Friday, June 8, 2018

Building a buzz in Rhode Island

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

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Raptor Rehabilitators

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

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

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Students get dirty restoring salt marsh

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

This article first appeared on on May 23, 2018.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The ultimate misidentification

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

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

Friday, May 18, 2018

Rotten luck

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

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

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Cankers caused by climate

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

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tree kangaroos, hornbills and otters, oh my!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 14, 2018

Sound unseen

It was near midnight on a late May evening a few years ago that I walked along the mile-long sandspit of Napatree Point in Westerly, one of a handful of volunteer citizen scientists counting 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. And then another. In that moment, it reminded me of a distant flash of lightning or the green flash some say is visible at the instant the sun sets. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was a mass of tiny marine organisms that have the remarkable ability to illuminate themselves when they are disturbed, a phenomenon called bioluminescence.
I had read about it and heard that there were places in Puerto Rico and Malta and Japan where bioluminescence could be observed regularly. But here in Little Narragansett Bay, at the
eastern edge of Long Island Sound? Not likely. I convinced myself that I was mistaken, until I called Cris Sodergren at Mystic Aquarium, who has spent much of his life traversing the Sound day and night in all kinds of vessels.
Cris reminded me that most people only stare at the waves in the daytime, and they completely overlook what happens in the marine environment at night. He said the Sound is alive after dark, and during certain times of the year, it emits a radiant glow that can be mesmerizing, like our own version of the northern lights. He described several species of jellyfish-like creatures called comb jellies about the size of a golf ball that can look like shimmering green orbs, as well as single-celled dinoflagellates and a couple varieties of algae that also put on a light show when the crashing waves irritate them.
“Sometimes when I go fishing at night, with every paddle stroke of my kayak, the water sparkles,” he said.
I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes. But then again, there are plenty of other creatures in the Sound that generate a similar sense of wonder and make me feel lucky I live nearby.
For instance, grab a dive mask and swim in any shallow cove less than 10 feet deep where the long blades of eelgrass grow. If you look close enough, you may spot another unexpected native creature, a lined seahorse. These adorable animals – technically they’re a type of fish – use their prehensile tails to hold onto the eelgrass while waiting for microscopic plankton to swim by, which they eat by inhaling them through their snout. They’re cryptically colored in earth tones, so they’re easy to miss, but at 5 to 6 inches from tail to crown, you should be able to spot one with a little patience.
While you’re there, watch for other small creatures in the vicinity. The habitat serves as a nursery ground for fish, so tiny versions of flounder, tautog, bluefish, striped bass and other species will be hiding among the grasses. You might even come across a spiny pufferfish, which are becoming increasingly common as the waters of the Sound become warmer.
Eelgrass beds are also the best place to find bay scallops, which sit on the sediments filtering tiny organisms and watching for predators using their three-dozen bright blue eyes. When the shadow of a predator approaches, they clap their shells together to lift themselves off the seafloor and escape into the murky distance. This unusual skill makes them the only mollusk that doesn’t bury itself in the sediment or attach itself to a rock.
If those modest creatures don’t get you excited, then imagine traveling to the deepest depths of the Sound, more than 200 feet down, where you might come across an Atlantic wolffish hiding in the nooks and crannies of a rockpile. Five feet long and 40 pounds, with an eel-like body and a mouth full of frightening teeth, they have the reputation for biting through broom handles – though why anyone would give a fish a broom handle, I don’t know – and fighting their way into and out of lobster traps. Sharing the depths with the wolffish are several kinds of sharks, including sand tiger and sandbar sharks, as well as skates, squid, stripers, hake and many other species, even an occasional tuna.
Back at the surface, I’m always pleased when I catch sight of one of the handful of marine mammals that make their home in the Sound during parts of the year. Harbor seals are easiest to find in winter, but harbor porpoises – the smallest marine mammal in the North Atlantic – get my heart racing whenever I see their pint-sized dorsal fin pierce the water line. And although I haven’t spotted one yet, I know several varieties of sea turtles ply our waters in late summer and are regularly spotted taking a breath at the surface.
There are many more amazing marine creatures to seek and observe in the Sound, from crabs and starfish in tidepools to anadromous fish like sturgeon, herring and eels on their way back to our local rivers to spawn. And while the warming waters are becoming less attractive to cold water species, southern species are filling in the gaps, like kingfish, Spanish mackerel, red drum and bonito.
Whether you observe them at the end of a fishing line, with a snorkel in your mouth, or from your favorite lookout, get out there and pay attention. The Sound is a wonderful treasure trove of marine life to behold.

