17 August, 2016

Rare Wetlands and Plants in an old Trash Dump Property.

*Please note, this blog post was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror on August 11th, 2016  in the article series called Island Ecology.*
On the southeast end of Nantucket Island there is a large tract of open land with no real access roads or trails. Just south of the Milestone Road and east of Tom Nevers, before you get to ‘Sconset is a Nantucket Conservation Foundation property called the ‘Sconset Dump. Unless you’re a hunter, birder or hard-core plant enthusiast, you probably haven’t wandered through this area and with good reason. This property is dense shrubby, scrubby, boggy wetlands with few upland areas and no walking trails - but it represents one of the more unique wetland properties owned by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.
Named the ‘Sconset Dump as a nod to its history, this property hosts the highest variety of wetland communities on island, including a unique man-made wetland with numerous rare plants. From the north-side of the Milestone Road, the ‘Sconset Dump receives water from Gibbs Pond and the Milestone Cranberry Bog. Water from the bogs flows under Milestone Road, moves through this property as a mix of flowing surface water and groundwater that occasionally springs up to the surface and all this water eventually makes its way south to Tom Nevers Pond. In between the Bogs and the Pond exist a dense network of shrub swamps, Tupelo and Red Maple swamps, sandy open fens with carnivorous plants and Sphagnum mossy wetlands with a stream or two running through. Pulses of increased water during and just after cranberry harvest times helped create this vast wetland network of open water, streams and boggy land. All of these different wetlands leads to many unique and even rare plants and also is what makes this a hard place to walk through!
Sconset Dump Map
Map of our Sconset Dump Property, Showing the Scrape Wetland and extensive wetlands.
So you might be wondering why this gorgeous and unique property has the name ‘Sconset Dump? Right in the center of the property is a small upland area, surrounded on all sides by wetlands and, at some point, this higher ground started serving as an informal dumping ground for the southeast end of the island. The origination of this dump is lost in the memory of Nantucketers, but a glance at the Nantucket aerial photos from 1938 so the dump area in operation. The actual dump officially closed in 1971 with the Foundation assuming ownership in 1979. Over the years it was open, the Sconset Dump received everything from refrigerators and large metal appliances to everyday household waste. This is one reason no trail network exists on this property; the only upland area is covered in broken glass and rusting metal as a remnant of this unmanaged dump. Common historic practice at the ‘Sconset Dump was to conduct occasional controlled burns to reduce household trash, with the larger, unburnable debris pushed into piles around the dump. Eventually a wide but shallow firebreak was bulldozed in a horseshoe surrounding the upland dumping area to help contain the management fires. This single action of a bulldozer created one of the most botanically unique and rarest wetland types on island!
The wetland in this central bulldozer scrape has very acidic, sandy soil which doesn’t hold a lot of nutrients for growing plants. Additionally, as you many have noticed in your garden, sand soil is porous, making it difficult to hold water. This wetland was formed by a series of groundwater springs and surface water from surrounding areas running right through the scrape, keeping the soil at least moist if not covered in standing water all year long. Only a very select few plants can actually survive in the nutrient-poor and wet soils present in the scrape.
Sconset Dump NCF
The bulldozer scrape wetland in the Sconset Dump
Did you notice the mention of carnivorous plants above? Carnivorous plants - plants that attract, capture and digest prey - thrive in nutrient-poor wetlands. The prey they digest, typically insects, provide nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that these plants need to survive and can’t find in the soil. In the scrape at the ‘Sconset Dump, we can find two different species of sundews (Drosera) and a bladderwort (Utricularia), all carnivorous. Sundews use sweet but sticky nectaries on their leaves to attract prey while bladderworts use pressure bladders on their roots to suck in unsuspecting microbes for dinner. (We have blogged about carnivorous plants before - learn more here!)
Drosera NCF
Flowering Drosera linearis (Linear-leaved sundew)
In addition to the charismatic carnivorous plants, this unique wetland is home to at least 6 plants rare in Massachusetts. The plants that live in this wetland require not only wet, nutrient-poor soils, but also a lack of shade and competition to survive. In 2008, the Foundation got permission to cut and thin out woody shrubs that had begun encroaching into the scrape area. Since then, we have monitored the rare plant populations which have been increasing thanks to our management! Not everything is rare or carnivorous in these wetlands. One of this author’s favorite flowering plants can be found in and around this property, Sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) - keep an eye out for its birthday cake flowers in the spring!
Mountain Laurel NCF
Birthday cake flowers of the Sheep laurel (Kalmia polifolia)
From an unregulated dump and variable water flows from a large cranberry production to today, an area of the highest wetland diversity on island, thriving rare plant populations and the occasional carnivorous plant; the Sconset Dump represents one of the very important ways that the Nantucket Conservation Foundation not only protects rare pristine natural habitats but works to improve and promote the places that make Nantucket unique!
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

