Rare Plants and Unique Wildlife on our Coatue Property

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror on July 21th 2016 pg 6B in the article series Island Ecology. The Foundation’s Science staff will be regularly contributing to our local newspaper and reprinting articles here the following week.*

As we all know, Nantucket is unique in so many ways – our history, our quirky customs, our people. Each of us has a reason why we believe Nantucket is so special. As one who is inclined to be outdoors, what I find most fascinating about our island is our unique geologic and natural history.

The shape of Nantucket itself is quite unique, beloved and easily recognizable. One of the most recognizable landscape features of our island is the northern barrier beach known as Coatue. How this piece of land came to have its characteristic scalloped shape is quite rare geologically-speaking too. After the last glacier retreated, Great Point was an island itself, disconnected from the rest of Nantucket. Over time, with shifting shoals and drifting sand, dunes eventually filled in between the two islands, connecting Great Point to Coskata and Wauwinet. Coatue is believed to have developed after Nantucket and Great Point became connected, as this long, northward reaching spit of land interrupted the flow of the strong currents from the Atlantic towards the north part of the island. Sands drifted in on slower moving currents and were deposited from the east to the west creating the north-facing barrier beach. The scalloped shape of the cuspate spits that form the six points on the inside of Coatue facing Nantucket Harbor are an unusual feature that geologists believe formed and are maintained by just the right combination of the northeasterly prevailing winds in the winter versus the southwesterly winds of the summer along with the constant daily flux of tides in and out of the Nantucket Harbor. The prevailing winds and currents build up the points, while the tidal fluctuations move sand from the points and deposit it along the bends between them.

Today, most of Coatue from the fifth point, known as Bass Point, westward to Coatue Point at the east Jetty, is owned by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and managed as a wildlife refuge. The Coatue Wildlife Refuge is a summer home for many rare, nesting bird species including American oystercatchers, piping plovers, least terns as well as songbirds like the saltmarsh sparrow, ground-nesting northern harriers, as well as herons and egrets. Over the last few years, we’ve also seen the development of some very unusual behavior by a colony of double-crested cormorants, which have begun nesting right in the dunes among all the gull nests!

Double-crested cormorant colony on the north shore of Coatue

Double-crested cormorant colony on the north shore of Coatue

Managing Coatue as a wildlife refuge also provides us an opportunity to protect some amazing habitat for very rare or unusual plants as well. While not a rare species, the dwarf red cedars on Coatue are thought to be quite old trees, perhaps upwards of 100 years. Other places across the island, cedars grow upright as normal trees. On Coatue, of course, they must do it differently! Due to constant wind and salt spray, their upright growth is stunted but they have adapted by growing prostrate to the ground, often with their trunks running along under the sand. As you move from north to south in the wider sections of Coskata and Coatue, the height of the cedars begins to increase as they are less influenced by the strong coastal winds. Researchers from UMass Amherst have been using ground-penetrating radar to study how the Coatue cedars are growing under the sand and questioning whether the parts of the tree that are above the ground are actually just multiple branches of the same individual. How many actual individual cedars are there on Coatue? Could they be growing similarly to how clonal species such as Aspen grow in the western US, where each tree is a genetic clone?

Clearly the plants that thrive on Coatue must be hard and able to withstand frigid winter temperatures, occasional ocean overwash during nor’easters, salt spray and the nearly constant wind. That anything survives out there is a miracle to me, but there are a few plant species whose tolerance to such harsh conditions is baffling. As child growing up in Connecticut, I would scour the dark, conifer forests in the late spring in hopes of finding a single, pink Lady’s Slipper. These members of the orchid family are rare and generally known to inhabit mossy or rocky slopes in pine and hemlock forests. Nothing at all like what is found on Coatue! I still am shocked when, year after year, large patches of these amazing orchids pop up in the sandy, dry, exposed soils of Coatue among all the bearberry!

