Will It Be A Snowy Winter?

Our favorite winter residents are back, the Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus)! The first sighting for Nantucket was at Smith’s Point this week. If you consider yourself a birder, or just an admirer, it is always thrilling to see these stunning birds of prey with their intense yellow eyes.


Snowy Owl at Eel Point (Photo: Libby Buck)

Have you ever wondered why we typically see them on our beaches in the winter? During the summer months, Snowy Owls breed up in the tundra of the Arctic and some of the population will migrate south for the winter. The tundra is a wide-open, treeless terrain, similar to how a beach looks in the winter. They like to stay close to the ground to hunt so having a wide-open terrain allows them to see from all directions. The main diet for a Snowy Owl consists of small rodents such as lemmings or voles and birds sitting on the water offshore. When they are spotted on the island, they are usually seen resting on a dune or perched on a low structure. The best locations to find these birds around Nantucket are at Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, Great Point, Smith’s Point, & Eel Point.


Snowy Owl at Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Neil Foley)

The winter of 2013-2014 was an “irruption” year for these owls. There were so many young owls that during their winter migration, they were flying as far south as Florida. There was speculation as to why this happened and many people believed it was because their food supply was low. Lemmings and other rodents were scarce, so they were on the search for food. However, as it turned out, it was quite the opposite. It was actually a boom year for lemming reproduction, creating an abundance of food for Snowys, which in turn, allowed them to successfully rear more offspring as well. Researchers saw this as an opportunity to learn more about this species and decided to put GPS transmitters on as many owls as they could to find out where they go. If you want to learn more about this project please visit: https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/


Snowy Owl at Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Neil Foley)

If you are worried about trying to get a glimpse of one, there is no need to rush. This is just the first sighting and more will soon arrive. Snowy owls tend to stay around all winter long, leaving at the end of April to early May. But you just never know, this past season a young male stayed out at Great Point until July 12th.  Please keep in mind while viewing these birds to be respectful and keep your distance.


Snowy Owl at Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Libby Buck)



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, Winter | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Pest House Pond Water Quality Management is Underway

Pest House Pond NPC photo

An aerial view of Pest House Pond (photo: Nantucket Pond Coalition)

Pest House Pond is small, brackish wetland approximately ¾ acre in size located along the shoreline of Nantucket Harbor between Monomoy and Shimmo. The pond and surrounding property totaling 3.6 acres was donated to the Foundation in 1973 by the Shimmo Association, with an additional 1-acre abutting parcel donated by Mrs. I. H. Burnside in 1979.

You may wonder – how Pest House Pond get its peculiar name? It was named for the “Pest House” that once existed in this vicinity in the 1760’s when there was a smallpox epidemic taking place on the island. Anyone exhibiting symptoms or suspected of being exposed was sent to this facility for treatment and to prevent the rest of the population from becoming infected with this serious, highly contagious disease.

Pest House Pond Location cropped.jpg

For the past several years, our Science and Stewardship Department has been investigating the cause of consistent algal blooms in this small wetland, which is surrounded by seasonal residential development. We worked with researchers from UMass Boston in 2004 – 2008, who collected multiple years of water quality monitoring data. Results indicated that leachates from lawn fertilizer use and septic systems on surrounding properties were the most likely sources of the excess nutrients responsible for the algal growth.

Public outreach and education efforts were initiated to encourage the neighbors to alter their landscaping practices and regularly service their septic systems. With their cooperation, the situation improved somewhat in that the algal blooms no longer covered the entire surface of the pond during the late summer, as was once the case. Nonetheless, in recent years there has still been substantial algae populations present in the pond during the late spring, summer and fall months.

Pest House Pond from Greenberg Path June 15 2017

Algae on the pond surface during the summer of 2017

For over 70 years, Pest House Pond has been connected to Nantucket Harbor via an underground pipe that drains onto the beach between the high and low tide lines just north of the Cathcart Road access. Although the reasons for installing the pipe are unknown, it was likely a historic public works project aimed at draining the pond for mosquito control. Both the Foundation and the Town of Nantucket have had ongoing concerns about water quality impacts to Nantucket Harbor from this pond discharge.

Pest House Pond Outfall Pipe Nantucket Harbor June 15 2017 3

The Pest House Pond outflow pipe exits onto the harbor beach near the end of Cathcart Road

In order to gain a better understanding of the condition of the pond and options for managing the persistent algae, we contracted with SWCA Environmental Consultants in Amherst, MA to conduct an environmental assessment. In June 2017, SWCA biologists visited the site and recorded pond water and sediment cross section (bathymetry) data, collected algae samples for laboratory identification, characterized bordering vegetation communities, inspected the outflow pipe and made additional observations. These data were presented in an assessment report that also included an analysis and approximate costs of possible management options to improve the water quality and aesthetics of the pond.