20 July, 2016

Nantucket's 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

30 March, 2016

Broom crowberry - Nantucket's first native flower

*This blog is a repost of the original at www.ncfscience.org*
The daffodils and crocuses may already be popping up around town in  sunny spots but most of the native plants in Nantucket's moors, grasslands and forests are still waiting for warmer and longer days to flower.
Except for one! Hiding in the Middle Moors of Nantucket, in the low and open heathy expanses, the miniscule and diminutive flowers of the rare Broom crowberry (Corema conradii, affectionately referred to as Corema) are opening up!
Corema's flowers are fairly nondescript and very small. You will often only realize you are tromping through the midst of flowering Corema by the large clouds of sneeze-inducing pollen rising through the air. Corema plants are dioecious, meaning each plant either carries male flowers (with stamens of pollen) or female flowers (with pistils to capture and deliver the pollen to ovaries, ripening into seed) but not both. Male and female flowers begin opening in late March and into early April with spring winds dispersing pollen.
Male flowers of Broom crowberry
Female flowers of Broom crowberry
You have probably seen Corema in the Middle Moors and hadn't realized you were seeing it. In the Middle Moors, it forms large monocultures, giving an almost moonscape appearance in large patches. This low growing, mounding plant grows best in open areas with sand poor soils and lots of light, spreading across a landscape to create an almost moonscape. Corema is listed as Special Concern in Massachusetts and although abundant in areas where it is present, is fairly rare in most of New England. Where Corema is present, it tends to dominate with a few other plant species able to grown under or up through this dense plant.
The reddish mounded plants all along this road edge in the Middle Moors are a large population of Broom crowberry plants in early spring.
Corema can often be mistaken for golden-heather (Hudsonia ericoides) when neither are yet in bloom. Looking closely, Hudsonia leaves are often softer, hairier than the small leathery Corema leaves and Hudsonia's bright golden yellow spring flowers will set it apart. Because of its small stature and non-showy flowers, Corema has often been dismissed over the years.
"This plant is included, not because it has aesthetic charm but rather because it is interesting botanically. Its presence on Nantucket, is one of the proofs that, ecologically, Nantucket and the plains and pine-barrens of New Jersey are related."
The pine-barrens of New Jersey are dominated by fire-adapted plants as is Nantucket - plants that typically require fire or some kind of disturbance as part of their lifecycle. Without disturbance, this plant will grow for many years with some of the populations in the Middle Moors estimated at 100 years old. Corema is a woody plant and new growth is apical - growing outwards from the tips of the plant so the center appears woody, grey and lifeless. Studies of the ecology of Corema have determined that seeds germinate only when disturbance and fire is present. Without fire, plants will continue to grow but no new seedlings will grow up. Fire kills the parent plants but leads to large scale germinations of the huge seed bank in the soil underneath these old plants. Looking at historical photos, and where Corema populations are now in the Middle Moors - these plants likely established as the old main road from Town to Sconset shifted around and became deeply rutted from old wagon wheels!
Historic rutted roads through the Middle Moors, likely close to current Corema populations.
Historic rutted roads through the Middle Moors, likely close to current Corema populations.
Management of Corema needs to be carefully planned out to maintain both older plants and encourage new seedling growth. Today, the Conservation Fuundation manages aging Corema populations through periodic, patchy burns across the landscape - trying to keep mature Corema populations as well as establishing new seedling populations!
Corema seedlings after a burn in the Middle Moors
Corema seedlings after a burn in the Middle Moors
So if you're feeling like shaking off the cold of this winter and seeing a native plant in flower, take a walk in the Middle Moors this weekend (particularly along Barnard Valley Rd - put it in your Maps app!) and keep an eye out for the rare Corema. Maybe bring a magnifying glass and check out this tiny but beautiful flowers on one of our rare and unique plants!
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!

