Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Introducing your doorstep creatures

            Back before I became enlightened about the many reasons to keep house cats indoors at all times – for their own safety as well as that of the local wildlife – it wasn’t uncommon to awake to one of a variety of small dead animals on the back deck delivered by one of my cats. It was just about the only time I ever saw the tiny doorstep creatures, other than the rare occasion when a mouse would sneak into the garage.
            Without my cats preying on the them, however, I’m noticing them much more often. And that’s a good thing for the entire ecosystem, especially the local owls, hawks, foxes and weasels that prey upon them.
            Most people tend to think that all small, mouse-like animals are, indeed, mice.  Not true.  Several other relatives – like voles, moles and shrews – are also common-but-seldom-seen backyard critters. And even though they’re difficult to observe, in winter there is plenty of evidence that they are around.
            White-footed mice, the most common native mouse species in our area, have large ears, bulging dark eyes and a tail about as long as their body. Their vague footprints in the snow and tiny droppings give away their existence at this time of year. I know there are a couple living in my woodpile, another wedged between the house foundation and the side garden, and more under the shed. Not that they actually show their faces very often, but I know they’re there.
            Whenever I want to see one, I just go to one of my birdhouses. Every few weeks in winter, I open the birdhouses on my property to see what’s inside.  They’re almost always occupied by a family of mice huddled together in the confined space. Often the houses already have the remnants of a bird’s nest in them that the mice use as insulation. If not, the resourceful little guys import their own mix of dried grass and shredded leaves to construct a comfy winter hideaway.
            Unlike mice, voles are virtually nondescript, with tiny eyes, ears hidden by their fur, and stumpy little tails. And they’re even less likely to be seen. But when the snow melts, it often reveals the raceways the voles create at the interface between the ground and snow, where the animals are protected from freezing temperatures.  Like a child’s ant farm, the labyrinths tell a wonderful story of vole industriousness and determination. 
            Of all the doorstep creatures found in Rhode Island, shrews are my favorites, but they’re even harder to observe in the wild than mice and voles. These tiny, dark gray animals have long, pointed, flexible noses and are insectivorous – they feed entirely on insects. And their metabolism is so fast that if they don’t eat every couple of hours, they’ll quickly starve. So recent warnings about the decline of insect populations is a concern for shrews around the world.
The most difficult of all the small mammals to see – at least in my experience – are moles, those nearly blind oddities of the subterranean world that feast on grubs and worms and whose tunnels are the bane of gardeners.  I’ve never seen a live one, though even I have to admit that I’m probably not missing much.
            As much as I’d enjoy becoming more familiar with all these little fellows, I’d forgo the idea if I could be sure the neighborhood cats would, too.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on January 19, 2018.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Return of the sea dog

