Friday, June 8, 2018

Building a buzz in Rhode Island

When Environment Council of Rhode Island member Dave Brunetti mentioned at a meeting that he wanted to get the state to ban a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, Audubon’s director of policy, Meg Kerr, and her predecessor Eugenia Marks expressed their support and offered to help. Concerns about the decline of bees have made news around the world, and neonicotinoids have been implicated as one probable cause. Since pollinator protection is high on Audubon’s list of priorities, Kerr and Marks joined with Brunetti in speaking to legislators and meeting with beekeepers and other interested stakeholders about the issue.
The idea of a ban on neonicotinoids met with resistance from many in the farming and landscaping industries, however, so one legislator offered to convene what Kerr called “a listening workshop” to bring together experts and interested parties to share their perspectives. It was an emotionally charged meeting, and it soon became clear that there was little support for an immediate ban on the insecticides.
Instead, a compromise was reached and legislation was passed to establish a Pollinator Working Group under the RI Department of Environmental Management to investigate the many
issues surrounding pollinator health and habitat in Rhode Island. The Working Group includes scientists, farmers, landscapers, beekeepers and representatives of environmental groups, with Kerr and Shannon Brawley, executive director of the RI Nursery and Landscape Association, designated as “staff” to lead the effort.
“We all agreed that it was an opportunity to bring people together, learn about the condition of bees and other pollinators in our state, evaluate how pesticides, climate change and habitat changes are impacting pollinators. We wanted to identify strategies the state could consider to move forward in a productive way to address our concerns,” Kerr said.
Many people think that environmental advocacy, like Audubon’s work to protect pollinators, all takes place at the State House. They imagine Kerr and others testifying at legislative hearings, persuading legislators in one-on-one meetings, and occasionally catching the ear of the governor in a fight for strong environmental policies. But that’s only one small part of the process, as Audubon’s involvement in the Pollinator Working Group suggests.
“It’s a difficult process to pass a bill, but passage doesn’t change anything,” Kerr said. “We need to continue to advocate for full and proper implementation of the bills that we work to get passed. Almost always the bill is asking a state agency to do something, and the agencies are all short-staffed and already have full plates.”
“And just because it was our priority and we were able to convince the legislature to make it a priority,” she added, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a state agency priority or that they have the funding for what we want them to do.”
For example, Audubon fought for two years for passage of amendments to Rhode Island’s Green Buildings Act to add metrics for ensuring that the property around new state buildings is as sustainably designed as the buildings themselves. The bill that passed gives the state an opportunity to pilot test the new metrics on four projects.
“We are now part of the implementation team, helping the state successfully select and implement the four projects” said Kerr. “Once a bill passes, advocates always think about how we can help the state be successful.”
The same was true of the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which established greenhouse gas reduction goals and programs aimed at state agency coordination. Advocates like Kerr who worked to get the bill passed continue to remain engaged to make sure that the state does what the bill directed.
“The point is, our job is not to pass bills. Our job is to make the environment better in Rhode Island,” Kerr said. “Simply passing bills doesn’t do it.”
            The good news is that Audubon is highly respected at the State House, thanks to decades of advocacy by the late executive director Al Hawkes, Marks and others long before Kerr was hired. While Kerr has been an environmental advocate for more than 25 years, she was pleased to see...

Read the rest of the article in the spring 2018 issue of Audubon Report.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Raptor Rehabilitators

