Friday, June 21, 2019

Preparing for rising seas

On one of the coldest days of the year, Wenley Ferguson fights the wind at the edge of Quonochontaug Pond in Charlestown. Bundled in a parka and knee-high rubber boots, she watches as workers use two large hydraulic dredges to pump a slurry of sand and water a quarter mile through an orange flexible pipe and onto the adjacent salt marsh in an effort to raise the elevation of the wetland. With flocks of gulls and shorebirds called dunlin gathering at the outflow pipe to forage for tiny marine creatures, two bulldozer drivers push the sandy sediments around on top of the delicate marsh, grading the site to create areas of high- and low-marsh habitat, as well as drainage channels so water does not pool on the surface as the tide recedes.
The habitat restoration coordinator for Save the Bay, Ferguson and Caitlin Chaffee from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council oversee the team of workers as they
Roy Carpenter's Beach after Super Storm Sandy (Michael Cevoli)
endure the challenging conditions to complete the first stage of what officials hope will save the marsh from rising seas.
“It looks a bit like a desert at the moment,” admits Ferguson, who calls the effort a sediment placement project. In a year or two, however, after native marsh plants have been planted and nature has had a chance to carve its signature into the project, the marsh will look and work like it did before sea level began its rapid ascent.
“We’re taking these extreme measures to place sediment on degraded salt marshes because we’ve seen widespread loss of salt marsh vegetation over the last 15 years,” says Ferguson. “A healthy marsh can build elevation through its root matter or through the accretion of sediments, but our marshes aren’t keeping pace with sea level rise.
During the last 20 years, sea level has risen an average of 5 millimeters per year, but local salt marshes are building elevation at just 2 millimeters per year. “And millimeters matter,” Ferguson notes. While salt marsh vegetation thrives on the twice daily influx of water from the tides, the rising sea level has meant that many of the Ocean State’s salt marshes are becoming permanently flooded, killing the vegetation where rare birds nest, and negating the marsh’s ability to cushion surging storms.
The Quonochontaug project follows similar efforts at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, the Narrow River in Narragansett, and Ninigret Pond in Charlestown.
            A decade ago it would have been unthinkable for Ferguson to stand idly by as dredged material was dumped on a salt marsh. She spent much of the 1990s and 2000s removing fill and other impediments to the natural tidal flow at more than a dozen marshes damaged by human disturbances in the state.  Under normal circumstances, Ferguson may have been one of the first to stand in the way of a heavy bulldozer driving over the fragile marsh plants. But the circumstances these days are anything but normal.
            According to a gauge in Narragansett Bay, sea level has risen 11 inches since 1930, most of it in the last three decades. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently raised its estimates for future sea level rise to five feet by 2050 and more than 11 feet by 2100. During moon tides and major storms, water levels will get even higher. And that means that most of Rhode Island’s salt marshes – and much of the rest of the coastline – will soon become flooded. The changing climate is driving other dramatic changes in the Ocean State as well, from increasingly damaging storm runoff to degraded forests and heat-related illnesses.
             The state of Rhode Island and its coastal communities, along with coastal businesses, residents and some inland towns, are beginning to plan for the inevitable implications of climate change. Structures are being raised, barriers are being built, and numerous other strategies are being deployed in anticipation of....

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

Thursday, June 20, 2019

My year of the snake

            Birds captured my imagination almost 40 years ago because of their vibrant colors, great diversity, and ease of seeing them any time of year. After observing most of the species that could be seen in the U.S., I expanded my horizons to focus on butterflies for a few years, then dragonflies, beetles and amphibians.
            I’m calling 2019 my year of the snake, and early summer is the ideal time to find them.
            Snakes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course. In fact, most people are somewhat afraid of them, and a few are downright terrified. But that feeling is one many people developed based
Northern water snake at Round Top fishing area.
largely on misinformation and pop culture hysteria. There is no rational reason to fear snakes here in Rhode Island, where every species is harmless. No venomous snakes have been found in Rhode Island for half a century, when the last population of eastern timber rattlesnakes was eradicated.
            I admit that I was a bit squeamish around snakes for a while myself, but the more time I spent with them, the more I grew to appreciate them. Whenever I came across one in the past, I was often startled due to the unexpected nature of the encounter, and by the time I recovered, my opportunity to observe the animal closely had usually passed.
Yet I’ve always known that snakes are tremendously beneficial creatures. Some species are effective at keeping rodents in check, while others are valuable consumers of other pests.
            In my year of the snake, I’ve already come across four species of native snakes, including several garter snakes, the most likely species to be seen in gardens and backyards, and the beautifully patterned milk snake, whose shiny scales and color bands remind me of glazed terracotta.
            I also saw the Ocean State’s largest snake, thanks to snake whisperer Lou Perrotti, the conservation director at Roger Williams Park Zoo. Lou can find snakes where mere mortals see only leaves and branches and wood piles and stone walls.
He also knows where to look. Lou took me to a historic cemetery where he knows several varieties of snakes are often found. And just outside the cemetery boundary was an absolutely stunning beast – a five-foot long black rat snake.
            A glossy black with a white throat and silvery belly, it didn’t move while I stared wide-eyed at its magnificence. And it didn’t even move when Lou approached it and casually picked it up as if he were picking up a baseball bat. Black rat snakes have a reputation for being docile, and that one behaved as expected.
            Until, that is, I made a motion to grab it from Lou, a motion the snake apparently didn’t expect. And it bit me.
            I’m quite proud of my first snake bite. (Lou claims to have been bitten thousands of times with no ill effects.) It felt like a playful kitten got a little too playful. And then it went back to being docile.
            If Rhode Island’s largest snake bites like a playful kitten, then I can attest that we have nothing whatsoever to fear from snakes in Rhode Island. But don’t just take my word for it. The next time you come across a snake, take a moment to gather your wits, take a deep breath, and focus your attention on its behavior, structure, movement and that extra-sensory tongue. I won’t claim that they’re as cute as a kitten, but they’re just as harmless.

