Thursday, March 15, 2018

Volunteers needed for 'funny-looking' bird study

            One of the region’s most unusual birds is the subject of a research project by University of Rhode Island doctoral student Erin Harrington, and she’s seeking at least 80 volunteers to become citizen scientists to contribute to her work. All it takes is a commitment of 38 minutes at dusk on four dates between April 20 and May 10, plus attendance at a two-hour training session.
             The subject of Harrington’s study is the American woodcock, which she calls “a funny-looking bird with short stubby legs and a variety of silly nicknames that makes arguably the silliest sounding mating call known to mankind.”
She’s not kidding.
            “They’re an ideal bird for citizen scientists to work with because they’re unique and goofy looking, but their goofiness is endearing in a way that makes them distinctive and easy to identify,” she said.
            Sometimes called the timberdoodle, woodcocks are chunky, brownish birds with large eyes, short tails, and long beaks that they probe into the ground in search of earthworms to eat.
They are found throughout the eastern United States, but their populations have been declining throughout their range. Little is known about their habits and habitat preferences in Rhode Island.
            “We want to figure out where woodcocks are showing up in Rhode Island and where they aren’t,” Harrington said. “Where they’re showing up and where they aren’t are equally important because that tells us a little about what kind of habitat they prefer. And in areas where they are showing up, we’re also interested in how many are there. Areas of high numbers likely indicate a preferred habitat area.”
            According to Harrington, woodcocks are considered an umbrella species for forest management. They require young forest habitat to thrive. If forestry officials manage habitat for woodcock, then many other species with similar habitat needs, including the rare New England cottontail, will also benefit.
            Participants in the research project will listen for the mating call of the male woodcock, which Harrington described as a nasal peent, which is very distinctive. They also perform what she calls a sky dance, an elaborate aerial display that includes a twittering sound made by their wing feathers. However, they only perform these rituals for a short period at dusk.
            “The males start peenting on the ground, move around in a circle and peent in different directions, then fly up into the air and essentially dance in the air before flying back down to the same spot they came from,” she explained. “Hopefully, their sky dance will be appealing enough in some way for a female to think, ‘yes, that bird is worth mating with.’”
Using a protocol developed by woodcock researchers elsewhere, participating volunteers will drive a designated route, stopping every 0.4 kilometers to listen for the birds for two minutes before proceeding to the next stop. Depending on the weather conditions, volunteers must start the route exactly 15 or 20 minutes after sunset and be finished within 38 minutes before it gets too dark and the birds stop displaying.
“After we have a few years of data, we hope to have better information about where they are, where they aren’t, and where they are in high numbers, and apply that information to forest management,” said Harrington. “Data from this study will be combined with data from other studies that tracked woodcock movement patterns and measured habitat characteristics so we can predict where the birds should turn up.”
No experience or knowledge is necessary to participate in the project as a citizen scientist.
“You don’t have to know anything at all about woodcocks,” she said. “We’re interested in people who feel comfortable driving at night, think the birds are cool, and are excited about participating in the project. That’s all.”
Training sessions will be held on Tuesday, April 3, or Friday, April 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. in Weaver Auditorium in the Coastal Institute building on the URI Kingston campus. For more information about the project, or to register as a volunteer, email Harrington at or visit

This article first appeared on on March 15, 2018.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

