Friday, October 29, 2021

Overeager photographers may harm birds

        The increasing popularity of bird photography and the desire of photographers to showcase their images on social media is raising concerns that birds are being harassed and disturbed, leading to potentially harmful effects on their health.
        Bird conservation organizations around the globe, from the National Audubon Society to Britain’s Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, are asking bird photographers to avoid getting too close and reminding the photographers of the codes of ethics that many wildlife photography organizations have established.
        Local wildlife advocates have noted that it’s also an increasing problem in Rhode Island.
        “It’s definitely a problem here, and it’s getting worse,” said one longtime birder who wished to
remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “There are more photographers, and there are more forums that photographers can post their photos on. It’s an ego trip for them. They want to post their photos and get likes, and that leads them to harass the birds.”
        Laura Carberry, refuge manager at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge, and Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, said getting too close to wild birds can pose serious dangers to them. Birds see people as predators, and when people approach, the birds must stop feeding and instead exert extra energy they may not have to escape the area. They also may be forced to leave their nests unattended, making their eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation, thermal stress, or trampling.
        When a rare European bird was discovered at Snake Den State Park in Johnston last year and birders and photographers flocked to the site to observe the visitor, some photographers chased the bird across a farmer’s fields to get better photographs. Birders say that is a common occurrence whenever rarities are discovered.
        Owls are particularly sensitive to disturbance, Farrell said, and the managers of Swan Point Cemetery in Providence have resorted to putting yellow caution tape from tree to tree around an area where great horned owls have nested in recent years to keep photographers from going too close.
        “I remember seeing a photographer banging a stick against the bottom of a tree to get an owl to come out of its hole,” Farrell said.
        Other birders recalled when a photographer played a recording of a screech owl for so long that one of the nestlings almost fell out of the nest because it was so distressed by the recording.
        According to Carberry, Audubon has occasionally had to close parts of its refuges when owl nests have been discovered because photographers go off trail and disturb habitats to approach the nest. The organization has asked birders not to report where owls are nesting until after the breeding season to reduce the problem.
        “We often tell people that if the bird is looking at you, you’re too close,” she said.
        It’s not just a problem with photographers, however. Some birdwatchers are also at fault for similar behaviors. Some will play audio recordings of bird songs to attract the birds out into the open, for example, a practice condemned by ornithologist Charles Clarkson, the director of avian research at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
        “The daily energetic demands of birds are extremely high, even when they are not actively nesting,” he said. “Distracting birds from essential tasks — foraging, preening, defending territory — can leave them in an energy deficit, which is difficult to make up,” he said. “To lure birds in using taped calls can have serious negative consequences for individual birds and even local bird populations where taped calls are used regularly. It’s best to leave birds be and use your own power of observation to find as many as possible.”
        How to resolve the problem is unclear. Enforcing codes of ethics is difficult, and speaking up sometimes results in abusive responses. The Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative is surveying birders and bird photographers to assess the scale of the problem and to see if educational messaging and communication tools could be developed to address the issue.
        “I think folks lose sight of what they may be doing to the species they are trying to get a glimpse of or take a photo of,” Carberry said. “They should always think of the bird first and think if they are impacting it in any way. I think that if they put the birds’ needs first, they would be more careful about approaching a nest or getting a little too close.”
        This article first appeared on on October 28, 2021.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Feeling a little weasel-y

        My backyard has an assortment of large and small holes scattered throughout the landscape, all excavated by animals of some sort, and I enjoy watching their occupants scamper from one hole to the next. Most are home to chipmunks, which can be seen during most of the year filling their cheeks with sunflower seeds spilled from the birdfeeders and dashing off to hide them under ground.    
        The hole closest to my abandoned vegetable garden is twice the size of the chipmunk holes, and I have often wondered what creature lived there. One day as I walked by it, I was surprised to glance in and see a tiny face looking my way from six or eight inches beneath the surface. I’ve long suspected
Long-tailed weasel (Mia McPherson)

that long-tailed weasels might live on my property, and that’s what I think I saw that day, but I’m still not sure.
        Despite their small size – just 10 inches, half of it tail — and a dachshund-shaped body, weasels are voracious predators. Not ones to pick on small prey, they feed primarily on mammals like mice, voles, moles and shrews, which are nearly the same size as the weasels. They kill their prey by clamping their jaws down on the face or skulls of these animals and crushing their heads. It’s messy and vicious, but it’s usually a quick death.
        Last month, I came home from running errands, and as soon as I set foot in the garage, my eyes were drawn to the hose of my Shop Vac lying on the floor. Peeking out from the hose was a tiny face. Rather than retreating further into the hose, the animal slowly walked out into the closed garage. It was a long-tailed weasel, no doubt about it. And it seemed to have little interest in me.
        First cautiously, then boldly, it wandered around the garage, apparently sniffing out the mice that I knew lived in the wood pile in the corner. It crawled up the leg of my work bench, clambered over a pile of old rags and a container of screws, then disappeared into a bucket of kindling before reappearing from behind an old pallet.
        The animal’s stealthy movements while hunting contrasted sharply with what could only be described as a prance across the open floor — a happy-go-lucky hop with all four feet off the ground at once that reminded me of a cartoon sheepdog I had seen on TV as a kid. I couldn’t help but smile. My eyes continued to follow the weasel’s every move, but my body remained still, fearful that any movement would cause it to bolt.
        After about three minutes that seemed like 20, it had given up hunting mice and instead turned to figuring out how to escape from the garage. As I stood at the door, the weasel came slowly toward me, seemingly unafraid. It had apparently eyed its best chance for escape – a tiny crevice beneath the door sill that had formed due to the effects of three decades of harsh weather on the wooden frame. That was probably how it had gotten into the garage in the first place.
        The weasel took the most direct path to the outside – a stroll across my foot – then pushed its skinny body through the crevice and out into my driveway. By the time I opened the door to follow, it was gone. Why it decided to enter the garage in the first place, I’ll never know. But I sure hope it returns.
        This article first appeared in The Independent on October 21, 2021.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Little brown bats slowly recovering from deadly fungus

