Monday, March 18, 2019

Do your part for science

            Imagine working with local scientists to monitor bats this summer as the animals emerge from their breeding colonies at dusk to go in search of food. Or counting herring as they climb fish ladders so fisheries managers know how many are likely to spawn in local rivers. Or capturing and banding Canada geese during their three-week flightless stage so scientists can keep track of the state’s non-migratory population.
            These activities, all coordinated by wildlife biologists at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, are among an increasing number of citizen science projects sponsored by state agencies, universities and non-profit groups that are designed to engage the public in collecting data that can be used in scientific studies.
                “For us, the volunteers provide hands-on support in the field and help us collect volumes of observations and data that we wouldn’t be able to compile on our own,” said Jennifer Brooks, DEM’s volunteer program coordinator, who noted that 300 to 400 Rhode Islanders assist with DEM projects each year. “It’s also very rewarding for the volunteers because it provides them with unique opportunities and experiences and a fun way of contributing to environmental science in the community. Everybody walks away learning something from every project.”
              If the DEM opportunities don’t appeal to you, there are plenty of other nearby citizen science projects to join. Here are just a few:

            The longest running citizen science project in Rhode Island, Watershed Watch is a water quality monitoring program that uses hundreds of volunteers to track the factors that affect water quality in ponds, lakes, rivers and coastal waters around the state.  The data is used by watershed conservation organizations and state and local officials to make decisions that improve and protect the health of area waters. Sponsored by the University of Rhode Island, the project involves weekly data collection and testing for water quality indicators at a designated water body from May to October. Training sessions are March 21 or 30.

            The Watch Hill Conservancy leads an effort at Napatree Point in Westerly to count and tag horseshoe crabs at high tide on full moon nights from May through July. The project aims to collect data about population numbers and spawning abundance of the once-common marine creature that has declined in recent decades due to overfishing and collection for use in the biomedical industry. (The crabs’ unusual blue blood has properties that are used to ensure that medical devices, vaccines and intravenous solutions are free of harmful bacteria.) The monitoring takes just a few hours late at night working by moonlight, and it helps provide insight into the natural history of this ecological oddity.

            Beach trash is unsightly and can hinder the enjoyment of some of the state’s most heralded natural resources. Some of it, especially materials like plastic that degrade very slowly, can be harmful to marine life. Save The Bay coordinates beach clean-ups throughout the year, but it concentrates its efforts in mid-September when teams of volunteers converge on 80 coastal locations around the state. Volunteers tally the quantity and type of debris collected for inclusion in a global report prepared by scientists at The Ocean Conservancy. The data helps to identify the primary sources of litter, which will aid in focusing prevention efforts.

            Lou Perrotti, conservation director at Roger Williams Park Zoo, says that amphibians are an important indicator species for healthy environments and a vital part of the food chain. In many parts of the world, frog populations are declining and many species are on the brink of extinction. While that's not the case in Rhode Island, Perrotti coordinates the FrogWatch program to keep an eye on the health of local populations of frogs and toads in neighborhood ponds and swamps.. Volunteers learn to identify frog calls at a training session on March 31 or April 6 and then visit amphibian habitat once a week throughout the spring and summer to listen for calling frogs and toads. Data is collected and shared with a national database on frog populations.

Osprey populations in Rhode Island have been growing steadily for several decades, thanks to the banning of the pesticide DDT, which caused reproductive failure in many fish-eating birds in the 1960s and 70s. When DEM began monitoring osprey nesting in 1977, just eight chicks successfully fledged from nests in the state. Now managed by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, osprey monitors keep an eye on more than 150 nests that produce about 300 young each year. After a training session on March 3 or 10, volunteers visit a designated nest once each week from March through August to track the breeding success of osprey pairs.

