Thursday, July 26, 2018

Moth Mingle sheds light on diversity of winged insects

            When most people think about moths, it’s the pest species they imagine, like the caterpillars of gypsy moths and winter moths that have defoliated area trees in recent years. But those invasive species are hardly representative of the immense diversity of native moths that inhabit the fields and forests of Rhode Island. An event last week in Kingston demonstrated exactly that.
            Dubbed the Moth Mingle, the annual public program hosted by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey brought a small group of moth aficionados, as well as the merely curious, to URI’s East Farm for a late-night spectacle of creatures great and small that inspired wonder and amazement.
            According to David Gregg, director of the Natural History Survey and the host for the evening, the Ocean State is home to about 1,000 species of moths, and they play an important role in the ecosystem as pollinators and as food for birds and other animals.
            “When you see a lot of species diversity like that, it’s reflecting a lot of complexity in our ecology,” Gregg said. “So if you want to monitor the health of the environment, you should direct
Checking out the bait trap at the Moth Mingle (Photo by Renay McLeish)
your attention at groups with a lot of biodiversity because it will capture a finer grain picture.
            “Moths are also declining in number – we know that from monitoring events like this one – and we don’t know why,” he added. “So it’s something we need to pay attention to.”
            Most moths only fly after dark, some for only a few hours well after midnight, so the action at the Moth Mingle didn’t really get started until complete darkness had set in. By then, several simple strategies were in use to attract moths.
A large white sheet hanging vertically in a field was illuminated with a light bulb. Two other bulbs – an incandescent and a compact fluorescent – illuminated opposite sides of a piece of white cardboard in an experiment to determine which type of bulb attracts the most moths. In the nearby woods, a bucket trap with a black light was deployed to capture whatever flying insects were nearby, and a bait made from overripe fruit, brown sugar and red wine was smeared on several tree trunks to attract hungry moths in search of a meal.
Throughout the evening, the headlamp-wearing participants wandered back and forth from sheet to bucket to experiment to bait-smeared trees to observe the moths, try to identify them, and learn what they could about each species.
Alex Baranowski, a recent University of Rhode Island graduate who describes himself as “an insect person,” has been interested in moths since childhood when he collected and reared moth caterpillars at his home in Bristol, Conn. He was one of the most knowledgeable participants at the Moth Mingle, happily identifying moths and discussing their natural history.
“I’m not sure why I’m so into moths,” he said. “I’m just fascinated by them. They’re this large successful group of insects that occupies just about every role in the ecosystem possible. Some eat plants, some are predatory, some feed on decomposing insect material, some are parasites, and some are adapted to eating food and grain that people have stored.”
By 9:30, moth activity had begun to pick up. A tiny black-and-white patterned moth called a Hebrew clung to the bucket trap as several tan-colored grapevine loopers fluttered around it.
“There are two kinds of grapevine loopers, but only they can tell them apart,” Gregg said. “Their coloration tells you that moths are bird food – they’re trying very hard to convince you that they’re just a leaf.”
At the sheet, a dozen varieties of moths perched beside tiny beetles, stink bugs, grasshoppers, caddisflies and other insects that had been attracted to the light. A slug moth the size of a pencil eraser was dressed in pink and pale green with furry legs. A few inches away was a skiff moth in shades of chocolate and chestnut. A moth with a checkerboard pattern inspired a bit of debate over its identity, while a rice-sized orange and white moth was found to be a leaf miner.
Cindy Sabato of Wakefield attended the Moth Mingle simply out of curiosity. She said it was a way to learn more about the insects that were attracted to her porch light.
“As humans, I think we tend to be less afraid of what we understand, and I love facing and becoming friends with things that make me uncomfortable,” she said as she pointed out a moth she thought looked like lace. “The experience was great. I was fascinated by the many types and shapes and sizes of moths.”
Later in the evening, moth numbers and diversity continued to increase at the sheet, but the two-bulb experiment wasn’t attracting many moths at all, perhaps because its location was in a breezy area that may have discouraged moths to fly. The bait sites also had few moths, though that was expected.
“Only half of moth species eat as adults,” Baranowski informed the group. The others only eat as caterpillars. In addition, many of those that would be attracted to the smell of the bait don’t usually become active until closer to 2 in the morning, he added.
Back at the sheet, Gregg asked the group, “Who wants to see a moth’s eyes glow?” As expected, all of the participants did. After everyone got their turn to see the tiny reflection of a moth’s eyes in his flashlight, Gregg said, “humans are simultaneously curious and frightened of things in the dark. So we turn on a light and we find that they’re cool.”
At the event’s conclusion, Sabato was pleased to have learned so much about moths. “I most certainly walked back to my car feeling less afraid of being hit up by flying insects in the night than when I went in,” she said. “So mission accomplished.”

