Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Connecticut is for the birds

             With most of us confined to our homes for much of the last year or restricted to socially-distanced activities like nature walks, birdwatching has become the nation’s fastest-growing pastime. And with more than 160 species known to breed within Connecticut’s borders between May and July, now is the time to grab your binoculars and field guide and explore some of the state’s best birding destinations.

Audubon Nature Centers

A good place to start is one of Audubon Connecticut’s nature education centers in Greenwich, Sharon or Southbury, which serve as gateways to the organization’s many wildlife sanctuaries around the state. Audubon hosts local birding trips and educational programs from these centers, giving new birders a chance to hone their skills. Gina Nichol of Sunrise Birding

Tours, who got her start leading birdwatching tours from the Audubon Center in Greenwich, says the 686 acres of land that Audubon protects in Greenwich are great places for beginning birdwatchers to get an introduction to many of our local species.

Hammonasset Beach State Park

For observing birds of the shoreline and saltmarsh, Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison can’t be beat. Designated an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International, it’s an ideal place to see rare piping plovers, least terns and American oystercatchers raise their chicks on the beach, and to observe numerous other shorebirds that stop there on their way to and from their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Saw-whet owls and long-eared owls can sometimes be seen roosting in the park’s cedar trees, and the marsh is one of the last nesting places in the state for the imperiled saltmarsh sparrow. Don’t miss it.

White Memorial Foundation

            If you like to hike while you watch birds, then the 40 miles of woodland roads, trails and boardwalks – and 50 access points – through the 4,000-acre White Memorial Foundation nature preserve in Litchfield is the place for you. Its diverse habitats include grasslands, shrublands, mature forests, wetlands and several streams, which is why nearly 250 species of birds have been recorded there in the last 60 years, including 18 species of breeding warblers, plus hawks, falcons and owls. The site is also home to an environmental education center and nature museum.

Boston Hollow/Bigelow Hollow

For those interested in seeing birds more common in northern New England, University of Connecticut ornithologist Chris Elphick recommends Boston Hollow, a deep ravine in Ashford accessed by a dirt road that was formerly part of the historic Center Turnpike. It’s one of the few remaining places in the state where ruffed grouse can be seen and heard, and it’s a great spot for observing nesting yellow-bellied sapsuckers, winter wrens and Canada warblers, among many others. Nearby Bigelow Hollow State Park and the part of the Nipmuc Trail that runs by Bigelow Hollow are also excellent destinations for late spring and early summer birding.

Butterflies, too

When the birds get quiet in mid-summer and are harder to find, that’s when many birders turn their attention to watching butterflies, and Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford is an ideal place to see them. It’s great for birds as well, especially in winter when waterfowl are abundant on the coast, but the numerous cultivated gardens, hedgerows and weedy fields are perfect for seeing more than two dozen varieties of colorful butterflies fluttering through the area. For those looking for an introduction to local butterflies, sign up for one of the Connecticut Butterfly Association’s regular field trips to the park.

This article first appeared in the May 2021 issue of Connecticut Magazine.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Students learn animal behavior by training chickens

        University of Rhode Island junior Jessica Weidemann hopes to work at a zoo or aquarium when she graduates, and she knows that she’ll need skills in animal training if she hopes to get her foot in the door for the highly competitive jobs. So she enrolled in an advanced animal behavior class this semester that has her training animals at URI’s Peckham Farm.
        The most challenging exercise so far has been training a chicken.
        “I didn’t think of chickens as being very smart going into it, but my chicken has been very easy going and has caught on to everything pretty quickly,” said Weidemann, an animal science major from Morristown, New Jersey, who is also interning at Mystic Aquarium. “It depends on the chicken and
URI student Jessica Weidemann trains her chicken.
how you approach training. Mine is easily motivated by rewards.”
        Each of the 13 students in Assistant Professor Justin Richard’s class is assigned a chicken and is instructed to train it to do several required behaviors, as well as other behaviors the students choose themselves. All train the birds to understand that when they hear a clicker, a food reward will be delivered. They also train the birds to peck at a target. Some students are also training their chickens to get on a scale to be weighed, identify a particular color, or jump through a hoop.
        According to Richard, the students are training the chickens using the same psychological principles used in professional animal training contexts, from dogs to zoo animals.
        “Last year, one student trained a chicken to recognize a picture of herself among pictures of her flock mates,” he said. “The hen could pick herself out of a lineup.”
         It’s a challenging assignment because chickens are notoriously difficult to train.
        “You can train a dog without knowing what you’re doing because they’re eager to please humans,” he said. “Chickens don’t care about you, and they’re naturally fearful of you. To train a chicken, you have to understand the science of animal behavior. It takes patience and attention to detail to train the birds to do something."
         Junior Diandra Moore of Mystic, Connecticut, has already taught her chicken – which she named Rikku – to peck at the color purple and ignore other colors. Now she is working to get the bird to perch on her arm.
        “You have to try all different tactics because it doesn’t always go smoothly the first time,” said Moore, who trains her chicken about three times each week. “Sometimes you have to change your approach; you might have to try different ways than you originally thought. You also have to be patient. It takes time.
        “I like to see the progress I’ve made over time,” she added. “You work hard to teach it to do things, and once you see their progress, you feel pretty good.”
        Moore plans to go to graduate school to continue her studies of animal behavior, probably with wild animals like wolves, and she is confident that the skills she is learning in Richard’s class will be useful.
        That has certainly been the case with his previous students, many of whom have told him that they have mentioned the class and the chicken training exercise in job interviews, and it has made a positive impression on potential employers.
        “The class helped me succeed in the application and interview processes for several jobs because of the skills that I mastered through the course,” said senior Mia Luzietti, who begins a job as an animal care specialist at Racine Zoo in Wisconsin this month. “I was able to discuss operant conditioning and positive reinforcement, not only from a place of understanding the topic, but from real training experience, which many facilities were impressed by.”
        Other students from last year’s class are working or interning this year at the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, Sea World in San Antonio, Coral World in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.
        “If I’m going to work in a zoo or aquarium, I’ll have to have knowledge about training and shaping animal behaviors to help with husbandry and care,” said Weidemann. “I’ll need to know how to approach training of different animals and how to reinforce certain behaviors. That’s what I’m learning from this class.”