            The American woodcock is one of the region’s most unusual birds. University of Rhode Island doctoral student Erin Harrington calls it “goofy looking” for its very long beak, short stubby legs, extra-large eyes and plump, camouflaged bodies. Nicknamed timberdoodles, the birds are declining throughout their range in the eastern U.S. Harrington is studying their habitat preferences and is seeking citizen scientists to listen for their mating call and watch for their unusual aerial display. All it takes is a one-hour commitment at dusk on four dates in late April and early May, plus attendance at a training session on April 10 or 11.

This article first appeared in South County Life magazine on March 18.

A fascination for frogs

            Beginning when I was about five years old, I spent as much time as possible exploring the ponds and swamps near my childhood home for frogs and whatever other creatures I could find. On each excursion, my friends and I would do our best to get our hands on every frog, salamander, snake or turtle that showed its face in what today might be called an experiential learning environment.
            That was also the time that I decided to be a writer, and my first written documents were detailed descriptions of the observations I made about the behavior of those same animals. I
still have one of those reports, written exactly 50 years ago, and while almost nothing I wrote was scientifically accurate, it certainly reflects the enthusiasm I had for those species.
            Bullfrogs were my favorite, because they were almost too big for my tiny hands to grasp and because their low, resonant voices were akin to what my mother said was my unusually low voice at the time. Every bullfrog I caught I named Bigelow for their large size, and I showed them off to anyone who would look before releasing them back into the water.
            Pickerel frogs, the best jumpers of the local species, were another favorite, though they were especially difficult to capture. Any slight movement in their direction would set them a-leaping, and they could sometimes outrun me over short distances. At least that’s how I remember it.     
            I’ve always described those years as that of a typical suburban kid, though I’m finding that it may not have been the universal experience I once thought it was. Still, it turned out to be a crucial time in my life for identifying my future interests and career.
            I mention these stories because late March and early April is frog season in Rhode Island, when evening rain showers trigger the movement of large numbers of wood frogs and spring peepers – and green frogs a few weeks later – from their upland wintering habitat to local ponds and vernal pools to breed. They are often joined by spotted salamanders, American toads and other less-common species in a loud orgy of amphibian sex.
            While the animals are single-minded in their objective, they don’t necessarily recognize the danger they face as they transit across roads to reach their breeding pools. It’s not uncommon for hundreds of frogs to be killed by vehicles in one night over less than a mile of roadway in areas where wetlands are nearby. Even observant drivers who are aware of the frog migration have difficulty avoiding the animals leaping toward their headlights.
            That’s why, whenever it rains at night at this time of year, I spend a few hours after dark helping frogs and salamanders across one stretch of road that is a popular migratory route for amphibians in my area. Last year my wife and I safely escorted more than 50 frogs across the road in just one hour of walking a quarter-mile stretch of road.
            You can help them, too. During the next couple rainy nights, take a walk along a back road adjacent to a freshwater pond after about 8 p.m. Shine a flashlight on the road – for your own safety and to locate any frogs on the pavement – and help those animals across the road in the direction they are facing.
And if you happen to be driving at night when it’s raining this month, please go slow and avoid any frogs you see. Call it your good deed for the day.

This article first appeared in the Independent on March 15, 2019.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Right whale births up, but population still facing extinction

