Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rhode Island osprey numbers continue to soar

            Rhode Island’s osprey population is continuing to grow after a highly productive year in 2016, and while the wet spring of 2017 will likely cause a decrease in nesting success this year, the once-rare fish-eating hawk is a model conservation success story. That’s the message from a new report issued by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, which has coordinated the monitoring of osprey nests statewide since 2010.
            “We’ve had an amazing long-term trend of not just active nests but successful nests and the number of young. All are going up,” said Jonathan Scoones, Audubon’s director of volunteer
Osprey by Ed Hughes
services, who coordinates the osprey monitoring program. “Only nine of our nests were not successful this year, so it seems that our ospreys are becoming experienced at raising young.”
            More than 100 Audubon volunteers recorded 159 active osprey nests in the state in 2016, with 150 of them successfully raising chicks, an increase of 28 successful nests over the previous year and 45 more than in 2014. The number of young ospreys that fledged from their nests skyrocketed from 186 in 2014 to 297 in 2016.
            “Last year was the perfect year for ospreys, mostly because of the weather,” Scoones said. “The birds have to be able to see through the water to find the fish to bring them back to their chicks. They have to be able to see down about three feet into the water. If the weather is bad, they can’t see well enough.”
            For the third year in a row, osprey nests in Barrington and South Kingstown produced the most fledglings, with 42 and 41 respectively. The Palmer River area of Barrington and Warren had the densest aggregation of osprey nests in the region, with 22 nests between the East Bay Bike Path bridge in Warren and the Swansea Country Club just over the Massachusetts border.
            Butch Lombardi, who monitors a dozen of the nests on the Palmer River, said that food availability and water conditions make the area an ideal place for osprey to nest.
            “Food is the prime reason they’re there,” he said. “The river is pretty shallow once you get past the Warren bridge, and there is very little boat traffic except for kayaks and canoes. The key is that the river is so shallow that the birds can hunt it pretty easily because the fish can’t go deep on them.
            “If you add Merriman’s Pond at the country club, which is just two feet deep, it’s like McDonald’s take-out for them. It’s an easy place for a meal,” he added.
            Ospreys were driven to near extinction in the 1960s and 1970s due to the effects of the pesticide DDT, which caused reproductive failure in many fish-eating birds, including bald eagles. When the osprey monitoring program began in 1977 – originally coordinated by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management – just eight young ospreys fledged from nests in the state.
            Today, ospreys nest in 28 cities and towns in Rhode Island, including every coastal community except Cranston, as well as inland towns like Coventry, Exeter, Scituate and West Greenwich.
            “There are probably more nests out there that we’re not aware of,” Scoones said, “so we’d love to get feedback from people who may know of nests we can’t easily access. The Scituate Reservoir probably has ospreys, but we don’t have access there to look for them.”
            While ospreys appear to be quite common in many parts of the state, Scoones does not believe the area has reached maximum capacity.
            “That’s the $64,000 question,” he said. “Westport, Mass., has 80 nests along a short stretch of the river there, so the birds can live communally rather than just one every mile or so, which is what we have here. So we can still take on more capacity.”
            He said that the Palmer River area may not be able to support many more ospreys, but there are numerous places around Greenwich Bay in the Warwick and Cranston area that are available for additional osprey nests.
            Scoones doesn’t think 2017 will be a banner year for ospreys, however. He expects to see evidence of more new nests being constructed by many of the birds that fledged from nests in the area in the last two years, but the rainy spring will probably mean that successful nests will produce fewer young than in 2016.
            “It’s just harder to find food in the rain; the birds can’t see into the water,” he said. “They don’t like to fly in the rain anyway, and the mother spends her time covering her chicks when it rains, so she can’t help find food.”
            Despite his prediction for this year, Scoones anticipates that the increasing trend in osprey numbers will continue into the future.
            “We have enough population here already that we can probably weather a few years of something going wrong, like bad weather or food not being available,” he said. “I’m excited about the future because more people are aware of the osprey and are willing to protect them. The birds are being accepted and no longer seen as a threat to fish.”
            He remains concerned, however, about continued coastal development that could limit the availability of nesting habitat.
            “They need to be able to live in trees or nests close to the water where they can get to their food,” Scoones said. “Nearshore development is forcing ospreys to leave their natural nests, and now they’re going to cell towers and power line towers.”
            Anyone interested in becoming an osprey monitor or helping to repair osprey nest poles may contact Scoones at 401-245-7500 or 

