Friday, September 27, 2019

Rescue Mission

            When Kathy Castro’s beloved horse Santana died in 2004, she was heartbroken. The animal had a mind of its own, which made him challenging to train and ride, but he also taught Castro so much about herself.
            “That horse was just amazing,” she recalled. “He taught me about trustworthiness and how to be patient. He was hyperactive, too – never connecting his body and mind together – but he was the most wonderful friend and companion.”
            To honor Santana, Castro established the Santana Center at her home in North Kingstown, a non-profit organization that rescues horses destined for slaughter and works to
Kathy Castro, right, at the Santana Center (Mike Derr)
place horses in loving homes. Last year she rescued and found homes for 11 horses, which helped her win a $10,000 grant from the ASPCA through its Help a Horse contest. Through the first three months of 2019, she is already well ahead of her winning pace.
            The problem, according to Castro, is that there are just too many horses in the United States. “We don’t need to breed a million thoroughbreds,” she said. “We have too many racehorses, too many quarter horses, too many wild horses. It also becomes too expensive for many owners to keep their horses. And when a horse gets old or sick, they don’t know what to do with it.”
            As a result, about 100,000 horses are sent to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered each year. Congress is now considering a bill to ban the shipping of horses to slaughter, a practice many consider barbaric, but if the bill passes, it will result in an enormous number of homeless horses.
            “Horse rescues like the Santana Center are a Band-aid,” said Castro, who works as a fisheries scientist at the University of Rhode Island. “I’ve found homes for 40 horses, but 75,000 died. We’re only addressing the side problem. The bigger issue is who’s giving up horses and how do they end up in the slaughter pen. Is there a way to address that so people can keep their horses?”
            When she started the Santana Center, Castro worked with the Rhode Island SPCA and the state to conduct a survey to determine how many horses resided in the Ocean State. The result – between 6,000 and 7,000 – was far more than anyone had guessed. Yet a national study found that there are plenty of homes available for horses. It just takes some effort to find them.
            So Castro took that as a sign. She started visiting the websites for horse auctions – the horses that aren’t sold are sent to slaughter – and began identifying animals she thought she could find homes for.
            “We see these horses online, and we fall in love with them,” she said. “It’s the look in their eyes. We fix them and then we adopt them out.”
            Like Luna, a beautiful paint that Castro’s daughter took a liking to. They started raising money to purchase her from the auction house, when a woman from Michigan expressed interest in her.
            “We didn’t need to keep Luna, so we worked together to save her,” she said.
            As she saves more and more horses from slaughter, Castro is building a nationwide following for the Santana Center.
“People take notice that we’re pulling horses from the auctions, and they start fundraising for us and talking about us – people I’ve never met. It’s a big network,” she said. “Just about every horse we’ve adopted out in the last year has found a home through word of mouth.”
Castro has found homes for her recently rescued horses in California, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., as well as in Foster and Middletown, R.I., and elsewhere. And she still has 12 horses in residence at the Santana Center awaiting homes, including Kyah, a 17-year-old Belgian quarter horse; Maverick a 16-year old quarter horse; Beau a yearling quarter horse; and Ivy, a 12 year old thoroughbred, not to mention two mini-mules, Sam and Frodo.
“It’s hard to stop from taking more. I get calls from horse owners all the time who say they have old horses they’re trying to get rid of, but they’re not horses I can place somewhere,” she said. “We’re not a sanctuary, so we need to take horses that are place-able, horses I can move once I fix their problems. Two came just last week, and now we’re in an economic hole that we have to crawl out of because they need vet care.”
Luckily, Castro has many great volunteers – high school girls, families, older women, URI students, and others who have any number of reasons for committing themselves to the cause. And she enjoys financial support from numerous donors and grants. The latest support comes from After the Finish Line, a California-based group that helps thoroughbreds find new careers after their racing days are over.
“What we really need to do is solve the problem of horse overpopulation,” she concluded. “I love rescuing horses, but I don’t need 12. I know what to do with the horses; I can fix them. And If I can’t, I can find the people that can. But we need to fix the unwanted horse problem.
“For me to go out of business because we don’t need to rescue any more, I would love that,” she said. “And then I would just ride.” 