            The parking lot at Blue Shutters Beach in Charlestown was overflowing with vehicles, even though the temperature on this mid-October morning was just 50 degrees and strong winds and threatening skies made the beach unappealing to sunbathers. The attraction for the 200 people bundled in winter coats and rain gear was the six harbor seal pups that were being released back into the wild by Mystic Aquarium after the animals had been abandoned by their mothers the previous spring.
            Standing behind a rope policed by aquarium volunteers, the onlookers watched as six large crates were unloaded from a blue Ford pickup truck, lined up side-by-side about 20 yards from the water line, and simultaneously opened to release the seals.
            One seal, named Kauai by its aquarium caretakers, immediately raced straight toward the water in a clumsy, caterpillar-like manner, then hesitated as he approached the crashing waves.
Harbor seals released at Blue Shutters Beach (Todd McLeish)
That allowed Tigres to slide into the water first and quickly disappear. Kauai then changed his mind and headed back toward his crate before apparently rethinking his strategy and turning toward the water again. A third seal, this one with a satellite tracking device glued to her back, soon joined Tigres in the roiling Atlantic.
            The three remaining seals seemed uncertain whether to enter the water or remain on the beach. Or maybe they just enjoyed playing in the crashing surf. They wandered several hundred yards back and forth along the ocean’s edge for nearly an hour, occasionally galumphing into the water only to be tossed back ashore by the waves. One almost made it past the surf line before catching a wave like a boogie boarder and riding it all the way back to the beach.
            By the time all of the animals reclaimed the marine environment as their true home, most of the crowd had disappeared and the aquarium officials had packed up the crates for their trip back to Mystic.
            “That was a pretty typical release for really young harbor seal pups,” said Janelle Schuh, who manages the aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program. “It’s very normal for them to take their time getting back in the water, especially on a day with some significant surf.”
            Mystic Aquarium responds to about 60 reports of stranded marine mammals and sea turtles on beaches in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Fisher’s Island, N.Y., each year, most of which are seals found on Rhode Island’s ocean-facing beaches. Five to ten of those calls result in the animal being brought to the aquarium’s clinic for long-term care. The aquarium also accepts seals from elsewhere in the Northeast when other rehabilitation facilities are full. Most are abandoned harbor seal pups that are rescued in May, when they should still be nursing.
“We can’t be sure why they’re abandoned,” Schuh said. “They may be separated from their mom in a storm, or maybe mom doesn’t know how to care for it.”
By September or October, the animals are ready to be returned to the sea.
Harbor seals have made a dramatic comeback in Rhode Island waters in the nearly half century since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972. Until then, seals were hunted everywhere they could be found, including in Narragansett Bay, where some boaters were reported to shoot seals for sport. In Massachusetts and Maine there was even a bounty of $5 paid for every seal killed because fishermen claimed the animals were eating their catch. When the legislation prohibited the harassment or killing of seals, seal numbers began to grow and their range expanded. Today, approximately 100,000 harbor seals can be found in New England waters, some of which spend the winter months in Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound.
Growing up to six feet long and 350 pounds – one quarter of which is an insulating layer of blubber – harbor seals are widely distributed throughout coastal regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific, where they swim in the surf, haul themselves onto rocks to rest at low tide, and feed on a variety of fish, squid, crabs and other marine creatures. Those that visit Rhode Island between October and April return north to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes for the breeding season.
Despite the warming waters from the changing climate that is shifting many marine populations northward, the seals are instead expanding their range southward, with winter haul-out sites now occupied as far south as Virginia, though they don’t breed south of Cape Cod.
“They’re a cold-water species, but that’s not because they can’t tolerate the warm water,” said Bob Kenney, a marine mammal expert and retired marine scientist at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “It’s not temperature that drives them away when things warm up. They leave southern New England and go north because.... 

Read the rest of the story in the January 2019 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Saving wildlife one animal at a time

