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Coastal waterbirds are vulnerable to water-level changes especially under predictions of accelerating sea-level rise and increased storm frequency in the next century. Tidal and wind-driven fluctuations in water levels affecting marshes, their invertebrate communities, and their dependent waterbirds are manifested in daily, monthly, seasonal, annual, and supra-annual (e.g., decadal or 18.6-yr) periodicities. Superimposed on these cyclic patterns is a long-term (50-80 yr) increase in relative sea-level rise that varies from about 2-4 + mm/yr along the Atlantic coastline. At five study sites selected on marsh islands from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to coastal Virginia, we monitored marsh elevation changes and flooding, tide variations over time, and waterbird use. We found from long-term marsh core data that marsh elevations at three of five sites may not be sufficient to maintain pace with current sea-level rise. Results of the short-term (3-4 yr) measures using surface elevation tables suggest a more dramatic difference, with marsh elevation change at four of five sites falling below relative sea-level rise. In addition, we have found a significant increase (in three of four cases) in the rate of surface marsh flooding in New Jersey and Virginia over the past 70-80 yr during May-July when waterbirds are nesting on or near the marsh surface. Short-term, immediate effects of flooding will jeopardize annual fecundity of many species of concern to federal and state agencies, most notably American Black Duck (Anas rubripes), Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni), Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow (A. caudacutus), Seaside Sparrow (A. maritima), Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana nigrescens), Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri). Gull-billed Tern (S. nilotica), Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger), and American Oystercatcher (Haemotopus palliatus). Forster's Terns are probably most at risk given the large proportion of their breeding range in the mid-Atlantic and their saltmarsh specialization. At a scale of 1-2 decades, vegetation changes (saltmeadow cordgrass [Spartina patens] and salt grass [Distichlis spicata] converting to smooth cordgrass [Spartina alterniflora]), interior pond expansion and erosion of marshes will reduce nesting habitat for many of these species, but may enhance feeding habitat of migrant shorebirds and/or migrant or wintering waterfowl. At scales of 50-100 yr, reversion of marsh island complexes to open water may enhance populations of open-bay waterfowl, e.g., Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) and Canvasback (Aythya valisneria), but reduce nesting habitats dramatically for the above named marsh-nesting species, may reduce estuarine productivity by loss of the detrital food web and nursery habitat for fish and invertebrates, and cause redistribution of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other species. Such scenarios are more likely to occur in the mid- and north Atlantic regions since these estuaries are lower in sediment delivery on average than those in the Southeast. A simple hypothetical example from New Jersey is presented where waterbirds are forced to shift from submerged natural marshes to nearby impoundments, resulting in roughly a 10-fold increase in density. Whether prey fauna are sufficiently abundant to support this level of increase remains an open question, but extreme densities in confined habitats would exacerbate competition, increase disease risk, and possibly increase predation.
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High tides and rising seas: Potential effects on estuarine waterbirds