This article first appeared in The Independent on June 20, 2019.

Monday, June 17, 2019

River herring may be added to endangered list

            A decision to add two species of river herring to the federal endangered species list is due from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) later this month, and it could have significant implications for southeastern New England.
            Alewives and blueback herring, collectively called river herring, were once abundant in rivers and nearshore waters from Canada to South Carolina, but dams, climate change and overfishing have contributed to their decline by as much as 98 percent.
            “Historically they used all the big and small rivers on the entire Atlantic seaboard,” said Erica Fuller, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, who has been advocating for increased management of the species for many years. “They were the fish that fed the settlers; they were everywhere. There’s even a story of General Washington feeding the troops with alewives.”
            But, she added, the species have been at historic lows for decades.
            River herring play a vital ecological role, according to scientists. They spawn in
Alewives like this may soon be added to the endangered list (stock)
freshwater rivers and spend a majority of their lives at sea, so they carry nutrients to and from both ecosystems. They also provide food for an abundance of wildlife, from whales and seals to bluefin tuna, striped bass, bluefish and seabirds. But as more and more rivers were dammed, the fish lost access to their spawning grounds and populations declined.
Rhode Island has had a ban on the capture or possession of river herring since 2006, which was imposed following a significant decline in fish numbers returning to local rivers, according to Phillip Edwards, a freshwater fisheries biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Herring numbers returning to area rivers have stabilized in recent years, though they remain well below the numbers seen in the late 1990s.
            Efforts to install fish passageways and remove dams throughout the region, along with improvements in water quality, has opened up hundreds of miles of spawning habitat, but warming waters and drought due to the changing climate have made it difficult for the species to rebuild their populations.
            Fuller said that the biggest factor in the decline of river herring populations in the last 20 years was the arrival in the Northeast of large fishing trawlers targeting mackerel and Atlantic herring.
            “They came to the area in the early 2000s and had huge quotas for mackerel and Atlantic herring, and they scooped up tons of river herring as bycatch,” said Fuller.
Since river herring from the same spawning river tend to swim together when at sea, she said the trawlers may have captured almost all of the river herring that spawn in certain rivers.
“Some river populations haven’t recovered since the advent of mid-water trawlers when all the other factors suggest that they should have rebounded by now,” she said. “I don’t want to put a black hat only on industrial fishing, but it’s one significant factor we need to reduce to rebuild the river herring population.”
            The management of the fisheries for mackerel and Atlantic herring has made it difficult to take steps to protect the river herring. Mackerel are managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, Atlantic herring are managed by the New England Fishery Management Council, and river herring are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The commission is made up of representatives from area states, and the councils are made up of state and federal representatives. Fuller said the federal government is reluctant to manage river herring as a stock in a federal fishery management plan, and the courts have been reluctant to force them to do so.
            In an unexpected turn of events, the populations of mackerel and Atlantic herring experienced dramatic declines in the last year, which will likely result in a drastically lower fishing quota for those species. And that could mean many fewer river herring will be unintentionally captured as a result.
            “The crash of those two fisheries has changed the dynamic,” said Fuller. “It’s very important for those fisheries to limit their catch of river herring, and if quotas are low going forward, we could see an unexpected benefit.”
            That potential benefit could affect the decision to list river herring as endangered.
            The Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the federal government in 2011 to add river herring to the endangered list. Fuller said that blueback herring that spawn in the rivers of the mid-Atlantic states are especially vulnerable to extinction in the absence of federal management of the species due to their depleted status and the high proportion of the population that is caught by trawlers in southern New England waters.
            “One way NMFS can avoid a listing under the Endangered Species Act is if it can show that there are adequate regulatory mechanisms in place, and federal management under a fishery management plan would do that, because the herring would have science-based catch limits, a coast-wide stock assessment, and increased monitoring,” explained Fuller. “Federal oversight could potentially bring that stock back. But, in the absence of adding them to a plan, if they meet the criteria for listing as endangered or threatened, they should be listed.”
            Fuller isn’t optimistic that the species will be added to the endangered list, however, in part because the Trump Administration has actively reduced environmental protections whenever it could.
            “The agency will likely say that river herring don’t meet Endangered Species Act criteria for listing, that their numbers aren’t low enough,” she said, noting that the government’s ongoing review of river herring populations has not been made public. “If they’re listed, it would put a monkey wrench into federal management of mackerel and Atlantic herring. NMFS would do almost anything to avoid the endangered designation because they also manage those fisheries.”
            If the decision is made to list river herring, Fuller said it could have significant implications.
            “Then they’ll have to take reasonable and prudent measures to reduce bycatch,” she said. “That could involve time and area closures, more federal resources for science, more monitoring of the fisheries, more federal money to remove dams and open up more habitat and have better monitoring on the rivers. It would be big.”
            Even if river herring are not added to the endangered list, they still may be in for additional protections. A bill has been introduced in Congress called the Forage Fish Conservation Act, which would provide federal management of river herring and other forage fish.
            “It’s got bipartisan support because there are lots of recreational fishermen on both sides of the aisle who appreciate the value of healthy populations of river herring,” Fuller said.
            