Wildlife rehabilitator Kristen Fletcher’s grocery list is far from typical. She spends about $7,000 each year buying insects to feed the birds and bats she often cares for, and her freezer usually holds several bags of frozen mice. When an injured crow is delivered to her home for care, it’s not uncommon for her to prepare the bird a delicious meal of scrambled eggs and mice, with a side order of chopped grapes, blueberries and dry cat food.
            “They need to eat,” she said. “They’re already freaked out by being in somebody’s house. You need to offer them as much food as they would want, a menu they would choose themselves if they could.”
            A Portsmouth resident, Fletcher has been a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for more than 20 years and the executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island since 2003. A self-described “animal person,” she became interested in caring for wildlife when her children brought home a baby squirrel knocked out of a tree during a hurricane.
            “It was difficult to find the right information on how to raise him properly, and I didn’t
Baby squirrels being rehabilitated (WRARI)
know there was an organization for this kind of thing back then,” Fletcher said. “I managed to raise that squirrel and release him, and I felt pretty good about it. But I also knew I didn’t do it the best way.”
            So she enrolled in a class offered by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to become a wildlife rehabilitator. After working with a mentor for more than a year and later taking additional training classes, she achieved the highest level of licensing available in the state. She is now qualified to care for any animal that shows up on her doorstep, from rabbits and turtles to gulls and snakes, and everything in between.
She almost always has a bevy of birds of many species in cages in her daughter’s former bedroom or in a large aviary in her backyard, and she has several playpens that serve as hospital beds for injured or orphaned mammals and larger birds. Fletcher is also the only rehabilitator in the state that cares for injured bats. She rears 20 to 30 bats each year, and when they are healthy enough to test out their wings before being released, she sets up a specially-made flight cage in her garage.
“You have to come up with the best set-up for whatever the particular patient is,” she said. “A couple years ago I got a surf scoter [a duck] that was very stressed. During the day, I kept him in a soft-sided container, but to let him swim, I put my husband’s inflatable boat in the garage and filled it with water.”
Fletcher said she has a “caregiver personality,” so her goal is to make every animal as comfortable as possible while she corrects whatever problem it is facing. And then she releases it back into the wild.
“It can be hard to release an animal you’ve spent a long time caring for,” she said. “As I release them, I’ve taken to telling them ‘be safe,’ because it’s not an easy life for a wild animal out there. The odds of them getting hit by a car or dragged in by a cat or having their nest tree cut down is pretty high.
“But it’s an honor to provide care for them and get them back into the environment,” Fletcher added. “These are not animals that people typically have close contact with. I try to fix whatever is wrong with them and get them back out there again.”
Unfortunately, only about half of the animals that find their way to Fletcher or other wildlife rehabilitators in Rhode Island survive. That’s a common ratio among rehabilitators nationwide. Often she must euthanize an animal that is injured too severely.
“Sometimes it’s a clear decision because of the trauma they have, but even then it’s still not easy,” she said. “It’s never a happy decision. But it’s another form of release. It’s not my preferred form of release, but it’s a release from suffering.”
The work of wildlife rehabilitators is seemingly never finished. Fletcher has missed family funerals, weddings, parties and other important events because she often has baby birds in her house that require feeding every 15 minutes.
“You can’t leave them,” she said. “So life gets put on hold. It takes a crazy commitment to do what we do on the scale that we do.”
And for Fletcher, the time commitment is even greater. She quit her full-time job managing a group home to accept the volunteer position as director of the rehabilitators association. She is responsible for fundraising, recruiting and training new rehabilitators, and overseeing the operation of the clinic in North Kingstown where injured animals get veterinary care before being transferred to rehabilitators for long-term care. And when the clinic closes at 4 p.m., Fletcher answers all of the calls from people who find injured animals.
“It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and it’s going to shorten my life for sure,” she said.
But she also has no plans to stop. There is a nationwide need for more wildlife rehabilitators because so many animals have unfortunate run-ins with humans and their pets. About 5,000 animals are cared for by rehabilitators in Rhode Island every year – mostly squirrels, rabbits and songbirds. About 60 people enroll in the initial training course each year, but once they realize the time commitment involved, only about one or two become licensed.
Several wildlife rehabilitators live in Newport County. Two women in Jamestown focus on rabbits, squirrels and opossums, a couple in Little Compton cares for rabbits, and another in Tiverton specializes in waterfowl. The newest member of the group, Jody Giddings, will soon open Wild Newport, to rehabilitate animals in Middletown.
If you find an injured or orphaned animal on Aquidneck Island, call Fletcher at 401-465-2460.

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Newport Life magazine.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Government shutdown to delay trip south for unusual avian visitor

            A young brown pelican that wandered far north of its usual winter range showed up on a dock in Galilee Harbor on January 4 and was eventually captured and brought to the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island to be cared for, but not before causing a commotion.
It’s return south has been delayed by the U.S. government shutdown.
            The bird, named Bert by fishermen who were handfeeding it fish, appeared healthy and unharmed, according to birders who observed it. But the attention it generated from a crowd of curiosity-seekers, including some who tried to catch it by hand, likely raised its stress levels. Within days it had become lethargic, perhaps because of the cold temperatures.
            “From the reports we received, the bird was acting aggressively because it felt threatened
Bert the brown pelican (Kristin Fletcher)
by the number of people that were approaching it and taking pictures,” said Gail Mastrati, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
            DEM and the Wildlife Clinic received numerous calls about the bird from concerned citizens, and on January 7 a DEM enforcement officer observed and assessed the bird, captured it, and delivered it to the clinic.
            “My initial response was that it was within the bird’s decision making power to turn around and fly south, because at that point it was still flying around and doing well,” said Kristin Fletcher, executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island, which operates the Wildlife Clinic. “But then the temperature started dropping and people reported it on the ground and not moving much. They said it was shivering, so it probably had a bit of hypothermia.”
            Brown pelicans are permanent residents on the coast south of Virginia, as well as along the Gulf Coast and West Coast south of central California. They are known to wander and are occasional visitors to Rhode Island, according to Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee.
            Four were observed in the state in 1988, one more following Hurricane Bob in 1991, and five were seen in 1992.  From 2000 to 2002, six brown pelicans were reported in Rhode Island, and as many as a dozen were seen following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, three of which were cared for by the Wildlife Clinic. The most recent sighting prior to this month was in 2014 on Block Island. Most were observed in the summer and fall, though at least three were seen in winter.
            The closely related American white pelican, which breeds on lakes in the West and winters across the southern tier of the country, is also an occasional visitor to the Ocean State. At least 13 were observed between 1989 and 2012, two of which survived the winter and one that did not.
            Fletcher called the brown pelican in her care “a spunky guy” and “a great eater,” noting that he appears healthy and at the proper weight.
            “From what I’m seeing now, the bird is in pretty good condition,” she said. “He might not be the brightest youngster, but he found a good thing at the docks, and then it just got cold. We’ve got him in a large warm area with a big pool of water, and he hangs around the side of the pool eating fish. Our goal will be to transfer him to a seabird sanctuary in the South for release.”
            After identifying a suitable sanctuary – perhaps the same one used for the pelicans the clinic cared for following Hurricane Sandy – clinic staff must obtain a permit from DEM and a letter from a veterinarian saying the bird is in good condition. The sanctuary accepting the bird must also receive approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
            “It’s against the law to cross state lines with wildlife,” explained Fletcher. “The concern is about transferring diseases to other populations. That’s why we need a vet letter saying it’s healthy when transferred.”
            The government shutdown will likely delay the Fish and Wildlife Service permit indefinitely, so the bird may be in Rhode Island for a while.
            “There’s no physical reason why we have to hold onto him,” Fletcher said. “He doesn’t appear terribly stressed now, and he has his fish and his pool. We’re monitoring his weight and watching for signs of frostbite. Ordinarily the permits don’t take much time, but this year might be different.”
            How to transport the bird south is yet to be determined.
This story first appeared on EcoRI on January 11, 2019.

