Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Help Save the Fresh Water Impoundments
October 20, 2023
By Steve Grinley
     I am following-up on last week’s column concerning Parker River Refuge’s plan for the destruction of the fresh water marshes in the name of “restoring” them back to salt marsh to help save the Saltmarsh Sparrows.  Their 200-page Habitat Management Plan raises so many questions.  Another question and answer session at the refuge headquarters was requested, but it was denied. They still say that you can call or Email questions to Manager Matt Hillman or Biologist Nancy Pau prior to the end of the comment period that ends next Friday, October 28.
     Please let me put this plan in perspective for you. The Great Marsh encompasses almost 28,000 acres.  Of that, the Refuge manages 2660 acres. The three fresh water impoundments that they want to breach (North Pool, Bill Forward Pool, and Stage Island Pool) consist of 260 acres, less than 10% of the salt marsh that the Refuge current manages and less than 1 % of the total Great Marsh.
     The Great Marsh represents only 5% of the total population of the Saltmarsh Sparrow in the US. If you extrapolate it further, only .5% of the total Saltmarsh Sparrow population resides within the Refuge.  
     Don’t get me wrong. We would all like the sparrow numbers to be higher. I am all in favor of protecting a vulnerable species like the Saltmarsh Sparrow. And I commend the work that the refuge staff is doing to partner with Essex County Greenbelt, Trustees of Reservation and Mass Audubon to restore their collective piece of the Great Marsh to mitigate the effects of climate change and sea level rise. 
     I read that together they have 3,000 acres of salt marsh in restoration planning now and 8-10,000 acres in the next 5-10 years. Seems to me that is plenty to focus on without trying to convert such a small amount of existing fresh water marsh habitat into salt marsh by breaching the impoundments.
     Why destroy fresh water nesting habitat for the state endangered Least Bittern? State endangered Pied-billed Grebes and American Bitterns are also regular within the impoundments.  In addition, Common Gallinules, Sora and Virginia Rails nest along with numerous Marsh Wrens.  Hundreds and thousands of shorebirds use the impoundments, especially during high tides when there is nowhere else to go. Thousands of ducks rest and feed there as well. Hundreds of egrets and hundreds of thousands of swallow gather in the impoundments in late summer.
     These impoundments have a history.  They were built in the early 1950’s by dedicated Refuge maintenance workers like Tom Stubbs, who lived in Newbury.  A plaque to Tom and his work and dedication stands near the bench overlooking the marsh at the maintenance area.  The impoundments were built as a habitat for ducks and other migrating birds and those who built them were proud of what they created.  Hank Walker, local outdoorsman and well-known artist and decoy carver, contributed the funds for the water control gates of the impoundments because he saw the profound value of the impoundments. 
     The attraction of Parker River Refuge is its diversity of habitats.  The fresh water marsh habitats are threatened with elimination under this HMP plan.  The Refuge has stopped mowing the grassland habitat in the North Field which was home of bobolinks, savannah sparrows and, occasionally, eastern meadowlarks. The field also provided views of flying harriers, short-eared owls and American Bitterns.  Reduced mowing of the South Field and Cross Farm Hill, grassland habitat that once provided feeding areas for ducks, geese, harriers and short-eared owls, and provided migration stopovers for whimbrel and upland sandpipers, has resulted in the fields now being devoid of wildlife.
     The diverse habitats are what bring one quarter million visitors to the refuge each year with 60% of them birders and wildlife watchers. It has been listed as one of the top ten birding sites in America. Most birders head to the impoundments where the birds are.  Lose the impoundments – lose the birders. Lose the birders – lose the attendance.
     Refuge visitors contribute to the overall economy of the area.  Visitors buy breakfast, lunch and dinners, gas, souvenirs and so much more. Often they stay overnight at local motels or B&Bs. Loss of diversity on the Refuge will result in loss of visitors and loss of revenues for businesses in surrounding cities and towns.
     If any of this concerns you, I again encourage you to read the Habitat Management Plan on the Parker River NWR website and comment directly to the Refuge at parkerriver@fws.com by next Friday, October 28 for your comments to be taken into account. 

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Port Plaza West Shops
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Newburyport, MA 01950

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