Author: Jillian Daly, NC Coastal Reserve Communications Specialist
In 2020, the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve welcomed its first National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship recipient, Marae West. This month, after four years of fieldwork and data analysis in the midst of the pandemic, Marae will finish her fellowship.
During her fellowship, Marae studied three wintering sparrow populations using cellular tracking technologies and sea level rise (SLR) models to understand how the habitat will change over time. Her research focused on the impacts of SLR on wintering populations of the saltmarsh sparrow (Ammospiza caudacuta) and seaside sparrow (Ammospiza maritima) and Nelson’s sparrow (Ammospiza nelsoni). Saltmarsh sparrows are projected to go extinct by mid-century, so it is critical to understand population limitations in the overwintering habitats of these vulnerable sparrow species.
Conducting fieldwork in the winter, from January to early April, Marae and her team had quite a few exciting field stories. It is a hard study system, so it is not easy fieldwork. She tells me that she and her team got stuck in the marsh...a lot.
“The marsh is sticky. The first year of putting our equipment out we had to put them far apart in the area where we know the birds are. That means walking or kayaking through the middle of the sticky marsh. There were four of us. I had two technicians from the Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC), myself, and my research partner, Evangelyn Buckland, on the project. We were on Masonboro Island Reserve trying to get the equipment deployed. I think it took us an hour to go 100 meters because the marsh mud was so deep. We were up to our hips in mud, we were having to crawl. We all got out eventually but it was a harrowing few hours thinking we were going to be stuck there forever. So yeah… the marsh will eat you up. But it is also beautiful. You
sit there and you get to watch the marsh wake up in the winter and see the sparrows fly by. The marsh is brown in the winter, but I like it. It's a beautiful place to be.”
Studying these birds in the winter was critical because there
is a huge gap in knowledge about how the birds use their winter habitat. In the field, Marae and her team marks and recaptures the birds, bands them, takes measurements, and then tags some of them. By doing this, she could track the tagged birds throughout the winter period to see how they were using their habitat.
This project originally started in 2018 when the WRC found the lack of winter-time data to be a gap in their knowledge when trying to create species status assessments and information for general regulation. When Marae received the Davidson Fellowship, she had already helped with two field seasons for this project. The fellowship allowed her to continue the project for two more years and expand the project to a larger geographic area and include more reserve sites.
In 2024, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide if the salt marsh sparrow species will get listed as threatened or endangered. The data Marae collects helps to inform that decision. If the species gets listed, federal funds would be allocated to help protect the species and its habitat.
About Marae West
Marae West is a P.h.D. student in Dr. Ray Danner’s lab at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW). She holds a B.S. in Biology with a concentration in ecology from Appalachian State University. After graduating, she felt inspired to work outside of biology for a few years. Having this experience helped her realize her passion lay in science. Deciding to pursue a graduate degree, she reached out to Dr. Ray Danner at UNCW, and started her masters program. She transitioned to the Ph.D. department when she realized how much research she wanted to accomplish. Before starting this research, Marae wouldn’t have told you she was interested in birds, but now she loves being an ornithologist! So it’s true, you can find your hidden passion.
Her favorite part of her research is banding the birds. For this research in particular, they went out only at high tide because these sparrows spread out into the low marsh at low tide. At high tide, they’d go and put nets up, flush the birds into the net, take them out, and band them. That is exciting work!
In her free time, she hangs out with her family, goes birding, and participates in non-profit organizational work. She is the Vice President of Cape Fear Audubon, as well as being the Chair of the Board of the Cape Fear Bird Observatory.
About the Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship Program
The Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship provides funding to graduate students to conduct estuarine research within one of the 30 reserves in NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Fellows address a key coastal management question to help scientists and communities understand coastal challenges that may influence future policy and management strategies.
Each fellow develops a meaningful cross-discipline research project in conjunction with scientists, community leaders, and other organizations. They engage in networking opportunities with fellows at other reserves, plus other professionals across the reserve system, NOAA, and community partners. Davidson Fellows receive professional guidance and mentoring in a variety of disciplines, including facilitation and communication, and they facilitate the development of research partnerships between universities and the Reserve.
Honoring the legacy of leadership and service to coastal communities modeled by Margaret Adelia Davidson in her over 30 years at NOAA, the overarching goal of the Davidson Graduate Fellowship program is to help train the next generation of coastal managers.