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Calf Island: Overview

A month ago (early June, 2012) I arrived at the Steward B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook Connecticut to begin training for my current job on Calf Island. I’ll get into the training regiment at a later date, I suppose it might be interesting to someone considering entering the field. In the meantime. My last few entries have been annoyingly brief, largely because I don’t have a reliable internet connection on the island. Now that I’ve made the time to find a library with free wifi (and blessed AC), I think its time to explain exactly what I’m doing with myself out here.

After a few weeks of training and orientation, I finally shipped out to Calf Island. Calf island is a 30 odd acre dog-bone shaped island near Greenwich, CT that is half public access and half restricted. On the public side there is a “slightly” out of order float-dock (not connected to land during high tide), a large pavilion, and some forest. The restricted side contains a large chunk of dense, untracked, forest and a tidal marsh full of mussels, shorebirds, and mud. In between the two halves is a narrow strip of sandy beach that is currently also open to the public (it had been closed earlier in the season in anticipation of nesting that never happened). At low-tide a narrow spit of sandbar connects Calf island to neighboring shell island.

At low tide the spit is wide enough to play soccer on and is covered with birds eating the shellfish that live there, at high tide it’s covered in 4 feet (at least) of water.

The flora on the restricted side of the island is considerably denser than on the public side.

 

Another shot of the restricted side of the island. Most of what is visible is intertidal.

I currently reside in the pavilion on the public side of the island with one other island keeper. There are two small rooms enclosed on one side of the pavilion, one of which contains a propane powered refrigerator and our food, the other of which holds a pair of cots and our clothes. Besides those two rooms the pavilion shelters a large fireplace, three picnic tables, and a propane stove we cook on (when we have propane at least). The bathroom facilities are… rustic.

Obviously, this is all right up my alley, given the choice I’d rather spend my days entirely outside anyhow. So the fact that I’m really given no choice at all doesn’t bother me one bit.

The outdoor portion of the pavilion is actually quite spacious, the “bedroom” portion is visible in this picture, it is the tiny screened off section that was clearly added on as an afterthought. Its small, but I only really go inside to sleep or change clothes anyhow.

Our mission on the island is threefold. First (in my mind at least) we’re here to survey the island, identify potentially problematic populations of invasive plants, and remove them from the island before they can go to seed. At the same time, locating populations of rare or endangered plant species on the island would also be valuable. Second, we’ll be attempting to get an accurate idea of what wildlife the island supports, both avian and mammalian. Third, we’re to act as environmental interpreters to the few visitors the island attracts. We’d like people to treat the place with some respect and – if possible – leave with a greater appreciation of it’s value than they arrived with.

Our tenuous connection to the mainland.

I’m excited to get the wildlife experience, my bird identification skills have waxed and waned over the past few years, hopefully this will be an opportunity to really nail my shorebirds at least. As for the botany side of things, I’m pretty much playing to my strengths there, invasive identification and control is what I have the most experience in, since I expect I’ll continue to work in that field for quite a while, I might as well be good at it.

Moving to Connecticut: Finally on my merry way again

I’ve been in Pennsylvania for a little less than six months now. Too long, really. But although I don’t much care for sticking in one place this long, the time has been valuable. I’ve at least managed to stay employed the entire time (if underemployed) and taking classes through PSU’s World Campus has been wonderful. If anyone is on the fence about furthering their education but isn’t able to commute to a local campus I heartily recommend the correspondence (thankfully not mail based) programs Penn State offers.

But, although I’m only half done with my GIS certification (I’ll be finished in December), I’m heading out again. This time to the Stewart B. Mckinney Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut where I picked up a job as a Summer Island Keeper. (Which has to be my favorite title ever, I almost want to print business cards solely to show it off). Starting in a few days I’ll be a resident on Calf Island in the Long Island Sound. I’m thrilled.

Take a look at the link above, this place seems awesome. Moreover the job caters to my strengths AND allows me to branch out a bit. A large chunk of my time will be spent on Invasive Species management, which is pretty much my forte at this point, but I’ll also be able to help with some ongoing wildlife work at the preserve. Wildlife Biology is notoriously difficult to break into, and although I actually prefer botany, I’m eager to learn new things.

