Thursday, December 29, 2016

Bald eagles make Rhode Island comeback

            They’ve been observed eating Canada geese on highway medians, soaring over shopping center parking lots, perched in trees in bustling Providence, and hunting for fish at nearly every large unfrozen lake in the state. All of which suggests that sightings of bald eagles in the Ocean State are no longer the rare occurrence that they used to be. In winter, they have become almost commonplace.
Last January alone, bird watchers reported seeing bald eagles at Brickyard Pond in Barrington, Watchaug Pond in Charlestown, Tiogue Lake in Coventry, Stump Pond in Smithfield, Trustom Pond and the Great Swamp in South Kingstown, the Pawcatuck River in Westerly, and flying over numerous other locations.  As many as nine bald eagles were sighted together on the Seekonk River, which is now considered the most reliable place to find the birds in Rhode Island.
Bald eagle photo by Peter Green/Providence Raptors

And experts say that eagle numbers are expected to climb even higher.
According to Tom French, the assistant director of the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who has been monitoring bald eagle numbers in New England for more than two decades, many of the eagles sighted in Rhode Island in winter are year-round residents, but they are less noticeable during the breeding season.
He said that Rhode Island has four nesting pairs of eagles, and most of their young probably stick around the area for a few years before dispersing to find breeding territories of their own.
“At our latitude, most adult eagles don’t migrate,” French said. “Rhode Island also gets some spillover in the winter of eagles from Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“Plus we have a contingent of eagles from Maine and southern Canada that migrate. How far they go is questionable – some definitely go as far as Chesapeake Bay – but many of them only go as far as they have to to find open water,” he added. “So some of them probably stop along the Rhode Island coast.”
How many bald eagles spend the winter in Rhode Island is difficult to say, since some of the birds move around when ponds and lakes freeze.
“The number you have in winter is not only based on increases from breeding, but also based on the weather,” French said. “A good winter for eagles in Rhode Island means it’s probably been a bad winter weather-wise elsewhere. The colder the winter in the north, the more eagles you’ll have in Rhode Island.”
That’s what may account for the dearth of bald eagle observations in Rhode Island so far this winter. Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, said that reported eagle observations in December have been about half of what they were last year.
“Perhaps the eagles have stayed to the north so far this winter,” she said. “We may see a huge number of reports in January, which is often the case.”
Rhode Island hasn’t always had significant numbers of eagles in winter, however. Farrell said that bald eagles were fairly common winter residents in Rhode Island up until the 1960s, after which they nearly disappeared from the state for 30 years. Only two bald eagles were observed during the annual Christmas Bird Counts between 1962 and 1988.
The decline, according to both Farrell and French, was caused by the use of the pesticide DDT, which made its way into lakes and ponds and accumulated in the tissues of fish. When eagles ate the fish, the toxin caused reproductive failure, resulting in a precipitous decline of bald eagle populations throughout the Lower 48 states.
            DDT was banned in 1972, but it has taken a surprisingly long time for the birds to rebound. Ospreys, the fish-eating hawks that are now common throughout the region, were similarly affected by DDT, but they recovered their populations much more quickly than have bald eagles. It took many years of work by wildlife officials, including Tom French, to relocate eagle chicks from other parts of the country and place them with “foster parents” at the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts before the New England eagle population began to grow on its own.
            French said that bald eagles have now recovered in the region and are still experiencing exponential growth. Eventually that population growth will level off, when the birds are so abundant that there is no longer enough nesting habitat or food resources to sustain them.
            “But they haven’t even begun to level off yet,” he said.
            Is there a downside to having so many eagles in the region? That’s a question that Peter Paton has pondered. An ornithologist and professor at the University of Rhode Island, Paton said that researchers have found that the approximately 900 pairs of bald eagles breeding in Maine are eating so many gulls, eiders and great cormorants that populations of those birds are declining. And many of the eiders and cormorants that summer in Maine spend their winter in coastal southern New England. Which means that eagle predation in Maine may be causing a decline in winter eider and cormorant numbers in Rhode Island.
            French, who assesses eagle prey whenever he visits a nest to band young eaglets, said that the most common food items he observes in nests are fish, primarily brown bullhead and chain pickerel. But he also commonly finds the remains of Canada geese, wild turkeys, gray squirrels and other prey.
            “Most of what they eat aren’t things we really need to worry about,” he said. “Sure, they’ll take a few things that you wish they hadn’t, like common loons and osprey chicks, but they won’t impact other species at the population level.
“For all practical purposes in Rhode Island,” French concluded, “there’s no such thing as too many eagles.”

