Showy Insects and Spiders of Autumn

*Note: this article was originally written in September 2017 and printed in the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror in the November 30, 2017 issue

Fall is finally here. The air is cooling down and drying out, the tupelo trees are turning red and the goldenrods and blazing stars are blooming in all their yellow and purple splendor. With all the fall wildflowers in peak bloom, now is a great time to take a quiet walk in Nantucket’s sandplain grasslands to enjoy the display of color and catch a glimpse of some showy fall insects too.

Of course, the star of the show has to be the Monarch Butterfly. In recent years, we’ve noticed an alarming drop in the abundance of these regal butterflies, but this year, we are encouraged by what seems like quite an uptick in the number of monarchs flitting through the grasslands and shrublands on island. Monarchs arrive on Nantucket by mid-summer and lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Tiny yellow, black and white striped caterpillars emerge and immediately get to work munching on the milkweed. They eventually pupate in to a green chrysalis, and the adult emerges as the familiar orange and black beauty. While the butterflies that arrived here earlier in the summer will die as they only live, on average, 2-5 weeks, their offspring, the adults that we see now, just completed their metamorphosis and will live for up to 9 months. It is these adults that will soon begin their long migration south to wintering grounds in the mountains of central Mexico. Migration on this scale is quite unusual in the insect world and is only known in a few species of beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers and locusts.

 

monarch catepillar

Monarch caterpillar

 

IMG_0753

Monarch butterly on milkweed

Another very common insect at this time of year is the larval form of the Flannel Moth. Right now, we are seeing Flannel Moth caterpillars all over black huckleberry leaves in the coastal heathlands and shrublands. These caterpillars are quite conspicuous and easily recognizable. The inch long larvae are covered in long hair-like setae, resembling a Persian cat. Thus, some members of the genus are nicknamed “puss caterpillars.” The caterpillars start out covered in wispy white fluff, but by the end of summer their coloration changes after they shed their skin to grow, and molt to a brownish-tan color. They may look soft and cuddly, but the long soft hairs on these caterpillars conceal hollow spines that contain venom. If you rub against these spines, the resulting sting can cause skin irritations that range from mild itching to painful blisters. So, look but don’t touch these fluffy little caterpillars. Flannel moth caterpillars are usually sparse, but in the summer of 2008, a few areas of the island experienced a major outbreak of these caterpillars as well as a Chaindot Geometers and Io moth caterpillars. That summer, caterpillars completely defoliated huge areas of shrubland. We haven’t seen a caterpillar outbreak quite like that since and all the shrubs recovered from the defoliation with no problem.

white and brown instar flannel moths2

White and brown instars of the flannel moth caterpillar

Another creature that is very easy to observe and common in the grasslands now is the Yellow Garden Spider, or Writing Spider (Argiope aurantia). The large size of this spider is impressive and certainly gives one pause, but it is harmless to humans as they rarely bite and if they do, the venom is mild with little more than a welt as a reaction. They are orb web weavers and tend to build their webs close to the ground in gardens and tall grassy areas. The web itself is distinct as it is large (approximately 2 feet wide) and the spider builds a thick, zigzagged line of silk in the center of the web, called a stabilimentum. You might guess from the name of this structure that it has a stabilizing affect for such a large web, but many biologists dispute its purpose, suggesting that perhaps it actually camouflages the spider sitting in the center of the web, lures prey in to the web, or warns birds of the presence of the web to deter them from flying in to it. Whatever the purpose, the spider takes down this central part of the web on a nightly basis and constructs a new one. Spiders may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think most could, from afar, appreciate the beauty of this arachnid.

garden spider3

Yellow garden spider

 

We highly recommend a walk through the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Head of the Plains property or the Nantucket Land Bank’s Smooth Hummocks property in the fall. Both of these properties contain excellent examples of the globally rare sandplain grassland and heathland vegetation communities. Multiple species of goldenrod, New England Blazing Star and many varieties of white and purple asters are all in peak bloom right now and are attracting many species of butterflies and other insects. Now that the island has quieted down, it’s a great time of year to enjoy the peace of these properties and see some of the less appreciated species of wildlife on Nantucket.

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The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends 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

 

Posted in Nantucket Wildlife, Sandplain Grasslands, Caterpillars, Fall Color on Nantucket | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nantucket’s Special “Some Bunny”

NE Cottontail Dec 9 2010 by KCB

A live captured New England cottontail (photo by Karen Beattie).

