Monday, June 28, 2021

Thank God it's Friday; Land Trust Council director retires

        When the state of Rhode Island threatened to build a new State Police barracks in the 8,300-acre Big River Management Area in Kent County in 2004, the newly established Rhode Island Land Trust Council and its first executive director, Rupert Friday, took the lead in fighting the development proposal.
        It was a six-month battle to convince then-Gov. Donald Carcieri and other power brokers that this was what one state representative called “the wrong project in the wrong place.” The success of the opposition effort led to the strengthening of other weakly protected conservation lands.
        “It was Rupert’s fine touch, his soft, humbled approach and confidence that made all the difference in this work,” said Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust who was also president of the
Rupert Friday

Land Trust Council at the time. “Rupert was our eyes and ears to all that was going on in Rhode Island regarding the environment, open space and protection of our natural world. He is the same to this day.”
        But he won’t be for much longer. Friday will retire from his leadership role with the Land Trust Council early next month, after nearly two decades of building coalitions to protect open space in Rhode Island and serving as a mentor to the state’s 45 land trusts. He will be succeeded as executive director by Kate Sayles, the agriculture and forestry program manager for the Northern Rhode Island Conservation District.
        “I’ve been doing this work for a lot of years, and it seemed like it was time,” said Friday, 65, who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in Narragansett. “I want to spend time doing things that I enjoy doing, though I have no specific plans. I’ll probably spend more time helping land trusts with their trails.”
        Friday started his career as an environmental educator and park naturalist in western Pennsylvania, before getting involved in the “smart growth” movement and finding his way to Rhode Island to work on transportation issues for the Foundation for Newport.
        When the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy and land trust leaders around the state agreed an organization was needed to support local land trusts, the Land Trust Council was established and Friday was hired as its director.
        “At that time, nearly all land trusts were entirely volunteer, so there was a need for a coalition for networking and capacity building to help land trusts be more effective,” Friday said.
        He spent the next 17 years setting up workshops for land trust leaders about conservation strategies and organizational development, monitoring legislation and policy that impacted conservation lands and networking with the land trust community so the various independent groups could get to know each other.
        Meg Kerr, the senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, has worked closely with Friday since before the Land Trust Council was formed. They even joined forces to create and manage the annual Rhode Island Land and Water Summit.
        “Rupert’s broad knowledge of land use, land conservation and nonprofit management was an enormous asset to Rhode Island,” she said. “As director of the Land Trust Council, he helped draft and lobbied for passage of bills that strengthened the state’s local land conservation movement. He established and grew the council to support grassroots land conservation in the state, creating an organization that will thrive into the future.”
        Kerr pointed to Friday’s work with the administrators of the ExploreRI website as another highlight in his career. He was able to add all of the trails on land trust properties to the website’s listing of walking and paddling routes, gaining visibility for the state’s land trusts and opening the eyes of hikers to additional trails to explore.
        Friday was also a leader in building support for numerous open space bonds and other green bond initiatives, which were vital to providing funding to help Rhode Island land trusts buy additional properties. And he played a key role in the passage of legislation to protect conservation land held by nonprofit organizations from claims for adverse possession or squatter’s rights, which had been a troublesome issue for some land trusts.
        “That was a huge accomplishment and a big protection for conservation organizations big and small,” said Scott Comings, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy. “But the one thing about Rupert that helped him be effective in this work is that he’s really hopeful and can see the real positive side of things. That’s something I feel like he brought to every challenge, that despite the difficulties, there’s an opportunity, too.”
        Friday is spending his last weeks before retirement organizing the annual Land Trust Days, a two-month summer celebration of open space designed to encourage Rhode Islanders to visit land trust properties around the state. He is also promoting Rhode Island Walks, a resource for Rhode Island’s health-care providers to make it easier to encourage their patients to spend time outdoors in nature and take walks as part of their health care.
        “People see protected lands as vacant land that something should be done with, so increasing awareness that these vacant lands are important to our communities is one issue I worked to address,” Friday said. “And helping land trusts develop trails so community residents can enjoy these places that are protected.”
        Despite the long days and challenging issues he has confronted, Friday can’t help but reflect on all the people who have played a positive role in his career.
        “The best part of this job is getting out and working with the volunteers leading the land trusts around the state,” he said. “They’re great folks who are passionate about protecting special places in their communities. And when I get to go out there with them, seeing those places is really cool.”