            Inside the basement freezer at John and Vivian Maxson’s home in Bradford are more than 750 frozen mice, along with hundreds of dead rats and an uncounted number of frozen quail.
“We have to be careful what we thaw out for dinner,” John joked.
All of the frozen animals are destined to be meals for the 14 hawks, owls and falcons in temporary housing in large cages scattered around their backyard.
            The owners of the Born to be Wild Nature Center, the Maxsons rehabilitate and care for dozens of injured raptors each year, most of which were hit by cars. After they recover from head injuries, broken wings and other damage, almost all of them are released back into the wild.
            “We’re just interceding on behalf of the wildlife, giving them a chance when they normally
Snowy owl being released after rehabilitation (Peter Green)
wouldn’t have one,” John said. “A lot of it is just giving them time to recover that they wouldn’t have in nature. If they’re on the ground with a head injury, they’d be susceptible to predation. But if they get rescued, they get the time to get right, and eventually they will fly off on their own.”
            The Maxsons have been caring for wild animals for 20 years, and while it makes it difficult to go on vacation or enjoy free time, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
            “The whole concept of wildlife rehab was completely foreign to me back in 1998,” said Vivian, a medical assistant at South County Hospital. “The idea of being allowed to work with wild animals intrigued me, so I signed up for a two-day certification class.” She was soon teamed with a mentor who provided her with the experience necessary to earn a wildlife rehabilitator’s license. “And we’re still at it,” she said.
            Vivian said that her husband quickly embraced her newfound passion and began constructing a nature center in their backyard, starting with a cage the size of a card table and soon progressing to larger and larger ones. They began by rehabilitating whatever animals needed assistance, from foxes and raccoons to squirrels and songbirds. But they eventually decided to focus on raptors.
            “At that point we knew a lot of little stuff about a lot of animals, but nothing in depth about any of them,” John said. “Now that we’re focused on raptors, our knowledge and skills are pretty deep.”
            Inside a 24-foot flight cage just beyond the Maxson’s front door are two red-tailed hawks testing their wings. Another perches in a nearby cage waiting to molt so she can fly more efficiently after damaging her feathers in a collision. Other cages contain barred owls, peregrine falcons, a turkey vulture and other birds, some of which are too injured to survive on their own. Wild hawks and owls often visit the yard to interact with their recovering cousins.
            The red-tailed hawks are Vivian’s favorites.
            “They are so majestic and powerful,” she said. “Red-tails are so beautiful, and each has their own personality. Lucky for me, they are a common hawk here on the East Coast, so we get in a lot of them.”
            This winter was an unusually busy time for barred owls. The Maxsons rehabilitated seven of the gray streaked birds after they were hit by cars during a six-week period in January and February. Spring and early summer is the busiest time of year – they call it baby season – when young hawks and owls injure themselves as they learn to fly or the trees that hold their nests are cut down or fall in storms.
            “Babies are a lot of work,” said John, a retired special education teacher. “You can’t just hand them a whole mouse. You’ve got to cut it up and give it to them in pieces with forceps. A great horned owl baby can eat two dozen mice a day, so that puts a big tax on our food bill.”
            Last year, the Maxsons spent more than $10,000 on food for the rehabilitating birds. But they say it’s worth it when they watch their patients fly back into the wild.
            “That’s the wonderful part – putting them back where they belong,” John said. “That really rejuvenates us.”
            He especially recalls the release of a juvenile bald eagle in Matunuck last year on Easter Sunday. “The whole release lasted 10 seconds,” he said. “He was raring to go. He came out of that box and he was gone in a flash.”
            Best of all, the Maxsons say, is when they can involve the person who initially rescued the bird in its release.
            “We want them to be there when the bird is set free so they will understand how important their role was in this whole process,” said Vivian. “We have met so many wonderful, compassionate people in our journey. It restores my faith in humanity.”
            To help pay some of the costs of raptor rehabilitation, the Maxsons offer tours of their nature center to see the birds and hear their stories. They also bring some of the birds on visits to local schools, libraries and senior centers. Last year, they presented 53 programs in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts to more than 2,500 people of all ages.
“You’d think we’d be tired of it after 20 years, but not at all,” concluded John. “We get a lot of satisfaction helping the birds and helping people who don’t know what to do when they come across an injured bird. This nature center is my little oasis.”

