Friday, June 10, 2022

Songs of nature provides performance that won't be forgotten

        It was a magical evening. Standing on the edge of an overgrown field in Exeter last month, my wife, her cousin and I prepared for an unusual performance.
        The daytime birds were wrapping up their springtime singing for the day. A prairie warbler burst forth with one more buzzy, upslurred note; a towhee whistled its “drink your tea” call; and a gray catbird chattered as dusk approached. In the distance, a turkey joined the chorus.
        After the sun set and the sky turned to a mix of peach and violet, what I thought was a barking dog turned into a howling pack of coyotes, yipping and yapping until a second pack responded from the opposite direction. Then a barred owl chimed in, demonstrating its classic “who cooks for you” call. The performance had already reached a high point, and yet the stars of the show hadn’t even arrived.
        At exactly 8:12, a chuck will’s widow blasted us nearly off our feet with its first of hundreds of calls. It must have been just a few yards away from us, hidden in the brush or a nearby tree. The unusual bird, a member of the nightjar family, is only found in this one place in Rhode Island, and it only sings for a few short weeks. And what a song. That’s what we had come to hear.
        Its name comes from what some early birdwatcher thought its call sounded like. It starts with a sharp “chuck” note, followed by a shaky whistled “will’s widow,” then repeats it on and on. It was still going when, three minutes later, its cousin the whippoorwill — another bird whose name is derived from an interpretation of its song — started calling about 100 yards away. A second whip joined in from across the field.
        And then the chuck went silent. We stared toward the tree we thought it was calling from, and then it started calling from a different direction. Was it a second bird, or did the first one move without us noticing? Almost certainly the latter. But how did it move without us seeing it? It had to have flown very close to the ground to avoid our eyes.
        We remained enraptured by this unusual performance until darkness had nearly enveloped the area. As we nodded in silence that it was time to go, we remembered that there was still one performer we hadn’t heard yet. Just seconds later, the distinctive “peent” of an American woodcock, a chunky shorebird that never spends time at the shore, resounded nearby. His odd call, repeated every 10 seconds or so, concluded an amazing hour of birdwatching.
        Yet we didn’t actually watch anything. Not one bird did we see. It was an entirely auditory experience. But that sure didn’t detract from the show. It may have even made it more special.
        The excitement of the experience was a fitting conclusion to my 50 years of wildlife observation in Rhode Island. Soon I’ll be moving to the West Coast to seek and learn about the wonderous wildlife the opposite coast has to offer.
        It also means that this is my last Backyard and Beyond column. I’ve enjoyed writing it for the last seven years, and I hope you’ve been inspired to pay a little closer attention to what goes on in the natural world. There is so much we can learn from the wildlife in our backyards and beyond. All you have to do is keep your eyes open for whatever may be around. I know that’s what I’ll be doing.

        This article first appeared in The Independent on June 9, 2022.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Tidepool life has changed dramatically in recent years

        It’s one of my fondest childhood memories — wandering the rocky coastline of Rhode Island and exploring the tidepools to discover whatever creatures may be in residence. It was always exciting to spot a crab or sea urchin or a few minnows, and even better when a starfish made an appearance.
        Yet while those same tidepools remain in the same places, like Brenton Point in Newport, Beavertail in Jamestown or Black Point in Narragansett, the marine life that call those nooks and crannies home have changed dramatically.
        Sure, those little round, blue-black snails — officially called periwinkles — are still in abundance. There might even be more of them now than when I was a kid. But as common as they have been for more than 100 years, they aren’t native to our shores. They were introduced from Europe in the 1800s and may be the reason why we have so many bare rocks along the coast. Before the arrival of the periwinkles, most of those boulders would have been covered in lush green algae. But the snails ate most of it.
        Nonetheless, periwinkles are just about the only reliable creature to be found in our tidepools these days. The crabs that were common back in the day, like hermit crabs and rock crabs, have been mostly replaced by non-native species, especially Asian shore crabs and green crabs. The new arrivals aren’t big, nor are they likely to nip your little fingers. In fact, the shore crabs aren’t aggressive at all, and the green crabs only fight among themselves. They’re both more likely to hide under a rock when approached by human hands than to lash out.
        The same is true of the purple sea urchins, the dome-shaped animals with the spiny shell that are not uncommon in tidepools. They’re slow-moving and feed exclusively on algae and detritus on the seafloor, so there’s nothing to fear from these unique invertebrates either.
        The good news is that researchers think that urchins are resilient to warming temperatures and ocean acidification, so their populations aren’t likely to decline much from the changing climate. A University of Rhode Island researcher is even investigating whether they could be profitably raised in aquaculture facilities in Narragansett Bay to help harvesters diversify their crop.
        The biggest disappointment to tidepool watchers like me has been the disappearance of starfish. Also called eastern sea stars, the once-common starfish was always considered the most prized of the tidepool creatures in my younger days. Their rough texture and hundreds of tiny tube-like feet on their undersides was always fascinating to me. And then to learn that they can regenerate an arm when necessary and pull open the shells of clams and other mollusks was too much to believe.
        Sadly, they, too, have mostly disappeared from our tidepools and shorelines. Back in 2013, a graduate student at URI collected some to study and found that they melted away in her tank and died within days. It was the first observation of a disease that ravaged starfish populations throughout the East and West Coasts. While there is evidence that the animals are recovering slightly, we’re still a long way from those joyous days of commonly observing these wonderful creatures in our tidepools.
        Despite the changing species and populations, however, investigating tidepools remains a fun family activity that everyone can enjoy. To ensure the health of the animals, it’s probably best not to handle whatever you find there. But don’t let that stop you from exploring this amazing marine world.

