By Evan J. Berkowitz
Rising sea levels brought on by climate change are threatening some of New England’s signature coastal birds, according to a new study.
The National Wildlife Federation recently released “Shifting Skies”, a large study accompanied by a more local report by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, detailing the adverse effects climate change is having on Northeastern birds such as Piping Plovers, Roseate Terns, and Saltmarsh Swallows.
"We are already seeing New England's birds ... at risk from Climate Change," says Hector Galbraith, staff scientist for the Northeast office of the National Wildlife Federation. Terns especially are "inundated by sea level rise or extreme weather." One of these species, the federally endangered Roseate Tern, is especially affected.
Just under one-half of the North American Roseate Tern population nests on two small islands in Buzzard's Bay which are being swallowed by rising seas.
"Because so many of the terns live on Ram and Bird Islands, they're particularly susceptible to climate change," says Molly Sperduto of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service New England Field Office. As sea level rises "those islands will become over-washed," she said.
Sperduto said the frequency of major storm events, such as Hurricane Sandy, increasing with climate change, also harms the birds by destroying habitat. Many of the islands, beaches, and marshes that terns, plovers, and swallows occupy are mere feet above sea level, and as the polar ice caps melt and warmer waters expand, the rising ocean waters encroach on valuable habitat. This can be seen in places like Scituate and Plum Island, Mass., where beach erosion continues to wipe out plovers' nesting grounds, as well as on tiny islets which, at high tide, are little more than barren rocks in an unforgiving, ever-rising sea.
On Ram Island, a small rock off of Mattapoisett, almost all of the birds' nests are fewer than three feet in elevation above the mean high water mark, according to Sperduto.
Both studies list several ways by which climate change can be combatted in the long term, including investment in clean energy, a carbon dioxide cap for industry, restoration of farms and forests for CO2 sequestration, and conservation of habitat.
Meanwhile, more immediate, local action is being taken to protect the Roseate Tern, according to Carolyn Mostello, a Coastal Waterbird Biologist with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program of the Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Armed with $4.2 million, largely from multiple government sources, the State Natural Heritage program "has been working with the Army Corps of Engineers on plans to rebuild the ... deteriorating seawall and add fill to [Bird] Island to help increase nesting habitat for the Terns," Mostello said.
No specific project has yet been decided upon on Ram Island, though Mostello says various options have been explored. There is $534,000 set aside for the island from damages paid in relation to the 2003 Bouchard oil spill in Buzzards Bay. Mostello's agency had also requested federal funding for Ram Island after Superstorm Sandy, but no monies have yet been awarded.
These immediate fixes, maintain the study's authors at the NWF and the NRCM, are not enough. Says N.H. Audubon's Pam Hunt, "We must not only protect ... habitat, but also curb climate change in order to ensure that super storms and extreme weather events don't wipe out [our coastal birds] altogether."
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