This article first appeared in on December 29, 2016.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Seeking the Six Birds of Christmas

            The Christmas season is a busy time for bird watchers. That’s when more than 70,000 volunteer birders from across the country participate in the annual Christmas Bird Counts to tally every bird observed in one of 2,400 designated areas. It’s also the time to race around looking for the last few species to add to your “year list” before the year comes to a close.
            Birders looking to start a new holiday tradition, however, might consider seeking out all of the birds mentioned in the classic carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. There are only six birds mentioned in the song, so it should be easy, right? Not quite. The song originated in England, so some of the birds aren’t found in our area. But don’t let that stop you. Some have been introduced to the U.S., and others have close relatives nearby that you could substitute if you don’t happen to be flying to Europe for the holidays.
            So here’s your guide to finding and observing The Six Birds of Christmas:

7 Swans a-Swimming:
This is the easiest of them all, since swans are quite common in Rhode Island, especially in winter. And since they spend little time on land, they will almost always be a-swimming. Nearly all will be mute swans, a non-native species introduced to the region from Europe in the late 19th century. Just about every unfrozen coastal pond should have a few mute swans throughout the winter, as well as many protected salt water coves. Look especially at Easton’s Pond, Green End Pond, Gardiner Pond, Sisson Pond and St. Mary’s Pond on Aquidneck Island, as well as at Trustom Pond in South Kingstown, Apponaug Cove and the East Providence Reservoir. Every year a few tundra swans also stop in the state as they migrate to their wintering grounds to the south, and some stick around through much of the winter, especially at Tiogue Lake in Coventry.

6 Geese a-Laying:
The breeding season for geese in the Northeast is in April and May, so it’s highly unlikely to observe wild geese laying eggs before then. But it is nearly impossible to spend a day exploring Rhode Island in winter without seeing geese. Lots of them. Canada geese are abundant this time of year and can be found on almost every cornfield, unfrozen pond and golf course in the state.
But Canada geese aren’t the only species to watch for. Brant, a smaller and darker goose found exclusively in coastal waters, are common in Rhode Island in winter, especially at Third Beach and Fort Adams on Aquidneck Island, but also in Greenwich Cove and elsewhere around Narragansett Bay. A few snow geese – white birds with black wingtips and orange beaks – can usually be found during the winter months on cornfields in South County and the East Bay. And occasionally birders report cackling geese and greater white-fronted geese, both western species that often wander far from their usual range. In the winter of 2007, seven species of geese could be observed on Aquidneck Island on a single day – all of the above species, plus a couple pink-footed geese and a barnacle goose, both Eurasian species.

4 Calling Birds:
This one is a bit confusing, since the original lyrics to the song referred to “four colly birds,” an archaic term in England meaning black, probably a reference to the Eurasian blackbird. To see one, you’ll have to travel to Europe, where they are common and conspicuous in backyards, gardens and woodlands. Alternatively, you could search instead for its closest relative in the U.S., the American robin, more and more of which are overwintering in Rhode Island, especially in coastal areas where berry-bearing shrubs are plentiful throughout the season.
The North American version of the song’s lyrics changed to “calling birds” in 1909, and rather than referring to a particular bird species, it refers to a birds’ behavior of calling or singing. While most birds sing primarily during the breeding season in the spring, many species have alternate songs or calls that they use year-round, including common backyard birds like chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and sparrows. So the easiest way to check this one off your Christmas bird list will be to take a walk anywhere songbirds are likely to be found and listen for their calls.

3 French Hens:
            Here’s another one that may require a bit of travel, as it likely refers to Faverolles chickens, a French breed originally raised for its eggs and meat but now primarily bred for poultry exhibitions. They have quite a distinctive look – black, brown and straw-colored feathers, feathered feet, fluffy beards and five toes rather than the usual four. They are available for sale online from North American breeders, but to get full credit for seeing one you may need to travel to the villages of Houdan and Faverolles in north-central France, where the breed originated.
            The easy way out would be to visit a local farm to find a Rhode Island red or other domestic chicken, since all chickens are the same species – a domesticated version of the red junglefowl of Southeast Asia. Remember that the song specifies hens, so seeing a rooster doesn’t count.
Better yet, search for wild members of the chicken family, which include pheasants and turkeys. The last place to see wild pheasants in the Ocean State – not counting those that have escaped from local game farms – is on Block Island, where they are still common. Or look almost anywhere for wild turkeys. They’re usually easy to find.

2 Turtle Doves:
            About 20 species of turtle doves are found in Europe, Africa and Asia. One of them, the Eurasian collared dove, was introduced to the Bahamas in 1974 and quickly expanded to the U.S., where it is now resident almost everywhere except the Northeast. Looking much like the very common mourning dove, which is easily observed throughout Rhode Island, the Eurasian collared dove is abundant in the Southeast and easily seen there in all seasons on utility wires in most communities. If you’re not traveling south for the winter, look for a local mourning dove and consider it close enough.
A Partridge in a Pear Tree:
            Partridges are an Old World family of gamebirds with no native species anywhere in the U.S. However, two species have been introduced into the Mountain West and Great Plains for hunters, the gray partridge and the chukar, and they are now resident and easily observable if you know where to look. Like French hens, they are also members of the pheasant and turkey family. The closest partridge relatives in the Northeast are the northern bobwhite quail, a bird of open grasslands that has disappeared from Rhode Island but can be found in appropriate habitat in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the ruffed grouse, which are most easily observed at Nicholas Farm Management Area in Coventry.
Finding one in a pear tree, however, is next to impossible.

