Saturday, October 21, 2017

That glimmer and glow in the ocean

            That strange glow you sometimes see for a brief moment when you’re standing on the beach at night and staring toward the crashing waves might not be your eyes playing tricks on you after all. It also might not be the moon’s reflection or the flicker of an underwater flashlight or any other explanation you may have come up with. That strange glimmer in the water may be real, and it may have a natural explanation.
            I’ve been curious about the phenomena of bioluminescence – the chemical production of light by living organisms – for many years. In the terrestrial environment, fireflies do it, as do some beetles and a few mushrooms. But in the ocean, numerous creatures can produce light
Bioluminescent plankton in the Maldives (Doug Perrine)
under various circumstances – to lure prey, to attract a mate, or to frighten predators away, among other reasons. In Monterey Bay, California, scientists recently calculated that three-quarters of all marine species are bioluminescent.
In the waters of the Ocean State, bioluminescence is most often seen in the late summer and fall when some types of microscopic plants called dinoflagellates multiply in large numbers. If there are enough of them, these dinoflagellates will glow when disturbed, like when waves crash around them. If you are out boating on the water at night under the right conditions, they also might glow when you jump in the water or start your engine.
Some grape-sized jellyfish called ctenophores and a few kinds of tiny crustaceans also use bioluminescence in local waters.
According to Jim Sullivan, a Providence native and former marine scientist at the University of Rhode Island who is now a professor at Florida Atlantic University, bioluminescence typically occurs when a particular protein and enzyme combine in the body to release photons of light. Creatures typically keep the protein and enzyme separated inside specialized structures in their cells until they are triggered to come together.
“There’s a biochemical control for turning it on and off,” he told me. “In the case of the dinoflagellates, it typically happens when another organism goes to eat them, but they flash as soon as they are touched, and that flash startles the predator, which lets goes of it and runs away.”
The flash of light might also attract a larger predator to come and eat the smaller predator.
A great many questions still remain about bioluminescence, yet few scientists are studying the subject. The U.S. Navy funded most of the research into bioluminescence in the 1980s and 1990s when it believed that modern satellites might be able to detect the movement of submarines by the trail of bioluminescence in their wakes.  Sullivan conducted studies of bioluminescence off Iceland back then when Russian submarines were known to frequent the waters in the area.
Today, the research funding has dried up, but it’s still a fascinating phenomenon to observe.
My only experience with bioluminescence in the ocean was during a midnight walk out to Napatree Point in Westerly several years ago when I was volunteering to monitor breeding horseshoe crabs. During a break in the action, I stared toward the crashing waves and saw what appeared to be a brief blue-green flash of light. It reminded me of a distant flash of lightning or the green flash some say is visible at the moment the sun sets.
Or maybe it was just my eyes playing tricks on me.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on October 21, 2017.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The hunt for red October

            Rhode Islanders pay close attention to the changing foliage colors each fall and are justifiably proud of the picture-perfect show the region’s trees put on every year. But Keith Killingbeck, 67, probably pays closer attention than most. A recently retired professor of plant ecology and biology at the University of Rhode Island and the former assistant dean of the URI Graduate School, he has been studying the nutrient dynamics and energy flow in trees – the process that causes the leaves to change color – since his grad school days at the University of North Dakota. A native of Michigan who moved to Rhode Island in 1979, Killingbeck said that despite his 36 years teaching botany, he didn’t start out with a particularly strong interest in plants and foliage. “My passion is for nature and the outdoors and everything and anything that’s part of it.”

Q: Why does New England have the reputation for having the best fall foliage colors?
A: It has to do with the tree species we have and the climate we have. Often in New England we’ll have sunny days and cold nights in the fall, and the tree species that we have respond to
Fall foliage in New England (Glen Russell)
that with a number of chemical changes in their leaves that yield the brilliant colors we see.

Q: What do trees do to produce those colors?
A: One of the most important things they do is break down compounds like chlorophyll to save some of the nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorous. Those nutrients are being shunted out of the leaves and moved back into the trees to be saved to be used in the next growing season. It’s essentially a conservation strategy.

Q: Why do different trees exhibit different colors?
A: There’s no easy answer to that. But if we look at birches, they turn yellow. Yellow pigments are unmasked as the green chlorophyll molecules are broken down, and as some of the nutrients are moved out, you have these xanthophylls – accessory pigments in tree leaves -- that show up as bright yellow. Tupelos turn a red-maroonish color, and those are from anthocyanins, a whole different kind of chemical, which are being built up in the fall rather than unmasked. They protect some of the photosynthetic systems in the leaves. It’s complicated.