This article first appeared in The Independent on May 12, 2022.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Story of bird lives revealed in beaks, feet

        As hundreds of millions of birds migrate into the Northeast over the next few weeks, those who spend time watching them are enthralled by their stunning colors, their beautiful songs, and their remarkable physiological adaptations that enable them to complete their journey. But few people spend much time thinking about bird beaks and feet, and yet those body parts tell us a great deal about how and where birds live and what they eat.
        Let’s start with their feet.
        Most songbirds, like robins and chickadees, have feet with three toes pointed forward and one pointed backwards. That’s an indication that these birds are perching birds. When they’re not flying around, they typically perch crosswise on a branch and grasp the branch by wrapping three toes around the front of the branch and one behind it.
Nashville warbler (Todd McLeish)
        But not all birds that spend time in trees do that.
        Woodpeckers, for instance, have two toes pointed forward and two toes pointed backwards, which better allows them to climb up the side of tree trunks and even cling upside down beneath branches. Nuthatches behave in a similar way, so their toe arrangement is also two forward and two back. Simply by noticing their toe arrangement you can tell how birds move around in a tree.
        The webbed feet of waterfowl is another obvious indication of where and how these birds live and move. As any child probably knows, webbed feet help birds paddle efficiently in the water. And for those ducks that dive underwater to catch fish or shellfish, webbed feet can be used to speed through the depths to capture their prey and navigate the underwater world.
        The claws of hawks and owls are also a clear sign that these are predators that capture and kill small mammals with their feet. So not only do bird feet tell us something about how they behave in a tree, but in this case, they also tell us what they eat.
        In most other birds, it’s their beak that reveals what they eat or where they find food. The big chunky beak of a cardinal announces to the world that it is a seed eating bird and that it opens seeds by crunching down like a Christmas nutcracker and crushing the outer shell of the seeds to access the inner goodness. Most sparrows, finches and buntings have a similar – albeit smaller – beak, which tells us they, too, are seedeaters.
        My first experience holding a cardinal was in an ornithology class many years ago. While attempting to place a metal band around the bird’s leg, it grabbed ahold of my knuckle in that massive beak and tried to crack open my finger like a walnut. It didn’t work, but it sure did leave a painful mark and, sad to say, forced me to let out an embarrassing yelp. Lesson learned; keep fingers away from seed-crunching birds.
        The beaks of other birds also tell us about their food preferences. The large, hooked beaks of hawks are used for tearing apart flesh; the long narrow beaks of many shorebirds are ideal for probing into the sand; the wide beaks of flycatchers and swallows are great for catching insects in flight; and the spatula-like beaks of ducks are useful for filtering algae from ponds. Without knowing anything else about these birds, a quick glance at their beaks gives away what they eat and how they find it.
        I’m not sure human mouths and feet tell a similar story. Or if they do, it’s not a story I’d want to read.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on April 18.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Erratic winter weather confuses local wildlife

