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.

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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.

bladderwort-or-utricularia

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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Welcome Back, Old Friends!

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Spring is a special time on Nantucket for those of us who live here year round. The days are getting longer, and there is a bit of light at the end of the winter tunnel – because no matter what happens from here on, January and February are already behind us! Houses and businesses start to open up and the familiar faces of seasonal residents will soon be showing up on Main Street – a sure sign of the warmer days to come!

And so it is also with our breeding birds. Tree swallows, red-winged black-birds, osprey, and shorebirds are just starting to show up to begin their nesting seasons (check out our previous blog post by Danielle O’Dell for more about Nantucket’s “Signs of Spring”). It’s interesting to think about where our seasonal bird residents have been since they left us in the fall. While a great deal of information is known about bird migration, we still have a lot to learn. Gaining a better understanding of where these birds go and what environmental conditions they face when they are not with us is critical to conservation efforts.

For the past seven years, our Science and Stewardship Department has played a small role in a very large, collaborative effort aimed at better understanding the annual movement patterns of one of our beach nesting shorebird species: the American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates). A collaboration of researchers and managers all along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, working under the umbrella of the American Oystercatcher Working Group, are undertaking a coordinated, widespread effort to band and re-sight oystercatchers so that we can learn about their complex patterns of movement and dispersal. Associated with this group are numerous color-banding and/or re-sighting projects in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. The color-bands used contain a unique 2-3 character code with a color combination specific to the state where the bird was banded (Massachusetts bands are yellow with black codes). Band re-sight data enables researchers to identify and track individual birds and piece together information about their movements without having to re-capture them.

This work has been underway on Nantucket since 2005 and includes many collaborators, including NCF’s Science and Stewardship Department. As a result, a large percentage of our oystercatchers are now individually color banded. Of the 23 pairs that nested on NCF-owned beaches during the 2013 season, 29 adults and 16 chicks were banded. Oystercatchers can be extremely long-lived – it is not uncommon for birds to live at least 10 years, and there are records of banded individuals surviving up to age 17. Therefore, color banded individuals are often re-sighted many times over multiple years on both the breeding and wintering grounds.

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A flock of oystercatchers on their wintering grounds in Florida.

It’s not uncommon for researchers (no matter how professional and objective we try to be) to become somewhat attached to our study subjects. So when our breeding birds return at the end of a long winter, it is a cause for celebration. However, this feeling is intensified when we welcome back individually banded birds that we have known and followed over multiple years. Because they are “labeled,” we know where they prefer to nest, who they have mated with in the past, whether or not they tend to be successful parents, and which banded birds they are related to. We work hard to protect their habitats and educate beach visitors about the importance of shorebird conservation. And when we watch their chicks successfully learn to fly and head south at the end of the season, we feel a sense of accomplishment that sometimes goes just a little beyond the level of professional satisfaction.

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Banded oystercatchers from multiple states observed by Doris and Pat Leary in Cedar Key, Florida.

However, it’s important for us to remember that many of “our” birds become “their” birds when they leave at the end of the season. Due to the efforts of the Working Group’s range-wide collaborators, many of our oystercatchers are watched, monitored and protected long after they leave Nantucket to head south to their respective wintering grounds. An amazing amount of data is being collected by these folks, and it is providing invaluable information about where “our” oystercatchers over-winter, as well as the places they stop along the way to and from Nantucket.

Below is a summary of some of the birds that we expect to see returning over the coming weeks, and what we know about where they spend their time when they are away from us – thanks to the year-round efforts our Working Group colleagues.

Yellow-banded W8 was our first returning oystercatcher this year, observed by Trish Pastulak and identified by Edie Ray, who puts an amazing amount of time and effort into banding and re-sighting birds on Nantucket. W8 showed up at Jackson Point in Madaket on February 23rd, which is one of the earliest spring sightings of an oystercatcher on Nantucket. This bird was banded as a chick on Dogfish Bar in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard in June, 2010. It was next re-sighted on Nantucket at Eel Point in June, 2012 and has since been seen regularly during the breeding season at various locations on the western end of the island. Oystercatchers reach reproductive maturity at about 3 years of age, so we expect that this bird will soon be pairing up to breed- perhaps this season.

