What’s New in Nature: Grey Catbird

Grey Catbird (Dumetella caroliniensis)

photo credit: Vern Laux

photo credit: Vern Laux

To be seen and not heard, is certainly not part of the upbringing of these feisty chatterboxes.  As soon as you near, they are sure to alert you of their presence – perhaps by launching into a melodious cascade of sounds to rival a nightingale – or going on in a rush of inflections as if to fill you in on the gossip and stories of the neighborhood – or will let you know it’s annoyed with a scolding whine reminiscent of a demanding cat.

Like the Thrashers and Mockingbirds, the Catbird is a mimic, with exceptional ability to reproduce the calls of other birds and sounds from their surroundings. Their special voice box can even make two sounds at the same time!  Males sing their most impressive songs in the spring, lasting up to ten minutes, but can continue to surprise us with unexpected sounds and mimicry at any time of the year.

photo credit: Vern Laux

photo credit: Vern Laux

They love scrubby brush, filled with arthropods and fruit, making Nantucket a perfect place for them to raise their families. They usually arrive in May to set up house, laying eggs are as colorful as their personalities — a vivid turquoise.  While some will stay all here all winter, many will leave in the fall, heading southward from the Gulf Coast to as far as Panama and the West Indies!

Appearing solid gray at first glance, a closer look reveals the rakish black cap and rusty patch below the tail, more suited to their flamboyant personality.

Prepared by: Iris Clearwater, NCF Science Staff

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



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What’s New In Nature: Orange Milkweed

Flowering now!

Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly milkweed) in flower. Photo credit: G. Kozlowski

Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly milkweed) in flower. Photo credit: G. Kozlowski

Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), also known as  “Butterfly Weed,” attracts a wide variety of butterfly species with its showy flowers and abundant nectar. This gorgeous and unique plant is fairly rare on Nantucket but is a very important component of Nantucket’s sandplain grasslands.


Orange Milkweed has great wildlife value; the leaves are a food source for monarch butterfly larvae, while the flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds, bees, and other insects. Native Americans even used this species to treat lung ailments, giving it another common name, “Pleurisy Root.”

Enjoy this wildflower, but please don’t pick it or dig it up!

Today the Orange Milkweed is increasingly rare due to habitat loss and over-collection for use in gardens. This is plant is the most commonly stolen plant from our properties so please enjoy it in place. Nantucket plant nurseries and garden centers do carry the orange milkweed to plant out in your gardens to attract native pollinators and enjoy the beautiful bright burst of color!

Prepared by: J.P. Krapek, NCF Science & Stewardship

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



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Report Nantucket Bat Sightings!

GOT BATS? We want to hear of your sightings!

Zara Dowling, a graduate student at UMass-Amherst, received a research grant from the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative this spring to study and document the bat species on Nantucket. Zara has been working with the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Science and Stewardship Staff to record the calls of bats throughout the summer. You may have already noticed these bat detectors on some of our properties, including Squam Farm and Stump Pond.

IMG_0930These detectors are charged by solar panels and are set to record from dusk to dawn whenever high frequency sounds are detected. So far, Zara has confirmed the presence of red and hoary bats on island.


Hoary bat (L) and Eastern red bat (R) Photos courtesy of Bat Conservation International

We also need help from Nantucketers! Zara is  interested in collecting observations of bats from local residents. We currently know very little about bat populations on the island, but Nantucket could be providing important habitat to these species. Migratory tree bats, which fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter habitat, often use coastal areas during their fall migration southward, and there are records of these species on the island. Nantucket’s isolation from the mainland might also allow it to serve as a refuge for hibernating bat populations, which have seen declines of 90-99% in much of the Northeast, associated with the spread of the fungal disease known as White Nose Syndrome. The Northern Long-Eared Bat, now Endangered in Massachusetts and federally listed as Threatened, continues to persist on neighboring Martha’s Vineyard, perhaps because of reduced exposure to the disease. Whether Nantucket, with its more open, less forested habitat, could also provide space for these rare bats remains to be seen. Let us know what’s happening in your yard!