        It happened again. We had another crazy winter that alternated between heavy snowfall, record-breaking warmth, and icy cold temperatures, which is once again causing us to question how we define winter weather in New England.
        It’s seeming like we’ll never again have those long stretches of sub-freezing temperatures that allow our ponds and lakes to freeze solid and give everyone the opportunity to lace up their ice skates and slide across the ice. When I was a kid, everyone knew how to skate because pond skating was so readily available in just about every neighborhood. But now, fewer people skate because it’s so inconvenient to learn and practice. Our ponds seldom freeze thick enough anymore to withstand the weight of a neighborhood full of skaters.
        Our increasingly erratic winter temperatures have not just made pond skating in Rhode Island a thing of the past. It’s also confounding the natural world.
        I saw numerous reports of crocuses blooming in mid-February when the temperatures hit the 60s for several days in a row. Trees and shrubs in several places started to bud as well. And then they all had to go dormant again when the cold temperatures returned.
        Early-blooming spring flowers and shrubs are used to the variability of the New England weather, though, so they aren’t likely to be harmed by their efforts to make an appearance weeks before they should. But the energy they wasted trying to grow and bloom in February may mean they don’t have the energy to try again at a more appropriate time. And as a result, our usual springtime colors may not be as bright or abundant this year. And that seems to be happening more and more often.
        It’s not just the vegetation that’s getting an early workout from the unusual swings in winter temperatures, however. Some animals are likely struggling, too.
        Wood frogs have the remarkable ability to freeze nearly solid during the winter and then thaw themselves out as spring approaches. They’re the earliest active amphibian in our area, typically arriving in local ponds in mid- to late-March to breed. To me, they’re the surest sign of spring we have left.
        But when spring-like temperatures arrive for a few days in February, the frogs are triggered to thaw themselves out. And when they realize they’ve jumped the gun, they have to refreeze. The more often they do that, the less likely they will emerge unscathed once winter is truly over. And these days they find themselves thawing and refreezing several times each year, which wreaks havoc with their physiology.
        The situation is similar for two other local amphibians that migrate to local breeding ponds in late March – spring peepers and spotted salamanders. I swear I heard a peeper calling in February, which doesn’t bode well for the little guy. They’re struggling to detect when the time is right to emerge from their winter hibernation. As are woodchucks and skunks, chipmunks and garter snakes, and a whole host of other creatures.
        And let’s not forget the migratory birds, many of which must make an educated guess about the weather hundreds or thousands of miles away to decide when to begin their long flights. And if they arrive too early or too late for the emergence of their preferred insect food, then their breeding season may be a bust.
        Hopefully most of these creatures will figure out our new normal for winter and spring weather before it’s too late. I just wish the same could be true of pond skating.

This story first appeared in The Independent on March 19, 2022

Monday, February 14, 2022

This winter, let’s try not to get too mad at the bird feeder thieves

        If you devote much attention to feeding the birds that visit your yard, it’s highly likely that you’re not a fan of squirrels. The little buggers always seem to hog the feeders, keep our favorite birds away, and consume way more than their share of seed. I’ve concluded that about a third of my bird feeding budget is consumed by the gray squirrels in my backyard, with a little help from chipmunks and an occasional red squirrel.
        As much as I claim that I’m not bothered by the innumerable small rodents eating from my feeders — and, in fact, I even tell people that I enjoy watching their antics — it’s not as true as I’d like it to be. More often than not, I want to run out the door and chase the squirrels away whenever I see them. But I don’t. At least not very often.
        Nonetheless, they’re intriguing animals. They seem to thrive in our cold and snowy winters and
Red Squirrel (Todd McLeish)
prosper, whether I keep my feeders full or not. And when we have a good year for acorns, as we have the last two or three years, they thrive even more.
        Gray squirrels obviously don’t hibernate. They’re out there raiding the feeders all winter long. Even in neighborhoods where no one maintains bird feeders in the winter, the squirrels are still abundant and healthy. That’s because they can stay warm by relying on their fat reserves and by eating the scattered mass of acorns and other seeds they’ve stored during the fall.
        At night, they retreat to leafy nests in tree holes and elsewhere in the forest to sleep. When the weather is especially nasty, they may gather in those nests —called dreys — in groups of two or three or four to keep each other warm.
        I can usually count on seeing six or seven gray squirrels eating the sunflower seeds in my bird feeders every day in winter. I call one of them white ears, because it has bright white fur on the back of its ears. It’s so bold that it doesn’t stray far from the feeders when I go out to refill them. And it doesn’t seem to be bothered by my cats whining from the kitchen window whenever it’s nearby. It’s hard not to admire the little fella.
        I am less bothered by the chipmunks that are also regulars at my feeder, partly because they aren’t visible for much of the winter. They spend most of the cold months sleeping in their burrows, feeding on the seeds they’ve stored there, and only occasionally emerging to scavenge from the spilled seeds during warm spells. Chipmunks are adorable as they fill their gigantic cheeks with seeds each fall, running back and forth from the feeders to their burrows to cache their loot. The cuteness factor, and their diminutive size, makes it difficult to hate chipmunks, even though they, too, are bird seed thieves.
        My favorite of the mammalian visitors to my feeders are the flying squirrels. Occasionally when I turn on my back porch light before going to bed, the light will illuminate the antics of the flying squirrels as they soar from tree to tree and grab a seed or two. If I could see them more easily, I’d be happy to supply even more seeds to keep them around more often.
        Despite the cost of bird seed, I can’t help but be pleased that I’ve created a somewhat safe environment for my neighborhood feeder thieves. Even the squirrels.