        This article first appeared on on June 26, 2021.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Turtle Women of Barrington

        As soon as the sun comes up, rare tutrtles begin to arrive at a sandy bluff overlooking Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington. Two emerge simultaneously from the forest edge and wander around looking for the perfect nesting site. Three more appear in an adjacent field and quickly begin digging five-inch-deep holes in which to deposit their eggs.
           The diminutive turtles, called diamondback terrapins, kick sand over themselves to camouflage their appearance, then dig a flask-shaped nest with their hind feet. When the hole is the right size, each turtle lays about fifteen eggs, covers them with sand and departs. The whole process takes about twenty minutes.
        Hidden nearby in a small grove of trees they call the office, a team of volunteers and biologists — nearly all of them women — watch until the turtles are finished laying and begin to return to the marsh below. But before the terrapins can escape, the volunteers collect each one for processing, which
Diamondback terrapin (Todd McLeish)

involves measuring their shell, marking them so they can be recognized later and, in some cases, tagging them for future research. The turtles are then released to return to the cove. Each nest site is also flagged and covered with an exclosure, a wire basket-like device to keep predators from accessing the eggs. One of the terrapins collected on this June day was first identified in 1990, the first year of this monitoring effort, making her more than thirty years old.
        Overseeing this complex project is Kathryn Beauchamp, seventy-three, a retired nurse who spent most of her life caring for children in the intensive care units of hospitals in Providence, Boston and a half-dozen other cities around the country. With a few kind words, she instructs new volunteers about the procedures, encourages visiting students to participate, educates unwitting walkers who traipse through the site oblivious to the terrapins, and answers questions with a pleasant smile. When a terrapin is brought to the office, she demonstrates proper turtle-handling technique and walks newcomers through the processing steps so they can learn to do it themselves. Despite directing the operation with military precision, her tone is always welcoming. No one is ever left out.
        “My friends jokingly say that I transferred my love of taking care of children to taking care of turtles,” says Beauchamp. “I’ve always been very interested in nature, birds and gardening, and this seemed to fit right in. Once you get involved, it’s so heartwarming to see everyone working together to protect this turtle.”
        Beauchamp started volunteering on the terrapin project in the spring of 2017, just a few months after her retirement, and within two years she was transitioning into a leadership role.
        “It’s all about maintaining this species in Hundred Acre Cove,” she says. “With climate change, we’re watching the cove change. The islands of the marsh are slowly breaking apart and shrinking with the higher and higher tides, and the turtles need that marsh.”
        Named for the diamond pattern on their shell, diamondback terrapins were discovered nesting at Hundred Acre Cove in the 1980s after not...

        Read the rest of the story in the June 2021 issue of Rhode Island Monthly.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Fatherhood on display in animal kingdom

        When talking about wildlife conservation, biologists often emphasize the importance of protecting a healthy number of females in a given population, largely because they’re the ones that produce the next generation. Males are sometimes seen as superfluous, since their contribution to the species is often limited to a brief mating ritual, with no role whatsoever in domestic activities like caring for their offspring.
        While that is yet another reason to occasionally feel ashamed to be male, that’s not the entire story. So as we celebrate Father’s Day, it’s time to give credit to a few of the best fathers in the animal kingdom.
        Like giant water bugs. I saw one last month when I hung a sheet in my yard and shined a black light on it to attract night-flying moths. One of the first creatures to arrive was this frighteningly-large
Giant water bug (Renay McLeish)
aquatic bug with the reputation for occasionally biting the toes of people wading in local ponds. As I studied up on them, I learned that some members of their family are considered devoted fathers.
        The female giant water bug glues about 150 eggs to the male’s back, and he guards them from predators and other potential hazards until they hatch. To protect the eggs from becoming moldy, he occasionally climbs out of the water to air dry his charges. He even does something akin to pushups at the surface of the water – with the eggs still on his back – to ensure that the eggs are properly oxygenated. That’s the kind of guy any female water bug would be proud to call her mate.
        Atlantic wolffish fathers are equally devoted to their offspring. These eel-like fish that live in the nooks and crannies of boulder piles about 200 feet deep in New England waters are even scarier looking than giant water bugs, with gnarly teeth and a mean grin. But when a female lays her eggs – as many as 10,000 in large piles hidden in the crevices of the boulders – her mate stands guard to protect those eggs for up to nine months, seldom eating or moving. During that time, all of those gnarly teeth fall out and new equally-gnarly ones grow in.
        Red fox dads play a similarly important but very different fatherly role in supporting their offspring. They’re in charge of teaching the little ones how to be foxes by showing them how to hide and how to capture food. Sometimes the dads even set up foraging tests for their youngsters. He also brings food to his mate when she’s nursing her pups. All of this is readily visible in some suburban neighborhoods where fox skills are being taught in area backyards.
        Perhaps the best-known animal fathers are seahorses, including the lined seahorses found around eelgrass beds in Narragansett Bay. Pairs of seahorses undertake a lengthy and complex courtship ritual, after which the mother deposits her eggs in the father’s pouch. He then broods the developing young for two or three weeks before releasing the hatchlings into the water. And then he does it again with the same monogamous mate. That’s fatherhood at its best.
        While these examples are enlightening and worth highlighting as we celebrate our own fathers, they aren’t typical. More often than not, males in the animal kingdom may look good – like the brightly-colored male birds – but they aren’t necessarily good for much more than a romp in the hay. Happy Father’s Day anyway.