DO YOU HAVE BATS CURRENTLY ROOSTING IN YOUR HOUSE OR BARN? Zara will be coming out for a few days later this summer, and can assist in identifying what bats you may have living there.

HAVE YOU SEEN BATS FORAGING OR ROOSTING IN YOUR AREA THIS YEAR OR IN PREVIOUS YEARS? Please send details, including 1) how many (1, 2-9, 10-25, over 25), 2) location (latitude and longitude or street address), 3) date or date range, 4) duration (one time or frequently, multiple years?), 5) roost habitat (in a tree, barn, house, umbrella, and any details about location, such as under eaves, tree species, etc), 6) foraging habitat (over water, in forest, along forest edge, over open field, etc.), and 7) any identifying features, or a photo if possible.

HAVE YOU FOUND A DEAD BAT? Please send a picture of the whole bat, with a quarter for scale, and a close-up photo of the face/ears. Don’t touch the bat with bare hands – bats are unlikely to, but do occasionally, carry rabies.

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Contact Zara at zdowling@eco.umass.edu, or (413) 588-1618.

Any information you could provide regarding bat populations on Nantucket would be hugely appreciated! Please contact Zara to report your observations!

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Welcome to NCF’s 2015 Seasonal Botany Field Assistants

Each summer, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation hires two seasonal botany field assistants to help us collect data on a variety of projects throughout the field season. This year, we are very lucky to have Natalie Pawlikowski and Kaitlyn Evans joining our team! These two ladies will be helping us to locate populations of rare plants on island, remove invasive species, document the effects of deer browse on rare species, map forest composition, collect and propagate seed from native plants, and monitor changes to salt marsh vegetation at Medouie Creek, to name just a few tasks! Natalie and Kaitlyn introduce themselves below:


Natalie Pawlikowski

I grew up in and around Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with a double major in Integrative Biology and English. I am passionate about ecology and conservation and have been fortunate to have a diversity of different research and field experiences. As an undergraduate, the majority of my research was focused on understanding the expanding distribution of the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and spread of Lyme Disease in the midwestern United States. However, I also have been involved in research projects examining social perceptions of white-tailed deer, ocelot behaviors, the ecology of sylvatic plague in prairie dog colonies, and the urban ecology of West Nile virus. Outside of research projects, I have also had a couple of memorable field seasons working on conservation and restoration projects. During my first internship, I worked for a non-profit dedicated to conserving native prairies and grasslands of Illinois. Last summer, I was an intern with the Chicago Botanical Gardens and the Bureau of Land Management. I worked in northeastern California, primarily monitoring rare plant populations and collecting native seed for fire rehabilitation projects.

However, this is my first time working in the Northeast and my first time visiting Nantucket. I am excited at the opportunity to explore the diversity of habitats and organisms on the island. From the beginning, everyone at NCF has been extremely kind and welcoming and I have already had the chance to explore some of NCF’s properties (Squam Farm and Swamp, Sanford Farm, Tupancy House, etc) and work on a variety of restoration and research projects. I think it will be an exciting field season and am happy to be spending the next five months on Nantucket!


Kaitlyn Evans

I am from Worcester, VT and went to school at St. Lawrence University in New York. I graduated with a degree in biology and French. After I graduated, I worked for the Student Conservation Association (SCA) on a trail crew in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. I then took an internship on Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California, as an invasive species removal technician. After that, I had an internship in Moab, UT with the National Park Service as a botany technician where I assisted them on their long-term vegetation monitoring project. That internship led to a job with the Inventory and Monitoring division of the NPS for which I worked seasonally for a few years. Most recently I was working in Durango, CO as a baker for Serious Delights, a small family owned bakery. I made bread and all sorts of pastries and desserts. After working in the bakery for about two years, I was ready to get back into the conservation field and was also looking to move closer to home. I saw this job and thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do both. In my first two weeks, I have already had the opportunity to learn and experience many new things including new plants, animals, ecosystems, and getting stuck in quicksand in a salt marsh! It has been a very eventful first two weeks and I am really looking forward to the rest of the summer.

