Wednesday, April 19, 2017

MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Week 12

April 10 - April 16 "For the Sake of Frogs"

          All pictures are from moving frogs and salamanders several nights after delineating the vernal pools, all frogs and amphibians being in the Unity area and not near the aforementioned vernal pools. Above, a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvatica).          

Wetlands are vital pieces of land. They are dwindling in number and are used by essentially all wildlife species in some way or another. However, sometimes people need to build within them, destroying habitat. Mitigating this balance is part of the job, and this week, Keel and I surveyed a newly purchased piece of property to determine where to put a new road that would have the least impact on vernal pools on the property.

So, a few details here. Vernal pools are small seasonal pools that fill in the spring and dry out by summer, keeping aquatic predators out. These are vitally useful for frogs and salamanders to breed, so protecting them is of importance. The road in question would be going into Togus Pond to a boat launch to be constructed by MDIFW to allow access to the pond. This would involve cutting through this newly purchased property, which is riddled with vernal pools, gigantic glacial erratic boulders, and mounding terrain.

Of course, not only are there nature requirements, there are people requirements too. The road has to be easily accessible, have a decent sight-line when exiting (for safety reasons; if one can't see too far down the road, it is easy to imagine how a large truck towing a boat out of the road could cause potential problems with incoming traffic), and be easy to construct. This means that wherever there was a glacial erratic, it would likely impede work, as these boulders are just massive. In addition, the road is on a strong curve, so the sight line is already minimal and can't be shrunk much more. The terrain is also hilly, so more fill will be needed in loping spots than flatter spots.

Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculosus) swimming up a small runoff stream to a breeding pool.

This whole process of trying to decide the best spot to put something is called "delineation", and since it's related to wetlands, it's "wetland delineation". Some of you may have heard this before, and now you know what it means!

We ended up lucking out to some degree; right near the area of the longest sight-line is a slight rise above the vernal pools that travels in the form of a ridge toward the pond, carrying pine trees in a "bridge" of sorts out of the vernal pool area. Glacial erratics were minimal, slopes were relatively constant, the sight-line was good, and access was doable. We found our spot!

I certainly feel that these are my favorite skills gained while on the job; it's cool to learn field techniques about measurements and data collection, but actual management decisions seems to carry more weight and require more strategic thinking. I enjoy that.

Blue-spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) being moved across a road in Unity.

MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Week 11

April 3 - April 9 "Destroying 1000 feet of shoreline is not 'minimizing impacts to the environment'!"
This week started off somewhat slow, with even more data entry being done and testing/preparing Indian water tanks for a controlled burn coming up (for those that don't know, Indians are water tanks worn like a backpack, with a hose leading out of it to a nozzle that, when pumped, will shoot a stream of water). However, by the end of the week, I was back in the field and doing some fun things.

Keel sent me out to cover his winter severity index station in Canaan, which, if you recall from earlier, is simply an area where we measure factors related to how bad the winter is for deer by taking snow depth and deer track depth measurements.
This station was fairly quiet. I don't recall a time where I have actually been on my own in the woods in this internship, and while I certainly do enjoy my coworkers, it felt nice to be out there on my own. It was so silent; one might hear the snow melting if they listened just a little harder.

 There was a fair amount of wildlife sign too. Thankfully, lots of deer tracks showed through the snow, demonstrating a decent ease of movement through the woods. There were also lots of grouse and hare tracks, winding about between thicker areas as they moved from cover to cover to find some late winter/early spring food.

When I got back, Keel had me read an article about how it was recently the 80th birthday of the Pittman-Robertson Act, which uses taxes on ammo and guns to fund wildlife conservation. These funds skyrocketed under the Obama administration as paranoia over gun laws grew, and since then they have tanked under the Trump administration, hurting the funding for wildlife and environmental protection more so than if Trump decided not to cut funding to the EPA.