Q: Do you have a favorite tree for its fall foliage?
A: I’ll give you three. My favorite tree in New England is sugar maple for its peachy color. This is an oddball, but I also like poison sumac, which has this beautiful orange color to its leaves. The third one is Virginia creeper, a vine that has beautiful maroon leaflets in fall.

Q: What factors influence the timing of when leaves change color?
A: The amount of daylight, or photoperiod, is one of the main kickers in all this. Photoperiod is constant from year to year to year, so it’s a good trigger for plants and animals for the timing of anything they do. Within that time period, though, everything from daytime versus nighttime temperatures, precipitation, drought, all those things really impinge on and impact the leaf changing color. The chemistry that’s going on during that time is impacted by all those factors, but photoperiod is a constant predictor of where we are on a year’s cycle.

Q: It doesn’t appear that the leaves all change at the same time. Why not?
A: They certainly don’t. In mid-September, many birches have yellow leaves already, Virginia creeper has maroon leaves already, but most of the leaves on other species are still green – oaks have not turned, most of maples have not turned. Individual species change at different times. In southern Rhode Island, for example, the peak of red maple color is probably around the second or third week in October. Oaks are going to be later, others earlier. It’s species by species and also individual site by individual site. Red maples in very wet areas are going to have their leaves turn earlier than red maples on a much drier site.

Q: How will the gypsy moth defoliation affect the fall foliage?
A: In those areas hardest hit, virtually all the leaves were eaten. Some of those trees that didn’t die reflushed some leaves, but as I’ve looked at some of those trees, the new leaves that were produced after the defoliation were much smaller and there are many fewer of them. So even if those individual leaves turn bright colors, there’s not enough leaf mass to show much color. And, of course, those trees that died, you’ll get no color out of them.

Q: What other factors affect foliage from one year to the next?
A: Ideally, to bring out the most vibrant colors, what works the best is bright sunny days when there is a lot of photosynthesis – they’re producing sugars during photosynthesis – and cool nights for depressing the rates of metabolism so those sugars being produced in daytime are not used up as rapidly as they would be on warm nights. So it’s those sunny days for good photosynthesis and chilly nights. That’s the perfect recipe for vibrant leaves.

Q: Based on those factors, do you have a prediction for what this year’s foliage is going to be like?
A: It’s certainly going to be at the usual time, not knowing what the upcoming weather is going to be, because the variation in timing from year to year is pretty small. I’ve been following leaf color change in individual trees for many years, and the timing changes only by a few days from year to year.  The amount of rain we get, when we get rain, the temperatures at night all make a difference, but it’s very subtle. This year the thing that’s going to impact our color most is whether trees were defoliated in spring and early summer. But other than pockets of trees that were defoliated, I think the colors are going to be great again this year.

Q: Why do some individual trees change color especially early, like in August?
A: I’ve observed that also, and in fact I have a single red maple tree that I call my early red maple that I see when I drive to campus every day. It turns earlier than any of the other red maples around it. I think it’s genetics. The genetic makeup of the individual. The environmental conditions are the same versus trees meters away – whether it be soil conditions, rainfall, sunlight, anything else – so the difference has to be attributed to genetics.

Q: Is climate change likely to have an effect on foliage colors or timing in the coming years?
A: The simple answer is yes, as far as we can tell. There are certainly phenological studies around the world that show plants budding earlier in the spring than normal, extending the growing season on the front end, and it appears that leaves are being held onto later in the fall, at least for some species, extending the growing season on the tail end. So it certainly seems that the warming of the planet is having an effect and will continue to have an effect.

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on October 11, 2017.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Wildlife rehabilitators in Rhode Island