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Building resilient communities

            When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Alex Wilson was the publisher of Environmental Building News, a trade publication he had founded 15 years earlier in an effort to encourage the construction industry to pursue more sustainable building methods. The magazine had a significant influence in the development of building design and construction practices that were more environmentally responsible and resource efficient.
            But the hurricane got Wilson thinking in a somewhat new direction, one that focused on construction principles that emphasized resiliency when living conditions were not optimal.
            “I noticed that older homes in the Gulf that weren’t flooded but still lost power for 
Storm damage in Florida following Hurricane Michael (Shutterstock)
weeks or months were more livable than newer homes in the same circumstances,” Wilson said. “Older homes, constructed before air conditioning came along, were built with passive features to keep them comfortable, with wrap-around porches that shaded windows from the direct sun, designs that channeled summer breezes through the building.”
            He knew that Katrina was not going to be the last storm that resulted in lengthy power outages, so he thought about how to design buildings that would ensure the safety of their occupants. He called it passive survivability.
            “The idea is that buildings should be designed to maintain habitable conditions passively when the power goes out,” said Wilson. “I initially got excited about the concept because I saw it as a motivation to get people to build greener buildings. I argued that even people who didn’t care about the environment still probably wanted to keep their families safe.”
            Over time, he shifted his terminology from passive survivability to “resilient design” so people didn’t think he was advocating for the installation of survivalist bunkers. And then he reduced his involvement in Building Green Inc., the company he had founded to encourage green building practices, and launched the Resilient Design Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the idea of passive survivability so buildings and communities are better prepared to weather the next storm.
            “The climate is changing, and it’s changing in a way that’s increasing vulnerabilities to a lot of different threats – more intense storms, more frequent tornadoes, increasing drought conditions, flooding, sea level rise, wildfires,” he said. “There are a lot of these risks that we’re facing, and it’s becoming ever-more-clear that we need to make our buildings and communities more resilient to them.”
            To Wilson, the idea of resiliency is about creating buildings that are better able to bounce back from disturbances – whatever those disturbances may be. It may mean raising mechanical equipment out of basements so they don’t get flooded, building with fireproof materials, designing structures to resist wind damage, or improving energy performance.
            “The first task is understanding the vulnerabilities,” he said. “The vulnerabilities in Ithaca will be a lot different than in Tuscaloosa, and it’s important to understand what those vulnerabilities are and what can be done to mitigate them for particular locations.”
            Wilson used these ideas in contributing to the design of a state park lodge in Alabama to be resilient to hurricanes, and he helped develop resilient building guidelines for the cities of Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. He also led an effort to create credits for resilient design in the LEED rating system of the U.S. Green Building Council.
            At the same time, he is also looking toward the next chapter in his life. As he begins to think about transitioning to retirement, he is searching for the right individuals to take over the Resilient Design Institute so he can spend more time on his farm in southern Vermont.
“I want to build a writers cabin by the pond we have,” Wilson said. “I want to finish up revisions to the paddling guides I’ve written for the Appalachian Mountain Club. And I’m looking forward to my first grandchild.”
           
This article first appeared on the Ithaca College website on September 25, 2019.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Time for hawk migration

