Monday, August 26, 2019

Salamander survey hopes to find conservation success

            Spring salamanders are one of the giants of the salamander world, at least in the Northeast. They can grow to more than 8 inches in length, and their diet often consists of other salamanders. But they are also quite rare in southern New England. They were not discovered in Rhode Island until the 1980s, and they still have only been found in a few locations in the northwest part of the state.
            In Massachusetts, however, the tan or pinkish species with faint black spots was removed from the state’s list of rare species in 2006. This year, the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife has launched a two-year survey to reassess the health of its populations
Spring salamander (Jacob Kubel, MassWildlife)
amid concerns that the changing climate may be negatively affecting the cool streams where they live.
            “Spring salamanders have a long head with a square snout and external gills,” said Jacob Kubel, a conservation scientist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. “So if you were to turn over a rock in a stream and found a big, long-gilled salamander with a square snout, that’s a dead ringer for a spring salamander. It can’t be confused with any other salamander.”
            Kubel said that the natural history of spring salamanders is also somewhat unusual. After hatching in a stream, they live as larvae for three or four years before metamorphosing into adult salamanders.
            “They can’t be in a stream that’s going to completely dry up in the summer, but they also do better in streams that don’t have fish that might eat them,” he said. “That habitat isn’t extremely common, so the species isn’t extremely common.”
            Spring salamanders are primarily found in forested streams with seeps of cold groundwater in high-elevation, hilly terrain. They’ve been found at just four sites in Burrillville and Foster, Rhode Island, but populations in Massachusetts have been located from the Berkshire Mountains to Worcester County. It's listed as a state threatened species in Connecticut.
            “The main objective of our survey is to do a quick assessment to make sure nothing has happened to our state population,” Kubel said. “If we can check off a great majority of historic sites and also find sites we didn’t know about previously, that tells us the status hasn’t taken a turn for the worse since delisting.
            “The other component is that, as an agency, we need to be cognizant of climate change and its impacts on environmental resources,” he added. “With spring salamanders being a cool water, high elevation species, it might be one of the first to show stress at the population level. They’re like the canary in the coal mine.”
            Kubel and a team of volunteers are visiting locations where the salamander has been found in the past to document that the species hasn’t disappeared. Next year they will focus on finding new populations.
            He said the results so far have been encouraging. But the work isn’t easy, and the success rate is pretty low.
            “I was at a site last week where we didn’t have any historic records but I thought it was likely to be there, and I found quite a few – seven individuals – after turning over about 400 rocks,” he said. “But then I went to another stream nearby that I thought should have them, and I only found one after turning over 500 rocks.”
            At the conclusion of the survey in 2020, Kubel will produce a report that makes recommendations about the conservation status of the spring salamander. The data will also be used as a baseline for comparative studies conducted in the future.
            In addition to the spring salamander survey, Kubel is also leading efforts to conduct genetic analyses of blue spotted and Jefferson salamanders, two rare species that look similar and are thought to hybridize, to clarify the geographic distribution of each.
            No conservation activities have been undertaken in Rhode Island to study or monitor spring salamander populations, but recent land acquisitions have protected some of its habitat, according to Chris Raithel, a retired wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
“There are only a handful of known localities for it, but Rhode Island seems to be at the edge of its range,” he said.
“These guys have very specific habitat requirements, so it could be that the combination of high gradient perennial streams with a low abundance of fish in a heavily forested area isn’t available in Rhode Island,” added Kubel.
The Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan lists spring salamanders as a species of greatest conservation need.

