Thursday, July 30, 2020

Boy finds record-breaking quahog

            An 11-year-old boy from Wakefield clamming with his grandfather discovered what may be the largest clam ever harvested from Rhode Island waters on July 27 and donated it to the University of Rhode Island’s Marine Science Research Facility at the Narragansett Bay Campus.
            The quahog – measuring 5.75 inches across and weighing 2 pounds 7.75 ounces – is one of the largest specimens on record, though the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management does not keep quahog records. A typical quahog grows to about 4 inches across.
            Cooper Monaco found the quahog in Weekapaug. He doesn’t want to say exactly where in case there are more to discover.
            “I was down on my hands and knees in the water looking for clams, and I touched this huge rock thing,” he said. “I always pull out rocks and throw them to the side and look under them. And then
Cooper Monaco and his giant quahog (Todd McLeish)
I felt the edge of it and I thought, ‘holy moly, this is a clam.’ So I pulled it out. It was amazing.”
            According to Cooper’s mother, Sherrie Monaco, the family goes clamming almost every week during the summer as an outing with Cooper’s grandfather. Cooper found the family’s first two quahogs of the day before discovering the giant one. The family harvested 106 clams in total that day.
            “I’ve never seen a clam even half that size before,” Cooper said. “I’ve pulled out big rocks that size before, but it’s really unusual to find a clam this big. It was my lucky day.”
            After searching online for records of the largest quahog, the Monaco’s learned that the oldest ocean quahog, nicknamed Ming, was dredged from the waters off Iceland in 2006, and scientists calculated that it was 507 years old. The quahog found by Cooper is comparable in size to Ming, though its age has not yet been determined.
            “I’ve been reading the Guinness Book of World Records, so I told my mom not to cook it just in case it’s a record breaker,” said Cooper, who earned his black belt in karate on the same day he found the giant quahog.
            Ed Baker, the manager of the URI Marine Science Research Facility, plans to display the quahog at the facility, along with blue lobsters and numerous other sea creatures from Narragansett Bay.
            “We try to inspire young kids to get interested in marine science by showcasing some of the marine life found in the bay,” he said. “We also highlight some of the interesting research conducted here and explain why it’s important.”
            The facility hosts a diverse array of marine research and features dozens of tanks of all sizes holding a wide variety of marine life, most of which is used for research purposes to better understand the changing marine environment. This year’s studies include research on the effect of warming water on the development of juvenile lobsters, how microplastics affect oysters, disease resistance in local oysters, and an effort to understand coral biology to improve its survival around the world. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Backyard biodiversity greater than imagined

            Often when people talk about biodiversity and the impressive variety and abundance of species in particular places, they think mostly about tropical rainforests in South America or Southeast Asia or the masses of large mammals in Africa. Seldom do we consider that our own backyards could be hotspots of biodiversity.
            But without question, they are. And the Rhode Island Natural History Survey set out to prove it during the last weekend of June in an event they dubbed Backyard BioBlitz.
Due to the pandemic, the organization could not hold its usual bioblitz, an annual event in which hundreds of biologists, naturalists and other volunteers come together at one site – usually a large conservation area – to identify and count the species found. They typically tally more than 1,000 species on a property of about 500 acres.
Because of social distancing requirements this year, the Natural History Survey instead
A jewel-tailed slug moth clinging to my house during Backyard BioBlitz
encouraged participants to identify as many species as possible in 24 hours on the plot of land where they live. Nearly 300 people took up the challenge, including me, at 125 different sites around Rhode Island. And in backyards of every variety – from urban to rural, coastal to inland, forested to mowed – they tallied a remarkable total of more than 2,400 species.
At my yard, a five-acre parcel of mostly forest and wetland with a few small perennial gardens and hardly a lawn to speak of, I thought I knew most of what was there. I’ve been identifying the birds in my yard for 30 years and have seen more than 130 different species at one time or another. My backyard trail camera gives me an idea of the variety of mammals that stroll through, and I was pretty confident that I knew about the amphibians in the wetlands as well.
I was wrong. I totally underestimated what was living on my property. And I’m so glad that I spent those 24 hours documenting the biodiversity that I live with every day.
It rained for the first 7 hours of the count, so my wife and I – and her two cousins – mostly focused on identifying the plants and trees immediately around the house and taking pictures of whatever bugs we could find for identification inside when the rain got heavier. By the time the rain stopped, it was getting dark, so we hung an old bedsheet from a volleyball net and pointed a black light at it to attract moths. By 3 a.m., we had counted 42 moth species, plus a dozen more beetles and flies.
After less than an hour of sleep, it was time for the dawn chorus of birds, plus more plant ID. We then sifted through leaf litter and rolled over stones and rotting logs in search of worms, millipedes, crickets, slugs and whatever else we could find. And in our only few hours of sunlight, we visited every blooming flower to look for bees and other pollinators.
When our time was up, we had tallied 252 species in my yard, many more than I expected. The most notable specimen was a single blooming stem of a rare flower called greater purple fringed orchid, which was growing in a far corner of the property that is always so wet and thick with brush that I’m sure I’ve never visited before.
All of which proves that despite the many legitimate threats to biodiversity around the globe, our own backyards can still provide us with plenty of surprises. All you have to do is look for them.
This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on July 20, 2020.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Fewer animals killed on roadways because of lockdown

