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 EcoRI.org 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 EcoRI.org 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 EcoRI.org 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.