Friday, September 8, 2017

Tough year for piping plover chicks at Rhode Island beaches

            Rhode Island’s population of piping plovers – the rare, sand-colored shorebird that breeds primarily on ocean-facing beaches – has grown significantly since it hit an all-time low of fewer than 20 pairs in the early 1980s. But 2017 was a bad year for the birds. The spring rains and a continuing battle with predators caused a decline in the number of chicks the plovers produced.
            According to Jennifer White, the biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who monitors the plover population, the statewide breeding population is about 100 pairs, though
the population fluctuates each year as some birds move back and forth to beaches in Massachusetts and Connecticut, depending on changing beach conditions.
            On South County beaches, where most of the birds’ breed, White counted 73 pairs of piping plovers this summer, mostly at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown, Quonochontaug Beach in Charlestown, and East Beach in Westerly. Another 23 pairs nested in Little Compton at Goosewing Beach Preserve, Briggs Beach and Fogland Marsh Preserve. In addition, one pair nested at Third Beach in Middletown.
            White said that each nest, on average, produced just .68 chicks, well below the 1.25 needed to maintain a stable population and far below the 1.62 chicks produced last year. The one bright spot was at Ninigret Conservation Area, where seven pairs of plovers produced an average of 2.29 chicks per nest.
            “Productivity this year was very very low, we think because of a lot of predators, both avian and mammalian,” she said, noting that crows, gulls, foxes and coyotes are the primary predators on plover eggs and chicks. “At some sites, we saw canine footprints that went from nest to nest.”
            The chilly, wet spring also caused many nests to fail.
            “We had a lot of nest failures right after the chicks hatched because of the rain,” White said. “The chicks can forage as soon as they hatch, but they can’t thermoregulate, so they still rely on their parents to keep them warm and dry. We had a lot of young chicks under five days old when we had rain all day, and we lost those broods.”
            Staff and volunteers from The Nature Conservancy monitor the piping plovers on Little Compton beaches. Tim Mooney, the Conservancy’s director of communication, said those beaches faced similar declines in chick productivity.
            “I’m struck by how many things really have to go right for the plovers to fledge chicks,” he said. “The habitat conditions have to be right, the tides, storms, predators. It really demonstrates how difficult it can be to bring a species back to healthy self-sustaining numbers.”
            Mooney and White also noted that the abundant human beach-goers can also be a factor in the success or failure of piping plover nests, though the beaches that attract the most human visitors seldom have any plovers attempting to nest.
            “It’s a perennial issue,” Mooney said. “Every day there is potential for user conflict, and we do our best to work with the visitors and the community to manage that threat.”
            The Nature Conservancy and the Fish and Wildlife Service conduct daily patrols of the beaches where the plovers nest, rope off nesting areas, and place mesh “exclosures” around nests to keep predators at bay while allowing the birds free access to and from their nest. They also keep daily records of how many plovers are nesting at each beach, how many eggs are laid, and how many chicks survive to fledge.
            “This was a rough year, but we know our management activities helped the birds,” White said. “But we still have a lot of work to do to make sure people follow beach guidelines and are aware of the birds, keep their dogs leashed, and carry out their food, which attracts predators to the beach.”
                Mooney said that an important part of The Nature Conservancy’s monitoring efforts is pointing out the plovers to beach visitors so they can develop an appreciation for the birds.
            “Once you’ve looked through a scope and seen a chick run across the beach, you can’t help but want to do something to help them,” he said. “That’s the job of our education folks – getting more eyes behind that scope.”
            Piping plovers are categorized as threatened on the federal Endangered Species List. They breed on Atlantic coastal beaches from Newfoundland to North Carolina. (A separate population breeds in the Great Lakes region.) To be removed from the list, they must achieve a chick productivity rate of 1.5 per pair for five consecutive years and maintain a breeding population of 2,000 pairs.
            “We’re committed to plover restoration in Rhode Island, but we’re just one spot in the range of these birds,” Mooney said. “The whole North Atlantic population would have to achieve that level of chick productivity to be delisted, so while individual sites may reach that target here and there, I don’t think we’re close to seeing the whole region reach it.”
This article first appeared on on September 6, 2017.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Wet spring blamed for Rhode Island butterfly decline

