Vegetation Monitoring

Hello all! I’m here to provide a brief snapshot into the work I’ve been doing with the N.C. Coastal Reserve, with the fantastic Kate Jones and Rachel Veal.

The Coastal Reserve office I intern at manages the Currituck Banks Reserve, the Kitty Hawk Woods Reserve, and the Buxton Woods Reserve. Each of these protected areas have their own allure, with Kitty Hawk Woods and Buxton Woods featuring some great hiking trails. Currituck Banks Reserve has a boardwalk trail that goes out into the Currituck Sound, that has an unadulterated vegetated shoreline. Migrating birds frequent all three of these areas, so it makes sense why birders flock here to get a sight of specific birds.

Now that you have a general outline of the managed areas, now for what I do…In addition to trail maintenance days and re-planting the rain garden at the Currituck Banks Reserve, our main focus has centered on replicating vegetation sampling transects done in the late 1980s; with the goal of pinpointing changes in plant species composition and habitats, and ascertaining possible causes for these transitions. Using VegBank, we isolated previously conducted plots within the reserves geographical area. This database provides data taken at the site, including the plant species present and the coordinates of the plot. Using their listed coordinates, we went out to find the plots we chose to replicate. As a side note, this task proved harder than expected because, back in the day, they had to determine the coordinates by hand. This increases the margin of error, so following the GPS to the stated coordinates did not always mean reaching the right place. In addition, the people designing the Carolina Vegetation Survey protocol suggested leaving a small piece of rebar, sticking out of the ground, as an indicator of a plots location. As one would imagine, thirty years’ worth of organic plant debris completely conceals a small piece of metal, initially placed there inconspicuously, to avoid tampering by others.

However, we did find the rebar at one of the plots – a truly exciting moment – and for the others, we went to the coordinates and then chose a 10x10m area based on a set of criteria. After measuring the area of the plot, and marking its corners, we designated five quadrats by randomly throwing a 1x1m square to intensively survey. This includes listing the 
different plant species there, how many of each kind there are, what percentage of the quadrat they comprise, and assigning them into one of five vertical strata classes based on their height. Following this, we conducted a residual survey of the rest of the plot – the area not included in the quadrats – using the same procedure, but only listing plants that were not in the quadrats.

A lot can change in thirty years, and a couple of the sites had fewer or none of the species listed originally. This could simply represent plant succession, but a lot of larger trees were absent. However, there was never a shortage of Loblolly Pines. Hopefully by replicating these surveys, now on a yearly basis, it will enable using indicator species to monitor saltwater intrusion – a large threat to coastal ecosystems. With the rise in sea level, the continual increase in development and freshwater use, and storm over wash, plant community compositions can drastically change. Researching the salinity tolerance of maritime forest and wetland species makes up another part of my job. Monitoring the plants present tells a lot about the abiotic conditions of the ecosystem.

Having the opportunity to explore and learn about marshes, estuarine systems, and maritime forests has been amazing. I have always enjoyed horticulture, and knowing the medicinal uses of plants, and my coastal plant identification skills have vastly improved since starting my internship. Writing down the same Latin names on data sheets numerous times definitely helps; and they also always take the time to point them out. I am very grateful for the knowledge gained, the time spent tromping around in the woods, and the great conversation.