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.