Monday, April 26, 2021

Volunteers build new breeding pools for rare frog

        In a meadow in South Kingstown, dozens of volunteers joined biologists and a heavy equipment operator for three days in early April to construct two shallow ponds designed for the breeding specifications of Rhode Island’s rarest frog, the eastern spadefoot.
        During the construction process, an excavator dug out the ponds, then volunteers smoothed the soil into a shallow depression that would hold approximately 10 inches of water. They then placed a liner on the depression, covered it with soil, and seeded the area with annual rye grass and wheat straw mulch for erosion control.
        “Eastern spadefoots use boring wetlands, just temporary wetlands with no special vegetation,” said Tom Biebighauser, a wetland ecologist from Kentucky who travels the country helping conservation groups construct wetlands for rare amphibians. “They’ll be dry most of the year, but after a thunderstorm they’ll fill up, and if it’s warm enough, it will trigger the breeding of the spadefoots.”
        The project is a follow-up to a similar effort in 2019 in Richmond near the site of what was then
Volunteers build pond for eastern spadefoots. (Todd McLeish)

the state’s only known spadefoot population. Two more populations have been discovered since then, and some of the offspring of the known populations are expected to be brought to the newly-constructed ponds to establish a fourth population.
        “It sounds crazy to build a wetland for a frog that most people have never seen, but how often do you get to help an endangered species?” said Biebighauser. “We know what to do, we have the land and the heavy equipment. We’re building a wetland for eastern spadefoots that will last forever.”
        Eastern spadefoots – sometimes called spadefoot toads although they are actually frogs – spend most of their lives below ground and only come out at night. With bulging eyes and a spade-shaped protrusion on their feet for digging, they are most noticeable when they are calling from their breeding pools in early summer after having emerged from their woodland burrows to mate and lay eggs.
        “It’s not out of the question that spadefoot toads are already here and we don’t know about it,” said David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, speaking of the South Kingstown site. “But there are no breeding pools here, so how would we know if they were here or not. One could just hop by, but it’s more likely that we’ll take some baby toads from one of the other places and put them here.”
        The construction project is led by the state’s leading herpetologists – Nancy Karraker at the University of Rhode Island, Scott Buchanan at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and Lou Perrotti at Roger Williams Park Zoo. But its success depends largely on the guidance of Biebighauser, who has been building and restoring wetlands for wildlife since 1979.
        A retired biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, Biebighauser saw his first eastern spadefoot in 1988 after being transferred from Minnesota to Kentucky, where the frog was one of the rarest species in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
        “No one knew how to improve habitat for them, so I built wetlands on mountain ridges and discovered that eastern spadefoots used them for breeding,” he said.
        For the last 10 years he has built eastern spadefoot breeding pools on Cape Cod every year for Massachusetts Audubon. During one of his visits to the area, he scouted locations for similar pools in Rhode Island after an analysis had been conducted of the state’s soil types and the habitat the frogs require. The South Kingstown site, on property owned by the South Kingstown Land Trust, was identified as an ideal candidate.
        The frogs only use their breeding pools for a day or two each year. Three weeks later, their eggs will have hatched and their tadpoles transformed into tiny froglets called metamorphs that will leave the pond and hop into the forest. They will remain there for the next three to five years until they are ready to breed.
        The ponds must be shallow enough to dry up soon after the metamorphs leave so no other frog species – which might eat the spadefoot tadpoles – could use it for breeding. The eggs and tadpoles of all other frogs in the area require a longer period in the water to successfully breed.
        “When I first started, only half of the pools we built were successful,” Biebighauser said. “Many of them would dry up too quickly. But over the years we determined why wetlands don’t function as planned. We started using aquatic-safe, fish-grade liners in 1988, and our success rate has been pretty high since then.”
        After this year’s breeding season, Roger Williams Park Zoo will likely raise some of the tadpoles until they transform into metamorphs, a common process called headstarting.
        “So many toads die of natural causes that headstarting them – taking them out of the line of fire for a little while – produces more toads,” Gregg said.
        If funding can be acquired, additional breeding pools for eastern spadefoots could be constructed in Barrington next year.
        “The shallow water wetlands that eastern spadefoots need to breed have been drained and filled across Rhode Island,” said Biebighauser. “We’re working to bring them back. And we know we’ll be successful.”
        This article first appeared on on April 24, 2021.

Monday, April 12, 2021

She lives an Earth-friendly life through composting

        Jayne Merner Senecal says there is a stigma about farming and working with one’s hands, a belief that labor-intensive careers shouldn’t be revered as much as white-collar jobs. But the owner of Earth Care Farm in Charlestown takes issue with that belief, and she is making progress convincing others of the value of farm work.
        Her efforts were recognized last year when Providence Business News named her one of the “40 Under 40” to watch in the Rhode Island business community.
        “It was exciting, because it felt like what I had been working toward for 20 years, to bring more reverence to the agriculture community, was finally successful,” she says. “When you look at those kinds of lists, it’s always the traditional white-collar jobs represented. And now, farming is getting more respect.”
        Senecal grew up at Earth Care Farm, a commercial composting operation that her father, Mike Merner, started in 1977 at a time when composting was a newfangled concept.
        “He was part of the hippie generation, wanting to do no harm and realizing that the chemicals he’d
Jayne Merner Senecal at Earth Care Farm (Mike Derr)

learned so much about in college were having an adverse effect on soil and water and human health,” she says. “So he re-educated himself, practiced composting at a small scale and used it for his landscaping business, but it kept growing. And there were no other compost operations around.”
        She recalls driving around the area with her father collecting whatever they could find to compost.
        “Dad said we had an organic eye,” Senecal says. “We’d go to the Big Apple Circus and collect elephant manure; we’d go to the fishing pier for fish scraps. You come to realize that there’s no reason for waste because there’s no waste in nature.”
        After earning a degree in environmental economics from the University of Rhode Island and running her own community-supported agriculture farm for six years, Senecal started Golden Root Gardening, a garden design, installation and maintenance service she still operates year-round with a staff of women who care for about 25 properties throughout the region. As her father began thinking about retirement, a transition plan was developed, and Senecal took over Earth Care Farm in 2017.
        “I always knew I wanted to farm at some level, but I had seen farmers struggling financially, and I didn’t want that to be the case with me,” she says. “My heart was always at the farm, and it needed me, so we figured out how to make it work. And Dad was thrilled.”
        The compost made at the farm – long called Merner’s Gold by its customers – comes from a wide variety of organic materials sourced from the local area, including bedding and manure from the animals at Roger Williams Park Zoo, fish scraps from New Bedford fish processors, seaweed from beaches in Groton, and woodchips and leaves from throughout the region, all of which is given to the farm for free. It’s a year-long process to transform those materials into compost.
        Senecal describes compost as “a soil amendment meant to increase the organic matter in the soil. But for us, it’s also about increasing the diversity of life in your soil. It’s when you have a living soil that your crops are going to be healthier and be able to defend themselves against pests and disease. Compost brings life into your soil.”
        It’s not a concept that everyone intuitively understands, so Senecal spends considerable time educating gardeners, farmers and others through videos and social media postings. She also hosts a variety of events at the farm, from story hour for young children to school field trips and gardening and cooking classes for adults.
        “Last fall we had a class of third graders come, and we were supposed to plant garlic but it was raining, so we went into our high tunnels (open greenhouses) and dug sweet potatoes,” she says. “It was sort of like an Easter egg hunt. They dug up some huge sweet potatoes, one that was six-and-a-half pounds. You could see the sparks of wonder and curiosity on their faces. They were really into it.”
        Her customers range from local gardeners looking for a single bag of compost – available for pickup at Earth Care Farm or at local garden centers – to landscaping companies and large agriculture businesses who buy it by the truckload, including a farm on Martha’s Vineyard that ordered 130 yards of compost in January.
        Demand for compost increased dramatically during the early stages of the COVID19 pandemic when many people started gardening for the first time while in lockdown at home. Compost sales doubled in 2020, making it the farm’s busiest year ever, and Senecal and her small staff had difficulty keeping up with the orders.
        “We really had to scramble, but in a positive way,” she says. “We figured it out, though, and for the first time ever, we sold out of compost.”
    To ensure the farm’s continued success, Senecal has participated in training programs for entrepreneurs and small business owners, met with innovative farmers from across the country, and supported efforts by the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association to encourage others interested in careers working in the soil. She also practices yoga regularly to avoid the physical pains associated with the farming life.
        She has even developed a successful new compost blend for the cannabis industry that is tailored to the particular needs of the cannabis plant, including a slightly different pH and a little more calcium.
        Other than investing in some new equipment, however, Senecal isn’t planning to change much about the compost manufacturing process that her father perfected over the previous 40 years. “I’m still settling in here at the farm and looking forward to continuing on this path,” Senecal says. “Nature is abundant, and the farm mirrors the abundance of nature.”