Nantucket’s fauna is very unique – maybe more so for what is not here than for what we have. Numerous species that are common elsewhere in New England are missing from our assemblage of terrestrial wildlife, including chipmunks, possums, raccoons, skunks, fox, woodchucks, and coyotes. What we do have on Nantucket are several species of small mammals and moles, squirrels (which were re-introduced to the island several decades ago by hitching a ride on a lumber truck), several species of bats (including a recently-discovered population of endangered northern long-eared bats) and two very common mammals- white-tailed deer and eastern cottontail rabbits.

Rabbits in particular are one of the most commonly observed wildlife species on the island- they graze on lawns, in gardens, under bird feeders and along road and bike path edges. Anyone who has driven around the island early in the morning has likely noticed the sheer number of road-killed rabbits, which are quickly “recycled” by nature’s undertakers – crows, gulls and vultures. The lack of previously-mentioned predatory mammals is likely a contributing factor to these high population numbers. What is not widely known is that Nantucket is also home to another very rare and elusive species of rabbit- the New England cottontail, our special “some bunny.”

The New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is the only cottontail rabbit native to the northeastern United States. It prefers dense shrubland habitats where it can effectively hide from predators, and for this reason is rarely seen. The more common eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) looks virtually identical to the New England cottontail, but has a different number of chromosomes; therefore, the two species cannot interbreed. Eastern cottontails occur in shrubland habitats as well, but also frequent open grasslands, suburban yards, parks and fields. Because Nantucket was mostly open grassland habitat during colonial times due to extensive sheep grazing, New England cottontails were probably never numerous. Therefore, the eastern cottontail was introduced in the late 1800’s to provide game for hunters (along with snowshoe hares and black-eared jack rabbits, which are no longer common here). The eastern cottontail has since become our predominant local rabbit.

Eastern Cottontail at South Pastures Feb 10 2012 by KCB

A live captured eastern cottontail (photo by Karen Beattie).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has placed high priority on locating sites where there are still viable populations of New England cottontails due to concerns regarding drastic declines across their range. Habitat loss was likely a major factor in these declines. Nantucket was identified as one of the most likely sites where remnant New England cottontail populations could still exist. This is because they were known to have once occurred here and there are vast expanses of highly suitable, undeveloped habitat currently available – most of which is within the island’s vast, protected conservation properties.

Starting in 2011, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation (NCF) Department of Science and Stewardship undertook an island-wide search for this species by conducting live trapping and tissue sampling combined with collecting fecal pellets (aka bunny poop). The best way to definitively distinguish between the two cottontail species is by DNA, which can be extracted from a pin drop of blood, a small tissue sample taken from the ear, or fresh fecal pellet collected on snow or frozen ground. Out of 216 samples collected over several years from many locations across the island and submitted to the University of Rhode Island for analysis, 11 tested positive as New England cottontails – all of which were collected from the Foundation’s Sanford Farm, Ram Pasture and the Woods property. This is significant information, as it indicates that there is a small but viable remnant population at this site. Prior to this discovery, the only locations within Massachusetts where New England cottontails were known to occur were Cape Cod and a small area in the southwestern Berkshires.

NEC vs EC by Mark McCollough. USFWFgif

Comparison sketch of Eastern and New England Cottontails (by Mark McCollough, US Fish & Wildlife Service).

So why is this important? The New England cottontail has become extremely rare within the last 50 years. It was once found east of the Hudson River in New York, across all of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, north to southern Vermont and New Hampshire, and into southern Maine. This former range is believed to have declined by over 75 percent. This trend is attributed to the introduction of the eastern cottontail as well as the region-wide decline of its preferred dense shrubland habitat. On Nantucket, these dense shrublands are rare priority habitats in and of themselves that support other rare species such as northern harriers, eastern whip-poor-wills and several species of rare shrubland-associated moths. Knowledge of the presence and the locations of population concentrations of New England cottontails within Nantucket’s shrublands will enable better management of these ecologically important habitats.

Want to help? There is one additional way that New England and eastern cottontails can be differentiated: skull suture patterns. Skull sutures are junctions between the major bones of the skull. In New England cottontails, some of the skull suture lines are irregular and jagged, while those of eastern cottontails are smooth. If you happen to be a rabbit hunter and are interested in “donating” the intact head of any rabbits you harvest, the NCF Science and Stewardship Department will gladly accept your contributions – just store each specimen in an individual Ziploc bag (with the name and contact information of the collector, date, and specific location where the rabbit was harvested recorded with permanent marker on the outside) and freeze it while it is still fresh. Call the NCF’s office at 508-228-2884 and ask for any member of the science staff for more information!

