Saturday, June 30, 2018

How is South County preparing for rising tides?

            Superstorm Sandy had a devastating effect on the business community along the Misquamicut shoreline in 2012. Little Mermaid’s restaurant and Sam’s Snack Bar were completely destroyed; Paddy’s Beach Club and the Andrea Hotel barely avoided the same fate.
            As they have rebuilt their businesses over the last six years, they have done so with rising sea levels and increased storm surge in mind. Little Mermaid’s and Sam’s now operate out of customized trailers. The Andrea Hotel has been converted into a seaside restaurant under a giant tent, and Paddy’s uses portable bars and furniture grouped in the sand. All can move their entire operations inland if a major storm approaches the area.
            According to Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, all four businesses have traded in their permanent structures for temporary facilities that allow their owners to be more flexible in their operations. And they’re not the only ones with their eye on the changing climate.
            Nearby, the Purple Ape made a dramatic architectural change in their business fa├žade to
Volunteers plant marsh grasses along Narrow River. (Charles Biddle)
reduce areas where water could enter. And the Atlantic Beach Casino Resort relocated the doors and windows to its indoor pool building for the same reason.
            These are just a few of the many private, municipal, state and federal efforts underway to make South County more resilient in the face of rising seas and increasingly severe storms and to mitigate potential damage from the changing climate. Sea level has already risen about 10 inches since 1930, according to a gauge in Narragansett Bay, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects it will rise another 20 inches by 2030 and more than 9 feet by 2100.
            “This could mean that a 30-year mortgage taken out today on a home or business could experience more than three feet of sea level rise during the loan term,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. “When combined with more frequent and intense coastal storms, that’s going to mean significant impacts to coastal property.”
            To prepare for what is to come, some organizations along the coast are attempting to rise above the situation by raising the elevation of their operations or raising protective barriers to protect their infrastructure. The Watch Hill Yacht Club, for instance, used hydraulic jacks to hoist its entire 4,000-square-foot clubhouse up 15 feet and constructed a new storm-resistant entry level beneath it. The new first floor has garage-like doors on all sides that can be opened to allow waves, rising tides and storms to move through without causing damage.
The town of Narragansett recently completed construction of a tall berm around three sides of its wastewater treatment facility next to Scarborough State Beach. “It added a couple hundred thousand dollars of expense, but it also added 30- to 40-years of protection for the sewage treatment works,” said Michael DeLuca, the town’s community development director.
Prior to the berm construction, major storms often caused the facility to flood, forcing the plant to temporarily shut down until the water could be pumped out again.
Perhaps the most dramatic effort to rise above the rising tides took place at Ninigret Pond, where the elevation of 30 acres of salt marsh owned by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management was raised by up to a foot and replanted with more than 100,000 native marsh plants. Material dredged from the Charlestown Breachway was delivered to the marsh and placed in such a way as to recreate a natural saltmarsh.
The rising sea level was causing the marsh to drown in place, said Caitlin Chaffee, a coastal policy analyst at CRMC, which partnered on the project with DEM, Save the Bay and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The goal was to increase the area of high marsh, which is the habitat most rapidly on the decline in Rhode Island,” she said. “Lots of the area was holding standing water and not draining at low tide, so the vegetation dies, the marsh subsides, and it becomes prime mosquito breeding habitat.”
Using contractors, staff and volunteers, the partners raised the surface of the marsh and created a mosaic of habitat. Save the Bay coordinated the work of about 150 volunteers to plant cordgrass, salt meadow hay and other native plants.
“Full vegetation recovery will take a few years,” Chaffee said, “but we are really encouraged by what we see so far. Many of the plants did really well, and a lot of stuff is coming in naturally by seed. It looked like a moonscape at first, but now we’ve got plenty of green on the marsh.”
A similar project at a salt marsh on the Narrow River was completed last winter, led by The Nature Conservancy, and marshes at Quonochontaug and Winnipaug Ponds are due to have the same treatment in coming years.
CRMC and the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center have examined the issues of coastal erosion, sea level rise and storm surge from a more comprehensive manner with a planning document that mapped how these factors would affect all 420 miles of the state’s coastline. The document, the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (or Beach SAMP), aims to provide guidance to landowners, municipal planners and others involved in building in coastal areas.
One outcome of the Beach SAMP, which was completed in May, is the requirement that those seeking a permit to build in affected areas must complete a risk assessment for their property, which includes identifying a “design life” for the structure based on its risk from climate-related factors.
According to Teresa Crean, coastal community planner at the Coastal Resources Center, the Beach SAMP provides the tools to inform decision making while offering adaptation strategies that can help move projects forward.
“The next challenge comes in creating demonstration projects that test out these adaptation strategies,” Crean said. “Our options are to figure out how to keep the water out, accommodate the water coming in, or get out of the way.”
This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of South County Life magazine.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Is Narragansett Bay too clean?

