Written by Bryan Watts & Fletcher Smith
July 2, 2010
Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Photo by Bryan Watts.
The saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus) is a species of high conservation concern due to its extremely limited global distribution, its complete dependence on salt marshes, and the vulnerability of these marshes to sea-level rise. The species is confined to the narrow ribbon of salt marsh habitat on the outer coast of New England and the mid-Atlantic. The saltmarsh sparrow is comprised of 2 forms including A. caudacutus caudacutus (northern form) that breeds along the coast from Maine south to New Jersey and A. c. diversus (southern form) that breeds along the coast from New Jersey south.
Historically, there has been considerable confusion over the southern range-limit for breeding in this form. Since 1957, the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) Checklist of North American Birds has indicated that this form breeds from Maine south to Pea Island North Carolina. The placement of the southern range limit was apparently based on a nestling collected by Paul Bartsch on 2 July 1938 from Pea Island. Examination of this material later revealed that the specimen had been mislabeled/misidentified and was relabeled as a seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus). Subsequent attempts by numerous investigators to locate breeding populations in coastal North Carolina have not been successful suggesting that the southern range limit occurs in coastal Virginia.
Wallops island marsh on the Delmarva Peninsula is typical of the habitat where saltmarsh sparrows are likely to be detected during the breeding season. Photo by Bryan Watts.
Harold H. Bailey (1913) indicates that during his era, sharp-tailed sparrows were common breeders along the upper western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. The only modern breeding record within this area is a nest with 4 eggs found in Four Points Marsh in Gloucester County by Bryan Watts in 1992. This observation was made as part of a survey of more than 50 marsh patches within the area. Stewart and Robbins in the 1940s and 1950s documented the species along the western shore of Maryland. By the time of the Maryland breeding bird atlas (1983-1987), this population had disappeared with only a single bird observed near Sandy Point.
Map of recent marsh-bird surveys completed by the Center for Conservation Biology where saltmarsh sparrows were detected during the breeding season along the Delmarva Peninsula.
Over the past decade, CCB has conducted several investigations of marsh birds along both the bayside and seaside of the Delmarva Peninsula. These surveys along with other observations place the current range limit for breeding on both sides of the peninsula very close to the Northampton-Accomack County border. This location is a transition point along the peninsula. Moving northward from here, the marshes become more extensive and considerably higher in elevation matching the habitat requirements for breeding.
Project sponsored by the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB).
Mitchell Byrd holds a captive-reared peregrine falcon in the early 1990s to be released at Hawksbill in Shenandoah National Park. Keith Watson (l) is the park biologist who oversaw early releases into the park. Amanda Beheler (r) was an attendant from William & Mary who managed the hack on Hawksbill. Photo by Tim Wright.
Osprey brood on the upper James River near Hopewell, Virginia. Productivity within the tidal fresh reaches of the Bay continues to be above sustainable levels with the median brood size of 2. Photo by Bryan Watts.