Afterwards, he handed me a fairly large stack of papers. I expected more data to enter. He told me it was an application to the EPA to create anti-erosion riff-raff along a private shoreline in Bristol, as applied for by a citizen. Any project that requires major construction or alteration of the environment in some way is required to be approved by the EPA, which will then send us the application to review to ensure no jeopardy is being done unto wildlife.

The proposal was to reinforce a thousand feet of shoreline on a coastal marsh in Bristol, where a homeowner was hoping to save their land from becoming engulfed by ocean. Within the application, there were notes of reducing impact as much as possible, no endangered species were in the area, it wouldn't be an eyesore, the method seemed environmentally friendly, and creating new habitat where any old habitat was damaged. Overall, it sounded nice, but after a little investigating, we saw absolutely no erosion damage over the course of twenty years, felt as though one thousand feet of developing was extensive, and that this would likely damage property elsewhere by diverting wave energy onward to someone else's yard, where erosion would actually increase slightly, thanks to the riff-raff.

Long story short, we gave it a no.

Alrighty folks, that's all for today, thank you for reading this week's post!

MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Intern Week 10

March 20-April 2 "Duck-box Highlights"

I can't believe it, but the wood duck box maintenance season has come to a close with ice conditions no longer safe (or existing).

A few more things have happened with boxes and a few things are worth remembering. This post will be a picture intensive recap of the wood duck box experience. Until we meet again, duck boxes!

1. The time I broke my one and only hammer trying to put up a duck box on my own, a week after I damaged my boss's truck.

2. When Zach made a fool of me on the ice after our major snow storms, and I just continuously sunk (but I did learn how to fix that issue!)

 3. Absolutely gorgeous days on untouched lakes and ponds.

4. Finding out eggs that have been rotting for months and frozen are incredibly loud upon impacting ice. I'm not even joking - some are comparable with a .22 rifle shot. Zach, hundreds of yards away, would regularly hear the eggs I lightly TOSS onto lakes explode.

5. Doing box maintenance off the 95, and wondering how many people must be wondering if we're game wardens (also coming up with the tune "They're wood duck, they're wood duck boxes" in the style of Copacabana by Frank Sinatra).

5. Finding chick mortalities of those who couldn't escape the box for whatever reason. It's certainly a shame, however, their siblings got out, so something may have impeded them from the start.
 6. Keel's face.

 7. Glassy conditions when we first started. We contemplated coming out with ice skates to make the process even faster, but then we got all of that snow.
 8. The Wood Duck Box Massacre of '17. All boxes vandalized except one. No culprit found.

 9. Finishing boxes early at St. Albans and having a blast riding around on a lake to enjoy the last few minutes of sunlight (also learning power turns from Zach).
 10. Finding dump nests.
 11. Finding all sorts of animals in the boxes, from dead ducklings, to mice, to dead birds.
 12. Assisting in the fitting and fabrication of the new solar powered duck box viewing exhibits on Swan Island.

13. And finally, all of the hooded merganser and wood duck eggs I've seen, and the confidence that my work will be helping maintain these two beautiful waterfowl species.

Maine DIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Intern Week 9

March 13 - March 19 "Aging Otoliths and All the Data"

Fisheries experience in this internship is very coveted by me; as a wildlife biology major, I don't get to encounter fisheries things all that often. Everything I do in fisheries is something I've never done before and will likely be my only fisheries experience through my college career.

This week, we aged the pike, perch, and crappie from Sabattus Pond (back when I did the Creel Census in early February). This is done by removing the otoliths from just behind the skull, which are tiny bones that function as part of the ear in fish. Otoliths have rings throughout them, and each ring represents a year in the fish's life. Additionally, the cleithrum, a bone located behind the gills, can be aged in the same way. It's remarkable to me how many things in nature can be "aged like a tree". What if trees can be aged like cleithrums? Or otoliths can be aged like cementum annuli on bear teeth? Or can you age bear teeth like the annuli on turtle shells? All of these are technically correct, and also very useful in the wildlife world.

