Look what I got myself into: Meet the marsh

I won’t speak for any of my fellow city folk, but whenever I heard the word “marsh” growing up, I pictured serenity, calm, stillness, comfort. If you’ve simply never thought about a marsh before, they are wetlands full of tall grasses, muddy soil, and water. They are stunning!

slatmarsh brunswick
Salt marsh, Brunswick GA. Photo: Corina Newsome

However, when I stepped foot in the marsh for the first time, I realized that they are much different from what they appear to be from a distance, or how I imagined them to be in my head. Georgia’s coastal marshes can be merciless environments–so hot in the summers that all the bugs are hiding, so wet that if you think a heavy thought you’ll sink up to you thighs immediately, and no bodies of freshwater anywhere in sight (at least for the marshes I am studying). I was instantly amazed by the fine-tuned adaptations needed for anything to survive in such an environment. *More on the emotional whirlwind of becoming a field biologist after growing up in the hood in my next post.

Salt marshes (marshes with salt water due to their closeness to the ocean) in Georgia are tidal environments. This means that twice a day, the water rises anywhere from a few inches to several feet, (depending on where you are) and then recedes, like this:

Image result for gif of tide in marsh
Tide in the marsh. gif: http://lbifoundation.org/science/marshcam/

 

Believe it or not, there are several species of birds adapted for nesting, raising young, and finding food in the grasses of these marshes. Remember the seaside sparrows? They live here.

ssp bby
Seaside sparrow chicks. Photo: Dr. Elizabeth Hunter

Now, here’s where my research comes in.

Seaside sparrows have to be very strategic regarding how they nest in such an environment. If they place their nests too low, the tide can suffocate their eggs or drown their chicks. So, why don’t they just nest as high as the grass will hold them? Well, the higher they place their nests, the more likely they are to be found, and their offspring eaten, by predators (like the one below). *Sigh* It’s hard not to be a raccoon sympathizer when they look like that.

raccoon
A common marsh predator (baby raccoon) waiting for a happy meal. I don’t like them eating sparrows, but just look at ’em. Photo: Elizabeth Hunter

Yes, predation is a natural threat that all songbirds have to confront, and seaside sparrows are no exception. So, what makes their situation worth the research time, money, and effort?

I mentioned that these sparrows have to balance the risk of nest flooding with the risk of nest predation. Well, what happens when our warming climate causes the sea level to rise? The tides get higher! Take a peak back at that gif to remind you of how drastic a tide can be. As you might guess, this makes the fine balance between avoiding nest flooding and avoiding nest predation even more difficult for seaside sparrow parents to navigate.

So, what can we do? Preventing nest flooding from sea level rise is arguably the least efficient approach. But, what if we could do something about the threat of predation? One of the goals of my research is to provide wildlife managers, the people making the decisions about how to save species, with pertinent information about predation threats for these birds. To start, I need to know what kinds of predators exist in these marshes, and which of them are actually eating seaside sparrow young. I’ll be using cool gadgets like camera traps (left) and video cameras (right) to find out (I know I’m hype, let me be hype).

This is the first step in what will be a multifaceted project.

Note: The control of predation threat in this context is not referring to lethal control.

This research is an exciting pursuit of knowledge, but I’ll be honest…gathering enough information to save a species in peril feels like a daunting task. Shoot, it is a daunting task! But what a wonderful mission, ya know? Participating is the privilege of a lifetime.

Anyway, I’m excited to see what’s lurking out there in the marsh, and share some cool footage with you when I do. Camera trap pictures are always amazing, and sometimes hilarious and unflattering, so I attached some fun ones I found to give you a taste.

Until next time, remember: “It’s all an adventure that comes with a breathtaking view…”

-The Greatest Showman

 

 

 

Image result for funny camera trap photos
Selfie: http://discovermagazine.com/galleries/2016/wildlife-cams
Related image
Say “queso”: https://www.boredpanda.com/funny-trail-cam-photos-secret-animal-life/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic
Image result for funny camera trap photos
More than she can chew: http://boredomtherapy.com/funny-trail-cam-photos/

 

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