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on December 21, 2016.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Time to watch for harbor seals

            December is one of my favorite months of the year – not only because of the holidays, but because it’s the ideal time to go in search of harbor seals along the Rhode Island coastline. And they’re usually easy to find.
A walk out to Rome Point in North Kingstown will often turn up several dozen seals hauled out on the rocks at low tide. And those who scan the waters at Beavertail or Sachuest Point or Brenton Point will often be rewarded with good looks at seals bobbing in the water, their puppy-dog eyes as sweet as a Christmas cookie. Better yet, climb aboard a Save the Bay boat in Newport Harbor for a seal tour around Rose Island. Excellent views of seals are almost guaranteed.
This winter is an especially apropos time to go in seek of harbor seals, since the animals were designated as Rhode Island’s official state marine mammal in legislation passed last summer by the General Assembly and signed by the governor.
They appear to be an excellent choice. Their typical pose while hauled out on the rocks has been described as “a happy banana,” with head and tail curled upward. And on close-up inspection, they often look to have a smile on their face. It’s no wonder that a cross-section of business and environmental groups got behind the legislation.
The seals begin to arrive in Rhode Island waters each year in early October and peak in March. By the end of April, all have left for the coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes to breed. Little is known about their ecology while they’re here, but it’s certain that they spend plenty of time lounging around conspicuously.
During an informal survey of seals in Narragansett Bay last March, volunteers with Save the Bay, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve counted a record high 603 seals at 26 sites, topping the previous record of 569 set in 2011.
The large harbor seal population in Rhode Island is probably attributable, in part, to the improved water quality in the bay and the availability of food – though it’s uncertain what they even eat while they’re here.
An even bigger factor is the success of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, a federal law that prohibits the killing and harassing of seals, whales and other marine mammals. Seals were quite rare prior to passage of the act, and it wasn’t uncommon for boaters to shoot seals for fun. The states of Massachusetts and Maine even paid a bounty for each seal killed because it was thought the animals had an adverse effect on the commercial fishing industry. In the intervening 55 years, harbor seal numbers have skyrocketed.
But not all the news is good. University of Rhode Island marine mammal researcher Robert Kenney said that even though seal numbers in local waters are high, scientists suspect that the overall population in the region has begun to decline. The culprit may be another wildlife success story -- gray seals -- a larger species whose population is booming on Cape Cod and elsewhere. It’s unlikely, however, that harbor seals will disappear from our waters.
If you go in search of our state marine mammal this winter, don’t get too close or let your dogs bark at them. It’s easy to spook seals from their resting sites, which forces them to waste precious energy. Instead, watch from afar and appreciate Rhode Island’s newest wildlife ambassador.

This article first appeared in the Independent on December 15, 2016.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Proposed changes to horseshoe crab harvest regulations would better protect spawning crabs

            The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has proposed a series of changes to regulations governing the commercial harvest of horseshoe crabs in Rhode Island waters, but officials from Save the Bay say the proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect the state’s horseshoe crab population.
            At a hearing before the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council on Monday, DEM proposed to implement daily catch limits, minimum size requirements, tighter reporting rules and a closure of the fishery during the peak spawning period in the first three weeks of May. While Save the Bay agrees with most of the changes DEM proposed, the group says that climate change should be considered in the new regulations.
            “The director should recognize that spawning can occur in April due to warming water temperatures and close the fishery to protect early spawning,” said Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the Bay.
            Horseshoe crabs are familiar to anyone spending time around Rhode Island’s salt marshes and beaches. Ancient creatures that evolved about 300 million years ago, they have 10 eyes, blue blood, and are more closely related to spiders and scorpions than to most marine life. 
DEM issues between 40 and 60 permits each year allowing fishermen to capture horseshoe crabs. A quota of 14,466 horseshoe crabs were allowed to be harvested in Rhode Island waters in 2016 for use as bait, primarily in the eel and conch fisheries. Another 34,000 can be harvested each year for the biomedical industry, which uses the crabs’ copper-based blood in tests to ensure that medical devices, vaccines and intravenous solutions are free of harmful bacteria. Most of those captured for the biomedical industry are returned to the water unharmed.
According to Scott Olszewski, a marine fisheries biologist at DEM, a horseshoe crab management plan has been in effect since 2000 after crab populations were found to be at low levels of abundance.
“Based on our assessment, we had a total allowable catch that should have equated to a rebuilding schedule to rebuild the stock,” he said. “But the abundance indices we use to manage the population have continued to show the same signal – relatively low abundance and no upward trend in the population.”
As a result, DEM initiated the process to amend the regulations. A workshop and public hearing in November resulted in proposals from DEM, the horseshoe crab fishing industry, and Save the Bay.
It has long been believed that horseshoe crabs crawl up onto beaches to lay their eggs at high tide on days when the moon is new or full in May, June and July. To allow the crabs to spawn, the fishery has been closed for the 48-hours before and after the full and new moon. But new research suggests that water temperature may be a more important spawning trigger, so DEM proposed closing the fishery from May 1 to 21, while Save the Bay recommended a closure from April 15 to May 31.
“Horseshoe crabs are spawning prior to the closure periods, and that’s when the harvest pressure is occurring as well,” said Wenley Ferguson, Save the Bay’s director of habitat restoration, who conducts annual spawning surveys in Warwick and Cranston. “The bait fishery quota is often exceeded before any lunar closure even takes place because the crabs are spawning early because of water temperatures.”
DEM also proposed that each permitted fisherman be limited to possessing up to 60 horseshoe crabs per day, a strategy that would spread out the catch among the fishermen and extend the length of the fishing season. In addition, it proposed that harvested crabs must have a shell size of at least 7 inches.
At its meeting on Dec. 5, the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council – which makes a recommendation to DEM Director Janet Coit, who makes the final decision – agreed with the proposals for daily possession limits and minimum crab size (although the daily possession limits would not apply to the biomedical industry). But it decided to recommend that the bait fishery be closed during the entire month of May, a compromise between the DEM and Save the Bay proposals. The biomedical fishery will retain the lunar closures in May.
Olszewski said the recommended changes to the regulations will enable DEM to better manage the fishery.
“We have a relatively small bait fishery, and what usually happens is the landings come in at a very rapid pace,” he said. “We try to anticipate when we’re going to reach the threshold, but you get harvesters that land a large number of crabs in a short period of time, so it’s been hard to manage the quota.
“The idea [with the proposed regulations] is to promote equity among the participants in the fishery and allow Marine Fisheries to better manage the allowable catch,” he added.
Ferguson agrees with DEM’s objectives, but notes that “we should at least protect the horseshoe crabs during the spawning period so they have a chance to spawn before they’re harvested.” To do that, she said, “we should really be considering climate change.”
Coit will make a decision soon on the final regulations, which will go into effect on January 1.