This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on June 14, 2019.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The man of the menagerie

            When an 800-pound wild Himalayan goat called a takin escaped from its enclosure at Roger Williams Park Zoo last May, it smashed through a reinforced door and injured two staff members before the zoo’s recapture team, overseen by Wakefield resident Tim French, sedated the animal and returned it to its exhibit. The emergency had staff members on edge for an hour, but none more than French, the zoo’s deputy director for animal programs, who is responsible for everything at the zoo that has anything to do with the animals.
            “From the very first day the takins arrived here, they had really nasty attitudes and showed aggression to people,” French said. “We had practiced emergency drills on takin escapes, because that’s one animal I was worried about getting out.”
            And yet the drama of the escape and recapture is something French looks back on fondly for the successful way it was handled.
            “One of the things I like about this place is when we get to the end of an event like that
when something has gone wrong, and I can see that the response was quick and coordinated and we had taken a potentially bad situation and turned it around,” he said. “I get a real sense of satisfaction out of that.”
            Luckily, French hasn’t had to deal with too many escaped animals in his more than three decades working at zoos around the country, including the last 14 years at Roger Williams Park.
He grew up in Endicott, N.Y., and said he “fell into” zoo work a few years after graduating college with a degree in wildlife biology. He started as a zookeeper at the Ross Park Zoo near his hometown, then became the curator of mammals at the Toledo Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio before becoming the director of the Riverside Zoo, a small zoo in western Nebraska. Yearning to return East, he accepted his present position in Providence, where he oversees the veterinary staff, zookeeper staff, animal nutrition, and conservation activities.
“I like the size of the animal collection here – it’s big without being huge, and the physical facilities are, too. It’s decent-sized without being unmanageable,” French said. “When I arrived, the zoo was getting ready to design a new polar bear exhibit and breed elephants, both of which I had just done in the last five years, so my experience fit nicely.”
French starts every day with a status meeting with his zookeepers to make sure they know the day’s schedule of veterinary visits, exhibit repairs and keeper presentations. Every week he meets with his animal management team to discuss medical cases and the status of new exhibits and other programs. And he maintains regular contact with his counterparts at numerous other zoos about the transfer of animals from one facility to another.
His big project for the last three years has been the design and construction of the zoo’s new “Faces of the Rainforest” exhibit, which opened in November. It features a 40-foot tall glass atrium and free-flying aviary housing four kinds of primates – two of which are already breeding – giant otters, sloths, toucans, an anaconda and many more creatures of the Amazon.
“We wanted to accomplish a lot with the exhibit and address a number of weaknesses in our collection,” he said. “We wanted to tell a rainforest story, so it had to be a very diverse collection of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. We also wanted to select species that we thought would give us more breeding opportunities.”
Because so many animals were going to be arriving at the zoo at the same time, French was faced with the logistical challenge of transporting them all to Providence from zoos around the country, getting them through quarantine, making sure their exhibits were completed on time, and carefully introducing the varied species to each other.
“Animals will always find your mistakes and find them quickly,” he said. “One of our golden lion tamarins found an opening in the exhibit that was just a little too big, and he got into a service area. He was back there for a couple of days until we could coax him out. But we got him.”
Now that the rainforest exhibit is open, French can focus more of his attention on construction of a new education building and the establishment of a new commissary for the preparation and storage of food for the animals.
“The commissary is a real big deal for us because right now we’ve got freezers scattered around everywhere,” he said.
Among the groceries he purchases for the animals every year are thousands of dead rodents, hundreds of thousands of crickets and mealworms, several tons of fish of many varieties, many tons of hay, several thousand pounds of horsemeat for the carnivores, four varieties of biscuits for the primates, uncounted servings of “restaurant quality” produce, and bi-monthly deliveries of grains from four vendors.
While the demands of the zoo’s animals don’t leave a great deal of free time, most of French’s time off revolves around his family, especially his eight grandchildren and his “goofy” golden retriever that he takes on hikes. But his mind often wanders back to Roger Williams Park Zoo.
“I really like that I get to do a lot of different things in this job,” he said. “I like the opportunity to create things, like exhibit designs. When you finish something and open it up and see how people react, I get a charge out of that.”
French won’t admit to having a favorite animal at the zoo, but he prefers to spend his time with the bears and otters.
“I’ve had fun working with all different animals,” he said. “But I’m not an aquarium guy. I like looking at fish, but the thought of caring for them does nothing for me.”

This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of South County Life magazine.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The fight to protect our forests

