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Healthy Habitats in the Great Marsh
with Robert Buchsbaum

Dr. Buchsbaum shares his well researched concern over the effects of an invasion of the monoculture plant on bird habitats which depend on plant diversity to flourish.

Session Date Rough Edit Transcript Tight Edit Youtube Posting
9/17/13 9/20/13 10/4/13 10/10/13 10/18/13

Peter Phippen and Robert Buchsbaum
Peter Phippen, left, and Dr Robert Buchsbaum, right, tak about diversity vs. monoculture habitats.

Dr Robert Buchsbaum, Massachusetts Audubon Society
Recorded September 17, 2013

The following is the full transcript of the session, the video was edited for purpose of shortening the online version.

Welcome to the Great Marsh. My name is Peter Phippin, I’m a coastal scientist for the Mass Bays National Estuaries Program and the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission. I’m standing here with my colleague, Robert Buchsbaum.

I’m Robert Buchsbaum, I’m a conservation scientist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. (Peter) Robert, we’re in a fairly diverse, brackish marsh here – a healthy marsh, one might term. Can you talk a little bit about the diversity of this marsh?

Mill River, Newbury, Mass

Yeah, this marsh has a lot more different kinds of plants than we would find further downstream, like the shores surrounding Plum Island Sound itself. We’re about four miles upstream on the Mill River and as you go further upstream, the water becomes fresher because we’re getting more of an influence from the land. And, more plants can tolerate freshwater than can tolerate salt water, so as you get more and more fresher, the amount of plants that can actually live here becomes greater. So, we might expect down along the shores of Plum Island Sound, the marshes there maybe, in a small area, you might expect only a couple of species, sometimes it’s just one species. Here we’re seeing a diversity of a whole bunch of different types of plants.

It’s really wonderful here, and as you mentioned, these brackish habitats, the less saline habitats, are very susceptible to the invasion of Phragmites – the Common Reed. (Peter) Does that affect the bird life? You’re…(Robert) I’m with the Audubon Society. (Peter) Yes. (Robert) The problem with Phragmites is that it pushes everything else out. So, ultimately, in many Phragmites areas you have nothing else but Phragmites there and generally, really a number of people study these things that, the types of birds that use that use that. Particularly some of the rarer species don’t particularly like those Phragmites habitats. And so, generally wildlife managers try to manage, to prevent Phragmites invasions or to reduce them when they can through various methods. As you know, we have a number of projects that are doing that right now.

Black grass [(Juncus gerardii)]

Let’s talk about some of those plants right now. What do you see here? Well right here, just even standing here, we’ve got within a few feet of ourselves a few different things. Right at my feet here there’s something called Black grass [(Juncus gerardii)], which is a kind of a rush.

Black grass [(Juncus gerardii)]

It has these seed heads, which you can see, which are turning pretty rusty, reddish-brown.

Black grass [(Juncus gerardii)]

It flowers in May or June, early in the season, so it provides food for water fowl, geese and ducks - earlier in the year than a lot of other types of plants.

Arrow-grass [(Triglochin maritima)

We also see a particular favorite of mine, which is called Arrow-grass [(Triglochin maritima)], which is this plant with old seed heads on top of it, but if you look sort of down amongst the leaves, down there, it has a very fleshy, round leaf. It’s technically not a grass. It’s an interesting plant – it produces cyanide, so when it’s bit, as an herbivore defense.

Glasswort [(Salicornia depressa)]

But, if we look a little further around us, we see Glasswort [(Salicornia depressa)], turning a beautiful, wine red.

Glasswort [(Salicornia depressa)]

Glasswort is a fleshy plant. It’s actually like a, from a point of view of plant physiology, its actually more like a little cactus; its succulent, just like it would be in a desert, because living on a marsh and having some salt in your diet every day, is basically very equivalent to living in a desert. (Peter) And it’s a pioneer species. (Robert) It’s a pioneer species. This particular species is actually an annual, so, there are a couple of species, but this one we’re seeing right here is an annual meaning that it produces seeds every year – it reproduces by seeds every year. Often, it’s the first plant to come in when there’s a bare area of marsh if something like Wrack has killed the marsh, section of the marsh, the whole plant sits on the marsh and kills the grass underneath, leaves a bare area, and Salicornia will invade that before the other plants take over.

Seaside goldenrod [(Solidago sempervirens)

I see some goldenrod over here. (Robert) Goldenrod – that’s Seaside goldenrod [(Solidago sempervirens) which is a plant that you find at the upper edges of marshes, in brackish areas. It’s also a plant of sand dunes, so it’s a wide range of tolerance. It’s also got a fleshy leaf. A lot of these plants, the theme is the same – it’s kind of a fleshy leaf that helps prevent water loss, which is a key thing for these plants that are growing in the salt marsh. Further around us we have the very typical salt marsh cord grass, which is a real pioneer species that forms these marshes when these marshes were first being formed probably about five-thousand years ago. This is the species that helps to build up this by trapping sediment, by growing. It actually grows out and creates more land, more marsh. And, that gives the chance for all these other things to finally get a place to live.

water hemp (Amaranthus cannabinus)

I see along this ditch here, another group of plants. I see this Iva, Marsh elder (Iva frutescens), and some [Salt marsh] water hemp (Amaranthus cannabinus) and a few other things. Why do you think those are more or less focused along the little creek back there? (Robert) Well, the little ditch we’re seeing is a legacy from the mosquito ditching that went on in these marshes, a lot of it in the 1930’s, which was from the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression.

