Recently, Kiawah Island Naturalists have been busy helping Aaron Given, Assistant Town Biologist, with his winter marsh sparrow banding research. Throughout the winter months Aaron selects a few days centered around a daytime high tide that is at least 5.8 ft to conduct the banding. Aaron is targeting three species that winter here: Seaside Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow and the Saltmarsh Sparrow. While each species appear to look quite similar on first glance, they do have unique color nuances that help to distinguish them. These sparrows take refuge in the grasses that grow at a higher elevation (like Black Needle Rush or Sea- Oxeye Daisy) when the Spartina grass which grows at a lower elevation, is flooded by the high tide water. These higher grasses are found either on the edge of an island or in pockets (developing islands) scattered throughout our vast marshland.
On my scheduled day to band, we headed out to a pre-selected area of the marsh (Aaron uses aerial photography to select proper habitat throughout the marshes around Kiawah Island) and we began setting up nets. We set the nets up on the periphery of small patches of taller grass, invisible to the sparrows, and then headed back to the truck to wait for the high tide water to flood the marsh. In about 20 minutes, the water had risen significantly and it was time to catch the birds. We all tromped out towards our nets, taking care not to fall over in the sticky pluff mud. It was impossible not to enjoy being outside immersed in one of the most beautiful landscapes on the Earth.
It takes about five people to successfully flush the birds out from the higher elevation grass “hiding spots” and into our nets. We all spread out equidistant to each other and then walked quickly towards the high grass and as we approached, our walk quickened to a run, forcing the birds into the nets. Once captured, we carefully removed the sparrows and brought them to be processed. Each bird is banded, measured, weighed, and tested for fat levels. It is very important to note that none of these birds are injured in the process, but instead are handled very gently. The sparrows are then carefully released back into their habitat and have provided us with useful information.
Since habitat loss is imminent in this area due to sea-level rise, conducting research like marsh sparrow banding can help us to understand what kinds of habitats are used and figure out a way to understand the impacts habitat loss has on our native bird species. Once we can understand this, we can start to make positive changes and decisions regarding our natural habitat and how we should choose to use it.
-Naturalist, Laura Wlilhoft
To learn more about native bird species on Kiawah, please join us for a Back Island Birding Tour. Birding tours are offered year round and are a great way to learn about seasonal species or year round residents!