            Monarch butterflies have continued their resurgence in Rhode Island this year after a global decline in 2013, but overall populations of butterflies in the state appear to be declining slightly.
            “The biggest factor this year was probably the long, wet spring we had,” said Marty Wencek, a biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and an avid butterfly observer for 55 years. “The wet weather can suppress the population when you have a lot of butterflies wintering as pupa and a lot of small caterpillars. Just like the gypsy moths got whacked by the wet weather, it can also affect other species.”
            As if to emphasize the point, the first day of a two-day, statewide butterfly survey sponsored by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island was nearly rained out this year, resulting in fewer surveyors spending fewer hours searching for and counting fewer butterflies.
            According to Jon Scoones, who coordinated the survey, 1,454 butterflies of 52 species were identified – a similar number of species but half of the individual totals of past years. And
yet there were still several notable highlights. Numbers of the tiny Dun skipper, for instance, doubled compared to last year, while the even tinier sachem went from one in 2016 to 105 this year, almost all in Newport County.
            Monarchs, which Scoones said “everyone uses as a litmus test,” increased from 29 to 134, mostly in the West Bay. Butterfly enthusiasts around the state have posted numerous photos on social media of monarch eggs, caterpillars and adults in recent weeks, many with messages claiming to feel a sense of relief that the butterflies appear to have rebounded.
            On the other hand, survey results found the very common cabbage white to have declined from 638 to 243 and the popular pearl crescent dropped from 374 individuals to 78.
            Of particular note, Scoones said, is that the number of variegated fritillaries, a southern species found fairly rarely in the state, increased this year, especially in the Big River area.
            “I was heartened to see that the variegated fritillaries are coming up here, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or bad,” he said. “It’s nice to know that we’re having more butterflies in our area, but should it even be up here? I’m not sure. It might be here because of climate change.”
            That may be the reason for increased sightings of other southern species as well, including Zabulon skipper and red-banded hairstreak.
            “They don’t really belong here, but everything from the south is trending in our direction,” said Wencek. “Why? Because it’s warmer.”
            Some southern species are not accustomed to the cold of southern New England, however, and they become scarce following severe winters, like occurred in 2013. But others appear able to survive.
            “A lot of factors affect butterflies,” Wencek said. “I always point to the wet spring when numbers are down, but I know there’s more to it than that, like habitat loss and pesticide use. Those are major factors, too.”
            One thing Wencek and Scoones said that almost anyone can do to boost butterfly populations is to plant native flowers from which the adult insects can sip nectar, and plant the specific host plant that each species requires during its caterpillar stage.
            “It definitely works,” Wencek said. “I planted hops, and it brought in question marks. I put in pipevine and we got a pipevine swallowtail laying eggs. You want black swallowtail? Plant parsley.
            “These bugs are dependent on the host plant, so if climate change hinders that plant’s ability to thrive, it will hinder the ability of that butterfly to survive,” he added.
            While butterfly numbers appear to fluctuate widely from year to year, Wencek has observed a slight decline in overall numbers in recent years. It is especially noticeable with the very common species, which he said are still common but he is noticing fewer of them.
            Looking to the future, he said that Rhode Islanders should expect to see more and more butterfly species from the South making the Ocean State their summer home.
            “Every year starting about now, we start getting exotic southern butterflies that fly  north until they die, which is an interesting phenomenon,” he said. “We’ll start seeing more of those in the future. Some years you might not see a ton of them, but expect it to be a more common occurrence.”

This article first appeared on on August 24, 2017.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A bird in the hand

When Newport police officer Jack Billings was a young boy in Utah, he watched as a great horned owl landed on a utility pole near where his father was barbecuing. When Billings put on a leather glove and held a piece of meat out to the owl, the bird flew to his glove. That bird had
Falconer Jack Billings (photo by Mike Salerno)
escaped from a local falconer, and that moment was the beginning of Billings’ passion for falconry. Today the Exeter resident, 39, is one of just two master falconers in Rhode Island. Every year he captures and trains a wild hawk to hunt for squirrels and rabbits and return to his hand without losing its wildness. “As comfortable as you get with them,” he said, “they’re always wild animals, and it’s up to you to treat them with respect and treat them as wild animals.”

