Tag Archives: National wildlife refuge week

Releasing a rabbit.

Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge joins partners to help breed rabbits

DID YOU KNOW?
The New England cottontail has become so rare that it’s a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. What’s a candidate? (PDF)

You’ve seen them hopping around your backyard right?

Well, not necessarily. You may have seen rabbits in New England, but probably not the rare New England cottontail.

While these rabbits may closely resemble the more commonly seen eastern cottontail, they require a much more specific type of home and are known as habitat specialists. New England cottontails need dense thickets, and they hesitate to stray from cover.

As that habitat has been lost to development and maturing forest, the New England cottontail population has dramatically declined. These issues, along with habitat separated or fragmented by expanding roads and highways, make it difficult for these rabbits to find food or mates.

A New England cottontail released after being raised in captivity. Credit: USFWS

A New England cottontail released after being raised in captivity. Credit: USFWS

It may sound ironic, but these rabbits do need our help to breed. So who plays matchmaker for these threatened rabbits? We do!

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Rhode Island, all the New England states and the Roger Williams Park Zoo are working to bring the rabbits together to breed and grow in captivity. The pilot captive breeding program was initiated in 2011, and successful litters have come from the program at the Rhode Island zoo.

The first group overwintered in a hardening pen located at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island, and the most recent group found its way to the newly constructed pen at Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire.

These one-acre pens are fenced in areas of shrub and thicket habitat, where the rabbits can adapt from their living at the zoo to living in the wild. Predator proof and under close watch by staff, these pens make it easier for the rabbits than if they were just released to fend for themselves.

The hardening pen at Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Credit: USFWS

The hardening pen at Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Credit: USFWS

Just last month, on September 19, lots of excitement swirled around the next group of rabbits to leave the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Heidi Holman, wildlife biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game, loaded up nine rabbits for their ride to the Great Bay Refuge.

A morning of rain and cold weather had everyone on edge that the transition into the newly created pen would be difficult on the rabbits. But by the time Heidi and the rabbits arrived, the sun was shining and perfect for such a momentous occasion.

Refuge manager Graham Taylor, several of his staff members and staff from nearby Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine were on hand to witness the release. Seven pairs of eyes watched anxiously as one by one, each rabbit was taken out of the carriers and placed into their temporary home.

They sat a moment, sniffed their new surroundings, and then dashed away into the shrubs.

Heidi Holman releases one of the rabbits! Credit: USFWS

Heidi Holman releases one of the rabbits! Credit: USFWS

The other group of rabbits at Ninigret Refuge were released in the spring to an offshore island with plenty of thick habitat and minimal predators, where they continue to do well.

The Great Bay Refuge rabbits will stay in the pen throughout the winter and will be released to sites in New Hampshire to supplement wild populations next spring. During their stay, we will monitor the rabbits and assess their health, and if needed, we will provide extra food to give them that extra boost.

We hope that one day, the New England cottontail can again be the dominant rabbit of its namesake.

More:

Acting, naturally.

De'Andre Brown, a 2012 intern, kayaking on the Charles River in Massachusetts. Credit: Lamar Gore/USFWS

De’Andre Brown, a 2012 intern, kayaking on the Charles River in Massachusetts.
Credit: Lamar Gore/USFWS

Interning in visitor services at a national wildlife refuge doesn’t mean biological work is off the table.

Hear from D’Andre Brown on his experience at the Service’s Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts, where he helped survey terns, band bats and monitor piping plover recovery.

Who knew that theatre studies and working in visitor services at a national wildlife refuge go hand in hand? I would not have thought that before spending last summer in the Career Discovery Internship Program at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

Before the 10-week internship started, I kept thinking, “Will I be ready?” After all, I had grown up in Chicago, and my academic concentration at Alabama State University is theatre. How would I fit into a conservation job at a refuge on a barrier island near Newburyport, MA? Read the rest of De’Andre’s blog. 

 

More posts in the National Wildlife Refuge Week series.

Linking red knots from Monomoy to Cuba and beyond

THE RED KNOTRed knot
  • Is a medium-sized shorebird and a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Undertakes one of the longest migrations, traveling 16,000 miles round trip from their farthest wintering grounds at the tip of South America to their Arctic breeding grounds.
  • Flies an estimated 5,000 miles without stopping for six days, one of the longest nonstop flights in the bird world.
  • Needs safe places – stopover sites – to rest and feed.