This story appeared in the June 2018 issue of South County Life magazine.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Students get dirty restoring salt marsh

            Sage Witham’s freshly manicured fingernails were an elegant silver color, but they were covered in mud and sand as she and her classmates worked to plant native grasses at a saltmarsh along the edge of Ninigret Pond. The Chariho High School junior wasn’t concerned about a little mud on her nails, though.
            “I had them done for prom last week,” said Witham, a junior from Charlestown. “I don’t mind if they get ruined now.”
            The students gathered at the marsh on Monday with staff from Save the Bay as part of an extensive effort to restore the saltmarsh, which had been drowning in place due to rising sea levels.
The 30-acre site had 30,000 cubic yards of sandy sediments deposited on it 18 months ago to raise the elevation of the marsh and make it less vulnerable to the effects of climate
change. The sand had been dredged from the adjacent Charlestown Breachway.
The resulting moonscape was mostly devoid of vegetation, except for areas replanted by volunteers last year and a few wild plants that successfully pushed through the new layer of sediment. The students were aiming to expand that area of greenery to restore the natural function of the marsh.
The school has been involved in the project for five years, collaborating with educators from Save the Bay to learn about the role of salt marsh ecosystems. They collect seeds from marsh grasses each fall and grow them into seedlings in the Chariho greenhouse each spring. Science teacher Stacie Pepperd uses the project in her agriculture and resource development classes to teach about alternative agricultural applications.
“This started as a small experiment five years ago, and year by year we’re taking part in different parts of the process,” she explained. “The students are using their growing skills and seeing that the agriculture industry is not just for growing vegetables and other food products or ornamentals. This helps them see that there are environmental applications, too.”
In February in the Chariho greenhouse, the students planted about 1,000 seeds of saltmarsh cordgrass, a common native plant that grows in the lower sections of saltmarshes and provides root structure that helps to stabilize the marsh and prevent erosion. They cared for the plants daily, monitored their growth and vigor, and transported them to the marsh for planting.
Sophomore Dalton Stone, who works in the greenhouse, has a strong interest in plants and flowers and envisions a career working with plant-based medicines or floral design.
“I like that we’re kind of rebuilding the bay with this project by using grasses that have been depleted because of storms,” said the Richmond resident. “I like that we’re making a difference.”
The project isn’t just a learning process for the students, however. It’s a learning process for Save the Bay and its partners, too, as they use this new strategy to protect coastal marshes.
“Every time we go out there, we’re learning something new about the marsh and about what plants survive where based on the new elevation of the site,” said David Prescott, Save the Bay’s South County coastkeeper and the leader of the planting effort, which is a partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Coastal Resources Management Council, the Salt Ponds Coalition, and the town of Charlestown.
Prescott then pointed to a distant section of the site where he learned another lesson last year – unless some sections of the newly planted marsh were fenced off, Canada geese would feast on the fresh shoots.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea level has risen about 10 inches around Rhode Island since 1930, and it is expected to rise another 20 inches by 2030 and as much as nine feet by 2100. By raising the elevation of the marsh by approximately a foot in some places, it buys time to allow the habitat to migrate inland and adapt to the rising seas.
“Nine feet of sea level rise is going to have a devastating effect on the marsh habitat in the region, but we’re trying to preserve the ecosystem function of the marsh for as long as we possibly can and see if this technique is workable and transferable to other locations,” said Prescott.
The students involved in the replanting project have been enthusiastic about their role.
“They really like seeing the success of the plants they’ve grown, but they also like seeing the practical application of it,” said Pepperd. “This isn’t just your typical garden or farm or flower pot or pretty flowers. This project has really opened their eyes.”
Save the Bay is looking for additional volunteers to continue the marsh grass replanting effort on June 1, 2 and 4. Those who are interested may sign up at

This article first appeared on on May 23, 2018.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The ultimate misidentification

