The Sandplain Grasslands:
The Vineyard’s most precious
Questions to answer:
What are they?
Where are they?
Why are they important?
How have they changed over time?
What is the role of fire?
Sandplains on Martha’s Vineyard
(Long Point Wildlife Refuge)
The largest remaining piece of sandplain grasslands in
the world is the Katama Plains.
It is amazing to think that one of the most precious
habitats on Earth can co-exist with a small airport and a
Originally found only in the outwash of M.V.,
Nantucket, Long Island, Elizabeth Islands, Cape Cod.
Sandy, dry soil.
Once covered about half of the Vineyard.
Characterized by grasses and wildflowers.
Similar habitats are coastal heath lands and scrub
oak barrens. Sometimes called sand barrens.
Globally rare (only a few acres left anywhere on
How are they unique?
Harsh conditions: strong winds, salt spray from the
ocean, poor soil.
Beautiful fauna and flora. Some of the rarest plants
and animals still survive here.
Northern Blazing Star:
A species of special concern.
A federally endangered species.
Found only on the islands.
A truly threatened species.
Grows best in worst conditions.
A plant with medicinal qualities.
Sandplain Blue-Eyed Grass:
Several species of blue-eyed grasses grow on the Vineyard, but this one is
the rarest. Why? It only grows in sandplain grasslands.
Found in only one spot at Long Point Wildlife Refuge.
One of the most common and beautiful grasses of the sandplains.
The Purple Tiger Beetle:
The Regal Fritillary Butterfly
Once common, but the Regal Fritillary has not been seen on the
Vineyard in many years.
A butterfly on the brink of extinction?
Rare moth species:
Barrens Buck Moth and Gerhard’s Underwing Moth
The Imperial Moth:
The only place left in Massachusetts where you might see this
large beautiful moth is Martha’s Vineyard.
The Northern Harrier
Also called the Marsh Hawk.
Feeds on meadow voles and other small rodents.
Federally endangered species.
Easily identified in flight by the white “bar” across the rear.
More rare birds of the sandplains:
The Grasshopper Sparrow and The Short Eared Owl.
* Some years no Grasshopper Sparrows are reported seen at all.
* The Short Eared Owl is also in trouble: None have been reported nesting in
Other rare or unusual sandplain species:
Bushy Rockrose (threatened, globally rare).
Sandplain Flax ( of special concern in MA).
Birdfoot Violet (rare: favorite food of the Regal
Fritillary butterfly larvae - coincidence?)
An unusual ant species.
A northern species of tarantula!
And what about the role of fire?
Key points about fire:
Keeps habitat open. (Prevents trees and shrubs from
Some grassland species actually depend on the heat
of the fire for their survival.
Helps to replenish the soil
Once they were natural (lightning) or set by Native
Modern firefighting changed all of that.
Now, “prescribed” burns must be used to manage the
Wildfire was feared by the earlier settlers who had
worked hard to build homes and villages.
Today, prescribed burns are used and carefully
controlled by trained crews.
A recent burn at Katama (May 7, 2006).
Livestock grazing by the early settlers also kept down the growth of
woody plants, and probably helped the survival of sanplain species.
Today, conservationists also use other techniques, such as
mowing, to accomplish the same thing.
So what happened to the sandplain
Development (homes, buildings, roads,
villages, etc. . .)
An end to agriculture.
An end to wildfire.
Remember: they were rare to begin with.
Sandplain grasslands were originally very
rare (only in the outwash of the northeast).
And now there are only a few hundred acres
remaining, mostly on M.V. and Nantucket.
Possible restoration of the sandplain
grasslands? If so, where?
There is one very obvious choice…..