This article first appeared on on June 24, 2017. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rhode Island's citizen scientists

            When Betty Law heard that the water quality in the pond behind her house in Warwick was so poor that it was unhealthy to swim in, she attended a public meeting at City Hall to learn more. That’s when Law, now 94, first met neighbor Gisela Meyn, 73, and they decided to do something about it.
            They teamed up with the Watershed Watch program at the University of Rhode Island to conduct tests of the water in Little Pond every week from May to October. It’s a project they have now undertaken for 21 years in a row, with no plans to stop. They have the distinction of being among the longest-active participants in a program that boasts about 350 volunteers
Gisela Meyn collecting water samples (James Jones)
monitoring water quality in more than 220 water bodies in the state each year. Law is the program’s oldest volunteer by far.
            “It was a shame that we lived on the pond and couldn’t go in the water,” said Law. “I’m not a great swimmer, but I like to cool off in it.”
            The Watershed Watch protocol requires that the pond be monitored at its deepest point, so every week the women row a small boat from the shoreline behind Meyn’s house to the middle of the pond to collect water samples and measure various characteristics of the water.
            “Gis treats me like an old lady,” joked Law. “She helps me into the boat and she rows the boat, but we do the rest together. I still drive, tap dance and sing in the choir at St. Kevin’s, too.”
            When they reached the middle of the pond – both barefoot and wearing flowery blouses and colorful shorts – they went to work. To measure water clarity, Law leaned over the edge of the boat precariously to lower a black-and-white patterned device called a secchi disk into the water, then looked through a tube to determine how far below the surface she could still see the disk. At the same time, Meyn measured the water’s temperature and depth, then submerged a complicated instrument to collect water samples at various levels. Law then conducted another secchi disk test to verify her original results.
            Twenty minutes after they started, the women rowed back to Meyn’s house, with Law serving as navigator while Meyn pulled on the oars.
            Watershed Watch is one of an increasing number of citizen science projects in Rhode Island that engage volunteers and non-scientists in collaborative efforts to collect data for scientific research.  Now in its 29th year, the program provides information that is used by water conservation organizations, policy makers, regulators and state and local officials to make decisions that affect the health of the state’s water bodies....

