Wildlife Watch: Alburgh Sand Dunes

Published: Aug. 20, 2019 at 2:37 PM EDT
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Sand dunes in Vermont? Believe it or not, they are here. In this Wildlife Watch, our Ike Bendavid takes you to Alburgh to learn the history of the sand dunes.

Bob Zanio is a lands ecologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife. His job is to help preserve the state's natural lands. That includes the Alburgh Sand Dunes at the state park.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: So what are the Alburgh Sand Dunes?

Bob Zanio: This is the Alburgh Sand Dunes right here. It's a part of this beach that's on either side of us. It's here because there's tremendous amounts of sand coming into Lake Champlain, coming from the south. And that sand gets blown north from the winds, it blows right up onto shore here-- it creates this beach and it blows and creates these dunes pile of sand like you would see anywhere else along the shorelines along the Atlantic coast.

Ike Bendavid: This grass is something you would see walking up to the ocean. We are in Vermont, how does that work?

Bob Zanio: Right, this grass is here because Lake Champlain used to be the ocean and after the continental glacier that covered Vermont-- when it retreated to Vermont, saltwater came in through the St. Lawrence and this grass came with it right along the saltwater coast, then eventually the St. Lawrence and Lake Champlain were no longer saltwater but the grass stayed here and it's become the subspecies it is today.

Ike Bendavid: And that's unique to this area?

Bob Zanio: That's unique to Vermont, to Lake Champlain. It's not found anywhere else in the world.

Ike Bendavid: So when people are vacationing this summer and see it maybe on Cape Cod, there is a relation to what we are seeing over your shoulder?

Bob Zanio: It's closely related but the people who are here at this beach are seeing a species that does not exist on another coast anywhere else.

The dunes are fenced off to protect them but don't worry, if you want to play in the sand, there is plenty of beach available.

Ike Bendavid: This sand is different than what I see on other beaches on Lake Champlain. It feels like it's almost from the ocean.

Bob Zanio: I think it's because it's wind-transported-- we get that prevailing wind from the south that light sand gets blown up the beach. I think the lightest sand being transported the furthest and becoming these dunes.

And to show the history, we dig a little deeper.

"What's unique about this is this sand has been blowing for hundreds if not thousands of years. It's been blown onto this beach and it's covering up the wetland that was here originally. So as we dig through the sand, we will get that wetland soil," Zanio said. "It's absolutely like a time capsule."

Ike Bendavid: How many years of history do you think that is?

Bob Zanio: This peat probably on the order of thousands of years ago.

Behind the sand dunes, work is being done to fight phragmites, an invasive species threatening the native plants.

"This is all dead because it's been treated to prevent it from spreading further, hopefully, allow the native species to get a foothold in this place," Zanio said.

And around the corner, the beach seems distant.

Ike Bendavid: We are just a few feet from the beach and it's a completely different ecosystem.

Bob Zanio: We have walked five minutes and we are looking out on the swamp that is behind the beach. The swamp is actually the big habitat feature of the swamp. It extends hundreds of acres. It's such a contrast to the busy beach with so many visitors, here is a quiet place filled with habitat diversity.

And Fish and Wildlife says places like the Alburgh Sand Dunes are a place to study and appreciate wildlife for the future.

"We have looked at the lake sand beach, the sand dune, we're looking at this cattail marsh and the alder swamp beyond and all of these are a natural community with its own species with its own ecological processes that make it what it is," Zanio said.