show you the birds and explain our policies about the protection of nesting shorebirds!

amoyyc1cedarkeyairportroost120506-by-pat-learyAdult plover and her chick!

Libby Buck – NCF Shorebird Monitor


I am from Chatham, Massachusetts and I hold a degree in Marine Safety and Environmental Protection from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Being a 14th generation native Cape Codder, I have spent most summers as a child playing in the surf on North Beach in my hometown. I have completed internships with the Cape Cod National Seashore and on the Panama Canal. I have a plethora of logged volunteer time with local conservation organizations and assisted with studies on sharks at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. I have spent the past four summers working for the shorebird program for North Beach and North Beach Island in Chatham. I have come to love the Piping Plovers, American Oystercatchers, and Least Terns. This season working with NCF, I hope to continue protecting the birds, educating the public, and furthering my knowledge about beaches, marine life, plant life, and conservation. I feel at home on the beach along with caring for those creatures that need our protection and I would like to keep doing it forever.

 Neil Foley – Coatue Ranger and Shorebird Monitor


Originally from Broadalbin, NY in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains; I have spent the last 2 years following my passion and fascination with birds across North America. My Environmental Biology degree from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY has instilled in me a true love of what I study and the ability to enthusiastically (and oftentimes humorously) incorporate into a new community.

My first field job watching Piping Plovers and Least Terns in Suffolk County, Long Island initiated my connection with the shore, the intertidal marshes, and of course the incredible and interesting organisms that call these areas home for the breeding season. Even when land locked, I can catch a sniff of sulfur and immediately be transported back to low tide on the Atlantic coast with a smile on my face and birds in my binocular lenses. I also spent a summer encountering all sorts of shorebirds and wild ponies with the USFWS on Chincoteague Island, VA. With a desire to branch out from the shore, I took jobs researching bird monitoring and protection in the Alberta Oil Sands and learning avian rehabilitation and captive care at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. These jobs allowed me to take part in some incredibly fulfilling and important work to keep wild birds healthy and free to improve another birder’s checklist.

Now with my itch for intertidal exploration reaching critical mass, I am starting a new adventure around Nantucket and a spectacular summer of birding, painting, reading, and interacting with visitors on Coatue!

We are excited to have Libby and Neil on board this summer and we’re looking forward to a productive shorebird season!

If you would like to know more about the non-profit Nantucket Conservation Foundation, please visit our website and consider becoming a member!




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The Weed Wars: Nantucket Skirmishes with Invasive Plants

Morrow's bush honeysuckle  (Lonicera morrowii) leafs out before native shrubs and trees.

Morrow’s bush honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) leafs out before native shrubs and trees.

As spring finally warms up on Nantucket, you’ll begin to notice some of the shrubs greening up long before anything else. This is a good way to spot invasive non-native weeds in the landscape, such as Morrow’s bush honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora).

Common invasive shrubs on Nantucket that leaf out before native species and flower in May-June.

Common invasive shrubs on Nantucket that leaf out before native species and flower in May-June.

One of the classic definitions of a weed is “a plant out of place.” All of these shrubs come from Asia or Europe, so they have traveled far from their native lands to share space with us on Nantucket. Plants like these can create headaches in the garden, or swallow your backyard in enthusiastic greenery if you don’t cut them back each year. If you step out your door, there’s a good chance you will encounter two or three invasive plants before you’ve walked five minutes down the road. In fact, there’s a long list of plants that are invasive in the Northeast, many of which are on Massachusetts’  Prohibited Plants List.  The MA  Guide to Invasive Plants has pictures and other information about most of our problematic species.

How did all of this happen? In recent times, human activity has transplanted plant and animal species all over the globe on a grand and unprecedented scale. Some of them were transplanted intentionally, as lovely additions to someone’s garden, but others were accidentally moved in soil or in weed contaminated seed. While in the past it might have taken a species centuries or millenia to make it to a new island or continent, where it could then set up shop, modern commerce and agriculture have sped up this process alarmingly. These invasive plants aren’t “evil”–they’re just species that are really good at taking over and smothering all in their path. Typical invasive weeds are big seed producers, or are able to send out shoots or runners underground and spread rapidly. Some can do both. Introduced into a new habitat, they do what they do best, and often crowd out the plants that were already well established when they arrived. Areas with disturbed soil or freshly cut brush are particularly vulnerable.

But why are these species a problem when they arrive in a new place, but not in their native land? There are a few theories, but nobody knows for sure. It seems likely that the answers to that question may be slightly different depending on which species you’re asking about. Some may have escaped their insect pests or diseases, while others may have evolved particular traits that make them better adapted to our modern disturbed and fragmented landscape. Some manufacture toxic chemicals in their foliage or have thorns that make them unattractive to native herbivores, and some can produce chemicals in their roots that keep other plants’ seeds from germinating! It’s a jungle out there.


Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) a wetland invasive that has been used as an ornamental in gardens, but is now on the Massachusetts Prohibited Plants List.