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror in the article series called Island Ecology. The Foundation’s Science staff regularly contribute to our local newspaper and reprint the articles here the following week.

NCFPostGraphicPreserving

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends 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

Posted in Field Season, Land Use History, Nantucket Wildlife, Rare Species | Leave a comment

Wildflowers Signal Shift to Autumn

Rose Mallow Miacomet Pond, KAO

As the weather begins to hint of September crispness, there are a couple of island wildflowers that signal the shift. You’ll know that change is in the air when swamp rose mallow and sea lavender reach their peak. Swamp mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) is Nantucket’s native wild hibiscus. Rather than living in true swamps, this big and bold wildflower thrives in salt marsh edges, salt ponds, and other wet shoreline habitats. Instead of a shrub with woody stems like most hibiscus, rose mallow’s soft green stems regrow from the ground each season to a remarkable height — usually three or four feet tall. Not to be outdone by its tropical cousins, rose mallow produces very large blooms, four to eight inches in diameter, which here on Nantucket are typically a solid bright pink. Sometimes the centers of the flowers are a darker shade of pink or red. A version with pale or white petals surrounding a very dark center may be more common in other parts of the rose mallow’s range, which extends from New Hampshire (recently colonized in 2005) westward to the Great Lakes region and south all the way to Texas. Botanists have sometimes considered the different color patterns to be separate subspecies, but since the differences are along a gradient rather than strongly separated they are now regarded as one species with wide variability.

Hib mos, Miacomet Pond East Shore LB,KAO (8)Rose mallow seems almost too showy to be real! A close look reveals that each petal has distinct veins, giving the flower a pleated appearance. In the center of the flower is a large curving structure where all of the flower’s reproductive parts are fused together in one column. Central parts of the column are female, while the male anthers, loaded with golden pollen, branch out around the column. Emerging from the tip of the column are several styles tipped with round sticky pads that receive the pollen when a flower is visited by an insect.

Who pollinates a rose mallow? A visit to the plants growing in my garden bed revealed a number of ants and small beetles harvesting pollen, but they would be unlikely to carry pollen to the stigmas if they can’t reach the nectar hidden inside the column. Bumblebees and other species of native long-tongued bees do visit the flowers for the nectar, and there is even a specialist native bee that feeds solely on hibiscus flowers, called the rose mallow bee (Ptilothrix bombiformis). As its species name suggests, it’s a heavy-bodied bee with a strong resemblance to bumblebees (Bombus spp.). If you happen to spend some time in a rose mallow patch observing pollinator visits, it’s worth a look for this bee; furry like a bumblebee but with longer, lankier back legs, the rose mallow bee is known to mate inside the hibiscus flowers, the males following females on their rounds as they feed. Because of its ability to feed on both the pollen and the nectar, the rose mallow bee is probably the ideal pollinator for our hibiscus. As far as we know, it has never been documented on Nantucket, so it would be an exciting find.

Surprisingly, rose mallow is adaptable enough that you can even grow it in your garden, and various cultivars are available from nurseries. The ones in my garden bed were a bit of an accident, when seed from plants grown for restoration use decided to germinate in the middle of my lettuce patch. So far it seems to do fine mixed in with the vegetables. Rose mallow truly thrives in the rich wet soil of our pond shores and marshes, but compost-enriched soil and a bit of supplemental watering can make it a part of your yard. A sunny spot that naturally collects runoff, such as a rain garden or near the downspout of your gutters, would be perfect. The more water and the richer the soil, the bigger the blooms.

Sea Lavender closeup, Masquetuck,KAO

Another August wildflower found on our shores is sea lavender (Limonium carolinianum). Unlike the flamboyant rose mallow, sea lavender’s haze of color in the salt marsh is made up of hundreds of tiny lavender colored flowers. Growing among the salt marsh grasses, sea lavender may be fully submersed at the highest tides. It has a few interesting adaptations to be able to tolerate this salty, amphibious life style; sea lavender leaves are tough and leathery, somewhat succulent and covered with a waxy outer layer to protect them from drying out. When things get too salty, it’s able to pump saline water out of special pores on the leaf surfaces to maintain the correct balance. The flowers are on tall stalks, elevated above all but the highest of tides, and attracting insects that can cross pollinate the plants.Salt Marsh, Sailboats, Sea lavender at Masquetuck,KAO

Demand for sea lavender’s delicate flowers meant that it was nearly wiped out in some New England marshes. Its colorful flowers are easily dried for flower arrangements, and were picked and sold in large bundles. If over-harvested, too few are left to produce seed for new generations. It takes several years for a seedling to grow large enough to flower and set seed. Researchers have found that it just takes only seven years of over-harvesting to deplete a marsh’s sea lavender by 75%.

