Conserving Wintering Marsh Sparrows in North Carolina

Written by Evan Buckland

Tidal saltmarshes are among the world’s most biologically productive ecosystems. They are home to a variety of endemic and range-restricted species, such as the Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrow. These two species spend their lives in the marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Seaside Sparrows can be found all year while Saltmarsh Sparrows can be found wintering in North Carolina. Because they are endemic species, their life cycles synched so closely to the saltmarshes they inhabit where they are considered indicators of the health of those marshes. 

Today, coastal marshes are threatened by a myriad of anthropogenic forces, the most overt being the hardening of coastlines and sea level rise. These forces have potentially negative consequences for both the Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows, which I am studying for my master’s degree. I, along with co-researcher, PhD student Marae Lindquist are researching the seasonal survival, abundances, home-range sizes, and movement of Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows in southeastern North Carolina. We are banding these birds and tracking some individuals with radio telemetry throughout the winter to see how they live in their habitat so that we can determine what they need to survive into the future.  

Since the 1990s, Saltmarsh Sparrows have seen sharp population declines and the species is up for a determination on their listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2023. Seaside Sparrows, of which there are several distinct sub species, has had one subspecies declared extinct, and another endangered. Although the non-breeding season has often been overlooked in importance, we suspect that for short distance migrants like Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows, conditions in the overwintering grounds may have an important impact on annual survival. It is important to better understand these species’ habits and behaviors, preferences and needs, throughout their winter stationary period, so we can best protect the wetlands they rely on during those months.  

About the author: Evan Buckland is a graduate student at UNC-Wilmington studying under Dr. Raymond Danner. She is planning to graduate in December 2020 with a master’s in marine biology and she plans to continue to study coastal and wetland birds.  

Links of interest: 

Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus

Seaside Sparrow (Ammospiza maritima