Monday, June 19, 2017

The edge of the world

            I don’t like the heat, so when I make travel plans, it’s usually to the north. Far north. Like to Iceland in winter, Alaska in spring, and way above the Arctic Circle in summer. There’s something about the wide open spaces when you’re above the tree line that has always been appealing to me. It’s the opposite of the sometimes claustrophobic forests of southern New England. The abundant tundra wildflowers, stunning blue-green icebergs, and close-up looks at unusual wildlife helps to complete the picture of a travel destination that appeals to all the senses in unexpected ways.
            The infinite vistas in the Arctic can be deceiving, however. It’s difficult to judge how far away things are or how large certain geographic features may be. Trust me – everything is larger than you imagine and much further away than you would guess. Bylot Island, a migratory bird sanctuary off the north end of Baffin Island in the eastern Canadian Arctic, is 16 miles
across Eclipse Sound from the village of Pond Inlet, but it looks like it’s just a mile or two distant. Don’t try to kayak there before breakfast, as I once considered, especially during polar bear season.
            But Pond Inlet, a village of about 1,300 people, mostly native Inuit whose first language is Inuktitut, is an excellent place to start your exploration of the Arctic. It’s the second largest community in the territory of Nunavut and a picturesque place to learn about Inuit culture, begin a kayak trip, or hire a guide to search for wildlife. But be prepared for the slow pace of life and the uncertain weather conditions that often delay flights and expeditions on the water by a day or two. Be certain to build in extra time in your itinerary.
            The accommodations are nothing to boast about – Sauniq Hotel is the only option aside from camping, and the hotel’s cafeteria is the only choice for meals. But no one travels this far from civilization to be pampered. Instead, plan on exploring local ice caves, hiking into the mountains that surround the village, or taking a springtime snowmobile or dogsled tour. Pond Inlet is also conveniently located near Tamaarvik Territorial Park and Sirmilik National Park, both excellent destinations for hiking and wildlife watching.
            My first trip to Pond Inlet was part of a research expedition to observe and study narwhals, the small whale with the spiral tusk that helped spawn the unicorn myth. Our guide
took us four hours west by boat to Koluktoo Bay where we camped for a week and explored the nearby fjords for wildlife. The 24-hours of daylight in early August and spectacular wildlife observations compensated for the mostly overcast and occasionally sodden weather.
            On our third night, we awoke near midnight to the sound of heavy breathing outside our tent, but instead of the feared polar bear we found a pod of narwhals rubbing their tusks against each other just 50 feet from the beach where we camped. The behavior, which looks in still photographs to be an aggressive form of swordplay was instead more akin to a gentle nuzzling, a bonding gesture among friends. Later, as we observed several small pods of narwhals around our boat, we dropped a hydrophone into the water and listened to the cacophony of barnyard sounds they emitted beneath the surface – clucking, clicking, mooing, squeaky doors and other entertaining vocal expressions. We also observed killer and beluga whales, ringed and harp seals, Arctic foxes, gyrfalcons, long-tailed jaegers and an impressive list of other wild denizens.
            Behind our campsite, we discovered an archaeological site – complete with a partially exposed human skull – from the Dorset and Thule people, ancient ancestors of the modern Inuit. The Pond Inlet Library has an excellent exhibit about the 2,500-year cultural history of the region, including displays from the turn of the 20th century when the village was a whaling station and trading post.
            Numerous other Inuit communities dot the islands and bays of the eastern Canadian Arctic, including Grise Fjord, Resolute, Rankin Inlet and Arctic Bay, many of which are worth exploring if time allows. But be prepared – flights are limited and most involve smaller aircraft and even more challenging conditions.
            Across Baffin Bay to the west coast of Greenland, summer visitors can explore several native villages, where Greenlandic is the first language, Danish the second, and English is
spoken by few but those in the tourist trade. But don’t let that stop you. It’s a chance to completely immerse yourself in a slightly different Inuit culture than that in
Canada. Fly as far as you possibly can up the west coast to the northernmost municipality on Earth, Qaanaaq, where the only accommodation is a four-room bunkhouse with home-cooked meals that are an adventure in themselves.
            Qaanaaq is a subsistence hunting village – little is available to eat for most of the year except what residents can capture themselves. They hunt polar bears and walrus in the fall, seals in winter, and narwhals and seabirds in summer, the latter season being the only two ice-free months of the year.
            The entire village can be walked end to end in less than 20 minutes, but take your time – you have no choice, since only one flight a week arrives and departs, and there is little else to do. On another narwhal research trip, I hiked the steep hillside behind the village to the receding glaciers that cover all but a narrow coastal strip of Greenland, then walked the quiet beach lined with sled dogs resting for the summer and gazed out at the innumerable icebergs slowly drifting by, some the size of a city block. I later spent an hour in the tiny Qaanaaq Museum, where an impressive collection of artifacts tells the story of the Dorset and Thule people, and in the village’s only giftshop, which sells beautiful jewelry and trinkets carved from walrus and narwhal tusks.
            The museum is the former home of ethnographer Knud Rasmussen, a Danish missionary who was the first to map northern Greenland and the first person to cross the Northwest Passage by dogsled in 1921. The house was originally 19 miles south in the village of Thule, but it was moved after a forced relocation of the entire village in the 1950s when the U.S. established a secret military base there. The natives were dropped off in what is now Qaanaaq with no housing or supplies and forced to survive a winter of -30 F temperatures in one of the saddest stories in Greenland’s history.
            Mads Ole Christiansen, the leader of the hunting association in Qaanaaq, occasionally invites visitors to his camp a two-hour boat ride away to observe a narwhal hunt and learn about the importance of whales in the Inuit culture. It’s a challenging experience – both physically and emotionally – to watch the impressive animals be killed with harpoons thrown from hand-made kayaks and then to eat their raw blubber, but there’s no better way to learn about the difficult lives of those residing in the far north.
            Traveling to Pond Inlet and Qaanaaq isn’t easy, and it’s quite expensive – especially considering the modest accommodations – but it’s a learning experience like no other and an adventure not to be missed.

This article first appeared in Aspire on June 18, 2017.