Scott Davis, one of the fisheries biologists at Sidney, has been around in the department for a while. That's especially evident when he introduced me to this projecting microscope that looked absolutely ancient, but was definitely cool and something I'd like to see come back for folks like me who occasionally get nauseous or strained looking into a compound microscope.

Of course, in the science field, data is essential to making our decisions and conclusions. The best part about data is collecting it; the most disliked part is processing it. For us, we have stacks upon stacks of forestry data, wildlife data, and fisheries data, all of which need to be entered into a database or crunched somehow.

My downtime is essentially data entry time, which includes entering piles of forestry data about Swan Island. This is data about the forest plots throughout the island, all of which is being input to the widely used NED software for analysis later. This is fairly tedious as it's information about individual trees (including DBH, quality of wood, pulp feet and board feet), so it is somewhat time consuming, but it does help the time pass when nothing is left to do.

That is all for this week, thank you for reading!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Maine DIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Intern Week 8

March 6 - March 12 "Wildlife Crime and Playful Mustelids"

So yes, once again it was time to do boxes for our beautiful Wood Ducks, but this time we had an interesting twist; we received calls from locals that somebody had gone around and vandalized some boxes in Whitefield. We armored up with a fleet of duck boxes to replace those that were vandalized, grabbed the sleds, and got out there. 

Now, this certainly isn't the Maine wildlife crime of the century, but someone did do quite a number on those boxes. Thankfully, there are no inhabitants at this time of year, and anybody who broke into them would have found just empty nests of sawdust or rotting eggs that didn't hatch.

This is just one example of several duck boxes that were destroyed. It appears someone used a hammer or hatchet to break them open.

Four of five boxes on that body of water needed replacing. Oddly enough, the only one not broken into was unused. On the bright side, all of those that were used and destroyed have nice, brand new duck boxes to move into for the spring.
*sparkle sparkle*

After replacing all of the destroyed boxes, we rallied the sleds back onto the trailer, and in doing so noticed a small cord attached to something before a culvert ran under the road. It was a minnow trap which has been there for god-knows how long, baited with an old hot dog. It was unmarked and un-tagged. Within it was what I was hoping not to see; a plethora of animals who were trapped and didn't survive.

Within were all sorts of fish, several shrews, and some amphibians. Luckily, one was a newt, which is capable of surviving underwater, and was alive but sluggish from the cold. I released him back into the marsh, dismantled the trap, and left a business card with IFW's info on it so that whoever left the trap would know who to call. It's very easy to harm a diverse array of wildlife and turn a harmless trap into a death trap just by forgetting about it. While this is the only one I've found on the job, I have found many over the years, and would highly encourage everyone to monitor their traps and be sure to remove them before rain storms or winter; they can oftentimes float away and become an undetectable killing machine.

On the bright side, we did have a few fun encounters while out tending to the area's problems. When we arrived, we observed a mink slinking about on the other side of the marsh, weaving in and out of reeds and small holes, hunting for any rodents he could find. Mustelids (weasels) always humor me; they just seem to do whatever they please, tear up everywhere they go like a wild teenager on a dirt-bike, run up a mountain for fun, and hunt prey many times their size.

This was only emphasized by the coolest tracks I've ever seen going across the ice.

Run and jump!

These are the tracks of an otter, which are among the most playful of the mustelids. Originally thinking this was a beaver due to the drag marks, a closer look revealed much smaller tracks, and there were odd spaces between the drags and then suddenly, no drag (really, it turned into somewhat of a gallop). It took a moment for me to put together the fact that these are otter tracks, and he was having a blast running, jumping, and sliding across the ice early that morning. Tracks along the slide marks are where he pushed himself along to keep his rocket-like body propelling forward. Between their sleek designs, fine fur, and oily coat, they really are nature's best toboggans.

