Paradigm of Change

By Anne Raver

This article first appeared in our WildfloraRI Fall 2021

One hot, humid day in September 2020, the team of volunteers at the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown were awaiting a backhoe to dig the swales for the demonstration gardens they were building around the rustic cabin that serves as the refuge’s contact center. The backhoe never showed up, so they took up their shovels and moved the dirt by hand.  “With masks on, it was brutal,” recalled Mark Cordle, a RIWPS member and URI Master Gardener, who co-leads the project with Nick Ernst, USFWS wildlife biologist. Nick manages Trustom as well as the four other refuges within the RI National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The volunteers laid down corrugated cardboard, soaked it, then shaped the mounds of soil — 15 cubic yards delivered from nearby Highland Farms. Janis Nepshinsky, who manages visitor services and outreach for the complex, purchased the weed-free soil and contributed earthmoving equipment. “Then we planted about 250 plants of 30 species in two days,” said Mark.

Group touring the restoration sites at Trustom Pond (photo ARaver)

A year later, a group of us from RIWPS were walking around the garden. Bumblebees nuzzled the yellow sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and white boneset thoroughwort (Eupatorium perfoliatum) still blooming in the rain garden. The garden now features close to 40 native species, including the sassafras and witch hazel already there and a beautiful old shadbush transplanted from nearby. Most of the plants were grown from seed collected from Kettle Pond.

That September afternoon, Dave Vissoe, who helped create this garden, leaned over a wavy-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum) eaten down to a nub by deer and nodded toward the white wood asters (Eurybia divaricata) next to the shadbush (Amelanchier sp.). “We’re hoping the wood asters will spread into the woods,” he said, gesturing to the trees to the north. But deer love asters of all kinds, so the team sprays them regularly with nontoxic repellents. On the other hand, broadleaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) and the goldenrods are unpalatable to deer, so these were flourishing.

The plants are labeled, so as I watched a bumblebee on a goldenrod, I could identify the species — wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia) — and remember how its tiny yellow flowers cluster in the leaf axils of the arching stems. I also studied how rocks were laid in a lined trench beneath the downspout that directs water off the cabin roof into the swales of the rain garden, where cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus), and other moisture-loving species were planted.

Dave had learned a bit about collecting seeds and propagating native plants from Hope Leeson, when she ran Rhody Native, an initiative of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. He picked up the art of winter sowing from Peggy Buttenbaum, who has taught us how to turn plastic containers into mini-greenhouses. By the fall of 2018 the gardens at Kettle Pond were producing a bonanza of seeds — so volunteers collected them for winter sowing.  “We laid out a tarp in one of the classrooms, so we didn’t get potting soil everywhere,” said Dave. The volunteers poked holes in the plastic containers, planted the seeds, and took them home to sprout outdoors.  They then re-potted the thousands of resulting seedlings in Dave’s backyard and set them in an old dog pen no longer used his Jack Russells.  “We grew 500 to 1,000 plants the first year,” said Dave. “This year, we had a bumper crop of 5,000 plants.”

As the Kettle Pond gardens flourished, Dave set his sights on Trustom Pond, submitting a proposal to the URI Master Gardener program, which funded the project in March 2020. “Trustom is a special place to me,” Dave said. “When I was a kid, my parents and I would go to Moonstone Beach to swim and crab in Trustom Pond.” His parents ashes are scattered here. After launching the project, Dave and other early leaders stepped aside.

Mark and Nick are expanding the project into the grasslands behind the contact station. “Our mission is really to create awareness of the benefits of planting native species for habitat restoration,” said Mark. “The demo garden is a classroom where you can see all the species with labels. But it’s unnatural.” It’s also a gateway for 60,000 annual visitors, half of them birders. “There needs to be a paradigm change in our yards and landscapes,” said Nick. “These manicured lawns and nonnative shrubs are ecological deserts. But a lot of people think native plants are messy. The goal of the demo garden is to show folks how great it looks.”

Visitors might remember a few labelled plants – then recognize that same native species in one of four restoration sites along the trails. “People can see these plants spreading out in the natural environment,” said Nick, who paused by the tall grasses turning shades of purple, mahogany and orange.  He showed us how to tell the difference between big bluestem, whose flowering stalk resembles a turkey foot, and Indian grass, which is more of a feather. “Indian grass is rare in Rhode Island,” he said. “But most of the seed came from the Midwest.”

He explained why a seed isn’t just a seed: “The plants in New England have evolved for thousands of years with local growing conditions,” said Nick. “So if you use seed from the Midwest, the plants might not grow as well here, they might have differences in bloom times that might affect their pollinators.”

Restoring native species (photo MCordle)

In 1995 USFWS seeded the 15-acre field we were standing in with warm-season grasses intended to provide habitat for ground-nesting birds. However, “there are no songbirds nesting here, because it’s so dense,” said Nick. “It’s not really meeting our objectives.” It’s also too small an area for many bird species to reproduce. So Nick is shifting the goal here to creating  a diversity of native plant species that are larval hosts and nectar sources for insects, including moths and more than 38 species of native bees.

But where to get enough local genotype plants is the challenge. “We were getting plants from Hope Lesson, but the Rhode Island Natural History Survey is no longer doing Rhody Native,” Nick said. “The Master Gardener partnership has really filled that hole, by collecting seed from local plants and putting them back on the refuges. Early last year, Mark and Nick chose four restoration sites with different topography and soil and light conditions. Then, the crew of volunteers and USFWS interns started clearing the invasives. A Bobcat Skid Steer grinding up a tangle of multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle hit a wall, literally.

