Natural History Survey Leads Climate-Adaptation Project

By ecoRI News staff

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — The Rhode Island Natural History Survey was recently awarded a $183,700 grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society for the conservation of critical bird habitat at the Norman Bird Sanctuary and at the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge.

This two-year demonstration project will make globally important bird habitat more resilient to the effects of climate change by installing a range of native plants in places where natural plant cover has been damaged by various causes. It also will leverage work already under way to raise the height of the salt marsh along the Maidford River. The nearby coastal forest at Norman Bird Sanctuary works together with the marsh to provide important shelter for nesting and migratory birds.

Studies have shown that in coming years sea-level rise will push the marsh into the lower reaches of the forest, changing both over time and straining their ability to support bird populations. But the forest is highly impaired by invasive plants. Scientists and volunteers will remove them and plant native alternatives. Various strategies will also investigate how to reduce the damage hungry deer do to plants in the forest understory. By using volunteers and conducting site tours and demonstrations, the project will help maintain the connection between the human and natural community as climate change affects both.

In addition to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Norman Bird Sanctuary, the University of Rhode Island will also participate in the project. Ornithology professor Scott McWilliams and his students will provide guidance on bird ecology and monitor bird use of the project areas before, during and after the activities.

The Natural History Survey is based at URI, where it helps connect those knowledgeable about Rhode Island’s animals, plants and ecosystems with each other and with those who can use that knowledge for research, education and conservation.

“We’re taking an area that is already globally important bird habitat and manipulating it to make sure it retains that function into the future,” said David Gregg, executive director of the Natural History Survey. “Rising sea levels will literally shorten the distance between coastal features such as the salt marsh and the adjacent coastal forest. And whereas we've sometimes treated them separately in the past, I hope this project will help all involved see them as connected and interdependent.”

Volunteers will be involved in every stage, and some are already preparing seed and propagating plants at the Natural History Survey’s headquarters in Kingston.

“We hope to do more than adapt the physical landscape to climate change,” said Natasha Harrison, executive director of Norman Bird Sanctuary. “The rich human history of this area is part of its value and we want people in the community to continue to feel a connection to the land as climate change takes place.”

Walks and demonstrations will be held throughout the project targeting the general public, land managers and ecological restoration practitioners. The first walk, a tour of the salt-marsh-elevation project and forest restoration site, is scheduled for May 26.