            A year after the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale population produced zero calves for the first time on record, the animals have given birth to seven calves so far this winter. But that number is still far too few to convince scientists that the population is rebounding.
            “Without concerted efforts to reduce the effects of human activities, this species is likely to go functionally extinct in about 20 years,” said Scott Krauss, senior science advisor at New England Aquarium, during testimony at a Congressional hearing examining the threats to right whales on March 7.
            The global population of North Atlantic right whales, which currently stands at about 400, was growing steadily in the 1990s and 2000s, including a record year in 2009 when 39 calves were born. But reproduction rates have slowed precipitously since then.
            “Until the average calving rate is over 10, I’m not going to feel confident,” said Robert
North Atlantic right whales (Cynthia Browning/NOAA permit 633-1763)
Kenney, a marine mammal researcher and retired marine scientist at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.
            Kenney said that the most likely explanation for the reduced birth rate is that female right whales are not finding enough to eat, resulting in a longer interval between pregnancies.
            “Female right whales nurse their calves for a year, then they take a year off to recover and build up their fat, and then they get pregnant again,” he said. “In good times, pregnancies are three years apart. But if they’re having difficulty building up their blubber layer, then the resting year stretches out. In 2017, all five of those that gave birth had an average interval of 10 years.”
            The uptick in the birth rate this year is probably an indication of successful feeding in 2016 and 2017, Kenney added.
            “There’s nothing we can do about how many copepods there are in the water and where they are and how the oceanography compacts them into patches that are good for right whales to eat,” he said. “If the climate keeps getting warmer, things are just as likely to get worse as better.”
            The other side of the right whale story is the high mortality rate. According to Kraus, from 2010 to 2014 the rate of right whale deaths or serious injuries due to human activities doubled that of the previous decade. And in 2017 and 2018, 20 right whales are known to have died, mostly as a result of ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear, reducing the total population by nearly five percent. The actual number of deaths each year is probably far greater than the documented deaths.
            “This type of rapid decline in the population has not been seen since the period of active right whaling prior to 1750,” Kraus said.
            Fifteen years ago, the leading cause of death for right whales was collisions with large ships, but that has improved in recent years thanks to the rerouting of shipping lanes in some areas and the adoption of a reduced-speed regulation for commercial ships along the East Coast.
Today, more right whales die after becoming entangled in fishing gear than from any other cause. Kraus said that at least 83 percent of right whales have entanglement scars, and 59 percent have been entangled more than once.
In November, Kenney published an analysis of right whale mortality since 1990 and found that if there was no fishing gear in the water, the North Atlantic right whale population would be steadily increasing.
Most of the 12 right whale deaths in in 2017 were caused by entanglements in fishing gear from the snow crab fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence between Newfoundland and New Brunswick, where the fishermen use large pots and heavy ropes that easily entangle whales. Kenney said that’s an area that few right whales used to visit until food became scarce elsewhere in recent years.
“Last year, the Canadian government took action – they were much more responsive than the American government has ever been – and closed down the fishery as soon as the right whales showed up,” said Kenney.
As a result, no right whale deaths were recorded in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2018.
            Kenney and Kraus also noted another other big concern facing the right whale population – much shorter life spans. The whales, which formerly lived more than 70 years, now have a life expectancy of just 30 to 40 years due to human-caused mortality. And females are dying much earlier than males, reducing the number of calves they can produce in their lifetime.
            “It’s unlikely that right whales die of old age anymore,” Kraus said.
            What can be done to reduce the mortality rate? The scientists say the first step is the development of “ropeless” fishing.
            “The number and severity of entanglements is going up, probably due to improvements in rope strength and rope quality,” Kenney said. “Ropes are stronger and lasting longer, which is good for fishermen but not good for whales.
            “We’ve got to figure out some way to fish that doesn’t involve having ropes in the water,” he continued. “That’s one answer, but it’s a really complicated answer because right now it’s illegal. Even if technology was perfected, it’s illegal to set lobster pots in the water without something at the surface to mark its location.”
            If the entanglement issue can be resolved, then the whales may be able to find a way to recover on their own.
            “Right whales have adapted to changing climate for the entire five million years of their existence,” Kenney concluded. “They’ve been through this. They can adapt. They may go through natural periods of really low reproduction like they’re doing now, but if there’s no excess mortality on top of it, they’re more likely to make it through.”

This article first appeared on on March 13, 2019.