            In mid-April, pine warblers had taken over the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge in Exeter. Their high-pitched, insect-like buzzy songs could be heard everywhere one turned, from the parking lot to the pond to the densest woodland.
But they weren’t the only birds making themselves heard and seen during the early days of spring migration. A pair of red-shouldered hawks called out to each other as they soared overhead and performed their mating ritual in anticipation of nesting in the refuge in the
A stroll through Fisherville Brook (Glenn Osmundson)
ensuing weeks. A pair of eastern phoebes had nearly completed construction of their nest on a support beam of the informational kiosk. And red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, black-capped chickadees and several other forest-nesting species appeared to be making plans for the future.
Fisherville, a mosaic of five properties acquired since 1988 that now totals 1,010-acres, is an ideal place to observe the important role that forests play in providing habitat for a diversity of wildlife. It’s also representative of the abundance of ecosystem services that forests contribute to the region’s human population, from protecting the water quality in local aquifers and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere to cooling the environment, reducing soil erosion and providing a stress-free place for rest, recreation and rejuvenation.
“Fisherville protects the headwaters of the Queen River, one of the most biodiverse rivers in the state,” said Scott Ruhren, Audubon’s senior conservation director. “And the reason it’s one of the most biodiverse rivers in the state is because it runs through protected forests almost all the way to the Pawcatuck River, including through our Eppley Wildlife Refuge.”
Large undisturbed tracts of forest are especially valuable in supporting wildlife and the services that people require.
“Humans have a history of fragmenting forests into smaller patches, but small woodlots lose diversity, they get warmer more quickly, they tend to get invaded by pests, and they’re less able to store and filter water,” Ruhren said. “We take them for granted, but it’s vitally important that we protect large, intact forest ecosystems.”
Audubon’s executive director Larry Taft agrees. When asked what he likes most about Fisherville, he said, “its bigness.”
While size is indeed important when it comes to forest conservation, what is equally important today in Rhode Island is that the state acknowledge the vital role forests play in the region and establish a process to protect essential forest habitats. That’s why Audubon worked with partners to develop the Rhode Island Woodland Preservation and Stewardship Act of 2019, a bill that was introduced to the General Assembly in April by Rep. Arthur Handy and Sen. Bridget Valverde. When passed, the legislation will give the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management the authority to promote the stewardship of forests and woodlands in partnership with cities, towns and private landowners.
“Wetlands, farmland, coastal lands and soils are all protected in the state, but not upland woods,” said Taft as he walked through Fisherville. “Forests like this have no standing under the law in Rhode Island. There is no grand plan or incentive for people to use or protect or appreciate the environmental services they provide.”
Forested lands have been under increasing threat in recent years. Over the past century, the primary threat to Rhode Island’s wildlife and their habitats... 

Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2019 issue of Audubon Report.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Caring for the wild ones

            When Christine Cummings was a child in Illinois, she pretended to be a baby bird that had fallen from her nest whenever it was bedtime. Her parents had to place her back in her “nest” every night to get her to go to sleep. It’s a process that came to be called re-nesting, and it was a sign of what was to come.
            Today, Cummings is the founder of A Place Called Hope, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Killingworth that cares for injured birds of prey and those that have fallen from their nests until they can be returned to the wild. Her husband, Todd, has learned to climb tall trees to re-nest the baby raptors as soon as possible, which sometimes involves building replacement nests if the original becomes damaged in a storm.
            “I was destined to do this; there’s no question,” said Cummings, who admits about 600 hawks, owls, falcons and vultures to her facility each year and re-nested 23 great horned owl
Wildlife rehabilitator Amanda Morgillo releases a hawk.
chicks in just the first three months of 2019. “We don’t let nature take its course here, because 98 percent of the injuries are caused by humans,” mostly from vehicle collisions.
            It takes great dedication – not to mention a lengthy certification process – to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, but those like Cummings who have completed the process say it is a tremendously fulfilling endeavor that meets a significant need in the community. It starts with attendance at a four-hour seminar sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and taught by members of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.
            According to Vickie Silvia, who began the process of becoming a rehabilitator in 2016, the class covers a wide variety of topics, from diet and critical care to animal diseases and caging for most of the wildlife found in the state. A retired police officer who lives in Old Lyme, Silvia said the exam that followed the class wasn’t especially difficult, but it required that she pay close attention during class and study the manual.
            After passing the exam, trainees are required to volunteer for at least 40 hours with a licensed rehabilitator having at least three years of experience, and identify a veterinarian who has agreed to provide guidance and emergency care as needed.
            For Amanda Morgillo, finding a willing vet was the easy part. She works at a veterinary hospital in North Branford. Both Morgillo and Silvia spent most of their volunteer hours with Cummings at A Place Called Hope.
            “I always learn something new every time I’m there,” Morgillo said. “Every day is a new experience and a new lesson.”
            They initially spent most of their time cleaning cages, preparing food, and observing Cummings handle and care for the birds before getting the chance to get hands-on with the raptors themselves. Eventually they were allowed to help rescue birds in the field and process those delivered to the facility.
            “My advice is this: when it’s time to get your volunteer hours, don’t get them all at one place,” Cummings said. “Get your hours at places with different kinds of animals until you know what you want to do.”
            After receiving their initial license – officially called the standard rehabilitator appointment – Morgillo and Silvia were allowed to care for a limited variety of species on their own, including rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and opossums. But they chose to pursue wildlife rehabilitation in different ways.
Despite living in an apartment with her parents, Morgillo began caring for whatever animals her home could accommodate. “I know my limits,” she said. “I don’t have a huge space, I can’t build caging, I can’t have a possum and a squirrel at the same time. So I take in what I can, rescue what I can, and help Christine as much as I can.”
            Silvia knew immediately that she wasn’t going to establish her own rehabilitation facility at her home. Her interest was in raptors, so she chose to continue volunteering at A Place Called Hope.
            “The reality of working here and seeing how much they need and what goes into it made me realize that I was more interested in staying here and doing what I could for this organization,” said Silvia. “Unless she throws me out, there’s no way I’m leaving.”
            Rehabilitating birds requires a federal migratory bird rehabilitation permit, which Silvia has not yet obtained. But as long as she continues to volunteer at A Place Called Hope, she can help rehabilitate raptors under Cummings’ permit. (Rehabilitating animals that can transmit rabies, like raccoons, skunks and foxes, requires another level of authorization – and a series of rabies vaccinations.)
            Many newly-certified rehabilitators soon realize that the time and cost involved in caring for animals at home may be more than they can handle on their own. But Cummings said that demand for rehabilitation services is overwhelming, and volunteers are needed for a wide variety of activities, from rescues in the field and animal transportation to educating the public and caring for the hundreds of infant rabbits and squirrels that need assistance during baby season in the spring and summer. It’s not necessary that every rehabilitator open their home to wildlife.
            “Once you know what animals you want to work with, I recommend joining up with others who are interested in the same animals,” Cummings said. “Don’t do it alone or you’ll burn out.”
            The Wildlife Rehabilitators Association provides support to new rehabilitators through networking opportunities and additional training, including classes Cummings teaches on wildlife rescue and transport, raptor intake and re-nesting.
            Morgillo and Silvia agree that every minute of the work is worthwhile.
            “There’s no way to describe the smile that comes across your face from being so close to these amazing creatures,” concluded Morgillo. “That they let you in their presence to help them grow and get them back out there on their own is awe-inspiring.”