            At the end of a quiet dead-end street in Westerly, a three-story brick house is surrounded by a maze of shed-like structures that seem only slightly out of place. The largest is 40-feet long and 12-feet tall and sheathed almost entirely in wire screening. Inside, laying on a tree stump, is the carcass of a half-eaten squirrel. And perched on a beam above the carcass are two female red-tailed hawks – Griffin, a 7-year-old with a deformed beak, and Matrix, 15, who has a traumatic head injury from being struck by a golf ball at a country club in Massachusetts.
The two birds periodically fly the length of the cage to exercise their wings, then swoop
Baby cottontails (James Jones)
down to peck at the squirrel carcass. Every year, one of them lays an infertile egg, and the birds take turns incubating it until they realize it’s not going to hatch.
            Adjacent to the flight cage are a dozen 8-by-10-foot cages. In one sits a turkey vulture named Lurch with neurological damage caused by ingesting something poisonous at the Charlestown landfill. Next door is Krypto, a peregrine falcon born on the Superman building in Providence but who flew into a window of the downtown Blue Cross Blue Shield building, breaking its wrist and causing a head injury. Nearby, two barred owls perch in a darkened section of their cage, one-eyed Wink and his partner Boytoy, who was rescued after being struck by a car.
            The newest cage, built last year with the help of a local eagle scout, houses a red-tailed hawk that struck a window so hard that the homeowner thought it was a gunshot.
“It was paralyzed for 11 days, but on the 12th day we arrived to see it standing up, and it’s slowly getting better,” says Vivian Maxson, who operates the Born to be Wild Nature Center with her husband John. “It now can fly the length of the cage, and we’re hopeful it can be released.”
            Most of the birds at the nature center have permanent injuries and would not survive in the wild, but some are destined to be returned to the outdoors when they heal.
            The Maxson’s started Born to be Wild after taking a wildlife rehabilitation class through the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and apprenticing with a certified rehabilitator.
“That person starts you off with easy cases, like baby squirrels or opossums, then you get bumped up to the next level and you’re on your own,” Vivian says. “I really like the feeling of giving back to nature. Man’s impact causes so much harm that it’s a way to try to balance it out.”
            “All it takes is one or two enjoyable cases, and it strengthens us and keeps us going,” adds John.
            The Maxsons have become the state experts at rehabilitating raptors, so almost every hawk or owl in Rhode Island that is found injured or unable to care for itself usually finds its way to their nature center. Every day, they provide the birds with their preferred meal – dead mice and rats for some, squirrels and rabbits for others – and assess the health of each to determine when they are ready for release. When they have time, the Maxsons also host tours of the nature center or bring some of the birds to summer camps and retirement homes for educational programs.
            About 70 hawks and owls spend time at Born to be Wild each year, and about 65 percent survive to be released, a better success rate than the national average. Some must be euthanized because of the seriousness of their injuries.
            According to John, the most difficult hawks to care for are ospreys.
            “They only eat live fish, so every day I have to go fishing,” he says with a smile. “Anyone who visits us in the summer, we hand them a fishing pole and tell them to go catch some fish.”

....Continued in the October 2017 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Hidden world of Narragansett Bay on the rebound

            When imagining the places on Earth with the highest diversity of species, most people think about the Amazonian rainforests or the jungles of Southeast Asia or the plains of Africa. Seldom are marine habitats even considered. And when they are, it’s coral reefs that get most of the attention.
            But biologist Steve Hale said that two-thirds of all of the animals on the planet live on or in seafloor sediments or what scientists call the benthic environment. And when only calculating the marine species, about 98 percent live in the sediments.
            A research ecologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Narragansett for the last 20 years, Hale recently finished compiling a master list of all the species ever recorded in the sediments of Narragansett Bay. He discussed the project in a lecture at the Rhode Island Natural History Survey on September 28.
The list includes 1,056 species, and he believes there may be another 200 to 300 still to
be found. Most live in the top 10 centimeters of the sediments. The most abundant creatures recorded are varieties of polychaete worms, mollusks and arthropods.
“But rare species make up most of the biodiversity,” Hale said. “Included are 395 singletons – species found only once – and 224 doubletons. Another 279 were captured prior to 1950 and have not been seen again” due to range shifts, pollution, the effects of invasive species and other factors.
            Based on his analysis, Hale said that the biodiversity of benthic organisms in Narragansett Bay declined from the 1880s to the 1980s due to pollution produced during the Industrial Revolution, raw sewage, heavy metals and other toxins released into the bay. The filling in of salt marshes, the disappearance of eelgrass beds, and other habitat destruction also caused a decline in benthic diversity.
            But as the bay was cleaned up in the later years of the 20th century, benthic biodiversity experienced a partial recovery, though it has not yet achieved pre-industrial levels and may never do so.
            To compile his master species list for Narragansett Bay, Hale scoured every bit of historical data he could find. Most came from online databases maintained by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 
But he also uncovered reports of species collected by professional and amateur naturalists as far back as 1834, when the chief engineer for the construction of Newport’s Fort Adams, Joseph Totten, took samples from the bottom of Narragansett Bay and published a report of his findings.
In the succeeding decades, notable scientists visited the area and contributed data, including Alexander Agassiz, who established the Newport Marine Zoological Laboratory at Castle Hill in 1873 and was dubbed the first oceanographer of Narragansett Bay, and Addison Verrill from Yale University, the first to use a steamship to collect benthic samples in the bay.
The 99 different studies that Hale compiled represents surveys of 200 different sites around the bay.
“Only about 600 square meters of sediment has been sampled,” Hale said, noting that it represents about 0.000002 percent of the bay’s area. “But we still think about 80 percent of all the species have been found.”
Benthic creatures perform vital ecosystem services, according to Hale. They filter the water, sequester carbon, process waste, recycle nutrients, provide food for birds and commercial and recreational fisheries, and provide nursery habitat for other marine organisms.
Although Narragansett Bay seafloor communities have rebounded as the bay has become cleaner, Hale said they must still deal with numerous unhealthy stressors, from storm water run-off and toxins in the sediments to invasive species and low dissolved oxygen levels.
“When we have our seasonal hypoxia [low oxygen] events in the upper bay, our rare species get hammered,” said Hale. “They’re very sensitive to disturbances and susceptible to local extinctions.”
Increasing water temperatures from climate change will likely lead to changes in the range of some species, which will alter the composition of the species in the bay.
Will the benthic communities of Narragansett Bay continue their recovery? Hale said it’s hard to say.
“We’ve made a lot of progress by putting a lot of money into improving our sewage treatment plants,” he said, “but non-point sources of pollution are still a problem. Mix that with invasive species and warming waters, and it’s hard to say how things are going to go. I don’t have a good answer to that, but I’m hopefully optimistic.