Q: How do you describe what falconry is all about?
A: Falconry is just a really intense form of bird watching. It is the opportunity to observe life at its most primal and basic level – the relationship between predator and prey. The bird works with you in the pursuit of quarry, but the majority of the workload falls on the bird. It gives you the opportunity to see what goes on around us every day, but at a more personal and intimate level.

Q: How does one become a falconer?
A: The regulations in Rhode Island are pretty strict, and that is very much intentional because the amount of work and care and understanding required to successfully fly and maintain these birds at an optimal level is amazing. There is a two-year apprenticeship that’s required under a general or master class falconer. Prior to the apprenticeship, you’re required to take a state examination that covers everything from housing, feeding, and equipment, all the way up through general raptor biomedicine. After you pass the test, there is also a facilities inspection required. The bird has to have access to an outdoor facility called a mews, which is like a custom aviary, so the inspection ensures that your mews meets the requirements of the state regulations.

Q: Tell us about the birds you hunt with.
A: I’m a big fan of our native eastern red-tailed hawks. They are very good at catching all kinds of quarry. Squirrels and rabbits make for great sport for them. Every year I trap and train a new bird, and each bird has a very different personality.

Q: How do you trap them?
A: There are many ways to do it. My preferred way is with a bal-chatri, a domed cage usually made out of some hard wire mesh. You tie monofilament fishing line nooses on top of it, and you place a bait animal – a mouse, a starling – inside the bait cage. Once you identify an immature hawk you want, you deploy the trap. The hope is that the bird sees the bait animal, comes down to grab it, and in the process of landing on the cage gets tangled in the nooses, at which point you extricate the bird and begin your training.

Q: If you’re trapping a new bird every year, what do you do with your previous bird?
A: Because they’re always wild, the old bird gets released right back into the wild. I’ve seen birds that I’ve released in the same areas years later.

Q: What’s involved in training them?
A: The basic premise of training a falconry bird is time equals influence. The more time you spend with them, showing them that you’re not going to hurt them, they start to come around and you start to build a trust. As soon as they’re brought home, I like to go down into a quiet darkened room with no stimulus, and I put the bird on the glove with leather anklets and jesses on, and I just try to get it to sit on the glove and gain that trust. The aim is to get the hawk to eat off the glove. When that happens, it’s almost like a switch has gone off. Everything changes. The bird has identified you as not being so much of a threat. From that point on, the training proceeds pretty rapidly. The next day, maybe you put it on the back of a chair, then hold the garnished glove six inches away, and all you’re asking her to do is step forward and she can eat. A bird that will step will hop; a bird that will hop will fly five feet; a bird that will fly five feet will fly 20 yards. Once you gain field control while the bird is tethered and will react to your cue and reward, then it’s time to unclip the bird and begin hunting.

Q: What’s it like to take a hawk hunting?
A: Clearly, these animals know what they’re doing. It’s ingrained in their being. It’s just up to you to introduce them into a game-rich environment, and through walking around and flushing squirrels or rabbits for them, present them with the opportunity to pursue game. You can learn a lot by watching the bird. They’ll tell you what’s going on in the woodlot or the briar patch. The most successful falconers I know are able to interpret what that bird is doing and react accordingly. A bird that’s looking intently at one spot and starts bobbing its head left and right has spotted something they’re interested in catching, and they’re triangulating and determining exactly how far away that prey item is and how much energy it’s going to take to get there. So by interpreting that behavior correctly, you can move into position and offer a flush. And once the animal flushes, the hawk engages.

Q: What do you enjoy most about falconry?
A: It’s simply being witness to that predator-prey relationship, the very basic premise of life, and being able to observe nature on a level that most people only read about in books. These birds are very intelligent, and they ask a lot of you. Falconers, at best, are the dog to these animals; we’re the flushing utensil. They are in control of the show, and you’re there to provide a little assistance.