This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Sound & Country magazine.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Reptiles, amphibians in need of "urgent conservation" in Rhode Island

            When Scott Buchanan was hired as a wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management last year, he became the first full-time herpetologist on the state payroll. It’s a sign, he said, that reptiles and amphibians are in need of management and conservation in the state.
            “To be in herpetology is to be on the front lines of the global biodiversity crisis,” he said. “We’re at risk of losing, globally, roughly half of the reptile and amphibian species on Earth in the next 100 years. Turtles and frogs are in a neck-and-neck competition for the unfortunate title of being the most endangered wildlife taxa.”
            While Rhode Island’s reptiles and amphibians have not experienced the level of habitat loss and disease that occurs in Southeast Asia or the Tropics, Buchanan said “the crisis is very real in New England. The mission is very urgent, and we need to do everything we can here in Rhode Island.”
            About 40 species of turtles, snakes, frogs, toads and salamanders call the Ocean State
Northern leopard frogs are disappearing from Rhode Island (stock)
home. All face issues of habitat loss, road mortality and disease, but turtles are also faced with high demand from collectors for the pet trade.
            While monitoring a rare population of wood turtles this spring, herpetologist Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, observed a small specimen he estimated to be five or six years old.
            “I love to see the little ones,” he said, “but I worry that someone would put this one in their pocket and take it home.”
            It’s such a concern that Buchanan is co-chair of a collaborative group of biologists, law enforcement officials and legal experts from up and down the East Coast working to combat the illegal trade in native turtles. The objective, he said, is to raise the profile of the issue and encourage the law enforcement community to be aware that a black market in native turtles exists in the region.
            The illegal trade in wildlife is valued at about $19 billion annually, according to the World Wildlife Fund's TRAFFIC program, which monitors the trade.
            “It’s something I worry a lot about,” said Buchanan, who conducted research on spotted turtles for his doctorate at the University of Rhode Island. “If you know where they are, turtles are pretty easy to pick up, take home, keep alive, and get them into the black market. All of our native species are vulnerable, though some are more prized than others.”
            A Pennsylvania man was arrested last year for smuggling 3,500 rare diamondback terrapins from marshes in New Jersey and selling them online. Although no cases have been adjudicated in Rhode Island, Buchanan said there is evidence of the illegal turtle trade in the state.
            Buchanan is also involved in region-wide efforts to study spotted turtles and box turtles in Rhode Island, two species that are considered to be of significant conservation concern. He is conducting surveys of both species this spring to gather as much data as possible about their distribution, abundance, demography and population genetics.
            In collaboration with the zoo and Brown University, he is also investigating the presence of disease in local populations of reptiles and amphibians.
            “We need to improve our understanding of where the diseases are and what species are harboring them to get a sense of their susceptibility,” he said. “There’s chitrid [a common amphibian disease in the Tropics] in our environment, though our frogs don’t seem to be susceptible, but there hasn’t been a lot of testing. And there’s a similar disease for salamanders that has had bad outbreaks in Europe, and we’re worried about it coming overseas.”
            Two species of amphibian – the spadefoot toad and northern leopard frog – are on the verge of disappearing from Rhode Island. Both have only one known population. The toad is only found at one site in Richmond, though efforts are under way to create habitat to establish additional populations. The frog is found only on the border of Bristol and Warren, and Buchanan said there is little that can be done to help it recover.
            “The northern leopard frog might be the best example of a species that’s about to disappear from the state,” he said, noting that the species faces multiple threats from habitat loss, pollution and invasive species. “It could happen this year, next year, or in five years, but all indications are it’s going to happen soon. And there’s not a tool in my toolbox at the moment that I can use to confront the situation.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on June 1, 2019.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Students help make stocking home aquariums more sustainable