            Whenever lobsterman Al Eagles finishes fishing for the day, he scoops up a bucket of water from Narragansett Bay to wash down his boat. And every time he does so, he glances into the bucket to see what’s in the water. In the past, he saw an abundance of microscopic marine organisms – tiny marine plants called phytoplankton, equally tiny animals called zooplankton, and occasionally something a little larger. Lately, however, when he glances in that bucket of water, he sees nothing but water.
            “There’s nothing swimming in it; there’s no life at all,” he says. “We’ve turned Narragansett Bay into a swimming pool, which is good for swimming but not good for the marine environment. It’s become a dead environment. It’s supposed to be murky with marine life.”
            Eagles, a 68-year-old resident of Newport, and fellow lobsterman Lanny Dellinger of North Kingstown, are two of many concerned fishermen who believe that changes at Rhode
Fishermen on Narragansett Bay (Michael Cevoli)
Island’s 19 wastewater treatment plants have resulted in Narragansett Bay becoming too clean.
            “It’s Chernobyl out there,” says Eagles, referring to the Russian nuclear plant that melted down in 1986 and left a wide area around it devoid of life. “It’s the same thing in Narragansett Bay.”
            The idea that the bay could be – let alone is – too clean is highly controversial, since most people would agree that the decades of work and investment to reduce the volume of pollutants being discharged into the bay has been worthwhile and should continue. While the scientists who study the bay and its inhabitants disagree with many of the fishermen’s conclusions, the scientists acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers to explain what Eagles, Dellinger and their colleagues have observed.
            The main culprit in what the fishermen see as a decline in marine life in Narragansett Bay is nitrogen. They say the wastewater treatment plants aren’t discharging enough of it.
Nitrogen is a naturally occurring element that makes up about 79 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. Most fertilizers are made of nitrogen, and humans excrete several grams of nitrogen in their wastes every day. In water bodies, nitrogen causes algae to bloom, much like it stimulates fertilized grass to grow. And when discharged in large quantities into Narragansett Bay from wastewater treatment plants, it can cause widespread algae blooms in the summer that often results in poor water quality that can suffocate marine life.
            But algae – also called phytoplankton – is also the first step in the marine food chain. Those tiny marine plants are fed upon by zooplankton, many of which are the larval stages of lobsters and other commercially important fish and shellfish. Without enough nitrogen being delivered into the bay to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, the zooplankton will starve, and other marine life may avoid coming into the bay. That’s what Eagles and Dellinger believe has happened as a result of what they consider an overreaction by state officials to a fish kill that occurred in Greenwich Bay.
            When approximately a million fish, mostly menhaden, washed up dead on beaches in Warwick and East Greenwich in August 2003, it caused a public uproar. The governor and the General Assembly responded by establishing commissions to study what caused it, and scientists concluded that it was the result of a unique set of circumstances that included stagnant water, a neap tide, excess nitrogen and other factors. The only one of the causal factors that environmental managers could control was...

Read the rest of this article in the June 2018 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Caribbean crab species found in Pt. Judith Pond