This article first appeared on on Dec. 12, 2016.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Cause and - wait for it - effect

            A strategy scientists tested nearly 20 years ago to neutralize acidic forest soils, and which was found to boost tree growth, has resulted in an unexpected spike in nitrogen export a decade later, confounding the researchers’ efforts to explain why.
            The study launched in 1999 at the Hubbard Brook experimental forest in New Hampshire was designed to mitigate the acidification of soils caused by acid rain. Scientists from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and other institutions dropped 2,600 pounds of calcium silicate by helicopter over a 30-acre forested watershed and then waited to see what would happen.
            They expected that the addition of calcium would compensate for the calcium that acidic precipitation had depleted from the soil and reverse the negative effect the acidic soils had on the health of red spruce, sugar maple and other tree species. It appeared to work, as the calcium dissolved and worked its way into the soil profile, decreasing soil acidity and boosting tree growth.
            “For nearly 10 years, it looked like our predictions were correct,” explained Gene Likens, president emeritus of the Cary Institute and the leader of the study. “The calcium was largely retained and the forest was growing. Then, in 2010, we noticed streams draining the treated site had elevated nitrogen levels. By 2013, yearly inorganic nitrogen losses were 30 times what we expected, an increase we had only seen after forest clear-cutting experiments.”
            Nitrogen is a vital nutrient in a healthy forest ecosystem. Growing forests typically absorb and retain nitrogen, so the depletion of nitrogen a decade after the addition of calcium to the ecosystem is worrisome to the researchers.
            “The rules of conventional ecology suggested that after the calcium addition, forest growth would lead to even more nitrogen retention,” said co-author Emma Rosi-Marshall. “Yet the treated watershed is shedding nitrogen,” which could slow forest growth.
            The reason for the depletion of nitrogen is largely a mystery that the scientists are just beginning to investigate. They speculate that when the addition of calcium lowered the acidity of the forest soils, it stimulated microbial processes in the soil organic matter, which then released nitrogen stored in the forest floor.
            Likens said that the unexpected – and delayed – results of the study raise numerous questions for those responsible for managing forests.  He said it is especially concerning in mountainous regions because nitrogen loss in stream water will be carried downhill and never find its way back to the mountains.
            But Likens also took a philosophical perspective on the results of his study.
            “It often takes a long time to see a response or to get an insight into what that response might mean,” he said. “If we’re going to try to understand how these systems work, then we have to be aware that if we manipulate them – through acid rain or the treatment of acid rain – then it’s likely going to have an effect that we don’t expect.”

This article first appeared in Northern Woodlands magazine on December 1, 2017.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Large deer population a more immediate threat to Rhode Island's forests than climate change