            As the rhythm of aquarium pumps echoed through the aquaculture laboratory at the Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, senior Hannah Roby reached her hand into a 10-gallon fish tank containing clownfish, corals and other creatures to conduct routine maintenance. It’s an activity she does just about every day as part of her aquatic husbandry course. But it’s also one element of a research project she and her fellow students are engaged in to help make the home aquarium industry more sustainable.
            About 22 million fish of 1,800 species are captured on coral reefs around the world each year to meet the demand from hobbyists who maintain marine aquariums at home, and about half of those fish are sold in the United States.
            “We don’t know if that level of take is sustainable, and we don’t know the conservation status of most of those species,” said Paul Anderson, a research scientist at Mystic Aquarium,
who advises the students. “There are destructive fishing practices happening, like poisoning reefs and dynamiting reefs, which are having devastating consequences for the fish and the coral.”
            When Mystic Aquarium sought to help figure out how to improve the sustainability of the home aquarium hobby, it turned to Roby and her fellow students in Groton. The prestigious school’s aquaculture lab, managed by teachers Eric Litvinoff and Michael Guyot, features dozens of tanks from 10 to 600 gallons in size that are used for classroom lessons as well as for research collaborations.
            “The lab was designed to be adaptable to do whatever we wanted to do to give students the opportunity to learn about aquaculture,” said Litvinoff. “Right now it’s set up for coral aquaculture, because that’s what the students are most interested in.”
            While some of the larger tanks are being used to raise barramundi and trout for sale at
local fish markets, the main focus of the lab is on developing improved methods for raising ornamental fish in captivity to reduce the need to capture fish from the wild.
            “If aquaculture can take some of the pressure off the reefs, then everyone will be better off,” Litvinoff said. “As an educator, it allows me to integrate real-world research with my students so they’re given exposure to what’s happening at the highest levels.”
            One recent project involved testing methods for breeding royal grammas, a popular purple and yellow tropical fish that seldom reproduces in captivity. The fish live in harems in the wild, so the students conducted tests to determine the optimal ratio of males and females to get them to produce the most young.
            Now the students are gearing up to test a new aquaculture feed designed for juvenile fish. Cobalt Aquatics, which makes the feed, requested that their product be tested as an alternative to feeding the fish the live food they prefer – tiny marine creatures called zooplankton.
According to Roby, who lives in Griswold, one of the challenges to breeding and raising clownfish is that it necessitates raising large quantities of zooplankton to feed the young clownfish. Large quantities of phytoplankton – microscopic marine plants – must also be raised in adjacent tanks to feed the zooplankton. To reduce this complexity, the students are preparing to try out the new food pellets on the young clownfish in hopes of eliminating the need for the zooplankton and phytoplankton.
            “Larval fish have really bad eyesight,” said Roby, who plans a career in aquaculture research after college, “but the Cobalt pellets are easy for them to see because it floats slowly in front of their face. Hopefully it will do the trick.”
            In another corner of the lab, students grow vegetables using the techniques of aquaponics, whereby waste produced by fish in adjacent tanks supplies nutrients to the plants.
            Guyot, who worked at Mystic Aquarium before becoming an aquaculture teacher at the school three years ago. said that projects like these help his students develop “an appreciation for things that are often overlooked. Things like coral. Most people just think of them as pretty rocks, but when you gain an appreciation for it, you realize how delicate their ecosystem is. If we can get that information to our students and they share it with their families, more and more people will come to care about things they didn’t know they should care about.”
            In addition, the lab also produces an enthusiastic group of future aquarium professionals.
            “The students get hands-on experience in the lab and can later enter the aquarium industry and be part of the skilled workforce that takes proper care of fish at retail or aquaculture facilities,” said Anderson. “We’ve already had students go on to marine science studies in college and enter the workforce.”
            Anthony DiPasquale, a senior from Old Saybrook, said it was the aquaculture lab and the research opportunities it offered that attracted him to the Marine Science Magnet High School. “I got interested in aquaculture because I see it as a really interesting way of combining what I love about the ocean – I’m big into fishing – with a way of helping the environment. From what I’ve learned here, aquaculture might be the future of food production, and it’s also a really cool thing to learn about.”
           
This article first appeared in the 2019 Connecticut Education Guide.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Missing out on the dawn chorus

Now that I have cruised well past the half century mark in age, I’ve been taking note – unhappily so – of those activities that remind me that I’m getting older.  I typically avoid wearing socks, for instance, so I don’t have to acknowledge the difficulties of bending over to put them on. And reading in dim light, something I used to pride myself on, is a near impossibility these days.
            Sadly, for the last few years, birdwatching during spring migration – my favorite activity of the year – has also been a reminder that I’m not getting any younger. More accurately, it’s the beautiful warblers, the most treasured of our migrating songbirds, that won’t let me forget that my hearing isn’t what it used to be.
            It started several years ago with blackpoll warblers. They spend the winters in northern South America, and some travel through Rhode Island on their way to breed in the boreal
Blackpoll warbler (Glenn Bartley/Vireo)
forests of Canada and in high elevation forests of northern New England.  The male’s formal black-and-white spring plumage includes a distinctive black cap and white cheek that is suggestive of a chickadee. But his black moustache stripe, two white wing bars, and the black streaks down the side of his white chest make him readily identifiable.
            My problem with blackpolls is that their song is among the highest pitched of all the avian songsters, and I can’t hear them anymore. They sing a rapid buzzy song that sounds a bit like an insect trill.  It’s a song that was hard for me to hear even in my younger days, but today I can’t detect them even when they’re just a few yards away. And since they only stop by our area for a few weeks each May and are typically high in the trees, my inability to detect their songs makes it almost impossible for me to find them.
And blackpolls aren’t the only ones. All of the especially high-pitched singers are dropping off my radar – black-throated green warblers, blue-winged warblers, prairie warblers, pine warblers, blackburnian warblers, worm-eating warblers, black-and-white warblers, northern parulas and more. I used to see and hear all of them around my favorite birding haunts every year in May, but while I still see some of them, I no longer hear them. And that has turned my favorite time of year into a somewhat depressing season.
On a typical spring morning when the warblers are high in the trees and a chorus of other birds are making a delightful racket, I wouldn’t know that most of the warblers were even there were it not for the younger birders pointing out from where the songs are coming. And I hate it when the young kids show me up.
Happily, my eyesight is still spot on and I’m well-practiced at finding the tiny movements of birds hiding among the foliage, so I’m often the first to see the birds that aren’t singing. But that hardly makes up for what I’ve lost.
So this year I invested in a device that transposes the high-pitched songs down to a frequency I can hear, and I’m thrilled to be hearing the warblers again. I am now bombarded by the wonderful dawn chorus that motivates me to get out of bed and start the day with a smile on my face.
I’ve even heard a few blackpoll warblers already this spring. And their buzzy little song was as beautiful as a symphony.

