Early Spring Botany: Into the Thicket

Exploring shrubs in winter gives you a chance to appreciate their structural beauty, such as the gnarled branches and spiraled trunks of this old growth high bush blueberry.

As winter brightens into spring and we all suffer through the “spring forward” time change, the trees and shrubs in our landscape are beginning to awaken from their winter dormancy. But until bud burst, you can still get out there and learn to recognize more of our Nantucket Flora in winter condition — let’s hope, with gradually warming weather and some pleasant sunny days!

The February Winter Botany forest tree ID blog article was quite popular, so here’s an introduction to some of our local shrubs before they are decked out in leaves and flowers. Since there are many more shrub species on Nantucket than tree species, this article includes only a sampler, and we hope to write about more shrubs in winter condition next season.

A great place to start in getting to know our shrubs is black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), one of the most common bushes of open areas on Nantucket. Like blueberries, huckleberries produce edible fruit prized by humans and wildlife, although black huckleberry fruits are glossy and black, and are a bit less sweet and have larger seeds than their blueberry “cousins.”  How can you tell a black huckleberry in winter? Look for large areas of densely growing, upright stems. While black huckleberry twigs can be brown or gray, the upper branches often have a bright red cast that seems to grow more pronounced as winter shifts into spring. Buds on this species are tiny and nondescript, coming to an angled point rather than rounded like those on high bush blueberry. You can find large patches of this clonal shrub growing with scrub oak in the Middle Moors (AKA Serengeti). Clonal shrubs reproduce by sending out underground runners that make new upright stems, so that they often appear as dense patches of growth all of one kind.

Black huckleberry twigs with cranberry colored growing tips (most recent years’ growth) stand out in the moors and grasslands.

Common high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is also abundant and widespread on Nantucket, but mainly in and around wetlands and ponds. High bush blueberry seems to take its name very seriously, growing in tall mounded shapes, sometimes reaching 10 or 12’ tall. Larger “old growth” blueberry shrubs have gnarled, spiraling stems that form interesting contorted shapes with more flaking, textured bark. Like black huckleberry, twigs of high bush blueberry are often bright red, but it’s easy to tell them apart, because high bush blueberry has large plump rounded buds (also often red) that are pointed at the tip. The bud scales that protect the flowers and leaves often have a lighter colored edging so that you can see the individual scales quite easily on high bush blueberry. Note: sometimes the twigs are green or brown, so don’t be fooled by a lack of red–get to know the buds and the growth form of the trunks and branches (top picture).

High bush blueberry often shares the cranberry colored twig coloration, but the buds are rounded, often with light colored edges on each scale.

Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) is also extremely common on Nantucket and found growing in dense thickets ringing ponds and wetlands, as well as in moist forest. The scent of sweet pepperbush’s creamy white flower spikes is most often described as “overpowering or cloyingly sweet.” Sweet pepperbush perfume is strong enough to drown out the smell of the landfill if you are driving down Madaket Road during the short time this species is in bloom! In winter, sweet pepperbush may be confused with neighboring clumps of maleberry (Lyonia ligustrina), but you will find that sweet pepperbush’s woody capsules are neatly arranged on a central stalk, creating a spike-like shape. Each woody capsule has a persistent style that protrudes, making it look more like a bird with a beak, rather than a rounded ball-shaped capsule as in maleberry. Flower clusters of maleberry are irregular, rather than an upright flower stalk.

Sweet pepperbush twigs and last season’s flower stalks are easy to spot in the winter.

Often found growing with sweet pepperbush and high bush blueberry is Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum). Another common name for this species is clammy azalea, for the sticky glands that grow all over its flower tubes. In winter, there is nothing clammy about it, and you will recognize it mainly by the fact that it grows with branches in whorls similar to the spokes on an umbrella. You can also easily recognize the large round buds (much larger than those of the other shrubs discussed here) with pointed tips that contain the season’s new foliage and flowers. The buds are usually tan or greenish, with darker chestnut brown and a white fringe edging each scale. In late spring or early summer, swamp azalea’s white blossoms begin to appear just after sweet pepperbush and offer a lighter jasmine fragrance. Squam Farm, Squam Swamp, and Sanford Farm are great places to view these wetland species along the trail.

Swamp azalea twig and close-up view of a bud.

Sumac (Rhus copallina, R. glabra, and R. hirta) are clonal shrubs that can rapidly colonize abandoned agricultural fields and vacant lots. On Nantucket they are also found in shrublands, sandplain grasslands and heathlands, though their distribution is patchy and they are not generally dominant species there. Sumacs are highly visible in the fall with their incandescent red or orange foliage, and clusters of fuzzy deep burgundy fruit that top the upper branches. In winter, remnants of the fruit remain, after being picked over by birds and pummeled by the weather. You can also recognize sumacs by their stout twigs and fat buds, which alternate on the stem.