I’m quite used to being awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of the resident barred owls calling back and forth in my backyard in spring.  It’s a soothing call that doesn’t jolt me awake like the neighbor’s dog, and sometimes I can’t even tell whether it’s a dream or reality. But the bird song that woke me earlier this month was a totally different creature.
            It was during the early stages of songbird migration, so almost every morning when I opened the backdoor I welcomed the song of another returning species. American robins and
Wood thrush singing (Blaine Rothauser)
Carolina wrens are often the most noticeable singers because they’re so loud, but at least they usually wait until a hint of sunlight is peaking above the horizon before they begin making a racket.
            The bird that woke me that morning did so at 4 o’clock.  And as unhappy as I was to have my sleep disturbed, I also felt a tad giddy in my semi-consciousness.  That’s because the song sounded like that of a wood thrush.  Not only would it have been my first wood thrush of the year, but it’s also one of my favorite birds and a contender for the most beautiful song-maker in the entire avian world.
            I waited a moment for the bird to sing again so I could confirm its identification. A birder’s reputation is built largely on the ability to accurately identify species, so I wanted to be certain. And when at last the bird let loose with its rolling, flute-like melody, I was convinced I was correct and mentally placed a check-mark next to its name on my bird list. 
While I’ve heard plenty of wood thrushes singing in the past, seeing them well is another story.  They are common here in Rhode Island, and their songs emanate ubiquitously from almost every wood lot in late spring. But they tend to arrive right about the time that the leaves on the trees emerge, and they usually perch just deep enough in the forest to remain out of sight.  Sometimes it’s quite frustrating to hear one singing right in front of me and yet still be unable to see it.
Lying in bed that morning, however, I had no intention of trying to see that particular bird.  After all, it was still totally dark outside, and I was hoping for another couple hours of sleep.  So I waited to hear it sing one more time before sinking back to sleep.
But when it sang again, something didn’t sound quite right.  I couldn’t imagine that I misidentified it, given how its song is so distinctive.  So again I paused for one more song.  I even lifted my head from my pillow for a few seconds to be sure I heard it right. 
Just as I did, the song wafted my way once again.  And it wasn’t a wood thrush. In fact, it wasn’t even a bird.  Nor was it outside my window.  The beautiful, flute-like song I enjoyed so much for a few rapturous, semi-conscious minutes came from my wife lying beside me.  More precisely, it came from my wife’s nose.  It was whistling.
And as I lay my head back down on my pillow and mentally erased the check mark next to “wood thrush” on my 2018 bird list, I told myself to never ever tell my birding friends about the ultimate misidentification.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on May 21, 2018.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Rotten luck

            Most microorganisms that digest and recycle woody material do so by producing enzymes in their cells that accelerate chemical reactions to break down various molecular compounds. Brown rot fungi, the most common decay fungi in North America, use a different system that was just discovered by a researcher at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And the process has the potential for use as a tool to convert biomass to other useful purposes.
            According to Barry Goodell, a professor of microbiology, there are thousands of species of decaying fungi, about six percent of which are brown rot species.
            “Brown rot fungi are everywhere. You probably breath in their spores and fungal fragments continuously, even in your home,” he said. “If you look at your front porch and it has decay in it, it was probably caused by brown rot. It causes wood to become brown and crumbly when it’s dry, and in advanced stages you can get cubes of wood that pop right out.”
            Early in his career, Goodell discovered that brown rots produce few enzymes when breaking down wood, and they produce none of the enzymes required to break down lignens. Instead, they use what Goodell calls a “chelator-mediated Fenton system,” a process that makes use of hydrogen peroxide, which is also generated by the fungi, and iron found in the environment. Chelators are organic compounds that bind metal ions and, in this case, generate hydroxyl radicals to break down wood and produce simple building-block chemicals.
            “Because of their efficiency in degrading wood, brown rot fungi have come to dominate, particularly in degrading softwoods,” Goodell said. They recycle approximately 80 percent of the softwood biomass carbon in the world.
            Since brown rot fungi evolved from ancient white rot fungi and much later than most other decay-producing organisms, Goodell considers the process used by brown rot fungi to be “an advanced system” and “the most efficient way of degrading wood.” He believes biorefineries should use the process to convert biomass into energy, bioplastics and other products.
            “In a bio-based economy, instead of getting products from oil, we get them from biomass,” he said. “But to make those products, we have to first break down the wood, and doing so using enzymes is probably the wrong way to think about it. Fungi have had 400 million years to think about the best way to break down wood, and they figured out this chelator-mediated system is the most efficient way.”
            Goodell is conducting laboratory studies to begin to identify products that could be created from materials degraded via the system. He has converted lignen degraded by brown rot fungi into glues that are just as good as the resins used in plywood. And he has taken compounds produced from cellulose and made them into bioplastics.
“Fungi take months to degrade wood, but we’ve been able to take the chemicals they produce and in a few hours get 75 percent degradation,” he said. “Getting industry to adopt the process will take some time, though.”