And the dams come tumbling down

            South County is rightfully proud of its rich industrial history, but the legacy of that history includes a long list of rivers and streams with old, unsafe dams that contribute to localized flooding and prevent native fish from reaching their spawning grounds. As a result, a movement is underway to remove many of the dams to restore the waterways to their natural paths.
            “All those dams were built to power mills during the Industrial Revolution, but the mills aren’t in operation any more and the dams no longer serve an industrial function,” said Scott
Bradford Dam prior to removal (Ayla Fox)
Comings, associate director of the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy, which is a partner in several dam removal projects. “Dam removal is beneficial for flood abatement, it reduces the risk of dam failure, and reconnecting the river is important for target fish species like river herring and shad.”
            The Pawcatuck River has been the main focus of dam removal efforts in the region for several years. The White Rock dam – the first obstruction that fish encounter as they try to make their way upriver – was removed in 2015. The Potter Hill dam, a few miles further upstream, was left in place, but improvements were made to its fish ladder in 2016 after sediment build-up around the ladder created what Comings called a reverse eddy, which spun the fish around and directed them away from the ladder.
            The next dam on the Pawcatuck, the Bradford dam, was removed last year in a six-month project that involved construction of a temporary bypass channel to divert water around the dam, demolition of the dam, and the repositioning of hundreds of boulders into the river to create a series of step-like weirs and pools to enable fish to swim upstream. It also allows canoes and kayaks to navigate the waterway safely without portaging and reduces the risk of upstream flooding.
            “Connectivity is the golden word in this project,” Comings said. “By reconnecting the river, everything that depends on the river will benefit – not just the fish, but freshwater mussels, mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians, too.”
            The next dam to be removed in South County is in North Kingstown adjacent to the Shady Lea Mill on the Mattatuxet River. The former textile mill is now being used as artist studios. Following the 2010 floods, the state inspected the dam and deemed it a high hazard, which increased the liability on the dam’s owner and required preparation of an emergency action plan. The owner ultimately decided to have the dam removed, and she is working with Save the Bay to complete the project this year.
            “We’re always looking for good habitat restoration sites,” said Rachel Calabro, Save the Bay’s Riverkeeper and the coordinator of the Shady Lea project. “There’s a large fish run just downstream at the Gilbert Stuart Museum, and this will open up another half mile of the river for herring, eels and trout.”
Work began last October, when a section in the middle of the dam was removed to lower the water level behind the dam so the sediments could dry out. It also allowed archaeologists to examine and photograph the historic dam, which was found to have been originally constructed of fieldstone in the 1800s and later capped with cement.
This spring and summer, contractors will remove the sediments, which have already been tested and found to be free of contaminants, and then the spillway will be dismantled.
“We can already see that the stones are really loose, so I know when we go in to remove it, the dam will come down in a day,” said Calabro. “Some of those stones will be placed in the channel below the dam to create pools and make riffles in the stream for the fish to navigate. That’s the finesse part of a habitat restoration project like this.”
Once the dam is removed, Calabro said that native plants will sprout to revegetate the site.
“We’ll let the river naturally find its channel, and we’ll end up with a nice stream running through a vegetated wetland,” Calabro said.
Save the Bay will use this project as a showcase of dam removal techniques to encourage other private dam owners to undertake similar efforts to remove their liabilities and restore habitat.
“We’re not just interested in getting fish from point A to point B,” Calabro said. “We want native species to be able to migrate and also have better water quality, better dissolved oxygen, and the other things that happen when you remove a dam. We’re always looking for opportunities to improve stream health, which also improves resilience by removing vulnerable infrastructure.”
            Not every dam in the region can or should be removed, however. Some deserve to be protected for their historic attributes, for aesthetic reasons, or because there are alternatives to removal.
            “Every site is different,” said Andres Aveledo, a conservation engineer for The Nature Conservancy and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “The best conservation alternative is through removal of the dam, but we sometimes select alternative approaches because stakeholders want the impoundment to remain.”
            The dam on the Saugatucket River near Main Street in Wakefield, for instance, is on the state’s list of historic places, and the town of South Kingstown did not want to lose its attractive waterfall. Yet the site’s fish ladder, which was built in the 1960s, was not working. So in 2016 the fish ladder was re-engineered to ensure more herring make it over the dam and into Indian Lake.
            A similar effort is planned this year at the 12-foot dam at the Palisades Mill Complex in Peace Dale, enabling fish to swim even further up the Saugatucket.
            And in Charlestown, fish now have better access to Factory Pond from Green Hill Pond and the Charlestown Breachway, thanks to an aluminum device called a steep pass that was installed in 2017 to help fish surmount the modest private dam on Factory Brook.
            “That little run can now support about 20,000 river herring,” said Aveledo. “That’s a lot of bang for our buck.”
This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of South County Life magazine.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Serving up seeds