Winged sumac (R. copallinum) is most common on island and may be found growing in large patches at the UMass Nantucket Field Station on Polpis Road. Its leaves have wings along the petiole, and it can be distinguished from other sumacs by the leaf scar, which surrounds the buds only less than halfway. Smooth sumac (R. glabra) has leaf scars that make a U or C shape around each bud, and its twigs are smooth and hairless.

Staghorn sumac (R. hirta), looks much like smooth sumac, except that it has fuzzy twigs, like the velvet on a buck’s antlers. Smooth sumac is found in several locations around the island, while staghorn sumac is quite rare and known to occur in only a couple spots. Interestingly, staghorn sumac is very common and widespread on the mainland.

As with trees, dormant season botanizing to learn shrub ID is a fresh way to see our shrubs in a new light and start to notice the roles they play in our island ecosystem. Plenty of time to get out there before leaf-out!

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 now!  www.nantucketconservation.org

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Family Stay-cation Scavenger Hunt is a Success!


For February break Nantucket Conservation Foundation put together a fun family scavenger hunt for those who didn’t travel for vacation. We are happy to say this was extremely successful having almost 100 kids sign up! This free scavenger hunt was designed to get families outside and to explore six different properties owned by Nantucket Conservation Foundation. These properties were Squam Farm, Masquetuck, The Serengeti, Ram Pasture, Head of the Plains, and Capaum Pond. Each property was strategically picked to give families a chance to experience different habitats and to learn unique facts about them. They got to learn about rare species, native plants, wildlife, and a little bit of Nantucket history along the way. At the end of each trail they would receive a puzzle piece and once the puzzle was completed, they would collect a special prize!

NCF Scavenger Hunt (002).jpg

Not only was it fun for the families it was a delight for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation staff as well. It was exciting to hear, “I never knew that trail existed!” and how much fun they had on their scavenger hunt adventure. At Nantucket Conservation Foundation, we not only want to protect our 9,006 acres but we want to share them with the community. We believe that Nantucket is a unique place that needs to be studied, maintained, and shared so others will appreciate it for years to come.

Scavenger Hunt

First kids to complete the Scavenger Hunt!


Since this event was enjoyed by so many, we will be planning on doing it again but selecting different properties, so it will be a new experience every time! If you want to stay up to date with all our events, please become a member or join our email list. That way you will never miss out on any of the fun.



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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Good Firebreaks Make Good Neighbors

One of the frequent calls we get at the Foundation’s office during the fall, winter and early spring involves questions about the firebreak management work we are doing on our properties. Why are we cutting down the shrubs? Where will we be cutting next? Will we eventually be cutting down everything? The level of interest about this work from our neighbors, members and the general public is a testament to how much people care about Nantucket’s conservation lands. Although this topic has been covered in previous blog posts (see https://ncfscience.org/2018/05/03/whats-going-on-with-all-the-brushcutting-in-the-tom-nevers-area-wildfire-risk-reduction-and-restoring-habitat-for-rare-plants-and-animals/), it is a subject worth revisiting to provide updated information and answers to these common inquiries.

Tom Nevers Firebreak Feb 2019 IMG_1670

Homes adjacent to a firebreak cut this winter in Tom Nevers (photo: Karen Beattie).

Why are we cutting down the shrubs?

This work is being done as part of the Foundation’s Wildland Fire Risk Management Program. This project has two mutually-compatible goals: 1) reduce the risk of wildfire impacting homes, facilities and public infrastructure on Nantucket, and 2) conduct management to benefit rare species and plant communities, including sandplain grasslands, heathlands and scrub oak barrens. The Wildland Fire Risk Management Program was first adopted in 2011 by our Board of Trustees. Since then, our staff has developed plans, received permitting and implemented management in several high-risk areas around the island, including Trots Hills, Head of the Plains, the Middle Moors and South Pastures (the area between Nantucket Memorial Airport and Tom Nevers).

Huckleberry Burning

Black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) is one of Nantucket’s native, fire adapted shrubs that burns very hot and intensely (photo: Bruce Perry).

Reducing Wildfire Risk: The unique landscapes of Nantucket’s conservation properties are surrounded by homes, roads and power lines. People living adjacent to undeveloped open space are lucky to enjoy these beautiful properties just outside their back door, but – as illustrated by last year’s tragic events in California – these neighborhoods are at risk when they occur in close proximity to a landscape adapted to fire. Many of the native plant species here on Nantucket contain high levels of oils and resins in their stems, twigs and leaves, which ignite easily, burn intensely and can spread fire rapidly. Many of these species actually require fire or some other type of disturbance for their continued existence. Fire ecologists consider places where structures and other human development intermingle with undeveloped land containing dense, flammable vegetation to be high risk “Wildland Urban Interface” zones. There are many places that fit these criteria on the island. To make matters worse from a wildfire risk perspective, the use of traditional wooden building materials is required by our Historic District Commission. Further increasing our risk is Nantucket’s 2 ½ hour car ferry travel time, which limits the ability of off-island fire departments to promptly provide mutual aid in the event of a wildfire. Management of vegetation in the Wildland Urban Interface is key for both preventing wildfires and controlling wildfires if they do occur.