The low stone wall was a remnant of the farm that once belonged to Ann Kenyon Morse, a sheep breeder and keen horsewoman who also flew fighter planes as a WASP during World War II. In 1974, she donated 365 acres of land to USFWS, which was the start of the 787-acre Trustom Pond Refuge.

As the team pulled out grapevine and honeysuckle, they found black cherry and shadbush. Clethra, spirea, and swamp azaleas were blooming in the wetlands. One morning, Nick spotted a hummingbird clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe, sipping nectar from a swamp azalea flower. They were puzzled by a large treelike shrub with mottled bark on the edge of the swamp. “I thought it was a viburnum at first,” said Mark, who snapped a few pictures for PictureThis. “It was a poison sumac. With a trunk 18” in diameter.”Its old limbs were leaning out from the edge of the boggy woods toward the sun, its leaves turning apricot-red.

The crew started planting in mid-August and worked through September, putting in about 5,000 plants sourced from Kettle Pond. Nick contributed 2,000 more, from Planter’s Choice Nursery in Connecticut. “I tried to get a variety of species the MG’s didn’t have, so they could use them for future seeds,” said Nick. “But I also got some of the same species, to increase genetic diversity. We don’t want to collect seeds from the same garden over and over.”

Nick and Dave had recently toured one of the Connecticut farms that are growing native plants for the Ecotype Project. Botanists collect seed from wild plants in ecoregion 59; organic farmers then grow out the seeds in ‘Founder Plots’; tens of thousands of seeds are then harvested from the plots and sent to nurseries. That basic model is exciting to restoration ecologists. “Maybe East Farm or organic farmers in Rhode Island could grow Founder Plots,” said Nick. I would love to see infrastructure in the Northeast to produce seeds in volume like they do in the Midwest.”

At some point, “if we wanted to transform the field at Trustom, we could plow up strips, then do no-till or broadcast seeds.” And this time the seed would be from this ecoregion, not the middle of the country.In the meantime, he and Mark will be interested to see how well the native species in the restoration areas establish. “Considering the bluestem and the thatch, it’s unlikely that they would without any kind of disturbance,” he said. “Maybe a prescribed burn or light tilling of soil would open up an avenue for those plants to spread.” But just having them flower and set seed in the restoration sites will increase the seed bank of local genotypes.

Mark took a break near a site where yellow thistle (Cirsium horridulum), rare to Rhode Island, was flourishing.  “To me, it’s like restoring an old historic house,” he said. “Only we’re restoring the plants that have been here for thousands of years.”

 

A Sense of Place: Kettle Pond

by Marnie Lacouture

This article first appeared in our publication WildfloraRI, Fall 2021

Dave Vissoe sharing his knowledge (photo PLacouture)

The native plant garden at the Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown had a serendipitous beginning. In 2016, Janis Nepshinsky, Visitor Services Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, received a $5,000 grant to establish a native plant garden for pollinators.

The center, built in 2005, offers information on all five of the state’s National Wildlife Refuges — Trustom Pond, Sachuest Point, Ninigret, John H. Chafee, and Block Island – and also serves as a central office for the complex. It is located on the forested upland of the Ninigret refuge, north of Route 1. The Rhode Island glacier, which created the Charlestown terminal moraine approximately 20,000 years ago, left many kettle holes and ponds as the ice retreated. The name Kettle Pond refers to them.

For years, Janis had imagined creating a “sense of place,” by transforming the grassy area outside the center into a demonstration garden full of native plants and their pollinators, to show how biodiversity is necessary for the earth and its inhabitants. It would embody ‘mosoquotaash,’ a Narragansett word meaning ‘we are all connected.’

One slow day at the center, she noticed that Dave Vissoe, who was volunteering at the front desk, was poring over notes and books spread out on the table. “He said he was studying for a Master Gardener class,” recalled Janis. “I had just gotten this grant, and I thought, ‘Boy, have I got the garden for you!’” That is how Janis’s dream gained a project leader and became a reality.

Dave, who grew up in the south end of Hartford, CT, remembers his French grandfather as a gentle soul who was a serious gardener. As a young boy, Dave helped water in his grandfather’s greenhouse where the damp, earthy smell drew him to love gardening. He admits that he was not an earnest student and calls himself a “late, late, late bloomer.” Entering college right after high school, he soon dropped out to join the army, then returned after completing his service. It was at North Adams State College, now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, that he met Bev Mickey, his future wife. After graduating, Dave landed a job teaching high school biology and chemistry in Bennington, VT; Dave commuted to work while Bev finished her senior year. We can thank Bev for not liking the Vermont winters.

The couple moved to Rhode Island in 1970 where they both taught at Davisville Middle School in North Kingstown until 1977 when Dave was hired by Silver Burdett, a textbook publisher. There he used his science background and honed his management skills, living in Rhode Island as a national consultant until taking other positions that necessitated a move to New Jersey, where he and Bev raised their family. In 2013 Dave and a friend began to remodel the house that had belonged to his parents in Green Hill, a coastal community in South Kingstown. He and Bev moved back to the Ocean State and live there today.