This article first appeared in Coast and Country on May 7, 2018.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

In hopes of surviving, saltmarsh sparrow advocates gender equality

            Saltmarsh sparrows continue their struggle to survive. The formerly common bird that lives exclusively in coastal marshes on the U.S. East Coast is predicted to go extinct within the next 50 years due to rising sea levels resulting from the changing climate. New research by scientists at the University of New Hampshire finds that the birds are advocates of gender equality, a reproductive strategy that may benefit their populations, but it’s probably too little too late to extend their time on Earth.
            According to UNH Assistant Professor Adrienne Kovach, female birds of many species – from songbirds and seabirds to parrots and raptors – can control whether they produce male or female offspring. It can sometimes be a beneficial strategy from an evolutionary perspective
because environmental circumstances or other factors may favor the success of males versus females.
            “Evolutionary theory suggests that if the potential benefits of raising one sex over the other vary in relation to environmental or maternal conditions,” she said, “then females should favor the production of that sex. Typically, high-quality sons are more beneficial to mothers because they have the potential to produce far more grandchildren than daughters can, as males can mate many times but females are limited by how many eggs they can produce, incubate and raise to fledging.”
            But there is a risk to producing more sons than daughters, too. Kovach said a male-biased population “may be especially troubling, as females are the ones who produce the eggs and offspring.” In addition, daughters often require fewer resources to reach maturity, and if they survive they almost always reproduce. Males, on the other hand, can be “competitively inferior” and may not reproduce at all.
            “With this in mind, one could logically say that producing daughters represents the safe bet,” said Kovach’s colleague Bri Benvenuti. “You might get a smaller payout in terms of numbers of offspring, but you know you’ll get something.”
            The saltmarsh sparrow’s tenuous situation raised interesting questions for the researchers.
“We thought that the saltmarsh sparrow system provided a neat set of circumstances in which females might be expected to manipulate their offspring sex ratios,” Kovach said.
The birds are considered one of the most promiscuous in the world, with almost every chick in a typical nest fathered by a different male. The species’ likely extinction is linked to their preference for nesting in marsh grasses just inches from the ground. The rising sea level and increasingly severe storm surge floods their nests and often causes reproductive failure.
Since male offspring are larger and therefore may be more likely to survive a flooding event, Kovach and Benvenuti speculated that female saltmarsh sparrows might intentionally produce more sons. So they collected nesting data from breeding sites in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and analyzed the DNA of chicks to determine the sex of the offspring. They also evaluated whether environmental conditions, maternal health or other factors influence the sex ratio.
The researchers were surprised to find an even sex ratio when averaged across the five years of the study. While they did find a pattern of yearly variation in sex ratio, it always corrected itself the following year.
“Females respond to higher frequencies of one sex by increasing production of the rarer sex, which would have a temporary fitness advantage,” said Kovach. “Our findings overall show support for balanced offspring sex ratios at a population level over time.”
Independent biologists Steve Reinert and Deirdre Robinson study saltmarsh sparrows at Jacob’s Point in Warren, and even though they captured 32 males and just 20 females last year, they believe the sex ratio of the population is 1-to-1.
“This probably relates to the way the males move in and out of our study site seeking copulations…while the females are nesting and staying put,” Reinert said. “It would be easy to get the wrong idea on sex ratios without intimate knowledge of the population.”
Although production of more males may give the birds a better chance of survival, given the rising seas, Kovach and Benvenuti think a balanced sex ratio may have even greater benefits. They said that if the sex ratio leans too heavily in one direction or the other, it may not be good for the long-term trajectory of the population.
“If saltmarsh sparrows manipulated their offspring sex ratios in response to environmental conditions, then the consistent environmental changes predicted by rising sea levels could result in skewed population-wide sex ratios, which can be detrimental for declining species and small populations,” Kovach said. “Knowing that saltmarsh sparrow sex ratios will not be biased in response to these future changes is one bit of good news for this species that is already in trouble.”