Yellow-banded E2 is a regular at Eel Point, where it was banded as a breeding adult in July, 2005 by Sean Murphy. Sean conducted his PhD research at CUNY at Staten Island on the movement patterns of oystercatchers nesting on Nantucket and Tuckernuck, and has been an instrumental player in this project ever since. E2 has regularly been re-sighted during the winter in Cedar Key, Florida, which is on the Gulf of Mexico side about 1 hour southwest of Gainesville. In fact, it was most recently observed and photographed by Doris and Pat Leary about a week ago, on March 15th. The Leary’s have been observing and recording banded birds in Florida for many years, with support from Audubon of Florida, and much of what we know about the winter distribution of oystercatchers in this area comes from their amazing work. We are expecting E2 to return to Eel Point any day now!

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Yellow-banded TO (left) showing its nano-tag antenna and E2 (right) observed on March 15, 2014 in Cedar Key, FL by Doris and Pat Leary.

Yellow-banded T0 is another regular commuter between Nantucket and Cedar Key. This bird was banded in May, 2008 as a breeding adult on the north beach of Coatue by Sean Murphy and has regularly been observed overwintering in Cedar Key by the Learys. This past summer, it was captured again on Coatue by Pam Loring, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is tracking oystercatchers and common tern movement patterns in Nantucket Sound for her dissertation research (you can read more about Pam’s project in our previous blog post “What are those towers on Coatue and Eel Point all about?”). Pam fitted T0 with a nano-tag: a digitally coded radio transmitter and antenna that can be detected by an array of automated radio telemetry stations placed on towers erected in strategic locations around Nantucket Sound. Doris and Pat Leary re-sighted and photographed this bird in Cedar Key on March 15, 2014 and confirmed that it was still carrying the transmitter. Pam will be attempting to re-capture and remove transmitters from her study subjects once her research is completed.

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Yellow-banded AA1 just after being banded as a chick by Edie Ray on Coatue in July, 2013.

Red-banded T5 nested on Coatue in 2012 and 2013. So why doesn’t this bird have yellow bands, like the rest of our nesting oystercatchers? Red bands with white codes are used in Georgia, and this bird was banded in late December, 2008 on Little Saint Simmons Island by Brad Winn, a key researcher with the Working Group. It was subsequently observed in several other locations in Georgia during the 2010-2012 non-breeding seasons. It was also seen at North Brigantine Natural Area in New Jersey in August, 2010, when it was likely en-route to Georgia. For several years prior to nesting on Nantucket, this bird was recorded at other sites in southeastern Massachusetts, including Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet, South Sunken Meadow in Barnstable, and the north shore of Tuckernuck Island. Red-banded T5 and its mate, yellow-banded JY (which has also been observed in Georgia during the winter) successfully fledged one chick on Coatue this past summer – yellow-banded AA1. But instead of following its parents to Georgia, this juvenile was observed overwintering in Cedar Key by the Learys.

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Yellow-banded AA1 (center) overwintering at Horseshoe Beach, just north of Cedar Key, Florida.

Yellow-banded F3 was banded as a breeding adult in June, 2006 by Sean Murphy in Polpis Harbor, and has nested in this area of the island every year since. F3 is usually one of our first breeding birds to return at the beginning of the season. In 2013, we located its nest on April 11th, it hatched on May 8th, and all three chicks had successfully fledged by June 25th. F3 appears to winter on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, as it was observed there several times during the non-breeding season in 2006 and 2009. It was also observed on South Beach in Chatham on Cape Cod in September, 2009. Similar data collected on a number of additional banded birds indicate that oystercatchers breeding in southeastern Massachusetts move around quite a bit after the breeding season is over to feed in groups and fatten up before departing for their wintering grounds in the late fall.

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Yellow-banded F3 nests in Polpis Harbor and has been observed on Hilton Head Island, SC during the winter.

If this information is interesting to you, head out to Nantucket’s beaches this season and see if you can find any banded oystercatchers. These beautiful birds are large and easy to observe, and with patience, their bands can be observed with a good pair of binoculars. Please respect signs and fencing that are put in place to protect nests and chicks. The American Oystercatcher Working Group’s website page contains all kinds of information about this species, including a detailed explanation about how to identify banded birds.  And if you see a banded bird and record the code, you can enter your data on the website and find out where it was banded and where else it has been observed.