            While climate change gets most of the media attention these days for the dramatic effects it is predicted to have – and, in some cases, is already having – on coastal communities, it has yet to have serious effects on eastern forests.
Eventually, say local experts, climate change will likely cause a shift in the composition of tree species in the region, due in part to southern species moving into the area and the arrival of new pests and pathogens, which may reduce the abundance of currently common species. The predicted drier weather conditions will also likely play a role in altering woodlands.
But Rhode Island’s forests are already facing what some say is an even greater threat than climate change – an overabundance of deer. That’s the warning from foresters, biologists and ecologists from throughout the Northeast, who say that even without climate change, Rhode Island’s forests are in trouble unless the state’s deer herd can be reduced and managed more effectively.
According to forester Marc Tremblay, outreach coordinator for the Rhode Island Forest Conservators Organization, deer have had a dramatic effect on the forest understory by feeding on the young trees, shrubs and plants.
“They’ve browsed all of the favorable species like oaks and maples, they’ve destroyed our wildflowers, and a lot of the understory plants they like to eat are the ones we rely on for the future stocking of the forest,” Tremblay said. “What’s worse, they don’t like invasive species, so barberry and buckthorn and other invasives are growing like crazy. The end result is a complete alteration of the forest where the invasives have a leg up.”
The Rhode Island chapter of the Society of American Foresters has issued a position statement noting that the long-term health of Rhode Island’s forest is dependent on sufficient tree regeneration to re-occupy openings in the forest canopy created by timber harvesting and natural disturbances. But “deer herbivory at high population levels limits the amount of regeneration and is a serious problem in many parts of the state that, if not addressed, will continue to impact the forest ecosystem and the ability of the forest to regenerate itself.”
It’s not just the trees that are suffering, though. The Nature Conservancy has reported that populations of songbirds and other species that live in the forest understory are declining because deer have consumed their habitat.
“Think about all the species you know that utilize the understory – rabbits and other small mammals, hermit thrushes and other birds, lots of things,” said biologist Numi Mitchell. “They’re very vulnerable if you take away that understory. Think what it’s doing to our biodiversity.”
The Rhode Island Natural History Survey conducted a two-year study of deer herbivory at the University of Rhode Island’s W. Alton Jones Campus that illustrated the dramatic effect of too many deer. Fencing out deer from two half-acre, forested parcels clearly showed how deer had reduced the density and diversity of native plants and exacerbated the expansion of invasive species.
Inside the fence, where deer couldn’t gain access, seedlings of oak, sugar maple, hickory and tuliptrees were abundant, while outside the fence few could be found. Jack-in-the-pulpit plants inside the fence were knee high while those outside were browsed to stubble by deer. Native trillium planted decades ago were blooming inside the fence, while none had been seen elsewhere in a decade.
“Deer look for every plant they can eat and they eat it,” said Natural History Survey botanist Hope Leeson at the conclusion of the project. “We have continuous still images showing them looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack – heads down searching for any little tidbit of a native plant they can find. Due to taste or texture, they tend not to eat invasive plants.
“Deer promote the growth of invasive species, which decreases the biodiversity of native vegetation and sets into motion a cascade of effects on the health of the ecosystem,” she added.
Deer overpopulation isn’t just a problem in Rhode Island, however. The scientific community says that forests throughout the Northeast are in a seriously degraded ecological condition as a result of high deer densities. But deer management is the responsibility of each state, so it cannot be addressed by uniform federal regulations.
Brian Tefft, the state wildlife biologist responsible for tracking deer statistics for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said that the state is home to about 16,000 deer or 15 per square mile, far more than the habitat can support. About 1,000 deer are killed each year in collisions with vehicles, and another 2,000 or so are harvested by hunters.
Using hunting as the primary means of managing the herd isn’t particularly effective when most hunters want to shoot a buck rather than a doe that is likely to give birth to twins the following spring. For the sake of Rhode Island’s forests, most foresters and biologists suggest altering hunting regulations to encourage the harvesting of more does.
Mitchell said the first step is for sport hunters “to not be so sportsmanlike any more. We need to kill as many does as possible. We’ve gotten rid of our predators, so we need to bring the population down with an increased emphasis by humans.
She also thinks coyotes might be able to help the situation. Mitchell has studied the Aquidneck Island coyote population for more than a decade, and she said that eastern coyotes have about 20 percent wolf genes, which has helped to make them excellent cooperative hunters.
“Coyotes are a piece of the puzzle,” she said. “They can get deer in the suburbs where people aren’t legally able to shoot. I get calls all the time from people saying they have a dead deer in their yard, and I tell them to wait a day or two and the coyotes will eat them.”
The next phase of her research will be to see how coyotes can be used to help manage the state’s deer population.
David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, admits that deer is the greater immediate threat to Rhode Island’s forests than climate change, but he also notes that climate change could be even more damaging if the deer problem isn’t addressed first.
“I don’t want to downplay climate change, but certainly one plus one equals three, that’s for sure,” he said.
He points to a project his organization is currently undertaking to build resilience into the habitat at Norman Bird Sanctuary and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown.  The plan was to install a wide variety of native plants, thinking that a diverse ecosystem will be one that can better withstand the coming climatic changes.
“But what we’re finding is that there is so much deer browse there that we'll be hard pressed to do anything unless it is inside a fence,” Gregg said. “We’re going to need to adapt our strategy a bit.”
Mitchell agrees that the cumulative effect of deer and climate could be catastrophic for Rhode Island’s forests.
“I think climate change is a bigger long-term crisis,” she said, “but deer are our immediate crisis.” 

This article first appeared on on December 1, 2016.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Flock together

