NBS Blog

Ask A Naturalist: Where is a good spot to see a Saltmarsh Sparrow?

Enjoy the third edition of our recurring question-and-answer series, Ask a Naturalist, with questions from the Curiosity Lab's Ask a Naturalist - Answer Tree.

Thanks for asking that question, Scarlett. Your curiosity gives us all a chance to learn a little more about this infinitely important bird!

Saltmarsh Sparrows nest in…you guessed it… saltmarshes! These birds’ survival strategy has served them well for thousands of years: build a nest just one inch above the ground, right at the high tide line. Saltmarsh Sparrows nest in coastal wetlands where predators and parasites stay clear of venturing into salty water. But prime real estate comes with risks. Now, you can probably guess why a saltmarsh is a risky habitat to nest in – yes, that’s right . . . it’s sea level rise. 

Rising seas pose two problems for these vulnerable, little birds. First, sea level rise causes erosion of the marsh, along with changes in the plant life  – in particular, a loss of the nesting vegetation material used by the sparrows. Second, the higher the high tides become, the more often the nests are flooded; eggs can wash away and nestlings even face drowning.

Our resident Saltmarsh Sparrows nest in the marsh behind Third Beach here in Middletown, and at Jacob’s Point in Bristol. Soon it will be time to grab your binoculars and visit the marsh to find them (keep your feet dry!). The migrating males generally appear in early May to set up shop, followed by the females. If you’re wondering how to tell the difference between the two by sight, don’t even bother trying because it’s impossible! Saltmarsh Sparrows are monomorphic, meaning males and females look alike. 

Jacob’s Point was the site of the Salt Marsh Sparrow Research Initiative (SALSRI), a five-year study on this threatened bird. To learn more about the project, and Saltmarsh Sparrows, visit https://www.salsri.org/ .

Photo credit: Brian Harris/USFWS

This question came from our Curiosity Lab’s Ask a Naturalist: Answer Tree.

You, too, can submit your own question for our Naturalist to ponder!