Pink lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule) in flower on Coatue

Pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) in flower on Coatue

Having lived for many years in the desert southwest, I still find it most bizarre to see cactus – lots and lots of eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) – in amongst the dunes and beach grass of Coatue. Indeed, Coatue is one of the only places you can find the eastern prickly pear in the Commonwealth and it is quite easy to spot right now as it is in full bloom with bright, showy, yellow flowers. To see it though, you’ll need to wade through the fields of poison ivy and swarms of greenhead flies so beware! In my opinion, it’s worth the fight to see this plant that just seems so oddly out of place and you just have to see it to believe it! It has bright green pads that grow along the ground so as to avoid the wind, and tends to lack the long, sharp spines of your classic western prickly pear species. It does however have many small, irritating hair-like spines called glochids that can become imbedded in your skin and are a nightmare to remove, so best to admire without touching. Bright red edible fruits will develop later in the summer. This is a plant that does not tolerate shading by other taller species so does quite well on Coatue as the constant wind keeps most plant growth quite stunted. The eastern prickly pear is afforded the highest level of protection by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act and is listed as Endangered due to its very limited distribution within the state. I encourage people to go see this rare and beautiful plant but please leave it right where it is.

The rare Eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa).

The rare eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa).

Coatue is certainly a gem that we are so lucky to have. From so many places on island it seems just a stone’s throw away, yet is actually quite remote and hard to access without a boat or sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle. If you can get there, we at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation welcome you to enjoy what we think is one of Nantucket’s truly unique landscapes and all the natural wonders it has to offer. Remember, we are nearing the end of shorebird nesting season and many of the chicks are just now learning to fly. If you see fencing along the beach, please steer clear and view the birds from afar. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to witness the first flight of one of our oystercatcher chicks!



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

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Nantucket Coastal Plain Pond Hydrology and Globally Rare Plants

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror July 14th 2016 pg 4B in the article series Island Ecology. The Foundation’s Science staff will be regularly contributing to our local newspaper and reprinting articles here in the following week.*

Alamanc Pond, a large Coastal Plain Pond on Nantucket, full of water in mid-summer

Alamanc Pond, a large Coastal Plain Pond on Nantucket, full of water in mid-summer

After a long spring drought with weeks of no rain in June, Almanac Pond in the Middle Moors sat full to the brim with water.

Wait, what?

Of all of the questions I hear about wetlands each year, the water levels in the smaller ponds throughout the island tops the list, usually because the pond levels seem so different from expectations based on weather. On Nantucket Island, our thoughts about water focus on the harbors and the Great Ponds where water levels make intuitive sense – high with high tide, low with low tide or, in the case of the Great Ponds, low when the beach opens and high when closed. But the little ponds throughout the inland parts of the island; Almanac, No-bottom, Wigwam, Jewel, the Pout Ponds and many more, are an entirely different kind of pond.

Coastal plain ponds: small, shallow freshwater ponds found throughout the Northeastern US and Canada and concentrated in coastal areas of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island are home to one of the highest concentrations of rare plants in the region!

Why do these ponds behave so differently from the other water bodies on Nantucket? Located in areas covered thousands of years ago by the last glacier, these ponds are depressions in sandy or gravelly soil and receive all of their water because they intersect the water table, meaning that groundwater runs directly into these depressions, independent of tides, streams or other surface water. Groundwater? On an island, fresh drinking water is key so you’ve probably heard of our sole source aquifer, the reservoir of freshwater contained under the island. This aquifer is our groundwater which is, on average, 10-20ft below the soil surface but can be as shallow as 0ft and as deep at 100ft below the soil. Where groundwater intersects the soil, water can well up out of the ground – you may have encountered a small burbling pool in Squam Swamp or seen water trickling out of the side of Sconset Bluff – these are springs of groundwater reaching the surface. Where the groundwater seeps up in depressions, coastal plain ponds form. Because of the glacial history of our island, which created pockets, valleys and kettlehole depressions, these groundwater-dependent coastal plain ponds are abundant on Nantucket.