North Pasture Firebreak June 5 2017 2

Open habitat created by firebreak mowing in the Middle Moors near North Pasture Lane (photo: Karen Beattie).

Benefitting Rare Species and Plant Communities: Nantucket’s fire-dependent habitats are designated as uncommon and exemplary “Priority Natural Communities” by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NH&ESP) because of the high concentrations of rare species that they contain. Restoring, maintaining, and conserving these ecologically-significant areas are high-priority goals for the Foundation. The challenge we face as land managers is to figure out how to best reduce “fuel loads” (the amount of flammable material within a defined space) within the Wildland-Urban Interface adjacent to our conservation lands while also complementing our ecological goals. Fortunately, this is not as challenging as it sounds. Brushcutting, tree removal, and/or prescribed burning are all management practices that reduce fire hazard and also promote habitat conditions for the rare species associated with our grasslands, heathlands and shrublands. These activities need to be planned out carefully so that they do not impact sensitive resources, such as nesting birds, rare species and wetlands. They also require detailed fire management plans to be developed, submitted and approved by the NH&ESP.

FECON 021118 crop

Thanks to a generous donor, the Foundation owns two Fecon mulching tractors that are used to create firebreaks (photo: Tom Lennon).

Where will we be cutting next?

Since the initiation of this program, we have systematically widened out existing roadways or cut strategic firebreaks through dense brush on our Head of the Plains, Trots Hills and Middle Moors properties. These firebreaks are being maintained at least annually with follow-up mowing. This winter or at the beginning of next winter, we hope to complete work within the South Pastures area – the final high-risk area identified by our approved fire management plans. The Foundation owns over 1,770 contiguous acres of tall, dense scrub oak immediately downwind of dense residential development along the western side of Tom Nevers Road, making these homes at high risk in the event of a wildfire. Management work being undertaken in this area includes establishing new firebreaks immediately adjacent to densely developed neighborhoods and reducing the height of the vegetation along the edges of Russell Way and New South Roads. In order to avoid disturbing nesting birds and other wildlife, we limit our brushcutting efforts to the late fall, winter and early spring months. During these seasons, the lack of leaves on dense shrubs also affords increased visibility to the tractor operator so that large rocks and other natural obstructions can be seen and avoided.

Tom Nevers Firebreak Feb 2019 IMG_1666

A firebreak cut this winter in Tom Nevers (photo: Karen Beattie).

Will we eventually be cutting down everything?

No! Once we have established the recommended firebreaks in the South Pastures area, all of the initial, approved work associated with this program will be completed. Some additional cutting may take place adjacent to treated areas to reduce the straight lines created by the initial brushcutting and create a more natural transition between managed and unmanaged areas.

Established breaks will be regularly maintained by periodic mowing going forward. Although the initial cut creates a large amount of shredded woody material that gets deposited on the ground as a thick layer of mulch, these newly-opened landscapes will “green up” in the summer. This woody debris will be reduced over time with follow-up treatments. The results of road edge mowing that has been taking place within the Middle Moors area for many years demonstrates that these areas will eventually be colonized by native grass and wildflower species. In fact, some of the largest populations of our state-listed rare plant species, including New England blazing star (Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae), eastern silvery aster (Symphyotrichum concolor) and sandplain blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium fuscatum) occur along open, sunny maintained road edge habitats.

North Pasture Firebreak Extension June 5 2017 6

A firebreak in the North Pasture Lane area of the Middle Moors in June 2017. The area on the left was initially cut during the winter of 2016-2017; the area on the right was initially cut during the winter of 2015-2016 (photo: Karen Beattie).

We invite you to get out and enjoy the Foundation’s properties and see some of these treated areas first-hand, right after they have been cut……and then come back this summer to see how beautiful these newly-opened landscapes look once the vegetation has greened up! If you like what you see, please consider making a contribution via our website (see link below) to our dedicated fund that supports this important work.


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

Posted in Habitat Management, Restoration, Sandplain Grasslands, Scrub Oak Barrens, Wildfire Risk Reduction | Leave a comment

Winter Botany: Twigs and Buds

forest twig montage 2019

During the colder winter months, many of our trees are “closed for the season.” Like island businesses, trees will have an “opening date” sometime in spring when flower buds will pop and leaves will unfurl. Exploring the forest in winter can be a fun way to see another facet of island ecology and learn to recognize the details that make tree species distinctive and unique.

Have you ever tried to identify trees in winter condition? This blog article will give you a good start. On Nantucket we have fewer species of trees in our forests than in many mainland locations, so it’s something of a beginner’s paradise. Above is a collage showing twigs of our most common deciduous trees that may be found in areas with mesic (moist) forest, mainly on the northeastern region of the island, such as Squam Farm & Squam Swamp, Norwood Farm, Windswept Bog, and Masquetuck Reservation.