            Small mammals like squirrels, chipmunks, mice and voles play a surprisingly significant role in determining the tree composition of most forests. That role is based largely on their choice of which seeds to eat. By consuming the seeds of some species – thereby denying them a chance to grow – and hiding other seeds, which helps them germinate, the animals determine which tree species thrive or decline. At the same time, the availability of different seeds influences the population cycles of some mammals.
            Those are among the findings of a series of research studies conducted by a University of Maine biologist who combined data from a 33-year population study of rodents with experiments in the Holt Research Forest, Penobscot Experimental Forest and Acadia National Park.
            “Small mammals can reach extremely high densities; in some years up to 100 individuals per acre,” said Alessio Mortelliti, assistant professor of wildlife conservation. “They can actually eat every single seed of the species they like, which means they can have a massive impact on forest regeneration.”
            By pointing trail cameras at plates left in the forest with different tree seeds, Mortelliti found strong preferences among different animal species. None of the animals liked the seeds of balsam fir, for instance, which Mortelliti said is one reason why there are so many balsam firs in Maine forests. Paper birch seeds were also avoided by most of the animals. Mice had a preference for red oaks, which voles ignored, and all of the animals liked white pine, spruce and maple seeds.
            In another study, the researcher found that different seeds affect the vole population differently, and the effects were largely dependent on the animal’s population density. White pine seeds were found to be especially important when vole populations were low by helping them survive and reproduce in greater numbers. The animals only ate paper birch seeds when the vole population was high and few white pine seeds were available.
            Mortelliti hopes to use his research findings to help forest managers minimize the impact of small mammals on the most commercially valuable tree species.
            “With a little more research, we should be able to figure out how to optimize timber production by understanding how small mammals are affecting the regeneration of the forest,” he said. “We hope to be able to give timber companies prescriptions for the best way to manage the forest so they can maximize the regeneration of the trees they want.”
            He said this will become especially important as the climate changes and new tree species expand their ranges northward.
            “Tree species composition is going to change, and small mammals will play a key role in affecting the expansion,” Mortelliti said. “They’re the gatekeepers. They’re going to decide which plants will regenerate. The results of our studies will tell us what tree species will be blocked by the animals and which will be favored, and that will inform the management actions that can be taken to deal with this process.”
This article first appeared in the winter 2018 edition of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Go easy on the salt

            The use of salt on snowy roadways is effective at melting snow and ice and making driving safer. But when that salty snowmelt runs off into nearby lakes and ponds, it can make the waters toxic to aquatic ecosystems. While that has long been believed to be true, there was little data from a broad geographic region to back it up. Until now.
            A study by a Dartmouth College graduate student and 14 collaborators from throughout North America found that 44 percent of the 371 lakes analyzed had “undergone long-term salinization” as a result of salt run-off from roads, driveways and parking lots.
            Flora Krivak-Tetley said that 26 of the lakes had salt concentrations over 100 milligrams per liter, more than five times that of rain water. “Salt at high levels like that starts to be directly toxic to large lake organisms like fish and amphibians,” she said. “For the most part, our lakes here in New England are below that level and aquatic life can handle it.”
            But 14 of the lakes in the study are predicted to increase to levels above the Environmental Protection Agency criterion that places aquatic life at risk.
            “Our big question, though, is what happens at lower salt concentrations, those between 20 and 100 milligrams per liter and slowly rising over time,” Krivak-Tetley said. “Phytoplankton and zooplankton communities might not be directly killed, but it may cause shifts in community composition.”
            She said that smaller organisms can lose their ability to compete against others for resources in high salt environments. And because many of the less common native species tend to be intolerant of salty conditions, she believes that increasing salt concentrations could lead to a loss of biodiversity.
            In a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy ofthe Sciences, Krivak-Tetley and her colleagues found that the primary drivers of increased salt in lakes was a high density of roads and parking lots around the water bodies.
            “Impervious surfaces around lakes puts them at risk,” she said. “Even as little as one percent impervious surface correlated to rising salinity. That may seem like a small number, but a small amount of development around a lake and the use of salt in that area is having an impact on most lakes.”
            The good news, she said, is that most of the lakes studied in the Northeast, especially those in the Adirondack region and in Vermont and New Hampshire, are not in highly developed areas, especially compared to those in the urbanized Midwest.
            “It’s nice to see that we have a lot of lake systems that are really healthy in our area, and even some of those that are increasing in salt concentration are still pretty low,” Krivak-Tetley said. “So if we make a point of good management and limit development around our lakes, or if homeowners around the lakes don’t over-salt their driveways, then that can make a difference and help keep our ecosystems in good shape.”