Both of these late summer wildflowers contribute to the biodiversity and natural beauty of our shores. They add a splash of color to what would otherwise be areas populated almost entirely with cattail or salt marsh grasses. To view sea lavender in bloom, check out conserved marshes like Eel Point, Folgers, and Masquetuck. The best way to enjoy this salt marsh plant is to walk along the sandy areas of the shore where the fiddler crab armies roam, and take in the fields of green with areas of misty lavender blooms. Rose mallow is easy to find at the Land Bank’s Bamboo Forest along Madaket Road, while Squam Pond, Sesachacha, and Miacomet Pond also have established rose mallow patches that require a bit more exploring.

Hib mos, Miacomet Pond East Shore LB,KAO (2)

 

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror on August 31, 2017 in the article series called Island Ecology. The Foundation’s Science staff regularly contribute to our local newspaper and reprint the articles here soon after.

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The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends 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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Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative: Understanding Nantucket’s Unique Biodiversity

While island’s various conservation organizations each have a slightly different niche, one commonality is that they each have science-minded folks on staff with a great diversity of talents and an interest in conserving part of what makes Nantucket special – its native biodiversity. In 2002, in an effort to foster greater collaboration between scientists from each of the different organizations, the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative (NBI) was formed with the over-arching goal of conserving the native biodiversity of Nantucket through collaborative research, monitoring and education. The NBI is a partnership between the many Nantucket conservation organizations, educational institutions, government agencies, local businesses, non-profits and interested members of the community. The NBI supports biodiversity research on Nantucket, Tuckernuck and Muskeget Islands and the surrounding waters. It also hosts annual NBI public events where the results of biodiversity research and monitoring are shared with the scientific community and the general public.

While the scientists on the NBI committee have a broad scope of specialties, NBI also recognizes that they can’t cover the whole gamut of what needs to be studied on Nantucket. Therefore, one of the most important jobs of the NBI is to entice scientists from other institutions to come to Nantucket to conduct research. The NBI created a small research grant program early in its inception and accepts applications every spring from researchers from all over the country who wish to include Nantucket at as study site for their research. Since 2005, the NBI has awarded more than $63,000 in funding for 67 different research projects studying an amazing variety of topics ranging from bacteria to bats. This year, the NBI funded grants for seven research projects from scientists as far away as Michigan and Tennessee. These scientists have been busy collecting data for their respective projects this summer. Research topics include the ecology of beach-nesting Double-crested Cormorants, rare plant genetic diversity, effects of a non-native tunicate (a type of invertebrate marine animal) on eelgrass, crab diversity in Nantucket Harbor, the prey base of the endangered American burying beetle, leaf-mining insects and the ecology and habitat use of the Northern long-eared bat. To date, these research projects have greatly increased our knowledge of the incredible diversity on Nantucket. Many of these projects have resulted in scientific publications that put Nantucket on the map as a desirable research location. The grant program has sparked much scientific interest in the island and it continues to grow each year. For more information about current and past funded projects, see the NBI’s newly updated website: www.nantucketbiodiversity.org/research-grants-program.

Mike & Jennifer Nab tri at Sq Swamp2

Mike Ballou and Jennifer Mandel, recipients of a 2017 NBI Small Research Grant, collect leaf samples of three-leaved rattlesnake root, Nabalus trifoliolatus, at Squam Swamp to study the genetics of the two species of Nabalus on the island.

The NBI also puts on annual events that are open to the public. This fall will be the 7th Biennial Biodiversity Research Conference from November 3 – 5. The keynote speaker for this event is Dr. Richard Primack from Boston University. Dr. Primack has become well known for his recent work on climate change, using Henry David Thoreau’s records from Walden Pond in Concord, MA from the 1850s to document the earlier flowering and leafing out times of plants and the more variable response of migratory birds occurring now. The conference will also showcase presentations reporting the results of the work of NBI grant recipients over the last few years as well. The conference will be held at the Nantucket Atheneum and the Nantucket Hotel and has been generously funded by the Community Foundation for Nantucket’s ReMain Nantucket Fund. The public is encouraged to attend to learn about all the various research taking place on the island.