One of the easiest trees to learn how to identify in winter is the Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), which is particularly common in forested areas of Squam. Stands of young sassafras trees have a characteristic upside-down-umbrella theme to their canopies and you can learn to spot them from a distance.

sassafras branch structure

Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) have an interesting branch pattern and young groves can be identified at a distance.

Older sassafras trees become more irregular in their branching patterns and may easily be confused with tupelo, another common tree of our mixed deciduous forests. Take a closer look and Sassafras’s green twigs with large buds alternating on the stem will help you recognize this species at any size. A “scratch-and-sniff” of the inner bark on a twig will clinch the identification–sassafras bark has a spicy lemony scent.

sassafras buds & twigs

Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) is even more widespread on Nantucket than sassafras, and is often found in wetter areas and around ponds. It has many short spur branches that jut out from the main branch at right angles and small nondescript buds. Tupelos often grow in dense stands that are sculpted by the wind. They have a tendency to form a flat-topped tree when growing alone in the open. Cutting a twig open lengthwise reveals that the inner part of the twig is partitioned neatly by tiny walls called septae, clinching the identification on this species.

tupelo twig & buds

Another easy to learn tree is the red maple (Acer rubrum) which on Nantucket is mainly found in wet areas, often in low lying spots known as “hidden forests.” Surrounded by vernal pools and mats of sphagnum moss, this tree can be identified from a distance by its red buds and twigs that occur opposite one another on the stems.

red maple twig&bud

Red maple buds are neatly arranged in opposing clusters of three — two small lateral buds flanking a larger central bud on each side of the stem. In late winter, red maple buds become swollen and the red color becomes even more obvious  as trees prepare to burst into scarlet flower.

In contrast, oaks have irregular clusters of buds that alternate on either side along the stem. Black oak (Quercus velutina) has large, velvety pointed buds . This species has been plagued in recent years by oak crypt gall wasps, which leaves the trees in poor condition as the insect larvae inhabiting the twigs cause a lot of damage. From a distance you can often spot the knobby deformities on the twigs containing the gall wasp larvae. You can read more about oak gall wasps in a previous blog article: Black Oak Gall & Parasitoids blog. Leaves on this species have sharply pointed lobes and often remain on branches through the winter, as described in an earlier blog post.

black oak buds & twigs

White oak (Quercus alba) has smaller rounded buds in clusters, and like black oak, often has some remaining dried leaves long into the winter. Both black and white oak produce copious acorns in some years, but good luck finding any in February, as the squirrels have usually hidden most of them away!

white oak twigs & buds

Another tree popular with squirrels is the mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), which is usually found in drier upland sites. This species has very thick twigs and large stout buds. The buds themselves are covered in protective scales that have a velvety coating. you can often find remnants of the large nuts on the ground beneath a mockernut, typically just the large watermelon-shaped outer husks. As with the acorns, mockernuts are usually in squirrel food caches by late winter.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is easy to recognize by its smooth elephantine grey bark, but a close-up look at the twigs and nuts is a good way to get to know this species better. Beech’s slender twigs have a zig-zag pattern and distinctive long narrow buds. If you happen to find a tree that has had a good fruiting year, you will notice lots of burr-like husks on the ground beneath. Each of these capsules splits open to release small nutlets, each with a triangular cross-section. Beech nuts are popular with wildlife  — you guessed it, squirrels, but also a variety of bird species and rodents.

beech twig & nuts

If you’ve enjoyed this intro to Nantucket’s common forest trees in winter, please put your new winter tree ID skills to use and visit one of our island forests for a hands-on look.



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 now!  www.nantucketconservation.org




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Weird Winter Wildlife

This winter, there have been several unusual winter wildlife sightings on Nantucket. Most of these sightings are of creatures that ought to have migrated well south of us by now. A lone Piping Plover was spotted at Smith’s Point during the annual Christmas bird count on December 30th. Typically, these summer denizens of Nantucket’s beaches begin their southward migration by the end of August with the last stragglers fleeing by late September. A Whimbrel was spotted in mid-January poking around Folger’s Marsh. Whimbrel’s summer breeding territory is in the far northern arctic, but they spend the winter along the Gulf Coast of the US to South America.

Another surprising find was a Hoary Bat! On a warm and rainy Sunday, January 20th, the high temperature on Nantucket reached 52°F, a temperature warm enough that a bat may have been able to take advantage of to search for a tasty winter moth snack at a time of year that bats are typically hibernating. However, between 5 and 8 pm, the temperature dropped quickly and drastically, and by Monday morning on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, had bottomed out at 8°F. Around 9:30 that morning, a woman walking her dog at Gardner Farm came upon what she assumed was a pine cone but upon closer inspection, realized was a bat on the ground in the middle of the trail! The bat was sluggish but alive – so she called the “bat lady“. This area of the island contains a large stand of pitch pine and is where we have documented many Northern long-eared bats – so it was quite a surprise to arrive and find a Hoary Bat!