            As automobile travel declined following stay-at-home orders during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, so too did the vehicle-related mortality of the nation’s wildlife. Millions more animals than usual survived their often-treacherous attempts to cross roadways to reach breeding grounds and foraging habitat or to escape predators.
            That is the conclusion of a study by scientists at the Road Ecology Center at the University of California, Davis. They found that 45 percent fewer wild animals were killed by vehicles in Maine compared to the previous month, and roadkill declined by 38 percent in Idaho and 21 percent in California during the same period.
            The study noted that about 1 million wild creatures typically die on U.S. roads every day, so it’s likely that tens of millions escaped a crushing death. Most were probably small animals like frogs, snakes and salamanders for which road mortality is a leading cause of death, according to Fraser Shilling, the director of the Road Ecology Center.
But many large animals were spared as well. In California, for instance, the study found that 58 percent fewer mountain lions were killed by vehicles over a 10-week period beginning with the state’s stay-at-home order compared with the previous 10 weeks.
“This is the biggest conservation action that we’ve taken, possibly ever, certainly since the national parks were formed,” Shilling told The Atlantic. “There’s not a single other action
Fewer deer probably died on Rhode Island roads during lockdown (iStock)
that has saved that many animals.”
In Rhode Island, there is little data available to assess the impact of the pandemic on the road mortality of wildlife. But anecdotal evidence suggests that local animals have benefitted.
Dylan Ferreira, a senior wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management who monitors the state’s deer herd, believes there was a decrease in the number of deer struck by vehicles during the peak months when most Rhode Islanders were staying home. “However, the majority of our road kills occur during the fall during the breeding season when deer are most active,” he said.
Scott Goodwin, the animal control officer in North Smithfield who disposes of an abundance of road-killed animals every year, observed far fewer dead animals on northern Rhode Island roads this spring. “But it’s starting to pick up again now,” he said, noting that spring is usually a busy time for dead raccoons, skunks and opossums because that’s when young ones are becoming active.
The only scientific effort underway in the Ocean State to assess the impact of reduced traffic on wildlife mortality is by a University of Rhode Island graduate student.  Noah Hallisey has been studying road-killed reptiles and amphibians since last year. He said that during a normal year, road mortality is a serious problem for animals in the state.
“We have a lot of wildlife in Rhode Island and high road density and high traffic volume, so it’s probably a major contributor to population declines for certain species,” he said. “Amphibians and reptiles are especially susceptible because of their life history. They partake in mass migrations seasonally to breed and forage, and they often have to cross roads to do it.
“They’re also ectotherms, so they use roadways to bask and warm up,” he added. “They’re also small and hard for drivers to see. And some drivers intentionally target them, especially snakes.”
Hallisey had been using a computer model to predict where and when large roadkill events may occur, based on environmental conditions – most amphibians migrate at night when it rains – and the location of roads near wetlands. He then visited those areas at the appropriate times to see how many survived the crossing and how many were killed.
The pandemic forced him to reduce his research effort, but it also raised new questions about whether the stay-at-home orders would have an effect on the mortality of reptiles and amphibians. So he revisited some of the sites he documented last year as having high mortality, visited new sites this year, and plans to survey all the sites again next year to compare the ratio of live animals to dead ones.
“We were out one night at the end of April when more than half of the animals we found were alive, which is unusual,” he said. “I was amazed how quiet the roads were compared to what you would normally see.”
Although he has not yet completed his study, Hallisey believes there was a noticeable decrease in the number of amphibians killed by vehicles during the early days of the pandemic, but he did not observe a similar decrease in reptile mortality.
“Given how many get killed, even a slight reduction in traffic can be a good thing for wildlife,” he said. “Even one less car on the road could save an animal.”
From the perspective of wildlife and road mortality, the timing of the pandemic could not have been better. The large majority of reptile and amphibian movement occurs from March through June, the peak months of the pandemic lockdown. Many mammals and other animals are also especially active at that time as well.
“For those species that are breeding and moving around during those months, they definitely benefited from having fewer vehicles on the road,” Hallisey said.
If Americans could keep their vehicle usage to pandemic levels year-round, imagine how many animal lives would be saved.