            When Jim Turek captured some fish, crabs and other creatures from a salt marsh at Camp Fuller in South Kingstown during the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s annual BioBlitz on June 13, he didn’t expect to find a crab species that had never been recorded in the state. In fact, he didn’t even know he had.
            Turek placed the specimens in an aquarium at the event to show visitors what was living in nearby waters. But when science teacher Becky Lash observed the crab, she immediately knew it wasn’t the usual hermit crab that everyone assumed it to be. It was shy and remained hidden in its shell, unlike the usually aggressive native hermit crabs.
            Eventually it was identified by University of Rhode Island ecologist Niels-Viggo Hobbs as a thinstripe hermit crab, a species that typically lives in the Caribbean and ranges only as far north as Virginia.
            Hobbs said the crab’s discovery in Rhode Island waters may be a sign of a northward expansion due to warming waters, but it also may have been released by someone who
Thinstripe hermit crab (Project Noah)
purchased it at a pet store. Several pet stores in the area occasionally have thinstripe hermit crabs in stock.
            "It's too early to tell whether it's a range expansion or an accidental introduction by an aquarium hobbyist," said Hobbs. "In fact, with this one individual, we'll never know for sure. Both scenarios are entirely plausible, and both underscore dangers related to introduction and potential invasion."
            Hobbs said it is difficult to predict how this species may impact populations of native hermit crabs in Rhode Island, and it is uncertain whether the thinstripe hermit crab is even reproducing in the state. He revisited the area a few days after the crab was discovered and did not find any other specimens.
            "It is not a very common species in its native range, and it's also very shy compared to the most common native hermit crab, so it would probably have a tough time directly competing with native species," Hobbs said. "However, given the many factors that go into making a successful invader, it's not always easy to predict."
            Bioblitz is a 24-hour event to assess the biodiversity of a parcel of land. The Natural History Survey has conducted the event using volunteer naturalists for 19 years, and the Camp Fuller site was the smallest parcel yet – about 85 acres. The 184 participating volunteers counted 1,007 species, including 18 mammals, 89 birds, 302 vascular plants, 66 beetles, 158 moths, 29 seaweeds, 47 mosses, 56 marine diatoms, 25 ants, 14 butterflies, 74 fungi, 7 amphibians and 23 fish.
“That’s quite a lot of species for what is our smallest Bioblitz by acreage,” said David Gregg, executive director of the Natural History Survey. “It reflects very diverse habitat – a little salt marsh, a little sand flat, a little patch of beech woods, a little dry woods, a little peat bog, all together and packed into 85 acres.”
Gregg called the discovery of the thinstripe hermit crab similar to the discovery of a mosquito fish at a pond in Little Compton during a previous Bioblitz.
“That Little Compton pond had been there with those fish for years and nobody had been there to look at it,” he said. “You had to have a Bioblitz to find it. Bioblitz is essentially a game, and people do it for the fun of it, for the sense of adventure and exploration, and you often end up finding things you never would have looked for otherwise.”
The thinstripe hermit crab wasn’t the only rarity found during this year’s Bioblitz, however. Two rare fungi were discovered that local naturalists were unable to identify until contacting an international expert in Norway. And four plants on the state’s list of rare species were found where they had never been reported before.
In addition, the state’s second record of the Asian needle ant was reported by Providence College ant expert James Waters, who also found the state’s first record on the PC campus in 2016.
According to Gregg, most ants must be observed under a microscope to identify them, so Waters and his students collected numerous ants for closer inspection. The students took digital pictures of the ants and posted them to a website called iNaturalist, which uses volunteer experts to identify wildlife.
“Within 24 hours, a famous ant guy, Alex Wilde, happened to be looking at ants on iNaturalist and identified it as the Asian needle ant,” Gregg said.
Native to Japan and elsewhere in Asia, the species is now found throughout the U.S. Southeast and as far north as New York. It is considered invasive, since it displaces native ants. The ant is known to infest homes as well as natural areas, and it has a painful sting.
“It has been spreading dramatically recently, and now it’s fairly common in New York City,” Gregg said. “We wondered whether the sighting in Providence in 2016 was a fluke or if it is seriously spreading our way. Now that we’ve found it on the shore of Point Judith Pond, it seems to be seriously spreading.”
Those interested in participating in next year’s Bioblitz should contact Kira Stillwell at the Rhode Island Natural History Survey at 401-874-5800 or

This article first appeared on on June 27, 2018.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The story of my cicada date

