UNCW Ornithologist Raymond Danner Receives $234,479 Grant to Study Wintering Habits of Coastal Sparrows

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

UNCW assistant professor Raymond Danner is leading a team studying the wintering habits of two species of sparrows, with an eye on helping the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission enhance conservation efforts. The commission awarded a $234,479 grant to Danner, an ornithologist in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology, for a two-year study of saltmarsh and seaside sparrows that winter along the southeastern North Carolina coast. 

Seaside and saltmarsh sparrows are migratory birds and many spend the winter in the area, but not much is known about their wintering habits, said Danner, the primary investigator on the project. Most of the research will take place on Masonboro Island in the National Estuarine Research Reserve, but the project will also examine other southeastern North Carolina habitats.

“We know that a lot of the mortality for these birds occurs in winter,” Danner said. “Both of these species are considered to be species of conservation concern; it is widely argued that the populations for all of these birds are declining, and several subspecies of seaside sparrows have already gone extinct.”

In North Carolina, saltmarsh and seaside sparrows are listed as species of greatest conservation concern. The saltmarsh sparrow breeds along the Northeast coast and migrates to the Southeast in the winter. Seaside sparrows breed all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. While researchers are confident that some of the seaside sparrows that winter in coastal North Carolina breed farther north, Danner said it is not known whether the birds that breed in this area stay here or travel farther south. 

To help answer that and other questions, his team will fit birds with electronic tracking devices to monitor the local movements of both species of birds. Danner’s team also will install two radio receivers that can identify birds that appear to be migrating. The receivers were purchased in part by Friends of UNCW and the Cape Fear Audubon Society. A network of linked receivers along the coast may help determine whether the locally breeding seaside sparrows migrate farther south for the winter. 

The project involves UNCW graduate students Evan Buckland ’20M and Marae Lindquist ’20M; undergraduates Juan Zuluaga ’20, Tara Clancy '20; and December graduate Hillman Kraus ’18. The co-PI is John Carpenter, a biologist with the Wildlife Resources Commission. 

UNCW’s Strategic Plan emphasizes scholarly research that advances knowledge, enhances student opportunities for applied learning and contributes valuable information to society. 

“Dr. Danner is combining traditional research techniques with technology to enhance our understanding of the birds’ activity while wintering here,” said Heather Koopman, chair of the Department of Biology and Marine Biology. “His team’s work will contribute to the state’s efforts to protect the declining populations of these two species and will provide valuable applied learning experiences for three student researchers.” 

-- Tricia Vance 


Danner and his graduate student researchers, Evan Buckland (left) and Marae Lindquist (right).

Raymond Danner frees a sparrow from a capture net with the help of graduate student researchers Evan Buckland (left) and Marae Lindquist (right). The birds are fitted with a tiny tracking device and released.

 Saltmarsh sparrow next to calipers

The team uses calipers to measure the leg length of the sparrows being studied. This is a saltmarsh sparrow.