Slow down for better wildlife discoveries

            If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself rushing from place to place, and from responsibility to responsibility, seldom lingering long enough to smell the proverbial roses. But I recently found out how much I overlook when I do so.
            It has been 35 years since my childhood interest in nature blossomed into an all-consuming passion to observe as many different kinds of birds as possible. I plan my vacations around bird watching, and between trips I study up on the identifying features, habitat preferences and songs of the birds I hope to see.
Yet I learned more about birds last year – without leaving Rhode Island – than I did in the previous three decades of obsessively seeking out new species all around North America. All it took
was a concerted effort to slow down and spend time getting to know each bird by watching it a bit longer than usual.
Charles Clarkson, who runs the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, calls it “slow birding.” It’s the strategy he recommends that atlas volunteers use to document the breeding behaviors of local birds. And it’s a strategy that has opened my eyes to so many new discoveries.
Like the day last May when I heard a red-bellied woodpecker repeatedly calling from high in a tree. It’s a sound I instantly recognized and have heard hundreds or thousands of times. But this time the bird just kept calling and calling every 10 or 15 seconds.
Rather than mentally check off the species on my daily bird list, I searched for it and eventually saw the bird’s head peeking out of a hole in an oak. Moments later, it’s mate arrived and they traded places – the male flew off to feed while the female entered the tree cavity to brood her eggs. I had never observed that behavior before, and yet days later in a different forest I heard the same repeated calls and saw another pair of woodpeckers trading places.
The woodpecker in the nest was apparently telling its mate that it was ready to escape the duty of keeping the eggs warm. Maybe it was hungry or bored or just wanted a break. And its mate obliged.
Why hadn’t I ever seen this behavior before when it is apparently so common during the breeding season? Probably because I wasn’t paying enough attention. I won’t let that happen again.
Last month I spent 20 minutes watching a group of tree swallows darting over a pond, one of which carried a small white feather in its beak. As it flew higher, the bird dropped the feather and another swallow snatched it from the air and repeated the process. This wonderful game continued for several minutes until one of them eventually deposited the feather in its nest.
I also observed a pair of black-billed cuckoos mating, after which one delivered a meal of a small dragonfly to the other. And I saw a female Baltimore oriole collect long grasses in her beak and use them to weave an intricate basket-like nest beneath a branch overhanging a pond. And three times I saw gray catbirds carrying large leaves to begin construction of their nests.
I had never seen any of these behaviors before, even though I see those species regularly every spring and summer. All I had to do was slow down and pay attention.
It’s a good lesson for all of us. Take your time, keep your eyes open, and there’s no telling what natural wonder you’ll see.

This article first appeared in The Independent on June 16, 2017.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Snake Den State Park blitzed by nature enthusiasts

            The cool and wet month of May provided at least one bit of good news – it boosted the total number of mushrooms and other fungi counted by volunteers at the 18th annual Rhode Island BioBlitz to a record high on Friday and Saturday.
The 185 naturalists participating in the 24-hour event sponsored by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, which is used to assess the biodiversity of a parcel of land, counted a
total of 1,073 species of wildlife at Snake Den State Park in Johnston, including 102 varieties of fungi. The previous record for fungi was 88.