Threats remain to Atlantic's only marine national monument

            The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the only national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, remains controversial more than two years after it was designated by President Barack Obama in September 2016.
Fishermen brought suit to overturn the designation (the suit was dismissed last October, but it is being appealed), President Trump has threatened to use his executive authority to revoke the designation – despite uncertainties as to whether he can legally do so – and the Interior Department has recommended that the Trump Administration re-open the monument to commercial fishing.
            But Peter Auster argued in a lecture at Roger Williams Park Zoo on Feb. 28 that the 4,900-square mile area located about 150 miles off Cape Cod is deserving of protection due in part to
its high species diversity, wide variety of habitats, and numerous creatures that are sensitive to disturbance.
            A senior research scientist at Mystic Aquarium, Auster was a key player in building the scientific case for why the area should be designated a national monument. He has led multiple research projects to explore the area using submersible vessels, remotely-operated vehicles, and autonomous vehicles, all of which have revealed an unusual array of marine life, from “Dr. Seussian species” of fish to dozens of kinds of deep-sea corals.
            “A dive into the canyons and seamounts demonstrates the magic of the ocean,” he said. “There’s a whole garden of organisms that live there.”
            The monument includes a portion of the edge of the continental shelf, where the seafloor drops sharply from a depth of about 600 feet down to 3,000 feet, and where four extinct underwater volcanoes jut upward from the seafloor. The monument got its name from those underwater volcanoes (called seamounts) and a number of canyons carved into the shelf edge by ancient rivers.
            “Those canyons and seamounts create varied ecotones in the deep ocean with wide depth ranges, a range of sediment types, steep gradients, complex topography, and currents that produce upwelling, which creates unique feeding opportunities for animals feeding in the water column,” Auster said.
            Using colorful photographs of rarely seen creatures to illustrate his presentation, Auster called the area a “biodiversity hotspot,” noting that at least 73 species of deep-sea corals live in the area, including 24 that were found there for the first time during a research expedition in
At least 73 species of deep sea corals are found at the monument (NOAA)
2013. Many of those corals serve as hosts to other creatures – crabs, shrimp and starfish, for instance – that are only found on those particular corals.
            Researchers from New England Aquarium have found that the monument’s surface waters serve as feeding grounds for an abundance of whales, sea turtles, sharks and seabirds, as well as fish that migrate from the deep water to the surface every day to feed.
In addition, Maine Audubon recently discovered that the monument area is where many of the region’s Atlantic puffins spend the winter. And researchers from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole found that significant numbers of the extremely rare True’s beaked whale, one of the deepest diving marine mammals in the world, spends the summer in monument waters.
            Despite these recent discoveries, scientists say there is still a great deal to be learned about the area.
            “We don’t yet know everything we need to know to manage the monument,” Auster said. On his scientific to-do list is an assessment of the biological diversity of the area and how it’s distributed in the monument; an assessment of ecological change over time; a better understanding of species interactions; and an assessment of how the region has recovered from natural and human-caused disturbances.
            While the status of the monument remains in limbo, a number of additional threats may be lurking. So far, commercial fishing has only affected the shallow areas of the monument on the continental shelf, but Auster said there are increasing efforts to fish in the deeper waters as well. In addition, the Trump Administration is advocating for expanded oil and gas exploration in the waters off the East Coast, and the growing sea-bed mining industry may see the seamounts as potentially valuable sites for methane hydrate mining or manganese crust mining.
            While Auster seems somewhat confident that the monument designation will hold up, and he’s already working on making the case for a second marine national monument in the Atlantic – this one at Cashes Ledge in the middle of the Gulf of Maine – he also acknowledges that there are influential political forces at work that could derail the monument designation.
            “Like every monument, there are people who suggest that it isn’t a good thing to conserve examples of our natural heritage for future generations,” Auster said. “The end of this story remains to be written.”