This article first appeared on on May 9, 2018.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Dragon hunting

            With long-handled insect nets raised in anticipation, Matt Schenck and three other dragonfly enthusiasts plunged waist deep into the Chipuxet River where it crosses under Route 138 in Kingston. They were on the hunt for a blackwater bluet, a damselfly most had never seen before. The insect was one of the target species during the group’s annual Dragonfly Safari, and they weren’t disappointed.
Several of the midnight blue insects were observed hidden in overhanging vegetation, darting across the water, and even mating. Schenck repeatedly swung his net in hopes of
Four-spotted skimmer (Matt Schenck)
capturing one, but more often than not he merely drenched himself further. He eventually netted a bluet to get a close-up view of it, then released it unharmed.
“I got interested in dragonflies when I realized how many different kinds there were,” said Schenck, an environmental educator at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. “Their diversity was completely unexpected, and I’ve become obsessed with trying to figure them out.”
Dragonflying has become an increasingly popular pastime, one often initially pursued by birdwatchers looking for other wildlife to observe during the summer months when bird activity slows. But many say that their passion for dragonflies soon surpassed their interest in watching birds, mostly because of the entertaining challenge of catching them.
According to Schenck, dragonflies are sturdy creatures that can be repeatedly captured and handled without harming them, unlike the more delicate butterflies that are often injured in nets. But catching dragonflies is much easier said than done.
Dragonflies have hundreds of eyes, so they can usually see your net coming long before they are ensnared. They can also fly frontwards and backwards and sideways and upside down, quickly change direction, stop on a dime and hover in place. They use those remarkable flight skills to cruise local ponds and streams in search of flying insects to eat – including other dragonflies. The U.S. military has even studied dragonfly flight to improve the design of helicopters.
While it may take dozens of swings with an insect net before beginning dragonfliers actually catch one, experts seldom fare much better. As frustrating as it can be, that’s also what makes it fun.
“I call my capture technique pursuit-until-it’s-in-the-net-or-uncatchable,” said Schenck. “It’s an aggressive style that gets my endorphins going.”
Ginger Brown may be the leading expert on dragonflies in Rhode Island. Beginning in 1998, she coordinated a six-year volunteer effort to census dragonflies in every community in the state. The final tally was 138 species, with 108 species found in South Kingstown alone. She calls dragonflies “the hawks of the insect world” and notes that their sparkling colors and dynamic behaviors are part of the reason for the increasing public interest.
It doesn’t hurt that dragonflies also have colorful names, including calico pennant, harlequin darner, ruby meadowhawk, golden-winged skimmer, clamp-tipped emerald, brook snaketail and frosted whiteface.
Since dragonfly science is a relatively young discipline, there is much still to be learned about most species, and hobbyists can contribute a great deal. For instance, one of the participants in the Dragonfly Safari, Greg Sargeant, helped to document Rhode Island’s first record of an Allegheny River cruiser, a species previously only found in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions.
“One of the interesting things I find is the wide variety of dragonflies you can see in the same habitat from one week to the next,” he said. “I go out on my lunch hour to the same places every week, and every week I see a different variety of species.”
After Sargeant and the other participants in the Dragonfly Safari had their fill of blackwater bluets and a dozen other species of dragonflies and damselflies at the Chipuxet River, they drove two miles down the road to the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area, where they walked a powerline corridor and along some ponds in search of additional species. They saw green darners, Eastern pondhawks, cherry-faced meadowhawks and several other species, but the most abundant dragonfly they found was the halloween pennant, a dainty variety dressed in orange and black.
“We seem to be having a Halloween party here,” joked Schenck. “We should have come in costume.”
At one point, Sargeant and Dylan Pedro swung their nets simultaneously at the same dragonfly, smashing their nets together with a thud, and yet the dragonfly easily eluded their efforts.
But then the clouds moved in and dragonfly activity slowed to a trickle.
“Dragonflies are solar powered,” said Sargeant. “So those that are usually the most active are in hiding now.”
Schenck and Sargeant said that South County is an ideal place to look for dragonflies. The Great Swamp, Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, Tri-Town Park, and the Carolina Management Area are all excellent places to visit from May to August.
Dragonflies begin their lives as aquatic larvae and only fly around as adult insects for three or four weeks, they said, and different species prefer different types of aquatic habitat. So they suggest visiting sites with different water features – ponds, lakes, streams and rivers of various sizes – at different times throughout the summer to see the greatest number of species.
“I just look for a spot where you can park and that has public access to the water,” said Schenck. “If you’re not afraid to get your feet wet, you’re going to find a lot of dragons.”