        This article first appeared in The Independent on June 17, 2021.

Monday, June 14, 2021

New survey method proves Rhode Island’s rarest frog may not be so rare after all

        The rarest frog in Rhode Island may not be as rare as scientists once thought after a study by University of Rhode Island researchers using a seldom-used methodology turned up many more of the endangered animals than they expected.
        Eastern spadefoots – often called spadefoot toads, though they are actually frogs – have long been considered highly secretive and difficult to find outside of their one- or two-day annual breeding periods on rainy nights. In some years, they don’t breed at all. But after scientists reported just 50 sightings of the frogs over the previous 70 years, the Rhode Island researchers observed 42 spadefoots in 10 nights of searching last summer using the new methodology.
        “We collected all the myths and misconceptions about spadefoots that have been published or told to us by herpetologists, and we decided to conduct surveys to show that the frogs aren’t secretive, that
Eastern spadefoot (Anne Devan-Song)

they don’t only come out when weather is suitable, and they can be detected easily using a noninvasive censusing method,” said Anne Devan-Song, a former URI graduate student who is now a doctoral student at Oregon State University.
        While working as a URI research associate in collaboration with Associate Professor Nancy Karraker, Devan-Song led a team that conducted amphibian surveys in Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia from 2015 to 2017 by using a spotlight at night to detect the animals’ eyeshine in forests. A previous researcher conducted amphibian surveys at the park 15 years ago and only detected two Eastern spadefoots, but Devan-Song and her team found up to hundreds of them, even on dry nights, and a total of more than 3,000 individuals.
        “It completely contradicted everything we’d read about them in the scientific literature, with the exception of recent studies in Massachusetts and Connecticut,” said Devan-Song, whose research was published this month in the Journal of Herpetology. “The perception is that they’re difficult to detect in large numbers outside of rainy weather conditions, but I was stumbling all over them everywhere I went at this particular site, even in drought years when I was nowhere near a known breeding pond.”
        To be sure that she could distinguish between the eyeshine of spadefoots and the eyeshine of other creatures active at night – a concern expressed by previous scientists who rejected the spotlighting method – Devan-Song confirmed her ability to accurately identify spadefoot eyeshine by capturing every frog whose eyeshine she detected.
        Since the Virginia site may have been home to an uncharacteristically high number of the frogs, Devan-Song collaborated with Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management herpetologist Scott Buchanan to use her spotlighting technique at scattered sites around Rhode Island, where the frogs were believed to be located at only one site and were seldom seen there.
        “Spadefoots are at the northern end of their range in Rhode Island and are incredibly rare there,” Devan-Song said. “You can’t just drive around at night and hear them, and there’s little chance of finding them by chance. And yet with just a little bit of spotlighting effort, you can find them.”
        For sites that were occupied, the frogs were detected on nine out of ten survey nights in Rhode Island, the same rate as they were found in Virginia, and a new breeding population was discovered at a site in Westerly. In both states, the majority of spadefoots observed were sub-adults, an age class seldom detected using traditional survey methods.
        “The lack of appropriate methods has hindered the study of this species, which is considered endangered in many states, including Rhode Island,” said Devan-Song. “Without appropriate field methods, you can’t gather information about certain demographic classes and you can’t make accurate population assessments.
        “By looking for them only on rainy nights or only near ponds, it has hindered the study of this species for decades,” she added. “There is a huge amount of information that can be collected, especially on these overlooked demographic categories.”
        The research team has at least two additional scientific papers in the works that will shed more light on the life history of Eastern spadefoots, both based on the data collected from Rhode Island and Virginia. One describes the social structure of the species, which had been unknown outside the breeding season.
        “The general idea had been that these frogs are solitary and don’t interact much except when they go to their ponds to breed,” she said. “But the reality is that they’re doing lots of interesting things in the uplands. Their social structure is much more complex than we imagined.”

