Wildflowers Signal Shift to Autumn

Rose Mallow Miacomet Pond, KAO

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

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

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

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

Sea Lavender closeup, Masquetuck,KAO

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

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

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

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


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


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

Posted in Botany, Native Plants, Pollinators, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative: Understanding Nantucket’s Unique Biodiversity

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

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

Mike & Jennifer Nab tri at Sq Swamp2

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

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

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

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

Nora with Tups Knapweed, KAO (1)

A volunteer helps us rid the island of spotted knapweed!

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

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


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

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

Shorebirds- Migration in Motion

by Elizabeth C. Buck

AMOY flt wings up

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

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

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

Piping Plover chicks Eel Point 2017 by ECB

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

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

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

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

AMOY Bands Clarks Cove 2017 by ECB

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

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

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

Pink Banded Plover Western Ave 2015 by Edie Ray

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

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

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


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


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

It’s Blueberry Season!

By Karen C. Beattie

Common Lowbush Blueberry fruits by JPK

Common lowbush blueberries (photo by John Krapek).

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

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

WM Gau pro, Moors,KAO (1)

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

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

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

Higbush Blueberry Flowers by KAO

Highbush blueberry in flower (photo by Kelly Omand).

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

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

Highbush Blueberries by JPK

Highbush blueberries (photo by John Krapek).

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

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


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

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

What’s Ailing Nantucket’s Black Oaks?

By Kelly A. Omand

Castor Pollux BlOaks (1)

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

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

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

3. Black Oak with Gall Wasp Damage

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

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

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

2. Black Oak Canopy Gall Wasp Damage

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

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

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

1. Black Oak Gall WaspTwig Damage

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

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

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


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


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

Meet Our 2017 Seasonal Botany and Ecology Field Assistants!

Jake and Scott Prop Monitoring

Each summer, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Science and Stewardship Department hires two seasonal Botany and Ecology Field Assistants to help us collect data on a variety of projects throughout the field season. This year, we are very lucky to have Jacob Erle and Scott Fuchs on our team! Jake and Scott will be helping us locate populations of rare plants on our properties, remove invasive species, document the effects of brush cutting and disk harrowing on vegetation community composition and populations of small mammals and insects at our Head of the Plains property, capture, radio-track and monitor breeding bats, and collect and propagate seed from native plants — to name just a few tasks!

Jake and Scott have prepared the following entries for our blog to introduce themselves below:

Jake cropped

Jacob Erle 

Right from the start I have had a passion for the outdoors, and it has taken me all sorts of places.  The natural world is full of extraordinary organisms with remarkable lifestyles, and I enjoy learning as much as I can about them. I grew up in Binghamton, NY where I studied at Broome Community College; there I did wetland ecology research in the Everglades, and explored the geology of several of our National Parks out West. After transferring to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), I was able to study the plants and animals in the Adirondack Mountains several different times while learning there. It was through SUNY-ESF I landed my first field job doing ecological monitoring of Northern long-eared bats at Cape Cod National Seashore in the summer of 2016, working with the SUNY Research Foundation and National Parks Service. There we used acoustic monitoring and vegetation surveys to see what types of habitats the bats seem to prefer. We also set mist nets to catch the bats and attached nano-transmitters to track them.  I had the time of my life being outside every day. The time of day or weather conditions didn’t make a difference to me; I just love being outdoors!

I don’t have one group of organisms I prefer, for I cannot pick just one. I have done research on all kinds of flora and fauna, and I enjoy the versatility of being able to study many different areas of life. Studying ecology on islands really interests me because the organisms there often behave differently compared to their mainland counterparts. It is that kind of diverse field research that grabbed my attention for this job; the opportunity to work on many different projects across multiple island habitats is the chance of a lifetime. The research conducted here is fascinating and the people working on these projects are very wise and experienced. My goal is to conduct graduate research studying island biogeography, and I am looking forward to learning everything I possibly can while stationed in Nantucket to fuel conservation efforts further.

Scott cropped

Scott Fuchs

I arrived on Nantucket in late May, coming from the great state of Wisconsin. I enjoy travelling but have never spent time in the northeast before. I have thoroughly enjoyed my short time on the island so far. Here’s a little bit of information about me, if you see me in the field please stop by and say hello!

I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in biology, with an emphasis in ecology, from the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. Throughout my studies I was exposed to classes focused on botany and field research methods and was immediately hooked. My alma mater lies in the kettle moraine region of Wisconsin, an area heavily influenced by Pleistocene glaciation, which has resulted in a myriad of unique plant communities and topography. This area provided the perfect backdrop for a budding naturalist. I spent countless hours hiking in and exploring the plant communities of state natural areas and state forests. I have volunteered with conservation organizations for the past 4 years or so, including The Prairie Enthusiasts and the Wisconsin state DNR. For the previous year and a half I was employed at an ecological restoration company in Madison Wisconsin, working on restoration of prairies, oak savannas, and oak woodlands. While I found this work very rewarding, I wanted to find a position that would utilize my education more and allow me to contribute to ongoing scientific research into conservation, ecological restoration, and land management.

I am thrilled to be joining the extremely talented and enthusiastic team at NCF. I hope to build upon my botany skills, learn about Nantucket’s ecology and natural history, and gain additional experience in biological field research through my time at NCF. I will be working on an array of exciting projects spanning a number of disciplines. My plans for the future include pursuing a Master’s degree, and I can’t think of a better opportunity to prepare me for advancing my knowledge and professional career than this one on Nantucket.


