Bay Journal

Topics: Climate Change

Black rail population sinking fast as rising sea level drowns its habitat

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Getting to know the Eastern black rail has always been tough.

The sparrow-size bird lives deep in marshes that are hard to access, and it is most active in the wee hours of the morning. Even then, it tends to scamper through dense vegetation, rather than fly — some call it a “feathered mouse.”
“We know almost nothing about this species,” said ornithologist Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology in Virginia. “It’s very tiny and incredibly secretive. Even most bird watchers have never seen this species before.”

Now, even hearing their call is unlikely. Its habitat, a delicately balanced zone deep within coastal marshes, is being flooded by the rising waters. And the Eastern black rail is disappearing fast — potentially becoming the first victim of sea level rise around the Chesapeake Bay and other areas of the East Coast.

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About Climate Change

The Chesapeake Bay was formed 10,000 years ago as a warming climate melted vast ice sheets, raising ocean levels that flooded the lower Susquehanna River valley. Scientists say today’s climate is changing far more rapidly, with potentially severe consequences for the region.

Chesapeake Bay water levels have risen by nearly a foot in the past century, and the rate of sea level rise appears to be accelerating. Warming temperatures are expected to affect rainfall patterns in the region and contribute to more intense storms.

Habitats for many species will be greatly altered. For instance, eelgrass, the dominant underwater grass in high salinity areas of the Chesapeake, is likely to decline because of its low tolerance to high temperatures.

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