            It’s bird migration season, a time when billions of birds undertake the most dangerous time of their lives – the long journey south to avoid the unpleasant winter weather in the north. Many of them travel several thousand miles to Central America, South America or the Caribbean, often completing the exhausting journey in just a few days.
            As exciting as the migration season is for nature lovers, it isn’t something that’s easy to observe. Almost all of the songbirds migrate high in the sky in the middle of the night, so all we can do is note the appearance or disappearance of species on the ground as they come and go. We can’t actually watch them migrating.
            But that’s not true of hawks, eagles and falcons. They migrate during the daylight hours
A kettle of hawks in migration (bvg23 via Flicker CC)
and are large enough to be seen relatively well – at least through binoculars – as they traverse our area. And now is the time to watch for them.
            Most raptors soar southward on thermals of rising warm air that keep them aloft with little need to flap their wings. And on days when the weather patterns are just right – winds from the north after the passage of a cold front – hawks from throughout the region could all be on the move at the same time.
            The first time I ever went in search of migrating hawks was one of those ideal days. The weather was perfect at Mt. Tom in central Massachusetts, and raptors of a dozen varieties – bald eagles, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, peregrine falcons, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, and more – put on a parade like no other. We must have seen several thousand hawks that day, and it was enough to convince me to make a point to spend time every fall watching for hawks.
            The most spectacular of the birds to observe were the broad-winged hawks, a species that migrates in huge numbers through the Northeast in aggregations called kettles, which can sometimes contain as many as a thousand birds. And that day we saw numerous kettles pass over us one right after another.
            Imagine a couple hundred broad-winged hawks high in the sky circling ever higher on rising currents of warm air, never flapping their wings even once. And when they get so high that the warm air begins to cool, they shoot off one by one in a southerly direction until they find another thermal that carries them upward again. Repeat the process a few dozen times in a day, and the birds will have traveled several hundred miles toward their winter residences.
            The best places to watch migrating hawks are along mountain ridges, but since Rhode Island has no mountains, the best bet is to try an open hillside in the western part of the state. Or, since most hawks don’t like to migrate over open water where there are no thermals, they follow the coastline, so they can sometimes be seen in good numbers almost anywhere along the south coast of the state. Napatree Point in Westerly can be an especially good spot when the weather is right.
Although I’ve never had as good a day of hawk watching as that first time, I always have my eyes to the sky at this time of year. If you catch it just right, it’s an impressive spectacle to enjoy.

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Invasive snake worms spreading in Rhode Island

                Just hearing the name of one of Rhode Island’s newest invasive species is enough to make local residents queasy – snake worms.
                Even though they look similar to the region’s more common earthworms and they’re not much larger, their behavior easily identifies them. Not only do they slither through the grass like snakes, they also jump away if you try to pick them up. In their native Korea and Japan, they are called Asian jumping worms.
                “That jumping is how they get away from predators,” said worm expert Josef Gorres, an
Snake worm in Vermont garden (Josef Gorres)
associate professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont who formerly taught at the University of Rhode Island. “It scares them.”
                It scares people, too.
                “They can be a bit of a pest when you have a Fourth of July party and you have a new patio and they crawl around like snakes,” said Gorres, who has found the worms in his home garden in Vermont. “They make people squeamish.”
                The new invader has probably been in the United States for more than 50 years. The story told about their arrival involves a shipment of cherry trees from Japan that was sent to Washington, D.C., and the worms were in the soil around the tree roots. Whether that’s true or not, Gorres isn’t sure, but he believes the worms have probably been in Rhode Island for a decade or more. Residents are just now beginning to notice them.
                A survey of URI Master Gardeners conducted by Gorres in 2015 found snake worms in Slater Park in Pawtucket and in gardens and mulch piles in Barrington, Jamestown, North Kingstown, South Kingstown and Richmond. Today, the worms are common at URI’s East Farm, where the Master Gardeners maintain several gardens and greenhouses, and they have been reported at other scattered locations around the state as well.
                Nan Quinlan, who coordinates the Master Gardeners’ vegetable demonstration garden at East Farm in Kingston, suggests that the worms may have arrived there in deliveries of mulch, soil or potted plants or even on the tires or fenders of cars or trucks.
                “There are so many possibilities here that I strongly hesitate to blame any one source,” she said. “What makes the most sense is that the Asian worms were already present in the soil at East Farm for a long time and found their way to areas like mulch piles and the compost pile we built and maintain inside the garden.”
                Quinlan’s speculation that they may have come from deliveries of soil or potted plants aligns with Gorres’ understanding that they are commonly transported in plant material via the horticulture and nursery industry.
                “Folks in horticulture should worry because the worms can negatively affect their stock of plants,” Gorres said. “The castings the worms produce are very granular, very loose, so if anything tries to grow in the castings, the roots will have a hard time getting a foothold. Plants need something more stable to hold onto. It makes the plant wilt and look like they’re experiencing drought symptoms.”
                Snake worms can be a problem in forests as well. They consume the top layer of the soil and dead leaves – called the duff layer – where the seeds of plants germinate.
                “Once that layer is gone, the plants don’t have a place to put their seeds where they will survive until the following year,” said Gorres. “You end up with a forest with fewer understory plants, and all that’s left are saplings of trees that deer will feed on. The end result is a lack of regeneration of the forest.”
                This concern is also true of the other earthworms found in the Northeast, all of which are non-native and could be impacting forests in a similar way. Any native earthworms in the region were crushed by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Most of the worm species found in New England today arrived following European colonization of the area.
                “We’re now experiencing the second wave of earthworm invasions,” Gorres said.
                “One of the things I’m especially worried about is that the loose castings will make the soil highly erodible,” he added. “Castings from European worms stick together. The soil on a slope where snake worms are found might easily erode away.”
                To reduce the likelihood of the spread of snake worms, Gorres suggests that consumers ask vendors selling plants, mulch or soil whether the worms have been found in their products.      
“They’ll probably say they haven’t been, but if they’re truthful they may say it’s the new normal, which it may be,” he said.
                Gorres is studying several varieties of insect-killing fungi that may control the worms. He also said that some people swear by a golf course fertilizer that is formulated to control earthworms called Early Bird by Ocean Organics, though he notes that there is no certified pesticide to control earthworms.
                David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, cautions that those investigating whether they have snake worms in their gardens should not confuse them with worm snakes, which are native to New England and may be Rhode Island’s rarest snake. Worm snakes grow only about 10 inches long and may look like a large scaly worm. “Worm snakes = good, snake worms = bad,” he wrote in an email message.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on Sept. 23, 2019.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Swimming with whale sharks is part of URI shark class