Laboratory analysis documented large infestations of two algae types: Cladophora sp. and Microcystis sp. The former species formed a floating mat that covered approximately 15% of the pond surface. The later species, which is classified as a Cyanophyta-Blue-Green algae, was present in the sub-surface of the entire pond and was recorded within the water column at extremely high levels. Microcystis, which appears to have recently established in the pond, is a potential toxin producer and can be harmful to humans exposed via physical contact or inadvertent ingestion or inhalation. Both types of algae potentially host many types of bacterium, which can include species harmful to humans. Because algae were observed exiting the pond into Nantucket Harbor via the outlet pipe, the Foundation immediately reported this information to the Town of Nantucket’s Natural Resources and Health Departments. An order to remove all sources of the algae from the outflow pipe was subsequently issued by the Nantucket Health Department.

Pest House Pond Algae types

Microcystis sp. (pink) is visible in the water column under the floating Cladophora sp. (green) in Pest House Pond in June 2017 (photo: SWCA Environmental Consultants)

To address this issue, we incorporated the recommendations from SWCA Environmental Consultants into a management plan for Pest House Pond. Removing the outfall pipe was not a feasible option because it is deeply buried under well-established vegetation. Therefore, we applied for and received permitting from the Nantucket Conservation Commission to install a flow control valve in the pond-side end of the pipe, which was put in place in June 2018.

July 2 2018 IMG_1045 pipe valve

The Pest House Pond flow control valve installed in June 2018

In order to monitor water levels in the pond and predict if flooding of nearby adjacent properties may take place during periods of heavy rainfall, we placed a stilling well within the pond and installed a data logger that records water level readings every 4 hours. Data from the logger is transmitted remotely so that it can be downloaded and reviewed anytime without the need for a site visit.

October 12 2018 at 1515 post TS Michael by KCB IMG_1355

The stilling well with water level monitoring data logger (far left) and solar panel with data transmitter (center) installed along the edge of Pest House Pond

Since the valve was installed and closed last June, we have had to open it only three times (for 2-3 days each time) in order to prevent flooding on adjacent property. Otherwise, the valve has remained closed and there has been no pond water input into Nantucket Harbor. This is a huge improvement over the previous situation when the pipe was continuously discharging pond water containing algae and high levels of nutrients into the harbor.

Once we had the ability to isolate the pond from the harbor, we applied for and received permitting to move forward with algae and excess nutrient control within the pond in early August. Also included in this permit was permission to treat a small population of Phragmites (common reed) – a non-native, invasive species – with targeted herbicide. SWCA Environmental Consultants completed one round of treatments in mid-September of this year after the 30-day permit wait period was over, with encouraging results.

October 12 2018 at 1515 post TS Michael by KCB IMG_1357

The pond immediately after treatment in September 2018

Following many years of planning, permitting and working with stakeholders, we are excited to finally be able to move forward with on-site management to address the poor water quality issues in this pond. Now that the permitting component of this project has been completed, we can hit the ground running next year and apply treatments early in the season, as soon as any sign of algae is detected with a goal of preventing future toxic algae blooms in the pond. This project, which is the first of its kind on Nantucket,  will also serve to provide insight into the effectiveness of these management strategies and inform future pond management projects on the island.


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 Habitat Management, Invasive Species, Restoration, Water Quality, Wetlands | Leave a comment

Nantucket Leaf Peeping…We DO have Fall color

Seeing the social media posts of family and friends off island in the autumn, it’s easy to think that Nantucket has drawn the short end of the stick when it comes to Fall Color. There was an instagram post earlier this week taken in Town on Nantucket under a pale yellow tree with the sad caption that this was all the fall color Nantucket had to offer.

No, Nantucket doesn’t have dense forests bursting with deciduous tree leaves turning a rainbow of color. Nantucket is more subtle and secretive than that. Here are some of the startling bits of color seen around Nantucket this time of year.

Sometimes the whole landscape is a wash in the colors of fall from the yellow grasses to the burnt red of changing shrubs.


Autumn skies over the straw yellow of little bluestem grass and the bright red of huckleberries


Greens, greys, yellows and reds of the native vegetation around Pest House Pond


Out in the moors, the rolling hillsides shift from green to deep bright red as the huckleberry leaves get ready for winter.

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Misty Middle Moors in fall. Photo Credit: Iris Clearwater


In the forests of Nantucket, the Tupelo trees change color the earliest, shifting to bright red and visible from a distance.


And if all else fails, Nantucket does fall sunsets better than almost anywhere else and this fall has been no exception!