This article first appeared in on October 4, 2017.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

New technology revealing details of bat migration

            The Pettersson D500X ultrasound recorder looks a bit like an old-fashioned transistor radio with square buttons, a modest display screen, and a built-in microphone. Yet despite its unimaginative appearance, the device can detect the echolocation sounds made by bats and, with the help of software that identifies the bat species involved, is helping scientists reveal new information about the movements and migration behavior of local bat populations.
            Biologists at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the University of Rhode Island have deployed the bat detectors throughout the state this year in a variety of ways. DEM wildlife biologist Charles Brown, for instance, mounts one on the roof of his truck as he periodically drives five routes around the state to look for trends in bat numbers and to compare his findings with those driving similar routes in other states. He also places the
Silver-haired bat (The Nature Conservancy)
devices in various state wildlife management areas to scout for locations to trap bats for more detailed studies.
            The most revealing use of the detectors, however, has been as a way of monitoring bat migration through the state.
            “Not a lot is known about bat migration, so we’re just trying to figure it out for various reasons,” said Brown. “There’s a great interest in wind turbine development – turbines kill hundreds of thousands of bats every year – so we want to know when they migrate and where.”
            Brown selected several locations along the Rhode Island coast to place the detectors for long-term monitoring of bat movements. Every week since early August, he has downloaded the data from the detectors to learn what he can about the seasonal movement of bats.
            “Much like birds, they migrate at the same times and during the same general weather patterns,” Brown said. “They head south until they hit the coast and then they follow the coastline. There are certain locations where you’d expect them to pile up and be concentrated, like Point Judith, Sakonnet Point, Beavertail, Brenton Point.”
            While he admits he didn’t know what to expect with the data he was collecting, he was somewhat surprised to learn that bat migration appears to begin much earlier than he anticipated.
            “We’re seeing pulses of activity beginning in August, and I’m not sure that’s well known,” Brown said. “But they’re opportunistic animals, so when they get the right weather conditions, they probably just figure that this is a good time to go.”
            Bat migration is believed to continue through October and early November.
            The only difficulty with the bat detectors is that it’s impossible to know how many bats are being detected.
            “It might detect a thousand calls in one night, but we don’t know if it’s a thousand bats flying by or one bat that flew by a thousand times,” he said. “There’s no way to differentiate it.”
            Most of the bats Brown has detected are red, hoary and silver-haired bats – collectively called tree bats – all of which migrate south each fall. He also occasionally detects small numbers of little brown bats that migrate north to hibernate in caves and mines in New Hampshire and Vermont. Little browns have declined dramatically in the last decade due to the effects of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed millions of hibernating bats throughout the Northeast. Big brown bats, many of which spend the winter hibernating in Rhode Island, are also detected.
            URI Professor Peter August has conducted similar monitoring of bat migration at Napatree Point in Westerly using the same kind of detector, and his results mirror Brown’s.
“While in mid-summer I’d have a couple hundred bats passing by in a week, starting in August I’ve been getting a couple thousand in a week. The activity has really peaked.”
            He plans to continue to monitor for bat activity at Napatree until he detects no bats at all.
            “Nothing brings great clouds of bats to Napatree in the summer, which is what I expected,” said August, who earned his doctorate studying bats in South America. “It’s not an active summertime habitat, but it changes this time of year. We have lots of bats moving around now. Our migratory bats are headed south, and our hibernating bats are moving around the area looking for places to hibernate.
            By combining data from the detectors with anecdotal information from other sources – like surfers who report large movements of bats at sunrise and wind turbine owners who report dead bats at the base of the structures – Brown and August are piecing together the story of bat migration in Rhode Island.
            “With all this information, we’re finally getting a better sense of what’s going on here,” Brown said. “The information we’re getting will give us a better sense of how big a problem wind towers will be for our bats. As more and more wind turbines pop up on the landscape, it’s probably going to be a problem. It’s already a problem. And then we’ll have to question whether the mortality is sustainable.” 