That is all for this week, thank you for reading! 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Maine DIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Intern Week 7

February 27-March 5 "I bet you $10 it's not a snowy owl"

Image result for snowy owl
I don't have any pictures and am yet to actually see a snowy owl, so here is one from Google commons.

People call the department all the time with questions about wildlife. A lot of the time, these questions have very simple answers and can often drive a busy biologist crazy; sometimes, it's easy to lose track of the "wildlife-knowledge-gap" between you and other citizens. Doing this for many years will make you forget that what you know is not common knowledge.

These frustrations become apparent when calls come in from all sorts of folks; from confused senior citizens thinking a domestic cat is likely a mountain lion ("Please stop sending me pictures of your coon cat" Keel will say under his breath), registered Maine guides not knowing what just ran in front of him (we couldn't get enough detail to figure it out), and occasionally, a concerned homeowner with a dead owl under her feeder.

When this woman called, she was obviously very concerned and sounded like she may have been an experienced birder, referencing the species of birds that come and go on her feeders. She noticed an owl, belly up, on her lawn directly under the feeder on that same morning. The belly was white, and given her descriptions of it, it sounded like she knew some ornithological terms, so I was quick to believe her when she said "it's a snowy owl."

For those that don't know, snowy owls are a seasonal migrant of Maine that fly in from the Canadian tundra during the winter. When they arrive, they'll pick out areas of large, open expanses, such as beaches, airports, lakes, and large fields to spend the winter in. They're a real treat to see, and I've yet to see one.

However, before we went to retrieve it, I reminded myself; people really aren't that great at identifying wildlife. Even people that consider themselves experienced in the natural sciences aren't that great. Not to mention, it was just not the right place to find a dead snowy owl.

"I bet you $10 it's not a snowy owl" I said to my cointern. He stayed hopeful, but I felt, very deeply, that it was likely a barred owl, which is Maine's most common owl. Hopefully the citizen would be okay with that identification; it's always a bummer when you find out your gold isn't real.

On the way, she called us and told us she flipped it over. She said it was much darker on the back than she thought (I clenched a fist in the air and pulled it down; I'm right) but she still thinks it could be a snowy.

Here's a reference image of a barred owl:
Image result for barred owl
Again, not my image.

As you can see, the belly is white, and to someone who doesn't look at owls often, the splotches on a snowy and a barred belly could potentially look similar. However, its back is significantly darker. Between this and the fact that barred owls are the most common owls in Maine, I figured that this was the most likely bird under the bird feeder.


We actually got two that day; upon leaving, we crossed paths with a warden who was just getting to the office who had picked one up off the side of the highway. It hadn't been struck by a car either; they both died of starvation.

Winters are challenging for all animals, but it has always surprised me at how hard it can be for our birds of prey. Things get especially bad when a hard crust forms over the snow, and birds can't grab anything under it. Of course, this is great for the rabbits, voles, mice, and other prey items, but for our big sky buddies, it can be quite devastating, as seen by the amount of mortality statewide of eagles, owls, and hawks at this time of year.

Dead barred owls that we collected. One can determine if they had starved by just feeling their breast bone; an owl that never went hungry would feel nice and fat, whereas a hungry owl has a very prominent breast bone.

We also got to play with the warden's K9 for a bit, Piper. Little did I know the week after I met her, she'd be responsible for finding a missing body of deceased lady in the area. Go Piper!

This week, I also got to revisit Swan Island. There was significantly more snow than when I had visited in January, and this time we had both a sled and an ATV. Our mission was to set one of these puppies up, which we threw together in John Pratte's garage.

Yup, it's another wood duck box! The island will be featuring several of these, which, while they won't hold wood ducks themselves, will allow you to view into another wood duck box some distance away through the monitor via wireless communication powered by solar panels. They really are wicked cool and fit just right. They should be a great addition to the island that will be available upon season open this summer, so be sure to check them out if you get a chance to walk the island's trails!

That's all for this week, thank you for reading!