This article first appeared in the Independent on July 26, 2018.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Beach litter can be killer problem for marine life

            It’s the peak of beach season, which unfortunately means that it’s also the peak of beach litter season. And as unsightly as food wrappers, water bottles and other trash is to human visitors, it’s an even worse problem for marine life and other species.
            Last summer alone, Geoff Dennis picked up 2,946 bottles and cans, 2,389 bottle caps, 129 cigarette lighters, and 529 straws on just one beach in Little Compton. And that’s just the trash he counted and photographed. There were many many more cups, plates, cigarette butts, fishing
Plastic bottles collected by Geoff Dennis on Little Compton beach
gear, balloons, plastic utensils, take-out containers, plastic bags, and even bags of dog waste that he threw out without counting.
And every bit of it came from people who didn’t care enough about their community or the environment to dispose of it properly.
When I first talked to Dennis about his beach cleaning activities a year ago, he told me he has been doing it for years, and he is discouraged that the quantity of trash he picks up hasn’t declined.
“It really bothers me. The first time, I came back with over 100 mylar balloons,” he said. “If I can start a conversation with people about it, that’s great. But most people just don’t care.”
Dennis estimates that about half of what he picks up on his nearby beach is generated by local beachgoers and the other half from beachgoers many miles away, since it shows evidence of having drifted on ocean currents for some time.
            Thankfully, people aren’t dying from this mass of trash. But we can’t say the same about seals, fish, whales, sea turtles and other animals. That’s because an untold amount of trash gets blown into the water, where it lingers – sometimes for decades – until an unsuspecting animal unwittingly eats it or becomes entangled in it.
            Plastic is especially troublesome because it never disappears entirely. It just breaks down into tinier bits that are easier and more likely for wildlife to consume. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, billions of pounds of plastics end up in the ocean every year.
            Most leatherback sea turtles that are discovered dead along the East Coast, for instance, have a mass of plastic bags in their digestive system that the animals probably mistook for jellyfish, their favorite food. A young sperm whale was found dead on the coast of Spain in April with 64 pounds of plastics in its stomach, and a pilot whale in Thailand died last month from swallowing 80 plastic bags and other trash. Seals are often photographed with plastic wrapped tightly around their throat, cutting into their skin and causing infections, and seabirds are regularly observed entangled in improperly discarded fishing line.
There have even been cases of restaurant patrons finding plastic particles in the fish they have been served. In fact, a recent study found that a quarter of the fish in markets in California had tiny bits of plastic in their guts.
            So set an example for your friends, family and community. Dispose of trash properly at the beach and make the effort to pick up trash left by others, as Geoff Dennis does. Even better, become one of the 2,600 volunteers who join with Save the Bay for the annual International Coastal Cleanup in September.
The local marine life will appreciate it.