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Local monitors help to save piping plover

        On a cold morning in late April, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Maureen Durkin watches as a team of four co-workers test their skills at rapidly building a wire mesh “exclosure” on Moonstone Beach in South Kingstown. The six-foot, circular structure is designed to be put around a piping plover nest to allow the sand-colored birds access to their eggs while keeping predators away.
        Speed is key in building the exclosure, since the biologists don’t want to keep the birds away from their nest too long. The first eggs were expected to be laid within days, so the team was practicing so they would be ready.
        “Plovers like to nest on the dune edge, high enough above the high-tide line so the nest doesn’t
Piping plover (Mike Derr)
wash out and with a clear sight line to watch for predators,” said Durkin. “Moonstone is the stronghold for the population in South County, with 15 pairs nesting on site, but there are 11 or 12 other beaches where they nest as well.”
        South County has a conservation success story to tell about piping plovers. The small shorebirds nest on beaches from the Canadian Maritimes to North Carolina, but they have been considered endangered since 1986, when just 10 pairs nested in Rhode Island ­— spread out at Moonstone, Ninigret and Little Compton’s Goosewing Beach. The protection afforded the birds by the federal government allowed them to rebound to 85 pairs in the state in 2020. And when combined with the birds breeding on Massachusetts beaches, the southern New England population is far and away the most successful population in its entire range.
        “Eighty-five pairs still isn’t a lot, but it’s way better than 10,” Durkin said. “We’ve helped them return to areas that they nested in historically, and they’re on their way to recovery. Small populations are always susceptible to something happening, but they’re definitely in a better place here than they were.”
        During the breeding season from late April through August, Fish and Wildlife Service plover monitors visit the nesting beaches every day to check on the birds, install exclosures, keep track of when eggs are laid and chicks hatch, and talk to visitors to ensure they and their dogs don’t disturb the birds.
        According to Durkin, the threats the birds face are almost entirely due to humans.
        “Because the birds use these popular beach habitats where people like to recreate, disturbance is a big problem,” she said. “Off-leash dogs disrupt them off their nest, people disturb the birds, and predators are a big threat. Even the predator community the plovers face is influenced by humans – they’re human-subsidized predators like crows, coyotes and raccoons whose numbers are artificially inflated in beach areas because of humans. It’s something the birds have to deal with.”
        The birds are also vulnerable to being flooded by extremely high tides and storm surges.
        About 20 percent of the plovers on Rhode Island beaches have colorful bands or flags around their legs as part of research programs throughout their range, much of it conducted by University of Rhode Island ornithologist Peter Paton, whose wife Suzanne, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, started the state’s plover monitoring program.
        Peter Paton calls piping plovers “cute little shorebirds that blend into the background. They want to be as cryptic as possible to live on sandy beaches.”
        His most recent studies have examined the birds’ migratory habits to learn whether the plovers will be at risk from the offshore wind farms planned for much of the East Coast. For the last five years, he has captured the birds on their breeding grounds and placed miniature transmitters on their backs that fall off after four or five months. The transmitters send signals to a network of antennas up and down the coast that track the bird’s movements during migration.
        “Prior to our study, we knew that the birds migrated to the Carolinas, Florida and the Caribbean, but how they got there was uncertain,” he said. “We always see them on the beach, so we assumed they hugged the coastline from here to Long Island and New Jersey and down the coast to the Carolinas.”
        That assumption turned out to be wrong. Rather than following the coastline, the birds fly straight southwest from Rhode Island toward New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic States. Some even fly over the water all the way to North Carolina. As a result, most of the birds breeding in southern New England probably fly over several of the areas where wind farms are expected to be constructed in the coming years. Luckily, however, the birds typically fly considerably higher than the turbine zone, so they are unlikely to be affected.
        To remove the plovers from the Endangered Species List will require that the population grow to at least 2,000 pairs spread throughout their range, a level that must be sustained over five years. The population must also produce an average of 1.5 chicks per pair during that time.
        “We’ve made great strides, and they’re on their way to recovery,” Durkin said. “But they’re not going to be a species we can walk away from after it comes off the list. They will always need some level of protection, because if we suddenly pulled all the protective roping from the beaches, people would be using every square inch of those beaches.
        “It’s a balancing act that will require some active management,” she added. “But the future for the piping plover is very hopeful.”