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 Botany, Field Season, Habitat Management, Invasive Species, Native Plants, Restoration, Sandplain Grasslands | Leave a comment

Let the Field Season Begin……

Spring is the time of year when there just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the work day for our Science and Stewardship Department’s full-time staff. There are winter writing projects that need to be wrapped up, early season field work to fit in when Nantucket’s fickle spring weather is cooperative, preparations to be made for the imminent arrival of our seasonal field assistants, and lots of planning and set-up for the research and management projects we will be undertaking between now and the end of October. The following is a sampling of some of our department’s recent activities and plans for the season to come.

Bat Detector

If you see one of these out on our properties, it’s an acoustic bat detector that records the species-specific calls that bats make when foraging at night.

Northern Long-eared Bats are already out and about this spring on Nantucket! Our acoustic monitoring devices recorded the first calls from this federally-endangered species on April 2nd. We are continuing our collaboration with UMass Amherst PhD student Zara Dowling this year to document the presence of breeding and over-wintering Northern Long-eared Bats here on the island. Prior to this project, no record of this species existed for Nantucket. Northern Long-eared Bats have experienced a 90% population decline due to White-nose Syndrome, an introduced fungal disease. This disease is potentially not present on Nantucket, making our bat populations of extreme conservation importance. We hope to capture and tag bats this coming season to determine what habitats they are using and where they are hibernating over the winter.

Coatue AMOY nest by Libby

Can you find the American Oystercatcher nest in this photo? 

Our beach nesting shorebirds arrived on Nantucket beginning in late March, and we have been out on the beach installing signs and fencing, locating nests and reading band codes on color-banded birds. So far this year, we have American Oystercatchers nesting at Coatue, the Haulover, Polpis Harbor and Eel Point. Our first nests should be hatching out any day! Piping Plovers are nesting on our Eel Point and Coatue properties, and Least Terns have just arrived from their southern wintering grounds and are scoping out potential nesting sites at Eel, Coatue and First Points. If you are out and about on the beach this spring and summer, enjoy your visit – but please respect our fencing and signs so that these rare and beautiful birds have a successful nesting season.


Come join us on Weed Wednesdays to help manage non-native, invasive plant species! For more information, see the link at the end of this blog post.

Spring is when we welcome the transition from gray to green across the landscape. But not all of the vegetation in Nantucket’s conservation lands is native, and with the arrival of spring comes renewed efforts to manage non-native, invasive plant species. We have numerous ongoing projects underway on the Foundation’s properties to control populations of Spotted Knapweed, Common Reed, Japanese Stilt Grass, Garlic Mustard, Japanese Knotweed, Black Swallowwort, Rusty/Gray Willow, and Japanese Black Pine. We also participate in “Weed Wednesdays” – a volunteer group effort spearheaded by the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative’s Invasive Plant Species Committee to manually remove invasives from road and bike path edges and conservation properties. Invasive species management is difficult but important work, and we are always looking for a few extra hands to help out on Wednesday mornings starting at 8:30 AM. If you are interested in helping, please contact us!


The horseshoe crab mating season is already underway!

Horseshoe crabs are back and spawning on our beaches, and we are out there counting them from late April through late June. Since 2009, the Foundation and the Maria Mitchell Association have been consistently surveying two beaches on Nantucket (Warren’s Landing in Madaket Harbor and Monomoy Beach in Nantucket Harbor) to document population sizes of mating horseshoe crabs. Similar surveys are conducted all along the Northeastern U.S. coast on the same days and nights each spring to track population fluctuations over time. Surveys are done during the full and new moon high tide cycles because this is when horseshoe crabs mate and come to shore to lay eggs. If going out to the beach in the middle of the night to look for mating horseshoe crabs sounds interesting to you- we can always use a volunteer to help out with these surveys!

HOP Reset Harrowing Mar 21 2017 by KCB 10

Disk harrowing habitat management work underway at Head of the Plains. Special thanks to Bartlett Farm for letting us borrow their harrow equipment!

One of the major focuses of our research this coming year is a sandplain grassland habitat restoration project on our Head of the Plains property. Our department staff collaboratively designed this effort to assess the effectiveness of disk harrowing as a habitat management technique by undertaking comprehensive monitoring of the response of vegetation communities, insect, small mammal and bird populations. Pre-treatment data was collected last year and the harrowing treatment was conducted within a 3.2 acre test plot in March 2017. Breeding bird surveys and plot set-up for native seed addition are already underway this spring, with much more monitoring to come as the season progresses. This broad ecological research will inform alternative grassland management and restoration options when prescribed fire is not a viable option or when shrubs have encroached too far for other management techniques to be effective.

As you can see, we have a pretty full slate of projects underway, with many more in the pipeline to begin within the next months! We are eagerly looking forward to the arrival of Neil Foley (our Coatue Ranger) and Scott Fuchs and Jacob Erle (our Botany and Ecology Field Assistants) over the next several weeks to help us out with this work. However, as the saying goes, “many hands make light work” and there are a few projects where we can certainly use an extra hand. If volunteer field work sounds appealing to you, please check out our 2017 Volunteer Opportunities posted on our website!


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 Field Season, Habitat Management, Invasive Species, Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative, Restoration, Sandplain Grasslands, Shorebirds, Springtime | Leave a comment