This article first appeared in the Independent on July 19, 2018.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Rhode Island keeps close eye on resident goose population

            The Canada goose on Alexis McCabe’s lap looked anything but comfortable. The bird was upside down with its feet and belly pointed skyward and its head between McCabe’s legs. But that was how McCabe, a first-time volunteer, had just been taught to hold the goose as she attached an aluminum band around the bird’s leg.
            “It was a very bizarre experience,” said McCabe, a Warwick resident and a student at the Community College of Rhode Island. “I was very concerned about the location of its beak. And banding it was more difficult than I thought it was going to be because the goose was a lot stronger than I expected.”
            The goose and a dozen others had been herded by five kayakers – staff and volunteers with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management – into a pen adjacent to Green End Pond in Middletown on July 2 as part of an annual effort to monitor Rhode Island’s resident Canada goose population.
            Capturing the geese took longer than banding them, but even that wasn’t especially  
difficult, since the birds were in the middle of molting their flight feathers, a three-week process that begins in mid-June and makes them unable to fly.
            Josh Beuth, the DEM biologist who oversees the banding of 600 to 800 resident geese each summer, said the state’s population of non-migratory geese was established in the late 1980s when the migratory population was declining.
            “The resident population has taken off better than anyone expected they would, and now we have a fairly liberal hunting season to keep them in check,” he said.
            Beuth guesses that there are between 3,000 and 7,000 Canada geese that live in Rhode Island year-round, mostly near urban areas along Narragansett Bay, including Apponaug and Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick, the Seekonk River in Providence and East Providence, and in Newport and Middletown where “big houses have big lawns that go down to large bodies of water.”
Where the geese gather in areas of high density, the birds’ feces can raise bacterial levels and increase nitrogen in the water, which can lead to algae blooms and unhealthy water.
            “The geese aren’t the primary source of pollution that leads to the closure of beaches, but they definitely contribute to the problem,” Beuth said.
            The birds can also be a nuisance to homeowners, due to the large quantity of droppings they leave on lawns.
            “The most common thing I hear when I show up at a site to band the birds is, ‘Are you here to take the geese away?’” said Beuth. “But we can’t relocate wildlife. As soon as they can fly again, they’ll go right back where they came from. And nobody else wants the problem anyway.”
            He advises residents with nuisance geese to allow a natural vegetative buffer to grow between the water’s edge and the lawn to provide a place for predators to hide and to make it difficult for the geese to get from the water to the lawn.
            “If the geese have to get through a place where a coyote or a fox could be hiding, they might not go there,” he said.
            To keep the population of resident geese from expanding too much, the state has extended the goose hunting season and raised the bag limit for those hunting resident geese. Since it is impossible to tell the difference between a migrant and resident goose, the fall hunting season begins in September, long before the migrant geese arrive in the region, when up to 15 geese may be harvested per hunter per day. In Providence, Bristol, and Kent counties, and the northern part of Washington County, where most of the resident geese live during the winter months, the hunting season extends into February, with a bag limit of 5 birds per day.
            ”The areas where the resident geese are hunted have far fewer nuisance issues than in the urban areas where hunting isn’t allowed and where people feed them, which only adds to the problem,” said Beuth.
            The population of migrant Canada geese has recovered from the declines it experienced in the 1980s and 90s, though in recent years it has undergone another slight decline, leading state wildlife officials to shorten the hunting season this year from 70 days to 60 and reduce the daily bag limit from 3 to 2.
            “Migrant birds breed on the tundra, where they have a limited breeding season,” Beuth said. “If it’s a late ice-out year or there’s limited food available, it could lead to the birds being in poor condition or having poor reproduction. They have boom and bust years, and if you get several bust years in a row, the population can really take a hit.”
            After the team of goose banders completed its work at Green End Pond, they moved on to Gardiner Pond, where they banded 25 Canada geese and captured 6 others that had been banded in previous years. By the end of the goose molting period, the team of biologists and volunteers banded a total of 704 resident Canada geese in Rhode Island and recaptured an additional 259 previously banded birds.

