Friday, May 28, 2021

Gardeners create native plant corridors to support biodiversity

        Rhode Island gardeners in Cranston and Barrington are joining a national effort to install native plants in their gardens. The idea behind the effort is to link their yards with native habitat on protected lands and create what organizers are calling “pollinator pathways” to boost populations of bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife.
        In the Edgewood section of Cranston, Suzanne Borstein is leading the effort to get her neighbors and friends to plant native plants in what she calls the “tree lawn” — the area between the sidewalk and the road. Since last November, she has hosted a series of online meetings to discuss the initiative, and nearly three dozen Cranston households had agreed to participate by the beginning of May, with more signing on every week.
        “The connectability of the garden spaces is what’s especially important,” Borstein said. “If you have a great yard but nobody else in the neighborhood does, then the pollinators won’t be attracted or sustained.”
        Planting native plants and restoring native habitat is vital to preserving biodiversity, according to

the National Audubon Society. The habitat created by native plant gardens helps to nurture and sustain insects, birds and other creatures.
        The idea for the Pollinator Pathways program emerged from a popular book written by University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy called Bringing Nature Home. According to Borstein, Tallamy’s idea was to get people to replace half of their lawns with native plants that would support native insect populations, which in turn support bird populations. If enough people participated, the pollinator pathways would link properties that, when combined, would total more acreage than all of the country’s national parks.
        Borstein, a clinical psychologist, said the goal of her effort is to “raise awareness of the importance of choosing native plants. I’m making it as local as I can so we can build community, neighbor to neighbor. I want to increase the availability and use of native plants.”
        But where to buy native plants for local use is a considerable problem.
        “There’s a new awakening that we should plant natives, but native plants are hard to find,” said Sally Johnson, vice president of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society board of directors. “I don’t think the commercial market has responded yet to the need.”
        The Rhody Native program, launched by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey in 2009, was initially successful at growing native plants from seeds collected locally, but it couldn’t be sustained by a nonprofit with limited staff and funding.
        When Borstein contacted Johnson for help in sourcing native plants for her Edgewood gardeners, Johnson eventually identified about 10 native plant species that could be acquired from a commercial nursery in New Jersey.
        “It’s called the Garden State for a reason,” Johnson said.
        The Barrington Land Conservation Trust is also finding it difficult to find native plants for participants in its pollinator effort.
        “Many local nurseries carry plants listed as native, but native to where? New England? The Midwest? Are they true natives or cultivars?” asked Cindy Pierce, one of the organizers of the Barrington project. “It can be daunting for a new gardener or even an experienced gardener new to natives.”
        Pierce noted Blue Moon Farm Perennials in South Kingstown specializes in native plants, but the Barrington group is also working with the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society to acquire native plants. The Land Conservation Trust is also asking local nurseries to stock natives, and it plans to hold its own native plant sale in the fall.
        The Barrington gardeners aren’t just focusing their efforts on planting natives in the tree lawn, however. They are instead encouraging their neighbors to take whatever steps they can to diversify their gardens with native plants.
        “Whether it’s adding a few container plants, adding native plants to an existing garden, or creating a meadow,” Pierce said. “Eliminating the use of fertilizers and lawn chemicals is another important step everyone can take, along with reducing the size of your lawn, mowing less often and leaving the leaves in your garden. Every little bit helps.”
        Assuming that interest in native plants and the Pollinator Pathways program continues to build, organizers in Barrington and Cranston hope additional communities will join and extend the corridors being built for pollinators. Those that add native plants to their gardens can add their properties to an online map of native plant gardens called Homegrown National Parks that author Tallamy has established.
        “Even if you only have three feet of natives, you can get on the map and it hooks you up to a lot of resources,” Borstein said.
        After the planting season, Borstein hopes to organize a neighborhood walk so residents can “see what’s possible.” She hopes such an event will lead to additional participants and further discussions about expanding the project.
        “I don’t have anything formal planned, but I’d like to create some way that all of the other organizations in Rhode Island could communicate to share information,” Borstein said. “And I’d like to see it grow beyond pollinators and help people to understand the role of shrubs and trees as well. It will help gardeners understand more about the issues from a holistic point of view.”
        This article first appeared in on May 27, 2021.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Turkey survey yields noisy gobblers