This article first appeared in The Independent on February 12, 2022.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Rare birds keep finding their way to the Ocean State

        Southern New England has been a hotbed of unusual bird sightings in the last couple years, with oddities showing up far off course from where they should be. Strangely enough, a handful of different species have turned up in our area when they should be 5,000 miles away in Siberia.2
        The latest was last month’s appearance of a Steller’s sea eagle on the Taunton River in Dighton, Massachusetts. The massive bird — similar to our bald eagle, but much larger, with a white tail but no white head ­— should have been on the coast of eastern Russia, Korea or Japan. But one lone individual has been wandering North America for a few months, appearing in Texas and Nova Scotia before stopping off just across the Rhode Island border for a day or two.
        It’s not the only one. A University of Rhode Island student stumbled upon a sharp-tailed sandpiper in Galilee in November, a bird that breeds in Siberia and winters in Australia. And a brown booby — a bird that should have been in the Caribbean — was observed on Fox Island in Narragansett Bay last fall. How these birds got to Rhode Island is anybody’s guess.
        The summer of 2020 had three more shorebirds from Eurasia making brief appearances in South County – a red necked stint, a little stint, and a Terek sandpiper. None had been seen on the East Coast 
more than a handful of times before, and it’s unlikely that any of them found their way back to their native range and reconnected with other members of their species.
        A few months later, a common cuckoo was found in Johnston, and it was anything but common. The European species had only been observed in North America two or three times before.
        All of these sightings generated tremendous enthusiasm among the birdwatching community, not just here in Rhode Island but all over the eastern U.S. and beyond. I talked to a birder from Indiana who drove through the night to see the sharp-tailed sandpiper, and as I joined 100 other birders searching – unsuccessfully – for the sea eagle, I noticed cars from a dozen states at a park where the bird had been observed the day before.
        While these super-rarities attract widespread attention, they aren’t the only unusual birds that keen-eyed observers have been finding. At least once a month, another out-of-range bird is discovered in the Ocean State. Some are species that don’t belong here but that seem to show up every year or two, like the pink-footed goose from Europe, the painted bunting from Florida, and the dickcissel from the Plains States. Others, like the western tanager seen in Westerly beginning last month, are species seen only once a decade or so.
        Why do these birds go so far astray? There are lots of possible explanations. Maybe their internal compass is off kilter and instead of flying south for a couple thousand miles, they fly east instead. This is probably the case with some juvenile birds making their first migratory flights. Or maybe they get blown off course by a storm or land on a ship that carried them to the ship’s destination. Or perhaps they joined up with a flock of a different species and followed them to their wintering grounds.
        We’ll never know how most of these birds got to the wrong place. Sadly, most probably don’t survive long in these new environs. But it sure does get local birders – and even non-birders – excited to track down these rarities.
        I wonder what unexpected birds will show up in Rhode Island in 2022.

This article first appeared in The Independent on January 15, 2022.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Scientists, shellfishermen seek strategies to sustain dwindling bay scallop populations