Pictures and new stories will follow.

Next up: Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

It turns out that in my haste to get last year’s stories written down I left out a few. Well, four I suppose. The first is another job report, this one from Piedras Blancas on the California coast (near San Luis Obispo). I spent a little bit of time there in September of 2011. Its a beautiful place, notable for being a historic site (see: ancient lighthouse) and for being an enormous Elephant Seal rookery.

The literal translation of the name ‘Piedras Blancas’ is apparently ‘white rock’ (I’m pathetically uni-lingual). The white aspect of which was donated gracefully by generation after generation of the resident Cormorants.

Harbor Seals, Sea Lions, and Sea Otters were also in abundance (or so I heard, I never saw a Sea Otter), but the burgeoning Elephant Seal population at Piedras Blancas was what drew my eyes.

And my ears. Oh but they were loud, audible faintly even through the walls of the room I lived in on site.

Even diminished as it was in September, there were dozens of the flubby behemoths stretched out on the beaches. Reportedly they were ‘weaners’ — juveniles who hadn’t yet mastered feeding themselves, but would hopefully figure it out soon — and so were undersized. Undersized.

The Elephant Seal juveniles in question. Looking lazy.

I’ve always known them by their enormous hanging (pendulous?) noses. To my dismay they don’t develop those right away. That was both disappointing and initially confusing, since as juveniles they look quite a bit like massively over-sized Harbor Seals. The picture here really doesn’t do the scale of them justice, but no one took me up on my suggestion that someone climb down the cliff and pose with them.

However, most of my time at Piedras Blancas was not spent looking at seals or lying on the kelp-strewn beach. While there we spent most of our time helping the BLM manage their ice-plant infestation.  Ice plant is a ground hugging succulent, apparently resistant to salt and everything but incredibly determined efforts to remove it. The folks at Piedras Blancas have done an amazing job of doing just that though. Leveraging truly massive amounts of volunteer (and intern) man-power to clear the historically and ecologically significant grounds of the lighthouse from its droopy clutches.

The Ice-plant removal went well enough, although our best efforts paled in comparison to what the volunteers had accomplished in the past. I’ll return to my stay there with more detail in the future.

That green mass of invasive succulent is the Invasive in question.

Atwell Island: Pull it all and let god sort it out.

As I’ve already mentioned, I spent the last half of the summer of 2011 working in southern California in a town called Alpaugh. Alpaugh didn’t have a whole lot going for it. However I have no complaints about the job I was sent there to do. Along with three other interns I spent the majority of my time in Alpaugh removing an invasive annual called Five-Hooked Bassia from a restored wetland area. I hope that my efforts actually made a difference, though its often hard to tell with invasive plants, especially those that have entrenched themselves deeply in the seed-bank.

Starting at Dawn was actually wonderful. I'm not so much a morning person as I am a horrible coffee addict that recognizes that pretending to be a "morning person" gives me an excuse to drink a pot of coffee before anyone else even wakes up...

Atwell Island was the name of the BLM site where I was stationed. Historically, it had been a wetland. Unfortunately as agricultural pressure in Tulare County increased the water tables dropped and the wetland that had been their for all of living memory vanished.

A mile in any direction is hard packed desert or cotton fields. Not here though.

Over a decade ago, the land managers in the Bakersfield office of the BLM decided to fix that. Slowly, the wetland at Atwell Island is being restored (its considered a “model” restored wetland in California by virtue of the fact that in spite of budget cuts and a climate difficulties, it still has water in it). The native plants and animals are returning, some of the waterfowl reportedly arrived days after the pumps started. It is a beautiful place already, and will only become nicer as time goes on.

At dawn. Most of the foreground isn't Bassia at all. Thankfully, it was thick enough as it was.

Assuming it isn’t dominated by an invasive plant first.

