Essex County Ornithological Club Letter to Parker River NWR

This is a letter from Jim Berry, President of the Essex County Ornithological Club, to Janet Kennedy, Refuge Manager of the Parker River NWR, describing three areas of concern with respect to the management of the refuge. The first concern is the management of the fresh water impoundments on the refuge. Note that in this letter North Pool is referred to as the North Impoundment.


August 25, 2003

Ms. Janet Kennedy, Refuge Manager
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Dear Janet,

I am writing as President of the Essex County Ornithological Club on three issues of concern to the Club’s membership. The ECOC has been around since 1916 and is governed by a nine-member Council. This letter has been approved by the Council and represents the position of the organization. I should add that I am also a member of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas Technical Committee, and of course the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is part of the Great Marsh IBA, one of the most important in the state.

The issues are (1) the management of the three fresh-water impoundments on the Refuge; (2) the management of the Purple Martin colony on the Refuge; and (3) the mowing regimen for the Refuge’s hayfields.

Fresh-water impoundments. The management of the three impoundments, notably the North Impoundment at Hellcat Swamp, has received much public attention lately. As you know, I was present at a May meeting at Joppa Flats where your staff, assisted by a USFWS regional biologist, presented the history of the North Impoundment and options for its future management. At that meeting I was one of several people who urged the Refuge to abandon its recent practice of introducing salt water to the impoundments (it has also been introduced at times to Stage Island Pool) and to make every attempt to return them to their former status as healthy cattail marshes.

The Club fully recognizes that the steady increase of the invasive exotics Phragmites and Purple Loosestrife in these impoundments has been a serious problem. But in an attempt to control these plants, the Refuge has for several years allowed salt water into at least two of the impoundments in various amounts. That has had the effect of killing large amounts of cattail (Typha), which was the mainstay of those marshes when they were healthy. Additionally, annual mowing of the reeds in the impoundments—sedges and cattails as well as Phragmites and loosestrife—has made them appear, in large part, like deserts compared to the marshes they once were. Finally, in recent years the water levels, which should be high in spring to discourage the invasives and encourage the state-listed bird species that were nesting there, have been managed in an opposite fashion. The lower water levels have had the effect of both encouraging the invasive plants and discouraging the birds that formerly used the impoundments in abundance.

The reason the Club is concerned about this is that the fresh-marsh birds that formerly nested in these impoundments have virtually disappeared. Suffice it to say that Pied-billed Grebes*, American* and Least* Bitterns, Virginia, Sora, and King* Rails, American Coots, Common Moorhens*, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, and Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal all used to nest in the impoundments with the possible exception of the King Rail. Now it appears that none of them do except a handful of Virginia Rails, and haven’t in most cases since the early 1980s. The five asterisked species are state-listed, the first three of them state-endangered; the Sora has been proposed for state listing. Anybody who knows birds would consider this an extremely unfortunate development. From the standpoint of biological conservation in New England, the loss of critical habitat for that many state-listed species, on a National Wildlife Refuge or anywhere else, is a disaster.

One of the arguments the Refuge has made in support of experimenting with the salinity levels of these impoundments, and of examining alternatives to maintaining them as fresh marshes, is the Service’s mandate to view wildlife management priorities on the Refuge from a regional and national perspective. In this regard, your staff has maintained that salt marsh is more threatened than fresh marsh on a national level, and that the salt-marsh-nesting birds are hence more threatened nationally than the fresh-marsh species listed above. That is not the case; over the last half-century, studies have shown that about 24% of the nation’s fresh marshes have been lost, vs. about 9% of its salt marshes.

Regardless of those ratios, the Parker River Refuge cannot manage for the whole nation; it can manage only what resources it has right here in Massachusetts. In this state, and in southern New England generally, it is fresh marshes that are the more threatened, and by a wide margin. In addition, planning for regional and national priorities does not mean that local needs must be ignored. One of the mandated missions of the refuge system is biological diversity—exactly what has been severely damaged by the recent management practices in the fresh-water impoundments. In addition to the birds listed above, amphibians have been hard hit by the increased salinity of the pools, to the point where they have virtually disappeared. The massive late-summer heron roosts that were once an annual highlight of the vibrant life of Stage Island Pool and the North Impoundment have also ended. The herons are still around, but must use the salt marsh now for their overnight roosts—apparently their second choice, given their history of preferring the impoundments.

The Club urges you and your staff to think carefully about this. There are no immediate threats to the salt marsh on the Parker River Refuge, other than the effects of erosion of creek banks from thoughtless speeding boaters over whom the Refuge apparently has no control. The salt marshes are healthy, the populations of breeding Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows and Seaside Sparrows are doing just fine, and the Willet population is exploding. More to the point is that the Refuge staff has to expend few resources (that I am aware of) to manage the vast salt marshes. There are thousands of acres of them, and they don’t need much management. The new salt pans just created along the Refuge road will only help, and that effort is commendable, as is your ongoing protection of the federally listed Piping Plovers on the beach.

On the other hand, the fresh marshes in the impoundments are in tough shape. From the 1950s into the early 1980s, these marshes, even though they did not work that well as breeding grounds for Black Ducks, worked very well for the species listed above. The Refuge was one of the top breeding habitats for those species in the entire state. Now they are seldom found there, not just because of the invasive plants, but due also to the measures taken to attempt to control them. As I stated, the effect of salt water on the cattails has been devastating. Even worse, your staff has often called this plant one of the invasives, which it most assuredly is not. A healthy cattail marsh is a healthy wildlife habitat. This is fundamental.