        Last month I got up extra early twice a week in order to be in place on a dark backroad 40 minutes before sunrise to listen for the distinctive gobble of wild turkeys. On my assigned days, I drove a 12-mile route and stopped every mile for four minutes of straining my ears for any indication that turkeys were out and about. And more often than not, they were.
        If you haven’t heard the bizarre sound of a wild turkey gobbling, remind yourself to spend some time around dawn on clear April mornings wherever forests meet meadows. There’s a good chance you’ll see a tom turkey — or three — showing off by raising and spreading his tail, puffing up his feathers, and turning his head a patriotic red, white and blue. And then, when he senses that the timing is right, he lets loose with a garbled blast that only another turkey would be attracted to. To me, it
Wild turkey (Todd McLeish)

sounds more like an irate mother scolding a disrespectful child than a turkey trying to convince another turkey to mate. But it seems to work for them.
        I drove that route as a volunteer for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to help them get a picture of the abundance of turkeys in the state, where they are most common, and how successful the mating season is likely to be. It’s one of several strategies DEM biologists use to estimate the population of turkeys in the area and assess whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing. Other data comes from the number of turkeys harvested by hunters each year and late summer reports from area residents of how many baby turkeys they see traveling with their mothers.
        I first became enamored of wild turkeys about 35 years ago after moving back to the Ocean State from upstate New York, where turkeys were commonly seen on roadsides and in farm fields. The birds had not been seen in Rhode Island in more than 200 years, but I imagined it would be exciting to see a flock of turkeys wander through my yard someday.
        When it finally happened, I couldn’t have been more excited — until they wouldn’t go away. They discovered all the spilled birdseed beneath my feeders and decided that my yard provided a reliable food supply. Soon I couldn’t walk around my neighborhood without stepping in you-know-what, and every passing school bus driver stopped at my house to let the children watch the turkeys before continuing down the road. By then, my daily flock of visitors had reached 55 birds.
        Eventually I stopped feeding the songbirds for a while to get the turkeys to wander somewhere else, and ever since then, smaller numbers of turkeys have only been occasional visitors. This spring I’ve had a half-dozen stop by every few days, which is a number I can tolerate.
        Rhode Island’s turkey population is quite healthy after efforts to reintroduce them to the state in the 1980s and 90s led to an abundance of gobblers by the early 2000s. Their numbers have declined slightly and leveled off since then, and they remain relatively easy to see in suburbia, along roadsides, and sometimes even in urban areas.
        Up close they can be a bit frightening, with their dinosaur-like head, curious nature and little fear of humans. And they’ve been known to chase cars during the exuberance of the breeding season. If that happens to you, stare them down and gobble right back. They’ll get the hint.

        This article first appeared in the Independent on May 22, 2021.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Have an environmental concern? Call Dave Prescott.

        When Rhode Islanders visit the coastal areas of South County and discover an oil sheen on the water, a fish kill, a barrier to public access to the shoreline, a large concentration of plastic debris, or any number of other concerns, one of the first people they should turn to is Dave Prescott. The CoastKeeper for Save the Bay, Prescott is the eyes and ears of the Ocean State’s south coast and Little Narragansett Bay, a watchdog for water quality, and a voice for those seeking to draw attention to environmental issues in the region.
        “Every day in this job is different, and things can change in a heartbeat,” said Prescott, who has lived in Charlestown for the last 20 years. “I’m out in the community and on the water keeping an eye on things, but I also rely on the public informing me of the things that they see are happening. Some days I’m doing marsh restoration at Quonochontaug or Ninigret, other days I’m doing water quality testing or standing in front of a town council meeting or testifying at the Coastal Resources Management Council. My job is always changing.”
        It’s a job he loves because of his passion for the coastal environment. Prescott grew up in coastal northeast Massachusetts and spent a great deal of time at the nearby Parker River National Wildlife
CoastKeeper Dave Prescott at Winnipaug Pond (Mike Derr)