This article first appeared in the winter 2018 edition of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Beware: Frogs, salamanders on the move

            During last week’s warm spell, Emilie Holland saw and heard something she seldom detects this early in the year – the first movement of frogs and salamanders from their woodland wintering grounds to their springtime breeding pools. She observed wood frogs, spring peepers, spotted salamanders and even a rare marbled salamander near her house not far from the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area in South Kingstown.
            “We often get pretty early activity here,” said Holland, an environmental scientist for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and a board member of the Rhode Island Natural
Marbled salamander by Emilie Holland
History Survey. “For whatever reason, the micro-climate is good for them. The problem is that my hotspot is along a road, and the frogs and salamanders are often crossing it,” which puts them at risk.
            During the same warm days last week, other observers reported hearing spring peepers in North Kingstown and Cumberland and seeing a red-backed salamander in Middletown.
            According to amphibian expert Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at Roger Williams Park Zoo, frogs and salamanders don’t typically migrate to their breeding ponds until mid-March in most areas of the state. During the cold winter of 2015, when many ponds were still frozen until April, amphibian migration was delayed by almost a month. But it’s not unusual for rain showers during an especially warm period in late February to trigger an early migration.
            “When that happens, the migration period tends to get extended,” Perrotti said. “A snowstorm or cold snap shuts things down for a while, and then it picks back up again. You don’t have the usual massive explosion of breeding activity all at once. It trickles along instead.”
            What happens to the frogs in the ponds when the cold returns and the ponds freeze over again? Not much. Perrotti said the animals are adapted to survive such conditions for short periods of time. In fact, University of Rhode Island herpetologist Peter Paton said he commonly sees wood frogs and spotted salamanders swimming beneath the ice of local ponds in late winter. And wood frogs are uniquely adapted to freeze solid and thaw out later with no negative consequences.
            The bigger concern – as Holland expressed – is that many frogs and salamanders must cross roads to reach their breeding ponds, and untold thousands of them get run over by vehicles each year in Rhode Island in the process.
            “It’s a huge problem, one of the biggest threats to amphibians and reptiles in the area,” Perrotti said. “I’ve seen nights where there were hundreds of smashed wood frogs at just one site. Toads get hammered, too, because they typically have huge breeding explosions over a period of two or three nights. And gray tree frogs, too, which are pretty clumsy on the ground.”
            Amphibian movement to and from their breeding ponds will likely continue through April – some species, like green frogs, migrate later than others – but it typically happens at night when it is raining. So Perrotti and Holland recommend driving carefully at night along back roads in wetland areas during rain showers.
            “It’s hard to avoid every frog in the road, especially if you catch it on a good night for migration when they’re everywhere,” Perrotti said.
            One strategy that Perrotti said has been employed in western Massachusetts to avoid the problem of amphibian roadkill is the installation of what he calls “salamander tunnels” beneath roadways in areas where large numbers of frogs and salamanders migrate across roads. Barriers along the roadside funnel the animals toward the tunnel, which avoids much of the mortality.
            The idea has been discussed in Rhode Island, but the cost is high and finding funding in municipal budgets is an impediment. Signage encouraging drivers to slow down at certain locations is another strategy that officials in the state have considered, though few have been installed to date.
            Holland notes that homeowners with sump pumps should regularly check the system for amphibians that wander in and cannot escape.
            “I’m constantly fishing salamanders and frogs out of mine,” she said. “People should monitor the sump in their basement and maybe they can keep a local breeding population healthy by not letting the adults die in a pitfall trap that they didn't even know they had.”
            Those interested in learning more about local amphibians and participating in a related citizen science project should consider signing up for Frogwatch, a national program administered locally by Roger Williams Park Zoo. Volunteers attend a training program to learn the breeding calls of the various frog species that reside in Rhode Island, then visit a designated pond in the evening once a week from March through August to document breeding activity.
            The next training session is Saturday, March 3 at 1:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 4 at 1 p.m. Perrotti said that families with children over 10 are encouraged to sign up together.
            “Kids are especially good at it because they’re inspired by the program and they’re good at remembering the calls,” he said.

