Monday, February 10, 2020

Episode 511 (2-10-20): The Saltmarsh Sparrow and Its Connection to Sea-level Rise

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (4:02).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.)

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 2-7-20.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of February 10, 2020.

MUSIC – ~8 sec – Instrumental.

This week, the start of “Sparrow,” from Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand, opens an episode about a kind of sparrow closely connected to the impacts of sea level rise on Atlantic coastal habitats.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds to the following mystery sound and see if you know this species of sparrow.  And here’s a hint: look for it where tides wash over tall grasses.

SOUNDS - ~11 sec

If you guessed the Saltmarsh Sparrow, you’re right!  This species, sometimes referred to as the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, is one of 25 kinds of sparrow known to occur in Virginia.  The Saltmarsh Sparrow is found exclusively in Atlantic Coast salt marshes, living among the grasses and other plants in tidal zones from Maine to Virginia in breeding season and as far south as Florida in winter.  This has made the Saltmarsh Sparrow an indicator species—or, in a familiar bird metaphor for a danger signal, a so-called “canary in a coal mine”—for the loss of Atlantic coastal saltmarsh habitat, particularly as a result of rising sea level and higher tides.  Reports indicate that the bird’s population over its whole range decreased about 75 percent between 1998 and 2012; moreover, according to the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiative in Rhode Island, some studies predict that rising water levels could cause the species’ extinction by 2040.

The Saltmarsh Sparrow’s woes have been one stimulus for various saltmarsh habitat restoration or preservation efforts, including a project started in 2016 in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Chesapeake Bay near Cambridge, Maryland.  If successful, those efforts will help not only Saltmarsh Sparrows but a wide range of organisms and ecological functions sustained by salt marshes.

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use this week’s sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  Thanks also to Andrew VanNorstrand for permission to use this week’s music, and we close with about 20 more seconds of “Sparrow.”

MUSIC – ~22 sec –Instrumental.


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


“Sparrow,” from the 2004 album “Driftage,” is copyright by Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand and Great Bear Records, used with permission.  More information about Andrew and Noah and their bands is available online at  This music was also used in Virginia Water Radio Episode 254, 2-23-15, on sparrows generally.

The sounds of the Saltmarsh Sparrow were taken from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site,

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at


Saltmarsh Sparrow, location unidentified, June 11, 2005.  Photo by Dominic Sherony, made available for use under Creative Commons, “Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0),” accessed online at, 2/10/20.


The scientific name of the Saltmarsh Sparrow is Ammospiza caudacuta (formerly Ammodramus caudacutus).

Here are some points about the Saltmarsh Sparrow, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Saltmarsh Sparrow,” online at


“Common transient and uncommon to common winter resident in coastal and [Chesapeake] Bay salt marshes, locally common summer resident in northern Accomack County.  Peak counts occur along the coast during winter. Rare fall transient [occur] in the Piedmont and Mountains and Valleys with single sightings from Albemarle County in 1948 and 1967, Prince Edward County in 1948, and Clarksville [Mecklenburg County] in 1952.  It is a common transient and uncommon to common winter resident in the coastal salt marshes and a rare transient inland, chiefly in autumn.”

Physical Description

“Length [is] 5.0 to 5.75 inches, wingspread [is] 7.0 to 8.25 inches.  Bill [is] slender; tail graduated, [and] the feathers narrow and pointed.  Top of head [is] brownish with a median line of dark gray; cheeks deep mouse-gray, bordered above and below with cinnamon-buff; upperparts dark grayish-olive, tinged with brown, the middle of the back narrowly lined with white; bend of wing pale yellow; underparts white; the breast and sides streaked…. The similar Nelson's sharp-tailed species lacks conspicuous breast streaking and has a more strikingly streaked beak.  The Nelson's throat is buffy, contrasting little in color with the light stripe below the back.”


“A clutch of 3 to 6 eggs is laid in June or July. Incubation lasts 11 days and nestling period lasts about 10 days.  Usually 2 broods per year are raised.  Nest is usually in higher portions of marsh seldom flooded by tides, [in] salt hay meadows, [or in] borders of fresh marsh and upland.  Nest is typically well hidden in ground vegetation.  Breeding occurs in May, with the peak in late May for Virginia. …Males are not territorial and females defend only the nest site.”


“Use ground and herb stem gleaning to forage for seeds, insects and small aquatic animals.  Forages on the mud of salt marshes for small animals (all year) and seeds are added in the winter.”


Used for Audio

BirdNote®, “Canary in a Coal Mine,” online at

Michael Burke, “Saltmarsh sparrow needs tide to turn in its favor if it is to survive,” Bay Journal, 12/14/18, online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at  The Saltmarsh Sparrow entry is online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at (subscription required).  The Saltmarsh Sparrow entry is online at

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md. (2006).  See particularly the “Salt Marshes” section in the “Wetlands” chapter, pages 209-216.

National Park Service, “Salt Marshes,” online at

Megan Ossmann, “Seven critters that call wetlands home,” Chesapeake Bay Program’s “In the News,” 11/22/19, online at

Kathy Reshetiloff, “The canary in this ‘coal mine’ is the saltmarsh sparrow, Bay Journal, January/February 2020, online at

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiative [based in Rhode Island], online at

Mike Slattery and Stephanie Smith, “By supporting key habitats, we support the ecosystem,” Chesapeake Bay Program’s “In the News,” 1/5/16, online at

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge,” online at

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at  The Saltmarsh Sparrow entry is online at  Information on 25 species of sparrows found Virginia is at this link, as of 2/7/20.

For More Information about Birds in Virginia and Elsewhere

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.  Information is available online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, “Animal Diversity Web,” online at

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at  The Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at  The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

Following area links to three other episodes related to sparrows or marshes.

Episode 254, 2-23-15 – on sparrows generally.
Episode 429, 7-16-18 – on marshes generally.
Episode 430, 7-23-18 – on marsh birds generally.


The episode—the audio, extra information, or sources—may help with the following Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

2013 Music SOLs

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decisions, hazard mitigation, cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
1.5 – animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 – living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.6 – ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 – ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 – natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.9 – adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.
LS.10 – changes over time in ecosystems, communities, and populations, and factors affecting those changes, including climate changes and catastrophic disturbances.
LS.11 – relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Biology Course
BIO.8 – dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

2015 Social Studies SOLs

Civics and Economics Course
CE.6 – government at the national level.
CE.10 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

World Geography Course
WG.2 – how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

Government Course
GOVT.7 – national government organization and powers.
GOVT.9 – public policy process at local, state, and national levels.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.