Over the course of the nearly three months I was at Atwell, we killed a lot of Bassia, a truly stupendous amount, we pulled miles of the stuff, racing against nature to get it out of the ground, dried, and burned before it could go to seed. We removed it with clippers, and hoes, and with booted feet and our bare hands when nothing else seemed to work. The soil was baked hard, and although the roots didn’t go deep, missing a root fragment and allowing the plant to recover wasn’t an option for any of us.

With Hoes. This picture was actually taken on an island in the middle of the wetland. Rowing to work in the mornings had a certain charm, I guess.

We did not succeed. The finale of the project was marred by the emergence of the Bassia’s seeds, each sporting the five barbed hooks that give the plant its name. They clung to everything they could, which was — of course — why the plants were everywhere in the first place.

With our Hands. For reference, the pile of dead plants in the background is easily three times the size of the car in the fore.

It would be easy to get discouraged by the fact that the seeds were already emerging by the time we finished the project, however the territory we finished prior to that day was impressive. Someday I’ll figure out the mileage. We did the best we could, even after it started going to seed we kept pulling, and we finished everything we had hoped (in our most optimistic of initial appraisals) that we would finish.

Two of my coworkers who haven't been getting enough photo-love so far.

And this project did matter, it wasn’t as exciting as herding Bison on Catalina, but it also felt much more like real land management. Assuming our removal of the Bassia takes, then in the future the native species that were planted to complement the man-made wetland area will have a better chance of survival. Their continued existence will allow a larger community of migratory birds and waterfowl to visit the wetlands, and a little bit of nature will be a smidgen more whole.

This road goes on forever, and the piles of dead Bassia do as well. A mile down this road the ponds start, even at this hour (high noon by the shadows) they would be alive with the activities of hundreds of birds and other animals.

The Catalina Bison Roundup (October to November 2011)

As I’ve mentioned, Catalina Island sports a fairly robust population of American Bison. Yes, THOSE American Bison, the ones that were nearly eradicated in the late 1800’s by wildly overzealous hunting. Normally native to the plains-states of the United States they have nevertheless made themselves quite at home on the rugged face of Catalina.

Introduced in the 1920’s for the filming of the not-exactly-classic movie “The Vanishing American.” After filming concluded fourteen individuals were left on the island due to budget constraints. With no natural predators and (if not abundant) sufficient food, the herd eventually swelled beyond its means.

Over time, Bison watching became a staple of the Catalina Island tourist experience. However, large grazing animals can devastate fragile grassland and sedge communities with ease and it eventually became clear that something needed to be done to control their burgeoning population. The current target Bison population for the island is (a somewhat arbitrary) ~150 individuals. A removal effort conducted several years ago achieved that number by relocating many of the females to the mainland (the bulls were deemed too large and aggressive to safely move) the resulting population is therefore heavily male-dominated a circumstance that benefits both tourists (everyone wants to see the bulls fighting during the rut) and the Conservancy (Reducing the number of females on the island greatly reduces the amount of work needed to carry out species management).

The current plan on the island is to administer a contraceptive (via dart-gun if necessary) to all viable females every year. The contraceptive in question reduces the ability of the target females eggs to interact with spermatozoa, thus making breeding impossible without the physiological effects of sterilization. The catch, of course, is that this requires all of the islands Bison to be rounded up every year for processing.

That was my job while on the island.

Broken down into simple steps, my days basically went like this.

  1. Arrive at work at Seven in the morning and feed the Bison we’ve already captured and penned. They weren’t, as a general rule, too happy about being stuck in the corals, getting out of the truck wasn’t a very good idea most of the time.

    ~20 Mostly Females, one calf.

  2. Once feeding is finished either head to the last known location of a herd or set out blindly in an attempt to find an unreported group.

    No Passing. For the love of god.

  3. IF we found a group half of us would stay with the trucks while the other half bailed out, grabbed backpacks, and attempted to herd the Bison in the direction of the pens using only strong language and thrown rocks. This worked about as well as you might expect it to. Bison are surprisingly quick, even on incredibly steep slopes, and could easily out distance us.

    They often had other plans on where they would be heading that day.