The bugs were huge. They looked like houseflies magnified about 30 times, with intense red-orange eyes, red veins in clear wings, and black bodies the size of my thumb. And they were crawling all over me. 
One landed on top of my head, another on my shoulder, and a third hit my cheek with a thud and proceeded to walk across my nose and to perch on my forehead.  I could feel them
landing on my back and legs every few seconds, and several slowly climbed up my pant leg and clung to my thigh.
            My girlfriend was covered with them, too.  Every inch of every leaf, branch, shrub and tree for a mile around us was enveloped in the bustling throng.  And the high-pitched piercing sound of their mating calls was deafening, like a dentist’s drill or a buzz saw.
But despite the creepy feeling of these ugly creatures crawling across our faces, we did nothing to shoo them away.  And believe it or not, it was the highlight of a date I made 17 years earlier with the woman who would later become my wife, Renay.
            It started in 1984, not long after we met, when Renay called me in Yellowstone Park where I was working to tell me about the insect swarm in her backyard.  She even held the phone out so I could listen to the racket they made.  I was a budding naturalist at the time, and the unusual insect spectacle intrigued me.
So before the end of the phone call, I asked Renay out on a date 17 years in the future. She agreed to join me on a visit to her neighborhood in central New York on the third Saturday in June 2001 so I could see the bugs for myself.  We knew the precise date to be there because these particular insects are only active for two weeks every 17 years.
            How those billion bugs know to emerge together after such a long time, I don’t know. But there was no way I wanted to miss it.
Renay and I forgot about our pledge for more than a dozen years, but news stories of similar swarms in other parts of the country reminded us with a few years to spare.  When the day finally arrived, we drove 300 miles from Rhode Island to get there, and it was the most memorable date we ever had.
Periodical cicadas – the official name of the species that emerges every 17 years – don’t occur in Rhode Island. But several other cicada species do. And while they emerge in backyards throughout the region every year in less spectacular fashion than those I saw in New York, they are no less intriguing.
The males sing by flexing a drum-like organ in their abdomen, and the females make a sound by flicking their wings. Females deposit their eggs in a groove she carves into a tree limb, and when the nymphs hatch, they drop to the ground and burrow into the soil, where they tunnel around and feed on tree roots. When the right time comes, they emerge from the ground, climb up a tree, and transform into an adult insect to begin the process again.
            The periodical cicadas are due to emerge this week in central New York again, but Renay and I are unable to make the trip this time. But thanks to the love story they inspired, we’ve already made a date for 2035 to see them again.

This article first appeared in the Independent on June 23, 2018.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Building a buzz in Rhode Island

When Environment Council of Rhode Island member Dave Brunetti mentioned at a meeting that he wanted to get the state to ban a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, Audubon’s director of policy, Meg Kerr, and her predecessor Eugenia Marks expressed their support and offered to help. Concerns about the decline of bees have made news around the world, and neonicotinoids have been implicated as one probable cause. Since pollinator protection is high on Audubon’s list of priorities, Kerr and Marks joined with Brunetti in speaking to legislators and meeting with beekeepers and other interested stakeholders about the issue.
The idea of a ban on neonicotinoids met with resistance from many in the farming and landscaping industries, however, so one legislator offered to convene what Kerr called “a listening workshop” to bring together experts and interested parties to share their perspectives. It was an emotionally charged meeting, and it soon became clear that there was little support for an immediate ban on the insecticides.
Instead, a compromise was reached and legislation was passed to establish a Pollinator Working Group under the RI Department of Environmental Management to investigate the many
issues surrounding pollinator health and habitat in Rhode Island. The Working Group includes scientists, farmers, landscapers, beekeepers and representatives of environmental groups, with Kerr and Shannon Brawley, executive director of the RI Nursery and Landscape Association, designated as “staff” to lead the effort.
“We all agreed that it was an opportunity to bring people together, learn about the condition of bees and other pollinators in our state, evaluate how pesticides, climate change and habitat changes are impacting pollinators. We wanted to identify strategies the state could consider to move forward in a productive way to address our concerns,” Kerr said.
Many people think that environmental advocacy, like Audubon’s work to protect pollinators, all takes place at the State House. They imagine Kerr and others testifying at legislative hearings, persuading legislators in one-on-one meetings, and occasionally catching the ear of the governor in a fight for strong environmental policies. But that’s only one small part of the process, as Audubon’s involvement in the Pollinator Working Group suggests.
“It’s a difficult process to pass a bill, but passage doesn’t change anything,” Kerr said. “We need to continue to advocate for full and proper implementation of the bills that we work to get passed. Almost always the bill is asking a state agency to do something, and the agencies are all short-staffed and already have full plates.”
“And just because it was our priority and we were able to convince the legislature to make it a priority,” she added, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a state agency priority or that they have the funding for what we want them to do.”
For example, Audubon fought for two years for passage of amendments to Rhode Island’s Green Buildings Act to add metrics for ensuring that the property around new state buildings is as sustainably designed as the buildings themselves. The bill that passed gives the state an opportunity to pilot test the new metrics on four projects.
“We are now part of the implementation team, helping the state successfully select and implement the four projects” said Kerr. “Once a bill passes, advocates always think about how we can help the state be successful.”
The same was true of the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which established greenhouse gas reduction goals and programs aimed at state agency coordination. Advocates like Kerr who worked to get the bill passed continue to remain engaged to make sure that the state does what the bill directed.
“The point is, our job is not to pass bills. Our job is to make the environment better in Rhode Island,” Kerr said. “Simply passing bills doesn’t do it.”
            The good news is that Audubon is highly respected at the State House, thanks to decades of advocacy by the late executive director Al Hawkes, Marks and others long before Kerr was hired. While Kerr has been an environmental advocate for more than 25 years, she was pleased to see...

