Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

August 2016

Vol. 44, No. 4

Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens: A Globally Rare Habitat in Southeastern Massachusetts

Melinda S. LaBranche


Northern Parula may nest in coastal pine barrens. Photograph by Sandy Selesky.

Atlantic coastal pine barrens are distinguished by their fire-mediated climax community that is dominated by pines and often small oaks or other hardwoods. Variously called barrens, savannas, pinelands, flatwoods, sandhills, or sandplains, in their natural state these forests are flat and open with a mild scent of pine and sometimes smoke. The barrens are decidedly rare due to habitat alteration and fire suppression, making them among the “most threatened ecosystems in North America” (King et al. 2011). Coastal pine barrens are actually far from barren, and birders too often ignore these habitats as they drive past or through them to a different birding hot spot.

Historically, regular, naturally occurring fires prevented canopy closure in pine barrens, thereby allowing regeneration of the fire-tolerant pines and associated vegetation. In addition, the regular occurrence of fires reduced the fuel available for future fires, thus promoting faster, cooler burns. With expanding human populations, the barrens’ sandy, dry soil, not ideal for agricultural use, was used for forestry and later residential building (Sohl and Sohl 2012). In areas not already in use, fire suppression allowed tree crowding, canopy closure, and the loss of shrubland plant and animal species. Through recent management efforts, particularly removing non-native pine plantations and regular prescribed burning, pine barrens are slowly returning to a small portion of their historic distribution.

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