Marsh ditches

When a lot of our marshes were ditched, something like 95% of our marshes in Massachusetts were ditched. When they would ditch the marsh, they would actually pile the marsh spoils along the edge of the ditch and that would create a levee of slightly higher elevation. And, when you talking marshes, elevation and plant tolerances, you’re only talking a few inches that can make a big difference. So plants like the Waterhemp and the Marsh Elder, the shrub, are a good indicator of that. Up in an airplane, we might see these marsh ditches from the mosquito ditching era and lined with Marsh Elder.

Marsh Elder, or Iva frutescens

This is a Marsh Elder, or Iva frutescens, its scientific name. It’s actually in the same family, the same group of plants as daisies and asters. You wouldn’t think about it – the flower’s not very showy, but these are the seeds of the plant that flowered probably about a month ago. It’s a plant that grows on the upper edges of salt marshes, so it often marks the very upper limit of how a tide might get to on the marsh – maybe a couple of times a month.

Spike grass (Distichlis spicata) and Salt marsh hay, which is (Spartina patens)

Right, what we have here is a mixture of two high marsh plants: Spike grass (Distichlis spicata) and Salt marsh hay, which is (Spartina patens), and that’s the one the hayers really like. This is a nice, often painted, often photographed structure of these two plants, particularly marsh hay. You get these cowlicks, which are these tufts of plants that stick up above the rest of them. It’s a result of the wind on the marsh. It’s a little bit like wave ripples formed from the wind as it moves across the marsh, pushing some of the plants down to the ground and others into a tuft like this. These plants are both very weak stemmed so they’re very susceptible to the wind pushing them around, particularly late in the season when they’re growing tall and getting a little top-heavy.

Salt marsh bulrush [(Bolboschoenus robustus)]

We have Salt marsh bulrush [(Bolboschoenus robustus)] growing here]. This is a real indicator that we’re in a brackish marsh. If we were in the lower part of Plum Island Sound where sea water is less diluted by salt water, or pretty much undiluted at all, this plant wouldn’t grow. So, whenever I see the salt marsh bull rush, it indicates to me that there’s some freshwater mixing, or a lot of freshwater mixing in with the salt. It also grows here, together with the cord grass, which shows you that it’s also very tolerant of being flooded. We’re in somewhat of a slightly lower area. A distinct feature of the bull rush is their triangular stem, so if you feel the stem as you go down, it’s actually in a triangle – a triangle shape.

cordgrass, [Big cordgrass] (Spartina cynosuroides)

Alright, this is big cord grass – another type of cordgrass, [Big cordgrass] (Spartina cynosuroides), and what’s unique about this plant here, it is a brackish plant, so it occurs where the salt water’s mixing with freshwater. In fact, it can occur in totally freshwater in the mid-west – it’s a plant that grows in the mid-western marshes. This stand of Spartina cynosuroides in the Parker River Estuary, which is this park, is the northern-most limits of this plant. So, it doesn’t occur further north than us and it’s on our state endangered species list because it’s so close to the edges of its range here, and not really found much throughout Massachusetts.


Birds make use of a lot of marsh habitats around here; that’s one thing we’re actually studying [Mass Audubon]. Plum Island Sound is part of a Long-Term Ecological Research Project [LTER], which is a National Science Foundation initiative that occurs in something like 20 difference sites across the country. Plum Island is one of those sites and it’s a joint project with the Marine Biological Lab, Mass Audubon is a partner in the project, we’ve got scientists from the University of New Hampshire, University of South Carolina, Clark, all participating and helping to understand the marsh and the different components of the marsh. My role in this project is to look at birds and I also do some work on vegetation.

Yellow Legs

So, the birds make use of a variety of different habitats on the marsh. I think we saw as we were coming here, along the upper edge of the marsh, we saw a lot of greater yellow legs, which are resting now because the tide was high. They’ll, like a lot of shore birds, will make use of the tidal flats when the tide drops.


We also saw egrets, and egrets make use of the pans. During high tide they’ll actually come out and feed on the fish that swim out over the marsh surface as the marsh is flooded at high tide. They also like feeding along the tidal flats in the rivulets and creeks. So, one of the things that a healthy marsh, what we’re seeing here, as you said a marsh that doesn’t have very many invasive species in it, and one of the big issues with birds and other aspects of the biology of the marshes is the absence of invasives in this spot. And, we see along the edge, as you can see, little patches of Phragmites, the common reed, and that’s an invasive species we’re attempting to manage. I know you’re involved in some of those projects more than I am.

Virginia Rail Picols

But, from the bird perspective, which is getting back to the original question you asked, that’s a habitat that’s considered by most everyone who’s looked into it not to be as valuable for birds and other wildlife, so the fact that we have a nice diverse marsh in this – Phragmites-free – is a good thing for pretty much everything. There are specific birds that like brackish marshes more than the saltier parts of it, and its one thing we’re always looking for as we’re investigating as we go farther up these rivers, to see if those species, a number of them are rare and endangered species in Massachusetts, things like certain rails, sedge wrens, bitterns which seem to like the less salty parts of the marsh, or prefer that. That’s something we haven’t looked into as much and I know people have done some surveys, but its sort of an open question of whether this type of habitat still supports those. Those birds are rare for other reasons, besides the absence of habitat, because this to me looks like wonderful habitat for them.

Great, well thanks a lot, Robert. I appreciate your time today.


Danger in the Reeds is being produced by Staddles Productions
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