The Invasive Plant Species Committee is one of the most active subcommittees of the NBI. Its members are tasked with the daunting challenge of keeping tabs on populations of non-native, invasive plant species on the island and educating the public about the threats these species pose on the island’s native habitats. Throughout the summer, NBI committee members from all the partner organizations as well as a core group of dedicated volunteers participate in “Weed Wednesday” invasive species pulls at a variety of locations around the island in an effort to reduce populations and keep them out of our critical protected conservation areas.

There are several ways that interested citizens, whether visitors or year-round island residents, can be involved in the NBI. Everyone that comes to the biennial research conference and citizen science events are encouraged  to learn more about many and varied  research projects being undertaken by Nantucket researchers as well as off island scientists and participate in field trips. Weed Wednesday invasive species pulls are a great way to devote an hour per week during the summer to help make significant headway in the fight to eradicate invasive species and keep Nantucket’s unique natural areas free of these nasty weeds. If you can’t attend, perhaps you can “adopt a weed” and work on your own time. The Nantucket Land Bank in particular would love to have more eyes on their Smooth Hummocks properties to prevent Spotted Knapweed from invading their sandplain grasslands. Of course, the NBI always welcomes monetary donations to help fund more of the amazing research grants they support each year.

Nora with Tups Knapweed, KAO (1)

A volunteer helps us rid the island of spotted knapweed!

You can learn more about the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative and their events and projects by following them on Facebook or visiting the newly-updated website at www.nantucketbiodiversity.org.

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror on August 17, 2017 in the article series called Island Ecology. The Foundation’s Science staff regularly contribute to our local newspaper and reprint the articles here the following week.

NCFPostGraphicPreserving

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends 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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Shorebirds- Migration in Motion

by Elizabeth C. Buck

AMOY flt wings up

An American Oystercatcher in flight (photo by E. Vernon Laux).

It may seem like August has just arrived, and there is still plenty of summertime to be enjoyed by all, but our shorebirds are already thinking about fall migration. Nantucket is home to many nesting shorebirds that now have young fledglings ready to make their journey south to their wintering grounds. Among these resident shorebirds are the famous Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) and the American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus).

These species have one big thing in common – they are ground nesters. Unlike the “typical” bird’s nest made of twigs high up in a tree, plover and oystercatcher nests are located in small depressions in the sand. The result is very little protection from weather, tides, or predators such as people, cars, gulls, crows and dogs. If the nest can survive these challenges, the chicks will hatch, relying on their parents for the next few days to help regulate their body temperature. Parents will shield their young from the hot sun, or have them huddle under their feathers from the cold, wind, and rain. If the chicks survive these first crucial days, they then become highly mobile, traveling over large areas to the water’s edge and back in search of food with their parents. This may include running as fast as they can from predators (being mostly avian on Nantucket), being chased by unleashed dogs, and avoiding being stepped on by beach goers and run over by 4WD vehicles.  Chicks instinctively hide in small sand depressions for protection, which often include sand tire tracks from vehicles or footprints. These various adversities faced by nesting shorebirds, which are legally protected, illuminates the need for our extra help and protection for a successful breeding season.

Piping Plover chicks Eel Point 2017 by ECB

An adult Piping Plover protects two of her chicks by hiding them under her wings and feathers at Eel Point. Can you spot the third chick in the photo? (photo by Elizabeth C. Buck).

Following the arduous nesting season, the next priority for both adults and chicks is to store up enough fat reserves for a long-distance migration to their wintering grounds. Many shorebirds will flock together, rest and feed, often in the same beach habitat protected for nesting; this is called staging. The symbolic fencing that is kept in place after the nesting season is over is not an oversight on the part of land managers- it is there to provide a small refuge where birds are able to feed and store up energy for their long journey. The birds will thank you for respecting these areas by not disturbing a staging flock; if this happens repeatedly during this critical time in their life cycle, it will deplete their fat reserves and might not allow them to have enough energy to reach their winter destination.

It has always been said that birds fly “south” in the winter, but what does that actually mean for shorebirds, and where are their winter grounds? Many researchers are trying to find answers to this question, and recently have been able to pinpoint some key places where American Oystercatchers and Piping Plovers travel during their seasonal migrations.

The American Oystercatcher Working Group (AOWG) is a collaboration of researchers studying population dynamics and movement patterns of this species along the eastern seaboard and have been working with many organizations, including some on Nantucket, to help collect data. Nantucket, Tuckernuck and Muskeget play a key role in this data collection, as these islands collectively have the highest density of nesting American Oystercatchers in Massachusetts. In order to obtain movement pattern data, oystercatchers are banded with a colored band bearing a 2 or 3 letter code on both legs, located just above the bird’s “knee.”  Anyone that observes a banded bird is encouraged to report sightings to the AOWG’s website, www.amoywg.org. All that is needed is the location where it was observed, the band color and code, and the date.