Dave enjoys people and has a gift for bringing them together. He is quick to credit the accomplishments of others while modest about his own. Mary O’Connor, a Master Gardener as well as a Rhode Island Wild Plant Society board member, joined the Kettle Pond project shortly after it began and was instrumental in getting Dave to join the RIWPS board. She said his energy and passion are contagious, so he’s a pleasure to work with, a sentiment repeated by all the volunteers I spoke to. He is joyful and upbeat, and I always smile after a conversation with Dave, whether it is about his visiting grandson or a favorite plant.

In 2014 Dave’s appreciation of nature had drawn him to volunteer at both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Trustom Pond refuge and the Kettle Pond Visitor Center. He became a Master Gardener in 2017 and dove immediately into the native plant garden project at Kettle Pond with Sharon Bridge, a veteran Master Gardener, as his coleader. Melissa Hughes and Darlene Trott each served for a time as coleader until 2019 when Erin Beuka, a Master Gardener who had recently moved to Rhode Island from New Jersey, took over. Dave describes her as a “powerhouse”, and Erin calls Dave a “dynamo.’ Erin is now maintaining the data bases originally created by Melissa from plot maps drawn on graph paper to track plant inventories and information. According to Dave, having this data has taken the garden to a higher level.

Native species grace the parking lot (photo DVissoe)

Dave’s many accomplishments have earned him The 2021 Rosanne Sherry Distinguished Educator Award from Master Gardeners.

Graham Gardner, a landscape designer and longtime RIWPS member, created a master plan for the garden consisting of several plots in various shapes and sizes before moving to Colorado. The plan was ultimately implemented by landscape designer Tysh McGrail, who had worked on many projects with him, promoting the use of native plants.

Volunteers prepared the beds, first removing invasive plants as well as poison ivy and maple saplings, then suppressing weeds with six layers of newspaper. Since the gardens were being planted over a septic system, they brought in weed-free loam to build up the soil. They pruned several overgrown winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata) that were growing along the building. They studied the prevailing wind, soil pH, and sun exposure to help match specific plants to the best spot. They laid out the curved plots with garden hoses and dug the edges deeply for neatness and to keep grass from growing into the paths. They layered the plants according to their height and bloom times.

Dave assembled an enthusiastic team for the first planting, which occurred over three days in mid-June of 2017. Nick Ernst, the FWS wildlife biologist for the refuge complex was there along with Janis, Tysh, several volunteers from Master Gardeners, April Alix and her summer intern Michael Bonilla from the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, and members of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society — twenty or so volunteers in all. Lorén Spears, a citizen of the Narragansett nation and executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, who had shared her knowledge of native plants and their uses by indigenous people, was also there on planting day. Although she was dressed for a later engagement, she couldn’t resist getting her hands dirty. Most of the plants, grown from locally sourced seeds, were obtained from Rhody Native, a RINHS project begun by botanist Hope Leeson. The rest came from a wholesale native plant nursery on Long Island.

A second planting was installed in October of 2017. The garden grew and the plants filled in as work continued in 2018 and 2019. In March of 2020, however, Covid restrictions meant that the garden would be tending itself until well into June, when volunteers returned to work practicing social distancing and wearing face masks. Dave continued to educate the public with video and Zoom presentations. Because he realized that the garden would be a source of comfort for many, he created safe guidelines for volunteers to work in small groups to keep the gardens weeded. The volunteers also installed a rain garden to the left of the visitor center entrance with a $2000 grant from RIWPS, although $750 was unused and returned.

An “adopt a plot” idea has been implemented recently in the hopes that maintenance will be manageable. Volunteers also can “adopt a plant,” learning all they can about it while tracking its growth in the garden. This information has been used to create a treasure hunt for school groups and as resource material for teachers, the general public, master and advanced gardeners, and garden clubs.

Butterfly milkweed seed pods (photo DVissoe)

In September, on one of the last days of summer, I visited the garden and was greeted by a tall clump of Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), the seed heads glowing in the afternoon sun. Goldenrods and asters were in their glory, abuzz with pollinators, and the fuel needed by the monarch butterflies for their long migratory trip was plentiful. The goldenrods included seaside (Solidago sempervirens), gray (S. nemoralis), wreath (S. caesia) and licorice (S. odora). There was an array of asters: wavy-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum), calico (S. lateriflorum) heart-leaved (S. cordifolium), New England (S. novae-angliae), and white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata). The pods of the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) were beginning to open, showing the white fluff of seeds inside, and the seed heads of the towering ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) were ripening. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a warm-season grass, was maturing to a lovely amber color. Several native vines, including trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), common ground nut (Apios americana), and summer grape (Vitis aestivalis) were climbing the posts of a handsome curved arbor built by Rudi’s Rangers, a local volunteer group. Nearby, tree stumps were positioned in a semi-circle, as seating for an outdoor classroom.

As I wandered the paths, the dedication and work of so many was evident. Although the garden is still evolving, it had grown into one that demonstrates the importance of native plants to pollinators and other wildlife, as well as their beauty.

Life on a Dogwood

—This article by Dick Fisher first appeared in our WildforaRI, Spring 2021

We are by now aware of the importance of pollinators in our ecosystem to promote diversity, fertilize native and food crop plants, and take their place in the food web. Pollinator gardens are the rage and for good reason. But the story does go deeper, so let’s start with a nice summer day last August.

