I started watching birds 20 years ago at the Marine Nature Study Area in Oceanside. It was always a good day when I saw one of the elusive saltmarsh sparrows that nested in the marsh — a flash of color in the muted expanse. Indeed, they were among the "spark" birds that triggered my passion for birding. Now, I watch in horror as their nests are regularly flooded. Over the last 15 years, saltmarsh sparrow populations have declined by an estimated 80%, and they may be the first bird to go extinct due to sea level rise. More alarmingly, over the last 130 years, New York lost 48% of its tidal wetlands on Long Island Sound and 11.6% on the South Shore.
March 20 is World Sparrow Day. It is a good time to dedicate ourselves to saving the saltmarsh sparrow and all the species that likewise depend on coastal marshes, including us. The saltmarsh sparrow is truly the canary in the coal mine. We witnessed the approximately $50 billion in damage done by superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the frequent flooding that has occurred since then. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coastal marshes provide $23.3 billion in flood protection annually. Our vital coastal ecosystems benefit birds and are the best line of defense for communities facing stronger, more frequent storms.
Further increasing their value, tidal wetlands serve as spawning, nursery, and feeding grounds for shellfish, finfish and waterfowl. They provide nutrient cycling and nitrogen removal, which improves water quality. They play a critical role in carbon sequestration. One of the top three "blue carbon" sinks (carbon captured by ocean and coastal ecosystems), the tidal wetlands of the Long Island Sound area have 12% of the global population of saltmarsh sparrows. When marshes decline, habitat is lost, water quality deteriorates, and communities experience more frequent flooding.
Saltmarsh sparrows nest in high marsh, usually where standing plants mix with dead grass from preceding seasons. Their nests are placed just above the normal high tide mark, but rising sea levels are bringing more nest-flooding tides. Helpless baby birds drowning in their nests is not a sight that our children should see; catastrophic flooding of our coastal communities is not a future that our children should face.
We must focus on high-marsh restoration because it is the most valuable habitat for wildlife, especially nesting birds. But high marsh is between a rock and a hard place as it is regularly submerged by higher tides and prevented from shifting onto formerly dry land by coastal development. Marshes must be protected, enhanced and given more space to stay healthy and protect people and wildlife.
Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park was identified by Audubon New York as a priority site for restoration due to potential saltmarsh sparrow habitat and high coastal resilience to sea level rise. Along with New York State Parks, Save the Sound, and the New York Natural Heritage Program, Audubon New York recently received funding to develop a preliminary saltmarsh restoration design plan that focuses on high-marsh habitat. But large-scale restoration projects can be costly and take many years to complete.
We must push for more funding in New York State’s budget and for fast action. We must support federal legislation like the Coastal Barrier Resources Act and Water Resources Development Act, and natural solutions to coastal stabilization and adaptation projects.
On World Sparrow Day, celebrate biodiversity, then advocate for its protection so that future generations can celebrate it, too. Save the saltmarsh sparrow and we can save the coastal world around it.
Brien Weiner of Valley Stream is the president of the South Shore Audubon Society.