Happy Spring and Happy Birding!

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Signs of Spring!

After a long, cold and snowy winter on Nantucket, it’s nice to look forward to the coming of spring! Here are our top 10 sure signs that spring has arrived!

1. American Woodcock (Scolopax minor)

Photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The distinctive mating ritual of the woodcock has begun. The male performs a “sky dance” at dawn and dusk, where he soars high and then descends sharply to the ground, making distinct twittering sounds produced by air passing through his outer primary feathers. While on the ground, he issues a series of sharp, nasal “peent” calls to attract mates. Listen for them now in open fields near Altar Rock and Sanford Farm/Ram Pasture.

2. Chorusing spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer)

Photo courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society

Photo courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society

These tiny creatures sure can make a lot of noise! Very soon, during our first warm(ish) spring rain, male spring peepers will start chorusing from wetlands and vernal pools. At dusk, males attract mates by singing, or peeping, by inflating, and then expelling air from their vocal sac. Let us know when you here the first chorus of the season!

3. Bird Song

All photos courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

You might have noticed an increase in early morning bird chatter lately. Three of our resident bird species, the black-capped chickadee, the northern cardinal and the Carolina wren have started singing their little hearts out in anticipation of spring.

4. Red-winged blackbirds

Photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Red-winged blackbird nest in a cattail marsh

Red-winged blackbird nest in a cattail marsh

The call of the male red-winged blackbird is hard to miss. They are often heard screaming “conk-la-REE” from the highest perch they can find. These glossy black birds with red and gold epaulets are common in Nantucket’s cattail marshes and wetlands.

5. Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata)

spotted turtle2

One of the earliest reptiles to emerge from hibernation, spotted turtles come out to bask on sunny days beginning in early to mid March. They won’t begin feeding or mating until a bit later in the spring once the water temperatures rise.

6. Shorebirds return!

Adult plover and her chick!

Adult plover and her chick!

Piping plovers and other beach nesting shorebirds will be returning to Nantucket soon and could start nesting in late April to early May! By early April we should begin hearing the familiar “peep-lo” calls from males that are setting up and defending territories and attracting lady plovers.

7. Beaked hazelnut in bloom

Male catkins of the beaked hazelnut

Male catkins of the beaked hazelnut

One of the earliest blooming shrubs on Nantucket is beaked hazelnut. Each plant has both male and female flowers. The drooping clusters of male flowers  (catkins) elongate, and when they open to disperse their pollen, it is carried by the wind to pollinate small ruby-colored female flowers scattered along the twigs.

8. Horseshoe Crabs (Limulus polyphemus)

horseshoe crabs

Beginning in mid to late April, horseshoe crabs come to shore to mate and lay eggs during high tides surrounding the new and full moon. Giant females are often seen dragging around one, or several, much smaller males. Several organizations on island, including NCF, are now conducting annual counts of crabs because of concern about declining populations of these ancient creatures.

9. Red Maples in bloom

Red Maple-001

Red Maples are also early and conspicuous bloomers in the spring. The bright red flowers burst out of buds before the leaves do, and the color attracts bird and insects to the nectar and pollen. Found in swampy, boggy areas of the island such as Squam Swamp, red maples often have submerged roots that provide excellent habitat for hibernating spotted turtles.

10. Squam Farm Lambs

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Last but certainly not least, spring is lambing season at Squam Farm. The arrival of these little cuties in late April and May is always one of our favorite events of the year!

Happy Spring! Get out and enjoy the sights and sounds of spring time on Nantucket!

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Exploring Squam Forest with UMass Boston “Nantucket Semester” students

One of the large black oak (Quercus velutina) trees at Squam Swamp, being measured by student Zannie Duffy.

One of the large black oak (Quercus velutina) trees at Squam Swamp, being measured by student Zannie Duffy.

This winter, Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Science & Stewardship Research Technician/Field Supervisor Kelly Omand has been working with two students from the UMass Boston “Nantucket Semester” program that links in with our local UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station, on a focused research project in Squam. The students, Adrianna Plavetsky and Zannie Duffy, are part of a group living and studying on the island this spring semester. In addition to taking classes such as Oceanography and Nantucket Natural History, each of the students is also working on a field research project connected with a local conservation-oriented organization. The students benefit from the combo of class and lab study with outdoor research experience; at the same time, their research builds our knowledge of the island ecosystem.