This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Cankers caused by climate

A native fungal pathogen that was once considered relatively harmless has become increasingly damaging to Eastern white pines since the late 1990s, and it appears to be most severe in stressed, weakened trees. Researchers from the University of Maine said that serious damage from the pathogen, Caliciopsis pinea, was first noticed in central New Hampshire, and it is now having a noticeable effect on New England’s forest products industry.
William Livingston, associate director of the UMaine School of Forest Resources, and doctoral student Kara Costanza have been studying how the pathogen affects trees and how severely the trees are impacted. They have also attempted to quantify the damage. After
Canker photo by Kara Costanza
processing 60 white pines from southern New Hampshire and southwestern Maine for lumber, they found 48 percent were infected with the pathogen, and it resulted in a lower grade or value in about 13 percent of the lumber.
By correlating the presence of Caliciopsis cankers with the year when the infections occurred, the researchers determined that climate extremes like drought or significant precipitation events predispose trees to increased damage. They said the pathogen also causes more damage on trees growing in extremely dense stands or in poor soils.
“Dry summers are definitely associated with a lot of canker initiation,” Livingston said. “At one site where we found the worst cankers, it wasn’t drought but when a hurricane came through that corresponded with the onset. Whatever adversely affects the roots seems to do it.”
Trees with the pathogen show considerable stem damage, as the fungus works its way into the bark and kills the cambium.
“White pines produce a resin in reaction to the pathogen, indicating something is killing the tissue inside the tree,” explained Livingston. “We’re finding the fungus is associated with the resin.” A U.S. Forest Service survey of white pines in New Hampshire found 70 percent of stands showed symptoms of stem resin.
A small insect called the white pine bast scale has also been implicated. It feeds on tree stems, which may provide the fungus with access into the trees.
To avoid tree damage from the pathogen, the researchers recommend low density management of white pines. Wider spacing of trees appears to reduce the risk of fungal damage.
“This is not a threat to the supply of white pine, but if you don’t manage your stands, you’re going to have less wood and less quality stands,” Livingston said. “The more the stands can be managed, the less risk you’ll have of damage during dry years or when other stresses hit the trees. Thinning may not stop the fungus, but it definitely decreases the size of the canker.”
The researchers plan to continue monitoring tree damage over time to see if managed stands have fewer problems associated with the pathogen. “We’ve gone through a couple of dry summers, so according to our hypothesis, we should see an uptick of problems,” concluded Livingston. “Our next step is to see if, as we get more extremes in climate, are these problems with white pines going to increase.”

This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tree kangaroos, hornbills and otters, oh my!

“A lot of cleaning, and then some more cleaning.” That’s how Christine Goodrow describes her job as a zookeeper at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence. But cleaning and caring for giraffes, elephants, tree kangaroos and river otters, among many other species, is never boring. And when the cleaning and feeding is finished, she enjoys spending time observing the animals, making sure their needs are met, looking for hints of an illness, and ensuring that their interactions with the other animals in their exhibit are positive. A resident of Middletown and Newport for 17 years before moving to Jamestown last fall, Goodrow, 49, started working at the zoo after a brief career in finance. Like the frogs she sometimes cares for, she said she’s glad she took the leap.

Which animals do you care for?
I like to work in all different areas. I fill in as needed. But today I’m responsible for Matschie’s tree kangaroo, Bali myna, fruit doves, tawny frogmouth, kookaburra, wrinkled hornbills, river otters, and bintarong, which they call a bear cat.