Passing by an actively growing red-twig dogwood, aka red osier dogwood (Swida sericea), it was obvious some leaves were missing and stems were wiggling. Indeed the leaves of several small branches had been stripped and were being devoured by a large number of gray, striped, clamoring caterpillars. Although the shrub was small, less than one percent of it seemed affected. The caterpillars remained bunched together and confined themselves to the several adjacent twigs. Over the next few days their numbers decreased, and then they were gone; the red-twig dogwood did fine.

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This was a red-humped caterpillar (Schizura concinna) and is just one of 113 species listed in the National Wildlife Federation database that feed on the dogwoods in our area.1 Several species are limited to dogwoods only but most, like Schizura, feed on a multitude of native trees and shrubs.2

Lifecycle

The red-humped caterpillar is the larval stage of a small brown inconspicuous moth. The adult moth emerges from the pupa in the spring or early summer and lives only seven or so days during which the female deposits small yellow eggs on the underside of the host plant’s leaves. The eggs hatch in about two weeks to begin the larval stage as caterpillars and begin eating, perhaps increasing their mass one thousandfold over one and a half months until they are mature.2

As they grow they molt, shedding the outer cuticle and forming a new covering. Between molts they are known as “instars.” There are multiple instar stages as the caterpillar grows. The first instar is the larval form that hatches from the egg, and the final instar forms the pupation cell. Most butterflies spin a cocoon in which the pupa develops while moths usually develop an unprotected pupa cell. The red- humped caterpillar’s final instar drops into leaf litter and soft ground beneath the host plant and spends the winter in a pre-pupa stage. Pupation begins after the winter and ends with the emergence of the adult moth. In our area there is usually just one or perhaps two cycles per year.2

The red-humped caterpillars were not alone last summer. The dogwoods here hosted at least three other dependent species including the rusty tussock moth (Orgyia antiqua), the dogwood sawfly (Macremphytus tarsatus), and the yellow sawfly (Macremphytus lovetti). Sawfly larvae look and behave much like caterpillars but differ in some fundamental anatomical features such as the number of appendages or eyespots.3 True caterpillars belong just to butterflies and moths, but the life cycles of both the true caterpillars and sawfly larvae mentioned in this article are similar as is their dependence on the dogwood.

Diversity

We see these caterpillars and larvae for just a short time, but it is the time when they are most vulnerable. Schizura concinna, like the others, is a food source for something at every stage of its life cycle. The eggs are attractive to other insects, the adult moth is not a beautiful butterfly but is food for birds, and the pre-pupa and pupa stages are prey for soil organisms. The larvae, being highly visible, are at high risk, so much so that they have developed several defensive strategies. When disturbed these particular caterpillars show a collective warning display by thrashing about in unison, and they excrete an offensive fluid containing formic acid.3 Despite that behavior, they slowly disappeared over the next week or so, and I am not sure where they went. Perhaps some dropped into the leaf litter to begin their next stage, but many were still small and I suspect became part of the food chain for local birds.

In addition to our red-twig dogwood, two other dogwood species grow here: alternate-leaved dogwood (Swida alternifolia) and gray dogwood (S. racemosa). They flower and require pollination to produce seed. If not the red-humped moth then maybe another adult stage from the 113 species they host will help out. But they also have many non-lepidoptera pollinators including bees, wasps, and, yes, sawflies. The sawfly adults look like a cross between a fly and a wasp, they do not sting, and they can pollinate many crop and flowering plants.4

As the dogwood seeds ripen in mid and late summer, we can watch the birds clear them from the branches and disperse the seeds to begin the dogwood life cycle anew. The dogwood and its predators require interaction with the soil microbiome and the vast ecosystem it supports. It is all a fragile system, which we should take care to respect and support.

References
1  https://www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder
2  Wagner, David L. Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton/Oxford. 2005.
3  https://breedingbutterflies.com
4. https://www.whatsthatbug.com

Xanthotype urticaria (false crocus geometer moth), Cumberland, RI

Turn out the Lights!

You’ve covered the basics—planted natives for the pollinators, done away with insecticides and other harmful chemicals, and are whittling away at that huge monoculture so beloved in suburbia, the lawn. Now what? What more can you do to make your yard more wildlife friendly?

Beavers Rebound

This article by Anne Raver originally appeared in our WildfloraRI, Spring 2021

You can’t help but wonder how the beavers are doing on Rhode Island, if you read Jeff Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. Our RIWPS book club had discussed Eager in early March 2021, marveling at the abilities of this natural engineer, Castor canadensis, to hold and cleanse water, and to create habitat for myriad species of plant and animal life. (Beavers also flood roads, farm fields and septic systems; and they kill trees. But more on that later.)

Goldfarb fires the imagination with images of pre-historic North America, where beavers crossed the land bridge millions of years before humankind and may have numbered between 60 and 400 million before the year 1600. Forget that idea of clear, racing streams and wide rivers flowing through the wilderness. Beavers, driven to build dams, turn running water into mucky ponds and marshlands. As Goldfarb puts it, “a sluggish, murky swamp, backed up several acres by a messy concatenation of woody dams. Gnawed stumps ring the marsh like punji sticks; dead and dying trees stand aslant in the chest-deep pond. When you step into the water, you feel not rocks underfoot but sludge. The musty stink of decomposition wafts into your nostrils.”

