Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Nature watching while social distancing

            One of the few good things that has come out of the COVID19 situation is that it has resulted in many more people taking walks at our local parks, refuges and wildlife sanctuaries than usual, since it allows us to maintain social distancing while also getting some exercise and enjoying the fresh air. I’ve seen more people on walking trails around the state in the last month than I do in an entire summer. And despite the circumstances, just about everyone has been smiling.
            Nature has a way of doing that. Innumerable scientific studies have demonstrated the value of spending time outdoors. It improves our mood and self-esteem and generally makes us happier and healthier. It absolutely does that for me.
            There’s another benefit, too. The more we’re outside, the more we’re observing what’s going on in the natural world and learning about wildlife and the environment. And the greater the chances are that we’ll see something especially noteworthy or something we’ve
never seen before. At the very least, you can watch for the signs of the arrival of spring.
            If you were strolling on Scarborough Beach late last month, for instance, you may have seen a Wilson’s plover, a shorebird related to our piping plover that is seldom seen north of
Black rat snake (Todd McLeish)
Virginia. And on the same stretch of beach at the same time were three black-headed gulls, visitors from Europe that are turning up in Rhode Island more and more often lately.
            Or maybe you noticed the extra-early emergence of marsh marigolds and skunk cabbages in wetland habitats. Or painted turtles sunning themselves on rocks long before they usually appear. Or mourning cloak butterflies fluttering in the sunshine. The warm winter has made these early signs of spring occur even earlier than we’re used to.
If you haven’t made an effort to get outside and explore nature yet this spring, it’s not too late to start. There are plenty more signs of spring still to come that you could easily pay attention to on your periodic social distancing walks. The massive numbers of birds migrating from the tropics is just getting started, and you don’t need to go beyond your backyard to see it happening.
What else might you see? The first dragonflies of the season are just about to emerge, and you could be the first to see one. Snakes are due to make their first appearance any time now, too. Or maybe you’re more interested in watching for the season’s first blooming orchids or the first mushrooms of the year. If mammals are more your thing, then watch for the return of bats to your neighborhood, or for the first evidence of newborn foxes or rabbits or woodchucks.
The point is just to get outside and pay attention to the awakening of spring and see what signs you can find.
I recommend starting out by visiting your local wetland or pond and searching for frogs, toads and salamanders. There are a half dozen kinds of frogs commonly found in Rhode Island at this time of year, plus several toad and salamander species. And the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management is looking for help to document all the places they are found.
The agency now offers a free smartphone app called Herp Observer, which allows anyone to submit observations of reptiles and amphibians from anywhere in the state. It’s easy, fun, and safe.
After all, there’s no need to maintain social distancing from frogs.

This article first appeared in the Independent on April 16, 2020.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Insects being deployed in war against invasive species

            After wandering through the forest at Cromwell Meadows Wildlife Management Area, Claire Rutledge selects a dying ash tree and goes to work. She pulls out her drawknife – a foot-long sturdy blade with handles on either end – and slams it into the tree at chest height, then draws it downward until the bark can be easily peeled from the tree in long vertical strips.
            As she does so, she searches for evidence of emerald ash borers, an invasive beetle from Asia that is expected to kill all of the ash trees in the Northeast in the coming decade. After peeling away several strips of bark, she reveals a series of winding tunnels like
Claire Rutledge peels bark at Cromwell Meadows (Arnold Gold)
switchbacks on a hiking trail that were created by the beetle’s larva as it consumed the tissue between the tree’s bark and wood. She also points out several holes in the bark created by adult beetles as they emerged from the tree to find a mate.
            But Rutledge, an entomologist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, and her team of seven colleagues aren’t just seeking evidence of the beetle. They’re also looking for tiny parasitic wasps, offspring of a species Rutledge had released several years earlier to kill the beetles. It’s a strategy called biological control, whereby the natural predators of the beetle in its native range in the Far East are released locally in an effort to keep the beetle in check.
            The emerald ash borer was first discovered in the United States in 2002 near Detroit, and it slowly expanded into ash forests in nearby states. It was found in New York in 2008 and Connecticut and Massachusetts in 2012, though it probably arrived a few years earlier. Although its rampage through the region isn’t expected to end before every mature ash tree is dead, scientists like Rutledge hope that efforts to control the insect by releasing the parasitic wasps will allow future generations of the trees to fend off the invader.
            The wasps use their long stinger-like ovipositor to lay their eggs through the bark and into the beetle larvae. When the wasp larvae hatch, they kill the beetle larva by eating it from the inside out.
            “For a little while, the beetle larva keeps eating the tree and looks fine, but eventually it stops looking so fine and looks like a bag of Cheetos with a bunch of wasp larvae in it,” says Rutledge, who has released at least one of three species of parasitic wasps at 14 sites around the state, beginning in 2013.
            She measures the success of her efforts by whether the wasps are sustaining themselves in the environment and by collecting and dissecting emerald ash borer larvae to determine how many have been parasitized by the wasps. “We’re recovering the wasps all over the place, so they seem to be doing pretty well,” she says. “And 20 to 40 percent of the beetle larvae we find are killed. So we consider it a success.”
             Non-native insects and plants have been invading the United States for more than a century, costing billions of dollars and causing significant ecological harm. Removing these invaders by conventional means – the application of chemical pesticides and herbicides or manual removal of plants – is a labor-intensive exercise that seldom works for long. And although biological control does not completely eliminate the problem either, practitioners say it is a self-sustaining strategy that is cost-effective and causes less harm to...

