2013: A Good Year for Science at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation!

Happy New Year everyone!

New Years is a good time to take a moment to reflect on the year that has just passed and make plans for the future. During these winter months in between field seasons, our year-round Science and Stewardship Department staff get together for several group meetings. We spend valuable time reflecting on our accomplishments during the previous year and analyzing lessons learned that will enable us to have an even better season next year. As every year goes by, we learn a little bit more about how to more effectively select, train, and utilize our seasonal field staff, collect, enter, and analyze data, undertake appropriate habitat management and restoration, develop property management plans and scientific publications, efficiently schedule field work and office time, and improve our overall work and learning environment.

Watermarked Science Ladies at 2013 CranFest 0092013 was a very productive year for our department, due to the combined efforts of our year-round staff (Kelly Omand, Danielle O’Dell, Jess Pykosz, Jen Karberg, and Karen Beattie), our seasonal field crew (Mara Plato, Jonathan Schuster, Cynthia Park, and Iris Clearwater), and several enthusiastic volunteers (Curren Huyser, Elizabeth Williams, and Elaine Boehm). Below is a summary of some of the major accomplishments achieved during this past year, which have significantly contributed towards our overall goal of maintaining the rare and unique species and natural communities on the Foundation’s properties:

Norwood Farm Management Plan: The Foundation began 2013 with the purchase of the Norwood Farm, a 207 acre parcel that directly borders over 3,200 acres of extensive conservation holdings in the Middle Moors. We developed a management plan for this new acquisition, which was just recently submitted to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program for approval. This plan includes an inventory of species and natural resources found on the property, identifies appropriate locations for low impact recreational uses, and proposes habitat management work aimed at benefiting the rare species present on the property.

Squam Farm Sheep Grazing Monitoring and Management: We continued to use our sheep flock as a land management tool to restore and maintain grasslands and provide appropriate habitat for associated rare plant species at Squam Farm. This past spring, our ewes produced 34 new lambs, increasing our total flock size to 83 sheep. The sheep rotationally grazed approximately 30 acres of upland area, including an overgrown shrubland containing a variety of woody invasive species. This will significantly improve access for follow-up invasives management treatments.

Watermarked Sheep June 13 2013 5

Region-wide Colonial Waterbird Census: We participated in a census of colonial waterbirds nesting on the Foundation’s Coatue property to contribute to a region-wide survey that took place across Massachusetts and in several neighboring coastal states. Species surveyed included greater black-backed gulls, herring gulls, black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets, great egrets, and double-crested cormorants. This work was done in collaboration with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Invasive Species Management Efforts: We continued our ongoing efforts to manage a number of invasive species populations on our properties. Spotted knapweed was manually removed from the edges of the Madaket Road bike path, along Sheep Pond Road at Head of the Plains, and at several other locations across the island. We conducted “clip and drip” herbicide applications on common reed populations at West Hummock Pond, Eel Point, Madequecham Valley, and Folgers Marsh. At Eel Point, we also continued removing non-native, invasive gray willows and Japanese black pines that have established in rare coastal inter-dune cranberry swale habitat.

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St. Andrew’s Cross Monitoring: We collected a third season of data to determine if sheep grazing can effectively improve habitat conditions for St. Andrew’s cross, a rare plant species found in several locations at Squam Farm. St. Andrew’s cross is a low-growing, state-endangered perennial shrub. The only location in Massachusetts where this species occurs is the northeastern portion of Nantucket. We monitored patches of St. Andrew’s cross found within areas that are regularly grazed by sheep to track trends in patch size and various indicators of plant health.

Grassland Restoration Research in the Middle Moors: We completed the final season of monitoring for this project, which explores the use of disk harrowing (a form of tilling that breaks up topsoil and roots) combined with the addition of locally-collected, native grass and wildflower seed as a grassland restoration tool. We will be analyzing species establishment data collected over the past two years to draw conclusions and develop a final report on the effectiveness of this restoration treatment.

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Monitoring and Protection of Rare Beach-nesting Shorebirds: We monitored and protected rare piping plovers, American oystercatchers, and least terns that nested on the Foundation’s beachfront properties at Coatue, Eel Point, The Haulover, Hummock Pond, and Polpis Harbor. We installed fencing and educational signage and documented breeding efforts and nesting success of a total of 14 pairs of piping plovers, 25 pairs of American oystercatchers, and 4 pairs of least terns.