Q: Sounds like falconry is a huge commitment.
A: It is a huge commitment. My first divorce was a result of falconry. It’s not like having a dog that you can bring to the kennel when you’re on vacation. A falcon isn’t something you can just walk away from.

Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a falconer?
A: Far too often you see people who are interested in an activity, but when they become engaged in the activity, they form that activity around their life. This doesn’t work like that. Raptors are hunting machines, that’s what they were built to do, that’s what they want to do, and anything short of that you’re doing a disservice to the animal. So if you’re thinking about falconry, think about whether you can modify your life around that bird, not the other way around. It will never work the other way.

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on August 23, 2017.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Tangled up and blue

            Nearly every week, the media reports on another whale becoming entangled in fishing gear. Many of those animals drag the ropes and buoys and other equipment for months or years before they die from exhaustion or starvation or from the resulting injuries. Entanglement is the leading cause of death for one of the rarest whales on earth, the North Atlantic right whale, which travels from Florida and Georgia to New England to feed every winter and spring.
            But whales aren’t the only animals that become entangled and suffer and die. It happens many times every day to birds, mammals, turtles and other creatures as well. And most of these entanglements are entirely unnecessary.
            A birdwatching friend posted a picture on Facebook last month of a gull-like bird called a common tern she saw at a beach in Charlestown that had the string from a balloon wrapped
around its neck. While the bird was still able to fly, it was obviously uncomfortable as it struggled to free itself, and it had great difficulty catching food. It was an incredibly sad sight, and the bird wasn’t likely to last long in that condition.
            No one who releases helium balloons – whether in celebration or by mistake – intends to harm wildlife, but that is often the result. Every one of those balloons is going to come down somewhere and, at best, become entangled in trees or land somewhere to eventually be collected and thrown out with the garbage. More likely, balloons released from Rhode Island will fall into the ocean where they will be mistaken for jellyfish and eaten by sea turtles or other marine life. Or their strings will entangle any number of other creatures, as happened to a young owl last spring in Narragansett.
            But balloons are only one entanglement hazard that wildlife face. There are plenty more. The Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island in North Kingstown, which treats injured animals, cares for numerous entangled creatures every year, most caused by monofilament fishing line disposed of improperly.
Clinic volunteers, for instance, rescued a crow in Portsmouth that was tethered to a tree by a snarl of fishing line and an eider duck they described as so completely entangled that the animal was “essentially a big ball of fishing line.” They also recently cared for three painted turtles, an osprey, three ducks – including one hanging from a tree – and several gulls and cormorants, all ensnared in monofilament line. Last year, a Canada goose had fishing line wrapped around its legs so tightly that it required weeks of care and treatment before it recovered enough to be released back into the wild.
“The sheer number of animals that are killed or injured as a result of human garbage is astronomical,” said Arianna Mouradjian, director of the clinic. “It’s a problem that, while quite large, is absolutely fixable.”
Discarded fishing line is doubly dangerous to animals because of the hooks that are often still attached. Most of the wildlife the clinic disentangles from fishing line must also have fish hooks removed from their flesh.
So the next time you want to celebrate an occasion by releasing balloons into the air – or you carelessly discard fishing line – remember that your seemingly innocuous act is likely to cause unnecessary suffering to wildlife near and far. They are behaviors worth reconsidering. 

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on August 19, 2017.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Monarchs are back