Among the other findings were 366 vascular plants (the second highest total on record), 73 birds, 13 mammals, 77 beetles, 24 butterflies, 146 moths, 21 mosses, 67 lichens, 30 spiders, 14 dragonflies, 20 ants (nearly doubling the previous record), 14 mollusks, 12 bees, 4 fish, 6 amphibians and 8 reptiles (despite finding no turtles).
David Gregg, executive director of the Natural History Survey, said the totals were particularly notable because the 1,000-acre site was not on the coast, so no marine species were counted. He expects that when the final identifications are confirmed, the 2017 BioBlitz will
have the fourth highest species count since the event began, behind only Jamestown, Little Compton and Narragansett, all of which included a marine component.
“The other take away is that this year’s site is near Providence and it’s a working farm, so there are limits to how much you can expect to find,” Gregg said. “It’s not a pristine ecosystem like you’d find in Hopkinton or Glocester, and yet it’s actually a really good total and there are a lot of interesting things to see there. It’s well worth having protected the property.”
While the wet spring helped boost the mushroom numbers, Gregg said it probably depressed the counts of many insects, like dragonflies and butterflies, which may have delayed their activity until the weather warmed up.
The weather may have affected spider numbers, too. In a good year, spider experts typically tally 40 to 50 species, but they found just 30 this year. Mike Kieron of East Providence, curator of the Roger Williams Park Museum of Natural History, said there is a great diversity of spiders in the state, but finding them can be difficult.
“We found a lot of jumping spiders, which are one of the most active kinds of spiders, and some fishing spiders that can get up to two inches across,” he said. “Jumping spiders are ambush hunters, so they just sit there and wait for something to come by and they jump on it. They have two enormous eyes that give them such personality. They’re cute little guys.”
Mark Mello of New Bedford, the research director at the Lloyd Center for the Environment in Dartmouth, Mass., may have found the most notable species of the day, a black-bordered lemon, a tiny yellowish moth with a black line along the rear edge of its wings. It’s a species that he believes has never previously been recorded in Rhode Island.
“We’re at the northern edge of its range and its habitat is restricted, so it’s a good find,” he said as he sorted and pinned moths captured in light traps during the overnight hours.
Jason Crockwell traveled from Pittsfield, Mass., to participate in BioBlitz and search for slugs and snails, a category few volunteers paid much attention to in previous years.
“I started out interested in mushrooms, but I kept coming across slugs eating mushrooms, which prompted me to start looking into the slugs,” said Crockwell, who travels throughout the United States and Canada looking for slugs and participating in BioBlitz events. “I had a hard time finding information about them, since apparently nobody else is studying them, so I figured that was a niche I could hone in on. And maybe one day they’ll get their day in the sun”
Crockwell found all four of the slugs native to Rhode Island, and several species of snails as well.
One group of BioBlitz volunteers calls themselves the Litter Bugs.
“We’re really interested in all the members of the animal kingdom that live in leaf litter, on the forest floor or in the upper level of the soil,” explained Robert Smith of Providence, a medical researcher with an avocational interest in field biology. “We mostly end up identifying macro-invertebrates – things like millipedes and springtails and spectacular pseudo scorpions.”
They scoop up small quantities of soil and leaves and sort through it until they find living creatures, which they then identify under a microscope.
“What appeals to me about this is that in one trowelful of litter and soil you really have an entire ecosystem,” he said, noting that the Litter Bugs typically identify 20 to 30 species at each BioBlitz. “You don’t have to walk miles through a forest to find them. Most of the organisms probably live their entire lives in a very constrained area. You’re looking at the whole spectrum of an ecosystem in one scoop.”