Refuge, where he spent his youth exploring tidepools and salt marshes and learning to surf. After earning a marine biology degree at Roger Williams University, he landed a job in the education department at Save the Bay, and he has played a leading role with the state’s most visible environmental group ever since.
        For six years, he taught environmental lessons in classrooms and at summer camps, led programs for children and adults on boats and in salt marshes, and discussed the importance of protecting Narragansett Bay.
        “I always had an interest in doing more with policy and being more of an advocate than just an educator,” said Prescott, who is based at Save the Bay’s South Coast Center in downtown Westerly. “So when the CoastKeeper opportunity opened up, I jumped at it. It expanded Save the Bay’s geographic role to the south coast, which was ideal for me. We’d been doing work in South County for decades, but we never had an established presence down here.”
        Like Save the Bay’s BayKeeper and RiverKeeper, the CoastKeeper program is affiliated with the WaterKeeper Alliance, an international organization that works to ensure that every community has drinkable, swimmable and fishable water. Working with more than 300 similar advocates around the country allows Prescott and his Save the Bay colleagues to be connected to a large network of advocates who can help each other address similar issues.
        Water quality is one of the biggest issues he deals with on a daily basis, focused largely on encouraging communities to address stormwater runoff and wastewater treatment problems. Last year he worked with the town of Charlestown to build six raingardens on town property to serve as demonstration projects for homeowners to show how they can use raingardens on their properties to help filter out pollutants and alleviate flooding.
        “My big water quality focus is in Little Narragansett Bay and the lower Pawcatuck River, where we have some old infrastructure in downtown Westerly and Stonington,” he said. “There are a lot of sources of nutrients that drain into Little Narragansett Bay – from wastewater treatment plants, farms, stormwater runoff. If you look at the water quality, it looks great until you go under the water.”
        While surveying for eelgrass between Sandy Point and Napatree Point, he found massive mats of a seaweed called Cladophora, which Prescott describes as looking like “a green Brillo pad.” In many places it is several feet thick and smothers anything that lives on the seafloor beneath it. Prescott is working with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and other partner organizations to remediate the pollution sources that are responsible for the growth of the Cladophora mat.
        He is also helping communities address a wide variety of impacts from the changing climate, including coastal erosion due to more severe storms and rising sea levels that are flooding salt marshes. At Quonochontaug and Ninigret, he is helping plant marsh grasses and restore habitat following major efforts to raise the elevation of the marshes using material dredged from the waterways.
        “Climate change is a huge issue and is having big impacts, not only on the marshes but also on the built environment,” Prescott said. “I’m trying to educate stakeholders and town leaders about where there may be opportunities to move infrastructure away from the shoreline and think differently about how we develop our shoreline.
        “A lot of this sounds like doom and gloom, but it doesn’t have to be,” he added. “We just need to have the conversations ahead of time and not wait for the next storm to do something.”
        The key, he said, is ensuring that any rebuilding efforts following storm damage should be done with community resilience in mind. “It’s hard to argue that we’re more resilient since Superstorm Sandy, since we basically rebuilt in the same place,” he said.
        Prescott argues instead that some infrastructure and commercial zones should be moved back from the ocean instead of rebuilding in place and trying to hold the ocean back, which won’t work in the long term. Some businesses in Misquamicut, for example, have taken those steps and are more secure in their future.
        “I’m optimistic we can do it,” he said. “We have smart people in the state, good research being done at URI, and great modeling that homeowners can use. But homeowners have to understand their risk, and communities have to understand how to protect their assets without spending millions every year to shore them up. We need to take proactive steps now to embrace our resilience.”

