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Parker River Wildlife Refuge Teaches Ecology - 2002-09-08

In an era when urban growth and suburban sprawl often threaten the natural habitats of America's wildlife, places where birds, animals and plants can safely thrive have become increasingly precious. That is the rationale behind the nation's National Wildlife Refuge System a set of over 500 preserves where the needs of wildlife are given top priority even over human recreation.

VOAs Adam Phillips visited the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a diverse 1800 hectare spit of land on Plum Island, just off the Atlantic coast of Massachusetts, and reports on the various delicate ecosystems that co-exist there.

That's a Palm Warbler, just one of a dozen bird species that Bill Gette has spotted on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge this morning and he's only been at it for fifteen minutes!

As an educator and birdwatcher for the Audubon Society, a conservation group, Mr. Gette is clearly in his element on this small barrier island which is home to many distinct habitats. "You have the Atlantic Ocean, and then you have the barrier beaches here on Plum Island. You have the maritime forest," he says. "You have the salt meadow, salt marshes, then a large estuary. And on the mainland side, you have the salt meadows and salt marshes again and then pine [and] oak forest. So within just a mile we have all these different habitat types, which then encourages so many different species of birds. It's not at all unusual for someone to see three hundred species of birds- if you work at it in one year."

That's the Piping Plover. According to Deborah Melvin, the wildlife biologist here at the Refuge, the Plover is one of four endangered species that live or nest on this 12.9 kilometer long island. "They are a migratory shorebird and they feed on small little invertebrates and crustaceans in the marine environment or in the salt marsh, or salt 'pannes.' They are not a colonial nester like the terns. The terns nest in large groups whereas the Plovers nest individually," she says.

Every year from April to August, the Refuge closes off the beach to the public so this small, stocky, sandy-colored shorebird can lay its eggs and rear its young in peace.

Melvin: "There is [are] 500 pairs left in Massachusetts, and we are basically carrying the Atlantic population right now. There is probably only twelve to fourteen hundred pairs in the Atlantic Flyway now.
Phillips:So at a time when beach space, public accommodation at beaches is at a premium, you're closing the beach so these birds can live. That seems to be a part of our overall philosophy.
Melvin: This is a National Wildlife Refuge, and wildlife does come first on a wildlife refuge. If we can provide a public education and environmental education we will do so. But if there is a conflict, or if it is not compatible, we won't allow the public into these areas, because we are mandated by law to protect and enhance threatened and endangered plants and animals.

However, Ms. Melvin adds that there is a non-intrusive way for humans to enjoy this Piping Plover habitat and to learn from it. "We have about forty volunteers that come out and help us interpreting the program for the public. We go out every day, at least five times a week and count them birds, look for nests. If we find a nest, we protect the nest with a physical wire exclosure [where the outside world is the cage], to keep predators from going in and eating the eggs or attacking them. We keep detailed records and notes on how long they incubate, how many so hatch, [and] how many birds fledge. Very detailed information"

According to Steven Haydock, who oversees public use at the Parker River Refuge, non-intrusive public programs like the Piping Plover volunteer program convey what he calls a "conservation ethic." "'Conservation' basically meaning the wise use of the resource. And 'ethic' meaning they are going to have a feeling within themselves that they need to take care of this resource… And the resource is important not only to the individual species that are there but it is important to the people as well. Because there is that interdependence," he says. "We are all interconnected. Sometimes the connection isn't readily apparent.

I like to use the analogy of an airplane. That if you got onto an airplane and someone took one rivet out of one wing, that airplane would still fly. But if you keep taking more and more rivets out of that airplane, it's gonna [crash]."

Mr. Haydock points out that diversity among animal and plant species is also vital for maintaining a healthy ecosystem. "If you have, for example, a hill, and on that hill, there is one type of grass. And then the grass experiences a blight and all of that grass species dies, then comes the rain, and the hill washes away. But if there are a variety of species of vegetation on that hill, and one gets a blight, there are still others there, to back it up. So diversity, we can say, is nature's 'insurance policy.'"

When it comes to diversity, there is a lot more breeding and growing here than birds and grass. The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is also home to many species of mammals, reptiles and fish. The number of insect types from mosquitoes to butterflies, are too numerous to mention. Some species are almost too small to see. Janet Kennedy is the Refuge Manager. "I think a lot of times people are not necessarily aware of the wildlife around them, but... when people get to know us, sometimes they'll begin to love us and appreciate the work that we do and support it in their own communities. We all share the same planet. We all share the same habitat. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, and so conservation of habitat for wildlife is also conservation of habitat for people."

That was Janet Kennedy, Refuge Manager at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge near Newburyport, Massachusetts, one of over five hundred Wildlife refuges maintained throughout the United States.