Read the rest of the article in the spring 2018 issue of Audubon Report.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Raptor Rehabilitators

            Inside the basement freezer at John and Vivian Maxson’s home in Bradford are more than 750 frozen mice, along with hundreds of dead rats and an uncounted number of frozen quail.
“We have to be careful what we thaw out for dinner,” John joked.
All of the frozen animals are destined to be meals for the 14 hawks, owls and falcons in temporary housing in large cages scattered around their backyard.
            The owners of the Born to be Wild Nature Center, the Maxsons rehabilitate and care for dozens of injured raptors each year, most of which were hit by cars. After they recover from head injuries, broken wings and other damage, almost all of them are released back into the wild.
            “We’re just interceding on behalf of the wildlife, giving them a chance when they normally
Snowy owl being released after rehabilitation (Peter Green)
wouldn’t have one,” John said. “A lot of it is just giving them time to recover that they wouldn’t have in nature. If they’re on the ground with a head injury, they’d be susceptible to predation. But if they get rescued, they get the time to get right, and eventually they will fly off on their own.”
            The Maxsons have been caring for wild animals for 20 years, and while it makes it difficult to go on vacation or enjoy free time, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
            “The whole concept of wildlife rehab was completely foreign to me back in 1998,” said Vivian, a medical assistant at South County Hospital. “The idea of being allowed to work with wild animals intrigued me, so I signed up for a two-day certification class.” She was soon teamed with a mentor who provided her with the experience necessary to earn a wildlife rehabilitator’s license. “And we’re still at it,” she said.
            Vivian said that her husband quickly embraced her newfound passion and began constructing a nature center in their backyard, starting with a cage the size of a card table and soon progressing to larger and larger ones. They began by rehabilitating whatever animals needed assistance, from foxes and raccoons to squirrels and songbirds. But they eventually decided to focus on raptors.
            “At that point we knew a lot of little stuff about a lot of animals, but nothing in depth about any of them,” John said. “Now that we’re focused on raptors, our knowledge and skills are pretty deep.”
            Inside a 24-foot flight cage just beyond the Maxson’s front door are two red-tailed hawks testing their wings. Another perches in a nearby cage waiting to molt so she can fly more efficiently after damaging her feathers in a collision. Other cages contain barred owls, peregrine falcons, a turkey vulture and other birds, some of which are too injured to survive on their own. Wild hawks and owls often visit the yard to interact with their recovering cousins.
            The red-tailed hawks are Vivian’s favorites.
            “They are so majestic and powerful,” she said. “Red-tails are so beautiful, and each has their own personality. Lucky for me, they are a common hawk here on the East Coast, so we get in a lot of them.”
            This winter was an unusually busy time for barred owls. The Maxsons rehabilitated seven of the gray streaked birds after they were hit by cars during a six-week period in January and February. Spring and early summer is the busiest time of year – they call it baby season – when young hawks and owls injure themselves as they learn to fly or the trees that hold their nests are cut down or fall in storms.
            “Babies are a lot of work,” said John, a retired special education teacher. “You can’t just hand them a whole mouse. You’ve got to cut it up and give it to them in pieces with forceps. A great horned owl baby can eat two dozen mice a day, so that puts a big tax on our food bill.”
            Last year, the Maxsons spent more than $10,000 on food for the rehabilitating birds. But they say it’s worth it when they watch their patients fly back into the wild.
            “That’s the wonderful part – putting them back where they belong,” John said. “That really rejuvenates us.”
            He especially recalls the release of a juvenile bald eagle in Matunuck last year on Easter Sunday. “The whole release lasted 10 seconds,” he said. “He was raring to go. He came out of that box and he was gone in a flash.”
            Best of all, the Maxsons say, is when they can involve the person who initially rescued the bird in its release.
            “We want them to be there when the bird is set free so they will understand how important their role was in this whole process,” said Vivian. “We have met so many wonderful, compassionate people in our journey. It restores my faith in humanity.”
            To help pay some of the costs of raptor rehabilitation, the Maxsons offer tours of their nature center to see the birds and hear their stories. They also bring some of the birds on visits to local schools, libraries and senior centers. Last year, they presented 53 programs in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts to more than 2,500 people of all ages.
“You’d think we’d be tired of it after 20 years, but not at all,” concluded John. “We get a lot of satisfaction helping the birds and helping people who don’t know what to do when they come across an injured bird. This nature center is my little oasis.”

This story appeared in the June 2018 issue of South County Life magazine.