        This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of South County Life magazine.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Watching the decline of a giant

        It was my closest encounter with one of the rarest species on Earth, and a moment I’ll never forget, especially since their outlook remains quite grim. And yet the remarkable experience made me feel slightly more optimistic about the world, like the animal was signaling that it had the situation under control. Which I know it doesn’t.
        I was on a boat in Cape Cod Bay with scientists from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, conducting research for my first book. We were surveying the bay for North Atlantic right whales, whose global population today hovers around 360 individuals. We had just finished seven hours of 
Right whale mother and calf (PCCS)
scanning the calm seas for the 50-ton whales and observing several feeding groups from a considerable distance.
        As we approached the harbor at the end of the day, three right whales surfaced in front of the boat and began skim feeding – lifting their massive heads out of the water with their mouths partly open and skimming the surface of the water for copepods, the tiny crustaceans that make up the bulk of their diet. Back and forth the animals went in front of us, sometimes just 30 feet away, while the researchers and I stood with our own mouths open enjoying the spectacle.
        That’s when one whale changed direction and came straight at us, still skim feeding, giving us a view straight down its throat. A view that perhaps only Jonah has had before. And then it reversed course and disappeared.
        I was enthralled by the experience, alternating between excited gibberish and stunned silence, knowing that I’ll never have that opportunity again.
        And yet right whales travel through Rhode Island waters every year in late winter and early spring on their way to Cape Cod Bay to feed for a few months before heading further north for the summer. This year, nearly one quarter of the total population of right whales was observed in the bay at the same time, and most of them probably swam within hailing distance of Block Island after leaving their breeding grounds on the coast of Georgia and North Florida.
        Not many of us spend much time in offshore waters in early spring to catch a glimpse of the whales on their way through, but I bet some of our local commercial fishermen have some whale stories to tell.
        Sadly, the future isn’t bright for the North Atlantic right whale. With just 100 breeding age females in the population, and a minimum of three years between pregnancies – and increasingly more like four or five years – they can’t seem to produce enough calves to keep up with the death rate. Which means the population is declining.
        This year has actually been a good one for right whales. At least 17 newborn calves have been observed so far, more than three times the average of the previous four years, but still not enough to reverse the population decline. More than 10 percent of the population has died or suffered serious injury in the last five years.
        I visited Provincetown a couple weeks ago to try to get a glimpse of a right whale and was thrilled to see a single whale from a beach. It remained near the surface as it swam parallel to shore, probably because it had found a dense aggregation of prey, which is what attracts them to the area each year.
        I felt like cheering each time it surfaced, until I noticed that I was holding my breath, wondering if I’d ever have that opportunity again.

        This article first appeared in The Independent on April 10, 2021.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

An Avian Affection

        Gently holding a sparrow in his hand as nearly two dozen students stand in a socially-distant circle around him, Professor Peter Paton quizzes his Field Ornithology class members about bird anatomy and identification. After noting feather types, preferred foods, migration routes and other details about the species, he hands the bird to a student to release into the nearby forest. And then he repeats the process until every student has released a bird.
        For most students, it’s the first time they have ever held a wild bird, and it’s a magical moment. The glittering smiles on their faces suggest it’s an experience they won’t soon forget.
        The class is gathered at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station, where thousands of birds have been captured, banded and released every fall for more than 60 years, a site that is the highlight of
Kate Iaquinto at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
Paton’s weekly class field trips. Located less than a mile from campus, the research station is the former home of the late Douglas Kraus, a long-time chemistry professor whose interest in birds occupied as much of his time as did chemistry. Before he died in 2000, he donated his house and 82 acres of land to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island with a stipulation that URI manage the property for wildlife research.
        Ever since then, graduate students in the Department of Natural Resources Science have lived and worked at the property and continued to band birds on a daily basis during fall migration to learn about trends in bird populations. They capture birds using a series of nets like fine-meshed volleyball nets, collect physical measurements about each bird, and place a metal band around one leg so if they are captured again elsewhere, their migratory movements can be determined. With nearly 60 years of data, the field station is one of the nation’s longest running bird banding stations.
        “The number of species we capture each year hasn’t really declined over time, but the number of individual birds has seen a major decrease,” says Paton, who has managed the research station with Professor Scott McWilliams since 1998. “We’re probably down by about 30 percent, which is similar to national figures. On a really good day, they used to capture 150 to 200 birds, and now a good day is 100 birds. That’s a substantial decline.”
        A recent study found that North American bird populations have decreased by about 3 billion birds in the last half century, due largely to habitat loss. Scientists worry that human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife.
        The activity at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station is just one element of a wide variety of bird-related research, education and outreach undertaken by URI faculty and staff. The Field Ornithology class has also helped to introduce hundreds of students to the bird world, turning many into bird scientists, birdwatchers and bird photographers. Many other former URI students turned to birding as a hobby sometime after graduation as a way of getting exercise, enjoying nature or reducing stress. And the lockdown due to the pandemic has found even more alumni discovering the joy of birds and birdwatching, whether in their backyard or beyond.
        Paton had planned a career as a medical doctor, but when he got hooked on birds while in college, those plans changed. “I like to be outside, and birds bring you outside,” he says. “You can go anywhere on the planet and see a bird, and because they have wings and can fly, you never know what you’re going to find in a given area.”
        In addition to overseeing the bird banding station, Paton has conducted research on sparrows, seabirds, shorebirds and other varieties. Some of his current work aims to determine the potential impact of offshore wind turbines on migrating birds.
        McWilliams calls himself a physiological ecologist who studies the physiology of bird migration.
        “My group studies any bird that migrates, and over the years we’ve studied songbirds, woodcock, sea ducks, Arctic nesting geese, and everything in between,” he says. “The common denominator is that they move across the landscape throughout the annual cycle.”
        According to McWilliams, one of the biggest challenges for birds during migration is their need to store large quantities of energy to fuel long-distance flight. To maximize their ability to do so, they have evolved the ability to increase the size of their digestive system in preparation for migration, reduce it while migrating, and increase it again when they stop to refuel.
        “Migration is a fasting and refeeding cycle, which the gut makes possible,” he says. “That’s why we say that migration takes guts. They’re trying to maximize the amount of energy and nutrients they get from what they eat.”
        McWilliams and his graduate students have spent two decades studying the physiology of migration by capturing and studying birds and the foods they consume in Kingston and Block Island. He also has a long-term research project on the woodcock, an unusual gamebird sometimes called the timberdoodle, which involves studies of...

