Monday, February 18, 2019

Trail cam provides unexpected wildlife insights

            Few of us probably spend as much time as we would like enjoying the outdoors. We just have too many other responsibilities – work, chores, meal prep, family time – to make extra time for relaxing and observing the natural world around us.
I likely spend more time than most staring out the back window at the trees and lawn and bird feeders – more time than I care to admit – and still I wish I could do it more. Because for every minute I’m not watching, there is probably an animal doing something interesting that I’m missing.
That’s why I was especially excited to receive a motion-activated trail camera for Christmas a couple years ago. It allows me to document the comings and goings of wildlife when I’m not paying attention to those activities myself. And the images the camera provides are insightful.
            For instance, deer are much more abundant in my area than I ever imagined. I typically see a deer or two wandering the woods and fields along my road about every other month, and
yet my camera detects deer strolling through the forest behind my house almost daily. And it’s not always the same animal, either. I’ve had pictures of six-point bucks, speckled fawns, groups of three and four antlerless deer, and one unique individual with a distinctive mark on its rump.
            The photos aren’t exactly magazine quality images, however. More often than not they just show a deer’s backside as it walks away from the camera, or a close-up of an ear or nose as the animal investigates the camera. Once, though, it captured a late-night shot of a deer on its hind legs, apparently trying to nibble on some leaves over its head.
            The camera often captures images of other forest dwellers as well. Fishers are apparently regular visitors to my yard, as are coyotes, raccoons and red and gray foxes. I almost never see those animals except as images on the trail cam.  
Most often, the pictures show one of these creatures dashing across the path where I’ve set up the camera, but sometimes they’re doing something more interesting. They occasionally seem to pause and stare right into the camera, as if they’re posing. Or they’re sitting down and scratching an itch or chewing on a morsel they’ve just discovered.
The most fun images are those that I can’t quite figure out at first glance. They test my identification skills when all that’s visible is a distant furry blob or a tail just disappearing from view.
Fast moving animals are especially challenging, because they often just look like a digital blur. Is that night-time image – showing a long streak that appears to be well-above ground level – an owl or a flying squirrel? Or maybe it’s just a falling branch. Is that hazy long-tailed thing a fox or coyote? I enjoy sharing those images with friends on Facebook to help ID the animals.
And then there are the pictures that seem to show nothing at all. Maybe the movement of a leaf or branch triggered the camera. Or maybe some creature is there after all but it’s too well camouflaged for me to see it.
As fun as it is to watch backyard wildlife remotely via a trail cam, the best picture it captured was of an abominable snowman. At least that’s what I call the winter shot of my wife strolling through the woods trying to avoid the camera.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on February 16, 2019.