A cotton candy sky while readying to catch bats in a Nantucket pine forest. Photo Credit: Jen Karberg


Sunset from the bluff at the UMASS Field Station. Photo Credit: Jen Karberg



If you know where to look, the beauty of Nantucket in the fall is there to find. Accept this challenge and get out this week to find the hidden fall beauty of this island before the season shifts again – try walking on one of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s many properties (there are 9,000 acres to choose from!) and see what kinds of color you might find!




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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Eastern Box Turtle Update

A few weeks ago, we reported on a male box turtle that was found on Nantucket. We wanted to give a little history on this turtle as well as an update on his current whereabouts.

In June of 2009, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation received two reports of Eastern box turtles within 2 weeks of each other. The first – a female – was found crossing a dirt road at Head of the Plains and the other – a male – was found in a yard in the Surfside area. What was so unusual about these reports was that box turtles were thought to have been extirpated from the island long ago. To have found two at nearly the same time had us scratching our heads a bit.

Box turtles are common in the pet trade and unfortunately very often released in to the wild when people realize that turtles really don’t make great pets. Our first thought was that perhaps these were either lost pets, or turtles that had intentionally been released. Or, could they be native, wild turtles that just hadn’t been sighted in years and it was just coincidence that they were found within weeks of each other? We certainly didn’t want to confine a wild turtle to a life in a terrarium, but we also didn’t want to set loose a pet turtle unsure whether or not they’d make it through a Nantucket winter (turtles kept in captivity also carry diseases that are easily transmitted to wild turtles – it’s never a good idea to release a turtle that’s been captive its whole life).

We happened to be conducting  work on another species of native Nantucket turtle – the spotted turtle – at the time when these turtles were found. We had a few extra radio transmitters available so we decided to affix them to these two box turtles. This allowed us to hedge our bets and keep an eye on these turtles for a year to make sure they continued to stay healthy, to see where they moved, and make sure they found safe places to hibernate for the winter.

Eastern Box turtle from HofP June 11 2009 008

Placing a radio transmitter on a Female Eastern box turtle on Nantucket.

The person who originally found the male in Surfside felt that the area was so densely populated with houses and roads that it wouldn’t be a safe place to release this turtle. We made the decision to release the male and female together where the female was found at Head of the Plains – perhaps they might even like each other and in the future there would be more box turtles on Nantucket?! But our plans didn’t work out and both turtles made bee lines in opposite directions. Fortunately, both remained healthy, found safe spots to hibernate and emerged in the spring no worse for the wear! We continued to track them until mid-July of 2010 and convinced that they knew how to be wild box turtles, we removed their transmitters and stopped stalking them.

Below is a map of the Head of the Plains area southeast of Madaket and the relocation points of each turtle over 2009 and 2010, including where they hibernated.

Box Turtle Locations

2009-2010 Locations of two box turtles on Nantucket

After we removed their transmitters, we filed a small notch in to a scute on the edge of their carapace (shell) so that if they were every re-found, we would know their identity. We also took a toe nail clipping for genetic analysis to hopefully get some answers as to whether these were wild or captive turtles. Every year we wondered how they fared but never saw them again….

Until now!

On October 11th, a little boy name Guy and his mom Dana, reported the first known sighting of the male box turtle near a stand of pitch pine trees on Hummock Pond Rd!

guy and turtle

We were so thrilled to know that at least one of the box turtles is still out there, alive and well! He looks almost exactly the same as he did when we released him, except for a small scar on his carapace. As the crow flies, he is 1.8 miles from his last known location having crossed Hummock Pond and Hummock Pond Rd! And, once again, we affixed him with a radio transmitter and so resume our stalking of the male Eastern box turtle for another year in the hopes that we find out more about where he goes, how he uses habitat and, fingers crossed, perhaps he will lead us to other box turtles on Island! Very soon after he was found, he chose a protected spot in the pine woods and began burrowing down to hibernate now that it has gotten colder. We will check on him periodically throughout the winter and will update once again when he emerges in the spring!


Male Eastern box turtle with radio transmitter

We always encourage people to report wildlife sightings to us! Please call the Nantucket Conservation Foundation office at (508) 228-2884.


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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Fun Fall Sightings!

Today was an exciting day for us here at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation! We were reunited with an old friend.


In the summer of 2009, we received two separate reports of Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina) – a male found in Surfside, and a female found at the Head of the Plains. At the time, these were unusual sightings as Edith Andrews recalled that box turtles had not been seen regularly on Nantucket since the 1960’s. Box turtles have turned up in archaeological digs on Island and are known from the fossil record, but it was believed their populations had been extirpated from the island. We were unsure if perhaps these two turtles were pets that had been set free, and had coincidentally turned up at the same time? Or were they last hold outs of this species on Nantucket? Both appeared healthy so we decided not to keep them in captivity, but instead we placed radio transmitters on them and followed their fate for a year.