Beavers, North America’s largest rodent, seem to be drawn to the sound of running water and driven to build dams of sticks and logs, packed with stones, grass and mud. These nocturnal mammalsusually construct a mounded lodge of logs and sticks in the pond behind the dam or on the edge of the bank. Plastered with mud, these cozy lodges remain above freezing, and are big enough for a male and female, who mate for life, to raise their young. The juveniles remain for two years, then move out to find mates and new territory. The pond has to be deep enough to enter and exit the lodge underwater, and to reach a submerged cache of tender stems of woody plants and roots for winter food. This watery lifestyle offers protection from land-dwelling predators.

Beavers’ back feet are webbed, and their front hand-like, clawed feet are built for digging and grasping sticks. Their incisors, which never stop growing, are sharpened and filed by constant gnawing. A beaver’s large, flat tail doubles as a rudder when swimming and as a prop when standing to chew down a tree. The animal’s transparent eyelids allow it to see underwater.

Indigenous people revered the beaver for many reasons. “Beaver is a hardworking animal,” said Lorén Spears, the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter. “It’s industrious, creative, and scientific in creating the type of dwelling that has multiple purposes. It also creates natural systems that create the balance that you need.” The museum, which is devoted to indigenous cultural education, takes its name from the Narragansett word for beavers.

Indigenous people throughout North America used the beaver’s fur for warm, waterproof clothing, its incisors for tools, its meat and glands for food and medicine. They traded these treasures with the first explorers, and then the colonists, who generated a craze for furs and castor sacs that Goldfarb likens to the Gold Rush. Beaver meat was also in demand, Goldfarb notes, once the Catholic church classified beavers as fish, which they are not, so that meat-lovers could eat this ‘fish’ during Lent.

“By the early 1800’s, the beaver had been extirpated from Rhode Island and much of New England,” writes state wildlife biologist Charles Brown, in Beavers in Rhode Island,  a guide he created for the Division of Fish and Wildlife, RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM). However, as farming declined in New England, forests regenerated. At the same time, a growing conservation movement and wildlife management practices, including reintroduction programs, brought back the beaver.

By the late 1960s, there were active colonies in Connecticut and Massachusetts. By the 1970s, trappers and fishermen began noticing chewed trees and peeled twigs in the western part of the state. “They probably traveled from Connecticut along the Moosup River,” said Brown, who joined DEM in 1999. By 1976, state biologist Charlie Allen had found an active lodge along the Trestle Trail in Coventry, in a tributary of the Moosup River. He later reported half a dozen colonies in the Moosup River watershed. By the 1980s, beavers were building dams in the Pawcatuck, Blackstone, Pawtuxet, Quinebaug, Hunt and Woonasquatucket watersheds. That’s when proper

ty owners started calling DEM about flooded roads, orchards and ornamental trees. By 1995, DEM established a trapping season. Brown extended Allen’s work with a survey of beaver and river otter occupancy. He covered the state’s largest watersheds—the Pawcatuck, the Pawtuxet, the Blackstone and the Quinebaug—on a five-year rotation from 2001 to 2012.

Beavers are now expanding their range in the northeast part of the state, primarily throughout the lower Blackstone the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket watersheds. “Beavers have defied everybody’s expectations,” Brown said. “I think it was widely assumed, they needed a certain amount of wild area, that they wouldn’t coexist with people. But they obviously have proved everybody wrong.” The determining factor, he said, is food. Beavers eat aquatic plants, such as cattails, water lilies, ferns and grasses during the summer, and the cambium of woody species, including willow, alder, cottonwood, poplar and red- osier dogwood in winter.

Their dam-building creates ponds and meandering side channels, marshes and wet meadows beneficial to so many plants, insects, and animals that biologists consider the beaver a keystone species. Brown has studied aerial photographs that show how beavers can change the landscape over decades. They can turn a forested red maple swamp, for example, into an open water marsh by flooding the area and killing the trees. “Great blue herons will nest in those dead standing trees,” said Brown. The quiet water channels provide nurseries for fish and amphibians. “Beavers will impound a section of stream with low topography, and sediment will accumulate on the bottom,” he said. If the beavers move on, the dam breaks down, “exposing rich sediment to plant growth.” That abandoned marsh then becomes a meadow, generating scrubland and trees.

Beaver ponds also filter pollutants and break down nitrates; their surrounding marshes serve as flood control and firebreaks. A study by scientists at the University of Rhode Island found that the processes of plants, soil, and microbes in beaver ponds could remove from 5 to 45 percent of nitrates in the water. Graduate students, led by Julia Lazar, collected samples from three beaver ponds in Washington County, during the fall of 2011 and the spring and summer of 2012. They paddled canoes into the middle of two ponds on the Chipuxet River and one on Roaring Brook to collect soil rich in organic matter deposited over decades.

Back at the lab, the students applied nitrate with a tracer to the samples. Bacteria in the organic-rich soil transformed nitrate (NO3) to nitrogen gas, which makes up 79 percent of our atmosphere. This process, known as denitrification, is constantly going on in beaver ponds and surrounding marshlands.

John Crockett, a master’s degree candidate at the University of Rhode Island, is building on Brown’s surveys in a joint project funded by DEM. The five-year project is focused on beaver occupancy and on the presence of river otters and muskrats. Crockett started out in December, on foot and by kayak, looking for dams, lodges, chewed sticks, and any other sign of beavers. One morning in late March, as we took a walk together, he pointed out a large lodge in the Great Swamp Management Area, in South Kingstown. He leaned over some dried gray scat, probably left by an otter, brushing it apart to reveal bits of dried fish scales, crayfish, and fish bones. Beaver runs, or paths, led up from the water and continued across the trail into the swampy woods. We found stumps of young trees and gnawed sticks with the telltale marks of sharp incisors.