Hoary Fat found on Nantucket on January 21, 2019                      Photo credit: Danielle O’Dell

We’ve never captured this species on Nantucket before although we have occasionally “heard” them on our acoustic detectors throughout the summer, but not in the dead of winter. Hoary’s are thought to be mainly migratory, heading south where they can continue to feed throughout the winter, rather than hibernating as some other bats species do. We would not expect to find a Hoary up north at this time of year, although, apparently not all Hoary bats adopt the migration strategy, some instead, are capable of hibernation as well. Perhaps we have a few Hoary’s choosing to winter on Nantucket?

The bat was transported to the Cape Wildlife Center for rehabilitation. As of January 29th, Robyn Rohm, a wildlife rehabilitator, reported that the bat was alive and well. It took a day or two for it to acclimate and learn to eat mealworms but she is now pigging out on 40 mealworms per day! She has no injuries so was likely just cold stunned by the quickly plunging temperature. They will keep the bat until the weather begins to warm and expect to release her in the spring without issue.

If you find an injured bat on Nantucket, it should never be touched with bare skin! If a bat comes in contact with human skin, whether or not it appears sick and even if there are no bites or scratches, a vet will have to euthanize the bat and send it for rabies testing. The best policy if you find an injured bat is to wear thick gloves or use a stick to get it in to a box or some sort of container and bring it to Offshore Animal Hospital. You will notice in the photo above my bare hands holding this bat – because I have a rabies vaccination, the Mass State Veterinarian allowed this bat to be rehabbed, vs. euthanized.

Should you find a bat in your house, the best thing to do is isolate the bat in one room, shut all the doors and open the windows. It will eventually find its way out. It doesn’t want to be in your house any more than you want it to be there.


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 now!  www.nantucketconservation.org

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Nantucket’s Little Winter Warriors

It’s a well-known fact that most birds fly south for the winter. But what about our feathered friends that tough it out throughout the winter, how do they survive?


A Black-capped Chickadee (Photo: Libby Buck)

Our backyard songbirds such as the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) or the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) survive by using instincts, species adaptations, and of course, with a little help from humans. For songbirds it’s instinctual to seek shelter, especially during winter storms. There are many different types of shelters that these birds will utilize such as shrubs, nesting boxes, cavities in trees, or human-made structures. Some birds like the chickadee have an adaptation that allows them to be able to control their body temperature called “regulated hypothermia”. They are able to reduce their body temperature as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit from their daytime level, which ultimately helps them use less energy trying to maintain a higher temperature. Also, you may have seen many birds hopping around on one leg in the winter. Please know that most likely they aren’t hurt, what they are doing is trying to keep one foot warm in their downy feathers, which are small, insulating feathers found close to their bodies. Bird’s feet can reach freezing temperatures because of countercurrent heat exchange system, and because their feet are made up of tendons and bones they aren’t susceptible to frostbite.

red cardinal bird on tree branch

A male Northern Cardinal (Photo: Harvey Reed)

If you would like to help these birds brave the winter it’s an excellent idea to have a bird feeder, or better yet, a heated bird bath. Once everything freezes over fresh water is hard to come by, and some birds will resort to eating snow and ice, but having a continuous supply of fresh water would be ideal. Having a bird feeder is extremely helpful for songbird survival, especially if it is a harsh winter and their food sources are depleted. A wide variety of birds love sunflower seeds, many finches and smaller birds enjoy nyjer seed, and a suet feeder will attract birds that need higher energy sources such as woodpeckers and nuthatches. You never know who will visit your birdfeeder; on Nantucket we frequently get rare birds making a pit stop on their migration route. Always keep your eyes peeled for something fun!

blue grosbeak

A rare sighting of a female Blue Grosbeak in late winter of 2017. (Photo: Libby Buck)



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 now!  www.nantucketconservation.org

Posted in Nantucket Wildlife, Winter | Leave a comment

Using Wetlands to Improve Nantucket’s Coastal Resiliency

As an island in the Atlantic Ocean, Nantucket intimately understands the impacts of increased flooding frequency and storm events. For our community, adopting ways to increase our Coastal Resiliency is essential to maintaining quality of life, community function and ecological integrity on our little island.

storm surge and inundation pathways - 2016

Maximum Annual Storm Tides and Storm Surges recorded at the Nantucket Harbor Tide Station 1965-2015. (Storm Surge and Inundation Pathways Report, 2016)

So what is Coastal Resiliency? Essentially, it is the ability of a coastal community to resist, absorb, adapt to, and recover from the impacts of sea level rise, the increasing magnitude and frequency of storm events and shoreline change. The faster and more effectively we can respond to these hazards or mitigate their impacts all together, the better our Resiliency as a community.  On Nantucket our Town government, municipal departments, historical preservation groups, community civic leagues and conservation groups are all talking about Coastal Resiliency and how to make our community more resilient to the environmental change already impacting us. On the Town website, you can learn more about the Town’s current efforts to develop a community level Coastal Resiliency Plan to direct actions we can take as a community as well as position Nantucket to receive grant money.

