Biodiversity Research Institute
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Wetlands Program
Wetlands Program

New report examines pond water quality and mercury in biota of Long Island Central Pine Barrens and Mashomack Preserve

Our saltmarsh sparrow projects have been featured in Boston Globe, Discover Magazine, The Nature Conservancy publications and various local media, including:

  • The Osprey, Newsletter of the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society
  • The East Hampton Star

Related Links:

Songbird Program

Tropical Program

Marine Bird Program

River Point Wildlife Monitoring

Reserva Playa Tortuga

eXXpedition Caribbean 2017


Spatio-temporal trends in mercury exposure to New York songbirds: Correlations with climate, habitat, and projecting future change (2020)

Bald eagle mercury exposure varies with region and site elevation in New York, USA. (2020)

Mercury Exposure in Songbird Communities within Sphagnum Bog and Upland Forest Ecosystems in the Adirondack Park (New York, USA) (2020)

Saltmarsh Sparrow
Saltmarsh Sparrow
Eastern Willet
Eastern Willet
American Pygmy Kingfisher
American Pygmy Kingfisher
Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird
 Northern Waterthrush
Northern Waterthrush
 Marsh Wren
Marsh Wren

BRI’s Research in Freshwater and Salt Marsh Ecosystems

Freshwater and coastal wetlands are highly important ecosystems for a variety of reasons. Wetlands cleanse and filter the water removing pollutants; they control and mitigate floods, support the food chain and the fishing industry and provide vital habitats for wildlife during breeding season and in migration. Residential and commercial development globally has resulted in the devastating loss of these habitats and/or pollution that threatens the health of the ecosystem and ultimately the survival of obligate marsh species.

Program Director: Oksana Lane
Program Staff: Kevin Regan

Why Study Wetlands

Because wetland environments serve as “sponges” for pollutants, animals that depend on these habitats can often be exposed to elevated levels of contaminants. For instance, wetlands including salt marshes promote the conversion of inorganic mercury to the highly toxic organic methylmercury. Birds and other organisms that occupy wetland habitats may be particularly vulnerable to methylmercury exposure—high concentrations can impair behavior, physiology, survival, and reproductive success. In addition to mercury exposure, wetland bird populations are threatened by the loss of habitat associated with human development, sea level rise due to climate change, invasive species, and pollution.
List of Study Species

List of Study Species

  • Saltmarsh Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, Seaside Sparrow, Song and Swamp Sparrows, and all wetland songbirds
  • Virginia and Clapper Rails
  • Eastern Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, and migrating shorebirds
  • Kingfishers—various species (Amazon Kingfisher pictured at left)
Freshwater and salt water fish
  • Perch species, bass species, sunfish and other species; various species from the Mediterranean Sea
  • Spiders, amphipods, odonates (dragon and damselflies), dipteral (flies) and others; squid and zooplankton from the Mediterranean Sea

We conduct research in North, Central, South America and the Caribbean Islands, Russia, and the Mediterranean Sea. We work with local, state, and federal agencies, and other conservation organizations to examine the impact anthropogenic stressors have on wetland bird populations.

Contaminants Monitoring

Contaminants Monitoring

Bird blood, feathers, and eggs provide direct insights into the short- and long-term exposure to contaminants through diet. Sampling broadly throughout the landscape helps biologists identify “hotspots” of contaminant exposure, and sampling annually helps us determine if contaminant levels are changing over time. Such information has proven pivotal in guiding policy decisions to regulate pollutants.

BRI, together with Rachel Carson and Parker River National Wildlife Refuges, leads long-term studies of mercury exposure on saltmarsh sparrows, which is a species of global concern:

Additional projects with a focus on contaminant monitoring include: 

  • State-wide long-term mercury studies of New York birds, 2013-2018.
  • Injury screening study of contaminant exposure in fish, bats and birds, Pompton Lakes, NRDA study, 2014.
  • European Union-Global Mercury Observation System (EU-GMOS)-Mediterranean Sea Mercury Study ongoing
  • Long term fish mercury monitoring at Fifteen Mile Falls on Connecticut River, NH, VT, 2003-2014.
  • A Multidisciplinary Assessment of Mercury Contamination in Wetlands of Nicaragua, 2012, 2014.
Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA)

Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA)

BRI is contracted by the federal agencies to assess damage to natural resources due to contaminants exposure from industrial point source pollution. Due to the potential or pending litigation between the trustees and the responsible parties we are unable to present our findings here, however, representative NRDA projects are listed below. For more specific information please contact BRI directly.

  • Pilot assessment of mercury exposure to songbirds in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, 2014
  • Assessment of mercury exposure to songbirds in the marshes of Piles Creek and South Branch Creek, New Jersey, 2010-2011
  • Penobscot River Estuary mercury exposure study, 2006-2010
  • Evaluation of mercury and PCBs in birds on Onondaga Lake, 2008-2009
  • Assessment of methlymercury availability to bats and birds on the South River, Virginia, 2007-2009
  • Assessment of mercury contamination in songbirds on the North Fork of the Holston River, Virginia, 2005-2008
  • NYANZA Superfund site, mercury exposure of biota, Sudbury River, Massachusetts, 2003-2004
Movement Studies

Movement Studies

Our current shorebird project is focusing on willets, among other species. With the use of geolocators (tracking devices) we determine migration patterns and understand potential stressors encountered along willets’ migratory routes and on wintering grounds. The program is expanding efforts into mangroves and other tropical wetlands through collaborations in Peru, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.

Surveys and Population Monitoring

Surveys and Population Monitoring

Conservation biologists are continually challenged to evaluate the status of bird populations. We try to detect declines as they occur. We prioritize collecting information needed to detect and measure changes in the stability of bird populations. In order to achieve this, we survey bird populations to document the number of individuals, breeding pairs, nonbreeding pairs, nests, or young produced in an area. Birds can be detected by direct observation (counting), sound (responses to playback calls), or by capturing and banding them. 

One representative study focused on surveys and population monitoring is:

  • Remote Acoustic Unit data analysis of rare wetland bird songs in New Jersey, 2012-2013
International Collaborations


The wetlands program is partnering with the biologists from Reserva Playa Tortuga (RPT) to develop collaborative projects and provide training to local biologists with the goal to promote conservation of resident and migrant bird and bat populations.

The Reserva is situated at the mouth of the Terraba River, which is a part of the Terraba Sierpe national wetlands, a RAMSAR site just outside of Marino Ballena National Park. The reserve, located in tropical rainforest, offers a unique environment to researchers and volunteers. Habitats found within RPT include pasture, swamp, estuary, coral reefs, sand beach, rocky beach, riparian forest, mangrove forest, regenerating forest, and secondary forest.

BRI has been conducting avian mercury exposure studies in Nicaragua since 2012 in collaboration with the USDA Forest Service, International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, and Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, Nicaragua.

Program Director
Oksana Piterman Lane
207-839-7600 x106

Program Staff
Kevin Regan  

Contributing BRI Staff
David Buck, Ph.D.

Photo Credits: Header photo: © Michael Farina. Study Subjects: Sparrow © Michael Farina. American Pygmy Kingfisher taken at Caño Palma biological Station in Costa Rica; Red-winged Blackbird © Derek Rogers; Northern Waterthrush © Oscar Brenes; Marsh Wren © Sam Edmonds. Amazon Kingfisher © BRI-Oksana Lane. Research: Saltmarsh and Nelson Sparrows in hand © Kate O'Brien; Point source contamination - iSock; Geolocator on willet © BRI-Kevin Regan; Sparrow nest © BRI-Oksana Lane;
Biodiversity Research Institute