Granted, beavers can cause problems for humans. In Westerly, where Route 91 bisects a wetland for about a mile, beavers have frequently plugged a As Brown said, “Beavers look at an existing dam, or a causeway bisecting a wetland, and they see the culvert as a hole in the dam, so they plug it up.” When beavers first built dams on the East Sneech Brook, in 2014, they flooded a swamp full of rare Atlantic white cedars, as well as hiking trails in the Cumberland Land Trust’s nature preserve adjacent to the Nate Whipple Highway.

Mike Boday, the land trust’s vice president, recalled pulling sticks out of an historic culvert that harks back to farming days. “When we broke that first dam, we released a few hundred thousand gallons of water and flooded the highway,” said Boday, who lives on the edge of the 154-acre forest and wetland. “The mayor wasn’t too happy about that.” The beavers just plugged up the hole again. “I would come in here with a garden hoe and break it open,” said Boday. “The next day, it would be filled again.”

When the Atlantic white cedars began to die, the land trust called up Mike Callahan, in Southampton, MA whose expertise in water control devices helps communities to live and let live with beavers. “We’re not going to trap them, because then you have to euthanize them,” said Randy Tuomisto, president of the land trust. “They do a lot of good, so we’d rather live with them.” Great blue herons now nest in the tops of the dead white cedars. There are wood ducks, muskrats and river otters.

Callahan visited the site and advised land trust members where to install each device—essentially a pipe driven through the dam, to allow water flow, surrounded by fencing to keep beavers from plugging the hole. Members built the devices themselves. “They work,” said Tuomisto. “But you have to maintain them.”

A large lodge, about five feet tall and 15 feet wide, sits within 50 feet of the hiking trail, which has been rerouted, and now includes a DEM-approved boardwalk and bridge over the beaver- engineered wetland. Another large lodge is hidden downstream. “You usually don’t see them, but if they hear a noise or notice the water level going down, they’ll come out and look,” said Tuomisto. “I was working away and saw this beaver about 20 feet from me. He slapped his tail in warning, and dove under the water.” To no doubt return later, to rebuild the dam.

“They work seven days a week; they’re not unionized,” said Boday, who has watched them, admiringly, jam sticks into the mud and push ten-pound rocks through the water. “They know exactly what they’re doing and they’re defending their home.”

Just a Thought on Invasives

Living in Charlestown along Foster Cove, it can be overwhelming to know what from what, and I have discovered that I have lots of each! I have seen my neighbors hire landscapers to clear out “invasives” but they end up just clear-cutting everything. The invasives roar back saying “thanks for the trim!”

The Plight of the Bumblebee

How many of us were out in the garden last fall, watching the bumblebees nuzzling the aster and the goldenrod. “Other pollinators may be in trouble, we thought, but the bumblebees are doing just fine.” Well, they’re not.

‘Canary in the Mine’ for the Salt Marsh

— This article by Deidre Robinson, Wenley Ferguson and Steve Reinert first appeared in WildforaRI, Spring 2019

If you’ve never experienced the sunrise over a salt marsh, inhaling the distinctive fragrance of hydrogen sulfide given off by decomposing smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and hearing the dawn chorus of marsh birds, you might want to explore one sooner rather than later. The marshes are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The saltmarsh sparrow is an obligate salt marsh specialist, living only in the marshes along the east coast of the United States. Rhode Island provides critical habitat for several small pockets of this threatened species, whose population has plummeted by 75 percent since the 1990s. With accelerating sea level rises, tidal marsh losses of 0.5 to 1.5 percent annually are predicted, likely dooming this bird to extinction by 2040.

We first spotted this sparrow at Jacob’s Point Salt Marsh in Warren on a steamy July day in 2016 while conducting a survey of breeding birds for the Rhode Island Bird Atlas. She was stealthily returning to her nest to incubate four small eggs. Rather than fly directly to the nest and possibly reveal its location to a predator, she lands in a patch of salt meadow several meters from the nest, then zigzags through the grasses running much like a mouse, a strategy that has worked well for it for millennia.

Locating an active nest of this threatened species is always cause for celebration, but we had discovered a bird that had been previously banded–an extraordinary bonus. Contacting the Bird Banding Laboratory at the US Geological Survey in Laurel, MD, we learned that she had been banded in Florida in the fall of 2015. She had likely hatched at Jacob’s Point that spring, over-wintered in Florida, and returned to breed in Rhode Island the following summer. Weighing the equivalent of just three nickels, she made the arduous round-trip of 1440 miles and now holds the record for the longest migration distance for her species.

This discovery launched the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiative (SSRI), a local citizen-science project to document the breeding ecology of this vulnerable bird. With permission from the Warren Land Conservation Trust (WLCT) to access its marsh property, we began a five-year comprehensive study of the sparrow, including documenting changes in the marsh flora and measuring the elevation of nests, which are increasingly vulnerable to flooding. (Read much more about our research on www.SALSri.org.)