Read the rest of the story in the May 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Pandemic escape to nature likely to stress wildlife

              The ready access to a large number of local parks and nature preserves in southern New England has been a boon to the many thousands of people seeking a safe way to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors while also maintaining proper social distancing during the COVID19 pandemic. Parking lots have been full at Audubon, Nature Conservancy and land trust properties, as well as at state wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges, especially on weekends.
              But the increase in human visitors to these properties is not likely to have a positive impact on local wildlife. Research from around the world repeatedly finds that the more people that visit
Wilbour Woods, Little Compton, R.I. (Frank Carini)
natural areas, the more the wildlife that lives there must change their behaviors, move elsewhere, or otherwise expend energy to avoid the human invaders.
            As Scott McWilliams, a University of Rhode Island ornithologist, said, “more people usually equals more disturbance.”
            Much of the research on this topic focuses on what scientists call “the weekend effect,” in which the greater number of visitors to natural areas on weekends and holidays causes greater disturbances and forces wildlife to shift from prime feeding habitat to lesser quality habitat. The result is that – at least during the weekends – many animals have difficulty finding proper nutrition and may become less healthy overall. During the breeding season, frequent disturbance of nest or den sites may lead to the abandonment of their breeding efforts for the year.
            A study published last year tracked 30 eagles in eastern Spain that were living in two national parks. After 18 months, the researchers determined that the birds flew much farther from their typical home range during weekends due to the increased human disturbance during those days.
            It is unknown how long the COVID19 pandemic will last or how long local wildlife refuges will experience greater than normal visitation levels, but area biologists note a number of concerns that wildlife populations may face during this time.
            Nancy Karraker, a URI herpetologist who studies frogs, toads, turtles and salamanders, is especially worried about the possibility that native species discovered unexpectedly may become someone’s pet.
            “For the creatures I care most about, the greatest potential impact of more people out and about during the warm times of the day is the probability they will encounter a box turtle, spotted turtle or wood turtle and decide to take it home,” she said.
            All three turtle species are rare in the state, and one of the greatest threats facing area turtle populations is collection for the pet trade.
             Karraker also notes the problem of snakes or turtles basking in the sun and having to escape to a less conspicuous location when people walk by.
            “That’s an important concern especially for female snakes or turtles that bask to speed development of eggs or young internally,” she said. “Plunging into the water or fleeing frequently will also be an energetic concern that will have a larger effect on gravid females than on males.”
            Another way wildlife can be impacted by increased visitation to natural areas is the disturbance caused by the noise made by visitors. David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, points to research indicating that birds often have to sing louder to attract mates and take other steps when adapting to living in noisy areas.
            Although the intermittent noises from visitors to parks isn’t likely to require long-term changes to the behavior of area wildlife, if noise levels remain high for extended periods, some species may depart the area entirely to find less noisy locales.
            Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management whose office is at the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Kingston, has noticed a significant increase in visitors to the Great Swamp in recent weeks. He thinks that most resident animals are probably used to some level of human activity, and many – like squirrels and robins common in urban parks – will be unfazed by an increase in human visitation.
            But, like Karraker, he is concerned that those species that bask in the sun could be negatively affected by the disturbances caused by increasing numbers of visitors. He notes that the ringed boghaunter, the state’s rarest dragonfly, is among the sun worshippers that could be impacted.
            Brown’s greatest worry, however, is his observation that many people bring dogs to local refuges and let them run off their leash, which is illegal at state management areas between March 15 and August 15. Free-running dogs can cause great stress and harm to wildlife.
            “I think we’re seeing many more neophytes [visiting local refuges], people using these areas for the first time and not familiar with or knowingly disregarding regulations,” he said.
            The good news is that the timing of the COVID19 pandemic may help to avoid the most serious of impacts to local wildlife from increased refuge visitation.
            “Luckily most – but not all – birds start breeding in late May and June, so the large numbers of people in the woods will likely have calmed down by then,” said URI ornithologist Peter Paton.
            At least we all hope that the crisis will be over by then.
            To reduce the impact on local wildlife when visiting area parks and refuges, experts encourage visitors to stay on the marked trails, keep noise to a minimum, avoid walking on beach dunes, and always keep dogs leashed.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on April 1, 2020.