        Read the rest of the story in the Spring 2021 issue of URI Magazine.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Aquatic invaders taking over Rhode Island's freshwater ponds

        When a Cranston resident planted a sacred lotus in the pond at Meshanticut State Park in memory of a family member in 2014, she didn’t realize the plant was an aggressive invasive species. The lotus, which features enormous floating leaves that shade out native plants, quickly took over a large area of the Rhode Island pond.
        Five years later, 75 volunteers spent 12 hours cutting it back, but they eradicated just 10 percent of the ever-expanding plant, which today covers 1.83 acres of the 12-acre pond.
        It’s one of many examples of the challenges the state faces in trying to control and eliminate aquatic invasive species. More than 100 lakes and 27 river segments in Rhode Island are plagued with at least one species of invasive plant, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental
Sacred Lotus at Meshanticut Pond, Johnston (RIDEM)
Management (DEM). These plants pose threats to healthy ecosystems, reduce recreational opportunities, and negatively impact the economy.
        “Aquatic invasives are definitely a problem for water quality, but there aren’t a lot of resources dedicated to mapping them and trying to contain them,” said Kate McPherson, riverKeeper for Save The Bay. “The problem is they can show up in really pristine areas of the state for a variety of reasons, and a lot of the plants only need a couple of cells or a leaf to reproduce. They don’t need seeds. So unless you’re really diligent about scrubbing down your boat and other equipment after each use, it’s really hard to prevent their spread.”
        In its 2020 fishing regulations, DEM prohibited the transport of invasive plants on any type of boat, motor, trailer, or fishing gear as a strategy to prevent the inadvertent movement of aquatic invasive species from one waterbody to another.
        “It’s essentially an incentive for boaters or anglers to clean off their gear to make sure they don’t move any plants unintentionally,” said Katie DeGoosh of DEM’s Office of Water Resources. “It’s part of a national campaign known as Clean Drain Dry to remind anyone recreating on water how they should decontaminate their gear to avoid spreading invasives.”
        DEM’s latest effort to combat aquatic invasive species is proposed regulations to ban their sale, purchase, importation, and distribution in the state. Rhode Island is the only state in the Northeast that has yet to regulate the sale of these plants.
        The proposed regulations have the support of Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, and the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society.
        Those with aquatic plants in backyard water gardens aren’t the focus of the regulations because those residents aren’t selling the plants, DeGoosh said.
        The proposed regulations list 48 species of aquatic invasive species whose sale would be prohibited. All but one — sacred lotus — are included on the Federal Noxious Weed List, are banned by other states in the region, were nominated by the Rhode Island Invasive Species Council or are included in the Rhode Island Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan.
        Among them are Carolina fanwort, a problem species in numerous locations, like Stump Pond in Smithfield; American lotus, which covers 18 acres of Chapman Pond in Westerly; Brazilian waterweed, which has invaded Hundred Acre Pond in South Kingstown; and common water hyacinth, an Amazonian species now found in the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.
        Perhaps the worst of them is variable milfoil, which has been recorded in 69 lakes and ponds and 19 river segments in Rhode Island.
        “Milfoil means a million tiny leaves,” said McPherson, who monitors local rivers for invasive species. “It looks like a submerged raccoon tail, and if you’ve been paddling in any pond in Rhode Island, you’ve probably seen it. A tiny little fragment can spread it.”
        In many waterbodies, especially in urban communities, multiple species of aquatic invasives have colonized.
        “They’re a problem because they can choke out native species and they may not be as good a food source for animals that eat aquatic plants,” McPherson said. “They’re also indicative of a water-quality problem. We’re seeing them more commonly in areas with too much phosphorous or nitrogen in the water. Areas with pollutants encourage these plants to grow.”
        David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, also noted the impact of pollution in helping aquatic invasives take hold.
        “People really care about their lakes, but most lakes in Rhode Island are man-made, shallow, and polluted by surrounding development — lawns, septics, road runoff — and so they grow invasive plants like nobody's business,” he said.
        Like at Meshanticut Pond, once the plants become established in a waterbody, they are difficult to eradicate.
        “It’s a cyclical problem,” McPherson said. “It’s super satisfying to go as a volunteer to rip it out, and super discouraging to go back a year later and find that it’s still there. If you don’t get all of the root system, it grows back.”
        Natural History Survey staff documented the first occurrence of invasive water chestnut in the state in 2007 at Belleville Pond in North Kingstown. They led numerous volunteer efforts to manually remove it every year for a decade, and yet the plant remains. A similar endeavor to battle water chestnut at Chapman Pond in Westerly barely made a dent in the abundance of the plant.
        “It’s a big problem,” McPherson said. “We need to get folks to think about how their activities can spread the plants and get them to think about aquatic invasives as a kind of contaminant.”
        The proposed regulations, if approved, would be enforced via business inspections by DEM staff. Violators could be fined up to $500 per violation.
This article first appeared on on March 31, 2021.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Rare bird the star of Nature Video Festival

        When a bird from Europe showed up at Snake Den State Park in Johnston last fall, Deb Eccleston was one of hundreds of birdwatchers from throughout the Northeast to rush to see the bird. She captured still and video images of the unusual species, a common cuckoo that had only been seen twice before in the continental United States, and turned it into an award-winning video in the 2021 Rhode Island Nature Video Festival.
        A native of Coventry who now lives in Moosup, Connecticut, Eccleston is a graphic designer who makes numerous videos of her birdwatching adventures under the moniker the Bird Nerd.
        “I started making videos about two years ago because I wanted to share how many cool birds there are in the state,” she said. “I wanted to show people that they can go to a lot of local places and see some neat birds.”
        Eccleston especially likes to showcase bird behaviors in her videos.
        “I’ve caught some cool little things the birds do, like when the cuckoo caught a wooly bear
Common cuckooo in Johnston (Deb Eccleston)
caterpillar,” she said. “You get to see a moment in their lives, like when they’re gleaning insects or performing their courtship displays or singing. That can pique people’s interest, and if they get interested, maybe they’ll pay more attention to the birds in their backyard or in their neighborhood and support Audubon or other environmental organizations.”
        Her cuckoo video is one of the first videos she produced that tells a complete story, she said, from rushing to the park and seeing the bird to discussing how it may have arrived in Rhode Island and the species’ connection to cuckoo clocks.
        Eccleston’s video won the People’s Choice Award at the Nature Video Festival, selected by those who watched the virtual festival live or viewed the 20 entries later on the internet. It’s the first year the festival has featured a competition. The award was announced on March 9.
        The video festival is the brainchild of Greg Gerritt, a staff member for the Environment Council of Rhode Island and a naturalist who produces nature videos about the wildlife he sees at the North Burial Ground in Providence.
        “I started making videos about 10 years ago, starting with toads and tadpoles, and I have my own style of how I produce them,” said Gerritt. “I wanted to see what other people were doing, because I don’t see a lot of people seriously trying to make nature videos. I wanted to see who was doing what, how good they were, and if there was a way to help present environmental values to the general public in an easily consumable way. So I thought about putting on a film festival.”
        The first festival received 70 entries from about 30 different people, all of which were shown over four hours at the RISD Auditorium. After skipping two years, a second festival was held in 2018, and it has been an annual event since then. For the last two years, the event has been held in partnership with the Rhode Island Natural History Survey.
        “Most of the videos are done on cell phones, since not many people carry a video camera around with them,” Gerritt said. “Hardly any of them are professional quality, but they still tell a good story.”
        He said the voters agreed “pretty decisively” that Eccleston’s cuckoo video was the best of the festival, in part because “everybody had heard about the cuckoo and it became such a celebrity.”
        Receiving the second most votes for the People’s Choice Award was a video produced by Cathy Cressy and Mike Russo, who live at the edge of a swamp in Scituate and maintain a network of wood duck nest boxes around the swamp. Every year they install an inexpensive video camera in two of the boxes that run continuously for the two-month breeding season. They link the video footage to a monitor in their house so they can watch the activity in the nest boxes as it happens.
        The objective of their videos is to capture what they call jump day, the day after the duck eggs hatch and the nestlings jump out of the nest box to the ground – a 20-foot drop --to follow their mother into the swamp. Because they know when the birds are going to take the plunge, Russo and Cressy install a video camera outside the nest box to capture their leap and landing.
        “Making the video is hard for me, it’s an uphill slog, but we’re so fascinated by these ducks that show up by the dozens all over the swamp, creating their own little universe,” said Russo. “We love that. And because I love to get jump day, everything else is done to produce a jump day video.”
        This is the second year in a row that Russo and Cressy have entered a wood duck video in the festival, and they are considering making a video next year about the nesting activities of hooded mergansers, another duck that nests in some of the boxes around their swamp.
        “It’s going to depend on what happens during the season, though. It will depend on what the animals do,” Russo said. “We don’t want to be a one trick pony, so there will definitely be something different next year. We just don’t know what it will be yet.”