This article first appeared on on March 1, 2018.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Survey of Rhode Island breeding birds finds surprising results

            Three years into a five-year project to document the distribution of breeding birds in Rhode Island, and volunteers are turning up some rather unexpected results. Nearly a dozen species have been found to be breeding in the state that were not recorded during an identical effort 31 years ago, and some of those discoveries are quite surprising.
                Charles Clarkson, coordinator of the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, said that bald eagles, common ravens, black-throated blue warblers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers all breed in at least two locations in the state, although they were not found in Rhode Island during the previous
Yellow-bellied sapsucker
survey. In addition, volunteers documented the first occurrence of breeding Kentucky warbler, black vulture, common eider, pied-billed grebe, yellow-crowned night heron, black rail and chuck will’s widow.
                Clarkson said the yellow-bellied sapsucker is especially noteworthy.
                “That really took me by surprise because I wasn’t expecting to ever find it breeding here,” Clarkson said. “Their traditional breeding range doesn’t come anywhere close to Rhode Island. The closest they usually come to breeding here is in western Pennsylvania and New York.”
                The Breeding Bird Atlas divides the state into 165 blocks, each 10 square miles in size. About 170 volunteers work to document all of the bird species that breed in each block. The program is sponsored by the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers have so far been found breeding in two blocks, bald eagles in six blocks, and common ravens in 20 blocks. A total of 167 species have been recorded as possibly, probably or confirmed breeding in Rhode Island, three more than were recorded during the first atlas. The most widespread species are the American robin and gray catbird.
                “When all these volunteers get out in the woods looking for birds, they tend to find things that aren’t usually noticed,” said Clarkson.
                The common raven, bald eagle and black vulture were not unexpected birds to be added to the state’s list of breeding species, since they have been seen in increasing numbers in the last decade. But the black rail, a small, secretive chicken-like bird that breeds in marshes and wet meadows and vocalizes almost exclusively at night, was another surprise.
                “They’ve been declining range-wide, so that gives us a glimmer of hope for the species,” Clarkson said.
                Among the other notable findings was the growing number of pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers breeding in the state. Pileated woodpeckers, the largest member of the woodpecker family in the United States, were found in just two blocks during the first atlas in the 1980s, but it has been recorded in 35 blocks so far in the present project. The distribution of the red-bellied woodpecker increased from 4 blocks to 88.
                “We’ve had a massive increase in distribution for those species, and the reason for their growth is very different,” said Clarkson. “In the case of the pileated, it’s a result of the natural succession of its wooded habitat – they like older forest habitat. For the red-belly, it’s a slow persistent expansion of its range northward, primarily due to climate change.”
                Osprey numbers have also increased dramatically from 14 blocks during the first atlas to 50 blocks today. Clarkson said the increase in nesting osprey is due to the banning of the pesticide DDT in the 1970s, which had caused widespread reproductive failure in the birds in the 1950s and 60s.
                On the downside, several species documented 31 years ago as breeding in Rhode Island have not been found during the first three years of the current atlas project. These include northern bobwhite, magnolia warbler, green-winged teal, common gallinule, upland sandpiper, yellow-breasted chat and long-eared owl.
                “Most of those are species that I’m not surprised we haven’t found yet,” Clarkson said. “The majority of them were not found here in big numbers during the first atlas. Some of them may still have breeding populations in the state but they’re at low enough densities that we just haven’t found them yet. We still may find them.”
                The species with the steepest decline is the purple finch, which was recorded in 76 blocks during the first atlas but in only 11 blocks during the current atlas.
                “It could be that there is an actual decline in the species brought on by habitat loss or competitive exclusion with the related house finch,” explained Clarkson. “We know they have been in decline in the eastern portion of their range where they overlap with house finches. But it could also be misidentification by our volunteers.”  The two species can be difficult to tell apart.
                Volunteers for the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas will continue to collect data for two more breeding seasons. They are also collecting information during other times of the year about species that winter in the Ocean State or migrate through the region.

