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.