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

Friday, May 14, 2021

Despite perceptions, black bear numbers in Rhode Island remain low

        Reports of black bear sightings in Rhode Island appear on the television news often enough that most residents probably think the Ocean State’s bear population is booming. But after six years of research to document the animals in the state, scientists at the University of Rhode Island turned up little evidence to support that perception.
        “We obviously have bears here – people see them and they make the news – but it’s entirely possible that often it’s the same individual bear visiting many different sites,” said URI researcher Amy Mayer. “It sounds like we have bears everywhere, but I think the numbers are very small. And a lot of the time it’s just a young bear moving through the area, not necessarily a resident bear.”
        For five years beginning in 2015, when bear sightings were growing, Mayer used what she called a “scent station” to see if she could lure bears to one of 41 sites in western Rhode Island where barbed
wire had been wrapped around a small group of trees and baited with a scent attractive to bears. The objective was to get the bears to cross the barbed wire to get to the scent and leave a hair sample behind in the wire. But after five years, she collected not one strand of bear hair, though she collected plenty of hair from numerous other species.
        In 2018, as part of a project to detect bobcats in the state, Mayer installed trail cameras at 100 sites, hoping that bears would be photographed as well. But after three years she collected just three photos of black bears at two locations in Arcadia Management Area in Exeter and Nicholas Farm Management Area in Coventry.
        “It was super discouraging at first, because it made us wonder if we were doing it right,” she said. “But then we realized that we just don’t have a lot of bears here.”
        Charles Brown agrees. A wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management who keeps track of the fur-bearing animals in the state, he estimates that fewer than 10 black bears reside in Rhode Island – perhaps even fewer than five. And despite at least one report of a mother bear with cubs, he has been unable to confirm that there are any bears breeding in the state.
        “We have a big year for bear sightings, and then things go quiet again, and then we have another big year,” said Brown. “It’s been getting more consistent lately, which leads me to think we have a small resident population, but based on the number of reports and where we see them, there aren’t a lot of them.”
        Like Mayer, Brown believes most of the bears observed in Rhode Island are juvenile males wandering around looking for food and an available territory. Most sightings come from the Charlestown, Hopkinton and South Kingstown area, as well as around Scituate, Coventry and Chepachet. Some may be animals whose territory straddles the Rhode Island and Connecticut border.
        “What typically happens is that juvenile males, maybe 12 to 15 months old, go off on their own or have been driven off by their mother,” Brown said. “They’re capable of covering lots of ground, and they go off on walkabouts, exploring the world on their own for the first time, looking for places to settle down. Young females tend not to move far from their mother’s home range, so they don’t tend to roam the landscape.
        “A juvenile male bear, once he’s left the protection of his mother, his biggest problem is dealing with resident male bears,” he added. “They won’t welcome him sticking around, so the juveniles get pushed to the edges and follow the path of least resistance. They end up coming to an unoccupied territory.”
        According to Brown, the bear population in Connecticut has grown to more than 800 animals, with more than 4,500 in Massachusetts. Most of the bears in those states are west of the Connecticut River, but they are expanding toward Rhode Island.
        “I expect that in the next five or ten years, we’ll see this trend of bear numbers in Rhode Island increasing,” he said. “It’s inevitable.”
        Black bears are believed to have been a common species in Rhode Island prior to European settlement of the region, but they disappeared soon after. Brown has found no reports of bear sightings in the state in the 1800s or most of the 1900s.
        “They had value for meat and fur, and they were also probably perceived as pests and a threat to livestock,” Brown said. “And with no hunting regulations, it was open season. If you saw a bear, you probably took it at any time.”
        After being hunted out of much of their range in the Northeast, bear numbers slowly began to rebound after hunting regulations were enacted in the 1930s and forests grew from abandoned farmland. Bears were first documented returning to Rhode Island in the 1990s. In 2001, more than 25 bear sightings were reported to DEM, though most were probably about the same bear.
        With a small resident population likely living in the state, Brown occasionally receives reports of bears creating a nuisance by damaging bird feeders, killing livestock or causing other problems.
        “If you live in western Rhode Island, you’re living in bear country, and they’re driven to anthropogenic food sources,” he said. “Bird feeders are the number one thing, so now it’s time to think about taking your feeders down.”
        Backyard chicken flocks and beehives can also attract bears, along with improperly stored food and trash.
        “Most bears are not troublesome, but individual bears will develop bad habits, and once they develop a taste for something, we see a pattern and it doesn’t end there,” Brown said.
        DEM has acquired two bear traps to remove nuisance bears, but the traps have only been deployed a couple times and no bears were captured.
        “If they cross a certain line – which we consider to be more than one livestock attack – that bear would be a candidate for euthanizing,” he said. “We have a policy to not relocate bears that demonstrate severely destructive behaviors. We have not had to put a bear down, and we want to avoid those kinds of situations.”
        Brown encourages residents who see bears to report them to DEM so he can keep track of where the animals are and what kind of damage they may be causing.
        “My message is this,” he said. “Bear sightings are going to become a more common occurrence. We’re no different from other places. People elsewhere are living with bears and going about their lives, and we can, too.”

This article first appeared in on May 14, 2021.