Adrianna taking soil samples at the north plot for soil testing later in the lab.

Adrianna taking soil samples at the North Plot for soil testing later in the lab.

The Squam area of the island is home to some of Nantucket’s largest (and presumably some of the oldest trees), but the biggest and most unusual are scattered in certain parts of Squam Swamp and Squam Farm. It’s a forested landscape dotted with wetlands and shaped by areas of low hills, close to the exposed northeastern shores of the island. In addition to the harsh conditions imposed by winds, salt spray, and sandy glacial soils, this area was once wide open to grazing and other agricultural uses.

To learn more about the complex interplay of environmental factors and the history of land use, Adrianna and Zannie teamed up to study the soil and the trees at two specific sites at Squam. One site is on a drier upland within Squam Swamp, and contains a number of large trees, while the other is on a hillside at Squam Farm, near our present-day sheep pastures.

A "tree shadbush" (Amelanchier sp.) at Squam--identified by the smooth gray lichen covered bark and narrow twisted buds.

A “tree shadbush” (Amelanchier sp.) at Squam, identified by the smooth gray lichen-covered bark and narrow twisted buds.

Zannie and Adrianna will analyze the soil samples and trees at the two sites to add to our understanding of how tree growth, forest composition (which tree species are present), and forest structure (size, age, and density of trees per acre) may be affected by soil conditions and historic land use on the island.

Winter field work means learning to identify trees by bark and buds, like this black cherry (Prunus serotina) with flaky bark that has horizontal lines (lenticels).

Winter field work means learning to identify trees by bark and buds, like this black cherry (Prunus serotina) with flaky bark that has horizontal lines (lenticels).

Information from the Nantucket Historical Association Archives will help them determine land ownership in the past. Written and oral history accounts, and the natural history library at the Maria Mitchell Association, may add to the historical backdrop of changes in the Squam area over time.

The student research will help NCF assess forest conditions and may affect how we adapt management practices at both Squam Swamp and Squam Farm to protect these unusual woodlands for the future. Their results will complement ongoing Squam Forest research, and will provide a close-up look at two very different parts of the forest.

A large beech (Fagus grandifolia) at Squam, with the typical island shape to withstand our windy conditions.

A mature beech (Fagus grandifolia) at Squam, with the shape common to Nantucket beeches–a form that may have been shaped by wind and damage to the growing sapling.

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

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Searching for rare plants in 2014

In mid-January, Jen Karberg (NCF’s Research Supervisor) attended the annual New England Plant Conservation Program (NEPCoP) MA Task Force Meeting to discuss rare plants and the state of rare plant populations and management in Massachusetts. NEPCoP is a collection of professional botanists, conservation organizations, universities and state agencies organized in order to document New England’s rare plants and assist in managing and maintaining populations of rare and endangered plants.  In 1996 NEPCoP published the first Flora Conservanda – a list of the plants of conservation concern (rare, threatened and endangered) in each of the New England States.  NEPCoP recently released an updated version of that list for 2012.

Each state in New England has an organized NEPCoP Task Force to manage the monitoring of rare plants across the state.  The Task Force for Massachusetts meets annually in January to discuss review rare plant surveys from the previous year, plan rare plant surveys for the coming field season and discuss proposed changes to the rare plant list for the state.

One of the key things we discussed this year was changes to the listing of rare plants in Massachusetts.  When the state looks at changing the status of a listed plant, or even delisting it – the process takes a bit of time.  There is an information gathering period to see what we really know about the plant – where is in the state, how large are the populations, how healthy are the populations, etc.  Once this information is gathered, the state can make an informed decision about how much protection a plant needs.  This year the state is considering delisting two plants that we monitor and protect here on Nantucket:

Crocanthemum dumosum (bushy rockrose)

Flower of Crocanthemum dumosum. Photo Credit: Danielle O'Dell

Flower of Crocanthemum dumosum. Photo Credit: Danielle O’Dell

Linum intercursum (sandplain yellow flax)

Linum intercursum in flower.

Linum intercursum in flower.

