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How do you address threats to salt marsh birds across an entire region? Think big

The Salt Marsh Habitat Avian Research Program, a monumental collaborative effort to assess risks and set response priorities for tidal-marsh dependent bird species from Virginia to maritime Canada, wraps up its fifth field season this summer.
How do you address threats to salt marsh birds across an entire region? Think big

SHARP technician in the field.

It has involved a network of partners from universities, states, and federal agencies, an army of field technicians, and likely dozens of tide charts, but this month, the Salt Marsh Habitat Avian Research Project (SHARP) wrapped up the third round of data collection in the fifth field season in an unprecedented undertaking to characterize threats to tidal-marsh dependent bird species along the entire mid-Atlantic coastline.

“It’s a monumental effort in monitoring salt marsh resilience and restoration,” said Greg Shriver, Professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, and one of SHARP’s principal investigators. “I can’t imagine this will ever happen in my career again."

Considering the extraordinary amount of coordination it has taken, Shriver joked, "Part of me hopes it doesn’t."

With more than 1,500 sampling sites for estimating bird abundance and plant community composition, 22 sampling sites for estimating species fecundity and survival, 260 sampling sites for measuring salt marsh elevation, and 130 sampling sites for baseline plant surveys to measure marsh migration, the project required intense planning, including chartering boats to access remote points within marshes from Virginia to Maine.

Despite the accompanying logistical challenges, thinking big has been SHARP's hallmark. More than just covering a lot of ground, the project has changed the way data are collected in the marsh bird community.

Recognizing the need for coordination in their field, a team of scientists from six universities come together in 2011 to apply for a Competitive State Wildlife Grant to align efforts towards understanding threats to salt marsh birds across the region. “We had all been doing research in marshes, and worked together some, but there had been no formal collaboration before then,” said Shriver.

There was also no formal sampling framework to enable synthesis between their work.

“In the marsh bird world, you know what to do when you get to a point - everyone uses the same protocol there. The challenge is knowing where to go,” explained Shriver. “Which marsh do you sample? What inferences do you make at different sampling scales?” In response to this need, the team developed a common methodology, and then went to states in the region to explain the approach and solicit their help in a massive research undertaking.

“Most of them said: Just tell us where to go,” said Shriver. “I’ve never seen a sampling framework tie everyone together like this.”

Widespread buy in was critical for making the project happen. It also set the team up for an unexpected research opportunity. By the time Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in 2012, SHARP had enough data in hand to develop a clear snapshot of tidal marshes before the devastating storm, and a baseline for understanding future impacts of climate change to these systems.

Though they had used all of their initial funding to carry out the two-year data-collection effort, money from the National Science Foundation came through to enable another survey in 2013, and then Department of the Interior Hurricane Sandy Funding coordinated by the North Atlantic LCC and Fish and Wildlife Service Divisions of Migratory Birds and Refuges came through to support additional field seasons through 2016. 

In addition to understanding the impacts of sea level rise and intense storms, Sandy also provided an opportunity to evaluate restoration and management strategies for protecting these vulnerable coastal systems.

“We have avian, vegetation, and elevation data before and after the storm, so we will be able to say: If you do this kind of restoration effort in this region, you can expect to get this kind of response,” said Shriver.

“This is the best opportunity ever to synthesize across a regional scale using a standardized approach and examine the local effects on what happens to salt marshes and salt marsh species when you do restoration efforts, such as thin-layer deposition and restoring tidal flow.”

The SHARP team will use these data to inform set of metrics for assessing restoration projects, and making recommendations for conservation planning tailored to specific regions and marsh conditions.  Once complete, these resources will be available on the North Atlantic LCC’s website and will inform future marsh restoration and management decisions as well as increasing understanding of the viability of salt marsh species in the face of future storms and sea level rise.

Learn more about North Atlantic LCC supported Coastal Resiliency projects. 

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