AMOY Bands Clarks Cove 2017 by ECB

Two banded American Oystercatchers along the shoreline of Clark’s Cove (photo by Elizabeth C. Buck).

As a result of the information collected thus far, the AOWG has found that many American Oystercatchers winter in the southern United States, from Virginia southward to Cedar Key, Florida (located along the Gulf Coast). However, they may go as far south as Ecuador! Public reported sightings and re-sight reports from biologists are providing more information about this species every day.

Researchers have found that the wintering grounds of Piping Plovers range along the coast from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico as far west as Texas. A large population (several hundred) have recently been discovered to prefer the Bahamas. Many Piping Plovers found in the Bahamas are now banded with a flag with a 2-letter code on their leg. Nantucket organizations also play a key role in this research by observing for banded birds, assisting researchers such at the National Audubon Society and the Bahamas National Trust. One of these Piping Plovers with a pink band was re-sighted in 2015 on the beach at Western Avenue (near Surfside) on Nantucket. Anyone is welcome to help these efforts by checking the legs of these shorebirds and reporting the location, band code and color, and date by emailing BahamasPIPL@audubon.org.

Pink Banded Plover Western Ave 2015 by Edie Ray

A pink banded adult Piping Plover that was seen on the beach by Western Avenue in Surfside in 2015 (photo by Edith A. Ray).

Being an island, Nantucket offers plenty of shoreline habitat for these shorebirds. Many island organizations who own and manage these beaches work hard to protect shorebird nesting and staging habitat through symbolic fencing, temporary beach closures, and public outreach. These organizations include Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Massachusetts Audubon Society, The Trustees of Reservation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Town of Nantucket Department of Natural Resources, and the Tuckernuck Land Trust. Staff from these organizations are with these birds from April through September, monitoring their nests and chicks, protecting their habitat, and educating the public. All these groups frequently meet and collaborate during the nesting season to discuss the latest shorebird news, bird movements around the island, and public outreach tactics. With the commitment of local and national conservation groups and the help and mindfulness of the public, these uncommon species will continue to seek Nantucket as a refuge– offering the public a chance to share the beach with and catch a glimpse of these beautiful and unique birds.

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror on August 11, 2017 in the article series called Island Ecology. The Foundation’s Science staff regularly contribute to our local newspaper and reprint the articles here the following week.

NCFPostGraphicPreserving

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends 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

 

Posted in Field Season, Nantucket Wildlife, Natural History, Public Use Management, Shorebirds | Leave a comment

It’s Blueberry Season!

By Karen C. Beattie

Common Lowbush Blueberry fruits by JPK

Common lowbush blueberries (photo by John Krapek).

Summer is in full swing here on Nantucket – the beaches are packed, the restaurants and shops in town are at their busiest and the bike paths are congested. If you are looking for an alternative to these more common summer activities and want to be a true “Nantucket Locavore,” you are in luck- late July and early August is native blueberry season!

Blueberries are members of the Ericaceae, or Heath family. This diverse group of flowering plants tend to prefer acidic environments and are often associated with damp soils and wetlands. In order to thrive in such infertile soil conditions, many members of the Heath family have mycorrhizal fungi associated with their root systems, where the fungi provides the plant with increased ability to break down and absorb nutrients, while the plant provides the fungi with carbohydrate “food” produced during photosynthesis. Because Nantucket has sandy, nutrient poor and acidic soils, other species in the Heath family are also common here, including black huckleberry, cranberry, dangleberry, wintergreen, swamp azalea, mayflower, leatherleaf, bearberry and sheep laurel.

WM Gau pro, Moors,KAO (1)

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is also a member of the Ericaceae, or Heath family (photo by Kelly Omand).

Blueberries are deciduous shrubs with elliptical, short-stalked leaves and zig-zagged stems. They bear small white to pale pink bell-shaped flowers in drooping clusters in late spring. Each one of these flowers needs to be visited by a pollinating insect in order for a berry to be produced in late summer. Blueberries are not just enjoyed by humans, they are also a very important source of food for many species of birds and other wildlife, and the stems and leaves are browsed upon by deer and rabbits. Blueberry bushes turn a dramatic shade of vibrant red in the fall before dropping their leaves, and therefore are an excellent, native, low-maintenance choice for landscaping projects.