            University of Rhode Island students interested in learning about sharks enjoyed the experience of a lifetime last month by swimming with blue sharks in Rhode Island waters and with hundreds of whale sharks – the largest sharks in the world – off the coast of Mexico. They all returned home motivated to pursue careers in marine science and excited to get back in the water with these charismatic animals.
                The harmless, plankton-eating whale sharks provided the most memorable experiences for the students.
                “I went into the class with the expectation that we’d see only a few, but before we even got in the water on the first day we saw the dorsal fins of hundreds of them swimming around our boat,”
Student Alexa Farraj snorkels above a whale shark. (Choy Aming)
said Bethany Deloof, a junior marine biology major from Strongsville, Ohio. “Once we jumped in the water, it was an incredible experience snorkeling with huge sharks swimming all around me. There were so many that one even bumped into me.”
          “We were surrounded by them from all sides and it was an extremely beautiful experience, but also a humbling experience,” added senior Alexandra Farraj, a Park Ridge, New Jersey, native studying marine biology. “They were just so large and yet so gentle, not even caring that we were there.”
                Brad Wetherbee, the URI professor who taught the class, calls whale sharks “the gentle giants of the ocean.” Although they can grow up to 60 feet long, most of those swimming around the students were about 30 feet in length.
                Twelve students were enrolled in the two-week class designed to introduce them to shark ecology and shark research methods. The first week was spent at URI, where the students attended daily lectures followed by boat trips into Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound to fish for dogfish – a small common shark – and snorkel with blue sharks. The second week was spent at Isla Mujeres, near Cancun, Mexico, where scientists discussed their shark research and the students swam with whale sharks and snorkeled at coral reefs. At night they observed sea turtles nesting on area beaches. Each student was also required to give a presentation about whale shark research.
                “They could sit in a classroom for a hundred days and not learn as much as they did in this class,” said Wetherbee. “The ocean was our classroom, and it was a great learning experience for them.”
                The students all agreed.
                “I especially liked being in the field and meeting scientists who do this work,” said senior Maranda Ealahan from East Lyme, Connecticut, a marine biology major. “We met multiple researchers from different countries who do research on different species of sharks and rays. Being side by side with them while they did their job was very cool.”
                “What I enjoyed most was being able to finally see animals in person that I have only ever read about,” added Laura Berard, a senior marine biology major from Cumberland. “I also found it to be a different experience seeing certain animals in their natural habitats versus seeing them in an aquarium environment.”
                Not only did the students have great adventures and learn about sharks, they also learned a great deal about themselves.
                “I learned that sometimes you just need to go out of your comfort zone,” said Ealahan. “Before this summer, I was scared of being in the water with sharks. Then, on our last day in Rhode Island, we had the amazing opportunity to swim with blue sharks. I was pretty scared at first, but I decided to just jump in with a 9-foot long blue shark. It made me appreciate large sharks even more.”
                Perhaps most important, the class affirmed the students’ interest in marine science and inspired them to work even harder to achieve their career goals.
                “I greatly enjoy the research environment, and taking this course confirmed that I love being involved in field research,” said Berard.
                “This class showed me how different people can navigate this field and have amazing careers doing what they love,” Farraj said. “I’ve always wanted to study coral reefs, sharks or marine mammals, and this class definitely gave me a new appreciation for marine biology and for sharks and coral reefs.”
                “After taking this class, I have no doubt that I want to be in the field as a marine biologist,” said Deloof. “Sitting on a boat looking out at the open ocean, I realized that was how I want to spend every day of my future career.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Sharks, rays, lobsters affected by underwater electric cables