Groundwater fed ponds behave differently than primarily surface water fed ponds (ponds that depend mostly on precipitation, streams or a coastal connection). Surface water pond levels change almost instantly because their water source is instantaneous water, leading to short term changes in water levels. Basically, when it rains, water levels in surface water fed ponds rise almost immediately, when it’s dry for a few weeks, water levels drop. Groundwater, on the other hand is a bit more complicated. Groundwater levels draw down due to pumping for drinking water and uptake by plant roots, but this response is buffered by soil and the amount of groundwater present. Our aquifer is so large, that drawdowns in the aquifer happen slowly over time – although they do happen! Because of the sandy soil on Nantucket, which allows water to move quickly through it, our aquifer can get quickly recharged (refilled so to speak) by precipitation as rain or snow. Water levels in groundwater fed ponds like Almanac Pond don’t change in the same way as more predominantly surface water fed ponds like Hummock Pond. Which is why this summer, after weeks of drought, Almanac Pond is still full to over flowing!

Almanac Pond with lower water levels and abundant coastal plain pondshore vegetation.

Almanac Pond with lower water levels and abundant coastal plain pondshore vegetation.

Typically, groundwater fed coastal plain pond water levels are highest in spring and begin drawing down very slowly over the summer and into early fall. As fall rains begin and recharge the groundwater, these ponds will start filling again in the early winter months. How full a pond is in the spring depends on the previous fall and winter precipitation, not that spring’s rain – so some years the ponds are very full and possibly over flowing their banks and in some years they can start out the spring already 5ft lower than usual.

This variability in water levels over a season is what makes coastal plain ponds so ecologically interesting. Coastal plain pond shores – the edges of these ponds that are variably wet or dry depending on the season and year – host one of the highest concentrations of both locally and globally rare plant species in northeastern US and Canada. The state of Massachusetts has more than 40 state-listed plants and animals that are found almost exclusively in these ponds. The plants that emerge, flower and set seed each year depend almost entirely on water levels, meaning the seeds of plants that come up when the pond is at its lowest might have to survive 5 or more years underwater, a unique adaptation for most plants. In a low water year – rare plant stalkers in New England rush to the coastal plain ponds hoping to see some of the more unique and seldom seen plants in flower. This year, our ponds seem extra high so the possibility of seeing some of these rare plants this summer is not likely but in low pond years you might get a chance to glimpse the lovely, very rare and unique Rhexia mariana (Maryland meadow-beauty). Most years you can find this plant’s cousin Rhexia virginica (Virginia meadow-beauty) higher up on the pond shore.

Rhexia virginica (meadow beatuy) found on the pondshores.

Rhexia virginica (meadow beatuy) found on the pondshores.

What else might you find along the edge of these unique wetlands? Carnivorous sundews often hide along the shoreline, waiting to capture tasty ants or flies for a snack – Drosera filiformis (Thread-leaved sundew) and Drosera intermedia (Spatulate-leaved sundew) can both be found on Nantucket! And, I’m still waiting to stumble upon the very rare and beautiful Sabatia campanulata (Slender rose gentian) – maybe next year will be a low water year!

The rare and carnivorous Drosera filiformis (thread-leaved sundew).

The rare and carnivorous Drosera filiformis (thread-leaved sundew).

These unique coastal plain ponds provide a direct link to our precious aquifer, hosting a range of rare and unique species. The canary in the coal mine of the quality of our island’s freshwater resources, these ponds are susceptible to any groundwater contamination through fertilizer and other nutrient inputs as well as over pumping of the islands aquifer. Luckily, most of these ponds are on protected conservation lands, allowing us to monitor and study them into the future.

Jen Karberg, Ph.D., is a wetland and plant ecologist and the research program supervisor in the Science and Stewardship Department of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation


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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Celebrating Local Color: Native Wildflowers at Work!