Nantucket’s vast open space properties host not just one, but four species of native blueberries – two species of highbush blueberries and two species of lowbush blueberries. The one that most people are familiar with is highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). This is the native species from which most commercial blueberry cultivars originated. While lowbush blueberries grow low to the ground in sunny, dry uplands, highbush blueberries occur primarily in moist environments such as swamps, bogs, pond shores and damp woodlands. These species can grow up to 12 feet tall, which makes berry picking relatively easy – except for the upper branches, which you can leave for the birds. Another very similar species of highbush blueberry, black highbush blueberry (Vaccinium fuscatum), lacks the waxy outer coating (called a “bloom”) that makes other blueberries appear light blue – but the dark shiny fruit are just as tasty. Look for both highbush blueberry species in the woods and wetland edges at Squam Swamp, Squam Farm, Windswept Cranberry Bog, Sanford Farm and Ram Pasture, and along many of the kettlehole pond shores of the Middle Moors.

Higbush Blueberry Flowers by KAO

Highbush blueberry in flower (photo by Kelly Omand).

Our other two blueberry species – common lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) and sweet lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) – are difficult to distinguish. Common lowbush blueberry has small, dark green shiny leaves, while sweet lowbush blueberry has slightly larger, more leathery leaves with pale green undersides. As their names imply, they only grow 1-2 feet in height and require a little bit of strain on the back to pick. Lowbush blueberries occur in open, full sun locations and grow clonally, with an individual plant consisting of many stems connected by a vast underground root system. Although smaller and less fleshy than highbush berries, many wild blueberry connoisseurs think that lowbush berries are the sweetest and best tasting. Both species of lowbush blueberries are common in the heathlands and grasslands along the south shore of the island at Madequecham, Smooth Hummocks, Ram Pasture and Head of the Plains, as well as some of the more open heathland habitats in the vicinity of Altar Rock in the Middle Moors.

Nantucket’s vast conservation lands are open to the public for passive recreational uses. In most cases, the old adage to “take only pictures and leave only footprints” is the preferred policy of open space property managers. However, blueberry picking by individuals (in limited quantities for non-commercial purposes) is allowed, so feel free to indulge – as long as you leave some for other blueberry pickers and for the birds! A word of caution: whenever you are foraging for wild foods, it is always a good idea to be 100 percent certain that you have correctly identified what you are picking and eating.

Highbush Blueberries by JPK

Highbush blueberries (photo by John Krapek).

All blueberries are fire-adapted. Like many other Heath species, they contain volatile oils in their leaves and stems that burn readily and often completely, but quickly regenerate from their clonal root systems during the following growing season. Commercial blueberry growers regularly burn their blueberry fields to boost crop yields, as flower and fruit production increases significantly the second season following a burn. Prescribed fire is often used by the island’s conservation groups, particularly the Nantucket Land Bank, in Nantucket’s sandplain grassland and heathland habitats to control the encroachment of tall woody shrubs and trees and stimulate the growth of grasses and native wildflowers. This management practice is also very beneficial to lowbush blueberry populations- so if you want to know where the best blueberries will be, start keeping track of where prescribed burning has taken place and return to that spot a couple seasons later for the best crop!

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror on August 3, 2017 in the article series called Island Ecology. The Foundation’s Science staff regularly contribute to our local newspaper and reprint the articles here the following week.

NCFPostGraphicPreserving

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends 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

Posted in Blueberries, Botany, Fruits and Berries, Native Plants | Leave a comment

What’s Ailing Nantucket’s Black Oaks?

By Kelly A. Omand

Castor Pollux BlOaks (1)

Two large black oak trees in Squam Swamp (photo by Kelly Omand).

If you spend a lot of time looking upwards in the forests of Nantucket, you may have observed something sinister occurring in the canopy of our black oak (Quercus velutina) trees. When first noticed several years ago, it seemed like damage from the usual suspects; fierce storms and salt spray often have negative impacts on our forests at sea. Over time, however, the situation began to resemble a strange sort of “oak pattern baldness” that has worsened dramatically over the last two years. It became clear that white oaks and other tree species were not affected. Due to its history of deforestation and its isolation, Nantucket’s tree species diversity is lower than in nearby mainland forests, and many of our oldest trees are just past the century mark. That makes our scattered “older growth” trees, of which black oak is among the most common due to its salt and wind tolerance, even more prized.