Eastern Box turtle from HofP June 11 2009 008

Placing a radio transmitter on a Female Eastern box turtle on Nantucket

Thankfully, both hibernated through the winter and emerged in the spring healthy. They wandered the Head of the Plains and Ram Pasture area, feeding throughout the summer. Satisfied that these two knew just what turtles should do, we removed their transmitters, filed a tiny notch in to their shell so we would always have a way to recognize them, wished them well and set them free. Every summer we are on the look out for these turtles and always wonder about them – but never see them.

Today, we received a call at the NCF office from a woman and her young son reporting that they had found a box turtle at a home along Hummock Pond Road. A quick google search brought them to our turtle blog where they learned what species they had found and that we wanted people to report turtle sightings! Low and behold, they’d found our long lost male box turtle 9 years later.

We were so happy to know that this turtle is still alive and seems very healthy. As the crow flies, he’s about 2.5 miles from where he was last seen which includes a few major road crossings. We hope that we’ll see him again in the future and are always optimistic that we’ll find the female again too someday! As always, we encourage everyone to call us with sightings of these rare and beautiful creatures. If you see them as you wander our properties, we would love to know! Please take pics, collect a GPS point and call us at (508) 228-2884!



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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In Bloom Now: American Cow-Parsnip

Milestone & Turner Rd Cow parsnip, J Lentowski

American cow-parsnip (Heracleum maximum) growing in disturbed soil around a paper birch near the intersection of Milestone and Turner Roads.

If you’re out and about on Nantucket this month and see super-sized umbels of white flowers that resemble Queen Anne’s lace but are the size of dinner plates, topping plants with beefy stems and large coarse leaves, it’s likely you have come across American cow-parsnip (Heracleum maximum). Typically found at the edges of wetlands and salt marshes, this native wildflower can also pop up unexpectedly in clearings where the soil has been disturbed and the soil is fairly rich and damp.

American cow parsnip Leaf, Williams Ln, Ellen Phelan

A compound leaf of American cow-parsnip.

American cow-parsnip flies under the radar its first season, producing only a bunch of leaves, but in the second spring it makes a grand entrance by sending up flower stalks usually 3-6′ tall, and producing umbels that are around 8″ in diameter. While a plant of this size is sure to make a splash no matter what, American cow-parsnip produces an added frisson of fear in a lot of people, because it is a close relative to giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), which is a serious invasive weed introduced from Eurasia. Giant hogweed was introduced as an ornamental by Victorian gardeners, who also brought us such delights as Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and black swallow-wort, also known as dog-strangling vine (Cynanchum louiseae). The Victorians loved novelty in the form of oversized plants, particularly ones with a sinister twist, apparently. Giant hogweed (also called giant cow-parsnip by some) causes a severe blistering skin reaction that leaves permanent scarring, so it has made the blacklist of “Most Dangerous Weeds” in a lot of places.

Amer Cow Parsnip portrait, KAO

American cow-parsnip showing off its compound umbels and compound leaves.

So, if you stumble across an enormous white-umbeled plant that looks like a Queen Anne’s lace from the Little Shop of Horrors, how can you tell whether it’s giant hogweed or American Cow-parsnip? And why should you care?

First off, it’s wise not to handle ANY plants in the Apiaceae (Carrot & Parsley Family) casually, so take a look rather than wading right in. Did you know that even home garden plants like parsley, carrots, and parsnip all produce harmful furanocoumarins in their vegetation? These are chemicals that when rubbed on your skin followed by sun exposure, can cause blistering burns, a condition called phytophotodermatitis. Handling carrots or parsley is not always a problem, but if the plants are wet, or if you get the oils on sensitive skin, or in large quantities, you can wind up with fluid filled blisters like poison ivy, only less itchy. The oils quickly bond to your skin, and spending even a short time in the sun afterwards can cause blisters to form. The giant hogweed reaction is much, much more serious and debilitating.

So, take a look at your Apiaceae carefully, and hands-off. Assuming your plant has the characteristic large coarse-lobed leaves and big white umbels, the next step is to assess the number of branches in the inflorescence. An American cow-parsnip will have up to 45 primary branches in its umbels, while the invasive and much more hazardous giant hogweed will have 50 or more branches. You can figure out the number of primary branches by looking at the top of the flower head, and counting the round bunches or clumps of flowers. Each bunch of flowers in an umbel equals one primary branch.

Cow parsnip branch bundles and umbel

If your plant has umbels with 45 or less branches, you have a native American cow-parsnip, and the only thing you need to do is avoid handling or weed whacking the plants to prevent possible skin reactions, the same sort of precautions you would take with poison ivy or poison sumac. American cow-parsnip is a great pollinator plant feeding many species of native bees, flies, and wasps, and greatly enhances the biodiversity of its surroundings. Biodiversity goes way beyond pollinators, and this plant offers habitat for many other invertebrate species that feed on the leaves, and spiders that lie in wait for prey.