Tuberous grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus), an orchid found in bogs. This one is open.

Tuberous grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus), an orchid found in bogs. This one is open, ready and waiting to entrap a hungry bee with false promises.

A recent NCF “Mornings for Members” walk at Windswept Bog (free to members of NCF with signup)  highlighted some of our most beautiful native wildflowers. Natives are plants that arrived in a region without human help and in most cases have been in the neighborhood for enough time to become a vital part of the local ecosystem.

They’re not just pretty faces– each native plant is embedded in a complex web of relationships that has evolved over thousands of years. Plants aren’t interchangeable. However beautiful, an imported ornamental garden plant doesn’t share the a co-evolutionary history with local insects and wildlife that a native wildflower does. Take the tuberous grass pink,  for example, (pictured above at left) — an orchid with a twist. The top portion of the flower is not what it appears to be — it looks like an attractive cluster of yellow pollen-bearing anthers, but it’s just a trick to attract a visiting insect, usually a bumblebee or long-tongued bee. As the bee tries to snag a pollen snack, the appendage folds down to temporarily trap the hungry insect, slapping it on the back with pollen that it won’t be able to reach. Rather than getting a pollen takeaway meal, the bee escapes, and if it falls for the trick again, cross-pollinates another grass pink flower. So, basically this flower appears bizarrely upside-down compared to other orchids (lip on top, not bottom). And it’s all a part of the complex ties in our local ecosystem that plants and animals and insects develop over a long timescale — ecological time.

Tuberous grass pink with the top portion closed (temporary trap sprung) to encourage pollination by a visiting insect.

Tuberous grass pink with the top portion closed (temporary trap sprung) to encourage pollination by a visiting insect.

Each region has its own “biodiversity fingerprint” of plant and animal species that have evolved together. Yes, plants and animals do move around without human aid, expanding their ranges as climate changes, or as seeds are carried on wind and waves. But those changes were usually slow and occurred few and far between, until modern times, when people became much more mobile and able to transport plants, animals, and diseases around the globe in great numbers and with great speed.

Nantucket’s “biodiversity fingerprint” is particularly distinctive because of the island’s history–it was once connected to the mainland, but then separated by sea level rise about 7,000 years ago. As a result, we share many of the same native plant communities that are found on the mainland of southern New England. However, our offshore location poised at the edge of two climate regions — combined with a long history of human habitation — have further shaped the island’s flora and fauna. Our island’s unusual biogeography has left us with number of prairie species to complement the more typical forest and shoreline habitats that are found in much of New England.

Blunt leaved milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) is well adapted to our sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands. with its waxy leaves and short stature.

Blunt leaved milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) is well-adapted to our sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands, with its waxy leaves and short stature. Photo: K.A. Omand.

These prairie species and their relatives flourish in the island’s globally rare early successional habitats: sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands. Protecting native plants also means protecting the insects that feed on them and are often needed for pollination. These relationships are often unnoticed by humans, but we can understand them better by examining the ecological ties of particular plants, like the grass pink and the milkweeds. While imported honeybees are much in the news these days, our native bees and a host of other amazing insects are also declining due to extreme and rapid alterations that humans have made to the environment. One of those major changes has been filling our yards with non-native ornamentals that insects and wildlife can’t use in the same way.

Introducing this same group of highly competitive plants to new places all over the world actually reduces the uniqueness of “biodiversity fingerprints” between regions. While these species will eventually form new ties and ecological relationships that include some native species, this process can take hundreds or thousands of years; in the meantime there are so many other stresses on our fragile ecosystems that the addition of aggressive new species can be enough to cause some rare and endangered species to decline or become extinct. 