This article first appeared on on July 21, 2020.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Sound on the Rebound

             On Whitford Brook in Old Mystic, Jon Vander Werff wades in the chilly water to his waist to check a fish trap he designed to capture every alewife, blueback herring and American shad that swims upstream to spawn. The trap, made of PVC pipe and polyethylene mesh, spans the entire 30-foot expanse of the river and funnels fish into a containment area from which they can be counted and released each day.
            Using a long-handled net, he scoops out a shimmering silvery alewife about 10-inches long that struggles to escape back into the fast-moving water to join its compatriots in a short distance upriver.
            “Just one out of 80,000 alewives makes it to adulthood to spawn, so this is one of the lucky ones,” said Vander Werff, a fisheries biologist with Save the Sound. “The odds are stacked against them, because their role in the ecosystem is to act as food for big gamefish in Long Island Sound. By getting eaten, they’re doing their job.”
            For a couple centuries, the odds were also stacked against them because of the numerous dams that had been constructed on most of the rivers stretching inland from the
Jon Vander Werff at Whitford Brook (Brian Pounds)
Connecticut coast, preventing the fish from reaching their spawning grounds in fresh water. Many of those dams are now being removed or having modern fish ladders installed to allow the fish to return. The Hyde Pond Dam on Whitford Brook was constructed around 1800. It was removed in 2016.
            Daily during spawning season – late March until mid-June – Vander Werff and a team of volunteers count and release any fish captured in traps on six rivers and streams along the coast, monitor water temperature and flow levels at each site, and clear debris from the mesh. At Whitford Brook, they counted 1,287 alewives swimming upstream in 2018, but just 42 last year, when strong currents from heavy rains caused the trap to repeatedly collapse, allowing most fish to pass uncounted. This year, the trap caught about 30 fish per day through mid-April. At Bride Brook in East Lyme, more than 200,000 alewives now swim through a culvert each year after Save the Sound led an effort to restore the culvert in 2009, three times as many as made it upstream before the restoration.
            These projects to provide safe passage for anadromous fish – those that spawn in freshwater rivers but spend the rest of their lives at sea – are not just about helping those individual species. They’re about rebuilding the food web of Long Island Sound, supporting numerous saltwater fish species of commercial and recreational importance, and restoring the Sound to health.
            “Removing dams and building fish passageways is all about making more forage fish,” explained Peter Auster, emeritus professor of fisheries at the University of Connecticut and senior research scientist at Mystic Aquarium. “By making fish passageways inland, you’re letting a species that lives in Long Island Sound reproduce and their young migrate back downstream and into the ocean. All those tiny fish, which can produce extreme abundances and very high densities as they come out of their spawning rivers, create feeding opportunities for a wide range of other species – striped bass, bluefish, sculpin, seals, and lots of other marine wildlife.”
            These dam removal and fish passageway projects are the latest strategy being employed in the decades-long process of revitalizing the Sound and addressing emerging threats to the creatures that live there.
            Before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, much of Long Island Sound was a toxic soup of pollutants. Millions of gallons of untreated sewage and industrial chemicals were discharged there daily. It has taken billions of dollars of investment to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and limit industrial discharge, and yet there is still much to do as climate change and other new threats force federal, state and local regulators and environmental managers to shift strategies to keep ahead of the problems.
            “The Sound is in reasonably good shape right now,” said Tracy Brown, director of Save the Sound. “We’ve seen recovery from some of our bigger threats, like excessive nitrogen [from wastewater discharges] depleting oxygen in the water, but there is definitely more work to be done. In addition to continuing to fight our old foes, there are new stressors to deal with.
            “The primary stressor, though, is the huge mass of humanity that lives in its watershed,” she added, noting that the watershed extends all the way up the Connecticut River to Canada. “The health of the Sound is a mirror of how we’re living on land. We’re getting better with our behaviors and land management and stewardship, but we have a long way to go.”
            Much of the progress made to date can be attributed to a partnership of federal and state agencies, municipalities, scientists, non-profit groups and others working together as part of the Long Island Sound Study, led by...