This article first appeared on on July 12, 2018.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Limited availability of local seafood in New England

            Those looking to purchase local seafood at grocery stores and fish markets in New England may have a difficult time finding much, especially if you’re searching for something other than shellfish. Just 15 percent of the seafood available at markets in the region originated in New England, according to a pilot study by the Rhode Island-based non-profit Eating with the Ecosystem.
            “Unfortunately, the results weren’t super surprising to me,” said Kate Masury, the program director at Eating with the Ecosystem who coordinated the project with University of Rhode Island Professor Hiro Uchida and student Christina Montello. “We’re a seafood producing region, it’s a big part of our economy, but we’re not making it available to our own consumers.”
            Rhode Island’s results were better than the regional average, though still not as high as one might expect. About 24 percent of the seafood in Ocean State markets was captured in New England waters, which compares favorably to Massachusetts and Connecticut, at 12 percent each, and New Hampshire and Vermont, at 5 percent. Only Maine – 33 percent – had more local seafood available in the markets surveyed than those in Rhode Island.
            The findings are the result of a citizen science project called Market Blitz that took place over a two-week period in March. Volunteers visited 45 supermarkets and seafood markets in all six New England states to identify what species were available and where it was captured. 
            While the percentage of locally caught species available for purchase was low, the total number of species for sale was unexpectedly high. Ninety-one species of fresh or frozen marine life could be purchased during the survey period, including 45 species identified as being landed in the New England region and 85 species from outside the region or unidentified. (The overlap is due to some species being caught both locally and beyond the region.)
            Again, Rhode Island was above average, with 50 species available at the 12 markets surveyed, far more than the other states.
            Despite the variety of species available, however, Masury said that New Englanders typically do not eat a diverse diet of local seafood. Oysters, quahogs and lobsters dominate the markets, followed by four other varieties of shellfish. Farmed salmon is the most popular regional finfish, followed by flounder and haddock.
            “We eat a lot of a few things, and it’s mostly shellfish,” she said. “When people go out to eat at a restaurant or go to a seafood market, they want traditional New England food. Shellfish is what people are demanding.”
            Where does the rest of the New England seafood harvest go, if not to New England consumers? All over the globe.
            “Two-thirds of the seafood caught in the U.S. is exported elsewhere, some species more so than others,” Masury said. “In Rhode Island, whiting – also called silver hake – is a fairly big fishery, but most people here have never heard of it. It mostly goes to New York and it’s distributed out of the region from there.”
            In a report issued by Eating with the Ecosystem in late June, the authors wrote that the low availability of locally caught seafood “may not necessarily imply that the market is dominated by non-regional seafood. Rather, it may be in part because the markets did not bother to indicate – or advertise – that the seafood is from the region.”
            The report also noted that many of the study’s results suggest that Maine and Rhode Island were different than the other New England states.
“Seafood is a bigger part of the economy in those states, they depend on fisheries more than other industries, and people who vacation in both areas want local seafood,” Masury said. “So part of the reason why those states had more availability of regional species is because there is more demand for local species.”
And that, she added, is the take home message of the Market Blitz. The region has plenty of room to improve, but consumers will have to demand it.
“For many businesses, it’s an economic decision,” she said. “If they don’t think people are going to buy it, they’re not going to offer it. So the biggest thing we can do is to show there is demand for local species. Buy the local instead of the imported. And if you don’t see local in your market, ask for it.”
The Market Blitz study will be conducted twice a year for the foreseeable future to build up a database and demonstrate how seafood availability changes over time. In the next phase of the project, interviews will be conducted with fishermen, seafood dealers, processors, chefs and consumers about the mismatch between what species are available in the ecosystem and what species are available in the marketplace.
“One of the things we talk about all the time with consumers is eating a diversity of local species in proportion to their natural abundance,” Masury said. “Species more abundant in the local area should be a larger part of our diet. We hear that species like dogfish and sea robin are abundant in local waters, for example, but you don’t realize that because that’s not what’s available in the local market. Our goal with the Market Blitz is to quantify what is available.”

This article first appeared on on July 6, 2018.