            Little is known about how marine life will respond to the electromagnetic fields emanating from the spiderweb of cables carrying electricity from the Block Island Wind Farm and the many other offshore wind power installations planned for the East Coast. But a new series of studies by a team of oceanographers at the University of Rhode Island suggests that some organisms will definitely be affected.
            “The concern is that DC currents generate permanent electromagnetic fields, and we don’t really know how organisms will relate to them,” said John King, a professor at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “We know that some organisms, like sharks and skates, are sensitive to these things. So the question becomes, if you build offshore power facilities, will
migratory organisms cross the cables or not. Will it affect eels that migrate to the Sargasso Sea or lobsters that have an onshore-offshore annual migration?”
            To find out, King and postdoctoral research fellow Zoe Hutchison conducted a series of field experiments around the Cross Sound Cable that carries electricity from New Haven to Long Island. They attached acoustic tags to skates and lobsters and placed them in an enclosure around the cable. An array of hydrophones in the enclosure detected the animals’ movements. Additional animals were placed in a second enclosure farther from the cable to compare the results.
            “We definitely saw effects in behavior in both lobsters and skates, though it was more dramatic in the skates,” said King, who serves on the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s Habitat Advisory Board for offshore wind development. “The skates liked to spend time in the areas that had the highest EMFs. Their swimming behavior was definitely altered as they approached the cable. We didn’t see any evidence that a single cable is a migratory barrier, but they could definitely detect it and reacted to it.”
            “The skates moved slower around the cable but also moved more often and covered a longer distance,” added Hutchison. “They did a lot more turning, like an exploratory behavior, as if they were looking for food.”
            Sharks and skates have a sensory ability to detect the electromagnetic fields generated by the circulatory system of their prey, according to King, and they may also use it to find mates.
            “They might think the cable indicates a food source, so they spent time around the cable thinking they’re going to get fed,” he said.
            The experiment found that lobsters moved less freely around the cable, but the electromagnetic fields did not prevent them from crossing it.
            “The lobster response was much more subtle than the skates,” Hutchison said. “They had an increased exploratory behavior, too, but it wasn’t as pronounced as the skates. We know that spiny lobsters in the Caribbean use the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves and to figure out where to go, so we postulate that American lobsters may have a similar ability to detect magnetic fields.”
            King and Hutchison will conduct a similar study with migratory eels this fall to assess how they are affected by the cables. (They attempted it last year, but little electricity was traveling through the cable at the time.) Rather than placing the eels in an enclosure around the cable like they did with the skates and lobsters, they will release tagged eels to see how they behave as they cross the cable on their way to the Sargasso Sea, where they spawn.
            “Previous studies have shown that eels slow down and investigate every cable they cross. One study found that when eels had to cross multiple cables, they slowed down every time,” said King. “So we wonder if they have a whole bunch of cables to cross, does it slow them down enough that they never get to the Sargasso Sea.”
            The researchers pointed out that just because the behavior of the animals they tested was affected by the cables, it does not necessarily mean they were negatively impacted by them. They are, however, worried about the cumulative impacts of the electromagnetic fields from the numerous cables that will likely be installed for many offshore wind turbines in the future.
            “There’s going to be hundreds or thousands of turbines off the East Coast, so it would be nice to understand these effects and how it translates into impacts before they get built,” King said. “Right now the government is pushing full speed ahead to get these things built, and I don’t think they really care that much about their impacts. The environmental reviews are being done really fast.”
            King is also worried that the results of his studies are being downplayed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which funded the research, due to political pressure.
            “They hired a consulting company to produce a public document about our studies, and they minimized EMF as a concern and misinterpreted our study,” he said. “We didn’t say that we saw something that needed to be addressed immediately, but we also didn’t say that what we saw is OK and not to worry about it.”
            King believes more studies need to be done before any conclusions can be drawn about the effect of electromagnetic fields from power cables on marine life.
            “From a marine spatial planning context, it probably makes sense to have cable corridors rather than randomly distribute the cables all over, and that would probably have different results than studies of just a single cable. So we still have some questions to answer.”