As an island, Nantucket hasn’t suffered the level of invasive plant problems as the mainland, but we definitely have our share. The Nantucket Electronic Field Guide to Invasive Plants produced by the Maria Mitchell Association and the University of Massachusetts Boston can introduce you to this rogue’s gallery of plants. In some ways, the ecological and economic stakes may be higher here on Nantucket–our tiny island owes a lot of its popularity to historic architecture and cobblestoned downtown streets, but also to its picturesque open landscapes. Unlike other coastal towns, more than 45% of Nantucket is designated as conservation land. These open spaces protect vital habitat for many rare plants and wildlife. They also provide extensive views and recreational opportunities, from kayaking in local ponds to hiking, biking, or dog walking with a backdrop of open fields, dunes, forest, and shrubland. In order to maintain these recreational experiences and protect rare native species and their habitat, invasive plants must be managed. A twelve foot tall wall of common reed or knotweed just won’t do.

Knotweed and Phrag weeds

Local conservation groups have focused their “Weed Wars” on species like common reed (Phragmites australis), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and a hybrid knotweed (Fallopia x Bohemica). Managing these species in most cases involves careful use of appropriate herbicides, since these plants have large, well-established root systems that live for many years and spread vigorously. Typically, a permit from the Nantucket Conservation Commission is required to treat these invaders, since they’re mostly found in wetlands and wetland buffers (within 100 feet of a pond or marsh).

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe), a plant that can invade grasslands or dune habitats.

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe), a plant that can invade grasslands or dune habitats.

Some plants like garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe), have started spreading rapidly over the past 5-10 years and have required increasing efforts. These smaller non-woody plants may be treated with hand pulling and placing the removed plants in theantucket Environmental Park digester, which reaches high temperatures that kill weed seeds and roots. It can take up to ten years of diligent removal without allowing the plants to set seed to exhaust the seed bank of species like garlic mustard and knapweed.

Garlic Mustard Rosette and Leaves

Often, people confuse aggressive native plants like scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia), fox grape (Vitis labrusca), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), or cattail (Typha latifolia) with invasive plants. While these species spread rapidly and we certainly don’t want them everywhere in our yards, they are part of Nantucket’s native ecosystem. These plants support native insects, and by doing so, provide food for birds and other wildlife. And if you’re wondering whether non-native plants can perform the same service, the answer from recent researchers indicates that the answer is no–check out this article on whether invasives can support native moth and butterfly larvae (caterpillars): Can alien plants support generalist insect herbivores? These caterpillars and other insect herbivores are the most important source of food for many nesting birds, and tasty berries produced later in the season won’t feed hungry chicks!

What can you do to help protect the island’s wide open landscapes and rare species from invasive weeds? If you own a home on Nantucket, chances are you live close to a conservation property where an ongoing battle with at least one invasive plant is underway. Learn about the plants in your yard, and when it’s time to work on your landscape, make a plan to replace invasive plants with species native to the island, or with non-invasive alternative plants. Check out this link to the National Arboretum for some great advice. You could replace a single-species hedge with a variety of native shrub species that are appropriate to the site, and these will offer habitat and food for local wildlife. Here’s a good article from the Ecological Landscaping Association on using native shrubs in hedgerows to connect natural areas by providing habitat in developed areas.

You can also participate in educational events and volunteer weed removal days sponsored by the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative’s Invasive Plant Species Committee. Learn about what you can do in your own yard, or help conservation groups hand pull or dig invasive weeds at sites around the island. Keep an eye out for calendar postings in the local newspapers and their websites.

Please be sure to check out the main Nantucket Conservation Foundation website to learn more about our non-profit, member-supported organization. We work hard to protect the natural habitats and special landscapes of the island, and we can use your help!

Posted in Botany, Invasive Species | 1 Comment

Carnivorous, Insect Eating Plants – Right here on Nantucket

Plants are remarkable at adapting to their environments and finding a way to survive in a seemingly impossible place.  Carnivory in plants, the ability to consume insects and other organisms for necessary nutrients is one of those incredible adaptation.  Carnivorous plants can seem exotic but you might be surprised to find we have some of these plants right here on Nantucket.

Carnivorous plants are one of the more unique adaptations seen in the plant kingdom. These plants are typically found living in places where, for a variety of reasons, they have a hard time getting the nutrients they need for healthy growth – which is a ready supply of nitrogen and phosphorus.

There are a variety of nutrient-poor kinds of habitats and here on Nantucket, we find carnivorous plants living in some of our more isolated wetlands.  These wetlands are called bog or poor fen wetlands and are characterized by their hydrology, where their water comes from, which in turn controls which nutrients are present and available for plants. Bog  wetlands typically only get their water from precipitation with very rarely any groundwater. This is important because groundwater will often contain nutrients it has picked up by moving through soil but precipitation typically has very little nutrients in it, the water is mostly sterile. Additionally, the soil in bog wetlands is actually purely organic and made up of a moss called Sphagnum in various stages of decomposition.  This decaying Sphagnum moss creates soil called peat and it doesn’t have nutrients that are available to other plants.