This article first appeared in the Independent on May 16, 2019.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Habitat project provides boost to Rhode Island's rarest toad

            Rhode Island’s rarest toad is round and short-legged with bulging eyes and a spade-shaped protrusion on its hind feet that enable them to corkscrew themselves into the ground, where they stay moist and cool and avoid predators.
But there is just one population of spadefoot toads left in the Ocean State – in Richmond – and they haven’t reproduced since 2014. Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, called the toads “the best example of a species that, as far as we know, is on the verge of disappearing from Rhode Island.”
University of Rhode Island herpetologist Nancy Karraker and research associate Bill
Spadefoot toad (Nancy Karraker)
Buffum are trying to forestall that possibility by constructing additional wetland habitat for them in several communities around the state.
The first of these man-made breeding pools were built May 13 to 15 on property owned by the Richmond Rural Preservation Land Trust.
“Spadefoot toads breed in the most ephemeral of vernal pools,” Karraker said. “They use what most would call a puddle in the middle of an agricultural field, with no forest canopy cover, and they’re filled by torrential storms that occur in May and June. Those big storms that produce thunder and lightning and an inch or more of rain in 24 hours brings the toads up to breed.”
When these conditions occur, the toads lay their eggs within a day, the eggs hatch into tadpoles a day or two later, and they complete their metamorphosis into toadlets and hop away into the forest three weeks after that, she said.
Unfortunately, the proper conditions haven’t occurred at the right time to inspire the toads to emerge and breed in the last five years.
Karraker studied spadefoot toads for three years in Virginia, where they are quite
Volunteers help construct spadefoot toad breeding pool (Lou Perrotti)
common, and documented their night-time emergence to feed, their travels across the landscape from forests to breeding ponds, and their corkscrew behavior back into the sandy soil.
“But we have no idea what they do here in Rhode Island,” she said.
An endangered species in the state, spadefoot toads are at the northern limits of their range in southern New England, which Karraker said means the conditions are probably not ideal.
“But they’ve been here for millennia, evolving and changing with their environment,” she said. “They just haven’t been able to deal with the fact that we’re destroying their breeding habitat.”
Karraker and Buffum are working to change that with a project they are calling Operation Spadefoot RI. They spent three years gathering funding and a coalition of partners to construct just the right kind of ephemeral pools the toads require for breeding. This week they brought together more than two dozen volunteers to construct the first two pools not far from the state’s historic spadefoot toad population in Richmond.
The partners include URI, DEM, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, The Nature Conservancy, Roger Williams Park Zoo, the Rhode Island Conservation Stewardship Collaborative, the Beech Tree Foundation, and the Richmond Rural Preservation Land Trust.
Kentucky-based wetlands consultant Tom Biebighauser, who constructed 21 spadefoot toad breeding pools in Massachusetts in recent years, as well as pools for other amphibians around the U.S. and Canada, led the project. Eighteen pools were designed last year for sites in Richmond, South Kingstown and Barrington, and if they are successful at hosting breeding populations of the toads, additional pools may be constructed elsewhere.
The process involves using an excavator to dig a hole 12 to 15 inches deep and 40 to 60 feet in diameter, covering it with what Karraker called “geotextile pads” to provide a cushion beneath a specially-made liner, covering the liner with additional geotextile pads, and then spreading soil on it and scattering straw around it for erosion control.
“The reason they need such a specific kind of pool is so they aren’t competing with other tadpoles or dragonfly or beetle larvae. They’re in there by themselves,” Karraker said. “It’s an ingenious ecological strategy.”
Karraker hopes that the toads from the Richmond population will find the newly constructed pools on their own. If they do not, she intends to bring tadpoles from the historic site to the new pools. Tadpoles will have to be relocated to the pools that will be built next year on land owned by the South Kingstown Land Trust and the Barrington Land Conservation Trust.
“Our grand plan over the long term is to perhaps head-start the tadpoles at the zoo – and possibly at the Greene School to get kids interested in the project and raise public awareness of this charismatic creature – before releasing them in the new pools,” Karraker said.
“We’ve been going around the state for years looking for other breeding populations, so the chances are we would have detected them if there were any,” she added. “But maybe with an increase in outreach and public awareness, we’ll learn about other existing populations, which would be a great thing.”