Survey of fishermen finds varied perceptions of impacts of offshore wind farm

            Commercial fishermen have very different perceptions of the impact of the Block Island Wind Farm than do recreational fishermen, according to a survey of both groups by a University of Rhode Island doctoral student.
            Of the 25 fishermen interviewed, all of whom said they regularly fish in the area of the wind farm, the recreational fishermen generally perceive the turbines positively while the commercial fishermen see them as mostly negative.
            The results of the study, funded by Rhode Island Sea Grant, were reported at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., in December.
            “Little is known about the impacts of offshore wind farms on marine users in the United
Block Island Wind Farm (T. ten Brink)
States, and it’s critical to understand these impacts in context,” said Tayla ten Brink, the URI student who conducted the survey with Professor Tracey Dalton. “Generally, our findings show there are uneven impacts on the different fishing sectors.”
            According to ten Brink, almost all of the fishermen agreed that there is more recreational fishing taking place in the vicinity of the wind turbines than before the turbines were installed. That’s because the turbine support structures serve as artificial reefs that attract a wide variety of fish and marine invertebrates to the area. Cod and other species not found in the area before are now observed, for instance.
As a result, charter boats and recreational fishermen are drawn to the area that they seldom visited prior to the wind farm installation. The wind farm has also become a prime destination for recreational spearfishing.
            The commercial fishermen surveyed said that the increase in recreational fishermen – as well as what they called “wind farm tourists” – were an inconvenience because they increased activity on their fishing ground.
The commercial fishermen also noted fears that their gill nets and other gear would become entangled in the recreational fishermen’s gear, forcing them to be more cautious about where they fish. They also worry about running into the turbines with their vessels. The end result, they said, is fewer places for them to conduct their business.
The survey results could have implications for future planning for wind farm development.
“Climate change is a huge problem worldwide, and renewable energy resources could reduce CO2 emissions by half, so if we’re planning on using offshore wind, it’s important to understand the concerns and the pros and cons of the structures being out there,” said ten Brink. “Once we understand, it will be much easier to have a productive discussion about how to go forward with offshore wind development.
“As with any large-scale project, offshore wind development can be done right or wrong,” she added. “These results inform how it can be done right, with minimal negative impact and maximum positive impact.”
ten Brink suggested that the survey results might inspire wind farm developers to build relationships with charter boats and recreational fishing organizations that would benefit from offshore wind farm installations. Developers might also ease the concerns expressed by commercial fishermen about running into the structures by supporting the acquisition of new navigation equipment for the fishermen.
“The survey results open up a lot of ways to create win-win situations,” she said.
ten Brink cautioned, however, that her results only reflect the impacts of one small wind farm in operation for only one year. Once the novelty wears off for the recreational fishermen and the commercial fishermen learn to live with the turbines, their perceptions may change.
“There were fishermen who were really worried about the impacts and were pleased when the impacts weren’t too bad, but they’re still worried about the impacts of more and more turbines in the future,” ten Brink concluded.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Record-breaking year for raising, releasing rare rabbits