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Medouie Creek Salt Marsh Restoration Project: We continued our efforts to monitor habitat changes resulting from restoration completed in 2009 to re-establish regular tidal influence to a historic salt marsh in East Polpis Harbor. This wetland was impounded by a dike road during the early 1900’s, blocking regular tidal flow. The goal of this project is to increase habitat suitability for native salt marsh vegetation and decrease existing populations of non-native, invasive common reed (Phragmites australis). We collected data on vegetation composition across the marsh, soil pore water salinity, and tidal fluctuation patterns. We also documented that the common reed population has been reduced from 3.24 acres to 2.95 acres, and what remains has significantly decreased in density and height.

Spotted Turtle Habitat Use Study: In conjunction with our Medouie Creek Salt Marsh Restoration Project described above, we also monitored the habitat use patterns of rare spotted turtles using radio-telemetry tracking to determine their response to the salt marsh restoration. We tracked 8 individual turtles and will be comparing their movement patterns to similar data collected just prior to and immediately following culvert and channel excavation work to better understand long-term changes to turtle populations at this site.

Watermarked DIO drawing blood, SqFarm 052312, KAO (1)

Spotted Turtle Genetics Study: We completed a multi-year effort to collect blood samples from spotted turtles on our properties to document population genetics and compare results to similar data collected in other areas of Massachusetts. Samples we collected were submitted to researchers from Wheaton College, who extracted DNA to compare the genetics of Nantucket spotted turtle populations to two populations on the mainland (Canton and Halifax). Nantucket’s spotted turtles are physically and genetically isolated from mainland populations, and results of this research may help aid conservation efforts for other populations that have become isolated due to habitat fragmentation.

Native Plant and Trail Edge Restoration Work: We propagated a variety of common, native grass and wildflower seeds collected on Foundation properties in our greenhouse and then planted them out along trail edges and habitat restoration sites at Sanford Farm that have been degraded by public use. In total, we out-planted and provided supplemental watering for approximately 1,200 seedlings, which will be monitored during 2014 to determine survival rates.

Squam Forest Community Composition Research: We continued to collect data to categorize the forest communities of our Squam properties. Nantucket has a very limited amount of forested habitat, and many of the trees that currently exist have re-generated within the last 100-150 years due to historic clearing and burning. Preliminary data collected indicates that our forests contain uniquely shaped trees (some of which may be very old) with multiple branching trunks, likely due to Nantucket’s past land use history, constant winds, and high salt spray.

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Monitoring Deer Browse Impacts to Sandplain Grassland and Heathland Vegetation Communities: We continued ongoing research to document the impacts of white-tailed deer browse on rare species and the overall sandplain grassland and heathland vegetation communities at Sanford Farm. We collected data in two adjacent study areas, one of which is enclosed by fencing that excludes deer while the other is un-fenced, allowing deer access for browsing. We developed this project to determine how steadily-increasing white-tailed deer populations are impacting these habitats by over-browsing shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers.

Watermarked Squam Prop Monitoring  June 13 2013 018

South Pastures Property Conservation Management Plan: We completed our fifth Property Conservation Management Plan for the Foundation’s South Pastures properties, which was approved by the Foundation’s Board of Trustees in October. This plan covers the Foundation’s properties located south of the Milestone Road bounded by Madequecham Valley on the western side and Tom Nevers on the eastern side. We have already begun to implement some of the invasive species management work outlined in this plan.

In addition to all of these major projects, we also undertook surveys for nesting whip-poor-wills, collected data to better understand the life history of lion’s foot (a state-endangered plant), surveyed for New England cottontail populations, participated in region-wide horseshoe crab spawning surveys, monitored the response of broom crowberry (a rare shrub) to prescribed fire in different seasons, conducted systematic surveys for multiple rare plant species, mentored 8th grade science students at the Nantucket New School, and served as co-leaders of our “Mornings For Members” interpretive walks.

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We would like to take a moment to thank our staff, volunteers, conservation colleagues, and everyone else that has contributed to the success of our many projects and endeavors over the past year – especially our generous donors and dedicated Board of Trustees, who make everything we do possible.

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