        In the Great Salt Pond on Block Island, native bay scallops are thriving like nowhere else in Rhode Island. Scientists from The Nature Conservancy survey the 673-acre tidal harbor every autumn and have recorded hundreds of scallops each year, despite as many as 50 recreational shellfishermen harvesting scallops from the pond each November and December.
        The same cannot be said of the rest of the Ocean State’s waters, however, where bay scallops are few and far between.
        On Block Island, Diandra Verbeyst leads a three-person team of Nature Conservancy scuba divers and snorkelers who monitor 12 sites around the Great Salt Pond. They have counted an average of 225 scallops annually since 2016, up from just 44 observed by previous observers in 2007, the first year of monitoring.
        “There are slight rises and falls from year to year, but the population is pretty stable,” Verbeyst
said. “Based on the 12 sites we monitor, the population is indicating that there is spawning happening each year, and there is recruitment to the population.”
        In addition to scallop data, Verbeyst and her team also collect information on water quality and other environmental conditions during their surveys.
        “The scallops are an indication that the ecosystem is healthy and doing well, and for me, that’s fascinating in itself,” she said. “No matter where you are in the pond, there’s a good chance you’ll see a scallop.”
        Bay scallops are bivalve mollusks with 30-40 bright blue eyes that live in shallow bays and estuaries up and down the East Coast, preferring habitats where eelgrass is abundant. They are short-lived animals — most don’t live more than two years — and are significantly smaller than sea scallops, which are found farther offshore and are harvested by the millions by New Bedford, Mass.-based fishermen.
        Chris Littlefield, a Nature Conservancy coastal projects director and former part-time shellfisherman on Block Island, recalled collecting scallops as a child in the Great Salt Pond 50 years ago, and he has been gathering them in small numbers for his family’s consumption ever since. He said the scallop population received a boost in 2010, when immature scallops grown at the Milford Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were dispersed into the pond in a project funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
        “That project broke through some kind of threshold,” Littlefield said. “Scallops weren’t as abundant before that, and they used to be confined to certain key locations and that was it. But now they’re more abundant and more people are finding them and harvesting them.”
        Unlike Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and a few locations on Cape Cod and Long Island, where regular seeding of immature bay scallops has resulted in thriving commercial fisheries, Rhode Island has a tiny commercial fishery for bay scallops — fewer than three fishermen participate — and the fishery is not sustainable.
        Anna Gerber-Williams, principal marine biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Marine Fisheries, just completed the first year of a three-year effort to assess the state’s bay scallop population. She is focused primarily on the salt ponds in South County, especially Point Judith Pond and Ninigret Pond, which historically had healthy bay scallop populations.
        “We manage and regulate the bay scallop harvest, but besides Block Island, we haven’t had an actual assessment of what the population looks like in Rhode Island,” Gerber-Williams said. “We know it’s pretty low, and we know the actual commercial harvest numbers are very low. But we don’t have anything to base our management on. The hope is that this project can turn into more long-term monitoring, similar to what’s done on Block Island, and maybe lead to restoration efforts.”
        Based on her first year of surveys, Gerber-Williams said there are self-sustaining populations of bay scallops in Point Judith Pond, and their abundance can fluctuate significantly from year to year.
        “Scallops are very habitat dependent,” she said. “The habitat in the salt ponds is very patchy, and those patches are very small.”
        Unlike clams, which bury themselves in the sand, bay scallops sit on the seafloor and can swim around by rapidly opening and closing their shell, making them difficult to track and count. Gerber-Williams said they are threatened by several varieties of crabs, which can easily crush the scallops’ shells with their claws.
        “Part of the scallop’s strategy is to hide from the crabs in the eelgrass,” she said. “When they’re younger, they attach themselves to eelgrass blades to keep themselves above the bottom and out of reach of predators.”
        Dan Torre at Aquidneck Island Oyster Co. experimented this year with growing bay scallops in cages in the Sakonnet River off Portsmouth. He bought scallop seed from area hatcheries last July, and they are approaching marketable size now. He has contracted with one local restaurant to buy his experimental crop, with hopes of scaling up the operation next year.
        “I believe there’s a market, but it’s a niche market,” he said. “Normally with sea scallops, you sell just the shelled adductor muscle, but with bay scallops you sell the whole animal. The shelf life isn’t the longest, but it seems like there are a bunch of restaurants that are eager to try them.”
        In an effort to figure out how best to restore wild bay scallop populations in the region, the Rhode Island Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy to synthesize what is known about the history of the bay scallop population and fishery in Point Judith Pond.
        According to Dave Bethoney, the foundation’s executive director, it will be combined with information about scallop fisheries in Massachusetts and Long Island, N.Y., as a first step to developing a restoration plan.
        “How to make them sustainable is the real puzzle,” Bethoney said. “Even successful efforts on Long Island are based on a seeding plan — getting scallops every year from aquaculture facilities to replenish them. They have successful populations, but they’re not self-sustaining. I don’t know how we change that.”
        Gerber-Williams agreed.
        “In my opinion, the way to boost populations here and keep them at a level that’s sustainable for a good fishery in Rhode Island, we would have to have a seeding program similar to what they have in Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard,” she said. “Every year they put out thousands of baby bay scallops. They seed their salt ponds every single year to keep a decent fishery going.
        “So the next step for us would be to do that kind of seeding program in Rhode Island. We’re in the process of creating a restoration plan for various species of shellfish in Rhode Island, and my hope is that bay scallops are a part of that.”

        This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on January 6, 2022.