            More rare New England cottontails were raised at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence and the Queens Zoo in New York City and released into the wild than ever before, according to conservation officials. The success is a positive sign for populations of the region’s only native rabbit, which had declined precipitously in recent decades due to habitat loss, hunting, and competition with the introduced Eastern cottontail.
            Seventy-seven New England cottontails were raised and weaned at the two zoos in 2018, almost double the number weaned in each of the last few years. Including animals taken from a breeding colony on Patience Island in Narragansett Bay, about 100 cottontails were released into the wild in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine last year.
            “Our goal is to breed as many rabbits as we can throughout the breeding season, but it’s
New England Cottontail (M. Poole/USFWS)
challenging,” said Lou Perrotti, the director of conservation at the Roger Williams Park Zoo and the coordinator of the zoo’s cottontail breeding program. “They don’t always breed like rabbits.”
            The reason for the tremendous breeding success in 2018 is still a mystery, however.
            “I wish I knew why it was so successful,” said Perrotti. “We didn’t do anything different.”
            “We’re somewhat baffled ourselves,” added Heidi Holman, a wildlife biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and chair of the New England Cottontail Population ManagementWorking Group. “We’ll continue to review our data in more detail to see if we can tease out a variable, but there doesn’t seem to be any particular thing we can put our thumbs on just yet to explain it.”
            The breeding program began in 2010 with six cottontails collected from a wild population in Connecticut. Since then, 163 litters have resulted in 301 weaned cottontails, mostly raised at Roger Williams Park Zoo. The Queens Zoo joined the effort in 2015.
            Once the rabbits are about 35 days old, they are removed from the zoos and brought to what the biologists call “hardening pens” at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown or Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire to become acclimated to natural conditions. After they spend several weeks or months adjusting to the environment, gaining weight and learning to hide and forage, they are released into the wild.
            Decisions about which animals are released in which location are based largely on their genetics.
            “We’re trying to diversity the gene pool and track who’s successfully mating so we’re not over-representing particular genes in any one population,” said Holman.
            Representatives from each state in the region submit what Perrotti called “a wish list” of how many cottontails they would like to release in their state each year, and based on the number of animals available and their genetic makeup, the rabbits are divvied up and delivered.
            New Hampshire and Maine have experienced the largest decline in their New England cottontail populations, so they receive animals each year for release. Cottontail populations in Massachusetts and Connecticut are more robust, and wildlife officials there believe they may be able to increase the populations by manipulating habitat rather than augmenting the population with captive bred rabbits.
            In Rhode Island, cottontails were initially released on Patience Island, which at last count had between 56 and 90 animals, according to T.J. McGreevey, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island who serves as the wildlife geneticist on the cottontail project. A total of 51 rabbits from Patience have been released elsewhere in the last three years, including in the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area in West Kingston.
            “The Patience Island population is being managed to prevent it from reaching carrying capacity,” said Holman. “It could crash from disease or starvation if it grew too high, so we’re managing it to keep the population healthy. That’s why we remove some animals from there.”
            Another sign of the success of the breeding program is documentation that some of the released animals are reproducing in the wild. New England cottontails released at the Bellamy River Wildlife Management Area in New Hampshire have been reproducing since 2013. Reproduction was documented among the cottontails released at the Great Swamp in 2017.
            As successful as the program has been over the last eight years, it is still well below its target of releasing 500 cottontails each year. To increase breeding capacity, the researchers plan to establish a new breeding colony this year on Nomans Land, a 612-acre uninhabited island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Other islands are being considered for similar colonies in the future.
            In addition, the Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, Mass., has offered to provide assistance in rearing cottontails for the project. The school has successfully raised several varieties of rare turtles for release in the wild since 2012. Other partner organizations will likely be added in the future.
            “We’ve set the bar at 500 per year, and we’ll see if we can get there,” Holman concluded. “But we’re just getting started. The conservation strategy we’re following will continue through 2030. We’re still out there actively trying to create more habitat, and some of that habitat is just getting ready to have rabbits. We should have more places to release them very soon. And we’re continuing to collect information on how they survive and make sure we adapt our protocols to improve that success as much as we can.” 

This article first appeared on EcoRI on January 10, 2019.