This article first appeared on on September 27, 2017.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Wildlife weathering the storm

It may not be the smartest activity, but hurricane season provides a unique opportunity to make exciting wildlife observations. Just as surfers tend to head for the beach during major storms – because that’s when the increasing waves offer an especially fun and challenging ride – those who enjoy watching birds often flock to the coast during and after hurricanes to look for rare species blown into the region on the powerful winds.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for a gull or other coastal bird to get pulled into the vortex of a hurricane near Cuba or Haiti and be unable to get out until they had traveled more than a
thousand miles. But it happens every year. It must be a traumatic experience, not to mention exhausting.
But there are few opportunities more enticing to a birder than to stand at a prominent coastal site and scan the horizon for a mega-rarity during a hurricane. It really gets the juices flowing.
Not that I’ve ever actually done it, however.
I worked for the electric company for 13 of my most obsessive birdwatching years, so when all my friends were headed to Point Judith or Beavertail or Brenton Point to watch for birds, I had to go to work. Which means that I missed out on seeing innumerable tropical birds make landfall along the Rhode Island coastline.
Bridled terns from Florida, brown boobies from the West Indies, brown pelicans from the Carolinas, and magnificent frigatebirds from the Caribbean have all turned up on southern New England beaches during especially powerful storms, and I missed them all. While I was working without sleep for days at a time as the electricity was being restored, my birding friends were making the avian observations of a lifetime.
Of course, coastal birds aren’t the only wildlife affected by hurricanes. Our local resident species can face devastation, too.  Fish, crabs and other marine creatures, for instance, can be thrown onto shore by waves and storm surge and become stranded. Beach plants are often ripped from the dunes by the winds or covered in sand. Animals that raise their young in trees, like squirrels, bats and raccoons, can have their homes uprooted and destroyed. Ground-dwelling creatures like opossums, skunks and chipmunks often drown in floodwaters.
Those that survive may find it difficult to find food because local berries have been torn from their bushes, insects have been smashed or drowned, and seeds have become moldy and unfit for eating. As difficult as it is for humans to weather a severe storm, our native wildlife has it even harder.
As a result, it’s a busy time for local wildlife rehabilitators, who are committed to rescuing injured or abandoned animals. One rehabilitator told me that it’s not uncommon for Rhode Islanders to deliver 100 baby squirrels to raise in the days after a hurricane because their nest trees have been knocked down.
It may take a while before normal wildlife activity resumes after a hurricane. Some species may have moved far inland to avoid the storm; others may seek new habitat if their former territory is damaged; and still others remain hunkered down for days or weeks as they recover from the stress of the storm.
In other words, they behave like most of the rest of us – happy that it’s over and thankful to have survived.