        This article first appeared in on March 17, 2021.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Wait for spring almost over

        March is often a difficult month for those of us who pay attention to the wildlife in our backyards and neighborhood parks. It’s an in-between time when few creatures are about and we’re anticipating the excitement of spring in April. It’s the period when we’re biding our time, when days just seem to drag on.
        Bird activity often slows in March as some of our winter species depart before our spring migrants arrive, leaving a bit of a void. We have to settle for the arrival of large flocks of blackbirds to keep us happy, along with a few early-arriving eastern phoebes. Most of the rest of our spring birds aren’t expected for at least another month.
        Insect activity doesn’t pick up much in March, either, as the weather just isn’t quite warm enough to stimulate the physiological processes necessary to get their bodies moving. Snakes and turtles still have at least another month to wait before they become active again, too. And with the exception of our cultivated daffodils, most wildflowers and tree buds are just beginning to stir and think about emerging and showcasing their spring colors.
        On the infrequent sunny and warm day in March, however, you can tell that nature is bursting at the seams just as much as we are. Bumblebee queens emerge from their winter homes to forage for a quick snack before realizing that it’s too soon to find any nectar. Skunks decide it’s time to exit their burrows and wander around looking for grubs – often becoming roadkill in their confused state. Mourning cloaks, the brown butterflies with the yellow trim, come out of their hiding places in the nooks and crannies of tree trunks and leaf litter, sensing that the time is almost right to resume their regular routine. And male wild turkeys make their presence known with their loud gobbling and impressive spread-tail display.
        But it’s the frogs that are most apparent in March. By late in the month, most wood frogs and spring peepers have made their journey from their winter homes in the forest to their breeding pools – traveling exclusively at night during rain storms – and they make quite a racket as they pair up to mate.
        It’s a sign that we humans should start getting ready for spring as well. That means spring cleaning, but not the kind that most of you are probably thinking about. I’m talking about spring cleaning for wildlife.
        Step one is to clean out our bird houses. A birdhouse with last year’s nest still inside will keep most birds from attempting to raise a family there this year. Many birdhouses become the winter homes of mice, too, so if you want to attract birds to your birdhouses, you’ll have to evict the squatters and tidy up a bit. It’s a good time to make any necessary repairs as well.
        We want our yards to be healthy places for any wildlife that choose to visit, so you might also consider scrubbing out your bird bath and raking up the spilled seed from beneath your feeders. While you’re at it, find and clean your hummingbird feeder – though wait another month before filling it with sugar water and hanging it outside.
        And then you’ll be ready to welcome your spring wildlife visitors once again. Sure, there are a few other chores you’ll need to do this spring, both outside and inside, but March is a good time to get the most important work done. Just in time for the reawakening of spring.

        This article first appeared in The Independent on March 13, 2021.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Winterized frogs about to thaw out and get to work

        The onset of the COVID19 pandemic a year ago coincided with the annual migration of frogs and salamanders to their breeding ponds, a trek that often results in mass mortalities as they cross roads trying to reach their preferred water body. But the lockdown during the early stages of the pandemic last year gave a significant reprieve to amphibian populations, reducing roadway mortalities by as much as half, according to one New England study.
        But this year, with traffic back to near normal levels, frogs and salamanders aren’t likely to fare as well. And wood frogs will likely be at the top of the list of roadkill victims.
        In southern New England, wood frogs are one of the first signs of spring, said herpetologist Mike Cavaliere, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s stewardship specialist. They are the first species to
Wood frog (Todd McLeish)
emerge from their winter hibernation, typically in mid- to late- March. And as soon as they awaken, they hop to their breeding pools to seek a mate on the first night it rains.
        “What’s particularly amazing about wood frogs is that they can produce a natural antifreeze that allows them to almost freeze completely solid in winter,” Cavaliere said. “This antifreeze is produced when the frogs start to feel ice crystals begin to form in late fall.”
        Unique among frogs in the Northeast, the wood frog’s antifreeze is a chemical reaction between stored urine and glucose, which protects the frog’s cells and organs from freezing while allowing the rest of its body to freeze.
        “Its brain shuts down, its heart stops, its lungs stop, everything stops for months. It’s like they’re in suspended animation,” said Cavaliere. “And once spring comes, they thaw out and the heart starts beating again. After about a day, they start hopping around, eating, and mating right away. It’s an amazing feat of evolution that they’ve developed.”
        Wood frogs are often joined by spring peepers and spotted salamanders in migrating to their breeding pools during rainy nights in March, but it’s the frogs that are killed in the greatest numbers.
        “Road mortality is one of the great seemingly unassessed sources of pressure for amphibians,” said Greg LeClair, a graduate student at the University of Maine who coordinates Maine Big Night, an amphibian monitoring project to quantify the roadkill of frogs and salamanders during their spring migration. “We know that disease and climate are affecting amphibians, but road mortality has long been suspected to be a serious problem, though there is no data to quantify population declines.”
        LeClair said that road mortality can be as high as 100 percent in some areas when traffic is high during the one night of the season that most migration takes place.
        “The average is 20 percent of amphibians at any road crossing will get nailed by a car in a given year,” he said. “That’s devastating for some species.”
        During Maine Big Night, volunteers at 300 sites around the state typically find two living amphibians crossing the road for every one dead one. But last year, with far fewer vehicles on the road due to the pandemic, twice as many frogs and salamanders survived the journey. In fact, a study by the Road Ecology Center found that pandemic lockdowns last year spared millions of animals from roadway deaths. 
        “We had record survival, but we’ll never be able to replicate that data again,” said LeClair, noting the impossibility of experimentally reducing region-wide traffic levels like happened with the pandemic.
        While last year’s reduction in road mortality probably resulted in a short-term increase in amphibian populations, LeClair said that doesn’t mean there will be more breeding activity this year, since it takes several years for amphibians to grow to adulthood and begin breeding.
        “It will take a couple years to determine if amphibian populations benefitted from the pandemic. My suspicion is leaning toward no benefit,” he said. “Most amphibian populations are driven by juvenile survival more than adult survival, so impacts to juveniles have stronger impacts than impacts to adults. Dispersing juveniles last summer likely encountered normal-level traffic as they left the pool to find a territory.”
        Whether or not wood frogs and other amphibians benefitted from the pandemic, their increased survival rate last spring almost certainly benefitted other wildlife.
        “Their eggs and tadpoles are a major food source for other animals in spring,” Cavaliere said. “It’s one of the first sources of protein available, so spotted turtles and other reptiles and amphibians will eat them, as will any other scavenger who’s hungry in spring and looking for protein.”
        Those interested in helping scientists gather data about frog populations in Rhode Island should sign up to participate in FrogWatch through the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Online training for the program is available through March 31.