What can you do to help Nantucket’s native species survive and thrive? Be thoughtful in your own yard and retain native plants as landscaping — check out the new Nantucket Native Plant Pamphlet developed by the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative to learn more. Your landscaper or local nursery can help you select native plants that benefit wildlife and insects, but you have to ask. Also, be sure to support island conservation organizations who work hard to protect native communities from development and slow the tide of introduced plants and animals.

Goat's rue (Tephrosia virginiana) in bloom in sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands right now.

Goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginiana) blooming in sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands, and along bike paths right now. Photo: Gwen Kozlowski.

Posted in Botany, Habitat Management, Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative, Native Plants, Natural History, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Meet Our 2016 Seasonal Research Field Assistants

Each year, the NCF Science and Stewardship Department hires a few lucky and talented people to help us through the field season with all of our various research, monitoring and restoration projects. We try to hire individuals with a passion for botany and the natural world and each year we are excited to meet and learn about our new co-workers who can come from close to home or as far as California.

This year we have a really great field crew and they want to introduce themselves over the blog. If you see them out on our properties or around the island this summer – please say hello! Stay tuned over the season as they check in to talk about the work they are doing on Nantucket.

Corrina Marshall and Alex Etkind in Squam Swamp

Corrina Marshall and Alex Etkind in Squam Swamp


Corrina Marshall:

I hail from the great state of Michigan where I grew up and gained a B.S. in Environmental Science and Spanish at the University of Michigan. Initially, I studied environmental policy but once I encountered biology it was clear that was the right field for me. At the University’s Biological Station I narrowed my interest to ecology and fell in love with botany and field work. While in school, I worked for U of M’s Arboretum and Botanical Gardens to manage and monitor restoration projects such as prescribed burns, brush cutting, pulling invasive species and native plantings. I have used my botany knowledge working as a surveyor for a Floristic Quality Assessment, measuring foliar mercury in forest stands, and assisting in a research project on Pennsylvania Sedge reproductive characteristics. I also gained botanical experience working for U of M’s Herbarium, mainly focused on fern collections.

Corrina enjoying her field time!

Corrina enjoying her field time!

I am excited about the position with NCF for many reasons, the foremost being that it will expose me to many different types of science projects and ecosystem types that I haven’t encountered yet. I recently visited a salt marsh for the first time in my life and am learning new species that grow in coastal habitats. I am also learning more about wildlife by assisting in bat monitoring and horseshoe crab surveying! This summer will be a great time to learn and explore the many different conserved properties on the island and see how science gets put into action to inform conservation and restoration techniques. I am having a great time getting to know the island and seeing all the happy dogs at Tupancy!


Alex Etkind:

Growing up in coastal Massachusetts, I have explored the region’s unique natural communities as long as I can remember. While my involvement in land conservation and stewardship began as a passion for the natural world, several years working with land trusts in southeastern Massachusetts and on Cape Cod enabled me to transform this passion into practical knowledge and experience. Land stewardship is fulfilling work, and I have enjoyed the challenges that come with managing conservation areas with a diverse range of management goals, from forever-wild wilderness and rare species habitat to intensively used public forests and beaches.

Alex exploring rare plants!

Alex exploring rare plants!

In addition to my experience managing conservation lands, I developed botanical field skills working with the Association to Preserve Cape Cod (APCC) to collect ecological data for use in their Critical Habitat Atlas, an online mapping resource for local town planners, land trusts, and conservation organizations. My contribution to this project entailed identifying and mapping uncommon natural communities on Cape Cod, as well as reporting occurrences of rare natural communities and rare plant species to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP). While mapping the remnants of Cape Cod’s sandplain grassland and heathland communities, I kept hearing the same refrain from the other botanists I was working with: “You haven’t really seen these communities until you’ve seen them on Nantucket!”