On Tuesday, January 11, 2019, staff from NCF, Select Board members, DPW staff, Town Natural Resources staff, other conservation groups and many more all participated in a day long Community Resiliency Workshop with a number of objectives including:

  • Develop a mutual understand of the natural hazard risks, vulnerabilities and resilience options for Nantucket
  • Identify vulnerabilities and strengths of Nantucket in response to Climate Change
  • Identify ACTION ITEMS that can reduce Nantucket’s vulnerability

The workshop defined the risk Nantucket faces to the hazards of climate change as:

Risk = Vulnerability x frequency

The frequency (and intensity) of hazardous events is both increasing and largely out of our control to impact. The thing that our community CAN do is mitigate or reduce our VULNERABILITY to these hazards. And one of the top Action Items identified at the workshop was to preserve, restore and potential create coastal wetlands to function as buffers against storm surges and increased flooding hazards.

Why Spend our Efforts on Coastal Wetlands?

Coastal wetlands are naturally designed to protect and buffer uplands from the impacts of storm surge, coastal flooding and sea level rise – shielding our communities from the worst storm impacts and helping us recover more quickly after major storm events. One of the best steps we can take to provide longer term resiliency to our coastal communities is the restoration and protection of our natural coastal defenses.

Research following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy showed that functioning coastal wetlands prevented an estimated $625 million  in potential property damages across the path of the hurricane. In part of New Jersey it was estimated that the presence of coastal wetlands reduced the expected losses to hurricane damage by 20% on average and up to 50% for area just above sea level.

Reductions in annual flood losses to properties that have a marsh in front (blue) versus properties that have lost the marshes in front (orange). Narayan et al., Nature Scientific Reports 7, 9463 (2017).CC BY

Communities along the eastern coast of the United States are actively working towards converting their coastlines back to natural communities that can buffer our infrastructure and our towns from the effects of increased floods and storm surges. Resilient Boston Harbor is maintaining and increasing open vegetated parks to buffer from storms but also provide areas for flood waters to sit, preventing inundation of adjacent roadways, homes and business. The state of North Carolina has implemented the Coastal Resilience Initiative to restore or protect more than 5,000 acres of wetlands over the next three years through the creation of living shorelines and the protection of existing wetlands.

Nantucket already has significant wetland resources along both of Madaket and Nantucket Harbors. Protecting those wetlands and looking for ways to enhance them will help protect our island. Downtown is particularly susceptible to flooding during high tides and storm surges events, likely because it was all once a wetland itself! Softening how the town connects to the harbor by increasing vegetated parks (as the Land Bank has been doing) and restoring low-lying areas to wetlands and/or retention basins will go a long way to mitigating those flood waters.


Imagine vegetated waterfront parks to absorb and mitigate flood waters and storm surges (Parks being created at the base of Brooklyn Bridge in New York City following Hurricane Sandy).

Restoring and creating wetlands along Easton st and in the Brant Point area will help mitigate flooding. These areas are often underwater during normal high tide events, likely because they were once all one large connect wetland that has been filled for development. Check behind the Nantucket Hotel or in the few open lots along Easton st the next time you walk that part of Town – you’ll find the hints of wetlands that once were.

coastal resliency all data2

Extent of water flows over the Town of Nantucket under 5ft (green) and 7ft (blue) storm surges. This is without taking into account future sea level rise. (Storm Surge and Inundation Pathways Report, 2016)

Finding ways to soften the bulkheads and hard shorelines using many of the tested proven methods of Living Shoreline research could alleviate much of the storm and flood impacts.


A variety of shoreline protection options exist.

Pie in the sky action? Convert the bulkheads downtown to a living shoreline wetland backed by grassy parks. Protective harder structures can be incorporated to these living shorelines to provide stability as well. Living shoreline marshes are significantly better than strict bulkheads at protecting shorelines and mitigating storm damage and flooding. The significant flooding behind the Dreamland and near Straight Wharf could potentially be helped by these ideas.


There are a lot of options to providing Coastal Resiliency while promoting and maintaining natural resources and hopefully retaining the natural beauty that makes Nantucket so special. Even mainstrem media is recognizing that walls won’t protect our coastal areas from these hazards – thinking proactively may help save our island in the future. And as one of the largest land owners on the island, The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is excited to be par tof the conversation and hopefully part of the solution.

Futher Resources:







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A Little Winter Color


Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is found in shrublands and in drier forests on Nantucket.