This article first appeared on on March 13, 2019.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Audubon's animal ambassadors

            A boisterous group of 50 kindergarteners from the Melrose School in Jamestown gathered at the Audubon Nature Center and Aquarium in January for a morning of lessons and activities about animal adaptations, wildlife habitat and other topics. They were clearly excited as they participated in a scavenger hunt and discussed the diet and behavior of owls.
            Then, with legs crossed and enthusiasm temporarily contained, they waited patiently for what would undoubtedly be the highlight of the day – a visit from Eec, a live barred owl that serves as an animal ambassador during educational programs around the state. Perched on the gloved hand of Sharon Riley, Audubon’s education and animal care specialist, Eec calmly peered around at the assembled children, who were filled with unending awe for the bird.
            In response to questions posed by environmental educator Lisa Maloney, the children noted the bird’s camouflaged appearance, its yellowish beak, the location of its ears, and many
Sharon Riley with Eec, a barred owl
other features that make owls such successful predators and so endearing to people of all ages. And when the bird was finally carried back to its cage, the children yearned for more time with the distinguished bird.
            “It’s one thing to tell them about an owl,” said Riley. “But what they’re going to remember most is seeing that owl. Having the ability to bring an animal to a school group closeup like that is something that’s much more meaningful than just a discussion. It gives them a real connection with the natural world.”
            Eec – named for the initials of the Nature Center’s former name, the Environmental Education Center – is one of more than a dozen raptors, reptiles and other creatures that play a vital role as animal ambassadors in Audubon’s popular environmental education programs. Along with hawks, ravens, a falcon, turtles, snakes, hissing cockroaches and tidepool animals, Eec and his fellow owls command attention in a roomful of curious children and adults, and they distinguish Audubon from the many other organizations that offer environmental science programs in the region.
            “Audubon is known for its birds, so being open to taking in an injured bird and showcasing it in our programs is a natural fit,” said Lauren Parmalee, director of education. “We can go all over the state with these animals, and people are especially fascinated by owls. They help us hook the audience in.
“Teachers know that to get science concepts across, it helps to have some kind of special guest in the classroom,” she added. “There’s nothing like a first-person observation.”
It’s obvious by the student reaction that the visit by Eec was impactful.
“My kids are totally excited when they see the owl,” said Beverly Green, one of three Melrose School teachers who brought her students to the Nature Center. “Most have never seen an owl, and they’re very curious and want to know why it’s here and not out in the wild. It’s an amazing experience for them.”
Green and her colleagues Colleen MacIntyre and Jane Mitchell have participated in Audubon education programs with animal ambassadors every year for more than 15 years, and they say that it helps spark an interest in nature.
“We talk with our students about owls ahead of time, but to see one in real life is a very special moment for them,” said MacIntyre. “They get very quiet at first. They’re just so amazed that they’re allowed to see a live animal.”
Audubon has been offering educational programs featuring live animals since its earliest days. Archived photographs show Audubon’s former executive director, Al Hawkes, holding a turtle with children in a classroom setting in the 1960s.
“They probably used animals to talk about nature in a similar way that we do now,” said Parmalee. “The animal’s life history, habitat, how they fit into the food chain, why we should value them. It’s the Audubon message.”
That message is more easily conveyed when audiences are engaged with an animal ambassador, especially an owl or hawk.
“All of us who work in environmental education are trying to get the same message across, and our animals help us do that. They are our niche,” Parmalee said. “In the same way that Save The Bay has a boat, the birds make us stand out and help us bring our message of the importance of biodiversity, habitat conservation and good science.”
The animals – all of which are either unreleasable due to an injury or were former pets – clearly do their job well.
“The first thing that happens – even at our Owls and Ales program for people over age 21 – is that wide-eyed ‘oh, wow’ moment,” said Parmalee. “The owls, especially, bring out the awe in people.”
              Parmalee recalled a family event in the Nature Center lobby when one of Audubon’s red-tailed hawks was brought into the room, and the adults were as engaged as the children. “The adults turn into kids,” she said. Similarly, during school programs, it is not uncommon for school administrators, staff and teachers to wander into the classroom from all corners of the building just to get a glimpse of one...

Read the rest of this article in the March 2019 issue of  Audubon Report.