This article first appeared on on June 13, 2017.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The state of Rhode Island's sharks

Some 50 different species of this most famous of marine predators regularly patrol the waters of coastal New England. Globally, shark numbers are dropping, but scientists say the news here is good—unless you’re a seal on Cape Cod.
Most people are familiar with one species of shark: the misunderstood great white, made infamous by the movie Jaws and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. But more than 500 species of sharks ply the oceans of the world, and about 50 species can be found at one time or another along the East Coast, from the modest smooth dogfish to the massive basking shark. Many of them are studied by a handful of University of Rhode Island alumni and faculty—who tell a very different story about sharks than is conveyed by the popular media.
Unless you’re a fisherman or boater who spends considerable time in offshore waters, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see a shark in southern New England, says Nancy Kohler, along with Lisa Natanson and Camilla McCandless. The three study the life history of sharks in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Apex Predator Program, based right next door to the URI Narragansett Bay Campus. They also conduct coastal surveys to monitor shark abundance, and collect biological data about sharks captured at recreational fishing tournaments.
They ticked off a long list of sharks that spend at least part of the year in the area: blue, mako, common thresher, sand tiger, smooth and spiny dogfish, basking, great white, porbeagle, and occasionally tiger, hammerhead and sandbar sharks. But the species most likely to be caught by fishermen in offshore Rhode Island waters is the blue.
“Blue sharks use different parts of the Atlantic for different parts of their life history,” explains Kohler, who studied the species for her doctoral dissertation. “This area is mostly a mating ground for them, which is why many of the larger sharks that fishermen catch are adult males. They pup on the other side of the Atlantic.”
One result of Kohler’s long-term tagging study of the species is a map of the impressive migrations they undertake—they travel through almost every part of the Atlantic Ocean. She says blues might, for instance, be tagged off New England and recaptured south of the equator, and they often return to the exact same place in local waters year after year.
Fishermen also catch a great many spiny dogfish, though few fishermen are happy when they do. The four- to five-foot sharks are often reeled in by recreational fishermen targeting cod and other groundfish. While there is little market for them in the U.S., Natanson said there is a regional commercial fishery for them to meet the demand for fish and chips in Europe.
Natanson, who recently started a study of the reproduction of dogfish, says spiny dogfish have a unique distinction among the sharks of the world. “They’re pretty small in the world of sharks,” she says, “but their two-year gestation is the longest of all the shark species.” That doesn’t mean they are necessarily slower to reproduce than other sharks, however. “Most sharks have a two-year reproductive cycle—they’re pregnant for one year and then they rest for one year,” she explains. 
While dogfish are the most likely shark species to be captured close to shore and in lower Narragansett Bay, they aren’t the only ones. McCandless says commercial fishermen using fish traps in the bay sometimes catch small sand tigers and even small white sharks, and recent evidence suggests that sand tigers are regular visitors to Rhode Island’s coastal waters.
“We currently survey shark nursery habitat along much of the U.S. Atlantic coast and have plans to look at Rhode Island coastal waters for this purpose, and Narragansett Bay is an obvious fit for that study,” McCandless says. “We’ve done some exploratory sets in the Bay, and we’ve primarily caught dogfish and skates. We haven’t caught any sand tigers yet, but we know they come up here in the spring time, and they have been caught in fish traps in the Bay.”
One of the most charismatic sharks to visit southern New England waters is the mako, a species prized by fishermen and one that URI Professor Bradley Wetherbee has studied for many years. He and colleagues from Nova Southeastern University have tagged more makos in the Atlantic than any other scientists. Their research is aimed at learning about the health of mako populations, the migratory routes they travel, and the locations of the preferred feeding grounds for what he calls the “fighter jets of the shark world” for their swimming abilities.
He tracked one mako on a year-long,6,500-mile migration in 2015 and 2016, but it was caught and killed a short time later by commercial fishermen off the coast of North Carolina. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. More than a third of the more than 50 mako sharks he has tagged have been killed by fishermen.
Wetherbee doesn’t object to shark fishing. In fact, his research is aimed at collecting information about the animals so they can be better managed and available for sustainable harvest for many years to come. He just hopes that any fisherman who catches a shark with a satellite tracking tag on its fin will release the shark back into the water unharmed.
The shark species that has received the most media attention in the region lately has been the great white, because their numbers have increased in recent years as they feed on the growing number of gray seals that breed on Cape Cod beaches. And caught up in the media frenzy has been Greg
Skomal, a shark biologist for the state of Massachusetts.
He has cataloged 258 great whitesharks in southern New England since 2014, a number he says rivals other hotspots around the world where the species has been intensively studied. He is trying to get a sense for the total size of the population, what they’re doing while they’re here, and where they go when they leave the area—both to help conserve the species and to address public concerns.
“Our approach has been that the more we know about its population size and where it spends its time, the better equipped we’ll be to advise beach managers to enhance public safety,” Skomal says. “The public is worried, but they shouldn’t be. Attacks happen so infrequently. The probability is so low that their bigger concerns should be rip tides and car accidents.
“Many people are also fascinated by them, though,” he adds. “People come to the beaches hoping to see one. It’s been an eye-opening experience for me. I see a lot of positives coming from it.”
While most people are fearful of sharks, Wetherbee says sharks have much more to fear from people than people have reason to fear sharks. An estimated 70 million sharks are killed each year by commercial and recreational fishermen—mostly to meet the demand in China for shark fin soup—and there is concern that the rate is unsustainable.
Skomal said the greatest concern for global shark conservation is in countries far from the United States where harvest levels are high and there is little or no fishery management. “You really have to look at where it’s happening and what species,” he says. “If most of the harvest is in a certain region, then those sharks are in serious trouble. There is so much diversity in the shark world, though. Some species are prone to over-exploitation and others can be harvested sustainably.”
Sharks in U.S. waters, however, are being managed well, the scientists said, and the data suggest an optimistic outlook.
“The indexes are going up, indicators like our coastal survey have shown a steady increase, and even the shark fishing tournaments are regulated,” says Kohler. “I’m not seeing the doom and gloom here that we hear about elsewhere.”

This article first appeared in QuadAngles, the University of Rhode Island alumni magazine, on June 7, 2017.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Rising seas are drowning salt marshes