Even in winter, when browns, greys or sage greens of lichens dominate the island color palette, you can still find some vivid evergreens while walking the trails of conservation properties around the island. Several species have red berries to add even more visual interest. The crimson/dark green color scheme is apparently a successful evolutionary trait in the winter woods, and for many northern human cultures it has also come to symbolize life carrying through the cold dormant months.

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), pictured above, is actually a tiny shrub with leathery green leaves that may sometimes take on a burgundy hue. As a child, I learned this plant as “checkerberry.” I thought that name arose because they reminded somebody of the red playing pieces on a checker board. However, it actually refers to another species of plant, the chequer tree, a species of serviceberry (Sorbus) that early European colonists were reminded of when they first encountered it. It seems they must have been pretty homesick, because there’s not much of a resemblance!

By any name, this plant is easy to learn how to identify: the berries have a star-shaped pattern on their base, the blossom end scar where the flower once was. Their brilliant red color and pleasant sharp spicy wintergreen odor and flavor make them quite easy to spot. The leathery evergreen leaves are also filled with the same essential oils, leading to another common name for the plant, “teaberry,” since it has been used to brew a spicy tea. The leaves remain on the plant and may turn a burgundy color over the winter but will green up in the spring and also produce fresh leaves at the top of the plant.

Interestingly, the chemical in wintergreen that gives it a spicy odor (methyl salicylate) is also found in black birch (Betula lenta) bark, from which it was once extracted in large quantities and used for flavorings and medicines. Most of the methyl salicylate used commercially is now synthesized in the lab. You may recognize the scent as the one used in Bengay sports creme, which was another reference I didn’t understand as a child!

On Nantucket, this tiny shrub may be found in the leaf litter of oak and pine forests, but it’s also common in coastal heathland and low shrubland, and even makes its way in sandplain grasslands.

If you’d like to have some wintergreen closer to home, there are several cultivated varieties that may be purchased from nurseries. If you have some pine/oak forest or low shrubland, with at least part sun, you can add them as groundcover plants. As long as the soil is well-drained and sandy, which is common on Nantucket, you should have no trouble growing these cultivars. They are the same species as our native wintergreen, but growers have selected plants with particular characteristics, like extra-large showy berries.

Just be sure you know what you’re buying — people often confuse wintergreen with winterberry (Ilex verticillata), which is a deciduous holly, prefers wetter habitats, and can grow 12′ tall. To make matters worse, there are cultivated varieties of wintergreen that are called ‘Winterberry.’ So check your labels for the correct scientific name — and a sniff test won’t hurt in this case either!


Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is a common native holly, found in wetland edges around the island. Photo credit: K. A. Omand



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Sending out the Bat Signal

Copyright banded MYSE 2018

Northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis) captured on Nantucket in April 2018.

Since the discovery of a population of Northern long-eared bats on Nantucket in 2015, the Foundation’s Science and Stewardship Department has been working hard to understand how these bats use habitat here. Because this species is at a high risk of extinction throughout much of the rest of the northeast, we feel it is critically important to understand the ecology of the bat on Nantucket and to protect their habitat wherever possible. We need help from the community of Nantucket!

Northern long-eared bats, as well as several other species, have been decimated by a disease called White-nose Syndrome, caused by an introduced fungus, Psuedogymnoascus destructans, or Pd. The fungus is spread from bat to bat while they are hibernating in caves. It grows on the skin of the face and wings, giving the bat an appearance of having a white nose. This fungal growth irritates the bats and causes them to awaken and fly in the dead of the freezing winter when they should be deep in hibernation. Bats with white-nose syndrome quickly burn through the fat reserves they built up throughout the fall and they essentially starve to death by the time they are supposed to emerge in the spring. Additionally, the fungus can cause damage to the wing membranes so even if they made it through the winter, they may be unable to fly. Where this bat used to be one of the most common species, researchers are now reporting declines in populations between 90-99%.

On Nantucket, however, Northern long-eared bats appear to be healthy so far. All the bats that we have captured here have shown no symptoms of disease and only one swab returned a positive for the presence of Pd at a very low level and that bat was asymptomatic. This indicates that Nantucket bats are certainly exposed to Pd but for some reason do not seem to be succumbing to the disease.

Right now, one of the most important aspects of our work is to locate where these bats are hibernating. Traditionally these bats are cave and mine hibernators – Nantucket does not have either of these structures so where could they be hibernating here? We know that some bats are staying on Nantucket throughout the winter as we pick up their calls late in to the fall, and periodically on warmer days in the winter. To answer the question of where they are hibernating here, this fall, we spent many nights netting for bats and gluing radio transmitters to their backs in hopes that they would lead us to their hibernacula.