            It’s difficult to drive very far in Rhode Island without eventually stumbling upon a flock of wild turkeys. They’re seemingly everywhere – and strangely enough, they appear especially visible during the Thanksgiving season.
            In my wooded neighborhood, a flock of a dozen turkeys regularly makes the rounds of the homes with overflowing birdfeeders and weedy gardens. And they’re not shy. They parade down my driveway in single file, strutting and squawking and making a fuss, then battle over whatever morsels the songbirds have spilled from my feeders. If I open the window, they barely acknowledge me – unless I announce myself with a high-pitched gobble. To which they respond in kind, as if we’re playing a raucous game of call and response.
            This year, for the first time, four turkey mommas brought their 27 babies – officially called poults – to my yard every few days all summer long. And now they’re all grown up. Or at least most of them.
            The turkey babies that visited my yard survived at a much greater rate than was the case with most turkey broods in Rhode Island this year. According to Brian Tefft, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management biologist who keeps track of the state’s turkey population, the average number of turkey poults to survive until fall this year was just 2.7 per hen, which is below the 10-year average of 3.2 and just half of last year’s rate.
            Nonetheless, Rhode Island’s wild turkey population is a conservation success story. The birds were eradicated from the region by hunters in the 1700s, and it was nearly 200 years before they returned, thanks to reintroduction efforts by DEM. State biologists captured 29 turkeys in Vermont in 1980 and released them in Exeter. Another 105 birds were released in the 1990s in Tiverton, Little Compton, Burrillville, West Greenwich and Scituate. By 2001, about 6,000 turkeys were roaming nearly every community in the state.
            The birds even made it to Aquidneck Island, where Tefft said self-sustaining flocks are often seen in Portsmouth and Middletown, especially near the airport and Norman Bird Sanctuary. “Whether they walked over the bridge or flew over, we don’t know,” he said, noting that a Middletown flock became a short-term nuisance a decade ago when they exhibited a variety of anti-social behaviors, including attacking children getting of a school bus.
            Mark Pagliarini, education coordinator at Norman Bird Sanctuary, said a flock of 7 or 8 turkeys visits the sanctuary regularly, and he often sees other flocks in the neighborhoods near Easton’s Pond and Albro Woods. He said the abundant farmland and golf courses on Aquidneck Island means there is plenty of suitable habitat for wild turkeys to thrive on the island.
            “We don’t have an over-abundance of them, so you aren’t guaranteed to see them every time you go looking for them, but they’re still here in good numbers,” he said. “And they’re a good source of food for our coyotes.”
            According to Tefft, the wild turkey population in Rhode Island has declined to about 3,500 birds in recent years for unknown reasons. Almost every state from Maine to Virginia has experienced similar declines. He said the number of poults that survive to adulthood has been below average most years in the last decade.
            “For our population to really grow to their former numbers, we need multiple years of above average production,” he said.
            Spring and early summer weather is an important factor in poult production. When the chicks hatch in May and June, they are especially susceptible to hypothermia if they get wet from a heavy rain storm. They are also unable to fly into the trees to roost at night until they are about 3 weeks old, so they are vulnerable to predators on the ground.
            “We’re also looking at food sources – if acorn production is poor or there’s a hard winter, then the hens might not be so fit to raise a family in spring,” Tefft said.
            Hunting appears to be a non-factor in the sustainability of Rhode Island’s turkey population. Just 100 to 125 turkeys – males only – are harvested by hunters each year. Tefft calls those numbers “biologically insignificant.”
            Mortality in winter doesn’t appear to be much of a factor, either. University of Rhode Island ornithologist Scott McWilliams said that one research study found that wild turkeys can survive in temperatures as low as -50 degrees. Another study of winter survival indicated they can live 2 to 3 weeks without eating if snow and ice make food inaccessible.
            Whatever it is that is keeping turkey numbers from booming like they did in the 1990s isn’t likely to result in serious declines, especially as the climate warms and our winter weather places less stress on the birds.
            “We probably didn’t grow the turkey population this year,” concluded Tefft. “But it probably at least remained stable.”

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on Nov. 23, 2016.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Wildlife-killing feral cats pose environmental threat

            A new book examining the complicated issue of cats and wildlife has re-opened a difficult discussion that has long pitted animal welfare organizations against biologists, birdwatchers and the environmental community. And the position taken by authors Peter Marra and Chris Santella is doing little to make that discussion any easier.
            You can tell by its title, Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, that the authors don’t pulling any punches. Marra, who directs the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and Santella, a journalist, argue that drastic action is necessary to curb the massacre of birds and small mammals caused by feral cats and housecats that are allowed to go outside.
            After reviewing thousands of reports, pet-owner surveys, cat regurgitation studies, academic research and other data, they calculated what they say is a conservative estimate – cats kill up to 22 billion small mammals, 4 billion birds, 822 million reptiles and 299 million amphibians in the United States each year.
            “More birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats than from wind turbines, automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windows, and other so-called direct anthropogenic causes combined,” they write.