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

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Meet the zoo chef

        Much like human children, the bears and monkeys at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport are finicky eaters.
        “Primates are famous for that,” says Don Goff, the zoo’s deputy director responsible for animal care and nutrition. “They’re big on fruits that are sweet when what they really need to eat are their vegetables,” he says. “Bears will also devour the fruit but turn their nose up at vegetables. We do what we can to get them to eat what’s good for them.”
        Providing a balanced diet for the zoo’s 300 animals requires the full attention of the facility’s zookeepers, who gather in the animal commissary every day to chop fruit and vegetables for the parrots and turtles, thaw dead mice for the owls, and gather crickets for the reptiles. The commissary, which
Zoo chef Don Goff (Jack Bradley)
opened in 2017, resembles a restaurant kitchen, with refrigerators and freezers lining a wall, shiny stainless steel tables and sinks for food prep, bins filled with dry foods, and recipes for each animal’s diet written on a whiteboard on the wall.
        As the chef overseeing what amounts to a gourmet restaurant, Goff tries to mimic the diets that the zoo’s animals would consume in the wild.
        “When we first started in business, we didn’t have a lot of nutrition information for exotic animals, so we extrapolated from what we knew of horse or cattle diets,” he says. “But over time we developed diets that are specific to each animal.”
        Goff spends about $150,000 each year on food for his charges. The grocery bill for just one tiger can top more than $3,000 annually. He works with numerous vendors around the country, including several Connecticut produce vendors, to acquire the highest quality food possible. Deliveries arrive several times each week to ensure freshness.
        “We try to vary their diets because their diets vary in the wild,” Goff says. “Small primates might get sweet potatoes twice a week and apples once a week. We vary the protein source for the carnivores. When animals are young, if you feed them the same thing all the time, you encounter resistance if you need to switch their diet for health reasons.”
        A varied diet can also have an effect on an animal’s reproduction. In the wild, maned wolves typically eat more protein just before the breeding season, so when Goff followed suit with the zoo’s wolves, it helped to promote breeding and the survivability of their pups.
        For some animals, portion control can be a problem, so foods are weighed and measured carefully to ensure that the animals don’t become overweight.
        “We have a numerical scale to score their body size so we know if an animal needs more or less food,” Goff says. “We also look at the time of year. If they’re heavier going into the winter, that’s usually fine, but come summertime we may not need to feed them as much.”
        Goff brings a lifetime of experience to his job as the zoo chef. He began his career as a zookeeper for the elephants and rhinos at Kings Dominion Park in Virginia, eventually rising to oversee the entire collection of animals, including 30 lions and nine tigers. He then became the curator of mammals at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida before moving to Connecticut.
        “It’s an adventure every day,” he says. “It’s a job where you don’t hate to get up in the morning to go to work. I’ve done some really neat things, and I’m happy that I’ve been able to contribute to the greater good of these animals.”

Sidebar: What's in the fridge?

A snapshot of the inventory in the Beardsley Zoo animal commissary:

1,500 frozen mice and rats
1,200 crickets
200 pounds of fish
500 pounds of beef bones
50 pounds of fresh fruit
28 pounds of lettuce and kale
15 colonies of fruit flies
10 pounds of earthworms
1 ton of carnivore diet
1 ton of feline diet
250 pounds of herbivore pellets
250 pounds of primate biscuits

        This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Connecticut magazine.