DIO attaching transmitter 2018

Danielle O’Dell attached radio transmitters to 9 Northern long-eared bats in late fall 2018

Copyright Libby radio telemetry Squam 102918

Libby Buck of NCF searches for the signal from a radio transmitter on a Northern long-eared bat in the Squam area of Nantucket

One of the bats that we captured in early November led us to a crawl space underneath a cape-style house. The crawl space had a mud floor, with some standing water and cinder block walls. We found at least 4 other bats using the same location, all tucked in between sistered floor joists and we believe there to be more hibernating inside the cinder blocks. The crawlspace also contained plenty of moths, spiders and mosquitoes – on warmer nights it’s possible the bats can wake and move around – especially if there’s food to be eaten!

2018 Hibernacula MYSE in sistered floor joists

A hibernating Northern long-eared bat tucked between sistered floor joists in a crawl space underneath a cape-style home on Nantucket.

We were lucky to find one hibernaculum this fall although we were certainly hoping for more – it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack. If you have a crawlspace or basement in your house that you think could possibly be housing bats for the winter, we would love to check it out for you. You can call the foundation at (508) 228-2884 or email Danielle O’Dell at dodell@nantucketconservation.org.

We believe that finding more hibernacula here will shed some light on the big question of why our bats so far seem to be healthy and avoiding the devastation of white-nose syndrome. Learning about the winter behavior and habitat of Northern long-eared bats on Nantucket is critical to the conservation of this species. Any leads about winter bats would be much appreciated!


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 now!  www.nantucketconservation.org


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Winter Botany: Marcescent Leaf Mysteries

BlackOakMarcescentLeaves,KAOIf you happen to be wandering through Squam Swamp or Squam Farm as autumn gives way to winter, you may notice that while most of the trees have already shed their foliage, oaks (Quercus spp.) and American beech (Fagus grandifolia) may still retain old dried leaves rattling spookily in the wind. Some individuals seem to remain almost fully dressed, while others have only tattered remnants. This penchant for retaining leaves into the winter is called “marcescence,” and there are a few theories that have been proposed to explain why some trees display this trait and others don’t.

In pondering the “how and why” of this situation, it’s helpful to consider the reasons why our northern deciduous hardwoods drop their leaves in autumn in the first place. As day length shortens and temperatures drop, photosynthesis becomes less and less productive. Shorter days, and low sun angle mean that less light reaches the trees, and a certain temperature range is best for leaves to transform light into food efficiently (50-68°F). In the summer, trees have other adaptations to help cool their leaves to maximize their time spent in the optimum temperature range, but that’s a blog article for another season!


Dried beech leaves turn a fawn color and many remain on the branch until spring when new leaves emerge.

To make matters worse, freezing temperatures rupture the cell walls of leaves as the water inside them expands, unless they are equipped with special protective mechanisms — also a blog article for another day.

Meanwhile, cold and drying winds make desiccation a real problem. Leaves become a losing proposition in a New England winter. Broadleaf trees would need to make a slew of adaptations to retain their leaves into the winter and make it worth their while. American holly (Ilex opaca) is one of the few trees that does this, with glossy leathery evergreen leaves

Retaining leaves is even more of a liability in areas prone to heavy snow and ice storms, because leaves keep snow from shedding effectively, and ice builds up on the larger surface area of leaves far more than on slender twigs or needles. Deciduous trees have evolved a dramatic solution to deal with this problem. Unlike evergreens such as pine and spruce, they create a “shutoff valve” in the stem of each leaf called an abscission layer when the days begin to shorten and temperatures drop. Oaks and beech do not have this shutoff valve, so the leaves may remain on the twigs until spring, unless they are torn off by wind and general wear-and-tear.

Something has to make it worthwhile for oaks and beech to keep their no-longer-photosynthesizing leaves long after other hardwood species cut their losses. One of the theories is that the leftover leaves—crunchy, dried out, and not very tasty — persuade browsers to browse elsewhere. Research has shown that the tough leaves are nutritionally poor compared with the young twigs and the buds, and deer and moose prefer leaf-free twigs when given a choice.


What’s for lunch in winter? Fresh beech sprout twigs!

Considering the heavy browsing you will find on beech sprouts in Squam Swamp, maybe the trees will take any edge they can get! Perhaps it’s no big deal to occasionally lose some branches in your canopy from extra snow and ice loading, but being gnawed to the ground repeatedly means you will never get to rise above the forest floor to produce a seed crop of your own. That would be a pretty strong evolutionary pressure.

Whatever the benefits or drawbacks to marcescence, it becomes a handy shortcut to recognize groves of oak and beech as you move through the fall and winter forest. Long after the branches of tupelo and sassafras are stripped bare, oaks and beech are easy to spot from a distance. Since these species also provide valuable “mast” for wildlife (bumper crops of thousands of seeds or nuts every few seasons), hunters take notice of these hotspots. On the mainland, acorn and beech mast crops are a major food source for bears, turkeys, deer, squirrels, and other hungry animals. On Nantucket, deer and squirrels would be happy to take care of the abundance of nuts and seeds all by themselves, but get some help from birds such as blue jays and crows.

BeechCanopy Marcescence,KAO

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