            What’s more, the authors say that feral cats are also a hazard to human health. Feral cat colonies where humans provide food attract raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes, too, easing the spread of rabies. Cats also carry a variety of diseases that can be transmitted to humans, from a bacterium that causes a life-threatening infection in cat scratches and bites to a parasite that can cause birth defects when pregnant women are exposed to cat feces.
            The authors call feral cats an invasive species and say the only answer to solving the problem is what is euphemistically called “trap and remove,” which means capturing the animals and euthanizing them.
            “No one likes the idea of killing cats,” they write. “But sometimes, it is necessary.”
            It is unclear how many feral cats live in Rhode Island, but all the interested parties agree it’s too many. Estimates range as high as 250,000, though state veterinarian Scott Marshall says it’s probably closer to “tens of thousands.”
He established a Feral Cat Working Group in 2010 after receiving innumerable complaints about the animals. The group, which includes members from animal welfare groups, academia, environmental organizations, and public health agencies, hired a student from the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine to census known feral cat colonies in the state. She found 302 colonies, mostly in urban areas, with a total of about 4,000 cats.
It is believed there are many more colonies than those she surveyed, plus thousands of uncounted cats that are not part of established colonies and an estimated 60,000 housecats whose owners let them go outside.
“Cats are a serious problem for wildlife,” said Marshall. “Their hunting instinct isn’t diminished by feeding them. A pet cat that is fed at home still brings birds and rodents home. We can’t deny that they’re having an impact on wild birds, rodents and to a lesser extent reptiles. They kill whatever they can get.”
According to Marshall, feral cats live very short lives. Their life expectancy is less than two years. Half don’t make it out of kittenhood, 75 percent don’t survive one year, and 85 percent die before their second birthday.
“People don’t realize that when animals are dying young in large numbers, they have a miserable life and a miserable death,” he said. “They’re struck by cars, exposed to parasitism, die of exposure, get ripped to shreds by predators. They don’t live good lives.”
He agrees with the authors of Cat Wars that, unfortunately, the best solution is euthanasia.
“Given the tools we have, that’s the only way to solve it,” Marshall said. “If a male contraceptive were available, that could be effective, but right now nothing else works.”
Most of the animal welfare groups in Rhode Island disagree. Vehemently.
They argue instead for a method called “trap, neuter and return,” or TNR, in which feral cats are captured at colonies, brought to clinics to be spayed or neutered, and returned to their colony. Advocates say it is the most humane alternative to euthanizing the animals, and because the cats can no longer reproduce, the colonies will eventually disappear.
Gil Fletcher, a member of the Feral Cat Working Group who runs a cat rescue organization called PawsWatch, acknowledges that not all of the animal welfare groups agree with the “return” component of TNR, and because there are numerous small grassroots groups advocating for feral cats, there is considerable tension among them. But, he wrote in an email, “it goes without saying that any form of large scale lethal approach to reducing the free-roaming cat population (trap and euthanize, hunting, targeted poisoning, etc.) is an anathema to this group.”
Fletcher is pushing for municipal governments to adopt the TNR approach, because the feral cat problem is one he equates with other community concerns addressed with taxpayer funds, like anti-littering campaigns and roadside beautification efforts.
While he barely mentions the impact of cats on wildlife – other than to disagree with the cat predation numbers Marra and Santella claim – he says that “the cat people” and “the wildlife people,” as he calls them, all seek to remove free roaming cats from the outdoor environment. Their “interest, motivation and their presently-favored means are poles apart, but the end goal is the same,” he said. “By all logic, they should be natural allies.”
Part of the reason they aren’t, according to Marshall and the scientific community, is that there is no evidence that TNR works. In practice, feral cat colonies managed with TNR don’t get smaller and disappear. Instead, the populations remain mostly the same and the animals continue to kill wildlife. To be successful, at least 80 percent of the cats in a colony must be spayed or neutered, and the colonies must be constantly monitored as new animals arrive.
“TNR seems to be the panacea that animal welfare groups endorse, but there’s virtually no evidence that it’s effective,” Marshall said. “Everybody wants it to be effective, but it’s very labor intensive, expensive, and ultimately it’s ineffective. Unless people can shut down new inputs into the colonies, it’s doomed to fail.”
The one thing Marshall and Fletcher agree on is that it will be nearly impossible to address the issue of feral cats in Rhode Island without public support for whatever strategy is chosen. And they say that the public won’t support a widespread euthanasia effort.
“The science would say that cats should be removed from the environment, but emotions run very high and there is no public support for removal,” he said. “I personally don’t like the idea of tolerating their existence, because in my opinion the lives and deaths they experience are far less humane than trapping and removing them.”
The authors of Cat Wars, however, are less concerned with the sad lives of feral cats and more concerned for the welfare of wildlife and the environment. They say that of all the threats to birds that are directly or indirectly caused by humans, cats are the easiest problem to fix, especially when compared to complex issues like climate change.
“To me, this should be the low-hanging fruit,” said Marra in Smithsonian Magazine. “but as it turns out, it might be easier stopping climate change than stopping cats.”

This article first appeared in on November 22, 2016.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

War on marine invaders seems a losing battle

            On a cool Friday morning last month, a dozen curious Rhode Islanders lay down on the pier at Point Judith Marina to collect some of the squishy and crunchy creatures that were growing on the side of the docks. Using rusted metal spatulas, they scraped the unknown life into small aquarium nets and saved it in plastic tubs, then spent half an hour trying to identify what they had retrieved.
            With the exception of a few blue mussels, almost nothing was recognizable. There were sea squirts and shrimp-like things, seaweeds and green crabs, and just about everything was covered in a mushy yellow-brown mat called a colonial tunicate.
Almost none of it was native to New England waters. In fact, most it came from the other side of the planet.
Colonial tunicate
Marine invasive species are a growing problem. According to Kevin Cute of the CoastalResources Management Council, who led the marina program sponsored by RhodeIsland Sea Grant, there is little that can be done about them. Once a new species arrives, it’s almost impossible to get rid of it.  So prevention is the key, he said.
But preventing marine organisms from showing up where they don’t belong is harder than you would think. Most arrive in the ballast water of ships, which pump entire marine ecosystems from one part of the world into their hulls to improve the ship’s stability, and then they discharge it into water bodies far from where they originated.
Since the biochemistry of Narragansett Bay is far different from that of the South China Sea, for instance, most microscopic organisms cannot survive in both places. But a few hardy specimens endure the journey, latch onto a hard surface like a rock or marina dock, and start to reproduce. And it’s nearly impossible to stop them.
The colonial tunicate that covered most of the other creatures at Point Judith Marina that day originated in Japan, showed up in Maine in 1993, and has been spreading along the East Coast ever since. With no known predators, it grows aggressively, fouls fishing and aquaculture gear, and smothers shellfish and other creatures living on the seafloor.
Cute and a team of CRMC staff and volunteers conduct monthly sampling for marine invasive species at five sites around Narragansett Bay to keep an eye on the known invaders and to watch for new arrivals. But, he said, “there are so many variables – storm events, changing temperatures and salinity, predation, competitors – if I came back next week there could be very different species here.”
Various regulatory agencies are doing what they can to restrict the arrival of new organisms. Ships entering U.S. waters are now required to dump their ballast water at least 200 miles from shore. And some ships must install on-board chemical or ultraviolet systems for treating their ballast water before discharging it – though many in the shipping industry are fighting these regulations.
So while it is getting more difficult for new species to make it to our shores, dealing with the species that are already here is a never-ending battle. The colonial tunicate is an especially challenging one to manage. It’s already affecting Narragansett Bay’s eelgrass beds, which Cute calls the most important habitat in the bay because it is a valuable nursery area for fish.
“We’re playing ecological roulette with invasive species,” Cute said. “They’re wiping out dinner for all of us.”