What do you feed them?
The otters are carnivores, so they eat fish and meat. They’re fed four times a day minimum. Some of that is for nutrition, but it’s also to see their interest level in the food. A lack of interest would show me that something was off. Most of the animals get some form of a pellet that’s a complete nutrient, and then they get added items like fresh vegetables. I usually save their favorite food items for training, and it might be provided in a puzzle feeder so they have to work to get their food.

What do you train them to do?
Generally, there’s crate training for all of them. If they need to take a trip to the hospital for an illness or an injury, we want it to be an easy normal part of their routine to get in and out of a crate for transport. It reduces the need for sedation. Some animals are trained to present themselves for feather trims for their wings, to trim their nails, to get on a scale. It’s always need-based training, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. As long as the work gets done, then we can put the fun element into it once they’re secure in that behavior. I toss fruit to my hornbill, for instance, but originally they thought I was throwing it at them. It took them awhile to get used to the game of playing catch. And the old hornbill used to toss things back. He was a good boy.

Do you have a favorite animal?
Birds, in general, are my major fascination, and wrinkled hornbills in particular. They’re monogamous. The female will find or create a hollowed-out cavern in a tree for her nest site, and she’ll use mud, food or feces to wall herself in, leaving just a slot big enough for her mate to fit his beak through. Then she is 100 percent dependent upon him for nutrition while she sits on her eggs. And once they hatch, his offspring are also entirely dependent on the male. I like the dedication they have to each other, the level of teamwork they have to create their nest.

You’re working today in the World of Adaptation exhibit. What kind of adaptations are highlighted there?
Every animal has special adaptations that it needs to survive. The otters have webbed feet and can stay under water for eight minutes. The hornbills have a beak and for noisemaking that is very specific to hornbills. Their style of breeding to protect their nest and eggs to keep them secret is another adaptation.

What’s happening during the month of May with the animals you work with?
Our new male wrinkled hornbill will be out of quarantine and placed in a room next to our female – we call it a howdy – so they can become acclimated. And then they’ll be placed together and begin to bond as a breeding pair. We’re bringing in a female binturong that will be placed beside our male and then placed together for potential breeding. We’ll know at the end of May or early June whether our tree kangaroos will be giving birth. And our three baby otters will be on exhibit as a family unit.

You sound so proud of the animals you care for, almost like you’re their parent.
There’s definitely a level of pride that comes with it. I want to showcase their amazing abilities. The same feeling that parents have when their child takes their first step or they take a gymnastics class and they do this really-not-so-great cartwheel. The level of pride I feel for my animals is similar to that. It’s the greatest feeling to have them showcased, have them learn a new behavior. No matter how awkward it is that they’ve accomplished a task, I’m proud of them. They’re really not mine, not my pets, they’re not here for entertainment in that respect, but they shine, and I want people to enjoy it or see it or experience it. I want people to know how amazing they really are.

What do you like best about your job?
This institution allows the keeper staff to have freedom, and that could be freedom to change what animals you work with, freedom to be creative in the training process. They have a lot of belief that we can manage what’s best for each animal, and that’s hard to find. It’s really a plus here that they have faith that your abilities, your energy, your efforts and your knowledge can create something that works for the animals.

Why did you decide to pursue a career at the zoo?
The minute I walked through the gates, I felt like I was home. There’s a real innocence to interacting with the animals. It’s pure. They have no motive. If you get the opportunity to interact with them on their level, to meet their needs – even if that means keeping your distance – it’s so fulfilling. You’re peeking into their behaviors and their world, and it’s calming and fascinating and genuine.

What message do you want the zoo’s visitors to take home with them?
Certainly that the animals are well cared for. But also that there is a higher goal to what we’re doing. They should do more than just stop for 30 seconds, look at the animal, and move on. If you just take a little extra time, you’ll see some of the highlights and the spark that they give.

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on May 16, 2018.