Monday, August 1, 2016

Our Coastal Grasslands

By Beth Sullivan
Some of the most beautiful sights to be seen in our coastal communities are the swaths of grasses along the shore.
The salt marshes, whether small pockets tucked here and there between rocky outcroppings or broad expanses of swirling green, are familiar sights to us lucky enough to live here. We appreciate their seasonal changes. We watch the tides rise and fall in the channels and know that as the waters rise in the grasses, the salt marsh buffers the uplands from floods and surges and storms. They host an ecosystem filled with unique plants and animals living and functioning together. Thanks to greater understanding of the importance of salt marshes, and laws preventing the filling and development of these fragile yet resilient habitats, these lands are more protected now than generations ago. Avalonia Land Conservancy preserves a number of these unique areas: Cottrell Marsh, Woolworth-Porter Marsh, Paffard Marsh, and Anderson Marsh to name a few.
The high tides flood the grasses, but the marsh is a buffer.

Many grasslands, each unique

But there are other grasslands that are maybe a little less obvious, a little less well understood or studied, and more susceptible to development. These are true coastal grasslands, elevated enough that they are not regularly impacted by tides and populated by species that are not dependent on salt water influence. Yet they have to be resistant and tolerant to an occasional salt event. To an inexperienced eye, these grasslands all look alike-big fields of uniformity. But you have to look closer and know a little history of how the fields evolved and the goals of management.
The grasses provide sees for numerous bird species.

At the Knox Preserve, the 10 acres of fields were cultivated in corn until 2010. Then the decision was made to let the land regenerate on its own: no chemicals, no deliberate seeding, and we would see what nature had in mind. Today those fields are a very diverse mix of grasses and perennial plants that offer shelter for the smallest creatures, resources for pollinators, and seeds for a wide variety of creatures, especially birds. The fields are alive. Yet they have to have a special resiliency; as sea levels rise and storms become stronger, these fields must withstand different threats. In 2012, during Super Storm Sandy, the Knox fields were awash with salt water. As a result vegetation did change a bit but was not destroyed. A special resiliency.
An aerial photo of the Knox fields shows how easily they can be impacted by rising seas. Photograph by Roger Wolf

More upland grasslands, like those are Knox Preserve, evolved with different vegetation. 

Hay field to grassland

The Wequetequock Cove Preserve in Pawcatuck is another coastal grassland. Those acres were farmed for generations, and quality hay was harvested for many years. That kind of management leads to better quality grass and fewer flowering plants. This is the kind of grassland that is most attractive to particular birds, specifically Grasshopper Sparrows, Bobolinks, and Meadowlarks, species in serious decline. As a hay field, however, the grasses were mowed before nesting was done. Now the fields are not cut until much later, and Bobolinks nest there. These birds have successfully fledged young for several years. The grasses remain on the ground instead of being picked up, and the soil is enriched. This year we noticed a huge increase in Milkweed plants. This is great news for another species in serious decline-the Monarch butterfly.
Salt marsh species begin to move inland at Wequetequock Cove.

Song Sparrows nest in the tall grasses.

These fields slope gently down to the water s edge. The closer you get to the water, the more the grasses start to change. It is apparent that the land closest to the water receives regular tidal impacts, not just a once-in-a-while storm. With increasing salt impact, the grasses are changing to truly salt marsh species. As sea levels rise, this coastal grassland will absorb the impact. It will be a home for Bobolinks now and also the seaside sparrow species in the future.
Take some time to look at the grasslands that line our shores. Support efforts to preserve them now, and they will be protecting us for decades to come.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

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