If on the other hand you’ve discovered a plant with 50 or more primary branches on an inflorescence, you may have found giant hogweed. This species has never been recorded as occurring on Nantucket, and we would love to keep it from ever becoming established. Please get in touch with one of the co-chairs of the NBI Invasive Plant Species Committee: either Kelly Omand at Nantucket Conservation Foundation (komand@ nantucketconservation .org) or Sarah Bois of the Linda Loring Nature Foundation (stbois@ llnf. org) to let them know about your find. Pictures and an exact location will help us determine if your plant is a concern.


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Meet our Ecological Field Assistants!

Each year, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Science and Stewardship staff hires 2 Seasonal Ecology Field Assistants to help completely all of our many research and management related objectives over the summer and early fall season. Each year we look for people with strong experience in plant research, wildlife monitoring, invasive species management and an overall love and drive for conservation and ecology. We have had some amazing field assistants over the years and 2018 is no exception. Laurel Martinez and James “Mack” McGraw are this year’s Field Assistants. Read a little more about them below and if you see them out on our properties working hard this summer, feel free to say Hi!

Laurel Martinez


Laurel Martinez holding a ring neck snake at Squam!

After spending several months in the dry mountains of New Mexico, the lush greenery and ocean views of Nantucket are a welcome sight. I am originally from Rockville, Maryland and I attended the University of Vermont where I received a B.S. in Environmental Science and a minor in Plant Biology. Over the course of my time at UVM, I was an intern at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center where I designed an experiment examining the effect of low dissolved oxygen and pH on oyster growth. I also studied abroad in Botswana with Round River Conservation Studies where I did a project on elephant demography. However, I discovered a love of botany and began to pursue a minor in plant biology.

Soon after graduation, I got a job at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center where I conducted vegetation surveys under a canopy of longleaf pines. I was thrilled to be able to learn how to identify the plants of the Southeast and put a name to the amazing flora of the longleaf-wiregrass ecosystem. Nantucket offers an entirely new suite of plants to identify, and I am looking forward to the challenge of familiarizing myself with these new species and understanding their role in the sandplain-grassland community. When I’m not avidly searching for plants in the wilderness, I enjoy drawing and baking!

With only two weeks gone by, I have already experienced so many parts of the incredible natural world of Nantucket. During my first week I was surveying horseshoe crabs under the light of the full moon as they emerged from the ocean to the shore, ready to ensure their prehistoric legacy. I also got to wade through the wetlands of Squam Farm, searching for spotted turtles under waist-high ferns and a bed of Sphagnum moss. On a clear, windless night we set up mist nets to catch endangered long-eared bats. Carefully, we examined delicate membranous wings for tears and swabbed a tiny nose for disease as the bat squeaked his protests. Traveling to Coatue was another highlight, where outside the ranger house, rare geraniums brighten the front walkway with magenta petals, seals bask on the beach, and (if you know where to look) lady’s slippers dot the landscape. I am so grateful to be on this beautiful island for the field season and look forward to the new experiences and excitement I am sure to encounter!


Mack McGraw


Mack McGraw and a spotted turtle at Squam Farm

Born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts, I’ve been nurturing a love for the outdoors since I could walk. I loved picking up rocks and boards to see what critters might be hiding under them, or catching frogs and snakes in ponds nearby with friends. I always had a million different questions about the natural world, and when given the answers, they only made me think of a million more. Little did I know, my endless curiosity would be gas to the fire for my interest in ecology, and I was lucky enough to attend a vocational high school where I could major in environmental science. I took classes such as forest ecology, marine biology, wetland and soil science, and so much more. I went on many trips including an eight day canoe trip down the Merrimack River and a five day stay at a field station on the Bay of Fundy in Canada. It allowed me to not only observe the ecosystems I had been studying, but employ the surveying and experimental skills I was being taught and synthesize everything I was learning.

This program fine-tuned my love of nature to focus on wildlife sciences, and led me to attend the University of Maine to study wildlife ecology. There I was introduced to the true rigors and wonders of field research, of wildlife and habitat management, and of the ever growing conservation problems that challenge our biologists every day. Seeing more of the natural world from Maine to Peru through my studies, I felt a calling even stronger to try and save it all. That’s when I took to field research, starting with bird surveys in the forests, then saltmarshes. Then I took on a job conducting forest inventories in southern Indiana that afforded me the chance to also work with banding ornithologists, bat biologists, and botanists to help build my skills as a well-rounded wildlife biologist. Now working with NCF, I have this amazing opportunity to work with an array of plants and animals in a suite of different ecosystems, all with the goal of conservation and management in mind.