        Surveys of bat maternity roosts in barns and attics around Rhode Island suggests that populations of little brown bats, which had declined by 95-98 percent across the Northeast as a result of a deadly fungus, are beginning to recover.
        “It’s speculative at this point, but from what I see anecdotally and in the data, we’re seeing evidence of recovery,” said Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) who monitors bat populations in the state. “It seems like they hit bottom — at least I hope they did — and we’re seeing evidence of the bats rebounding and recovering to some degree.”
        Once considered the most common bat in the region, little brown bats are one of the species most significantly impacted by white-nose syndrome, a fungus found in the caves where the bats hibernate.
Little brown bats (Ann Froschauer/USFWS)
First discovered in 2006 in a cave in upstate New York, the fungus soon spread to bat hibernation caves throughout the Northeast. It has now been detected in 35 states and seven Canadian provinces, and it has been confirmed as a cause of death for 12 North American bat species.
        Brown began monitoring maternity roosts in Rhode Island in 2010, after the fungus had already had a significant impact on local bats, most of which are believed to hibernate in caves in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.
        “Female little brown bats are here in the summer in their maternity roosts, where they’re not exposed to white-nose syndrome,” Brown said. “But they’ve come from a cave somewhere like Vermont where they’ve been exposed to it all winter, and then they go back there the following winter and may be re-exposed. We’ve learned that some bats have developed a resistance and are persevering, but every year bats are dying and not coming back.”
        Nonetheless, little brown bat numbers seem to be growing in the Ocean State.
        “We’ve seen some maternity colonies blink out through the years, whether because they all died or because they got down to such low numbers that the bats ended up going to another colony,” Brown said. “My guess is that there are probably fewer colonies on the landscape now than there used to be, but in general, all of our sites showed good recruitment this year.”
        Brown and a team of DEM staff and volunteers visit each of 15 bat maternity roosts twice each summer to count how many of the animals emerge to feed at dusk. Some of the sites contain little brown bats, others have big brown bats, and some have both species. June visits tally breeding females, while July visits count both adult females and their pups, which are able to fly and feed themselves by then. Males do not spend time in maternity roosts.
        “We had good recruitment of pups this year,” he said. “Some years we don’t see that. But, in general, this year we saw bats that did well as far as pups making it to flight stage. Whether they survive their first winter of life may be a different story, however.”
        Rebuilding bat populations is a long, slow process, according to Brown. Female bats give birth to just one pup each year, and the pup survival rate during their first year is only about 50 percent.
        “We’re not going to see a significant recovery in our lifetime,” Brown said. “We’re not going to see numbers we used to see for a long time. We need to think long-term about protecting maternity roost sites. If they’re going to recover, they need habitat, they need places to feed, they need places to raise their young. We’re going to have to maintain our forests and open spaces. If we don’t protect habitat, there won’t be a place for bats to come back to.”
        Brown is also worried about the long-term stability of the buildings containing bat maternity roosts. An old barn in Coventry that has long been a maternity roost is collapsing and may no longer be maintaining the environmental conditions that the bats require to reproduce.
        Not every bat species in Rhode Island was as impacted by white-nose syndrome as the little brown bat, however. Brown said big brown bats, some of which also migrate to caves in northern New England, are less susceptible to the fungus.
        Bats that do not hibernate in caves, such as red bats and hoary bats, were not affected by the fungus at all.
        Brown monitors these other bat species by conducting mobile acoustic surveys — driving five 20-mile transects twice each summer with a bat detector mounted on his vehicle to listen for the calls of bats. He also traps and bands bats at various locations each year, though the coronavirus pandemic put all bat handling on hold to ensure that humans do not transmit the virus to bats.
        The data he collects provides insights about where various species are found and how populations are trending from year to year. He shares this information with the North American Bat Monitoring Program, which assesses regional population trends.
        “We know more about bats than we did 10 years ago, but we still don’t know a lot,” Brown said. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions, especially about bat migration.”
        Brown is particularly concerned about the impact of the growing number of wind turbines on migrating bats.
        “It’s well documented that bats suffer mortality at wind turbines, and I don’t think that’s being adequately addressed by the regulatory process in place now,” he said. “We know bats move in the offshore environment in great numbers. We know bats are attracted to turbines, though we don’t know why. And we know they’re killed by wind turbines.”
        This article first appeared on on September 30, 2021.