This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of South County Life magazine.

Molecular tool shows that animals are what they eat

            A new oceanography professor at the University of Rhode Island has developed a unique molecular-scale tool for measuring the effect of climate change and other factors on the health of ecosystems. Kelton McMahon has already used it to discover how penguins have been affected by environmental changes around Antarctica, and now he is turning his attention to southern New England and focusing his technique on seabirds, commercial fisheries and the marine food web of Narragansett Bay.
            According to McMahon, who grew up in southeastern Connecticut and joined the faculty of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography last August, his new tool is based on the age-old concept that you are what you eat. He said that animal tissues contain the chemical fingerprint of their diet, as well as that of the climate and the structure of the food web.
            “The basic idea is that the ratio of heavy to light isotopes of elements like carbon or nitrogen in your diet gets passed on to you in predictable ways,” he said. “We can calculate what
an organism is eating because we know how the ratio of isotopes change as they move from diet to consumer. It allows us to predict who is connected to whom in the ecosystem.”
            Isotope ratios have been used by scientists to study food webs for more than 40 years. But rather than taking an average ratio for an entire animal, McMahon’s new technique enables him to focus on the isotope ratio of individual amino acids, which provides him with a great deal more detail about how an organism processes and allocates resources.
            By studying the isotope ratios of amino acids in the egg shells and feathers of wild Gentoo penguins and comparing them to those of museum specimens more than 100 years old, he has revealed insights about how the environment in the Southern Ocean has changed in recent decades. He found, for instance, that the penguins ate mostly fish a century ago, but they shifted to krill and then back to fish over the last 80 years.
            McMahon believes that humans are probably the cause of that shift. During the commercial whaling era in the late 1800s, krill-eating whales were hunted to near extinction, so more krill was available for the penguins to eat. When whale populations began to recover in the 1960s and 1970s, the penguins returned to a diet dominated by fish. And now that krill is being harvested in large quantities for use as fish oil supplements, this diet shift back to fish is getting further exacerbated.
            Isotope ratios also reveal a story about climate change in Antarctica.
            “As the climate is warming, ice in the area is disappearing and allowing more sunlight to penetrate into the water, stimulating plankton to grow, which increases the value of the nitrogen isotopes at the base of the food web,” he said. “We’re seeing a climate change signal in our samples on top of an anthropogenic signal from whaling, and both are acting synergistically to alter the food web.”
            Now that he has successfully demonstrated the value of his new tool by studying penguins, McMahon is beginning to use it to evaluate the changes in local food webs. He is assessing how climate change is influencing regional commercial fisheries and the availability of cod on the continental shelf off the coast of Rhode Island.
            “There have been some interesting changes in cod dynamics,” said McMahon, who is collaborating on this work with URI graduate student Joe Langan. “We’ve seen a larger increase in the cod population in southern New England than you might expect, since cod prefer cold water. They should be declining, yet we’re seeing pockets where cod are expanding in population off the shelf. We want to figure out what’s driving that.”
            He is discussing with another URI graduate student, Anna Robuck, how his technique could help her assess how the role of seabirds in marine food webs influences the accumulation of contaminants in their tissues. And he has joined a group of scientists from around Rhode Island to quantify how changes at the bottom of the food web in Narragansett Bay affect the population dynamics of the species at the top of the food web.
            “I’ve used the technique on a wide range of things, from sharks in the Pacific to deep sea corals to penguins to people,” McMahon said. “Anything that produces amino acids in their biological tissues has the capacity to be studied through these techniques. We can use it to answer a wide range of questions about the sources and cycling of organic matter from all over the world.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI on May 2, 2018.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Plants are more aware than we think