This article first appeared on on Aug. 26, 2019.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Mingling with moths late into the night

            If you forget to turn your porch light off before going to bed, you may wake up to a mass of moths and other insects clinging to the side of your house. For most people, that’s not an appealing thought. But to moth aficionados, that scenario is as exciting as Opening Day to Red Sox fans.
            Moths are often maligned as pests, and indeed some of the best-known species are – like invasive gypsy moths and winter moths that have defoliated much of Rhode Island’s forests in recent years (though it’s their caterpillar stage that does all the damage). But the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of kinds of moths found in our area are harmless and
play a beneficial role in the environment. Most moth caterpillars, for instance, are the primary food source for many of our breeding songbirds.
            I cannot claim to be a moth expert, but my appreciation for moths has been growing since I’ve been attending the annual Moth Mingle sponsored by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. The event illustrates the diversity of moth species in the region by hanging a powerful light bulb in front of a white sheet in a meadow after dark and waiting for moths to arrive. They also set up an illuminated moth trap in the woods and paint a malodorous concoction of beer, yeast, and rotting fruit on tree trunks for those species that prefer a stinky meal.
            The action at the sheet started fast this year. Once it got dark out, hundreds of tiny caddis flies arrived from out of nowhere to cling to the sheet, and then the parade of moths began. They started small, then grew in size, and their amazing patterns, shapes and colors were impressive.
There were zebra-striped varieties, delicate pale green ones, bold wood-grained specimens, a big beige one with fuzzy legs, and a large number of cream-colored moths with tan highlights. It sounds almost like a Halloween parade, and sometimes it felt like that as new species repeatedly showed up to show off.
I have no idea what species they were – few people around here do – but that wasn’t necessary. It was just a fun couple of hours acknowledging the wonderful diversity of life that we wouldn’t even know existed unless we stayed up way past our bedtime to attend events like the Moth Mingle.
And it wasn’t just moths that showed their face at the sheet. Lots of other insects did, too. Like grasshoppers, ladybugs, click beetles, stinkbugs, lacewings, treehoppers, and a praying mantis. There was even a giant stag beetle the size of my thumb with a monster-sized pair of pincers. It was a great learning experience for the dozen intrepid humans crowding around the sheet trying to get a close-up look at every creature that made an appearance.
I was so excited by what I saw and learned that night that I tried to create my own Moth Mingle in my backyard. I hung an old bedsheet on the side of my shed and drove my car into the backyard and shined the headlights on the sheet. When I came back an hour later to see what insects had arrived, my car battery was dead and not a single moth was in sight.
Clearly, I did something wrong. Maybe I need a different kind of light bulb. Or maybe I’ll just leave my porch light on all night and hope for the best. At least I won’t lose any sleep that way.

This article first appeared in The Independent on August 15, 2019.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Striving for a cottontail comeback