This article first appeared in the Independent on November 17, 2016.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Block Island project finds falcon migration route

During the peak of this year’s fall raptor migration season, scientists from the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine completed a five-year effort to monitor the movement of falcons on offshore islands along the East Coast. And most of their effort was focused on Block Island, which the researchers say is among the most important stop-over sites for migrating falcons.
Their aim was to capture peregrine falcons and affix them with satellite tracking devices to map the birds’ movements so scientists can better understand their migration routes, how they use the coastline, and how they may be affected by offshore wind farms.
Rick Gray with a merlin.
The findings so far have been somewhat unexpected.
BlockIsland is perfectly situated as a jumping off point for birds migrating south, according to Rick Gray, one of the researchers leading the project. It attracts an abundance of songbirds – the primary food of peregrine falcons – and it is situated between Long Island, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, which the birds also visit during migration.
“We’re very excited that we found this gem of a site,” said Gray. “Falcons are coastline migrants, so Block Island is an ideal location for this kind of study.”
Since 2012, Gray and his colleagues have captured more than 550 falcons on Block Island and attached transmitters to 38 peregrines and 80 merlins – the latter a smaller cousin of the peregrine. The scientists hid in a portable blind at the edge of a bluff on Lewis Farm on Block Island, a site where the birds are regularly observed soaring on thermals and hunting for food. When a falcon was lured into a series of nets, the researchers conducted a health assessment of the captured bird, collected blood and feather samples, fit it with a transmitter, and released it.
The first surprise the researchers discovered was that falcons often make long flights far out over the ocean.
“When the birds leave Block Island, they typically hug the coast to the Outer Banks [of North Carolina] and then do long overwater flights to Florida and the Bahamas,” Gray said, noting that the birds then continue on to wintering grounds in the Caribbean and Central and South America. “One of the first males we tracked in 2014 was a total outlier, though. It left Block Island and went straight out into the ocean. We’re convinced it was hunting pelagic birds following ships.”
Another somewhat surprising finding was that the researchers have caught just four adult female peregrine falcons during the five years of the study, and they haven’t seen even one adult male. Almost all of the birds they capture on Block Island are young birds migrating for the first time, and almost all are of a subspecies that breed in the Arctic, not the subspecies that breeds in the northeastern United States.
Gray said that little is known about the migration route of adult male peregrines – few have been captured at any bird banding location on the East Coast – and the small number of adult females tracked have followed the coastline closely throughout their migration.
“Migration routes are probably learned. On their next migration, the young birds are probably not going to do an oceanic flight,” explained Gray. “It’s the same with ospreys. Hatch-year birds do crazy oceanic flights, and the next year they don’t. They only do that long overwater flight one time. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same thing with peregrines.”
            Mortality of falcons on their first migration is quite high, probably in part because of the long routes they take over the ocean. But the researchers say they also do not appear to be very cautious during their first migration.
            “We found one of our transmitters underneath an eagle nest on Assateague Island in Virginia,” said Gray. “Our thought is that the bird had probably killed something and wasn’t paying attention and was taken by an eagle.”
            Having wrapped up their study of peregrine falcons this year, Gray said that the researchers hope to focus more on merlins in coming years. They hadn’t expected to see so many merlins on Block Island, so in 2014 and 2015 they began attaching them with a small device called a nanotag that provides a GPS reading when the birds fly by one of the many antennas set up along the East Coast to monitor bird migration.
            “This is the first time that merlins have been tracked anywhere, and their track is very similar to peregrine migration,” Gray said. “They do over-ocean flights, but not as great distances as the peregrines. We don’t have the ability yet to see exactly where they go over the ocean, but they’re definitely using the coastline the same way as peregrines.”
            The falcon research project is supported in part by the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy, which hopes to use what is learned in future land protection and wildlife management efforts.
“The raptor research at Lewis Farm is producing cutting edge scientific discoveries, giving us a more comprehensive view of raptor migration than ever before,” said the Conservancy’s Clair Stover. “By supporting and hosting the Biodiversity Research Institute, The Nature Conservancy and others in the conservation field are learning more about raptors and their migrations, and as a result, we are able to better manage and protect nesting, stopover, and wintering habitats that are key to the species’ success.”

This article first appeared on on Nov. 2, 2016.