Kaitlyn and Natalie examining bird's foot violets at Tupancy Links

Kaitlyn and Natalie examining bird’s foot violets at Tupancy Links

Please join us in welcoming Kaitlyn and Natalie to the NCF crew and if you see them out and about on our properties, feel free to say hello and ask questions about nature on Nantucket!

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


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Four-toed Salamanders

In 2009, Andrew Mckenna-Foster, Director of Natural Science at the Maria Mitchell Association, found the very first record of a four-toed salamander for Nantucket in the vicinity of Sesachacha Pond! Andrew was working on another project at the time and incidentally found the four-toed salamander underneath a plywood board meant to attract snakes. Up to that point, it was presumed that our only salamander species on island was the ubiquitous red-backed salamander, a species very commonly found in the early spring underneath logs and leaf-litter in our forests.


Juvenile red-backed salamanders

In the following few years, Andrew searched for other specimens of the four-toed salamander and found a few on NCF’s Squam Farm and Squam Swamp properties. With a permit from the state of Massachusetts, Andrew was able to collect two specimens to deposit in the Maria Mitchell collection and at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, thereby officially documenting the species as occurring in Nantucket County. While searching for these specimens, Andrew and his assistant also found a nesting female with eggs in Squam Swamp!

This spring, NCF decided to follow up on Andrew’s work to try to learn more about this species on our properties. We searched Squam Swamp with the goal of documenting which wetlands were important to four-toed salamanders, how big the population might actually be, and locate nesting females. To date, we’ve found more than 100 nesting females, each with approximately 15-20 eggs! Not bad for a species that we didn’t even know existed on island just a few years ago!

Four-toeds are very small salamanders that are distinguished from other species by having an orangey-brown back, a distinct constriction at the base of the tail and a beautiful white belly speckled with black flecks. As the name implies, they only have four tiny toes on their hind feet. Females are slightly larger than males.


Female four-toed salamander showing constriction at the base of the tail


Underside of a male four-toed salamander

Four-toed salamanders have quite specific habitat requirements. They spend the winter underground often with other male and females of the same species, as well as with red-backed salamanders. They emerge in the very early spring and migrate to dense shrubby wetlands with large hummocks of Sphagnum moss. The females generally lay 10-20 eggs in the moss and brood their nests until hatching. We found several instances of communal nesting where multiple females laid in the same location but only one female tends the entire nest of 50-60 eggs! The eggs develop quickly and hatch within 35-40 days. The larvae drop directly in to the water and feed until metamorphosis. At this point, the juveniles, which look like very small adults, will leave the wetlands and head for the forest floor to hide under loose bark, downed logs and leaf-litter.


Typical four-toed salamander habitat

While nesting of four-toed salamanders is nearly complete already for the spring of 2015, NCF plans to continue searching for wetlands in the Squam area that host populations of this species in the spring of 2016!

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Spring Happenings at Squam Farm

By Connie Helstosky, NCF Sheep Grazing Project Technician

Greetings from Squam Farm! This past fall I made the decision to not breed the ewes. Therefore, there will be no lambs this year out at Squam Farm. I do look forward to lambing in the future. As I learn more about targeted grazing and the unique goals for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation Squam Farm sheep program, I have found myself thankful that there are no lambs on their way to dominate my time in the early growing season. Finally, with this difficult winter I am happy that the sheep could put all of their energy into staying warm and healthy.

Winter Sheep watermarkedWith the flock growing in size over the past few years, winter holding pastures have been used heavily and could benefit from a rest. With that in mind, a new two acre pasture is currently being permanently fenced in. This pasture will run along the public trail and will be ideal for sheep viewing in all seasons. Richard and Donnie Mack from our Properties Maintenance Crew have been hard at work drilling and setting posts, which eventually will be attached to metal fencing. This will provide us with a hardy, all season fence that can withstand the rigors of Nantucket weather! Be sure to take a walk around Squam Farm and check out the new permanent fence.