Over the past year living in the Boston area, I have continued to build upon my botanical and ecological field work experience as a Biological Science Technician with the National Park Service on the Boston Harbor Islands. One focus of my work on the Boston Harbor Islands was implementing a long-term vegetation monitoring program to evaluate the results of ongoing wetland restoration and re-vegetation projects. I am currently working to expand my background in natural resource management and ecology as I pursue a Master’s Degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management at Harvard University Extension School. I’ve recently moved from the peninsula of Nantasket to the island of Nantucket, and I am very excited to be joining NCF’s Science and Stewardship Department for a season of botany and ecology 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!




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The balance between public access and rare resource protection – here’s how we’re doing it at Head of the Plains


The Foundation has always strived to manage its properties to provide for public access and protect rare ecological resources. These goals can often be at cross purposes, so succeeding at both requires a great deal of strategic planning. Developing property conservation management plans that achieve this balance is one of the primary tasks of the Foundation’s Science and Stewardship Department, and recent management undertaken at Head of the Plains provides a great example of how this process plays out.

In January 2016, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees approved an updated and revised property conservation management plan for our Head of the Plains properties, which includes 414 acres in the southwestern portion of the island between Cisco and Madaket. Management plans are developed to direct and inform our land stewardship activities. They outline three major goals for each property: inventorying species and habitats of special concern, determining the management needs of rare resources, and identifying appropriate public use, passive recreation and educational opportunities. Management plans have been completed for most of our major property holdings, and additional plans are currently under development. Completed plans guide our current research and management planning, and are reviewed and revised every 5-10 years.


Vehicles parked next to the shoreline at Head of the Plains in 2015.

A high priority identified in the recent plan update for our Head of the Plains management plan was addressing ongoing, severe shoreline retreat. The beach that borders the southern portion of Head of the Plains is a popular destination for visitors, who primarily arrive by vehicle because of the property’s remote location. However, coastal erosion has caused the shoreline to retreat substantially in recent years. Many of the beach access parking areas were very close to the shoreline, infringing into protected coastal wetland resource areas. Parking in these locations was causing destruction to sensitive vegetation that stabilizes dunes and adjacent uplands.

Head of the Plains also contains the largest, contiguous area of sandplain grasslands and heathlands found on Foundation-owned land. These globally significant habitats support some of the highest concentrations of rare and endangered species in Massachusetts. Many of the rare plant populations on this property occur along road and parking area edges because they require full sun and nutrient-poor, sandy soils. Because these sites were minimally designated with fencing prior to the plan update, vehicle use was damaging and destroying these populations.

HofPRoadsAndParkingLocations2016 MAP FOR BLOGHead of the Plains is a very popular site for beach visitors, and continuing to provide access for public use and enjoyment is a high priority for our organization. In order to do this, a number of new management objectives were developed during the update of the management plan. These were recently put into play by our Properties Maintenance staff in time for the 2016 summer season. Several roadways in close proximity to the beach were closed to vehicles in order to protect and prevent damage to coastal dune and rare species habitats. Fencing and signage was installed to designate appropriate areas for visitors to park their vehicles so that they can continue to access the beach. Although these changes will require a little extra walking to get from the car to the shoreline, they are being implemented to protect and provide coastal resiliency to these pristine areas that we all enjoy.

Piping Plover, running, Jun 9

An adult piping plover (photo by Vern Laux)

An additional management priority at this site is protecting rare nesting shorebirds such as the piping plover. This federally-threatened species began nesting at this site in 2014. State and federal rare species protection guidelines stipulate that piping plover nesting areas must be fenced and posted to prevent disturbance to these birds, which lay their well-camouflaged eggs directly on the open beach in a small nest scrape. Although entry into fenced and protected nesting areas is prohibited, pedestrian and beach use are still permitted outside of the fencing. With proper and diligent management, including regular site visits by our Shorebird Monitor and providing an appropriate buffer from people, pets and vehicles, piping plovers can successfully raise their chicks while visitors use and enjoy the beach.


One of the newly-established parking areas at Head of the Plains.