            Rhode Island’s only native rabbit, the rare New England cottontail, is on the verge of a modest comeback thanks to a complex conservation program led by a team of South County biologists. Once common throughout the region, the species had declined precipitously in recent decades because of habitat loss, hunting, and competition with the introduced eastern cottontail.
            “The rabbit that people see everywhere all the time is not our native cottontail,” said Cindy Corsair, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Charlestown, who supports the captive breeding of New England cottontails at Roger Williams Park Zoo and their release throughout the region. “New England cottontails have been impacted by the loss
of early successional habitat – scrubby, brushy thickets – whereas eastern cottontails are more of a generalist, more adaptable to a wider variety of habitat options.”
            To boost their population, New England cottontails that have been raised in captivity are released into what Corsair calls an “acclimation pen” at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown, a one-acre fenced area where they are protected from predators and exposed to their native habitat.
            “When they’re at the zoo, they have it good – they’re in a safe, cushy cage and their food is delivered,” Corsair said. “We want them to get used to foraging a natural diet and learn to evade predators and other threats before being released. Ninigret is the perfect place for that because it has very high-quality habitat and accessibility for staff to monitor them.”
            Figuring out where to release the animals after their stay in the acclimation pen is largely determined by their genetics, a project undertaken by T.J. McGreevy, an assistant research professor at the University of Rhode Island.
Because the native and non-native cottontails are nearly identical, he first conducts a genetic analysis of the rabbits to make sure that those brought to the zoo for breeding are the target species, and then he confirms their gender. To reduce the chance of inbreeding in the wild, he does a similar analysis of the offspring so males and females from the same litter are not released at the same site.
“Genetic diversity is the raw material that natural selection can act upon,” said McGreevy. “The more diverse the population is, the better they can respond to diseases and other pressures. It helps with their fitness.”
McGreevy also supports region-wide efforts to find existing wild populations of New England cottontails. He analyzes the genetics of about 3,000 fecal pellet samples collected by volunteers and biologists each year to determine if they are from New England cottontails or eastern cottontails. Using this process, new populations of the native species were discovered this year at two sites in South County, including the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge in Narragansett.
Since McGreevy knows the genetics of every New England cottontail released in the area, he can determine if the animals are reproducing in the wild by examining the genetics from fecal pellets collected at release sites. That’s how he confirmed that the cottontails are breeding at the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area in West Kingston.
“We look at the fecal samples to see if it’s a genetic match to one we released there or if it’s a combination – half from two different animals,” he said. “That’s how we documented breeding at the Great Swamp.”
Dylan Ferreira, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, oversees the cottontail releases at the Great Swamp. He said that 17 animals were released there last year, but all were killed by predators.
“Predation is the limiting factor; it’s tough to get a population of New England cottontails to sustain itself because of so much predation,” he said. “It happens year-round – mostly by hawks, foxes and coyotes – but the rabbits have the best chance of surviving if we release them in summer when the vegetation is densest.
“If we don’t flood the area with rabbits, we don’t have much of a chance at sustaining a population because of predation,” Ferreira added. “You don’t want to spread them too thin or they’ll be gone in no time. It’s a tightrope we have to walk – do we put all our eggs in one basket or spread them out.”
Ferreira also manages a breeding colony of New England cottontails on Patience Island in Narragansett Bay. About 50 cottontails from that colony have been released at sites in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine.
According to Corsair, another breeding colony is being established this year on Nomans Land, a small island near Martha’s Vineyard. And a new national wildlife refuge, called the Great Thicket, is being created in parts of southern New England and New York to provide more habitat for New England cottontails and other species that prefer similar terrain.
“Things are going really well so far,” Corsair said of the New England cottontail conservation effort. “There are so many eastern cottontails on the landscape that detecting New Englands is like finding a needle in a haystack. But we’re finalizing site selections for our next releases and coming up with monitoring plans for those sites. So we’re continuing to make progress.”

This article first appeared in the summer 2019 issue of the Shore Times.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Rhode Island's declining orchid populations need forest protection