Donnie and Richard watermarked

The predominant form of fencing used out on the Squam Farm property is a series of plastic posts with four strands of electric wire. This type of fencing, characterized by its orange and black colors, can be moved all over the property. It is impermanent and can be put in and taken out of the ground quite easily. Be careful when viewing the sheep from outside the impermanent fence, because the fence will be hot! This means that a battery charger will be hooked up to the wires keeping the sheep safe inside, but will give you a jolt if you accidentally touch it.

Sheep in Smart Fence July 3 2014 watermarked

I have been very surprised at how different farming can be in different parts of the northeast. From varying soils to different micro-climates, every farm is unique. My first desire when I began this job was to get an idea of what the soils on Squam Farm looked like. Therefore, I sampled all of the permanent pastures where the sheep spend the winter months and are also used in the fall breeding and spring lambing seasons. The results showed various mineral deficiencies, which is quite common in Nantucket’s sandy soils. Across the board I saw low Calcium and low Sulfur. Therefore, after speaking with a couple agronomists and doing some basic arithmetic, I was able to calculate the required soil amendments to bring up the levels of Calcium and Sulfur. In this case, I will be spreading pelletized lime and gypsum within the permanently fenced pastures at Squam Farm. The reason I chose the pelletized form is due to the fact that the wind out at Squam can be strong and I would hate to lose the lime to a good gust. The hope and what science supports is that once the calcium is in the soil it will promote good bacterial growth and will make nutrients more available to the plants.

Sheep in chute watermarked

With more of the macro and micro nutrients available, the plants will then incorporate these nutrients into its tissues which the sheep then eat. Therefore, by increasing the overall health of the soil, you can in turn increase the overall health of the sheep flock, and reduce supplementation requirements. In order to monitor how liming and adding gypsum to the fields will affect some of the native plants, a project has been created. Throughout the upcoming growing season, the science team and I will monitor a 5 acre pasture. One half of the field will be spread with lime and gypsum, and the other half will not. We will monitor biodiversity throughout the coming season and into the future in order to determine how the plant species in the pasture are being affected by these particular soil amendments.

In order to keep the sheep healthy during the grazing season, I have been trimming hooves, de-worming, and vaccinating – all in hopes that the grass will be growing soon and I can put the flock out to work. In addition, it is the time of year when the sheep get their annual haircuts! Shearing is scheduled for the third Saturday in April (weather permitting), so if you would like to come out and see a sheep shearer in action, be sure to stop by the farm on Saturday April 18th.

Sheep and Lambs Spring 2011 002 watermarked

Finally, I would love to hear any and all feedback from you, or just about your happy memories out at Squam Farm. As I look toward the future of the program, I plan to incorporate NCF’s land management goals with the community’s interests and my own personal hopes in order to formulate a holistic management plan. The NCF sheep project is a unique program that benefits many, including the land and community of Nantucket Island. I have truly enjoyed the challenges and successes over the past six months and look forward to learning a whole new skill set as the growing season approaches!

Thanks, and I hope everyone has a wonderful and healthy spring!

Connie (I can be reached at chelstosky@nantucketconservation.org)

Connie with Sheep Nov 2014002

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


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Controlling Phragmites with Salinity

*This research was recently published in the journal Wetland Science and Practice. The full article is available here: PhragmitesGreenhouseWSP

Among invasive, non-native wetland plants in North America, Common reed (Phragmites australis); commonly just called Phragmites is king; forming dense monocultures and crowding out native plants. A variety of this species is native to North America, but the non-native variety has been invading and choking out native vegetation in wetlands all across the country. Nantucket is no exception with large stands of Phragmites seen at Hummock Pond, Long Pond, the Creeks and various smaller wetlands around the island.