Whatever the reasons for the disappearance of the state-listed species and the other marsh-nesting birds, the decline is real and alarming. In view of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, it seems to me that the Refuge management plan (which is currently being developed) should focus to the maximum extent on helping these species and their essential habitat make a comeback. Returning the impoundment(s) to salt marsh is not going to substantially increase the amount of that habitat. Making it brackish is not going to help much of anything, since the salt-marsh-nesting species of concern to the Service will not nest in a brackish marsh. Rather, the best use of these impoundments, in my opinion and that of the Essex County Ornithological Club, is as habitat for the species that have used it in the past and are in dire need of it today. Each refuge should manage for the species it is the best position to help, and in this case some of those species are the state-listed birds mentioned. The salt-marsh species are not in trouble in New England. With such a policy you can be helping the wildlife in the fresh marsh without hurting the salt-marsh species. As things are now, you are harming the birds that need help the most. How can this be supportable under the Refuge Improvement Act?

Three final thoughts on this issue. First, you have stated that fresh-water availability on Plum Island is a problem, in that the water table is insufficient to refill the pools in dry times. If this is true, why were the fresh marshes vibrant and attractive to all those water birds for thirty years? The answer seems to be that fresh water is too often being deliberately allowed to flow out of the impoundments at low tide in spring, and water levels being allowed to remain low, or, even worse, replaced with salt water. This is incomprehensible to me.

Second, even if the degradation of the fresh marshes is, as you have suggested, a natural process hastened by the decay of the invasive plant species, it seems to me that the answer is not to give up on the marshes, but to restore them. Any restoration takes resources and hard work, but restoration of fresh marshes is not technologically any more difficult than restoring salt marshes. It’s a matter of priorities. I believe that I (among many others) have made a good case for establishing that priority on the side of the fresh-water habitat in those impoundments.

Third, if a decision is made down the line to abandon the fresh marsh in the North Impoundment, unfortunate as I think that would be, I would like to hold you and your staff to the informal promises you have made along the line that the other two impoundments, the Bill Forward and Stage Island Pools, will be permanently maintained as fresh-water pools, with no further introduction of salt water to either of them. The future of many marsh-nesting birds in Massachusetts depends on that decision.

Purple Martins. As you know, over the years the Purple Martin houses on the Refuge have been allowed to deteriorate, with the natural result that the martin population is a fraction of what it used to be. This is unfortunate, as the Refuge colony is one of the few left in all of northeastern Massachusetts. In addition, the species is officially endangered in nearby New Hampshire. There is no reason why this neglect should be allowed to happen on any national wildlife refuge, or any other bird sanctuary, within the range of the species. Providing housing for martins is not particularly expensive, and the houses can often be managed by volunteers. This kind of activity is fairly simple as bird-conservation programs go, and is basically a no-brainer.

A member of the ECOC Council, Sue McGrath, has been working with your staff this year to rectify this situation. She persuaded a Purple Martin expert, Al Jackson of New Jersey, to come up and look at the martin situation on the Refuge. He provided you with a report of findings and recommendations that will enable this colony to bounce back to its previous levels, and once again become a signature wildlife attraction on the Refuge. The Club encourages you to carry out these recommendations so that the Refuge can once again host a thriving population of these friendly, likeable birds.

Hayfield mowing regimen. Some years ago I noticed that the Nelson Island hayfield was being mowed in early August. I talked to Deb Melvin about this and she informed me that the mowing was delayed until the Bobolinks were finished nesting, but that the lessee wanted the hay as soon as possible after that time. I asked whether any thought had been given to delaying the mowing until October for the benefit of the many butterfly species that use the field, including the Monarchs that are dependent on the abundant milkweed, but the answer was no. She agreed to talk to the lessee about mowing only a portion of the field in August, but nothing ever came of this idea.

That pattern continues today. I have not been able to convince the Refuge to alter the mowing regimen to provide for butterfly conservation. This is another example, it seems to me, of not doing something for biological diversity that would cost the Refuge nothing. A simple change to fall mowing, or mowing the fields only every two or three years, would help many kinds of wildlife. But the staff doesn’t seem to give this idea any priority; rather, the lessee seems to decide when the mowing will be done, beyond the logical constraint of allowing the Bobolinks to finish nesting.

This strikes me as a case of the tail wagging the dog. Does the Refuge determine when the fields will be mowed based on a consideration of the biological consequences of different mowing regimens, or does it merely accede to the wishes of the lessee? Certainly the staff has many programs and projects to juggle, but this seems like another easy one. The lessee mows hay at the will of the Refuge, or should. If biological diversity argues for later or less frequent mowing, so be it. The lessee should have nothing to say about it. The Club urges the Refuge to review this situation from a scientific standpoint and amend the mowing schedule accordingly.

In short, it is time for more of the non-game species to receive their due under the Refuge Improvement Act.

I would appreciate hearing from you on these issues. The ECOC understands that the impoundment situation is the subject of an ongoing review, and would like to be involved in any future public meetings as an invitee. Thank you for your consideration.

For the Council,

Jim Berry, President

Mamie A. Parker
Northeast Regional Director
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
300 Westgate Center Drive
Hadley, Mass. 01035

Ellen Roy Herzfelder, Secretary
Executive Office of Environmental Affairs
251 Causeway Street, 9th Floor
Boston, Mass. 02114

Thomas French
Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program
Mass. Division of Fisheries & Wildlife
North Drive
Westborough, Mass. 01581

Laura Johnson, President
Massachusetts Audubon Society
208 South Great Road
Lincoln, Mass. 01773

Ed Becker, Executive Director
Essex County Greenbelt Association
82 Eastern Ave.
Essex, Mass. 01929