  4. IF we managed to get them back to the catch pens then everyone would get back in trucks and attempt to herd them manually into more secure locations. Again, this involved a lot of trial and error.

    We'll have to try again, but with more trucks.

  5. IF we didn’t manage to get them back to the catch pens (as was the case most days) we’d lay out a trail, Hansel and Gretel style, of alfalfa between where ever they were ignoring us from and the pens in the hopes of luring them closer before the next day.

    This didn't work particularly well, to be completely honest.

  6. IF we didn’t manage to find any on a given day we’d instead busy ourselves repairing the damage that the captive Bison were constantly inflicting upon the pens and hoping that tomorrow we’d have better luck.

All in all we managed to capture ~90 of the Bison roaming free on the island – that number including all but ~18 of the mature females – before our time ran out. Enough to call the whole operation a success, but not a particularly resounding one.

Especially since the last sizable herd of females managed to evade us with a newborn in tow.

~20 Mostly Females, one calf.

Catalina Island: Overview

The Valley of the Moons on Catalina

This past October I was employed on Catalina Island to help with the annual Bison (Bison bison) roundup. I’ll cover the roundup itself next, but first Catalina deserves the spotlight.

One of the eight Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, Catalina’s immediate neighbors are Santa Barbara Island and San Clemente Island.There are two major (relative to ghost towns) towns on Catalina Island: Avalon and Two Harbors. Avalon is located near the Southeast tip of the island, and it is where the majority of the island’s permanent residents reside. Its a tourist hotspot and a beautiful place to anchor, should you be of the sailing persuasion (As many of the part-time residents are). Two Harbors is located on a narrow strip of land (only half a mile across) near the center of the island. As the name suggests it boasts two (2) harbors, and is the location of the notorious (On the island at least) “Buccaneer Day,” an event I missed by just over a month, where residents and visitors alike dress up like pirates and drink heavily.

I’m actually pretty bummed I missed that. From the stories I heard its a fantastic time.

Anyhow.

Most of the island is maintained by the Catalina Island Conservatory (CIC), which does a fantastic job protecting the island’s fragile ecosystems.

Among other things, Catalina boasts several endemic plant species as well as two populations of a species of endemic (and endangered) fox. The CIC wages constant war with a never-ending influx of invasive plant and animals species and does so while attempting to maintain cordial relations with the island’s opinionated human population.

Previously the CIC has come under fire for removing invasive feral pigs and goats from the island, and its current treatment of the Bison is also somewhat controversial. However, given that the island’s Bison are by no means a native species and should therefore logically be removed completely, the CIC’s current plan to simply control the population via yearly contraceptives represents an elegant compromise between their desire to protect the native flora and fauna on the island and the local economies dependence upon the Bison as a major draw for tourist dollars.

An ongoing threat: Zebra Mussels in Massachusetts

An ongoing threat: Zebra Mussels in Massachusetts – Boston Science | Examiner.com.

Not pictured, picking something like this out of your foot while screaming in pain.

Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorphaare an invasive mollusc species, native to the Black Sea, that has – since its introduction to North America in 1988 – spread into many of Americas waterways with alarming speed.

Over the course of their 5 year lifespan, Zebra Mussels grow to be 1-2 inches long and are yellow with dark “zebra-like” bands running along their shells. They spend the beginning of their lives as free swimming larvae before settling onto an appropriate surface and entering the adult phase of their life-cycle. As adults they’re immobile and rely on their thick shells for protection from predation.

The environmental threat posed by Zebra Mussels can be traced to their amazing success at colonization; in some cases upwards of 700,000 adult mussels have been found on 1 square meter of suitable substrate. Zebra mussels are able to settle and grow on almost any solid surface, much to the detriment of most species around them. Beyond the simple fact that their presence can crowd out other species of shellfish they are highly efficient filter feeders. Filter feeders derive nutrition by pulling small particles of organic matter out of the water. In areas that have been taken over by Zebra Mussels this action can make the water significantly clearer. This change in water clarity can allow other species of aquatic plants, previously absent in invaded lakes and streams, to grow and flourish, and the lack of organic material in the water can cause other species of fish to go hungry.