        This article first appeared on on March 11, 2021.

Friday, March 5, 2021

New book chronicles dragonflies of Rhode Island

        Those curious about dragonflies and damselflies – the colorful, predatory aerialists seen at nearly every pond, lake, stream and river in summer – now have a new source of information about the numerous species found in Rhode Island.
        Virginia (Ginger) Brown, the state’s leading dragonfly expert, has authored Dragonflies and Damselflies of Rhode Island, a valuable resource for learning about the natural history, distribution and abundance of the state’s 139 species of Odonates, the insect order that includes the dragonflies and damselflies. The book was published this month by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, its third volume about the state’s wildlife. 
        “The book is designed for beginning naturalists, experienced naturalists, conservation groups, and just about anybody with an interest in the outdoors, like fishermen who see dragonflies when they’re
Widow Skimmer (Todd McLeish)
fishing,” said Brown, a resident of Barrington who wrote The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Cape Cod in 1991. “It’s not something you’re going to carry with you in the field, but it’s a reference to help you identify and learn about every dragonfly and damselfly in Rhode Island.”
        The 384-page book features profiles of each species, including habitat characteristics, range, behaviors, the dates when they are active locally, and a map indicating in which Rhode Island communities they have been observed. All of the illustrations are by artist and entomologist Nina Briggs of Wakefield.
        Most of the data for the book were collected between 1998 and 2004, when Brown organized an extensive citizen science project called the Rhode Island Odonata Atlas, a statewide inventory of dragonflies and damselflies. About 70 volunteers participated in the atlas, visiting more than 1,100 ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and other sites in every community in the state to document as many species as they could find. More than 13,000 specimens were collected and identified.
        “I feel like I stuck my toes in all of those places, beautiful places I never knew existed,” said
Female Seaside Dragonlet (Todd McLeish)
Brown, who attributes much of the success of the project to the volunteers. “A large amount of what we know about Odonates in Rhode Island was generated by those volunteers, many who had no experience with insects before.
        “I didn’t know how much they would be able to do and how many records they would produce, and I didn’t know if they would like getting up to their knees in the muck or how successful they’d be at swinging at net to catch them,” she added. “It was so much fun to work with all of those people.”
        Among the findings highlighted in the book was the discovery of several species never before recorded in New England, including the southern sprite and coppery emerald, both of which are southern species that Brown did not expect to find in the Ocean State. A species of the far north, the crimson-ringed whiteface, was also a surprise discovery.
        Another new species for Rhode Island, the unicorn clubtail, turned out to be much more common than anyone imagined.
        “We ended up finding it at 60 sites in all five counties in the state, making it a pretty ubiquitous critter,” Brown said. “It’s something that occurs in ponds without a lot of vegetation, a habitat that doesn’t look particularly intriguing and that may not have a lot of other species in them. It’s a new record for the state, but it turned out to be in 26 towns.”
        Brown was especially pleased with the great diversity of dragonfly and damselfly species found throughout the state. More than 100 species were recorded in five communities, led by Burrillville and South Kingstown, and at least 90 species were found in an additional seven communities.
        Based on earlier documentation, the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed was known to have an abundance of dragonfly and damselfly species, but Brown was surprised to find high diversity at unlikely rivers and streams, too, like the Blackstone River, where several rare species were discovered.
        “We didn’t just go to the pristine places,” she said. “We found some really cool stuff in places that weren’t pristine.”
        Not all of the data for Brown’s book came from the atlas project. Brown and several other entomologists collected some data independently in the years prior to the atlas, and additional information was added while the book was being written and designed.
        After the atlas was completed, for instance, scientists concluded that a damselfly called the northern spreadwing is actually two different species, so Brown had to sort through her records to determine which of the two species were represented at the Rhode Island sites where they were found. And when an unexpected species called the Allegheny river cruiser turned up in Connecticut, she sorted through her records again to see whether any of the Rhode Island records of a very similar species, the swift river cruiser, were misidentified.
        “That’s when I learned to never make assumptions,” Brown said. “I remember discussing how variable our swift river cruisers were, but because it was the only river cruiser recorded in our area, I assumed they all were swift river cruisers. But when I went back to check, sure enough we had some Alleghenies.”
        With her book finally completed, Brown is planning to revisit some sites to confirm that some of the rarer species are still in the water bodies where they were initially found.
        “We’ve had some population loss going on, so we need to get back to check on species of greatest conservation need,” she said. “The 2010 floods knocked out some small dams, which drained some ponds, and that might be the reason for some of these losses. With more extreme rainfall events associated with climate change, we could have more ruptured dams and more population losses.”
        Dragonflies and Damselflies of Rhode Island is available for $25, which includes shipping, by emailing the DEM Division of Fish and Wildlife.

        This article first appeared on on March 5, 2021.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Sustainable fiddlehead harvesting

        The traditional springtime harvest of fiddleheads – the furled fronds of the ostrich fern – may be in jeopardy in areas where too many are plucked from the same plants in a season. That’s the finding of a study of sustainable fiddlehead harvesting practices by a University of Maine Cooperative Extension expert. 
        David Fuller describes fiddleheads as “a springtime delicacy” in many areas of New England and eastern Canada, where they are collected on public and private property and often sold from trucks along roadsides. The plants range across the northern tier of the United States, throughout much of Canada and Alaska, and south to Virginia. In many places, there are no restrictions on their harvest. “In
Fiddleheads after harvest (David Fuller)

Maine,” he said, “if you see fiddleheads, they’re yours, which made it very difficult to find an unmolested research plot.”
        In his study, Fuller collected all of the marketable-sized fiddleheads in a one-time harvest from one group of ferns, half of the fiddleheads from another group, and none from a third. He found that when all of the fiddleheads were removed in a single harvest, the plants suffered significant decline in growth in subsequent years – from 5.1 to 1.4 fiddleheads per crown – and half of them died after the third consecutive year of harvest.
        Ferns that had half of their fiddleheads harvested experienced a decrease from 6 to 4.7 fiddleheads per crown by the third year. “These findings suggest that fewer than half of the fiddleheads from a given plant could be harvested and be sustainable with no follow-up harvest that year,” Fuller said. “Plants whose fiddleheads have already been harvested by other harvesters that spring should be left alone.”
        Just one fiddlehead should be harvested from ferns producing three fiddleheads, he added, and “if you want to conserve the resource, you should probably leave the older and smaller plants alone entirely.”
        Fuller reported that in areas with a high rate of commercial fiddlehead harvest, many of the plants “are getting wiped out. It’s the same story about harvesting any wild resource. It’s a wild plant and you can’t over do it.”
        He said that most fern species produce fiddleheads, but only fiddleheads from ostrich ferns are recommended for consumption. Little research has been conducted on the edibility of other species, and some fern species may be harmful to consume.
        Fuller is now working on a publication about how to grow fiddleheads in one’s backyard. “It can be relatively easy to do if the habitat is right,” he said. In the wild, ostrich ferns typically grow in an alluvial flood plain with a high overstory and very little understory. “They get a little sunlight before the other trees leaf out,” Fuller said. “I’ve seen them six feet tall. They’re not aggressive spreaders, but I call them assertive. If you’ve got them at the edge of your lawn, they’ll creep in.”