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

Monday, May 13, 2019

Nest predators, rising waters threaten rare turtle

            Diamondback terrapins are among the rarest turtles in the Northeast, and the only ones that spend most of their lives in salt marshes and other quiet brackish waters. While populations are holding their own in many locations, nest predators are an increasingly serious threat.
            Three researchers speaking at the Northeast Natural History Conference in Springfield, Mass., last month said that in almost every year, the eggs in most of the terrapin nests they monitor are consumed by predators.
            “Raccoons are the most important predator,” said Russell Burke, a Hofstra University
Diamondback terrapin (Rhode Island Natural History Survey)
biology professor who has studied diamondback terrapins at the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge in New York City for 20 years. “Everyone who works on terrapins has had the experience of watching a terrapin put a nest in the ground, and you come back the next day and find a collapsed nest hole and broken eggs.”
            Danielle Marston, a volunteer terrapin monitor with the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, said that raccoons destroy most of the nests she has observed in Buzzard’s Bay, Mass., too. And George Bancroft, who monitors terrapins in the lower Taunton River watershed, also indicated that nest predation rates are very high.
            Burke worried that the tiny survey flags he placed to mark the locations of the nests he monitored could be a roadmap for raccoons to follow to terrapin nests, so he conducted a study to learn what method the raccoons use to find the nests. He placed survey flags of various colors where there were no nests, applied a human scent to other sites, dug artificial nests, and experimented with numerous other factors.
The raccoons ignored most of the sites. “They seemed to be cued more into a disturbance of the sand than the flags,” he said. “Wherever we dug a hole, the raccoons were interested. If you dig any kind of hole in the nesting area, the raccoons were likely to dig it up.”
Burke believes that microbes in the sand become active and release a detectable odor when the sand becomes aerated by digging a hole. But the smell dissipates within about a day or two.
“We get essentially no predation after the second day after nesting,” he said. “If the nests make it through 48 hours, they make it all the way to hatching, and that’s probably due to olfaction.”
He noted that there is often increased nesting activity and decreased nest predation when it rains, perhaps because the rain hides the microbe odor. “It seems to be one of the strategies that terrapins have evolved to minimize raccoon predation,” Burke said.
Those who monitor diamondback terrapin nests in Rhode Island have also found high rates of nest predation, but some are succeeding in combatting it.
At Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington, where Charlotte Sornborger has been monitoring the terrapins for nearly 30 years, between 200 and 300 nests were destroyed by predators each year during the first 15 years of her studies. In addition to raccoons, Sornborger confirmed that foxes, skunks and coyotes also predated the nests. But when she began using wire mesh “excluders,” which prohibit scavengers from digging below the surface to reach the eggs, predation rates declined significantly.
Predation at a recently discovered terrapin nesting site at the mouth of the Hunt River in Warwick was very high during the first year of monitoring in 2015 – just three of 87 nests survived to hatch – with dogs being among the chief culprits. But recent surveys have indicated that predation may not be as high as originally thought, according to University of Rhode Island Professor Laura Meyerson.
Two surprising new predators have been added to the list of threats to diamondback terrapins – bald eagles and osprey. Neither disturbs the terrapin nests, but the birds have been found to prey on juvenile terrapins in Buzzard’s Bay and in the Palmer River near the Barrington population. According to Sornborger, a hunter reported empty terrapin shells under an osprey platform used by bald eagles along the Palmer River, and two nearby homeowners also observed empty terrapin shells on their lawns.
Another new threat to diamondback terrapin populations is also emerging – rising sea levels.
“For Rhode Island’s terrapins, sea level rise is really worrisome,” said Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “They live right at the margins of the coastal zone, and their habitat type is going to experience dramatic alterations and impacts from sea level rise. We don’t know what that’s going to mean for terrapins.”
            “The biggest issue for us in Buzzard’s Bay,” added Marston, “is that we’re losing ground to the big surge in tidal action at our nesting locations. The nesting area is going to disappear with the projected sea level rise. Already we’re seeing that the nests that don’t fail from predation fail from an intrusion of water into the nests. The terrapins keep trying to nest where they used to, and the nests keep getting flooded.”
            With little nesting habitat available inland of the present nesting sites, the combination of predators and rising seas makes the long-term outlook for the species uncertain.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on May 13, 2019.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The first to grow pearls in quahogs

            When Brendan Breen learned in a University of Rhode Island aquaculture class how oysters make pearls – and more importantly, how to artificially trigger that process – he was energized. As a teenager he had worked as a commercial fisherman, owned his own fishing boat, and put in time at a Massachusetts aquaculture business, and he was looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity in the fishing industry. With that lesson in pearl culturing, he found what he was looking for.
            The Newport resident sought to become the first person to culture pearls in the Ocean State’s official state mollusk, the quahog. “I’m surprised that no one had even tried it before,
A quahog pearl cultured by Brendan Breen
because the anatomy of the quahog is similar to the oyster,” he said. “I figured there was no reason why I couldn’t do it myself.”
            It wasn’t easy. With funding from an undergraduate research grant from URI, he spent every available hour of his junior year studying mollusk biology and pearl culture and then working in a lab to devise a method to induce the quahogs to make pearls.
            “I had to be creative and figure it out for myself,” said Breen. “I had some mortalities in the beginning, but then I got to a point where I felt my method was pretty good. So I let the clams grow, and when I came back for my senior year, I continued minding them and taking notes. Just before winter break, I harvested some of them, and I was overjoyed to find that they had produced quahog pearls down to a T.”
            A year later, he has a patent pending on his pearl culturing process and a start-up company he calls Mercenaria, named for the Latin name of the quahog. While working full time as a seafood importer, he is culturing pearls as fast as he can and waiting for them to grow to harvest size at an undisclosed aquaculture farm somewhere in southern New England. The 18-month process means he won’t have pearls ready to sell until 2020, but that is giving him the time he needs to find business partners, jewelry designers and others with the expertise to help him build his business.
            Quahog pearls are noticeably different from those produced by oysters, according to Breen. Like the colors on the inside of the quahog shell, they can range from white to dark purple. And because they are made of calcite and aragonite, rather than the calcium bicarbonate of oyster pearls, they refract the light differently.
            “It has a different kind of shimmer to it, a brilliant depth to it in the light. That’s what distinguishes it,” he said. “So if you want to be connected to the ocean and high fashion, then the Mercenaria pearl will be something you can treasure and take around the world as a new means of expressing your love of the ocean.”

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