This article first appeared on on February 21, 2018.

Friday, February 16, 2018

What's living under the ice?

            It’s one of my fondest memories of childhood, ice skating on the one-acre pond in my backyard in North Kingstown. We often skated several times each day – before school, after school and even after dinner, thanks to the lights my father installed to illuminate the area. And weekends were for skating parties, hockey games and general silliness on the ice.
            That’s also when I first began to wonder about the creatures that were living in the water beneath the ice. Occasional spots of clear ice seemed to serve as a window into the underwater world, and I never ignored an opportunity to lie on the ice to see what was there.
I often saw very little, just mud and leaves and floating sediment. But every once in a
Cartoon by David Chatowsky
while, something else came into view – mostly aquatic insects, fairy shrimp, tiny fish and, once, a giant snapping turtle. I’ll never forget lying face-to-face with that snapper, wondering if he was frightened of me and worrying that he was as cold as I was.
            To this day I still think about that turtle every winter. I had assumed that most turtles bury themselves in the mud and hibernate through the cold months, but apparently not all do. Snapping turtles are particularly cold tolerant and well known for remaining active beneath the ice, though even they reduce their metabolism and move very slowly.
            Peter Paton, a reptile and amphibian expert at the University of Rhode Island, said that he has seen wood frogs, spotted turtles, and spotted salamanders swimming under the ice on occasion. It’s more likely to happen, he said, during cycles of melting and refreezing, especially during rainy periods in late winter. That’s when many frogs and salamanders begin to move from the land to the ponds in search of a mate. When temperatures plunge at night and the ponds refreeze, it may lock the animals in, but they seem to survive just fine.
            Aquatic creatures that cannot live on land – like fish, fairy shrimp and insect larvae – are locked beneath the ice, too, but they’ve evolved to live through such conditions and thrive. For some, the cold, icy conditions are a necessary trigger for the next stages of their growth and development.
            And as any ice fisherman will tell you, there are plenty of fish that remain active beneath the ice. That’s because there is still plenty of food available to sustain them: crustaceans keep creeping along, algae still bloom, plants still photosynthesize when enough light penetrates the ice, and tiny zooplankton continue to swim, feed, and reproduce.
            The larval form of dragonflies, stoneflies and mayflies are among a very few aquatic insects that remain active beneath the ice throughout the winter. Some can even live a short time encased in ice, which is especially helpful when shallow ponds freeze all the way to the bottom. And when the ice eventually melts and reaches a certain temperature, the bugs transform into their adult form and fly away.
            Which is what I’d like to do about now – fly away south. My ice skates no longer fit, our ponds seldom freeze thick enough to skate on any more, and general silliness on the ice is no longer as attractive as it once was. But I’d relish another opportunity to go face-to-face with a snapping turtle lurking beneath the ice.

This article first appeared in the Independent on February 15, 2018.