        This article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Protecting a refuge of coldness

        This probably isn’t news to most readers, but our winters aren’t as cold as they used to be. Scientists who recently examined 100 years of winter temperature and precipitation data from weather stations across the Northeast found clear indications of that fact.
        They noted, for example, that there are now fewer days when daytime temperatures never go above freezing; fewer days when nighttime temperatures dip below freezing; and fewer days when temperatures sink below 0 F. They also concluded that the cold period of the year is now three weeks shorter than it used to be.
        For some of us, that’s something to celebrate. Fewer days of mind-numbing cold, snowy roads and frost-covered windows are a welcome respite from our winters of old. But not all creatures would agree.
        Snow cover provides an insulating blanket on top of the soil, keeping it from freezing too deeply and enabling some soil processes to continue unabated. Snow cover also provides important wildlife
habitat for many small mammals that create hidden travel corridors between the soil and snow layers. Shorter winters with fewer cold days also mean that disease-carrying ticks and invasive mosquitoes can expand their ranges northward, and more tree-killing pests will survive the winter.
        These revelations made me wonder whether it might be worthwhile to identify and protect refugia of coldness, places where cold-loving species can thrive. Are there locations on the landscape that are more likely to retain cold conditions and snow cover for longer periods? Can we manage a few nooks and crannies of the Ocean State as islands of coldness?
        It may sound at first like a strange concept, but it’s worth considering. If we want to continue to have black spruce trees in Rhode Island, for instance, we may need to preserve a few pockets of coldness. We’re at the southern end of the range of this cold-loving conifer, and as temperatures warm, the local conditions will likely soon become inhospitable to its growth.
        There are bound to be other species whose survival may be compromised by a reduction in cold conditions. A scan of the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Database would probably find other species that are barely hanging on in the state and may be pushed over the edge by too much winter warming.
        Identifying refugia of coldness shouldn’t be too difficult. Television meteorologists often mention the coldest places in the state during their forecasts, places like the valleys and north-facing slopes in the northwest corner of Rhode Island. There are plenty of cold pockets and frost hollows elsewhere in the state, too, locations where the first frost comes days or weeks before sites nearby.
        My friend David’s house in Wakefield is one such place. It sits in a broad valley where cold accumulates, and on some chilly mornings when he leaves his house and drives up a short rise in the road just past his driveway, he experiences a noticeable temperature increase.
        Someone with expertise in Geographic Information Systems would have no difficulty identifying other such areas. These sites don’t necessarily have to be the coldest places in the state, where the lowest low temperatures occur, however. It may be useful to also identify those places defined by temperatures that are simply less warm than elsewhere. Either way, it would be a worthwhile exercise, even when there are plenty of other factors to consider when deciding what lands to preserve.
        For it’s easy for humans to come in from the cold, but harder and harder for some species to find enough of it.

        This article first appeared in The Independent on Feb. 6, 2021.

Monday, February 8, 2021

A year in the ice in the Arctic

        It was planned as the largest Arctic science expedition in history: trapping the German icebreaker Polarstern in the ice near the North Pole for 13 months as 600 scientists from 19 countries collected urgently-needed data on the Arctic ecosystem and the interactions between the atmosphere, ocean and sea ice. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck a few months after the project started, it led to innumerable challenges that disrupted the work, delayed the transfer of personnel, and required the establishment of new protocols.
        Yet through it all, the research team – including five scientists from the Graduate School of Oceanography – persevered and completed most of what they set out to accomplish.
        “This project was 10 years in the making,” said Brice Loose, GSO associate professor and one of the organizers of the expedition. “There was a recognition among many disciplines within the Arctic

sciences that there had been an extreme regime shift in the way the ocean and atmosphere were working. What we thought we knew about the Arctic didn’t necessarily apply anymore.”
        The $150 million MOSAIC expedition (Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) sought new insights from the epicenter of the changing climate as well as some of the first oceanographic data gathered from the region during winter. To collect a baseline understanding of what some are calling the New Arctic required an interdisciplinary approach and a year of continuous data collection to enable scientists to observe the complete life cycle of plankton and the physical processes taking place from month to month and season to season.
        But why get trapped in the ice? In part, it was the most practical solution, Loose said. It’s not feasible to navigate the ice flows throughout the winter, and it allowed scientists to use the ice as a platform for conducting their studies.
        “The atmosphere is moving at one speed and direction, the ice is moving at a different speed and direction, and the ocean is moving at a third speed and direction,” he said. “We just had to pick a frame of reference and stick with it.”
        Aboard ship at various times during the year, Marine Research Scientist Robert Campbell, Marine Research Specialist Celia Gelfman and Postdoctoral Fellow Katy Shoemaker studied the feeding, growth, reproduction and respiration of the Arctic zooplankton community.
        “We focused on a few key species throughout the drift and tried to get a better understanding of