These management actions provide an example of how the Foundation is continually reviewing and revising its management strategies in order to maintain an appropriate balance between public access and resource protection. Acquiring a piece of property and protecting it from development is only the first step in land conservation. Management plans need to be developed and regularly updated to reflect changes in the environment and the way that the public is accessing and using the site. This process of adaptive management allows the results of research, management, and monitoring to be incorporated into future use of our properties and is a critical component of responsible open space ownership and stewardship.


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 Public Use Management, Sandplain Grasslands, Shorebirds, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative’s Citizen Science Event

Who’s your Scientist?!!

Over the weekend of June 10-12th, the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative invites you to participate in our Citizen Science Weekend to learn more about the research that is being conducted on Nantucket by local scientists and how you can be involved. All of the weekend’s events are free and open to the public! Come learn about “critter cams” used to study the behavior of snapping turtles, how to use smartphone apps to document new locations of invasive species, hear about the history of the Maria Mitchell scientific collections, learn about the ecology of sandplain grasslands, help preserve Nantucket’s biodiversity by eradicating garlic mustard and MORE!

Detailed event descriptions, registration information, a complete schedule of events can be found on the NBI website.

On Friday, June 10th, at 6:30 pm, please join us in the Great Hall at the Nantucket Atheneum for our keynote speaker, Dr. Tobias Landberg. Dr. Landberg will present on the “Behavioral Ecology and Conservation of Snapping Turtles”. Dr. Landberg is an integrative biologist at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. Using National Geographic Society’s
“CritterCam”, Dr. Landberg and his colleagues have studied snapping turtles in Connecticut for over 8 years. This remote imaging technology has allowed a unique view into the lives of snapping turtles that had never been seen before. They use the footage that the turtles themselves film to analyze their diving and breathing behaviors as well as their interactions with other creatures in ponds and lakes that were previously inaccessible to researchers.

T Landberg bearded snapper

Dr. Tobias Landberg

schedule of events 2016

Please see our website for a complete listing and description of all the weekend’s events and register soon as most events will have an attendance cap! Hope to see many new faces at NBI Citizen Science Weekend! Who’s Your Scientist?!



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Garlic Mustard: Friend or Foe in the Battle Against Deer Ticks?

Garlic Mustard CloseupRecently I heard a provocative statement to the effect that “garlic mustard is Mother Nature’s way of getting rid of deer ticks.” Naturally I needed to find out more. Could this actually be true? After spending hundreds of hours working with field crews managing this plant by hand-pulling in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, not to mention here on Nantucket, I wanted to find out more. In a lot of areas, there is no way this plant will be eradicated, since it has a way of spreading in backyard compost piles and getting moved around in soil or mulch. Even though it has been shown to negatively impact native wildflowers and even poison rare native butterflies, I wondered if it could be an ally in our battle against disease spreading ticks? Ecology is certainly full of unpredictable costs and benefits.

Spoiler alert: all research points to garlic mustard actually INCREASING deer tick populations. Not the silver lining I was hoping for, and here’s why:

First, a little background info about this plant. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a non-native species that was introduced to North America by human settlers as a food plant. It’s in the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) and its original home was Eurasia. Since it was brought to North America, it has spread in 34 states; it’s been classified as a “noxious weed” in 6 states and as an “invasive” species in several others (including Massachusetts, where it is also on the list of MA Prohibited Plants). Garlic mustard has caused the most concern in forests, where it spreads rapidly and can crowd out native wildflowers and tree seedlings, which are already at high risk of over-browsing by burgeoning deer herds. This article from Harvard Forest gives a great overview of research on garlic mustard and how it affects native forest ecosystems.

Now let’s zoom in on Nantucket. Driving or walking around the island, you may have noticed patches of vibrant green plants topped with clusters of white flowers, that spring up seemingly out of nowhere in mid-May. These patches usually appear in shrubby areas, road edges, or neglected corners of yards. A closer look reveals plants that start out as tiny rosettes (seedlings with leaves clustered at the base of each plant) of kidney-shaped leaves; a little later, many of the older plants shoot up flower stalks sporting arrowhead- or heart-shaped leaves with toothed edges.