When I am not working, I enjoy bird watching, mountain biking, kayaking, or any number of other outdoor activities. I try to be outside as much as I can and here on Nantucket there is nothing holding me back!

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Tiny insects may save island’s black oaks

Masquetuck oak with damage

Over the last few years, homeowners and land managers have been watching the increasing insect damage to the island’s black oak trees. Last year, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and the Nantucket Land Council teamed up to fund a student research project to study the oak gall wasp and parasitoids – tiny beneficial insects that prey on the gall wasp – to learn whether they may be mitigating the gall wasp’s impact on island black oaks ( Quercus velutina).

Many of the largest and oldest trees growing wild on Nantucket are black oaks, and this species is a key part of our island forests.Previous research by Monica Davis, then a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Elkinton Entomology lab, led to the description and naming of the insect as Zapatella davisiae, and contributed information on the insect’s life cycle and possible origin (likely eastern North America).

The theory is that rapid population booms of beneficial parasitoid insects have brought the numbers of infesting gall wasps in Long Island – the earliest known infestation – to very low levels. The same pattern was observed in recent years on Martha’s Vineyard and then on Cape Cod as the gall wasp and its predators continued to spread throughout coastal forests.

Joe and Cameron Spring 2018

But was this also occurring on Nantucket? Working in Joseph Elkinton’s UMass-Amherst lab, Cameron Smith-Freedman embarked on his senior-thesis research project in the fall of 2017, and this work has already yielded some interesting results.

By comparing densities of the harmful gall wasps in Nantucket branch samples to those collected on the Vineyard and the Cape, the status of the Nantucket infestation has become clearer. Each branch sample consists of this year’s growth at the tip, with prior years’ nodes (points of branching and growth) serving as a time series, offering a glimpse into the last several years as the gall wasp arrived and increased in numbers.

Oak twigs with galls

The branch nodes also contain a record over time of any beneficial parasitoids that may have been present and preying on the gall wasps. Elkinton suggests that the ramping up of beneficial parasitoids is likely what ultimately caused the decline of the pest elsewhere in the region, an ecological process known as “top-down regulation.”

It’s the same sort of situation as when gardeners introduce ladybugs or lacewings as beneficial insects to control aphids, but it’s something the ecosystem is doing on its own, without human intervention.

Due to the island’s isolation, the gall wasp infestation arrived later than in the surrounding region. Smith-Freedman now estimates arrival in 2011, with the first damage not becoming visible to observers until 2014, a typical scenario. At that time, Davis was still working to identify the insect and pinpoint its ecology, origin, and life history. That information is critical in deciding what, if anything, may be done to minimize damage from a newly-arrived insect pest.

Since then, gall wasps and their damage have increased on Nantucket, in home landscapes and in forests such as Masquetuck Reservation and Squam Swamp.

Over the space of just a few years, the insect was assigned a species name and it was confirmed that it was indeed the same insect that was causing infestations on black oak in Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and on Nantucket.

Fortunately, Smith-Freedman’s latest data from Nantucket shows that we do have established populations of the beneficial parasitoid wasps. Using extracted DNA, the researchers worked to compare it to samples stored in a database called GenBank.

This method allows researchers to quickly and accurately identify insects to species compared to traditional methods. The DNA fragment works just like a barcode and is used to determine how a mystery organism is related to other creatures, or to identify it to species if it matches one already in the database.

At this point, Smith-Freedman’s data suggests that in 2017, beneficial parasitoids remained much lower on Nantucket than on Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard. But the pattern over time suggests that this year may mark the turning point, when the parasitoids will skyrocket in numbers and initiate a population crash in the harmful gall wasps.

The good news is that two species found to be important predators on the gall wasp are already here on-island and increasing in numbers, ready to lay eggs on the next generation of gall-wasp larvae – and hopefully bring the damage to our oaks down to a minimal level in the near future.

So what does this mean for our Nantucket black oaks? Some land owners have been treating their trees with injected herbicides, and it seems that another year or two of treatment may be enough to see them through.

Affected Oak at Masquetuck, 2017

Many of the trees have been weakened by several years of gall-wasp activity and some may not survive. But Nantucket trees often have unusual responses to disease or insect impacts, as seen with the beech bark disease which appears to have been present on Nantucket for decades without causing significant mortality in our gnarled old American beech trees.

Although injected (systemic) pesticide kills the beneficial parasitoids along with the gall wasps, there should be enough beneficial parasitoids in surrounding natural areas to regulate the gall wasps in the future. Homeowners who have been treating their most valued trees should stay the course for another year or two in hopes that the system is naturally “balancing” itself out as the beneficial insects increase and lower the numbers of the pests.