During the first two years of our study, we banded 88 adult saltmarsh sparrows and found 101 nestlings. We also documented the elevation and surrounding vegetation for each of the 56 nests we located. We found that nests are increasingly subject to flooding, a finding consistent with other studies that report rising tides as the major threat to this species, which cannot survive in any other habitat.

This obligate species thrives in a healthy salt meadow community of Spartina for nesting, intermixed with saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), saltmarsh rush (Juncus gerardii) and maritime marsh- elder (Iva frutescens). Its breeding strategy is one of promiscuity, with males often perching on the marsh-elder to scan for females. (Typically, nests contain eggs fertilized by two to three different males.) The male is simply the sperm donor, who copulates with as many females as possible; the female is responsible for nest-building and feeding her young. She removes their fecal sacs and hunts for invertebrates in the grasses and water pools within close range of her nest. Nestlings must grow rapidly to develop from naked hatchlings to fully- feathered young birds, strong enough to climb out of the nest to higher ground or perhaps onto a marsh-elder before the flooding tides occur.

Nests have a domed canopy, which does help keep eggs from flooding out of the nest at high tides. The birds need about 26 days from nest construction until fledging, and lunar flood tides happen at least once every 28 days; this leaves very little margin for survival. Increasingly, marshes are also flooding before the peak high tides and again at mid-cycle, which dooms many nests. By measuring the elevation of all the nests, we hope to determine how high above sea level they must be for eggs and nestlings to survive.

The ebb and flow of the tides are vital to the health of the salt marsh and thus the survival of the sparrows. At the southern end of Jacobs Point, tidal flow was greatly restricted by old stone culverts that had collapsed under an elevated roadbed built in the 1930s. Without the flushing of salt water, Phragmites australis, a highly invasive common reed, had spread into the marsh. Increasingly, marshes are also flooding before the peak high tides and again at mid-cycle, which dooms many nests.

Working with the Land Trust, Wenley Ferguson of Save The Bay acquired funding in 2009 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Coastal Resource Management Council to oversee the design and installation of three new culverts. These arched culverts have increased tidal flow and created saltier water and less suitable conditions for Phragmites by flushing out the nutrient-rich runoff it thrives in. The culverts also drained standing water from the southern high marsh, where the saltmarsh sparrow nests. However, standing water in the high marsh to the north was still killing off marsh grass and degrading the peat, thus destroying still more of the saltmarsh sparrow’s habitat.

Save The Bay documented similarly degraded high marsh in a region-wide assessment of salt marshes in 2012 to 2013. This widespread degradation is largely attributed to accelerated sea level rise. To deal with standing water in the salt marsh to the north, shallow creeks, called runnels, were dug by hand and with a low-ground- pressure excavator. The runnels now drain surface water off the marsh, and high marsh vegetation is recolonizing the bare areas. The Land Trust and Save The Bay obtained funds for this project from the Coastal Resource Management Council and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Another goal of this ongoing restoration effort is to protect a stand of native common reed, Phragmites americanus, from a highly aggressive stand of non- native Phragmites australis, which has expanded in the last two decades due to runoff from streets and development. Both Save The Bay and the Land Trust are meeting with property owners along Jacob’s Point to discuss better ways to keep storm water runoff from roofs and parking lots from reaching the marsh. Reducing runoff and restoring more of the high marsh habitat would give the saltmarsh sparrow a leg up in its race against sea rise.

In the first nesting cycle of 2017, only one nestling was strong enough to climb out of her nest before it flooded. After the Rhode Island state motto, we nicknamed her Hope. Her name also recalls the title of Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers…”

Authors Steve Reinert and Deirdre Robinson hold master’s degrees in Wildlife Sciences and Biology, respectively, from the University of Rhode Island. Both have spent decades studying birds on salt marshes in southeastern New England. At Jacob’s Point, Robinson and Reinert have worked with Wenley Ferguson, the Director of Habitat Restoration for Save The Bay, to help improve the ebb and flow of the tides through the salt marsh since the late 1990s.

Prescribed Burn – Rx for the Forest

  • − This article by Marne Lacouture first appeared in WildfloraRI,  Spring 2020

The pitch pine forest has been an important but declining Rhode Island ecosystem since the days when fire maintained it. Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is a fire-tolerant tree that thrives on nutrient-poor, dry soil often referred to as a pine barren. Its needles are in bundles of three, and its bark is thick and protective, able to sprout new growth after a fire. It can hold its cones for a long time, even years. Although some of the cones have a resinous coating that fire must melt to release the seeds, not all require fire. The dry, non-resinous cones release seeds that germinate in the warmth of the sun if not consumed by wildlife. Many birds and small mammals, including eastern towhees and red squirrels, eat them.

The pitch pine community, which includes scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), common lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), hillside blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) and other members of the heath (Ericaceae) family, is important for biodiversity. It provides habitat for wildlife, including tiger beetles, whip-poor-will, woodcock, New England cottontail, and box turtle. Many small birds including warblers glean insects from under the bark and inside the cones. Sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis), rare in Rhode Island, and yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), both of which grow in these dry sandy conditions, are the only hosts for the larvae of the frosted elfin butterfly, which is listed as state-threatened.

Pine barrens in Rhode Island are found along the southern coast
 at Ninigret Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown; inland in Coventry, Exeter, and West Greenwich; and on Prudence Island at the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Over the years shade-tolerant species such as white pine, oak, and maple have crowded out pitch pines; their needles and leaves create closed canopies in the forests and thick damp litter on the ground. Tanner Steeves,
 a Department of Environmental Management (DEM) wildlife biologist, used the term “overstocked forest” to describe this.