Today, you’re hearing from Stephanie Koch, a refuge wildlife biologist, and Susi vonOettingen, an endangered species biologist, about red knot banding and the data collection that is critical to the recovery of this species.

Furl, smear, jiggle, twinkle and fire. It’s all in a day of red knot banding.

At Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, the day began with a crisp ocean breeze as we, our coworkers, partners and volunteers, hauled several hundred pounds of field equipment to our boats. We were heading out to Minimoy Island to capture red knots, and everyone, especially first-timer Susi, was very excited!

“I was in learning mode, fumble fingers and all,” Susi said. “Then orders started to fly, and I really got lost.”

Capturing red knots is no easy task, even with a seasoned, experienced crew leader. At Monomoy Refuge, we use cannon nets, large explosive driven nets that allows us to capture a large number of birds at the same time.

The time and height of the tide, weather conditions, and disturbances in the area, including predatory falcons, are all factors that influence how red knots are using a particular site on a particular day. For example, the first day was beautiful, but no birds would come near the net; the second was cold, windy and even stormy, but the red knots showed! Our task is to anticipate all these variables when we set the net to increase our chances of a successful catch.

The trapping crew finishes camouflaging a net with a thin layer of sand, so it blends in perfectly with the habitat. Credit: Stephanie Koch/USFWS

The trapping crew finishes camouflaging a net with a thin layer of sand, so it blends in perfectly with the habitat. Credit: Stephanie Koch/USFWS

Furl. Picture a row of people, arms held out, a long net draped across their arms. With hands at the top of the net, we gently pull and gather the net like a fan.

Smear. We disguise the net by spreading a thin layer of sand across it with our hands. Small rockets are attached to the corners of the net, rigged and ready to go.

Twinkle. While some of us hide in dunes or by the beach, others “twinkle,” meaning they slowly crawl toward to birds to gently push them to the net.

Jiggle. When the birds come too close to the front of the net, the jiggling begins. A line with bows on it is pulled to startle the birds away from the danger zone, where the bottom of the net could fall on it.

Fire. When the crew leader confirms that our target birds are in our catch zone, and no birds are in danger, we hear “3-2-1, fire!” With a puff of smoke and a whoosh, the net flew skyward, floating down on top of 11 juvenile red knots. The crew, like a fine-tuned machine, pulled the birds safely from the net and put them in boxes, ready for their one-of-a-kind bands, green flags and geolocators.

A cannon net is fired! Credit: Greg Breese

A cannon net is fired! Credit: Greg Breese

“What an amazing feeling to have in my hands a slight, soft-feathered creature, heart beating wildly, its beak waving in the air,” Susi said. “I released my red knot by the shore wearing its new green and yellow jewelry and watched as it darted away to join its mates.”

Geolocators are little devices that send and record signals to satellites that locate the bird. In order to get the data, the red knot has to be recaptured. The flags attract the eyes of experienced and novice birders alike throughout red knot migration routes. Sightings reported in a central online database will be combined to help draw a picture of migration paths and identify important stopover sites.

A juvenile red knot ready for release, with a geolocator on one leg and a lime green flag on the other leg. Credit: USFWS

A juvenile red knot ready for release, with a geolocator on one leg and a lime green flag on the other leg. Credit: USFWS

Southeastern Massachusetts, Monomoy Refuge in particular, is one those important sites in the Northeast during southward migration. The refuge also hosts a large percentage of juveniles traveling south to wintering areas for their first time.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has collaborated with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences for four years to place geolocators on adult red knots at the refuge. These birds have been confirmed spending their winter in Florida, North and South Carolinas, Haiti, Columbia and Cuba. In 2011, we began putting geolocators on juvenile red knots as well, but we haven’t recaptured any of those birds yet.

As we release each newly marked bird from our catch today, we wonder if and when we may catch it again, and wonder what exciting new information and stories it will reveal.

“I wondered where they will go, these little birds that are really not much bigger than a robin but have a much longer migration route from the arctic to southern beaches,” Susi said. “I look forward to next year, but first, I just hope all of them made it safely south.”

More posts in the Refuge Week series