It should be noted that although infestations in home landscapes and particularly prized specimen trees can be managed with injected herbicide, large-scale treatment in natural areas is not economically feasible, and actually could slow the buildup of the beneficial wasps. This is definitely a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as Smith-Freedman and Elkinton emphasize.

Also important to recall is the fact that oaks are ecological powerhouses, and their role is much greater than just producing acorns for wildlife. In entomologist Doug Tallamy’s study of native trees and shrubs, Mid-Atlantic oaks were found to support by far the highest number of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) of any tree genus studied. Systemic treatment with pesticides on a large scale would impact all of these species, which form the base of the food chain for many species of island birds.

Smith-Freedman presented his preliminary results at a talk in the Atheneum’s Great Hall April 23, and will return to collect more samples this summer to continue to study Nantucket’s ongoing oak gall wasp/parasitoid battle. Another snapshot in time will help answer the question of when we may see the end of the gall wasp boom.


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! 



*Note: this article was originally written in April 2018 and printed in the  May 17, 2018 issue of the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror.

Posted in Forests, Habitat Management, Insects, Research by Collaborators, Trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What’s going on with all the brushcutting in the Tom Nevers Area? Wildfire Risk Reduction and Restoring Habitat for Rare Plants and Animals


Recent brushcutting near the Milestone and Tom Nevers Road intersections.

Take a walk or bike ride along the Milestone Bike Path near the Tom Nevers Road intersection or in the South Pastures area of the island (between the airport and Tom Nevers) and you will notice some dramatic clearing of vegetation and new open areas. Nantucket Conservation Foundation staff have been working on brushcutting management this past fall and winter as part of our Wildland Fire Risk Management Program. This project has two mutually-compatible goals: 1) to reduce the risk of wildfire occurring on Nantucket and 2) conduct management to benefit rare species and plant communities, including sandplain grasslands, heathlands and scrub oak barrens. The Foundation’s Wildland Fire Risk Management Program was first adopted in 2011 by our Board of Trustees and our staff has been implementing management in key areas around the island such as the Middle Moors, Trots Hills, Head of the Plains and now South Pastures.

The unique landscapes of Nantucket’s conservation properties, ranging in size from 10 acres to over 3,000 acres, are surrounded by homes, roads, power lines, and other public infrastructure. People living adjacent to protected lands are lucky to enjoy these beautiful properties just outside their back door, but these areas can also be at risk in a landscape adapted to fire. Many of the plants 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. The vast majority of these species not only exhibit such fire adaptations, but actually require fire or some other type of disturbance for their continued existence. Although these habitats are regionally rare and host numerous rare species, it is problematic when this type of vegetation occurs in close proximity to people and buildings. 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. Management of vegetation around these zones is key for both preventing wildfires and controlling wildfires if they do occur.

Huckleberry Burning

Native shrubs like huckleberry and scrub oak are fire-adapted and burn intensely

Nantucket experienced two severe wildfire events in the 1900’s: in July 1949, approximately 1,300 acres burned adjacent to the Nantucket Memorial Airport and the State Forest; in August 1929, a fire engulfed an area exceeding 6,000 acres stretching from Madequecham to Quaise. Prior to this time, historic sheep grazing helped maintain open, less wildfire prone landscapes. More recent fire suppression and lack of management has lead the vegetation in many areas of the island to steadily growing taller and denser. Also, the number of homes built adjacent to undeveloped conservation lands has been steadily increasing. Because of these factors and the predominance of traditional wooden building materials used on the island, Nantucket has been designated a “Community at Risk” by the National Fire Plan. 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 to our local department in the event of a wildfire.


Brushcutting done several years ago along the Madaket Bike Path near the landfill entrance.

Nantucket’s fire-dependent habitats are designated as uncommon and exemplary “Priority Natural Communities” by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program 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 present within a defined space) to increase public safety 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 rare species associated with our grasslands, heathlands and shrublands.

FECON 021118 crop

The Foundation’s Fecon mulching tractor

The brushcutting work that the Foundation is undertaking requires a heavy duty, specialized piece of equipment called a Fecon mulching tractor. Through the generous support of an anonymous donor, the Foundation purchased its first Fecon tractor in 2012, which was used extensively over the past 6 years and has just been augmented by a second similar unit. During this time, we have systematically widened out existing roadways or cut strategic firebreaks through dense brush where no roads or trails on our Head of the Plains, Trots Hills and Middle Moors properties. This past winter, we began what will be a multi-year fire break establishment and road widening effort within the Tom Nevers area, just south of Milestone Road and west of Tom Nevers Road. 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.


Recent brushcutting bordering the Milestone Road near Tom Nevers.

These breaks are designed to provide large gaps in the vegetation that will slow the progress of wildfire and provide our fire department with a safe location from which to do fire suppression work. 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 avoided.