            It has taken a long time, but scientists are finally coming to the realization that humans aren’t as unique and superior as was once thought. Yes, our big brains make us the most intelligent creatures around, but we’re not the only animals to use tools, communicate complex ideas, solve problems, make conscious decisions, or even show emotion.
            But what about plants? The blooming daffodils and spring ephemerals that are blooming this month have got me thinking about what talents plants may possess that few of us recognize. They don’t have a brain, so they cannot think, and yet many plants exhibit remarkable abilities to sense and react to the world around them.
            We know, for example, that plants don’t have ears, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hear – which may be a comfort to those who talk to their plants or play the radio all day to keep them
Cartoon by David Chatowsky
entertained. In one study, scientists played a recording of a caterpillar eating leaves, and nearby plants responded by secreting chemicals they use as a defense against caterpillars. There were no caterpillars present, just the sound of caterpillars eating, so clearly the plants could hear it.
            Similarly, Australian researchers played the sound of water trickling through a pipe, and the roots of nearby plants grew toward the sound of the water. Again, no actual water was trickling, and yet the plants detected the sound, recognized it was a useful resource, and reacted appropriately by extending their roots toward the faux water.
            Hearing is only one of the many senses that plants exhibit. Some researchers claim that they may have even more senses than people do.
            We’ve all seen how house plants begin to lean toward the light from the nearest window, but have you ever considered that to be a form of vision or eyesight? They detect the direction the light is coming from and grow toward it. They also know when another plant has grown over them, blocking their sunlight. And some can even detect different colors of light.
            Venus flytraps are the obvious example of a plant that has a sense of touch. As soon as a bug flies into its open trap and touches at least two hairs growing inside the lobe of the trap, the trap springs closed to capture and consume the insect. The plant can feel the prey touching the hairs and responds effectively.
            Plants can smell other plants, too. In many fruit trees, for instance, the smell of ripening fruit will induce nearby fruit to ripen more rapidly. They can also remember, sense up from down, and avoid obstacles.
            This is not to say, as University of Rhode Island botanist Keith Killingbeck warns, that plants that communicate are “old friends” or they “look out for one another.” That’s just anthropomorphism – giving human characteristics to non-human entities. "The novel research that has revealed the intricacies of plant abilities is captivating enough without the need to put an emotional smiley face on an oak tree," Killingbeck said.
            And while no one is claiming – yet – that plants have human-like intelligence or can feel pain, we do have much more in common with grasses and wildflowers and maple trees than most of us would have imagined a few short years ago.
            So next time you think you’re alone in the woods, think again. The plants may be watching you.

This article first appeared in The Independent on April 19, 2018.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Students raise rare turtles to boost wild populations