Friday, February 15, 2019

He caught the natural history bug

            The artifacts scattered around David Gregg’s office provide a good idea of what he does for a living. Among the items are a crayfish preserved in a jar of alcohol, two coyote skulls, numerous large dead moths awaiting identification in a plastic container, framed invasive insects, a deer head hanging on a wall, illustrations of butterflies, and a foot-long, eight-inch diameter tree stump he quizzes visitors to identify. (Spoiler alert: The stump is bittersweet, an invasive vine that apparently grows much larger than most people think it does.)
            Gregg is the executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, and what he calls his “cabinet of curiosities” represents many of the issues, programs and challenges he
David Gregg starting the annual BioBlitz (EcoRI News)
regularly addresses as one of the Ocean State’s leading voices for the study and conservation of Rhode Island’s wildlife and other natural resources.
He describes the Survey as somewhat of a social organization where “people who have been bitten by the bug of natural history” can connect with like-minded individuals.
“There are many ways to discover things about the world around you, but for people who are oriented toward identifying animals and plants and learning about them, the Survey is an excuse to get together,” he said. “And that makes it valuable, because otherwise we would never get together and talk about what we know.”
The group was founded following a 1994 ecological research conference at the University of Rhode Island, when many of those in attendance recognized how productive a gathering it had been and wanted to keep the exchange of information going. Based at URI’s East Farm, the Survey is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a fall conference on “Climate Change and Rhode Island’s Natural History Future” and a monthly citizen science event. This month’s event is a bird census on Feb. 15 as part of the world-wide Great Backyard Bird Count.
Gregg caught the natural history bug – literally – as a young teen in Falmouth, Mass., when he tried to capture a butterfly that had landed on his shoe. He had already been somewhat interested in nature, but that moment led him to start a butterfly collection using a net he made out of cheesecloth.
After collecting as many butterfly species as he could find around town, he switched to moths. “I got all the colorful moths in my collection, and all the rest were brown and I couldn’t make heads or tails of them,” he recalled. “So then I switched to beetles, then to grasshoppers.”
The lure of insects was their endless variety and interesting physiological adaptations, Gregg said.
But he also had a curiosity about archaeology, and when he was considering a career, archaeology eventually won out. He said archaeology “is about discovering a mystery and finding out what it means. I also liked the outdoorsness of it, the expedition aspect, the cadre of people thrown together in remote locations and having to stay focused on what they do. It’s the same thing in natural history.”
 Gregg ended up earning graduate degrees in archaeology at Oxford University and Brown University, then worked at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology before becoming director of the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History.
By then he had rekindled his interest in entomology and joined the board of the Natural History Survey. He accepted the leadership post at the Survey in 2004.
He describes the job is a balancing act between gathering information about rare and invasive species to support conservationists’ need for scientific information – a mission “that doesn’t pay very well,” he noted – and administering complex ecological monitoring projects involving multiple partners and numerous funding agencies.
“The state can build a highway or an airport, but it can’t do a project with six funders and lots of partners,” Gregg said. “We can do that.”
For instance, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management used federal funds to hire the Natural History Survey to implement a project to assess the health of salt marshes and freshwater wetlands around the state. The Survey is also leading a coyote ecology research project with numerous partners and funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“These are the kind of projects that wouldn’t get done unless we did them,” said Gregg. “These are the projects that are every other organization’s fourth priority.”
Along the way, Gregg still finds time for insects. He has shifted his attention in the last two years to ants as a leader of a statewide effort to document all of the species of ants found in Rhode Island.
“I’ve been working on moths since I was 14, and I think I have a better understanding of ants after two years than I do of moths after 40,” he said.
In the coming year or two, Gregg’s focus at the Natural History Survey will be on the establishment of a new database of everything known about the biodiversity of Rhode Island, preparing an updated publication of the state’s vascular plants, and ensuring the group’s finances are stable.
But his favorite activity is the Survey’s annual Bioblitz, which brings together as many as 200 biologists, naturalists and volunteers for a 24-hour period to document every living organism at a particular property. This year’s event is a return to Roger Williams Park, where the first Bioblitz was held 20 years ago.
“Bioblitz is an expedition to discover things in a particular place, and you bring together people with all of the different skills and talents you need to look at all of the different aspects,” he explained. “But they’re not just random people. They’re really nice people having a great time because this is what they love. Bioblitz is social – it’s not just science – and that’s the key. You get to meet people that can show you the cool things you don’t notice the rest of the year.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on February 15, 2019.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Hawks increasingly feed on birds at backyard feeders