03 February, 2016

World Wetlands Day 2016

* repost from https://ncfscience.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/world-wetlands-day-2016/*
February 2nd is World Wetlands Day, celebrated internationally every year since 1997 to commemorate the signing of the Convention on Wetlands in Ramsar, Iran. The Ramsar Convention represents a multi-national treaty which has facilitated work to survey, study, prioritize and conserve valuable wetland resources around the world and to promote the wise use of wetlands.
World Wetlands Day is set aside to raise awareness and appreciation for the unique, essential and fascinating wetlands that surround us every day. This year the theme is Wetlands for our Future: Sustainable Livelihoods. Throughout the world, more than one billion people make their living supported by wetlands. Fishing, crop farming (cranberries and rice), shellfish aquaculture, tourism, and more all depend on healthy and thriving wetlands.
On Nantucket, we are lucky to have some spectacular wetlands from the shorelines of Sesachecha and Almanac Ponds, to quaking bogs in the Middle Moors to our broad stretches of salt marsh in Madaket and Nantucket Harbors. Historically and currently many of these wetlands have provided the basis for  Nantucketers to make their living including supporting both cranberry agriculture and the Nantucket Bay Scallop industry today.
Jackson Pt Madaket, KAO
Coastal salt marshes in Nantucket's harbors provide nurseries for commercially important fish and habitat for a variety of shellfish. These marshes also filter excess nutrients from uplands, helping maintain our harbors as beneficial habitat for oysters, scallops and more. Without wetlands like the Creeks, Monomoy, Medouie and more - Nantucket's harbors would have a hard time staying healthy enough to support our scallop industry which is still an important part of our island economy! Out of approximately 1,600 acres of salt marsh on island, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation protects approximately 1,200 acres, helping protect our island's harbor health.

There are many ways to be connected to and appreciate the wetlands in your backyard even if they don't directly provide your livelihood.....
So how can you celebrate World Wetlands Day on Nantucket?
Get out, take a walk and appreciate our fabulous wetlands! Post your photos on social media using #WorldWetlandsDay or maybe submit to the Ramsar photo contest (see below).
Commit to practicing sustainable fertilizer in your landscape and year this year. Check out the Nantucket fertilizer guidelines for more information and help protect both our freshwater and saltwater wetlands on island!
Support business on island that depend on wetlands! Visit your local fish store and take home some scallops for dinner. Check out the fish selection at Nantucket Fresh Catch at Bartlett Farm. Cranberry season is over but mark Oct 8th on your calendar to purchase local cranberries at the Annual Cranberry Festival!
Help protect wetlands on island: consider becoming a member or make a donation to island land conservation groups that all help to protect our wetlands from development. We would definitely appreciate it if you joined us at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation!
A photographic competition for 15-24 year olds. The photograph must be taken in a wetland and must capture how people make a living from wetlands. The winner will receive a free flight to a wetland location anywhere in the world, courtesy of Star Alliance Biosphere Connections. To enter, take a picture of your favorite wetland with your phone or digital camera between 2 February and 2 March 2016, and upload it to Ramsar Convention Secretariat’s World Wetlands Day 2016.