            A short way down a path in Arcadia Wildlife Management Area in Exeter, Hope Leeson strolled into a dry overgrown meadow in search of a rare orchid called spring ladies’-tresses. The species is known from just three sites in Rhode Island, and when this particular population was checked last, there were just 25 plants growing there.
            After wandering around for 10 minutes, she stumbled upon a single foot-tall specimen. A short time later, she found a patch of seven more hidden from view by tall vegetation. Each featured tiny white flowers spiraling around the top of the stalk.
            “The flowers spiral like that to better present themselves to their pollinators,” said Leeson, a botanist for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. “But they’re getting lost in all these other plants.”
            Despite searching the one-acre site for another 20 minutes, Leeson found no more orchids. Her experience was not unexpected.
            Spring ladies’-tresses is one of 40 kinds of orchids found in Rhode Island and one of 34 
that are on the state’s list of rare species. Many appear to be declining in number, based on
Spring ladies'-tressses (Todd McLeish)
recent efforts to find them, and nine of them have not been seen for so long that they are considered historic.
            “Rhode Island’s orchid populations seem to be shrinking,” said Doug McGrady, an amateur botanist who spends all of his free time wandering the state in search of rare plants. He was the last person to report on the Arcadia population of spring ladies’-tresses in 2017. “In other states, orchids are more plentiful and you might find hundreds of them in a patch. But when you find a patch here, ours are always smaller. And it doesn’t always seem like there’s a logical explanation why.”
            According to Leeson, orchids are rare for numerous reasons. Many species have very narrow habitat requirements. They also require a particular kind of fungal community in the soil in order for their seeds to germinate and for the plants to gather nutrients, and that fungal
Small purple-fringed orchid (Todd McLeish)
community is unique to each species. If the soil gets disturbed, the fungal community can become disrupted. Many orchids also produce only one flower, so their chances of reproducing are minimized.
            The plants are also rare due to habitat loss and because deer eat them before they have a chance to produce seeds for the next generation. And the changing environmental conditions due to the climate crisis is likely having an effect as well.
            “In looking through the records of the orchids that bloom this month, a lot of those recorded in the 20th century haven’t been found recently because the habitats have been lost,” Leeson said. “They’re now housing developments and gravel pits. Humans have moved in.”
            Little is being done to conserve the many rare orchids in Rhode Island.
“We do not currently have a dedicated formal effort to monitor or sustain orchids,” said
White-fringed orchid (Todd McLeish)
Tanner Steeves, a wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, in an email. “However, we certainly attempt to care for, and perhaps more importantly, avoid negative impacts to orchids where we are aware of them on DEM land under our Division’s supervision…Going forward we are planning to submit a State Wildlife Grant proposal to fund pollinator-related management in the absence of state funding. This grant may cover management activities devoted specifically towards benefiting rare plants, including orchids, due their importance for supporting insect biodiversity.”
            The rarity of orchids – along with their intricate floral structure – is one reason why many people are so enamored of them.
            “There is something magical about them that makes people nuts,” said McGrady. “I like them in part because other people think they’re precious. And I like that they’re something unusual and they’re usually attractive.”
            Leeson continued down the path at Arcadia for about a half mile, then walked a short distance along the edge of a muddy stream in search of a population of small purple-fringed orchids, another rare species known in Rhode Island from just nine sites in the West Bay. Pollinated by small butterflies called skippers, the beautiful plant displays showy purple or magenta flowers with fringed petals.
            She found just one plant where McGrady observed five – four of which had been eaten by deer – in 2011.
            But just 12 feet away from the solitary small purple-fringed orchid, Leeson discovered a group of five green woodland orchids, a variety added to the state’s rare species list in 2016 and one that had not previously been observed at the site. It’s a species she had only seen once before in Rhode Island, along a woodland stream in Westerly.
            Earlier that day, at the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown, Leeson located a population of more than 100 white-fringed orchids, a showy species found at four sites in the state. Growing up to three feet tall, it prefers open habitat to attract pollinators to what Leeson called its “landing pad,” the bottom petal where night-flying moths land seeking nectar.
            Despite the somewhat large population, Leeson is concerned that the surrounding vegetation was growing so tall that it would soon crowd out the orchids, just like what appeared to be happening at the site of the spring ladies’-tresses in Arcadia. At both sites, Leeson said, the orchids would benefit from the clearing away of some of the larger vegetation.
            “There is this great allure of finding orchids and the beauty of them, but we don’t really understand much about their ecology – how they fit into their habitat, what their role is and the role of the other plants in the community, and about the fungal community specific to each habitat,” she said.
            Leeson and McGrady are volunteers with the New England Plant Conservation Corps, managed by the Native PlantTrust (formerly the New England Wild Flower Society) in Framingham, Mass., which dispatches plant enthusiasts to check up on rare plant populations throughout the region. They count individual plants, record their stage of growth and other species growing with it, and note any invasive species growing in the vicinity.
            “There’s not much happening to protect orchids in Rhode Island, other than the volunteer work monitoring where they’re located,” Leeson said. “Orchids are difficult to propagate, but the Native Plant Trust is working to propagate rare orchids so they can be used to augment populations if necessary. But it’s a steep learning curve.
            “The best places to find orchids are in large forested tracts, especially large forests with a mosaic of bogs and wet meadows and woodlands,” she added. “So the best thing we can do to protect orchids is to place a greater emphasis on the protection of large forested areas.”

This article first appeared on on August 8, 2019.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Renovation, restoration bring renewal to Audubon refuge

            The word caratunk in the Algonquin language means “where the rivers meet.” It’s an apt name for Audubon’s very popular wildlife refuge in Seekonk, where Cole Brook intersects with an unnamed stream amid ponds, forests, meadows and wetlands. The Caratunk Wildlife Refuge has experienced a number of improvements in recent years, making it an even more valuable site for environmental education, wildlife watching, or a quiet hike.
            In July, the property was ablaze with wildflowers in the meadow just beyond the parking lot. Asters, milkweed, black-eyed susans and many others fought for space among flowering shrubs and berry-covered vines while a dozen pairs of purple martins were busy raising their families in the gourd houses that serve as the centerpiece of the first field.
House wrens, eastern bluebirds and tree swallows appeared to have come to an agreement to share the numerous traditional birdhouses scattered around the property, but
Hikers traverse Caratunk (Glenn Osmundson)
they weren’t quiet about it. Each twittered and warbled as they staked a claim to one house or another and defended it vigorously while racing about finding food for their growing young. Butterflies and dragonflies made their presence known as well, as did several large bullfrogs at Muskrat Pond – a reliable place to observe river otters – and uncounted noisy catbirds. A green heron flew overhead and landed out of sight in a wet corner of the property.
            Nate Chace has been visiting Caratunk at least a couple times each month for many years to hike and commune with nature. A member of Audubon’s board of directors who has been involved in hiking and trail work his entire adult life, Chace appreciates the easy access to the property from his home in Riverside and the extensive trail network through varied habitat. But he also recognized that the trails could be somewhat confusing, and he occasionally bumped into worried hikers who had been wandering around aimlessly trying to find their way back to their vehicles.
            “The trails were a bit of a mess,” he said. “One day I talked to a guy in the woods who said he liked to forge his own trail, and later that day I saw two women who said they only walk in the field because they get lost when they go in the woods. It was obvious that something had to be done about the trails.”
            Chace wasn’t the only one who recognized the problem.
            “We just had too many trails, many of which cut across sensitive habitat like out in the bog, and sometimes people got turned around and easily confused trying to find their way,” said Scott Ruhren, Audubon’s senior director of conservation.
            “Certain trails became trails not because we planned it that way but because some groups always hiked a particular route, and sometimes side trails were created and it all became confusing,” added Executive Director Larry Taft. “Nate convinced me that we needed a simpler system – a well-marked and very obvious trail system – and he took it upon himself to make it happen.”
            It took him about a year, but with the help of fellow board member and cartographer Terry Meyer, Chace laid out a simple loop trail that begins and ends at the parking lot, then added several side loops that take visitors to notable features of the property, like Muskrat Pond and a hemlock grove.
No new trails were blazed in the process, but several old ones were closed and are being allowed to fill in with native vegetation. A new trail map was produced as well, and several signs were installed at trail intersections indicating “you are here” and providing GPS coordinates.
            “I wanted people to be comfortable walking in the woods. That was my goal,” Chace said. “I wanted people to enjoy a brand new experience and feel good about it, especially those who have never been here before.”
             The Caratunk Wildlife Refuge was voted Audubon’s favorite refuge – by far – in a 2012 survey of Audubon members. Its popularity is due in part to its location close to the metro Providence area, enabling a large segment of the population to only have to travel a short distance to enjoy its trails and programs. The four parcels that make up its approximately 200 acres were acquired between 1969 and 1986, most of it donated by Charles G. Greenhalgh. Even though the property is across the Rhode Island border in Massachusetts, then-Audubon executive director Al Hawkes recognized that its location was ideal, especially since the only other public refuges Audubon owned at the...

Read the rest of the story in the summer 2019 issue of Audubon Report.