their complete life cycles,” said Campbell, who spent several months on the ship last winter and again this fall. “We’re using the measurements we made to better understand the Arctic planktonic food web and to quantify energy flow and nitrogen and carbon transformation processes throughout the planktonic ecosystem.”
        A typical day for Campbell started with experimental readings before breakfast and often didn’t conclude until well after midnight. He worked from the ship three or four days each week deploying CTDs to collect water samples as deep as 4,000 meters and to measure salinity, pressure, depth and other variables. They also deployed net systems, cameras and particle counters to collect and count plankton from different depths. During other days he worked from the ice, drilling and collecting ice cores for other studies or sampling plankton with small nets from a hole in the ice.
        “On Saturdays we got to use the ‘Beast’, an ROV that has its own container on the ice away from the ship and is equipped with plankton nets,” he said. “We used it to collect plankton samples directly under the ice.”
        For Gelfman, the hardest part of the expedition was just getting to the ship. By the time her leg of the expedition was approaching, the pandemic was in full swing. After more than a month of delay, she, Shoemaker and Postdoctoral Fellow Alessandra D’Angelo flew to a hotel in Germany for two weeks of isolation, then boarded a ship to Svalbard where the Polarstern exchanged personnel after leaving the icepack. The entire process took more than a month.
        Once the ship was back in the ice, Gelfman fell into a similar routine as Campbell had before her. But rather than extreme cold and near total darkness all day long, she enjoyed round-the-clock daylight and temperatures that hovered around freezing.
        “For me, what was most interesting to think about was that we were on a boat moving with a flow of ice, so every time we put our nets in the water, the ice itself was always the same but the water underneath was always different,” she said. “We were moving through seasonal time, but also through geographic space. As a result, there’s going to be a lot of stuff we’re going to have to correlate in our analysis.
        “We also experienced a freshwater lens from the meltwater on the ice,” Gelfman added. “As the ice melted, it made a layer of freshwater on the surface, and it seemed like we had a plankton bloom that was related to that freshwater melt and release of nutrients. We sampled during those conditions, and I’m excited to see the progression of young stages of copepods feeding during that part of the year.”
        Loose’s research examined the occurrence of a group of microorganisms that produce or consume methane and their role in mitigating the release of large quantities of methane from the ocean bottom, which is hypothesized will take place as a result of the changing climate.
        “A tremendous amount of methane is trapped in the seafloor, more than you’d ever want to have get into the atmosphere,” Loose said “It’s trapped in one kind of ice or another, and that ice is stable at certain temperatures and pressures. But if the temperature or pressure changes, a lot of that methane could be released into the water column. Our question is, will that methane make it to the atmosphere, or will the microbes eat it first?”
        Since Loose didn’t spend any time aboard the ship, most of his data collection was left to D’Angelo, the team leader for all of the biogeochemical studies during the expedition. She collected ice core and seawater samples every week to analyze their methane and carbon dioxide concentrations and isotopic ratios.
        “We want to know the rate of oxidation or production of methane by the microbes so we can understand how much might be released into the atmosphere,” she said. “The more sea ice there is, the less methane will be exchanged with the atmosphere because the ice blocks the exchange.”
        All of the GSO participants in the expedition had joined many previous Arctic research cruises, but the total number of scientists involved in the MOSAIC expedition and the variety of disciplines they represented made this one special.
        “I really appreciated the effort everyone put into building new research ideas and new collaborations,” D’Angelo said. “We were very, very busy, so you don’t expect to have extra time to work on other research projects, but we were very willing to do it anyway. We created new research activities in parallel with our work. It was a good way to develop new ideas, new networks, and new collaborations for future proposals.”
        One variable in the daily activity that was impossible to predict was the presence of polar bears. While Gelfman, D’Angelo and Shoemaker were aboard, they saw polar bears nearly every day, and if the bears approached too closely, research activities on the ice had to be curtailed. “It was very nice to see polar bears when we were on the ship,” D’Angelo quipped, “but not so nice when we were on the ice.”
        While pandemic protocols made it difficult for the scientists to get to the ship and back home again – and many scientists never made it to the ship at all due to restrictions in their home countries – the virus wasn’t something they thought much about while at sea. “The coronavirus didn’t touch us on the ship, but now that we’ve come back it seems strange to have to wear a mask,” said D’Angelo. “Everything is so different and new.”
        Although there is still a great deal of data analysis to be done with the samples collected during the expedition, the scientists have already made some interesting observations.
        “We found that most animals in winter were found at depth, 500 to 2,000 meters in diapause, and some of these were already producing eggs in December that would float to the surface so that their offspring would be ready to feed on the spring bloom once it started in late spring,” Campbell said. “This is a very important life cycle strategy given the short growing season. We also found that some animals remain active in the surface during the winter. How were they fueling this activity during the polar night when food is so limiting? We hope to find this out from our analysis of the DNA of the prey items in their stomach contents.”
        On the last day of her quarantine after returning home from the Arctic, Gelfman said that one of the things she most appreciated during the MOSAIC cruise was the opportunity to walk around on the ice on a regular basis.
        “It’s a place that not many people get to see, and it’s so diverse and different every week,” she said. “There would be surface melting that would refreeze at night, and the ice crystal formations were always interesting. Like most cruises, it was wonderful to spend every day focused on your work and not everything you usually have to juggle in your life. But this one was special in so many ways – great people, great science, great place.”

        This article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Aboard GSO.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Dolphins strand along Rhode Island coast

        When a dead dolphin was discovered at Cormorant Cove on Block Island on January 17, a volunteer with the Mystic Aquarium Animal Rescue Team responded to the scene to collect data about the animal. A week later a second dead dolphin was discovered on Block Island near the North Light, and the same process was repeated. Two others were found dead off Ocean Drive in Newport in December.
        The dolphin deaths have some people worried and wondering what could be killing the animals. Might there be something unhealthy in Rhode Island waters?
        Scientists don’t think so. Instead, they believe the dolphin mortalities are probably due to natural
Common dolphin found on Block Island (Kim Gaffett)

attrition in a large population of dolphins that is typically most active in southern New England waters in fall and winter.
        Three of the four dead dolphins were common dolphins, a species that University of Rhode Island oceanographer Robert Kenney, writing in a blog in 2017, described as “the most abundant cetaceans off the Atlantic coast, with perhaps 240,000 or more between Florida and Labrador.” They also occur in tropical and temperate waters elsewhere around the world, and they sometimes aggregate into extremely large herds.
        Kim Gaffett, a naturalist with The Nature Conservancy and a board member of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, was on hand when the aquarium volunteer responded to the Block Island dolphins. She said that common dolphins are regularly observed around the island in winter – and occasionally in summer – with most sightings coming from passengers on the Block Island ferry. She said dead dolphins are observed on the island shoreline about every other year.
        Neither of the dead Block Island dolphins had any visible signs of injury, according to Gaffett. Based on photos of the animals Gaffett provided, Kenney believes the animals were relatively old in age.
        The aquarium did not conduct a necropsy – an animal autopsy – on any of the recently reported dolphins, so their cause of death is unknown. Animals that appear to have died more than 24 hours previously are usually left to drift back out to sea, said Sarah Callan, assistant manager of the aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program, since the decomposition process would make their tissues too deteriorated to be useful in determining cause of death. Since necropsies require several people working in close proximity, the aquarium is conducting fewer necropsies during the COVID19 pandemic to reduce the risk to its staff and volunteers.
        Callan wouldn’t speculate about the cause of death of the dolphins found recently in Rhode Island waters, though she said it could be from any number of factors, including disease, respiratory infections, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements or various natural causes. She also noted that it isn’t uncommon for as many as 10 dolphins to strand in local waters in a typical year.
        “Every year is different,” she said. “Often when animals die, whether from natural causes or something else, where they wash up depends a lot on the weather and currents. It could be a fluke of the currents that pushed those two dolphins to Block Island. Animals that died on Cape Cod can even end up here. There are so many factors involved. It doesn’t necessarily indicate something has happened off our shoreline.”
        Data from an April 2020 assessment of common dolphins in the western North Atlantic by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that 419 common dolphins are killed as fisheries bycatch each year. The same report indicated that 28 common dolphins were found stranded on Rhode Island beaches between 2013 and 2017 and 359 on Massachusetts beaches during the same period, including 166 in 2017 alone.
        Kenney said that when individual dolphins are found dead, it is typically because the animal was sick or injured. And while there are occasionally spikes in mortality due to disease, which the federal government labels an “unusual mortality event,” no such event has been declared for common dolphins anywhere on the East Coast in recent years.
        Kenney isn’t concerned about the health of the common dolphin population in southern New England, despite the number of animals found dead this winter.
        “If a marine mammal population is stable, an equal number of animals should be expected to die and be born every year,” he said. “Given that the current estimate for common dolphin abundance in the regional population is 172,825, if natural mortality is only one or two percent a year, there should be 2,000 to 3,000 dead ones every year.”
        In addition to common dolphins, Callan said that mid-winter is also a common time for gray seal pups to be found washed up on area beaches, both dead and alive, some of which may have originated as far away as Canada or Greenland. Anyone who finds a stranded marine mammal should call the Mystic Aquarium hotline at 860-572-5955, extension 107.

        This article first appeared on on February 4, 2021.