Beyond the environmental threat is the danger that the mussels pose to boats, underwater pipes, and intake valves. Cleaning surfaces upon which they have established themselves is an intense process which costs millions of dollars a year. Additionally, the shells left over when Zebra Mussels die are sharp and can wash ashore in such great numbers that they completely cover beaches surrounding areas where they are prevalent.

Zebra Mussels were first discovered in Massachusetts in July of 2009 in Lake Laurel. Several Massachusetts governing bodies, including the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, quickly drafted a plan to respond to the threat posed by a successful invasion by the molluscs. The object of their initial efforts was largely to contain the invasion while a more comprehensive plan could be drawn up by closing the boating ramps and requiring that all boats be stored out of water for the duration of the season. Unfortunately, these temporary measures did not succeed in containing the spread of the mussels.

Currently there are several ways of dealing with Zebra Mussels. Obviously, manual removal, while effective at removing the mussels from where they have become established, is labor intensive and expensive. Studies have shown that they are vulnerable to high temperatures, and die when the water around them reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, because of the nature of their reproduction some scientists believe that it might be possible to interfere with their ability to breed. If that were to be the case then the state officials currently fighting the spread of Zebra Mussels would have a powerful new weapon to help with their work.

Fighting the Asian Longhorn Beetle: A 50 million dollar battle

Fighting the Asian Longhorn Beetle: A 50 million dollar battle – Boston Science | Examiner.com.

The USDA first confirmed the presence of the Asian Longhorned Beetle in Worcester in early August of 2008. The combined state and federal government’s removal effort is still ongoing, and has — at last count — cost approximately 50 million dollars. This expense – large as it is – constitutes a reliable indicator of just how great a threat the Asian Longhorned Beetle poses to local forests. However, despite the best efforts of the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, the pest continues to spread across the state. As evidenced by the fact that recently (August of 2010), Asian Longhorned Beetles were confirmed to have entered Boston.

The Asian Longhorned Beetle nests in the living tissue of many native trees – Maples, Willows, Elms, Birches, and Horsechestnuts to name a few – making hollows beneath the bark that can eventually prove fatal for the tree. A full-fledged invasion of Massachusetts’ forests could therefore prove to be extremely bad for the health of local forests, as well as to the survival of the industries that depend on their health for revenue.

Currently, infestations of Asian Longhorned Beetles are dealt with with a combination of strict quarantine measures in infested areas, pesticides containing the chemical imidacloprid, and the removal and thorough destruction of infested trees. The USDA has urged Massachusetts residents to keep a careful eye out for Asian Longhorned Beetles and to continue to honor the policy of not removing wood from the quarantine areas.

As is true for most management efforts, locating members of the target invasive species before they are able to breed in an area is crucial to reducing their numbers. Unfortunately, Asian Longhorned Beetles breed quickly, with females laying their eggs in pits they chew out in the bark of infected trees. Once the eggs mature into larvae, they burrow their way into the living tissue of the tree and enter the pupal stage. Adult beetles emerge the spring following their hatching by tunneling straight outwards through the bark of the tree, creating large holes as they exit their nurseries. Infected trees are easily identified by the presence of sawdust like ‘frass’ littering the bark and the ground around them. This sawdust is generated by the actions of the beetles within the still living tree.

Once detected, the USDA recommends a specific strategy to control the spread and reproduction of the invading beetles. After quarantining the area surrounding the infected trees, all potential host trees within half a mile of the original detection are treated with pesticides. Depending on the severity of the infestation, and on the specific qualities of the forest in question, infected trees may be removed entirely rather than simply sprayed. In this case a replanting treatment follows the eradication of the beetle from the area.

This method of controlling the spread of the Asian Longhorned Beetle has shown itself to be effective –so far — at treating beetle invasions. An Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation in Chicago was effectively removed this way. Hopefully the infestation in Massachusetts will likewise be eliminated. In the meantime, both the state and federal governments urge citizens to continue to report beetle sightings.