In addition to these plants, we also have a few of our local plants that are being added to the Watch List this year.  The Watch List consists of plants the state suspects might be in danger but needs more information on.  When our Science staff is out and about on our properties this year, we will make sure to keep an eye out for and try and document these plants if we find them.

Asclepias amplexicaulis (clasping milkweed)

Asclepias amplexicaulis

Asclepias amplexicaulis

Tephrosia virginiana (wild goat’s-rue)

Goat's rue (Tephrosia virginiana) in bloom.

Goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginiana) in bloom.

Calystegia silvatica (short-stalked false bindweed)

Calystegia silvatica - source Wikimedia Commons

Calystegia silvatica – source Wikimedia Commons

If you happen to see any of these plants out on Nantucket this year – make sure to contact our Science staff!

Does all of this plant talk make you want to run out and start searching for new and rare plants?  Consider becoming a Plant Conservation Volunteer for the New England Wildflower Society! We are always looking to energetic and dedicated people to assist in the work of locating and surveying rare plant populations.

Also – if you are looking for a good source to help you identify local plants – check out the GoBotany website!  GoBotany is a fantastic tool developed by the New England Wildflower Society to make plant identification accessible to everyone.  The website is complete with wonderful photographs and very clear illustrations as well as detailed plant characteristics to help everyone from the very beginner to the experienced botanist.

If you are new to learning plants – visit the website’s Simple Key: a very user-friendly guide to 1,200 of the most common plants in New England.

For all of you Botany-nerds out there: check out the Complete Dichotomous Key to ALL of the plants in New England (over 3500 plants).  This detailed key will allow you to interactively key out plants anywhere you are as long as you have access to the internet!  Also – if you want a list of which plants you can find in your particular county, check out the Vascular Flora of Massachusetts Checklist complied by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage Department.

For more information about our Science and Stewardship Department and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation – please visit our website.

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American Crow

At this time of year, an incredible sight to behold around sunset on the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s South Pastures Property is murder! A murder of American Crows, that is!

John James Audubon's American Crow

John James Audubon’s American Crow

Whether you consider yourself a birder or not, most people recognize a crow when they see one. American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are large, shiny black, and quite raucous birds. They can be found throughout much of the United States and Canada except for the desert southwest. Crows are closely related to ravens, jays and magpies. Very unfortunately, they have developed a reputation as being harbingers of evil due to the poetic use of the term “murder” in reference to large flocks of crows, their presence as ill-omens in Chinese, German and Greek proverbs, their propensity for eating carrion, an association with battlefields and cemeteries, and of course, their infamous depiction in Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.

In one of Van Gogh's last paintings before his death, many have suspected the appearance of crows in this painting "Wheatfield with Crows" to signify his troubled mind.

In one of Van Gogh’s final paintings before his death, “Wheatfield with Crows”, some have suggested the appearance of crows in this painting to signify his troubled mind.

In reality, crows are highly intelligent and exceptionally social creatures. They spend most of their long lives as part of tightly knit family groups. Young birds will remain with their parents for 2-4 years and help to raise young, defend territories and find food. Crows are known to problem solve in groups, and to make and use tools. Despite the frequent assumption that crows are only “death eaters”, carrion actually comprises a small percent of their diet. Crows are actually quite omnivorous, eating everything from fruits and nuts, to worms, insects, fish, snakes, small turtles, and yes, garbage and road kill.

Perhaps because of their social nature, crows are particularly susceptible to West Nile Virus. This virus has a nearly 100% kill rate in crows and they typically die within a week of contraction. While populations have suffered declines due to the virus, it is believed that their numbers are still great enough that worry is not warranted – they are still listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN.

In the winter, American crows sleep in communal roosts that can number in the thousands and even millions! Here on Nantucket, go for a sunset walk along New South Road, west of the Tom Nevers ball fields – you may be lucky enough to witness this amazing spectacle! Hundreds of crows can be seen (and heard!) circling overhead and roosting in the scrub oaks on both sides of the road. Before settling down for the night with the main flock, a few nights ago I watched small group of crows harassing a snowy owl who seemed to be minding his own business. This behavior, referred to as mobbing, is common with crows – they are known to aggressively defend their groups and territories from perceived threats.

Despite superstitions, there is no reason to suspect or fear crows. They are intelligent and inquisitive birds that are fascinating to watch. Happy Birding!

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