Most Rhode Island forests are 75 to 100 years old, he said—not young and not old. Restoring pitch pine barrens will add diversity.

In 2005 Rhode Island wrote its first Wildlife Action Plan, which allows 
the state to apply for federal grants. Steeves said that DEM has worked with the Natural History Survey and other environmental organizations to write the original plan and revise it in 2015.

Native Americans used fire to keep woodlands open for hunting and berry production. Early colonists burned large areas of forest to clear land for agriculture. More recently a friend recalled his grandmother burning the family cemetery plot each year. Now it has become risky to use fire as a land- maintenance tool, since development has encroached on much of our forestland. Together fire suppression and population growth have caused loss of pitch pine habitat. There were around 30,000 acres of pine barrens in Rhode Island before European settlement, but today only around 6,000 acres remain.

Forest fires are relatively rare in the East, where rainfall is plentiful, while drier conditions in the West have caused a build-up of debris resulting in raging fires that have destroyed houses and caused loss of life. Wildfires could also occur in the East during an extended drought, since over the years without fires, duff has built up on the forest floors. Recent winters that lacked snow cover, climate change with its warmer temperatures and sometimes violent storms, and insect damage that has killed large areas of trees may also be contributing factors.

In the spring of 2018 after years without fire, Nicholas Farm, a DEM property in Coventry, was the site of a prescribed burn on 25 acres over two non-consecutive days. The goal was
 to restore the overgrown pitch pine barren and also the adjacent meadow to encourage native warm-season grasses and pollinator-friendly wildflowers. A prescribed burn is sometimes called a controlled burn, but fire experts agree that this is misleading. A prescribed burn, the preferred term, is carried out according to an intricate plan written well ahead of the burn.

Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC (NE-FFM), headquartered in Sandwich, Massachusetts, works with state, federal and private landowners, and environmental organizations to restore habitat. It worked with DEM to write the plan for the Nicholas Farm burn, taking into consideration goals for restoration of the environment; specific weather conditions such as temperature, humidity, and wind direction and speed; the existence of rare species; and the safety of the community. The boundaries that form the burn unit were configured with plans for fire breaks, and the local fire chief signed off on the plan. About two years earlier, a contractor had removed the tall white pines, oaks, and maples using an excavator with a mulching head, or masticator. The wood was left on the ground to dry until spring of 2018 when conditions were right for the burn.

A prescribed burn is a team effort. The one at Nicholas Farm included expert firefighters and others from DEM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, local Coventry firefighters, and employees from NE-FFM. Prescribed burns are kept low to the ground since a fire in the treetops could be disastrous. On the first day of the Nicholas Farm burn, the operation shut down early after humidity dropped and temperature rose, creating unsafe conditions. The second day went according to plan, and the burn was successful.

It is a sunny cold afternoon in mid-February of this year. Olney Knight, Forest Fire Program Coordinator with DEM stationed
 at the agency’s Arcadia Forestry Headquarters, leads my husband and me through the burned area at Nicholas Farm. Knight grew up in eastern Connecticut, volunteering
 as a junior member with local fire companies. He knows about fires,
 in particular the local wildfires that happened long before he was born. He tells fire stories like an old timer, belying his 33 years. At home in the woods, he strides easily through the thick understory of scrub oak and lowbush blueberry that benefited from an initial release of nutrients back to the soil. We follow along, struck by the sight of new growth from the trunks of the pitch pine that are black a foot or two up from the understory. The open canopy, which allows light to filter in, is stunning. The Southern pine beetle, a destructive pest found in Rhode Island, will not move from tree to tree as easily now, Knight explains, and its pheromones may not be as powerful in the airy canopy. Warm season grasses, mostly little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and switch panicgrass (Panicum virgatum), have grown in the fire-blackened meadow and glow in the winter light. Common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca] came in last summer, Knight says with satisfaction.

For the restored pitch pine barren
 at Nicholas Farm to remain viable, future burns will be needed. After several longtime DEM foresters with fire knowledge and experience retired, Knight has relied on help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forestry Service. He hopes to fill an open position at DEM, but hiring is stalled for now. If spring conditions cooperate this year, there may be a couple more prescribed burns on state land, but first plans must be written and funding sourced. Meanwhile Knight’s attitude is philosophical as he muses aloud, “I spend a lot of time wondering what these forests want to be.”

References:

Kuffner, Alex. (May 18, 2018) “What
in Blazes? They’re burning R.I. Forests, Turning Back the Clock.” The Providence Journal. Available: https://www. providencejournal.com/news/20180518/ what-in-blazes-theyre-burning-ri-forests- turning-back-clock–video

Gucker, Corey L. 2007. Pinus rigida. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/ tree/pinrig/all.html [ 2020, March 4 ].

Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan (2015): http://www.dem.ri.gov/programs/fish- wildlife/wildlifehuntered/swap15.php

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, 1983.

Entrup, Alex. (2018, No.1) “A Prescription for Fire.” Massachusetts Wildlife, Vol. 68, pp. 18-24.

Outdoor Learning: RIWPS Education Grant

A few years ago Charlestown Elementary School chose Outdoor Learning as a focus. The site was to include a short existing trail that ran through the woods, a large sand area and the parking lot.