This article first appeared in EcoRI.org on Sept. 11, 2019.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

URI student tracks endangered salamander in New Mexico

          It’s easy to understand why University of Rhode Island junior Emma Paton has had a lifelong interest in wildlife. Her father is a URI professor who studies birds and amphibians, and her mother is a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
          But when it came time to dive into her first independent research project, she left her parents behind and headed to New Mexico to study an endangered species, the Jemez Mountains salamander.
          “I’ve been interested in salamanders since I was a kid. I just loved going outside and looking for them,” said Paton, a wildlife and conservation biology major who lives in Hope Valley. “So when
I heard about this project in New Mexico, I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
          Working in collaboration with URI Associate Professor Nancy Karraker, Paton spent 10 weeks this summer in the Jemez Mountains of northwest New Mexico surveying for the rare salamander.
          “They’re very rare because of human disturbance in the area, but there’s also a lot that’s unknown about them,” she said. “It’s thought that they spend the majority of the year underground and only come to the surface during monsoon rains in the summer, when they like to hang out under cover of rocks and big decaying logs.”
          In previous years, those looking for the salamanders often damaged the decaying logs the amphibians preferred, destroying their habitat. So last year, Karraker set out a series of artificial cover objects – terracotta saucers, artificial rock piles, and boxes with wood chips inside to mimic natural logs – to provide additional habitat options.
          It was Paton’s job to periodically visit each of four locations where the artificial habitat was created to see if any salamanders were using them. She also sought them out at locations where they had previously been found and searched for them in other areas that looked promising.
          “We only found 24 salamanders in 10 weeks, which means they’re definitely still endangered, but that’s up from just seven last year,” she said. “And only one was found under an artificial cover object. But our study wasn’t conclusive. With such a small sample, we don’t have a definite answer about the state of their population.”
          In addition to her salamander survey, Paton also collected data about a disease that is killing many amphibians in the tropics and has been found in some salamanders in the Southwest. To learn how the disease had reached the mountains of New Mexico, she swabbed every salamander and frog she could find – even some invasive earthworms – to determine whether they had contracted the disease.
          “I liked every part of my experience this summer,” she said. “Being in the field with Dr. Karraker was a really great experience. I got a lot of exposure to things I haven’t been exposed to before. And the whole ecology of the West is so different from what it’s like back in Rhode Island. I also got to work with a Park Service biologist who was studying mountain lions and bears, and that was a great experience.”
Paton’s summer research was supported by URI’s Coastal Fellows program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 23rd year, the program pairs students with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations. 
“The program definitely confirmed that I’m on the right career path,” Paton said. “And it definitely gave me more of a sense of independence just being so far away from Rhode Island and living on my own.”