            The salt marsh at Audubon’s Shadblow Preserve on the Narrow River in Narragansett is wetter than it should be at low tide. Near the highest point on the marsh, Scott Ruhren stood nearly ankle deep in water, and shallow tidepools were unable to drain naturally, providing breeding habitat for mosquitoes. At the inland edge of the marsh, invasive phragmites were encroaching in areas where salt hay – a native plant that Ruhren said looks like the cowlick on a 10-year-old’s head – should be thriving instead.
            A few killdeer and Wilson’s snipe called loudly when they flew off at the approach of Audubon’s senior director of conservation, but little other bird life was noticeable in early spring, other than a few soaring gulls. It was a bad sign.
            “Just about every salt marsh in Rhode Island is having problems like these,” said Ruhren
Rhode Island salt marsh (Jake Zach)
of the 20-acre marsh property donated to the Society in 1974. “Our most obvious issue here is ponding of the water, rather than it draining, which is causing a switch-over in the plant community and a die-off of plants that can’t survive being constantly inundated.”
            Nearly all of the significant problems facing salt marshes in Rhode Island can be traced to rising sea levels – caused by melting glaciers and the thermal expansion of warming waters – and increasingly severe storms, both of which result in flooding and erosion of the habitat that serves numerous ecological functions.
According to Kenny Raposa, research coordinator at the Narragansett Bay NationalxEstuarine Research Reserve on Prudence Island, salt marshes are essential habitat for numerous species of fish and birds, and they absorb large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere. They also filter out pollutants and protect shorelines and property from damage caused by storms and waves.
            “Salt marshes require regular flooding with tidal waters, but it’s a delicate balance,” he said. “If they’re flooded too much, they drown and convert to open water. At high tide, essential nutrients are brought in for the plants. Low tide gives the marsh soils some time to dry out and provides access for birds and wildlife to use the marsh for feeding.”
            Raposa, who has been tracking the decline of salt marshes in Rhode Island for close to 10 years, said that sea level rise has led to the loss of almost 20 percent of the state’s salt marshes in recent decades, and the rate is accelerating.  His research has found that the salt marshes in the region are the most vulnerable in the entire country.
            “It’s happening right now, and it’s happening faster than I thought it would,” he said. “At normal rates of sea level rise, our marshes could keep pace as decaying plant matter and sediment deposits helped the marsh grow vertically at the same rate as sea level rise. But this just cannot happen fast enough anymore in our region, so the marshes are essentially drowning in place.”
            Salt marshes in the Northeast are growing through this accumulation of plant matter and sediment at a rate of 1.4 millimeters per year, while sea level has been rising 5.6 millimeters per year since 1999. It’s a trend that will only get worse. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea level has already risen about 10 inches in Rhode Island since 1930, and scientists predict it will raise two more feet by 2050 and seven feet by 2100.
            Raposa and Ruhren agree that the ideal circumstances would allow salt marshes to migrate inland as the waters rise. In some places that may be possible, though whether the marsh migration can keep up with the rate of sea level rise is uncertain. But most salt marshes in Rhode Island are faced with numerous barriers to their migration – roads and other developments constructed behind the marshes prohibit their inland movement, or the slope of the land limits how far they can move.
            “Even worse,” said Raposa, “new evidence shows that natural upland habitats like a forest can hold out longer than we thought and prevent marshes from migrating.”
            Other climate-related factors are exacerbating the problem. Warming temperatures may accelerate the breakdown of plant matter, making it more difficult for the marshes to grow in elevation to keep pace with sea level rise. And warmer winter temperatures allow fiddler crabs, which destabilize the soil with their burrows, to be active longer.

            One of the biggest losers from the flooding and loss of salt marsh habitat is the appropriately named salt marsh sparrow. The only breeding bird found nowhere else but on the East Coast of the United States, it is one of four local birds that breed exclusively in salt marsh habitat. (The others are the seaside sparrow, clapper rail and willet.) Scientists predict the sparrow will go extinct within the next 50 years.
            Research by University of Connecticut scientists Chris Elphick and Chris Fields has found that the secretive streaked bird with a pale orange triangle on its cheek has been declining by
Salt marsh sparrow at Jacob's Point, Warren (Evan Lipton)
about 9 percent per year since the late 1990s.
            “To put it in context, if your stock portfolio was declining at that rate, you’d be losing money fast. It’s pretty bad,” Elphick said. “About three-quarters of the population has disappeared.”
            Steve Reinert, a part-time ornithologist who has been studying salt marsh birds in Rhode Island since the 1980s, hasn’t observed a noticeable decline in the population of salt marsh sparrows yet, but he knows it won’t be long before he does.
            “Call me a pessimist, but I have little hope for this species,” said Reinert, a member of Audubon’s Council of Advisors. “It’s a species of global concern.”
            The problem the birds face has everything to do with the rising water levels in their breeding habitat.
            Salt marsh sparrows build their nests on the ground in areas of high marsh that typically do not get flooded except at high tide on nights with a new moon, which occurs every 28 days. It takes the birds that entire 28 days to build a nest, lay and incubate eggs, and raise nestlings to the point when they are able to make their first flight.
Reinert said that the birds’ first nesting attempt typically fails when it is flooded during the first new moon tide of the breeding season. But as soon as that happens, the birds start the process all over again and the nestlings typically fledge on the day of the next moon tide. Sometimes the young birds have to climb out of their nest and up an adjacent reed to avoid the rising tide on the last day or two before they are able to fly.
“Most of our successful nests get synchronized to the tidal cycle,” Reinert said. “All of the birds lose their first nest on the same night, and they all start building the new nest the same day.”
But as sea levels are rising, the birds are finding it more and more difficult to complete their nesting cycle before the high water returns.
“It’s already incredibly close for them without adding sea level rise. It’s always been touch and go,” said Reinert. “But now the whole balance of the equation is being thrown off, and they can’t afford to lose a day. The combination of a higher amplitude of tide and a potential shorter period to complete the nesting cycle can dramatically throw off this balance of nature. That’s where the devastation will come.”
            “It doesn’t take too much sea level rise to flip the switch for the birds,” added Elphick. “Literally, a couple inches can make the difference.”
            Unfortunately, little can be done to protect the birds in the long term, since any steps taken now to reduce sea level rise won’t have a practical effect until it’s too late. And while Elphick is exploring potential short-term fixes – like identifying the marshes that are least susceptible to the effects of sea level rise so they can be protected – he, too is pessimistic that the birds will last much beyond mid-century.