            Johanna Vietry visits the dinghy planters installed along the Newport Harbor Walk every day with one thing in mind: monarch butterflies. The president of Friends of the Waterfront and a URI master gardener, she is hoping that the nation’s best-known butterfly will show off its black-and-orange colors and sip nectar from the abundant blooming flowers in the planters.
            “There wasn’t any vegetation to encourage monarchs to visit the waterfront until we planted native plants there,” Vietry said. “Now I’m checking my monarch boats every day, and I keep seeing them.”
            She isn’t the only one. Monarch numbers appear to be on the rise after their global population crashed in 2013 due to what some experts say was a combination of illegal logging
Monarch butterfly on thistle (Dave Hansen)
in the Mexican forests where they overwinter, changing climate patterns, and declines in milkweed plants on which the butterfly caterpillars feed.
            Mark Pagliarini, an environmental educator at the Norman Bird Sanctuary who describes himself as “a bug enthusiast,” conducts regular butterfly surveys of the area and pays attention to national butterfly trends. He said this year has been an especially good one for monarchs.
            “On and off Aquidneck Island, and in the U.S. as a whole, there is a noticeable increase in monarch activity,” he said. “On the island, there are definitely more monarch individuals around, and I’ve seen plenty of eggs and lots of monarch caterpillars.”
            Marty Wencek agrees that monarch numbers are up this year, but he isn’t ready to say that the insects have recovered from their population decline yet. A biologist at the R.I. Department of Environmental Management and an avid butterfly observer for 55 years, he remembers the years when he would see hundreds of monarchs in a day along the coast in the fall. He is worried that pesticide use and continued development of the fields where they feed and breed will keep monarch populations low.
Wencek also said that monarchs are particularly affected by the spreading of black swallow-wort, an invasive vine that kills any monarch caterpillars that eat its leaves.
            What their abundance this year means for the future is uncertain, however, because monarch populations naturally rise and fall with regularity.
            “Populations do fluctuate as a matter of course, but it always makes one get a sincere feeling of concern when such an event occurs, and a feeling of relief when they thankfully rebound,” Wencek said.
            Monarchs in the Northeast engage in a four-generation migration each year. They depart in the fall on a 3,000-mile migration to Mexico to hibernate in oyamel fir trees. In March, they head back north stopping along the way to lay their eggs. When those eggs hatch and the caterpillars become butterflies, the new generation continues the migration, arriving in the Northeast in July, whereupon they lay their eggs and die. One generation later the cycle begins again.
            According to David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, research suggests that many monarchs from the Northeast may get delayed or even stuck in the Southeast during migration and never make it to Mexico.
            “So it may be that Rhode Island and the rest of the Northeast is sort of a monarch population sink,” he said.
            On the other hand, Gregg added, “with climate change, things could change. One possibility is that with slightly milder temperatures in the Southeast, perhaps those dead-end monarchs from the East Coast will develop into a full-blown over-wintering population. That's just speculation at this point, but it shows how much things could change with climate change.”
            Because monarch caterpillars rely on milkweed, many conservation efforts in recent years have focused on encouraging people to plant native milkweed wherever possible. And if the growing numbers of monarchs in the area are any indication, it seems to be working.
But Gregg and Pagliarini said that it may be even more important to plant native flowers from which adult monarchs can feed.
            “The availability of suitable nectar sources towards the end of the season” is especially important, Gregg said. “The implication for us in Rhode Island is that we should be concentrating at least as much energy on planting goldenrods, asters, and joe-pye weeds, especially along the coast, as we do on planting milkweed patches. This would also be among the most important things we could do for pollinators generally, so it really is a great place to put our effort.”
Pagliarini said that those looking to observe and photograph monarchs on Aquidneck Island should consider visiting Norman Bird Sanctuary, where he is helping create a pollinator field to attract butterflies, Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, and Brenton Point.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Living on the edge