            On one side of a large greenhouse behind the Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, Mass., are a dozen shallow plastic tubs, each containing a few inches of water, some artificial vegetation and several rare Blanding’s turtles. A similar line-up of tubs – but with much less water – contain equally rare wood turtles. And four 60-gallon pools hold federally endangered Plymouth red-bellied cooters.
            All of the turtles are less than a year old, and all are part of research projects designed to boost the populations of the turtles by raising hatchlings in captivity for their first year until  
Students at Bristol Aggie collect data on Blanding's turtles.
they are less vulnerable to predation. After a year in captivity, the animals are returned to the wild.
            The effort is called “head-starting” the turtles. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has been head-starting cooters since 1984 by collecting hatchlings at the few ponds where they live in Plymouth County – the only place they are found – and having them raised at science centers around the state. Students at Bristol Aggie got involved six years ago, and this year they are raising 66 cooters in a partnership with Mass Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
            “They’re easy to raise, so it’s gone very well,” said Brian Bastarache, a teacher in the school’s Natural Resource Management program. “We have some issues with a shell infection this year that we haven’t had to deal with before, but it’s a disease only found in captive turtles, and we expect it will clear up once they’re released.”
            Head-starting of young turtles has a somewhat controversial history, according to Bastarache, so the Blanding’s turtle project is designed to put the controversy to rest.
            “Some biologists have concerns that head-starting sounds good in principle but isn’t effective in reality,” he said. “This Blanding’s experiment is to determine if it does improve
population recruitment, as opposed to just making us feel good that we’re doing something. What’s different with this project is that the turtles will have an intensive post-release monitoring, and the larger ones will get a radio transmitter so they can be tracked.”
            Blanding’s turtles are quite rare throughout most of their range in the central and eastern United States and Canada due to habitat fragmentation and nest predation. They are unusual in that they show no signs of aging and can remain active, healthy and continue to reproduce for more than 80 years, assuming they reach maturity. The head-start program aims to help them do so.
            During a tour of the Bristol Aggie head-start facility, about 20 sophomore students were attending the Blanding’s turtles – weighing and measuring each one and sorting them by size.
            “They’re very slow growing, so you don’t really notice their growth until you look at the data,” said student Wyatt Rego of Swansea. “They have different growth rates based on their metabolism and competition for food, so we sort them by size so the smaller ones aren’t competing for food with the big ones.”
            Rego said that the turtle project is one reason he enrolled at Bristol Aggie.
            “You’re actually doing something, not just being in school and learning,” he said. “We’re actually helping in a government program to get something done.”
            Fellow student Abigail Bruno agrees. “I’ve always had a love for nature and natural resources, so getting into this program was a natural thing,” said the Rehoboth resident. “I’ve always been interested in turtles – I have a pet tortoise at home – and I like the idea of helping out endangered species.”
            Bastarache said the project not only teaches his students how to care for and study rare turtles by following strict scientific and safety protocols, they also learn to work independently and as teams.
            “They all really want to be here,” he said. “They’re learning project management, communication with team members, and the ability to assess a problem and take actions to address it. This time of year, I stand in the corner and let them run the show so they can develop those professional and survival skills. They’re also learning how to apply computer skills and math skills.”
            Nine years into a ten-year study of the head-starting of Blanding’s turtles has already shown that the effort is worthwhile. Survivorship of the turtles that spend their first year in captivity and safe from predators is much greater than those that spend that first year in the wild. A detailed analysis of the project’s results will be completed after the final year of the project in 2019.
            In May, the one-year-old Blanding’s turtles raised at Bristol Aggie will be released at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge in Sudbury, Mass., and Bastarache’s students will be there to wish the animals well.
            While the turtle project will continue with a new batch of hatchlings next year, Bristol Aggie will launch a new partnership with Roger Williams Park Zoo next year in which the students will also raise rare New England cottontails for release throughout the region.
This article first appeared on EcoRI on April 12, 2018.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How birds get from there to here

Robins have already returned to southern New England from their wintering grounds to the south, and soon many millions of other birds — warblers, orioles, swallows, vireos, flycatchers and others — will follow suit. Scott McWilliams, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island, has been curious about bird migration since his childhood in Ohio. He chose to work at URI in part because of its proximity to Block Island, where bird migration
URI Professor Scott McWilliams (Photo by Michael Salerno)
research has been conducted for many years. For more than two decades, McWilliams has studied the physiological changes that birds undergo as they prepare for migration, especially the changes to their digestive system.

How did you get interested in birds?
When I was growing up, I was always fascinated with seasonal changes, and the birds leaving for the winter and coming back in spring were something that really caught my attention. We were surrounded by Amish families, and they had German-Dutch names for all the birds, so I got to learn two or three different names for every species. They knew a heck of a lot about the natural history of the birds, too. Birds were a good talking point with them, and also one of those fascinating things about the harbingers of spring and fall.

What’s the most interesting thing about birds?
The answer depends on who you’re talking to. What I do know is that people are fascinated by birds. Birds are in our backyards and around us, there’s tremendous variety in terms of colors and behaviors, and many of the species have adapted to be around people so they make it impossible for us to ignore them. For me as a scientist, I really like the idea of studying dinosaurs that live with us today. Essentially, they are the remnants of the dinosaur era that have made it successfully despite the dinosaur’s decline. They occur on every continent on the globe, so they are a tremendous example of adaptation and acclimation to various environments.