While introduced pests such as the winter moth and gypsy moth have captured the news by defoliating large swaths of forests in other parts of New England, the recent attacks on our island black oaks were made by the newly-named species of oak gall wasp (Zapatella davisae). These tiny insects appear to have advanced northward along the coast, making themselves at home from Long Island to the Cape and Islands. In November of 2013, an article titled “Wasps infesting, imperiling area’s black oaks” appeared in the Boston Globe. Soon after, visiting scientists from Martha’s Vineyard spotted the signature damage on Tuckernuck during the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative event in July of 2014. The gall wasps were noted for the first time on Nantucket later that fall, while entomologists were still sorting out the wasp’s identity, its life history, and its origin (click here for more information on the black oak gall wasp).

3. Black Oak with Gall Wasp Damage

A black oak in Quaise with oak gall wasp damage (photo by Kelly Omand, NCF).

It’s unsurprising that these tiny wasps were able to fly under the radar; miniscule gnat-sized creatures, they spend their early life tunneling inside black oak twigs. Once arrived, they remain unnoticed by humans for a few years. Eventually the distinctive swollen knobs on the twigs have become widespread. That’s when people start to notice the dying foliage on the affected branch tips, known as “flagging.” As the infestation progresses, it becomes hard to miss — large areas of a tree’s canopy fail to leaf out in the spring due to repeated onslaughts of larvae, and strange clusters of leaves appear. Heavily infested trees are unable to recover, while ones nearby may be only lightly damaged.

It’s possible to inject affected trees with a pesticide early in the infestation, but that approach is only viable for a limited number of prized landscape trees; it’s just not feasible for an entire forest. Plus, treating the trees this way will likely kill a wide variety of insects that feed in a less destructive fashion on the oak twigs and foliage. In turn, this may have a big ripple effect. In his eye-opening book “Bringing Nature Home,” entomologist Doug Tallamy reports that oak species in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region support 534 different species of butterflies and moths, making oaks a real biodiversity powerhouse for the insect world — and for the birds and other creatures that depend on these insects as a food source.

2. Black Oak Canopy Gall Wasp Damage

Canopy of black oak with damage due to oak gall wasp (photo by Kelly Omand, NCF).

In 2016 and 2017, Nantucket Conservation Foundation (NCF) Science and Stewardship staff encouraged University of Massachusetts at Amherst PhD student Monica Davis and her advisor, Dr. Joe Elkinton, to visit Nantucket. Davis studied the oak gall wasp intensively for her doctoral dissertation, now completed, and collected samples from forests all over southern coastal New England. In fact, the oak gall wasp is now named in her honor. She discovered that twigs from some locations had few emerging live oak gall wasps, but lots of parasitoids – what we would consider “beneficial insects.” These are other tiny predatory species of wasps that lay eggs on the gall wasp larvae, consuming them before they reach adulthood. A “who’s who” list of emerging twig insects can tell a lot about the levels of oak gall wasp damage to expect at a particular site. High numbers of predators and low numbers of emerging gall wasps translate to less damage for the trees.

During the scientists’ spring visits to the Nantucket, they toured black oak areas to gauge our infestation relative to the Cape and other coastal sites. Nantucket appears to be at an earlier stage, since the insects took longer to arrive on island. Those visits left many questions remaining: are there enough beneficial parasitoids to bring the Nantucket infestation under control quickly? Will some of our prized large black oak trees remain healthy for the future?

1. Black Oak Gall WaspTwig Damage

Close-up of swollen black oak twigs infested with gall wasp larvae (photo by Kelly Omand, NCF).

This June, NCF and the Nantucket Land Council partnered to sponsor a new student research project in Dr. Elkington’s entomology lab. The student, Biology major Cameron Freedman-Smith, will identify insects emerging from Nantucket twig samples, identifying and counting parasitoids and gall wasps. These data can be compared to data from other areas like Long Island, NY, where the major wave of damage took place in the 1990s, but has since petered out due to the rise of the beneficial insects. If Nantucket lacks the most important parasitoids, they could possibly be reared from a nearby source and introduced to the island to help protect our black oaks for the future. Results of this research will be presented to the public on Nantucket at a future date, so stay tuned for more updates as the story unfolds.

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror on July 27, 2017  in the article series called Island Ecology. The Foundation’s Science staff regularly contribute to our local newspaper and reprint the articles here the following week.

NCFPostGraphicPreserving

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends 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

 

Posted in Botany, Field Season, Forests, Native Plants, Natural History, Research by Collaborators, Trees | Leave a comment