            As regions grow in human population, forests become more and more fragmented when trees are cut down to make way for roads, housing developments and shopping centers.  Most of the previous research on forest fragmentation has examined its negative effects on wildlife and biodiversity. But two Boston University researchers recently investigated the effect of fragmentation on carbon storage and found some surprisingly positive news.
            Associate Professor Lucy Hutyra and former BU post-doctoral researcher Andrew Reinmann, now an assistant professor at the City University of New York, discovered that trees at the edge of a forest in southern New England grow faster and absorb more carbon than those
Lucy Hutra and Andrew Reinman
in the interior. “When you create that edge, you essentially are reducing competition and freeing up more resources like light, water and nutrients for trees,” he said, noting that the effect extends about 20 meters in from the forest edge. (Curiously, researchers have found the opposite to be true in the Amazon rain forest.)
            This finding was the result of studying 21 fragmented forest plots dominated by red oaks in greater Boston. The researchers mapped every tree over 5 centimeters in diameter and collected cores from 210 trees at least 10 centimeters in diameter to get an estimate of the biomass of the forest and how it changes from the edge to the interior.
            Reinmann said this result is not a justification for further fragmenting the forested landscape. “When you fragment a forest, the remaining forest can offset a little bit of what was lost, but not completely,” he said. “So fragmentation may not be as terrible from a carbon perspective as we thought, but it is still bad.”
            The results of his research weren’t all positive, however. The cores he collected also revealed that trees on the edge of a forest grow more slowly when they are stressed by heat – and as the climate changes and temperatures rise, heat stress is likely to increase as well.
            The researchers defined heat stress as the number of days the forest was exposed to temperatures above 27 degrees Celsius in June and July, the months when most wood is produced. “That’s the average high temperature in July in the Boston area, so that’s the temperature the trees are used to growing in,” Reinmann said. “Any higher than that and we saw a decline in growth.”
            That decline was most pronounced at the edge of the forest, where growth declined from heat stress three times faster than in the interior. “The forest edge is typically hotter than the interior,” he added, “so you would expect heat stress to be magnified at the edge because the trees aren’t buffered as the interior trees are.”
            Based on the results of this study, Reinmann believes that climate models that calculate carbon storage in southern New England are likely underestimating how much carbon is being removed from the atmosphere, because they are not including the positive edge effect. But as temperatures increase, that positive carbon benefit may decline significantly.

This article first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Backyard bee bonanza

            Lawns cover 163,000 square kilometers of the United States, making grass the largest irrigated crop in the country. As much as ecologists consider them biological deserts that Americans should be encouraged to eliminate from their properties, it is unlikely lawn cover will decline any time soon.
            So urban ecologist Susannah Lerman at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Amherst, Mass., decided to figure out how to make lawns “less bad” by examining how lawns could serve to provide habitat to declining populations of bees.
            “While not everybody uses herbicides on their lawn, the thing almost everybody does is mow,” Lerman said. “We wondered if there were ways we can tweak this behavior to make it less bad for bees. You see a lot of dandelions and clovers growing spontaneously. Do these plants have ecological value as bee habitat?”
            In an assessment of the natural history of 16 suburban lawns in Springfield, Mass., she found that lawns that were not treated with herbicides or pesticides yielded an unexpectedly rich abundance of bee species and an equally impressive variety of what Lerman calls “spontaneous flowers” – those that are not intentionally planted but which provide nectar and pollen to bees and other pollinators.
            After visiting each yard 12 times over two years, she was surprised to discover 64 flowering plant species spontaneously growing in the lawns, including violets, creeping Charlie, hairy rockcress, purple smartweed and dwarf cinquefoil. “You go into these yards and at first glance it looks like there’s nothing there,” she said. “But then you start looking and there’s a lot more in there than you think.”
            Even more surprising, Lerman and colleague Joan Milan identified 111 different species of bees on the properties. “It was astonishing!” she said. “We recorded a quarter of all the bee species ever found in Massachusetts on these 16 suburban lawns. One yard had 53 species of bee.” Strangely enough, the most abundant species was a type of sweat bee not recorded in the state since the 1920s.
            Lerman’s study also found that bees were most abundant on lawns mowed every two weeks, compared to those mowed weekly or every three weeks.
            “Clearly there is value in these landscapes for habitat conservation,” Lerman said. “Private yards shouldn’t be ignored when thinking about conservation.”
            To improve habitat for bees and other pollinators, she said that homeowners should consider reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides on their lawns, plant a meadow or pollinator garden if possible, and encourage the growth of spontaneous plants in their lawn.
            The latter suggestion may be difficult for some people to follow, Lerman said. “Most people look at dandelions and clovers and see them as weeds. We need to change their perceptions and show that those plants are really providing wildlife habitat.
            “And if you mow less often, you’ll have more lawn flowers and more bees,” she added. “It’s a way to do less but feel like you’re making a difference even though you didn’t spend any extra time or money.”

This article first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Northern Woodlands magazine.