How do you describe the research you do?
I study birds that migrate and how they interact with their environment and how what we do impacts their life.

What is it about Block Island that’s notable to migrating birds?
The geography of southern New England is such that we have mostly an East-West Coast, with Block Island about 20 kilometers off that coast. Block Island has always been a place where tens of thousands of migrating songbirds end up each fall as they travel south. It allows you to study how the birds’ migration directly interacts with the quality of the environment and the weather patterns that occur. And if you look at the population dynamics of most any songbird, most mortality occurs in the first year during fall migration, so decisions that birds make during that time have much larger consequences for the population of those particular species.

Why do birds migrate in the first place?
Birds that migrate live in seasonal environments, so they’re primarily migrating to get to places during especially cold periods of the annual cycle when it’s too cold and they can make a better living elsewhere. All the birds that migrate have evolved to migrate in part to respond to the seasonality of the environment.

But not all birds migrate. Why not?
Some have decided to weather the storm, so to speak. Many of those species that are resident here do so because they can tolerate really cold temperatures; they’ve evolved an ability to deal with the cold. It’s a minority of species. The vast majority of species do some sort of migration to avoid seasonal declines in temperature or food resources.

How do they know when it’s time to migrate?
I love to think about these kinds of things. Almost all species use the environmental cue of photoperiod [daylight length] as a way to tell them when migration should occur. We can put birds in captivity and isolate them from the environment and just change the light schedule, and we can put them into a migration state — they start jumping around at night, they start fattening up, they start eating lots more. Photoperiod is the environmental cue that underlies the migration tendencies of birds. It tells you when spring happens, when fall happens. But almost all birds also use other cues, like weather patterns. Photoperiod defines the window of opportunity of when you’re going to migrate, but then you use weather and other environmental cues to decide exactly the day and time when you’re going to move.

How do they know what direction to go and when they’ve arrived at their destination?
It’s in their genes. The birds actually migrate for a certain number of days, and that certain number of days is what we call endogenously encoded. The genes they’ve inherited tell them that migration is roughly 40 to 50 days or it’s 20 to 30 days or whatever. There’s a migratory restlessness period that you can define in captivity – they’ll be restless for a certain number of days and then they’ll just shut it off. That tells them the duration. The direction is also coded for most songbirds in their genes. But there are other migration strategies as well. Cranes and geese, for example, learn where to go by following their parents.

What does it take for birds to prepare for migration? Like physiological changes?
Migration takes guts.

What do you mean by that?
Birds have a part of their brain that detects light levels and tells their brain what the photoperiod is. When that happens, there are brain hormonal responses that basically tell the bird it’s time to eat more, and they will increase how much they eat by two, three, four times on a daily basis, and so they start to fatten. Most birds use the amount of fat as their own internal indicator as to whether they are ready to migrate. Then, if it’s warm and the winds are favorable, they’ll take off and burn some of that fuel. Then they’ll end up at a stopover site somewhere and do it again.

What do you mean when you say that migration takes guts?
If you or I were going to run a marathon, the last thing we’d want to do is begin by getting really fat. Our digestive system won’t allow that, we’ll get too full, and that’s true of birds, too. Birds have evolved this incredible flexibility in their digestive system. When the hormones come from their brain in response to the photoperiod that tells them to start eating more, their digestive system responds by increasing in size by three or four times over the course of a couple days. Then they’re able to consume lots more and convert it to fuel. When they migrate, they may fly for several days and not eat at all. They basically reduce the size and the function of those digestive organs during that time, and then once they land, they have to build it back up. They’ve evolved this tremendous flexibility in their digestive system to accommodate this alternating feeding and fasting period.

What else is interesting about bird physiology?
A lot, especially the physiology of those that stay here for the winter. They have some incredible adaptations, like how ducks can stand on ice and still keep their feet warm, or how tiny songbirds can stay warm on very cold winter nights. They’re pretty amazing creatures.

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on March 20, 2018.