North Pasture Firebreak June 5 2017 2

This firebreak in the Middle Moors was first cut several years ago.

Once established, these breaks will be regularly maintained by periodic mowing. 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 look beautiful once the vegetation has greened up in the summer and follow-up treatments will reduce this debris over time. 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.


Just a few of the rare plant species that tend to be found along sunny road edges: sandplain flax, New England blazing star, sandplain blue-eyed grass, eastern silvery aster, and bushy rockrose (left to right)

We invite you to get out and enjoy our 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 to our dedicated fund that supports this important work.

For more information, please visit the Foundation’s website at: https://www.nantucketconservation.org/land-management-2/wildfire-program/


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, Land Use History, Native Plants, Restoration, Sandplain Grasslands, Scrub Oak Barrens | 1 Comment

Salt Marshes Buried Under Sand – Head of Hither Creek

**Update February 2019: Project Report on Hither Creek Hither Creek Washover and Salt Marsh Monitoring Report 2018 **

The photos and videos on social media October 30th, 2017 were dramatic. Ocean waves in Madaket washing over the dune separating Hither Creek from the Atlantic Ocean, swirling under and around the stilt house and pushing sand into the southern end of Hither Creek. For a while during this story, it looked like Hither Creek would open to the Atlantic Ocean and the water rushing in threatened Millie’s Bridge, sending Nantucket DPW workers out to shore up the bridge. When the storm cleared, luckily the bridge was stable, the stilt house was still standing and the Atlantic Ocean was back on the other side of dune, now much shorter than before. But there were still dramatic changes to the landscape. All that rushing ocean water had significantly eroded the sand dune separating the ocean and Hither Creek and that sand had been push into Hither Creek, filling in most of the small circular salt pond closest to the silt house and blanketing the surround salt marsh with a thick layer of sand.



Once the storm subsided, waves have occasionally washed over from the Atlantic Ocean only during extreme high tide/wave events, but under normal conditions, the southern end of Hither Creek is reconnected to tidal flow from Madaket Harbor. Significant sand remained deposited on top of the salt marsh and within the salt pond.

NCF’s Research Program Director, Jen Karberg became very interested in what that thick layer of sand would do to the salt marsh underneath it. Salt marshes typically respond well to sand additions of an inch or two, small scale wash over events are vital for building up marsh elevation, encouraging growth of marshes grasses and helping salt marshes respond to climate change. Very little research has documented the response of salt marshes to this much sand deposition. Events like this are likely going to increase and salt marshes play a vital role in stabilizing our eroding shorelines and buffering our uplands from intense storm events. Understanding how large sand washover events can impact salt marshes will help NCF and other island organizations prioritize management and protection on Nantucket.

Sand over salt marsh JMK

Sand over existing Salt marsh

So, with permission of the Massachusetts Audubon and the Town of Nantucket (owners of the majority of the salt marsh at the southern end of Hither Creek), NCF set out to study how the salt marsh would respond to these deep sand deposits as well as how long those sand deposits stay in place. Over the next year, NCF staff will be documenting sand extent and depth over the salt marshes, tracking the movement/retention of sand and examining salt marsh vegetation growth in response to the sand deposits.


In November, Jen established randomly located plots at the site, measured sand depth over the marsh and documented any vegetation that was still present. The response of salt marsh vegetation will depend on how much sand remains in place come spring when the plants start growing again. This is just the beginning of this monitoring work, which we will continue for at least a year but a few observations can already be made. In November, sand depth over the salt marsh ranged from 1/3 of a meter to up to 2 meters in some places. Interestingly, the sand deposit within the creek rises so much higher than the remaining salt marsh that incoming tides preferentially cover the remaining salt marsh which has already lead to the death of much of the grasses in some places. This also means the tide is flowing right around the base of Millie’s Bridge so the concrete blocks put in place to protect the bridge will likely remain for a while!


Observing the area at low tide, significant amounts of sand appear to be washing off of the big sand deposit and out into Hither Creek. Where these new deposits of sand fall out in the creek may end up may changing the navigational bottom of the creek. Between November and January, the sand deposits have been advancing over the salt marsh and closer to the bridge with each major storm and the loss of salt marsh is already being felt. Salt marshes both buffer large water flows and can hold on to water, keeping it from flooding uplands during large storm events. A neighbor on the pond had their basement flood with water during the most recent winter storm. This had never happened before to them before, with the only difference being that the salt marsh in front of their house was swamped with sand. These are just some small changes already being seen as a result of this major landscape change. Continued monitoring over the next year will help us understand how this area is changing and how future storm changes will impact Nantucket.


Column author:

Dr. Jen Karberg, wetland and plant ecologist and the Research Program Supervisor in the Science and Stewardship Department for the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror  in February 2018 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.


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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