Problematic invasive animal species in Massachusetts

Problematic invasive animal species in Massachusetts – Boston Science | Examiner.com.

As noted in an earlier article, Massachusetts is an unwilling home to a large variety of invasive plant species. Unfortunately, the problem of invasive species is not restricted to just plants. Invasive animal species can be equally detrimental to the biodiversity and health of an ecosystem. Massachusetts, like most other parts of the world, is now host to dozens of non-indigenous and possibly dangerous animal species. Their numbers include the Zebra Mussel (Dreissena polymorpha ), which was originally from Russia and the Asian Longhorn Beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis ), which likely arrived in the US in the wooden boards that made up shipping crates and pallets.

Zebra Mussels are freshwater molluscs that were first detected in the great lakes region in 1988. With no natural predators to curb their population they quickly spread in all directions. Massachusetts was fortunate in that its waterways remained clear of the problematic animal until 2009. In other areas of the country they spread far faster, arriving California – presumably for the first time – earlier this year. Once present in a lake, stream, or river they quickly multiply, eventually completely covering every surface they can colonize. Their huge numbers affect, among other things, the clarity and organic content of the water and the other types of molluscs and fish that can survive in the area. Additionally, they have a tendency to clog the machinery of water treatment and power plants.

The Asian Longhorn Beetle is a large insect with long white and black antennae that only recently arrived in Massachusetts – although it has been present in the United States for several years. It is known for making its home within a wide variety of trees, including Red Maples, Elms, and Willows. These trees have no natural defense against the unfortunate attentions of the Asian Longhorn Beetles and so infestations are typically fatal for the host plant. This past March, following the discovery of a live beetle in Worcester, Massachusetts, the USDA launched an extensive eradication campaign in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, while such campaigns can be locally effective, the species remains at large throughout much of the northeast and, even optimistically, it will likely take years to exterminate fully (if it is possible to remove it at all).

A quick look at invasive plant species in Massachusetts

A quick look at invasive plant species in Massachusetts – Boston Science | Examiner.com.

Invasive plant species are exotic, or non-native, plants that are able to grow and thrive in locations different from where they originally evolved. Specifically, invasive species are exotic species that are detrimental to their native neighbors. In some cases, the presence of exotic species in a habitat can have negative effects on local biodiversity and on the health of native plant and animal populations. However, this is not always the case, in part because most species of plants and animals are not able to survive – let alone thrive – when removed from the environments that they are adapted for. As a result, many popular garden plants are “exotic.” However, only a few are ever considered “invasive.”

Exotic species might come to an area for any number of reasons. Often, the term “invasive” is reserved for plants or animals that have been moved to a new area specifically by humans, rather than migrating on their own. The Department of Agriculture recognizes 147 different species of invasive / noxious weeds within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Among their number is the ornamental shrub Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), the biannual herb Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), and the fast-growing Mile-A-Minute Vine (Mikania cordata).
Japanese Barberry was brought to the USA in the late 1800’s to serve as a decorative hedge for gardens in the north-east. It was quickly found to be shade tolerant, it grows thickly, and it is resistant to deer. Unfortunately, the same qualities that make it a valuable shrub for someone’s backyard also allow it to grow extensively in the forest understory. Its presence in the understory blots out light, which makes it extremely difficult for other plants to grow. Garlic Mustard, which was likely imported as an edible garden plant, flourishes in fringe habitats (like those found alongside highways) and could possibly poison the soil it grows in leaving it uninhabitable for other species of plants. Finally, Mile-A-Minute Vine, first seen in the continental US in Oregon around 1890, is capable of completely covering and killing small trees and shrubs if not removed quickly.

Other invasive plants exist across the world, some species take advantage of niches in the ecology left unfilled before their arrival, others are able to thrive because they have no predators in their new home. Some species are largely harmless. Others, like the three mentioned above, are dangerous not only to the plants and animals directly effected by their presence, but can also negatively impact human activities in areas they have infested. As a result, both state and federal government agencies are devoted solely to the removal of invasive species from areas where they have become prevalent.

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