Medouie Creek, dominated by the non-native grass Phragmites australis

Medouie Creek, dominated by the non-native grass Phragmites australis

Once Phragmites becomes established, it can be very difficult to eradicate, particularly without more impacts to the wetland. Direct, judicious application of herbicide to cut stems can be effective and reduces the amount of herbicide used and minimizes impacts to other native plants but it is also very time and labor intensive. Plants can be dug up and removed although this causes severe destruction of the wetland soil. Phragmites is typically a freshwater plant and some studies and projects have shown a dramatic impact just by applying salt water to the plants. Phragmites can be very variable in its response to increased salinity with some plants seeming to survive ate moderate salinity levels and some dying back immediately upon exposure.

In 2008, NCF initiated a large-scale salt marsh restoration project at our Medouie Creek property  with the goal to reestablish salt marsh hydrology to a wetland that had been historically diked by a road (Figure 1). Previous blog posts have talked about what this restoration looked like and it’s impacts on native species, including the spotted turtle. One key driver in planning this restoration project was to reduce a large population of Phragmites (~ 3.9 acres) that had invaded the diked, freshwater dominated area of the marsh (Figure 1).

Medouie Overview 2014

Figure 1: Aerial photo overview of the Medouie Creek restoration project showing the location of the Phragmites population before restoration and six years post restoration.

Restoring salt water to Medouie increased salinity in the soil and dramatically decreased the density and health of the Phragmites population over the past seven years. Even though the Phragmites has been diminished, it still covers a large area at Medouie (~2.9 acres) so we decided to conduct an experiment to determine at what level of salinity Phragmites stems specifically growing at Medouie are most impacted. Understanding the response of these local Phragmites plants to different salinity levels in a controlled environment provides us with better understanding of target salinity levels that need to be achieved at Medouie Creek to effectively control and/or drastically impact Phragmites.

Phragmites plants from Medouie were grown in pots at the NCF greenhouse and exposed to one of five different salinity levels (0, 10, 20, 30, or 40 ppt salinity – ocean water is typically between 30-32 ppt). The treatments were continued for two growing season and NCF staff monitored plant height, stem diameter, leaf number and leaf health over that time.

Phragmites at Greenhouse

Phragmites stems at the NCF greenhouse after 2 years of salinity treatments. Differences in height and flowering between the salt treatments are visually dramatic

Increased levels of salinity dramatically impacted both the size and health of Phragmites stems with a significant reduction in stem height and leaf number, particularly at salinity levels of 30 ppt and higher. The impacts of high levels of salinity were even more dramatic the second year of growth indicating that salinity effects on Phragmites growth are cumulative over time. Plants exposed to water with a salinity of 30 ppt or higher were much shorter and less robust than the other plants as can be very obviously seen in the above photo.

In the field, at Medouie Creek, salinity levels have been observed between 15-32 ppt (compared to 0-5 ppt before restoration); comparable to the experimental salinity levels that we saw negatively impacting the Phragmites. Currently these salinity levels are variable across the marsh and not consistent. Seven  years after opening a culvert under the dike road to increase salt water flow, the observed salinity levels are likely at their maximum and the chance of decreasing the Phragmites population even more is slim. Without additional dramatic increases in soil salinity, further impacts to the current Phragmites population are unlikely.


Photo taken in Medouie Creek among the Phragmites stems before restoration took place.


Photo taken from the exact same spot in Medouie in 2013, five years after restoration. The height and density of the Phragmites stems is dramatic but there is still more work needed to control this invasive.

Salinity  alone is not likely to be an effective control strategy unless the entire Phragmites population can be consistently exposed to adequate, increased salinity levels. At sites like Medouie Creek where the Phragmites population extends across a natural gradient of soil salinity levels, there will likely always remain a portion of the marsh favorable to Phragmites. Therefore, further management at Medouie Creek to control the Phragmites population could include opening up additional tidal access creeks to increase salinity throughout the marsh as well as targeted herbicide treatments to decrease and eliminate Phragmites located at sites exposed to lower, more tolerable salinity levels.



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



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