Cross section of a raised bog, like Donut Bog.  Precipitation comes into the wetland and a clay layer at the bottom of the kettle hole holds in the water and prevents groundwater from entering.

Cross section of a raised bog, like Donut Bog. Precipitation comes into the wetland and a clay layer at the bottom of the kettle hole holds in the water and prevents groundwater from entering, reducing nutrients and creating the perfect environment for carnivorous plants.

This means that plants growing in bog wetlands need to be adapted to lower amounts of nutrients.  We actually have quite a few of these wetlands hidden around the island, remnants of the glaciers that once moved over Nantucket.  The most well known and easy to find bog on Nantucket is Donut Pond in the Middle Moors.  It’s easy to find but not easy to access though as it is surrounded by a deep moat of water.  In the center of the Pond, a bog wetland thrives!

So what is our cast of carnivorous plants on Nantucket?  The largest and showiest is the Northern Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea).

One large Northern Purple Pitcher Plant

One large Northern Purple Pitcher Plant made up of many leaves shaped as pitchers.

The leaves of the pitcher plant are modified so they formed closed pitchers.  Each pitcher has a lid with a nice smooth surface, containing nectary glands which attract insects to the plant.  When insects stop to taste the nectar treat, they slip and tumble down into the pitcher.  The inside of the pitcher is covered with small downward pointing hairs so insects are unable to easily crawl back out and instead they slip down to the bottom of the pitcher which is filled with water and a whole suite of microorganisms whose job is to breakdown and digest the insect meal.  Once the insects are digested, nitrogen and phosphorus can be absorbed right into the pitcher wall and used by the plant.

Individual pitcher leaf

Individual pitcher leaf with an ant periously close to become lunch. The pitcher is rooted right into the Sphagnum moss.

The pitcher plant is long lived, usually up to 25-30 years and each year they produce 2-3 pitchers over the course of the growing season. Once a single pitcher has had 4-5 meals, it doesn’t work as efficiently and the plant produces more.  Interestingly, the plant still needs to photosynthesize to produce energy for plant growth and will adapt it’s leaves depending on nutrient and sun availability.  When pitcher plants are shaded out – they grow smaller pitchers with larger pure green leaf area to capture more sun rays.  When the plant is out in the open, the pitchers get larger and redder to maximize insect capture.  This is one of the more fascinating and widespread pitcher plants, growing from northern Canada all the way down to the Gulf Coast.

The lovely pitcher plant flower. Each plant produce 1-2 flowers each growing season and they are pollinated by common bees.

The lovely pitcher plant flower. Each plant produce 1-2 flowers each growing season and they are pollinated by common bees.

The second most common carnivorous plant on Nantucket is the sundews (Drosera ssp) and we have a few different species here.  These diminutive plants grow next to and around the pitcher plants but they can often be much harder to find.

The linear leaved sundew with long, skinny nectar gland covered leaves.

The linear leaved sundew with long, skinny nectar gland covered leaves.

The spatulate sundew leaf covered in sparkling and sticky nectar glands

The spatulate sundew leaf covered in sparkling and sticky nectar glands

Sundews produce carnivorous leaves covered in tasty smelling, but very sticky nectar glands.  When an insect, such as an ant, wanders across these leaves they get instantly stuck.  The leaf is then triggered to roll up around the insect and the plant begins secreting digestive enzymes.  Like with the pitcher plant, nutrients from the digested insects get absorbed right through the leaf and are used to help plant growth.  The sundew produces lovely delicate little flowers, often white or pink during the spring, making these small plants a little easier to find.

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The final carnivorous plant we find here on Nantucket is the bladderwort (Utricularia ssp.) and this is the most difficult to find and unique carnivorous plant we have.  Bladderwort plants are impossible to find unless they are flowering which usually happens for just a few weeks in the spring.  Bladderworts send up short delicate stalks with a few small yellow flowers and this is the only aboveground structure the plant has, most of this plant is living entirely below the soil surface.

A single stalk with a few delicate flowers is the only visible part of the bladderwort plant.

A single stalk with a few delicate flowers is the only visible part of the bladderwort plant.

The carnivorous parts of the bladderwort are located entirely belowground and consist of small (~0.5-1cm) sized bladders located all along the plant roots.


These little bladders have a small valve opening covered in sensitive hairs.  When microorganisms swim too close to the hairs, the value opens and sucks in the microorganism.  Once it’s trapped inside the bladder begins digestion allowing nutrients to get absorbed into the plant.

Check out this amazing and informative YouTube video showing these microscopic bladders in action.

The plant world is filled with all kinds of marvelous adaptations to stressful living conditions. What is your favorite plant adaptation?


For more information on the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and our projects, please visit our website.

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