            While the outlook for the sparrow appears bleak, there are still numerous strategies that can be employed to preserve at least some of the salt marshes in the region. At the Sachuest Point and John Chafee national wildlife refuges, for instance, sand is being trucked in to raise the elevation of the marshes. Elsewhere, barriers to salt marsh migration, like old roadways, parking lots and other infrastructure, are being removed. And Kenny Raposa and others are experimentally testing the effectiveness of other ways of helping marshes survive the onslaught, from carefully digging channels into waterlogged sections of marshes to help them drain to seeking ways to help marshes migrate more quickly into adjacent uplands.
But deciding which marshes to protect and which to allow to disappear is difficult.
            Meg Kerr, Audubon’s senior director of policy, acknowledges that Rhode Island has a great deal to consider when setting priorities for responding to climate change, especially when it comes to sea level rise.
            “Resources are not endless,” she said. “So when it comes to salt marsh restoration projects, I’ve been making the argument that we need to step back, take a good look at where the best chances are for salt marshes to retreat and remain viable ecosystems, and make sure we’re investing in and prioritizing those sites.”
            She worries, however, that some in the scientific and coastal management community are inclined to wait for a better model or new evaluation tools before making these crucial decisions.
            “The tools we have now are good enough to tell us where the best options are for marsh migration,” she said. “There are lots of important players, including Audubon, who are already working together to implement salt marsh restoration projects, so let’s use the tools we have and keep going.”
            Using the national Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council has mapped every coastal community in the state to identify the low-lying upland properties adjacent to salt marshes that may allow for future marsh migration. While the maps suggest that 80 percent of the state’s salt marshes will be lost from five feet of sea level rise – which would be expected to occur by the 2080s – marshes in upper Narragansett Bay appear to be less vulnerable than those along the south shore.
            According to Caitlin Chaffee, the CRMC policy analyst who manages the state’s Coastal and Estuarine Habitat Restoration Trust Fund, priority areas for salt marsh restoration will likely be based on marsh size, migration potential, those in important bird areas, and those containing rare sea level fen habitat. There are many potential intervention actions that can be taken at priority marshes, but she told attendees at the Rhode Island Land and Water Summit in March that “the fact that we’re already putting sediment on our marshes is an indication of how dire a situation we have. At first thought you’d think that marsh filling would be a serious no-no, but now we’re saying it’s a good thing.”
            While some scientists and coastal advocates are trying to put a positive spin on prospects for preserving salt marshes for the long-term, most appear to recognize that they are fighting a losing battle. Kenny Raposa, for one, finds hope from the many dedicated people, like Kerr, who are working together to try to figure out what can be done to preserve as many marshes as possible. But he also admits that he’s “quite pessimistic. I’m literally seeing and recording the loss of these marshes every year,” he said.
            Steve Reinert feels a similar sadness for what is being lost.
            “As a salt marsh researcher for 46 years in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, the thought of losing one of my favorite places, my favorite environments to walk and take people to and birdwatch in, is personally devastating,” he concluded. “I love the smell of the salt marsh, the prospect of a clapper rail running in front of you, fiddler crabs nipping at your toes. To think that the marsh may not even be there to walk any more is very depressing.”

This article first appeared in the June issue of Audubon Report, the newsletter of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.