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Help save the saltmarsh sparrow

POSTED: July 2, 2017 1:04 p.m.
Photo by Rick Lavender/DNR/

A researcher holds a saltmarsh sparrow.

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BRUNSWICK — By June, saltmarsh sparrows are gone from Georgia’s coast, flying from the southern rivers of grass where they winter to marshes from Virginia to Maine where they nest.

Although gone, however, they are not forgotten: They are followed.

Thanks to a project by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this spring’s migration could help pinpoint where saltmarsh sparrows from Georgia breed. Such connections are considered vital to conserving a species that otherwise could go extinct in 50 years.

The problem is that the tidal marshlands that give these birds life and name are being squeezed by coastal development and sea-level rise, said DNR wildlife biologist Tim Keyes. "Their nest numbers are dropping and habitat is being lost. Marsh migration is not occurring at a rate to replace habitat loss."

The estimated number of saltmarsh sparrows has shrunk from 250,000 to 53,000 since the start of the century. Their secretive nature — living in marsh grasses, seldom singing — helped mask the decline.

The advent of mini-transmitters light enough for animals that weigh only about a half-ounce has opened a window into the lives of these and other species. In March, Keyes and Adam Smith of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led volunteers in netting and attaching "nano-tags" to 25 saltmarsh sparrows near the Jekyll Island causeway and on a marsh island off Little Cumberland Island.

As part of work funded by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, antennas have been erected at Brunswick and on Ossabaw Island. A third is planned on St. Simons Island. Each registers signals from tagged birds that pass within about 15 miles, Georgia’s entry into a hemispheric wildlife tracking system called Motus. As of June 1, Georgia towers had picked up 11 of the saltmarsh sparrows tagged here. As they fly farther north, a Motus network in the upper Eastern Seaboard will track them.

Smith, a quantitative ecologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that recent research using Motus to study the spring migration of thrushes demonstrates the important role that a single stopover site can have on the speed and likely the success of migration.

The Nongame Conservation Section works to conserve Georgia’s endangered and other wildlife not legally fished for or hunted, such as saltmarsh sparrows, as well as rare plants and natural habitats.

Public support is vital. Georgians can provide help conserve nongame by:

• Buying or renewing a DNR eagle or hummingbird license plate. Most money from sales and renewals is dedicated to nongame conservation. Upgrade to a "wild" tag for only $25!

• Donating directly to the agency (details at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support).

• Learning more about this work, www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/annualreport.

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