This article first appeared in The Independent on September 21, 2017.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Wildlife refuges are nature's defense against climate change

            The late winter and early spring of 2010 was not a time for enjoying the outdoors in the Ocean State. In what may have been the most significant flooding Rhode Island has experienced in its recorded history, more than 20 inches of rain fell during a 38-day period, culminating in a storm that dropped eight inches on the state from March 29 to April 1. The effects were devastating, especially along the Pawtuxet River in Warwick and West Warwick, which rose to more than 11 feet above flood level. Dams and bridges were washed out, homes were destroyed, and businesses and infrastructure were severely damaged.
            “The malls in Warwick were flooded because all the water in the Pawtuxet River is forced through a narrow channel between the malls where there are no wetlands, and it got over the
bank and covered the parking lots,” recalled Scott Ruhren, Audubon’s senior director of conservation. “It was a mess.”
            Audubon’s refuges weren’t spared. The trails at the Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge in Exeter were completely impassable – water was waist deep in places – as the brook overflowed its banks. The house at the Marion Eppley Wildlife Refuge in West Kingston became an island for several days as the surrounding flood plain swelled. And the 11-acre Carr Pond at the Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge in Coventry multiplied in size.
            But none of the refuges were irreparably harmed. In fact, they played a crucial role in helping to mitigate even greater damage that could have occurred in nearby areas. It’s a role they will likely play more and more often as the changing climate delivers increasingly severe storms, rising sea levels and damaging storm surge.
            “Conservation lands are resilient,” Ruhren said. “Whether they’re in a river floodplain or a coastal area, natural lands do what they’re supposed to do when the water rises – they absorb the water and release it slowly.”
            According to Ruhren, the most valuable elements of any conserved property during flooding are wetlands, which he describes as “nature’s kidneys. In addition to absorbing and holding large quantities of water,” he said, “they also filter out any contaminants from the water.”
            The difference is clearly visible. Water that surges downstream after a storm often looks like chocolate milk, he said. This is especially true where upstream areas are heavily developed with pavement and other structures that contribute to erosion and roadway run-off.
            But when that water has a chance to filter through wetlands and other natural areas, it’s much cleaner when it reaches the bay.
            “Sure, the trails might get flooded, but that’s just a short-term inconvenience,” Ruhren said. “But the water recedes as it filters down into the ground or continues downstream, and the forests are no worse off because of it. You might have a flooded forest for a short time, but they rebound quickly, and the plants and animals are adapted to it.”
            The danger comes when wetlands are filled, when impermeable surfaces like pavement prevent water from seeping into the soil, and when increasing development is permitted along waterways.
            “It’s like we’re filling a bathtub,” said Audubon’s Executive Director Lawrence Taft. “The more you fill in these places, the less water it can hold. By having areas where you just don’t develop – by backing off development from wetlands, rivers and marshes – then when the waters creep up, there is a place for it to go.”
            Taft and Ruhren agree that floodplains should be protected from extensive development so they can serve to mitigate damage when the waters inevitably rise again. Many local communities are finally getting the message.
            The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s interactive mapping system, Storm Tools, is helping public officials visualize flood-prone areas and places that will likely be under water due to sea level rise in the coming decades. Coupled with a growing awareness of the important role conservation lands play in flood mitigation, some communities are now recognizing that the protection of open space should be a key component of their comprehensive planning.
            Taft is working with the state to develop new rules that factor in climate mitigation values when communities seek grants for open space and recreation lands in the future.
            “We really ought to start prioritizing those places that can be safely flooded in our open space decision making,” he said. “Properties would be ranked higher if they’re near a river or in a flood zone because of the climate mitigation services they provide.”
            But flood mitigation isn’t the only environmental benefit that conservation lands provide in this era of climate change. Established ecosystems like forests and salt marshes sequester carbon from the atmosphere while producing oxygen, and they provide critical habitat for birds and other wildlife whose habitat is rapidly changing.
            “The more conservation land you have, the more places there will be for wildlife to shift their ranges to when they need to,” said Ruhren. “And bigger is better, especially when the protected lands are connected.”
            He also emphasized the important role that forests play in keeping streams and rivers cool.
            “A lot of aquatic species are vulnerable to overheating, like native brook trout and freshwater mussels,” Ruhren said. “A good way to kill brook trout is to cut down the trees along the stream. We don’t think of heat as a pollutant or a stressor, but it is.”
            “We often talk about how our forests are the lungs of Rhode Island because they clean the air and produce oxygen and absorb carbon and keep us cool,” added Taft. “Putting aside land for conservation helps us with resiliency and adaptation and mitigation of some of the effects of climate change. Will the forests still change? Yes. Will the species change? Yes. But at least those open areas are here to function for air quality, flood protection, habitat and cooling.”
This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Audubon Report, the newsletter of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

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.