            For at least two decades, many people who provide seed to feed the songbirds in their backyard have provided anecdotal evidence of an increase in the number of bird-eating hawks that visit their feeders. Now, an analysis of 21 years of data collected by Cornell University has confirmed those observations by noting that Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks – which prey primarily on songbirds – have been colonizing urban and suburban areas during winter due to the availability of prey at bird feeders.
            According to Jennifer McCabe, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, whose study focused on birds in the Chicago area, many hawk species had declined
Cooper's Hawk (stock)
significantly by the middle of the 20th century because of hunting and pesticide use. Populations of most hawks, including the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned, have rebounded since then – largely due to legal protections and the banning of particularly harmful pesticides – enabling the birds to colonize areas that they had previously ignored.
            In a research paper published in November in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, McCabe found that the two hawk species, which look similar and are collectively called Accipiters for their genus name, occupied about 26 percent of the area in and around Chicago in the 1990s. Two decades later they were found in nearly 67 percent of the area.
            Birders in Rhode Island have also reported anecdotal evidence of an increase in Accipiter numbers in recent decades, especially Cooper’s hawks. Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, has noted several Cooper’s hawks nesting in Providence in recent years, and she calls their presence at feeders in winter “commonplace, unremarkable, and therefore not generally reported [any more] from suburban areas.”
            “In the beginning years of our study, sites were occupied around the fringe of the city, and through time they moved into the inner city,” said McCabe of her study site in Chicago. “The main driver for this colonization is prey abundance. They seem to be cuing in on feeders that have a lot of birds. That’s the driver that keeps the hawks there – prey abundance at feeders.”
            Her findings were initially counterintuitive, because Accipiters nest in forested habitats. Their narrow wings and long tail enable them to maneuver quickly through densely forested landscapes and chase down small birds, a behavior the larger soaring hawks like the common red-tailed hawk cannot do. The soaring hawks typically feed on slower-moving rodents.
            “We did our study in winter, so the birds weren’t concerned about finding the perfect tree for nesting,” McCabe said. “They were more concerned about survival.”
            The relative absence of tree cover in urban areas and the abundance of pavement and other impervious surfaces did not seem to discourage the hawks from colonizing cities, she said. In fact, the more tree cover a site had, the less likely it was to attract Accipiters in winter. The key factor was prey availability. As long as there were bird feeders attracting an abundance of small songbirds to the area, the hawks moved in.
            The data for the study comes from Project Feederwatch, a citizen science project in which participants periodically count the birds and bird species at their feeders. Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, the program began in 1987 and now includes more than 20,000 volunteers from across North America.
            Since bird feeding is among the most popular pastimes in the United States, with some surveys finding that more than 40 percent of households participate, it is likely that the Accipiters that have colonized urban and suburban areas will not go hungry.
The effect the hawks are having on the population of common feeder birds like sparrows, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches has not been measured, but it is unlikely they will be impacted in the long term. They may even receive a boost, since other studies have found that urban Accipiters primarily target invasive city birds like pigeons, starlings and house sparrows, potentially easing competitive pressures on native species.
A study of the recolonization of Britain by sparrowhawks, which also feed on birds, provides additional insights. When sparrowhawks were extirpated from Britain, it became less necessary for their primary prey – house sparrows – to be vigilant for the predators.
“Over 30 years, they lost this anti-predator behavior,” McCabe said, “and when the hawks came back, they ended up decimating the house sparrow population.”
Whether North American feeder birds’ vigilance for predators declined following the eradication of hawk populations half a century ago is uncertain. But even if they did, it’s not likely to last long.
“If the birds lost their anti-predator behavior, they’ll regain it pretty quickly now that the hawks are back,” McCabe said. “People’s backyards won’t be picked clean by hawks.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on February 2, 2019.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Introducing your doorstep creatures

            Back before I became enlightened about the many reasons to keep house cats indoors at all times – for their own safety as well as that of the local wildlife – it wasn’t uncommon to awake to one of a variety of small dead animals on the back deck delivered by one of my cats. It was just about the only time I ever saw the tiny doorstep creatures, other than the rare occasion when a mouse would sneak into the garage.
            Without my cats preying on the them, however, I’m noticing them much more often. And that’s a good thing for the entire ecosystem, especially the local owls, hawks, foxes and weasels that prey upon them.
            Most people tend to think that all small, mouse-like animals are, indeed, mice.  Not true.  Several other relatives – like voles, moles and shrews – are also common-but-seldom-seen backyard critters. And even though they’re difficult to observe, in winter there is plenty of evidence that they are around.
            White-footed mice, the most common native mouse species in our area, have large ears, bulging dark eyes and a tail about as long as their body. Their vague footprints in the snow and tiny droppings give away their existence at this time of year. I know there are a couple living in my woodpile, another wedged between the house foundation and the side garden, and more under the shed. Not that they actually show their faces very often, but I know they’re there.
            Whenever I want to see one, I just go to one of my birdhouses. Every few weeks in winter, I open the birdhouses on my property to see what’s inside.  They’re almost always occupied by a family of mice huddled together in the confined space. Often the houses already have the remnants of a bird’s nest in them that the mice use as insulation. If not, the resourceful little guys import their own mix of dried grass and shredded leaves to construct a comfy winter hideaway.
            Unlike mice, voles are virtually nondescript, with tiny eyes, ears hidden by their fur, and stumpy little tails. And they’re even less likely to be seen. But when the snow melts, it often reveals the raceways the voles create at the interface between the ground and snow, where the animals are protected from freezing temperatures.  Like a child’s ant farm, the labyrinths tell a wonderful story of vole industriousness and determination. 
            Of all the doorstep creatures found in Rhode Island, shrews are my favorites, but they’re even harder to observe in the wild than mice and voles. These tiny, dark gray animals have long, pointed, flexible noses and are insectivorous – they feed entirely on insects. And their metabolism is so fast that if they don’t eat every couple of hours, they’ll quickly starve. So recent warnings about the decline of insect populations is a concern for shrews around the world.
The most difficult of all the small mammals to see – at least in my experience – are moles, those nearly blind oddities of the subterranean world that feast on grubs and worms and whose tunnels are the bane of gardeners.  I’ve never seen a live one, though even I have to admit that I’m probably not missing much.
            As much as I’d enjoy becoming more familiar with all these little fellows, I’d forgo the idea if I could be sure the neighborhood cats would, too.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on January 19, 2018.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Return of the sea dog

            The parking lot at Blue Shutters Beach in Charlestown was overflowing with vehicles, even though the temperature on this mid-October morning was just 50 degrees and strong winds and threatening skies made the beach unappealing to sunbathers. The attraction for the 200 people bundled in winter coats and rain gear was the six harbor seal pups that were being released back into the wild by Mystic Aquarium after the animals had been abandoned by their mothers the previous spring.
            Standing behind a rope policed by aquarium volunteers, the onlookers watched as six large crates were unloaded from a blue Ford pickup truck, lined up side-by-side about 20 yards from the water line, and simultaneously opened to release the seals.
            One seal, named Kauai by its aquarium caretakers, immediately raced straight toward the water in a clumsy, caterpillar-like manner, then hesitated as he approached the crashing waves.
Harbor seals released at Blue Shutters Beach (Todd McLeish)
That allowed Tigres to slide into the water first and quickly disappear. Kauai then changed his mind and headed back toward his crate before apparently rethinking his strategy and turning toward the water again. A third seal, this one with a satellite tracking device glued to her back, soon joined Tigres in the roiling Atlantic.
            The three remaining seals seemed uncertain whether to enter the water or remain on the beach. Or maybe they just enjoyed playing in the crashing surf. They wandered several hundred yards back and forth along the ocean’s edge for nearly an hour, occasionally galumphing into the water only to be tossed back ashore by the waves. One almost made it past the surf line before catching a wave like a boogie boarder and riding it all the way back to the beach.
            By the time all of the animals reclaimed the marine environment as their true home, most of the crowd had disappeared and the aquarium officials had packed up the crates for their trip back to Mystic.
            “That was a pretty typical release for really young harbor seal pups,” said Janelle Schuh, who manages the aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program. “It’s very normal for them to take their time getting back in the water, especially on a day with some significant surf.”
            Mystic Aquarium responds to about 60 reports of stranded marine mammals and sea turtles on beaches in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Fisher’s Island, N.Y., each year, most of which are seals found on Rhode Island’s ocean-facing beaches. Five to ten of those calls result in the animal being brought to the aquarium’s clinic for long-term care. The aquarium also accepts seals from elsewhere in the Northeast when other rehabilitation facilities are full. Most are abandoned harbor seal pups that are rescued in May, when they should still be nursing.
“We can’t be sure why they’re abandoned,” Schuh said. “They may be separated from their mom in a storm, or maybe mom doesn’t know how to care for it.”
By September or October, the animals are ready to be returned to the sea.
Harbor seals have made a dramatic comeback in Rhode Island waters in the nearly half century since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972. Until then, seals were hunted everywhere they could be found, including in Narragansett Bay, where some boaters were reported to shoot seals for sport. In Massachusetts and Maine there was even a bounty of $5 paid for every seal killed because fishermen claimed the animals were eating their catch. When the legislation prohibited the harassment or killing of seals, seal numbers began to grow and their range expanded. Today, approximately 100,000 harbor seals can be found in New England waters, some of which spend the winter months in Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound.
Growing up to six feet long and 350 pounds – one quarter of which is an insulating layer of blubber – harbor seals are widely distributed throughout coastal regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific, where they swim in the surf, haul themselves onto rocks to rest at low tide, and feed on a variety of fish, squid, crabs and other marine creatures. Those that visit Rhode Island between October and April return north to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes for the breeding season.
Despite the warming waters from the changing climate that is shifting many marine populations northward, the seals are instead expanding their range southward, with winter haul-out sites now occupied as far south as Virginia, though they don’t breed south of Cape Cod.
“They’re a cold-water species, but that’s not because they can’t tolerate the warm water,” said Bob Kenney, a marine mammal expert and retired marine scientist at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “It’s not temperature that drives them away when things warm up. They leave southern New England and go north because.... 

Read the rest of the story in the January 2019 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Saving wildlife one animal at a time

Wildlife rehabilitator Kristen Fletcher’s grocery list is far from typical. She spends about $7,000 each year buying insects to feed the birds and bats she often cares for, and her freezer usually holds several bags of frozen mice. When an injured crow is delivered to her home for care, it’s not uncommon for her to prepare the bird a delicious meal of scrambled eggs and mice, with a side order of chopped grapes, blueberries and dry cat food.
            “They need to eat,” she said. “They’re already freaked out by being in somebody’s house. You need to offer them as much food as they would want, a menu they would choose themselves if they could.”
            A Portsmouth resident, Fletcher has been a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for more than 20 years and the executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island since 2003. A self-described “animal person,” she became interested in caring for wildlife when her children brought home a baby squirrel knocked out of a tree during a hurricane.
            “It was difficult to find the right information on how to raise him properly, and I didn’t
Baby squirrels being rehabilitated (WRARI)
know there was an organization for this kind of thing back then,” Fletcher said. “I managed to raise that squirrel and release him, and I felt pretty good about it. But I also knew I didn’t do it the best way.”
            So she enrolled in a class offered by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to become a wildlife rehabilitator. After working with a mentor for more than a year and later taking additional training classes, she achieved the highest level of licensing available in the state. She is now qualified to care for any animal that shows up on her doorstep, from rabbits and turtles to gulls and snakes, and everything in between.
She almost always has a bevy of birds of many species in cages in her daughter’s former bedroom or in a large aviary in her backyard, and she has several playpens that serve as hospital beds for injured or orphaned mammals and larger birds. Fletcher is also the only rehabilitator in the state that cares for injured bats. She rears 20 to 30 bats each year, and when they are healthy enough to test out their wings before being released, she sets up a specially-made flight cage in her garage.
“You have to come up with the best set-up for whatever the particular patient is,” she said. “A couple years ago I got a surf scoter [a duck] that was very stressed. During the day, I kept him in a soft-sided container, but to let him swim, I put my husband’s inflatable boat in the garage and filled it with water.”
Fletcher said she has a “caregiver personality,” so her goal is to make every animal as comfortable as possible while she corrects whatever problem it is facing. And then she releases it back into the wild.
“It can be hard to release an animal you’ve spent a long time caring for,” she said. “As I release them, I’ve taken to telling them ‘be safe,’ because it’s not an easy life for a wild animal out there. The odds of them getting hit by a car or dragged in by a cat or having their nest tree cut down is pretty high.
“But it’s an honor to provide care for them and get them back into the environment,” Fletcher added. “These are not animals that people typically have close contact with. I try to fix whatever is wrong with them and get them back out there again.”
Unfortunately, only about half of the animals that find their way to Fletcher or other wildlife rehabilitators in Rhode Island survive. That’s a common ratio among rehabilitators nationwide. Often she must euthanize an animal that is injured too severely.
“Sometimes it’s a clear decision because of the trauma they have, but even then it’s still not easy,” she said. “It’s never a happy decision. But it’s another form of release. It’s not my preferred form of release, but it’s a release from suffering.”
The work of wildlife rehabilitators is seemingly never finished. Fletcher has missed family funerals, weddings, parties and other important events because she often has baby birds in her house that require feeding every 15 minutes.
“You can’t leave them,” she said. “So life gets put on hold. It takes a crazy commitment to do what we do on the scale that we do.”
And for Fletcher, the time commitment is even greater. She quit her full-time job managing a group home to accept the volunteer position as director of the rehabilitators association. She is responsible for fundraising, recruiting and training new rehabilitators, and overseeing the operation of the clinic in North Kingstown where injured animals get veterinary care before being transferred to rehabilitators for long-term care. And when the clinic closes at 4 p.m., Fletcher answers all of the calls from people who find injured animals.
“It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and it’s going to shorten my life for sure,” she said.
But she also has no plans to stop. There is a nationwide need for more wildlife rehabilitators because so many animals have unfortunate run-ins with humans and their pets. About 5,000 animals are cared for by rehabilitators in Rhode Island every year – mostly squirrels, rabbits and songbirds. About 60 people enroll in the initial training course each year, but once they realize the time commitment involved, only about one or two become licensed.
Several wildlife rehabilitators live in Newport County. Two women in Jamestown focus on rabbits, squirrels and opossums, a couple in Little Compton cares for rabbits, and another in Tiverton specializes in waterfowl. The newest member of the group, Jody Giddings, will soon open Wild Newport, to rehabilitate animals in Middletown.
If you find an injured or orphaned animal on Aquidneck Island, call Fletcher at 401-465-2460.

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Newport Life magazine.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Government shutdown to delay trip south for unusual avian visitor

            A young brown pelican that wandered far north of its usual winter range showed up on a dock in Galilee Harbor on January 4 and was eventually captured and brought to the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island to be cared for, but not before causing a commotion.
It’s return south has been delayed by the U.S. government shutdown.
            The bird, named Bert by fishermen who were handfeeding it fish, appeared healthy and unharmed, according to birders who observed it. But the attention it generated from a crowd of curiosity-seekers, including some who tried to catch it by hand, likely raised its stress levels. Within days it had become lethargic, perhaps because of the cold temperatures.
            “From the reports we received, the bird was acting aggressively because it felt threatened
Bert the brown pelican (Kristin Fletcher)
by the number of people that were approaching it and taking pictures,” said Gail Mastrati, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
            DEM and the Wildlife Clinic received numerous calls about the bird from concerned citizens, and on January 7 a DEM enforcement officer observed and assessed the bird, captured it, and delivered it to the clinic.
            “My initial response was that it was within the bird’s decision making power to turn around and fly south, because at that point it was still flying around and doing well,” said Kristin Fletcher, executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island, which operates the Wildlife Clinic. “But then the temperature started dropping and people reported it on the ground and not moving much. They said it was shivering, so it probably had a bit of hypothermia.”
            Brown pelicans are permanent residents on the coast south of Virginia, as well as along the Gulf Coast and West Coast south of central California. They are known to wander and are occasional visitors to Rhode Island, according to Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee.
            Four were observed in the state in 1988, one more following Hurricane Bob in 1991, and five were seen in 1992.  From 2000 to 2002, six brown pelicans were reported in Rhode Island, and as many as a dozen were seen following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, three of which were cared for by the Wildlife Clinic. The most recent sighting prior to this month was in 2014 on Block Island. Most were observed in the summer and fall, though at least three were seen in winter.
            The closely related American white pelican, which breeds on lakes in the West and winters across the southern tier of the country, is also an occasional visitor to the Ocean State. At least 13 were observed between 1989 and 2012, two of which survived the winter and one that did not.
            Fletcher called the brown pelican in her care “a spunky guy” and “a great eater,” noting that he appears healthy and at the proper weight.
            “From what I’m seeing now, the bird is in pretty good condition,” she said. “He might not be the brightest youngster, but he found a good thing at the docks, and then it just got cold. We’ve got him in a large warm area with a big pool of water, and he hangs around the side of the pool eating fish. Our goal will be to transfer him to a seabird sanctuary in the South for release.”
            After identifying a suitable sanctuary – perhaps the same one used for the pelicans the clinic cared for following Hurricane Sandy – clinic staff must obtain a permit from DEM and a letter from a veterinarian saying the bird is in good condition. The sanctuary accepting the bird must also receive approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
            “It’s against the law to cross state lines with wildlife,” explained Fletcher. “The concern is about transferring diseases to other populations. That’s why we need a vet letter saying it’s healthy when transferred.”
            The government shutdown will likely delay the Fish and Wildlife Service permit indefinitely, so the bird may be in Rhode Island for a while.
            “There’s no physical reason why we have to hold onto him,” Fletcher said. “He doesn’t appear terribly stressed now, and he has his fish and his pool. We’re monitoring his weight and watching for signs of frostbite. Ordinarily the permits don’t take much time, but this year might be different.”
            How to transport the bird south is yet to be determined.
           
This story first appeared on EcoRI on January 11, 2019.