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

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Super-rare bird discovered in Westerly

            The mile-long pilgrimage out to the tip of Napatree Point in Westerly, the southwestern-most point in the Ocean State, is a common hike for birdwatchers in spring and late summer, as it’s one of the best locations to find migrating shorebirds. But during the last few days of June, hundreds more birders than usual made the trek after an extremely rare bird – a mega-rarity in birdwatching lingo – was discovered there.
            A Terek sandpiper, distinctive for its long, upturned beak and yellow-orange legs, was observed on Sunday morning, June 28, by Jan St. Jean, a Charlestown resident and avid birder.
Terek sandpiper at Napatree Point. (Carlos Pedro)
It was the first time the species had been seen in Rhode Island and is considered by some to be the rarest bird to show up in the Ocean State in decades.
            “I first saw it behind a mound of seaweed, and it bobbed up and down like a spotted sandpiper,” she said, referring to a commonly-seen species at Napatree. “But then I saw that bill and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is something really good.’ But I didn’t have my scope to get a better look.”
            She texted several birding friends, one of whom – Carlos Pedro – was birding in nearby Charlestown and happened to have a field guide to European birds with him.
            “I described it to him, and right away he said ‘Terek,’” St. Jean said. “Everything added up that that’s what it was.”
            Terek sandpipers breed in Finland and across much of northern Russia and winter on the coast of East Africa, Australia and South Asia. It is named for the Terek River, which flows into the Caspian Sea, where it was first observed.
            According to Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, the Terek sandpiper has been reported on the East Coast just three other times, including a
A crowd of birders gathers to see the Terek sandpiper (Carlos Pedro)
Massachusetts appearance in 1990. It is a rare but regular visitor to the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska and has been observed on coastal California several times.
            “I would think this is the rarest bird seen here in at least 20 years,” said Farrell, “and maybe since a spotted redshank was reported in the 1940s or 50s. A wood sandpiper seen in Jamestown [in 2012] is probably a close second.”
            How the bird got here is anyone’s guess.
            “No one will ever know,” Farrell said. “It could have flown straight across the Atlantic. That’s probably the most likely scenario. I can’t see it coming from the Pacific and flying across the country. Maybe it came from its breeding grounds over to Greenland and then to the Canadian Maritimes and down to here.”
            St. Jean said that when she finally realized how rare the bird was in North America, she started shaking.
“My first concern was that I wanted someone else to see it,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the only one to see it and then have it fly away and not have any documentation.”
            By Sunday afternoon, the Rhode Island birding community had been alerted to the bird and dozens of people converged on Napatree Point. Many missed seeing it when the bird flew off in the direction of Sandy Point Island, a 35-acre island in Little Narragansett Bay that was formerly part of Napatree Point.
            The bird was relocated early Monday morning, much to the delight of Rhode Island birders, and by Tuesday morning, more than 100 birders from as far away as New Jersey and Ohio were making the long walk out to Napatree Point to see it. At times, the bird wasn’t particularly cooperative, flying to Sandy Point again or remaining hidden in the abundant mounds of seaweed on the western edge of Napatree.
            The discovery of the Terek sandpiper was the third time St. Jean had found a bird never before recorded in Rhode Island. She located the state’s first white-faced ibis, a common bird on the Gulf Coast of Texas and elsewhere in the West, at Marsh Meadows in Jamestown in 1998. She also discovered the state’s first record of a Ross’s goose in 2001 at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown.
            “I’m out there looking for birds every day, if I can,” she said. “I know what to look for and when, and I enjoy it, so why not. It’s fun.”
            The only downside to her discovery of the Terek sandpiper? After waiting to point out the bird to Pedro and other arriving birders, St. Jean was issued a $75 parking ticket for overstaying her welcome.

This article first appeared on on July 1, 2020.