Garlic mustard rosette (cluster of leaves that forms before the plant flowers).

Garlic mustard rosette (cluster of leaves that forms before the plant flowers).

Take a good sniff of a handful of the crushed foliage to clinch the identification: the garlicky scent gave this plant its common name, garlic mustard. It’s related to the plant that produces the mustard seeds ground to make mustard condiments, and to mustard greens eaten in salads and stir fry.

It’s undeniable that garlic mustard has its uses: the garlicky flavor means it can be used in stir fry dishes or ground up to make pesto. The small first year rosettes are high in cyanide to deter browsers though, so it’s best to harvest the second-year plants, the ones that are just beginning to flower. Check out this website to learn how people cook with garlic mustard. ALWAYS be sure of a plant’s identity before consuming it–check with an expert if you are not completely sure. And avoid picking and eating plants from along roads or pathways where they can be contaminated with dust and oil, or used as sign-posts by passing dogs!

But, back to garlic mustard’s dark side: the garlicky chemicals and cyanide deter deer and other browsers. Instead, the deer prefer to eat native wildflowers, which they have co-evolved to be able to consume without ill effects. The chemicals also leach into the soil and prevent other plants’ seeds from germinating, a neat trick called allelopathy that gives plants and edge over their competition. Researchers have found that garlic mustard’s chemicals seeping into the soil can harm tree seedlings and affect the future of a forest. Even when tree seedlings survive being munched by deer, garlic mustard’s chemical warfare still makes it hard for new trees to get a good start; they really need the soil fungi to help their roots get the proper nutrition.

But what about the ticks??? You’re dying to know about the ticks, right???

It turns out that the same garlicky chemicals that harm the mycorrhizal fungi (needed by plants and trees), also kill fungi that would infect and reduce populations of deer ticks. So, in fact, the spread of garlic mustard in your yard and local natural areas is NOT a way to reduce tick populations…it might be doing the opposite, actually. Scientists arrived at similar conclusions in different studies: Keesing et al. (2011) studied the effects of garlic mustard chemicals on fungi in a laboratory setting and reported the results in the journal Ecoscience, Volume 18(2); Vaicekonyte and Keesing (2012) conducted another experiment by removing garlic mustard in the field and reported their results in the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management Volume 5; finally, Stafford and Allen (2010) at the University of Nebraska applied the fungi (ones that were shown to be inhibited by garlic mustard chemicals) as a method of biocontrol and found that they reduced tick populations, reported in Digital Commons Publication 1064.

Based on this detective work, it still makes sense to keep garlic mustard populations low in order to protect native plant diversity. But it also makes sense in the struggle to lower deer tick populations and tick borne diseases. If you are interested in learning more about invasive plants and helping island conservation groups with invasive plant removal activities (hand-pulling and digging), check out the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative website invasive species page, where you can find contact info for the Invasive Plant Species Committee co-chairs. We’d be happy to have your help!

And don’t be shy about hand-pulling garlic mustard in your yard. Bag the pulled plants and bring them to the Nantucket Environmental Park (AKA, “the Dump”) where there should be a new container for disposal of invasive weeds. Your home compost pile or the landscape waste pile are not good places to dispose of pulled weeds, since the seeds can mature even after the plants have been pulled up, and regular compost doesn’t usually get hot enough to reliably destroy seeds.


Garlic Mustard Pulled Tall DIO

Garlic mustard can grow a few feet tall and each plant can produce hundreds of seeds.

Pulling together on garlic mustard removal at Vesper Lane/Mill Hill Park site.

Pulling together on garlic mustard removal at Vesper Lane/Mill Hill Park site.











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Posted in Habitat Management, Invasive Species, Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative, Ticks | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment