Monday, December 28, 2020

Scientists seek better understanding of growing fisher population

        Scientists at the University of Rhode Island have begun a three-year effort to capture and track fishers throughout western Rhode Island to better understand their population numbers and movement as the animals expand into more developed areas of the state.
        Funded by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the project aims to gather data about the secretive predators so they can be managed more effectively.
        “It’s fascinating to me to see how this creature that was once known as a deep dark forest-dwelling animal is now living in people’s backyards and in urban settings,” said Laken Ganoe, a URI doctoral
Fisher captured by URI camera trap

student who is leading the project along with Assistant Professor Brian Gerber. “It’s a unique landscape for us to study a creature that we don’t know much about in the state.”
        Fishers are carnivorous mammals found throughout the forests of the northern United States and Canada. Extirpated from Rhode Island when forests were cleared for agriculture in the 1700s and 1800s, they have returned in recent decades and appear to be expanding their range in the region. They feed primarily on small mammals like chipmunks and squirrels, though in more northerly regions their preferred prey is snowshoe hares.
        In Rhode Island, fishers are legally trapped for their fur by licensed trappers during a 25-day trapping season in December. 
        Ganoe will use trail cameras set up at 200 sites in Providence, Kent and Washington counties to document where the animals are found. She also plans to capture up to 20 fishers in each of the next three years and place tracking collars on them to monitor their movements and activity levels throughout the day.
        “We hope to learn how fishers are interacting with their environment in this matrix of urban and forested landscape,” Ganoe said. “Are they spending more time out and about in urban areas at night while being more active at dusk and dawn in forested areas? Are human activities constraining their activity patterns?”
        “Tracking individual fishers for the winter will get a really fine scale idea about how they cross roads, what forests they are selecting for, what areas they’re avoiding,” added Gerber. “If we do it right and we’re lucky, we’ll be able to estimate how many fishers there are in certain regions of Rhode Island. Hopefully all of this will give us guidance to foresee the future so we can change management tactics quickly as necessary.”
        A native of Clarion, Pennsylvania, Ganoe earned a master’s degree at Pennsylvania State University and studied fishers in the Sierra Mountains of California before enrolling at URI. She became interested in the animals as a teen when she watched as a fisher caught a chipmunk and ran up the tree from which she was hunting and ate it right beside her.
        “There are a lot of misconceptions about fishers; they have a bad reputation,” Ganoe said. “We want to learn more about them so we can educate people about them. And because there is a trapping season for them, we want to inform future management decisions about bag limits and season lengths so we can properly manage the species and so we know we have a harvest system that will support the fisher population and not damage it.”
        This is one of two research projects Gerber is leading that focus on learning more about Rhode Island’s mid-sized predators. The other is investigating the distribution of beavers, muskrats and river otters in the state.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Photographer captures Providence raptors in new book

        When Peter Green moved into a sixth-story loft in Providence facing what many have dubbed the Superman building, he started noticing the peregrine falcons that nest atop the iconic structure. A photographer since high school, he naturally started taking pictures of the birds.
        Soon he noticed other raptors – hawks, falcons and owls – around the city and spent as much time as he could watching and photographing them, too.
        “I started sharing my pictures with family and friends, and they got sick of looking at bird pictures,” said Green, 46, a freelance graphic designer originally from Long Island. “I really wanted to tell the story of the birds, so I started a blog, Providence Raptors.”
        Many of the birds featured on his blog have now become the stars of a book, Providence Raptors:
Documenting the Lives of Urban Birds of Prey, which he describes as “full of photos and educational stories and ways to help raptors survive in the city. It’s got all my best photos, all the stories I want to tell, and all the great people who work to protect raptors.”
        It’s a captivating look at the fascinating lives of the raptors that are surprisingly common in the capital city, their struggles to survive, and their efforts to raise their young year after year. Among the species featured are the red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, Bald eagle, Cooper’s hawk, osprey and eastern screech owl.
        Despite the abundance of other birds in Providence, Green focuses exclusively on raptors in part because they’re predators.
        “If there were coyotes or bobcats killing animals downtown every day, people would be up in arms about it,” he said. “These birds are killing things all the time – there’s blood dripping down buildings, bloody carcasses around, I find a lot of bird heads because peregrines decapitate them – and yet people don’t even notice them. It’s funny to me that everyone is waiting for their bus and these giant birds are fighting right overhead.”
        As striking as the photographs are, Green said the accompanying stories are just as important. Like his story about the barred owl in Burnside Park.
        “For 10 years I was watching hawks and falcons, and then in 2018 an owl showed up to eat rats all
Peregrine falcon (Peter Green)

night,” he said. “Every night for four months I’d go out and watch it, and I never knew exactly where it would be.”
        One night, he noticed the bird had blood-soaked feathers and appeared to be missing an eye. He feared it was badly injured.
        “The owl was too high in a tree for me to safely reach, but that was actually good news,” Green wrote in his book. “If it was seriously injured and lost an eye, it likely would have been grounded at the location of the accident. The fact that the owl was able to return to its favorite roosting spot indicated it could fly and also see well enough to navigate through the branches…After a few days, rain washed away the dried blood and the owl flew out of the tree on its own. It made a full recovery without any human intervention.”
        While Green has exhibited his photographs at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Nature Center in Bristol and sold a few prints, he thinks his images are best displayed in a book.
        “I’m not trying to get a beautiful portrait that someone wants to put on their wall,” he said. “A print of a bird on a blue sky will sell, but I’d rather show a bird tearing apart a pigeon in Kennedy Plaza with people around it to show what happens in the city. A bird on a tree isn’t as interesting as a bird on a brick wall, because that wall gives it a location. The building they nest in is more important to me. If I have a shot of a hawk with a RIPTA bus, it’s just so Providence.”
        In addition to the photographs and stories, the book also includes tips that readers can follow to help raptors survive in the city. He discourages the use of rat poison, for instance, which may kill raptors feeding on rats, and encourages builders to use bird-friendly glass that birds are less likely to fly into. He also advises that domestic cats be kept indoors and provides information about the Born to be Wild Nature Center, which rehabilitates injured raptors, and the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island.
        Green designed the book himself – that’s his profession, after all – and his father, a printer and print broker in New York City, handled the printing. The first printing of 300 copies sold out in one month, and a second printing was due for delivery in mid-December.
        The book can be purchased at Barrington Books, Books on the Square, the Audubon Nature Shop, Symposium Books and from his website.
        “I like to dispel urban legends, and that’s part of what this book does,” Green said. “So often, people who know about the falcons and hawks in the city think the government purchased them to kill rats, or that the owl and eagles escaped from Roger Williams Park Zoo. It’s sad that people are so disconnected from animals. I want them to know that there are animals among us and how to help them.”

        This article first appeared on on December 13, 2020.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Unexpected visit by 'most wanted' bird

        For more than 20 years, the one bird species that I most wanted to see in North America was the dovekie, a small seabird that breeds on cliffs in the Arctic and winters far offshore in the Atlantic. The robin-sized birds are occasionally seen in Rhode Island waters, but only in winter and usually during stormy conditions – which is not my preferred time for birding.
        I don’t know what it is about the little black-and-white birds that attracted me to them. I suspect it was partly because of the challenge involved. They’re difficult to find and even harder to see well once you’ve located one.
        They’re also among the cutest of the seabirds, with a tiny black beak and a pudgy body that makes
Dovekie at Trustom Pond NWR (Carlos Pedro)

them look a bit like a palm-sized penguin. Despite their appearance, however, dovekies are not closely related to penguins, which are only seen in the Southern Hemisphere.
        Whatever their appeal, I yearned to see one. So when a dovekie was reported from Point Judith about 10 years ago on a blustery winter day, I dropped everything to go see it.
        Luckily, it was still there when I got there. Unluckily, it was so far offshore and the wind was blowing so hard, I could barely see it well enough through my binoculars and telescope to positively identify it. But I still put a checkmark on my bird list and crossed it off my most wanted list, even though the observation was far from satisfying.
        When I was in the Arctic a year later studying narwhals, I was thrilled to see hundreds of dovekies swirling around me while on a small boat off the coast of northern Greenland. And yet even then, with the birds buzzing by almost within arm’s reach, I didn’t see them well. They never landed on the water for a decent view, leaving me unsatisfied once again.
        All of which brings me to last month on a quiet, comfortable day during Thanksgiving weekend, when I was strolling the trails at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown. It’s a great place to watch for ducks in winter, so I’m a frequent visitor – just as I am at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, another hotspot for winter duck watching.
           But this time I stumbled upon the most unexpected sight. Just 20 yards from the shore of Trustom Pond was a dovekie. And yet its appearance in this unexpected place made me uncertain. I had to fight to convince myself that I was truly seeing a dovekie, despite how unmistakable the bird appears. Was I really seeing what I thought I was seeing?
        I was. And it was gorgeous. Its black back was streaked with white, its white belly looked soft and fluffy, and its coal black head made its black eye virtually invisible as it paddled slowly in a tiny cove. The view couldn’t have been better.
        As I enjoyed watching the bird, I realized that I should spread the word among the local birding community. So I sent a few texts and the birders began arriving soon after, most of whom were just as thrilled as I to see a dovekie.
        It had been a long wait to get a good look at a dovekie, but that’s part of what makes birding so enjoyable. It’s like a treasure hunt. You never know what you’re going to find or if you’ll find what you’re looking for. But it sure is satisfying when you do.
        This article first appeared in The Independent on December 11, 2020.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Scientists create model to simulate changing food web in Narragansett Bay

        A team of scientists at the University of Rhode Island is creating a series of computer models of the food web of Narragansett Bay to simulate how the ecosystem will respond to changes in environmental conditions and human uses. The models will be used to predict how fish abundance will change as water temperatures rise, nutrient inputs vary, and fishing pressure fluctuates.
        “A model like this allows you to test things and anticipate changes before they happen in the real ecosystem,” said Maggie Heinichen, a graduate student at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. “You want to be able to prepare for changes that are likely to happen, so the model provides a starting point to ask questions and see what might happen if different actions are taken.”
Annie Innes-Gold and Maggie Heinichen
        Heinichen and fellow graduate student Annie Innes-Gold collaborated on the project with Jeremy Collie, professor of oceanography, and Austin Humphries, associate professor of fisheries. They used a wide variety of data collected about the abundance of marine organisms in Narragansett Bay, as well as life history information on nearly every species of fish that visits the area, and data about environmental conditions. 
        Their research was published last month in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series. Additional co-authors on the paper are Corinne Truesdale at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and former URI postdoctoral researcher Kelvin Gorospe.
        “We built one model to represent the bay in the mid-1990s, the beginning point of the project,” said Innes-Gold, “and another one that represents the current state of the bay. That allowed us to predict how the biomass of fish in the bay would change from a historical point to the present day and see how accurate the model was in its predictions.”
        The model correctly predicted whether each group of fish or fished invertebrates would increase or decrease.
        The students are now expanding the model using various fishery management scenarios and expected temperature changes to assess its outcomes.
        “What if there was no more fishing of a particular species, for instance, or double the fishing? How would that affect the rest of the ecosystem?” asked Innes-Gold. “I’m also incorporating a human behavior model to represent the recreational fishery in Narragansett Bay. I’ve run trials on whether unsuccessful fishing trips affect whether fishermen will come back to fish later, and how that affects the biomass of fish in the bay.”
        Heinichen is incorporating the temperature tolerance of various fish species into the model, as well as other data related to how fish behave in warmer water.
        “Metabolism rates and consumption rates increase as temperatures go up, and this affects the efficiency of energy transfer through the food web,” she said. “If a fish eats more because it's warmer, that affects the total predation that another species is subjected to. And if metabolism increases as waters warm, more energy is used by the fish just existing rather than being available to turn it into growth or reproduction.”
        In addition, an undergraduate at Brown University, Orly Mansbach, is using the model to see how fish biomass changes as aquaculture activity varies. If twice as many oysters are farmed, for example, how might that affect the rest of the ecosystem?
        The URI students said that the models are designed so they can be tweaked slightly with the addition of new data to enable users to answer almost any question posed about the food web of Narragansett Bay. They have already met with fisheries managers from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to discuss how the agency might apply the model to questions it is investigating.
        “We’re making the model open access, so if someone wants to use it for some question yet to be determined, they will have the model framework to use in their own way,” Heinichen said. “We don’t know all the questions everyone has, so we’ve made sure anyone who comes across the model can apply it to their own questions.”
        “There’s another element that could also be added to the model in the future, and that’s spatial data,” added Innes-Gold. “It could show how the distribution of fish might change throughout the bay, which could open the door to asking all sorts of habitat questions as well.” 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Scientists seek to explain widely variable waterfowl numbers in bay

        Ornithologist Jameson Chace and his students at Salve Regina University walk the Cliff Walk in Newport every other week from December through March to count the ducks they see in the water. They often count large numbers of scoters, eiders, scaup, buffleheads, goldeneyes and other species, but their numbers vary significantly from year to year.
        The same phenomenon occurs throughout Narragansett Bay – large numbers of ducks are observed some years and many fewer during other years. And no one seems to know why.
        “Because birds move around a lot, we can’t really say much about trends, but there have been 
years when I’ve seen rafts of scoters in massive numbers and many years when there’s not,” said Chace,
Common eider
a professor of biology at Salve Regina and the president of the Wilson Ornithological Society. “There seems to have been a lot more birds in wintertime when I was a kid than there are now, and that’s true for some particular species – like scoters and goldeneyes – though some others are consistent.”
        Rick McKinney agrees. An ecologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he has organized an annual survey of waterfowl in Narragansett Bay every year since 2005. Six teams of volunteers visit more than 60 sites around the bay on a designated day in January to count waterfowl, and their results are similar to what Chace has found: duck numbers vary widely.
        McKinney and his team counted nearly 22,000 ducks of 16 species in 2005 but just 15,000 the following year. In 2018 duck numbers skyrocketed to 31,000 but declined to 17,000 in 2020.
        “Things fluctuate a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think we’ve seen any tremendous declines or increases,” he said. “We tend to get a total number of around 20,000 individual ducks every year, and it’s pretty consistent. But it definitely changes from year to year.”
        Common eiders are a good example. On his surveys, numbers of eiders – known for their fluffy down feathers used in jackets and comforters – ranged from 2,400 in 2005 to 130 in 2016 and 5,700 in 2018.
        “Their numbers are all over the place,” McKinney said. “What causes it? I have no idea. It could have something to do with food availability or their general distribution on the East Coast. Maybe some years they don’t migrate down this far because they’ve got enough food in Maine. But that’s total speculation.”
        McKinney noted that eiders eat mussels, and many of the mussel beds in Narragansett Bay were “fished out” in the 1990s and early 2000s, which may have led many of the birds to seek food elsewhere. But why would there have been so many in 2018?
        He thinks the weather probably plays a role. That was the year when McKinney counted 31,000 ducks in the bay, and it was a very cold winter.
        “The bay was frozen down to Prudence Island that year and we didn’t think we’d see many ducks because the northern part of the bay was out of the picture,” he said. “But I think all the birds got pushed down from the north because there was little area of open water up there, so Narragansett Bay was teeming with waterfowl. I went to one spot where we usually count seven ducks and there were thousands.
        “If there’s a winter where there’s not much freeze-up of waterways to the north – like the St. Lawrence or the coast of Maine – then ducks may stop there on their southern flight and not make it down here,” he added. “Other years when it freezes up there, we get more ducks here. That could have something to do with it.”
        That could also mean that the warming trend due to the climate crisis could result in fewer ducks wintering in Rhode Island in the future, even if overall populations remain unchanged.
        One species that appears to have declined significantly since the beginning of the surveys is greater scaup, which often were initially seen in large groups totaling 7,000 to 10,000 individuals, mostly in the upper bay. McKinney said scaup numbers nose-dived in 2011, and now just 3,000 to 5,000 are consistently seen each year.
        “That’s another big mystery,” he said.
        Jenny Kilburn, a wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, has also noted a decline in scaup numbers in the aerial surveys she conducts every winter. Her survey is conducted, in part, to set bag limits for duck and goose hunters, and the decline in scaup throughout the region has resulted in a reduction in the number of scaup that can be hunted this year.
        The bag limit for mallards was also reduced this year.
        “We’re concerned about mallards because their populations have been declining,” Kilburn said. “In our area, we get eastern Canadian mallards migrating through and our own Northeast population of mallards, and the Northeast population has been declining. There is ongoing research looking into the genetics of the birds to try to figure out why.”
        According to Kilburn, Rhode Island is a popular spot for duck hunters, especially those targeting sea ducks like scoters and eiders. She frequently gets calls from hunters from around the country who are interested in coming to the Ocean State to hunt sea ducks. Yet she doesn’t believe hunting is having an effect on duck numbers.
        “Hunting is one thing we can change right away if we see a decline,” she said. “We’re looking now at addressing the length of the sea duck hunting season and bag limits to lessen its impact.”
        Chace wonders whether the arrival of the invasive Asian shore crab has anything to do with changes in duck populations, since many ducks feed on crabs.
        “Asian shore crabs have pushed out our larger crabs, and because they’re much smaller, the ducks have to dive down more often to get the same amount of food,” Chace said. “Maybe they’re wasting a lot of energy that way. That’s got to be a game changer for these sea ducks.
        “We’re also seeing changes to our fisheries, and I’m not sure what that’s going to mean for our ducks,” he added. “With black sea bass moving into the area – they’re voracious predators on many small fish – that might be having an impact on food availability for some ducks, like mergansers, that eat fish. But we don’t know.”
        Kilburn worries that any duck species that relies on the marine environment for food is at risk from the changing climate.
        “Their food resources are changing or declining, so we’re seeing shifts in where the birds go. We’re finding them in different places,” she said.
        And yet while the number of ducks counted in local surveys continues to fluctuate from year to year and the birds aren’t always in the places they used to be found, Kilburn is optimistic about the outlook for local waterfowl.
        “These are migratory species that are managed across the states and parts of Canada, and there’s a lot of great research that goes into their management,” she said. “Between hunters and conservation groups and state and federal agencies, there’s a lot of support for our waterfowl. So that bodes well for their future.”

This article first appeared on on December 7, 2020.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Botanist sows seeds of hope for plant conservation

        Thanks to lessons taught by her grandparents, Hope Leeson has always been drawn to plants. Some of her oldest memories are of trees, especially their different shapes.
        “I’ve always had this haunting sense of awareness of their forms,” said Leeson, a botanist, plant conservationist and botanical educator from South Kingstown who has walked much of Rhode Island in search of wetlands and rare plants. “I was always interested by their shapes, and by other little things on the ground that also attracted my attention, like the incredible structure of inch-high plants, sedges and flowers. There are so many different unbelievable shapes and forms that plants take.”
        Through more than 30 years of field experience, Leeson has developed an intimate knowledge of the Ocean State’s plant communities, and she has applied that knowledge to the protection of rare
Hope Leeson

species, the sustainable collection of plant seeds and the propagation of native plants for habitat restoration efforts. This work has given her unique insights into the changes taking place in the state’s natural areas and their impacts on native species.
        “There’s a lot happening in the ground that we don’t see,” she said. “And there’s certainly a lot happening because of deer eating much of what’s on the ground. Both of those are influencing the next generation of plant communities.”
        She notes that Rhode Island’s abundant deer primarily eat native plants, and they are so voracious that in many places few young plants have a chance to mature before they are eaten. And since deer avoid most invasive species, they are providing inroads for invasives to gain a foothold and spread widely.
        “I also worry that we’re not really aware of the far-reaching impact of earthworms,” Leeson said of the eight species found in southern New England, all of which originated in Europe or Asia. “The plant communities we have are adapted to a slow cycling of nutrients, and earthworms really speed that up. They also take a lot of leaf litter and pull it down into the soil, which changes the whole nutrient cycle, in terms of what’s available to plants.
        “So like deer, earthworms are opening up areas for non-native species to come in, because those non-natives come from areas that have earthworms and can take advantage of the opening that’s been created,” she added. “We can’t control where earthworms go, and they’re really changing the chemistry of the soil.”
           It’s not just soil chemistry that’s changing, Leeson said, but its soil temperature, too. And that may be affecting the mycorrhizal relationship between plants and fungi that enables plants to acquire nutrients through their roots. If that relationship is disrupted, many plant communities could be affected.
        “I just see so many places where it appears like the forest is dying, particularly areas that are more urban,” she said. “It smells different, it looks different, it’s a big change, and how that comes out in the end, we don’t know. It may all be fine, but on our human scale it seems like a loss of something – or maybe there will be a gain in another hundred years.”
        Leeson grew up in Providence and South Kingstown and earned an art degree at Brown University while also taking as many environmental courses as she could. After graduating, she spent a few years painting murals in people’s homes and creating decorative stenciling before taking jobs as a naturalist on Prudence Island and Goddard Park. That work led to jobs at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and several environmental consulting firms.
        During one project, when Narragansett Electric Co. proposed a new power line corridor from East Greenwich to Burrillville, she walked the entire 44-mile route to locate any wetlands the route would cross.
        In more recent years, she consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Save the Bay, The Nature Conservancy and other agencies to document rare plant communities and invasive species, and worked for more than 10 years as the botanist for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey.
        “Not only does Hope like to dig into the academic understanding of plants, she values the study of native plants because they connect to so many of her other interests and areas of accomplishment, including gastronomy, environmental conservation, art, gardening, teaching, and social networking,” said David Gregg, director of the Natural History Survey. “Her multi-level connection to native plants is readily apparent when you spend time with her, and is an important reason, besides the interest inherent in the projects themselves, that volunteers have been so attracted to working with her on the Survey's various Rhody Native activities.”
        Leeson’s establishment of the Rhody Native program to propagate up to 100 species of native plants for habitat restoration helped diversify habitats at wildlife refuges, salt marshes and private and public gardens. Eventually the program became so successful that she was receiving orders for thousands of plants, which was more than she could produce on her own. Without a commercial nursery willing to take it over, the program was discontinued.
        She is now completing a project to grow a rare wildflower called marsh pink, which is limited to two sites in Rhode Island and one in Connecticut. The plants she is growing will be used to bolster the Connecticut population following a restoration of the marsh.
        “We thought we might cross-pollinate plants from Connecticut with the Rhode Island populations to reduce the genetic bottleneck,” Leeson said. “But the Rhode Island populations are really small, and rabbits ate all of the seedpods before they were ripe, so I was unable to collect any seedpods. But the Connecticut seeds are sown, and they’re just resting for the winter.”
        When she’s not working, Leeson enjoys riding horses, which she says can “eat up a couple hours every other day.” But she’s never far from plants, whether in her garden or in nearby forests.
        “I’m drawn to places that are rocky, because that geography and geology is interesting to me,” she said. “And the coastal plain pond shores are endlessly fascinating to me because their geological life cycle is so interesting. When water levels are down, they have this explosion of plant species, many of them rare, and then there will be a decade when everything is underwater and you wait for ten years before they all reveal themselves again.”
        Leeson also enjoys foraging for food, including the tubers of evening primrose, which she roasts with carrots. She even occasionally cooks with invasive species – she makes pie from Japanese knotweed, pesto from garlic mustard, and enjoys the berries from autumn olive.
        As she approaches retirement age, Leeson is teaching botany and plant ecology at the Rhode Island School of Design. She is especially looking forward to teaching a five-week course in January called Winter Treewatching and a spring semester class on the Weeds of Providence.
        “That one will look at all of the areas around Providence that are vegetated by things that come in on their own,” she said. “It’s getting people to think about how we don’t even notice these things, and yet they’re performing pretty important functions, from carbon sequestration and air filtration to providing food for insects and birds.”
        Although she said that teaching online during the pandemic has been “weird,” she has been pleased to see so many people walking at Rhode Island’s parks and nature preserves.
        “It’s really helping people to slow down and look around them more, at least I hope it is,” she said. “They seem to be noticing things they never noticed before, and I think that’s a really good thing.
        “We’ve gotten so distanced from the natural world around us that there’s not an impetus to steward it or take care of it,” she said. “There’s a sense that it will always be there and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s what sustains us all. We won’t exist without it. So by noticing it, I hope people will become better stewards.”

        This article first appeared on on November 27, 2020. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Saving the planet, one turtle at a time

        Callie Veelenturf was nearing the end of a five-month sea turtle research project in Panama when the nation’s borders were closed due to the pandemic, forcing her to remain in the country for three months longer than planned. She had just completed her first project as a National Geographic Explorer, documenting nests of endangered sea turtles, investigating human interactions with the turtles, and educating residents about the threats turtles face.
        The founder of The Leatherback Project, a sea turtle conservation organization, Veelenturf spent her unexpected additional time in Panama launching an international campaign for a universal
Callie Veelenturf excavates a leatherback turtle nest.

declaration of the rights of nature, a concept similar to human rights but which states that every species of wildlife has the right to exist and persist without fear of extinction from human causes. Just two countries, Ecuador and Bolivia, recognize these rights in their constitutions, and Veelenturf aimed to encourage other countries to support the idea as well.
        “It’s a concept that really resonated with me, and I think it needs to be the basis of the global change we need to see for the planet,” she says. “We must consider the planet and nature when planning future development.”
        Within weeks, she connected with several lawyers, conservationists, and other advocates in Africa, Australia, and South America; met with the first lady of Panama; and worked with a Panamanian senator to draft legislation that is now before the country’s National Assembly. She also made a virtual presentation to the United Nations—her third time speaking to the global intergovernmental organization—to make her case on World Oceans Day.
        It was a whirlwind of activity, but that’s nothing new for Veelenturf. She has already had a lifetime of experiences in just the last few years. She studied sea turtles in Costa Rica, Equatorial Guinea, and Saint Kitts; traveled in a deep-sea vehicle 700 feet below the ocean surface as part of a shark research expedition; won a photography contest sponsored by the journal Nature; was named a fellow of The Explorers Club; tagged hammerhead sharks with conservationists in Colombia; and launched a project to reduce fisheries bycatch of sharks and sea turtles in Ecuador, where she will return for six months beginning in January. And last summer she was selected for the National Geographic Society’s prestigious Early Career Leadership Program.
        “I can’t believe all this is happening,” she says. “It’s like my dreams are coming true.” 

This article first appeared in fall 2020 issue of URI Magazine.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

An invasion of finches

        Every once in a while, Rhode Islanders who pay close attention to the birds at their feeders have a particularly exciting winter season. That’s when birds that typically spend the whole winter in Canada and northern New England don’t have enough of their favorite foods available, and they head south in large numbers to feast on the seeds we provide.
        This year is already turning out to be one of those years. Birders call it an irruption – different from an eruption, which happens to volcanoes – or an invasion, and it typically occurs with a group of a half dozen species of finch, though a few others are sometimes included in the mix.
        It started in October when nearly every birdwatcher I know reported seeing large numbers of pine siskins at their feeders during the third week of the month. These small birds look somewhat like
Pine siskin (Simon Pierre Barrett)

streaky versions of our common American goldfinch, and we usually only see them during irruption years. They typically feed on spruce cones in the boreal forest of Canada, but apparently this hasn’t been a good year for spruce cones up there, and sunflower and thistle seeds appear to be a satisfactory substitute.
        One morning last month I noticed one siskin scavenging the spilled seed beneath my feeder, and 20 minutes later there were nine. By the end of the day there were more than 50. I spent the next several days repeatedly counting and watching this mass of dainty birds far outnumbering my usual feathered visitors. And I couldn’t have been happier – though I immediately knew my bird feeding budget was going to skyrocket this winter.
        Around the same time, a red-breasted nuthatch made its first appearance in my yard in several years. These little sprites are closely related to the white-breasted nuthatches that are common residents in Rhode Island, but with a pale rusty chest and belly and black-and-white stripes on the side of its face. Although they aren’t a finch and a few are seen in Rhode Island every year, they only appear widely across the region during irruption years.
        A few other invading finches are staying home this winter. Common redpolls, which feed on the catkins of birch trees, apparently have enough to eat in Canada, so they aren’t expected in Rhode Island this year. The same is true of red crossbills, with their oddly crossed beaks, who feed on the cones of white pines. They occasionally invade the Ocean State, but not this year.
        The most anticipated of this year’s invaders is the evening grosbeak. Dressed in gold and black and cream with an oversized seed-crunching beak, they look somewhat like a gigantic goldfinch. They used to be regular winter visitors 40 or 50 years ago, but not any longer. So birders are forced to wait for irruption years to get a look at them. And while there are usually enough pine siskins around during a big year for almost everyone to see one at their feeders, evening grosbeaks seldom turn up in huge numbers, so birders often have to scout out their neighbors’ feeders to find one.
        I still haven’t come across an evening grosbeak yet this season, but I know they’re around. It’s one of the species that makes winter birding in Rhode Island exciting. For while most events in the natural world can be counted on to occur at the same time every year, the cycle of the irruption of winter finches into our area is difficult to predict. And I’m determined not to miss it.
This article first appeared in The Independent on Nov. 14, 2020.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Wild turkeys of suburbia

        Forty minutes before sunrise on a cold April morning, I turn onto a rural road in northwest Rhode Island, get out of my car, and listen for four minutes. I hear distant traffic noise, an early-singing northern cardinal, and a few spring peepers, but little else. So I drive a mile down the road and do it again. This time, a wild turkey lets loose with a loud gobble the second I close my vehicle door – a behavior I learn is called a shock gobble, which happens in response to any number of human or natural sounds. Moments later, a second gobbler responds from a different direction. And soon after, both turkeys burst forth almost simultaneously. By the time my four minutes are up, I’ve counted 11 gobbles from the two birds, and I note those figures on a data sheet.
        During the next 90 minutes, as the sun rises and more birds awaken to fill the morning with song, I make 10 more stops along a 12-mile route to tally the number of turkeys and the number of gobbles I can detect. I hear a total of nine turkeys at five stops in varying habitat – thick forest, low-density
Wild turkeys in my yard (Michael Salerno)
residential development, and scattered farms – and count 44 individual gobbles. I repeat the process twice a week for the first three weeks of April as one of eight volunteers for the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife, which has conducted similar gobbler surveys for more than 25 years as a means of assessing turkey breeding activity in the state.
        Wild turkey breeding has apparently been highly successful in recent years, as turkey numbers have been booming in southern New England following successful reintroduction efforts in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Today, the birds have adapted so well to wooded neighborhoods that they have become a nuisance in many areas, creating innumerable conflicts with people, and making some biologists wonder if the reintroductions were too successful.
        “They’re social animals and have a social organization to their flocks,” said Dave Scarpitti, a wildlife biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife. “When they become suburban, they lose their fear of humans and start to assimilate humans into their social hierarchy and their social pecking order. They have such a close association with humans that they don’t see them as a threat.”
        In suburban areas, the result is sometimes aggressive encounters, almost always initiated by younger male turkeys as they are coming of age and vying for position within their flock. Turkeys are regularly reported chasing children waiting for their school bus and chasing adults as they walk neighborhood streets. In Rhode Island, the mayor of one town assigned a team of animal control officers to capture three turkeys that were often seen stopping traffic at a busy intersection. They caught two of them quickly, but the last one eluded them for months, becoming a running joke in the local media.
        “Almost always it’s a function of someone in the neighborhood who is deliberately feeding them,” Scarpitti said. “They think they’re helping the birds and may not understand the implications of what they’re doing and how it’s affecting other folks in their neighborhood.”
        The suburban turkey problem in southern New England does not appear to be going away anytime soon, yet turkey numbers in rural forested areas don’t approach their historic abundance levels or the densities they have achieved in suburbia.
        Wild turkeys were abundant in the region when Europeans colonized the area, but their numbers declined as forests were cleared for agriculture. Unregulated hunting also took its toll. The last native wild turkey in Connecticut was shot in 1813, and the last in Massachusetts was harvested in 1850. A few lasted in Rhode Island into the 1920s. By the 1940s and 50s, people in all three states sought to bring back the region’s largest gamebird.
        For several decades thereafter, hundreds of pen-raised wild turkeys were released in numerous locations, but none of them survived long. “They had the genetics of wild turkeys, but they didn’t have the link that hens have with their poults,” said Mike Gregonis, a wildlife biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “The hens never could teach the poults how to survive in the wild.”
        “When you raise turkeys on a farm, they have the habits of a domestic animal,” added Jenny Kilburn, the state gamebird biologist in Rhode Island. “They had very high mortality when they were released.”
        When state wildlife officials began trapping turkeys from the wild in states with a surplus of birds and relocating them to targeted areas in southern New England, their numbers quickly grew. In Connecticut, 22 wild turkeys captured in western New York in 1975 were released in the northwest corner of the state, and three years later there were enough there to begin an in-state trap-and-transfer program to other parts of the Nutmeg State. A similar effort began in Rhode Island in 1980, with 29 turkeys from Vermont released in the town of Exeter, followed shortly by a trap-and-transfer to other communities. And in Massachusetts, where 37 wild turkeys from western New York were introduced to Berkshire County in 1972 and 73, they expanded so fast that a limited hunt was allowed by 1980.
        “They naturally expanded on their own, and we did 50 trap-and-transfer operations from the mid-70s to the mid-90s into various places across the state, with the last occurring into Cape Cod,” said Scarpitti. “And now they’re everywhere except Nantucket.”
        Although it isn’t illegal to feed wild turkeys in Massachusetts, Scarpitti would prefer that the practice would stop. He estimates that the state is home to about 35,000 turkeys, which averages out to about 100 in each of the state’s 351 communities. “When you think of it that way, it doesn’t sound like a lot,” he said. “But I know some towns that have way more than that. The actual number isn’t terribly important; it’s more about what way is it going.” And the way it’s going isn’t good.
        Scarpitti and the other state biologists get calls regularly from residents complaining about aggressive turkeys. Managing problem turkeys has become an ongoing issue for them. “They’ve reached their social carrying capacity,” Scarpitti said. “People aren’t as willing to tolerate them anymore.”
        Anecdotal reports suggest that similar issues are beginning to occur in northern New England, too. Scarpitti said that wild turkeys, originally a southern species, were scarce in northern Vermont and New Hampshire and central Maine during colonization, but now they are increasingly common as human development has made the region more hospitable to the birds.
        The bulk of the Massachusetts turkey population used to be in the forested western part of the state, but no longer. Now they are primarily in the most populated areas, east of the Route 495 corridor. While Berkshire County had excellent habitat 45 years ago when turkeys were released there – a mix of young forests and farmland – today many of the farms have been abandoned and much of the forest has matured beyond what is ideal for turkey production.
        “Unquestionably the habitat has changed over that time. It’s trending to a state that’s less productive than it once was,” Scarpitti said. “We’re trying to figure out ways to get good oak regeneration in our forests. Oaks are ubiquitous, but trying to get new oak to grow is a little tricky. Sixty percent of the state is forested, and a great amount of the land is preserved, but preservation is only half of it. Managing forests to create diversity on the landscape is the challenge.”
        Turkey numbers in the three southern New England states reached their peak sometime in the mid-2000s, but the Connecticut and Rhode Island populations have experienced a slight decline since then.
        “Some say the turkeys overshot their carrying capacity for the amount of resources the landscape can handle, and I think there’s some merit to that,” Gregonis said. “But there’s other things going on, too.”
        Predator numbers in Connecticut and Rhode Island have been on the rise, for instance. Poults are particularly susceptible to aerial predators like hawks, as well as fishers, foxes and other mammals. As in Massachusetts, maturing of forest habitat is also a concern. And disease, especially avian pox, is a limiting factor in some areas. The biggest cause for the decline, though, has been rainy spring weather during two crucial periods.
        “If we get three days of rain when most turkeys are on their nest, then the turkeys don’t get a chance to dry off their feathers, they emit more of an odor, and predators can key in on their nest,” ‘Gregonis said. “And if we get that same weather when the poults hatch out, their fine downy feathers will get wet and they’ll lose their insulation properties and the birds can succumb to exposure.”
        The next likely threat to turkey populations in southern New England will probably come from the changing climate, which could bring more extreme weather events in spring and a change in the composition of tree species that could force turkeys to switch their diet, though warming winters will also improve their chances of survival during that crucial period.
        Biologists in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island conduct annual brood surveys to monitor their turkey populations, and some occasionally take other steps as well, like the gobbler survey in which I participated. But the primary turkey management method they employ is the collection of data from turkey hunters. All three states have a spring hunt with a combined harvest of about 4,200 birds each year and a less popular fall hunt when another 400 are shot. Little of that harvest occurs where turkey populations are most dense – the suburbs – since hunting is not allowed in most residential areas, so the rural-living turkeys face the brunt of the hunting pressure.
        This year’s harvest numbers are expected to be among the highest in recent years, as the COVID19 pandemic provided many hunters with more free time and a flexible schedule in the spring that allowed them to spend more time hunting.
        Yet despite the threats from predators, disease, degraded habitat, rainy weather, climate change and hunters, turkeys are still thriving.
        “I remember a winter not long ago that had the deadly combination of bitter cold and lots of fluffy snow that makes it difficult for turkeys to move through it efficiently. It was as adverse as it gets in southern New England, when we should have seen turkeys falling from the trees dead, and we didn’t. They’re resilient,” said Scarpitti. “And even if they did, they’re still able to bounce back to their pre-winter populations. Turkeys are equipped to suffer through the bad years and rebound on those good years.”
        Rebound they have.
        As I write this in early May, three male turkeys are strutting their stuff in my forested backyard in rural Rhode Island, their featherless heads displaying a red, white and blue pattern, tails raised and fanned out, and wings stiff and dragging on the ground. Four females pecking at the grass – and one taking a dirt bath – appear unimpressed. Until, that is, one female sits prone in my garden and the largest male approaches, recognizing that she is receptive to mating. So he stands on her back, carefully maintaining his balance until she raises her tail, and they touch cloacae to complete the mating ritual.
        They probably didn’t notice my wife and I watching, nor did they appear to care.
        “Their bold behaviors seem to escalate during the breeding season when males get a little loopy and don’t associate people as something to fear,” said Kilburn. “I’ve had turkeys come right up to me, gobbling in full strut, and thinking that I’m another turkey. They’re out to find a hen, and they’ll respond to any noise they think is a hen. Including us.”
        This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Fungal disease plagues porcupines

        Porcupines are quite common across the northern tier of the United States, but scientists at the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory have discovered a crippling fungal disease that is often fatal, and it could have implications for the long-term health of porcupine populations in the region.
        As part of a study of porcupine mortality in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, pathologists at the lab examined 44 dead porcupines during a 7-year period and found 12 had died from a disease caused by a fungus known to cause ringworm in wild and domestic animals.
        “The fungus usually causes localized, often minor skin infections in animals and people,” said
Porcupine with fungal disease (NH Veterinary Diagnostic Lab) 

veterinary pathologist David Needle. “In porcupines, however, the skin lesion becomes severe and spreads to the whole body, resulting in debilitation and death if not treated. The pattern of disease caused by this fungus has never been reported in porcupines.”
        The porcupine’s response to the fungus is to try to slough it off by growing a large quantity of keratin, which Needle describes as “a self-adhesive sheet of dried-out cells.” But because the fungus thrives in keratin, and because no inflammation blocks the fungus, the fungus eventually grows over the animal’s entire body, including its eyes and ears in some cases.
        Because the disease has only been diagnosed in the three states – plus a new case in Connecticut – Needle believes that a regional subpopulation of porcupines may be susceptible to the pathogen. Additional cases have been identified by wildlife-rehabilitation clinics in the region, and a newly developed treatment protocol is having modest success at healing the animals.
        The fungus is zoonotic, which means it can be transmitted from animals to humans, although there are no reported cases of humans becoming infected by porcupines. But it is emerging at the same time that several other fungal diseases are affecting other wildlife populations around the world, from bats and frogs to snakes and salamanders.
        How the disease found its way into porcupines is unknown, but Needle speculates that it probably emerged in the last decade and may be spreading. Because porcupines are not commonly rehabilitated and not studied extensively, it is unknown how common the disease is at this time.
        “Porcupines are quite populous in some areas and are sometimes viewed as a pest, so concern for their population numbers isn’t a high priority,” Needle said. “There isn’t a groundswell of financial backing to investigate the disease further. But in areas where fishers had been extirpated and have been recently reintroduced, there has been a plummet in porcupine populations. Added pressure from this fungus is not helping them. They are still common enough in New England that we are not aware of a significant population decline, but studies to assess this may be lacking.”
        To get a better idea of how widespread the disease is, Needle is now assimilating data from 400 dead porcupines studied at diagnostic labs across the country during the last 20 years. “We just started, but this new disease might be the most common diagnosis,” he said.

This article first appeared in the autumn 2020 issue of Northern Woodlands.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Search for rare salamander takes place in the dark

        After dark at a well-hidden vernal pool in Richmond, Peter Paton shined his flashlight back and forth at the moss-covered ground around the nearly-dry pond basin. He was searching for marbled salamanders, the only autumn-breeding salamander in New England, and one that is seldom seen except on rainy fall evenings. It didn’t take him long to spot one.
        “I got one,” he called out. “Over here.”
        Marbled salamanders are the second largest salamander in the region – after only the spotted salamander -- and their attractive black-and-white patterning makes them unmistakable. The one Paton found, a male, was on his way out of the pond basin, indicating that the animal had completed his
mating duties and was headed to the forest to spend the winter underground.
        Female salamanders were likely hidden in the sphagnum moss around the pond, where they remain for a month or more to guard their eggs until rain fills the pond and the eggs are protected from predators and the elements. The eggs hatch within days after being covered in water, and the larvae overwinter in the pond.
        Paton, a professor of natural resources science at the University of Rhode Island, was confident of finding
Marbled salamander (Todd McLeish)
marbled salamanders at the Richmond site, since it was a place he studied and monitored in 2000 and 2001, when he and colleagues conducted an amphibian survey of 137 vernal pools around the state. Marbled salamanders were found in just four of the pools, however, making it one of the rarest pond-breeding amphibians in the region.
        Previous efforts in the 1980s and 1990s by Chris Raithel, a wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, documented as many as 50 marbled salamander breeding sites in the state, mostly in Kent and Washington counties. There are no records from Bristol county or from areas adjacent to Narragansett Bay and few from the Blackstone Valley.
        “The present localized distribution of marbled salamanders in Rhode Island may be related to habitat fragmentation and patch isolation,” Raithel wrote in his 2019 book, Amphibians of Rhode Island. “If this effect is real, the species is secure only in the larger contiguous habitats of southern and western Rhode Island, and additional range retraction should be evident to future generations.”
        Marbled salamanders require a very specific habitat for breeding – ponds that are surrounded by sphagnum moss and dry up in the summer, keeping fish and large dragonfly larvae from inhabiting the pond and preying on the salamander larvae.
        “They tend to like relatively small ponds, and there aren’t many sites available that fill their habitat requirements,” Paton said.
        In addition to habitat fragmentation, road mortality is also a significant concern for the species, because they are often crushed by vehicles as the adults cross roads to reach their breeding ponds or as juveniles disperse to find territories.
        On the other hand, Paton said it’s possible that the changing environmental conditions associated with the warming climate may make southern New England more favorable to marbled salamanders in the future. Their current range extends as far south as northern Florida and eastern Texas, and populations in warmer climates tend to be considerably larger than those in Rhode Island.
        “They aren’t very tolerant of the cold, so we’re at the northern limits of their range,” Paton said. “The larvae don’t grow much in the winter because it’s too cold, but once wood frogs arrive to breed in early spring, the salamander larvae feed on the frog tadpoles as their main fuel source to undergo metamorphosis.”
        After metamorphosis, the salamanders leave their ponds and spend the rest of their lives in the forest, except for brief breeding periods each fall.
        Despite how few marbled salamander breeding sites were found during the last amphibian survey, a recent graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston thinks a new survey method may detect the salamanders more effectively than traditional sampling methods.
        Jack He, who graduated in May, used eDNA – environmental DNA collected from water or soil – to detect the presence of marbled salamanders even when the animals could not be seen.
        “Everything sheds DNA in one form or another, like from skin cells or blood, and they release it into the environment,” He said. “Ideally we can collect water or soil samples containing those cells and extract that DNA and sequence it to determine what species are present.”
        He detected marbled salamander DNA in a number of water and soil samples from vernal pools in western Massachusetts. He calls it a less labor-intensive method of determining if the salamanders are present at a site than using dipnets to capture larvae in the spring, which is how Paton conducted his survey.
        “I’ve done dipnet studies and compared them to eDNA, and I found that eDNA was a bit more effective,” he said.
        Paton, however, isn’t convinced.
        “My impression is that larvae are relatively easy to find, but I could be biased,” he said. “Maybe they’re in there and I missed them a lot. But however you do it, I suspect that marbled salamanders are still fairly rare in Rhode Island.”

This article first appeared on on October 22, 2020.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Some bats are migratory contrarians

        October is one of the busiest months of the year for migration.
        Millions of songbirds that spent the summer breeding in the Northeast – warblers and flycatchers and orioles, for instance – are winging their way southward to Central America, South America or the Caribbean to enjoy the warm climate and to feed on the abundance of insects that are mostly absent during our northern winters. They’re joined by an equal number of their offspring, all of whom are making the dangerous journey for the first time.
        At the same time, geese and ducks and finches and many sparrows are heading southward from the north, destined to spend the winter eating from our bird feeders or carousing in our ponds or along our
Little Brown Bat (Kentucky Fish and Wildlife)
 coastlines. For them, the New England winter is their version of the Tropics. They’re accustomed to chilly winters and adapted to eating seeds or mussels or whatever else we have available in winter.
        Our few migratory butterflies and dragonflies have departed by now, too, in their search for warmer temperatures to the south. Reptiles and amphibians are also on the move, just not nearly as far – mostly to nearby underground lairs or to the muddy bottoms of ponds and streams.
        But strangely enough, one group of animals is going in the opposite direction. Most of our bats are migratory contrarians. October is the time when they are moving northward instead of south, toward caves and mines in Vermont, New Hampshire and the Adirondacks.
        They’re seeking out a very precise environmental condition – high humidity and a temperature that will remain stable a bit above freezing for the next five months. That’s where they’ll hang together from the ceiling, sometimes in large numbers, in a state of inactivity and slow their metabolism so they don’t have to eat or drink for the entire winter. Rhode Island doesn’t have any suitable caves or mines in which bats can hibernate, so most of our bats head to those closest to us, all of which are to the north and northwest.
        These bat caves – officially called hibernacula – are the perfect location for their long winter naps. But because the bulk of the region’s bat populations are all gathered together in a very few sites, it made it easy for an unexpected disease to rapidly spread among them. Bunched together wing to wing, a deadly disease called white nose syndrome was quickly passed from one bat to another – sort of like Covid-19 among party-goers – and over a few short years close to 90 percent of our bats died.
        That’s why we’re seeing far fewer bats now than we did 20 years ago. The one exception is a species called the big brown bat – as opposed to the little brown bat, which used to be the most abundant species in the Northeast. A few big browns have found enough old buildings, underground bunkers and earthen crevices in Rhode Island with adequate enough conditions to keep them home for the winter. Which may be one factor – along with good genes and naturally occurring probiotics – that has allowed them to survive the disease in greater numbers. Their populations only crashed by about 50 percent.
        I wouldn’t want to suggest that the bats that migrated in the opposite direction of all the other wildlife on our continent are like the clumsy Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, but there’s something to be said for the bat that simply chose to stay home. Maybe, by not migrating at all, the big brown bat is the true migratory contrarian. 

This article first appeared in The Independent on Oct. 11, 2020.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Survey of knowledge, beliefs about coyotes seeks to inform management

        A University of Rhode Island graduate student is seeking to inform coyote management in Rhode Island by conducting a survey of Ocean State residents to gain insights into their knowledge, beliefs and feelings about the controversial carnivore.
        Kimberly Rivera, of Westchester County, New York, is examining the relationship between what people know and believe about coyotes and their first-hand experience with the animals. She will also factor in their personal environmental beliefs and demographics.
        “Coyotes aren’t going anywhere, so the better we understand where we stand with them, the better we’ll be able to coexist with them,” said Rivera.
        She is seeking at least 500 Rhode Islanders from throughout the state to take the survey before the end of November. It takes about 10 minutes to complete and can be found here.
           According to Rivera, about half of all nuisance wildlife calls received by state wildlife officials are about coyotes, which may have more to do with people’s beliefs about coyotes than it does about the actual threat the animals pose.
        Rivera plans to combine the results of her survey with data from a statewide camera trap study of
Eastern coyote (Todd McLeish)

coyotes to see if people’s opinions about coyotes are more or less positive in areas where the animals are most abundant.
        “We’re going to take what we learn from these surveys and disseminate it to wildlife managers so they can incorporate the data into their management practices,” she said. “If there are areas with greater conflict or where people are especially antagonistic toward coyotes, then maybe we can manage them better for both the coyotes and the people.
        “I’m especially interested in learning about interactions between pets and coyotes,” Rivera added. “There are lots of stories about missing pets suspected of, or witnessed, being taken by coyotes, and I’d like to learn how often it really happens and how often people think it happens.”
        The survey also aims to gauge opinions about current management practices, such as trapping coyotes with foothold traps, which is illegal in the state. Results of the survey may be used to inform future management decisions related to the harvesting of coyotes.
            Rivera’s coyote survey is the result of a survey she had planned to conduct with farmers in Madagascar about conflicts between carnivores and livestock. The pandemic cancelled her travel plans to the island nation off the east coast of Africa, so she sought to focus on a related issue closer to home.
            “I fell in love with spotted hyenas while doing an internship in South Africa while I was an undergrad,” Rivera said. “They’re considered vermin there because they are presumed to depredate livestock. It got me thinking about how perceived interactions can change how people think about a species. Those opinions are important. If people don’t care about animals, we’re not going to be able to conserve or coexist with them.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Scientists investigate effects of marine heat wave off southern New England

        A team of scientists from the University of Rhode Island and partner institutions depart today aboard the research vessel Endeavor for a five-day cruise to investigate the implications of a marine heat wave in the offshore waters of New England.
        The waters on the continental shelf – extending from the coast to about 100 miles offshore – have been 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual since July, according to URI oceanographer Tatiana Rynearson, one of the leaders of the expedition. And that warmth could have significant impacts for local fisheries and the marine ecosystem.
           “The water is very warm compared to the average of the last 40 years,” said Rynearson, a professor at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography who studies plankton. “The question we’re
URI ship Endeavor

asking is, how is it affecting the ecosystem and the productivity of the continental shelf waters.”
        The Northeast Pacific Ocean experienced a similar marine heat wave in 2014 and 2015, when what was described as a “blob” of warm water spread offshore from Alaska to California, resulting in major die-offs of fish and seabirds and closures of fisheries.
        “The impacts went all the way up the food chain from that warm blob of water,” Rynearson said. “Similar dramatic impacts haven’t been documented for New England waters, but we’re going to try to understand what’s going on out there.”
        Rynearson hopes the expedition will provide a clearer understanding of how the marine ecosystem responds to short-term heat waves and how it may react to the long-term temperature increases that are expected in the ocean due to the changing climate.
        “We think these heat waves will happen more frequently in the future, so it’s important to understand how the ecosystem responds to them,” she said. “We’re also interested in whether the response to this heat wave will give us insight into the general warming trend.”
        The expedition – which includes scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Wellesley College, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – is part of a long-term ecological research project funded by the National Science Foundation. Its aim is to compare how variability in the environment affects the ecosystem, from microscopic plankton to fish.
        “From our ongoing study we’ve learned that there are two different kinds of water out there – cold, nutrient-rich water that supports a lot of fisheries production, and warm, less-productive water,” Rynearson said. “We’re interested in the balance between how long the waters are warm and nutrient-poor versus cold and nutrient-rich.”
        The researchers will collect data along a transect from Narragansett to Martha’s Vineyard and then southward about 100 miles to an area at the edge of the continental shelf where the water is about 5,000 feet deep. Along the way they will take water samples at various depths to evaluate how much plankton is in the water, the rate of photosynthesis, and the rate that tiny marine animals called zooplankton are feeding upon tiny marine plants called phytoplankton.
        “We’ll also be looking at what species of phytoplankton and zooplankton are out there, because there seem to be differences in the community when you have cold, nutrient-rich waters versus warm, nutrient-poor waters,” said Rynearson. “We’ll ask, are we still seeing a summer community of marine life out there or is it too late in the year for that.”
        The research team also aims to gain a better understanding of the marine food web by studying the links between the tiniest creatures and the forage fish that are fed upon by the top predators in the ocean and captured in local fisheries.
        “We’re probing a part of the food web that’s not well understood in terms of the transfer of energy or the response to climate change,” Rynearson said. “That part of the food web is a bit of a black hole, and we want to shine some light in there.”

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Volunteers find Rhode Island's rarest turtle at new sites

        A pilot project using volunteers to scout for new populations of Rhode Island’s rarest turtle, the diamondback terrapin, turned up 15 new sites where the turtles have been confirmed. But despite the new populations, the biologist who led the project said the state’s terrapins are no less threatened than they were before the new populations were discovered.
        Herpetologist Scott Buchanan, a wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said that prior to 1990, when a population of terrapins was discovered in Barrington, “no one had seen a terrapin in Rhode Island in many years.” Additional populations were
Diamondback terrapin (Todd McLeish)

discovered elsewhere in the state in the past decade, and when Buchanan was hired in 2018 and began asking around, he heard a number of unconfirmed reports of terrapins being observed elsewhere in Rhode Island.
        "That led me to think that they’re probably more widespread in the state than the narrative would lead us to believe,” he said.
        So he examined maps to identify “reasonable places” where he could send volunteers on a regular basis to see if they could spot the terrapins, the only turtle in the region that lives in salt marshes and brackish waters. Four volunteers each visited two to four sites twice a week from late May through mid-July, and an additional volunteer surveyed a dozen sites. During each visit they scanned the water with binoculars for three 5-minute periods and counted any turtle heads they observed.
        The discovery of 15 new sites was a revelation to Buchanan.
        “What it means is that they are much more widespread than we had thought,” he said. “It’s encouraging from a conservation standpoint, but at many of these sites, we have little or no information about how many turtles may be there, whether they are successfully breeding, or whether they are established populations. We don’t want to be overconfident or get too comfortable with the fact that there are multiple sites containing the species.”
        Most of the newly discovered terrapin sites are in coves along mid and upper Narragansett Bay. They’re still mostly absent from the lower bay, according to Buchanan.
        “What we’re seeing now is probably a shadow of their former distribution and abundance,” he said. “They’re out there, that’s excellent, but we know there’s lots of places they don’t occur. All the evidence suggests that they’re still absent from many places where they were historically present. And the types of abundances that we’re documenting are probably far less than historic abundances.”
        Buchanan speculated that the newly discovered populations in the upper bay may be the result of dispersal from the Barrington population, which has grown to number in the hundreds because of extensive conservation efforts.
        Despite the success of the survey project, Buchanan is still concerned for the state’s diamondback terrapins. Most terrapin eggs are consumed by what he calls “human-subsidized predators,” including coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and dogs. Terrapins are also at risk of being illegally collected for the pet trade, which is why he prefers not to reveal the location of the newly discovered sites. They also face drowning in crab traps, injury from being struck by boats, and automobile strikes as females cross roads on their way to their nesting territories.
        “The big threat, though, is sea-level rise and salt marsh decline,” he said. “They’re an obligate salt marsh species; if sea level rises and marshes disappear, they don’t have a chance. That’s something I’m especially worried about over the next 10, 20, 30 years along the Rhode Island coast. Salt marshes are critical as a source of food and a place where they overwinter and take shelter, especially the juveniles and hatchlings.
        “This new information we have is very encouraging, but it doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. They’re still a species that warrants conservation, even without sea-level rise. We must remain vigilant.”
        Having identified the location of additional terrapin populations, Buchanan hopes to prioritize those sites for future conservation efforts, modeled after the successful nest-protection and monitoring efforts in Barrington.
        “Knowing where they are, there are lots of small steps you can do to improve their conservation,” he said. “Things like small-scale habitat management, create barriers to keep them off busy roads, public outreach to ensure boaters use caution, adapt local pot fishery management.”
        The success of the pilot project to identify new diamondback terrapin populations has inspired Buchanan to double or triple the effort next summer at numerous additional locations. He also hopes to continue the project for many years to eventually be able to identify population trends at each site. He will be seeking additional volunteers this spring to survey coastal sites around the state in June and July. Those interested in volunteering should contact Buchanan at

The story first appeared in on October 5, 2020.