Archive for September, 2010
Filed Under (ART, Animals of the Wild, Birds, Delaware Bayshores, NJ WILD, Preservation, Restoration, South Jersey, Volunteering, protection, raptors, stewardship) by Carolyn Foote Edelmann on 26-09-2010
NJ WILD readers know that I spend a good part of my life at D&R Greenway Land Trust, where I do what it takes to bring superb regional artists to our nature-themed art exhibitions.
D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center - 1900 restored Robert Wood Johnson Working Barn
I began and sustain our Willing Hands Volunteer programs (www.drgreenway.org), to assist with mailings of invitations and newsletters and appeal letters and to help put on wine and cheese receptions for art opening and simpler receptions accompanying science programs keyed to each art show.
(JOIN US October 1 for the next Artists’ Reception - on Salem County in the Delaware Bayshore region, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Free and open to the public - just call 609-924-4646 to register.) The art of Salem/Mannington ranges from paintings through sculpture to fine art photography, with a rare and prize-winning decoy exhibition on loan.
All art is for sale, (many sold at our recent Gala), with a proportion of the proceeds supporting D&R Greenway’s Preservation and Stewardship Mission.
I have the images of the Salem art at work - will have to send home to share with NJ WILD Readers.
But since, thanks to preservation and restoration of habitat Salem County is rich in birds, especially raptors, I’ll give you this from Rod MacIver of Heron Dance on-line magazine. The excellence, drama and evocation of nature of this vivid scene will surround you on all sides at D&R Greenway, as the art remains on the walls of our circa-1900 barn through October 15. Come business hours of business days, calling to be sure our Marie L. Matthews Galleries are not rented at the time of your arrival.
Here is WATCHING, by Rod MacIver
Salem County has our state’s Highest Concentration of nesting American Bald Eagles
Filed Under (Animals of the Wild, Birds, Brenda Jones, Migration, Migratory Flocks, NJ WILD, New Jersey, Oceans, Preservation, South Jersey, protection) by Carolyn Foote Edelmann on 23-09-2010
NJ’s Longport Bridge beach harbors huge colony of
endangered black skimmers
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - When you drive along the Longport Bridge causeway, you can take notice of the traffic, the bicyclists, the wall of cooler sea air, the waiting Longport speed traps.
Or you might notice the 2,904 endangered black skimmers - sleek, elegant birds with a distinctive orange stripe on their beaks - that have chosen the little beach between Seaview Harbor Marina and the dog beach across from Ocean City as their nesting ground this year.
Breaking down to 2,112 adults and 792 juveniles, this unlikely endangered nesting colony next to rushing beach traffic represents nearly the entire black skimmer population of New Jersey.
Michael S. Wirtz Photograph of Black Skimmer With Fish
“Ah, I’m so proud of this colony,” said Chris Kisiel, senior environmental specialist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program.
Two years ago, most of the skimmers were on the remote southern tip of Stone Harbor or nearby Champagne Island. But the tidal island disappeared under water, and the Hereford Inlet area of Stone Harbor flooded, attracting predator gulls and foxes and sending the skimmers to the little strand with a view of Longport and the north end of Ocean City.
“It is very surprising,” Kisiel said, peering through binoculars at the edge of the beach, which the state has roped off for several years as a protected nesting area for terns, plovers, and skimmers. Each year has brought a dramatic increase in the skimmer count. “It just seems so incredibly odd to have the road so close.”
Black Skimmers in Flight off N J Coast - Brenda Jones
Tourists travel thousands of miles to national parks to pull their cars over and stand gazing through binoculars at ospreys and other birds, but in Atlantic County, only a handful ever stop to look on their way to the beach.
“I was talking to three people at the dog beach and said, ‘Have you seen the skimmer colony?’ and they had no idea about the skimmer colony,” said Melissa Tucker, a state seasonal field specialist. “It’s amazing; it’s right here.”
Tucker has spent the spring and summer with the brain-numbing task of counting the birds one by one. “It feels like I’ve taken the SAT every time,” she said.
After seeing the dense crowd of birds - the skimmer equivalent of blanket to blanket on the beach - Kisiel was optimistic: “I feel like it might be more,” she said.
A woman on the beach, when told the count, was skeptical: “Give or take a thousand.”
From below, as the birds suddenly take flight, the view is stirring: their breasts and bellies are bright white, and the underside of their wings bears a gradual, painterly shading from white to gray to a sharp black outline at the edge - like eyeliner.
The flash of orange beak gives a stylish look that stands out from the typical seagull. “I always say they belong on a tropical island,” Tucker said.
Can we be indifferent to the loss of these dapper fliers –
Black Skimmers off NJ Coast by Brenda Jones
They are a handsome and jaunty lot standing on the beach: stark black on top, skinny orange legs, and black-and-orange beaks.
“They look like penguin seagulls,” said Marin Makely, 11, of Haddonfield, who walked with three generations of her family to the edge of the dog beach to look.
The land is owned by the Seaview Harbor Marina, and the state did get a few complaints when the Department of Environmental Protection roped off a large section as a protected beach and forbid dogs on the strand next to the marina.
Eric Sturgis of Somers Point, who works on the boats in the marina, grumbled a little. “This first section is private, the middle one’s for the birds, the other end is the dogs,” he said. “There’s nothing left for me.”
Others find the spectacle sublime. It is, for sure, the only place in New Jersey where you can lie on the beach next to a colony of endangered skimmers. As long as you belong to the marina, anyway. “It used to be our beach, now it’s theirs,” joked Marla Transue of Shamong.
Jim Robson, 73, of Bargaintown, a retired banker who grew up summering in Longport, made a special stop last week on his way to his dentist in Ventnor. “I haven’t seen skimmers in years,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen them like this. It’s unbelievable.”
Kisiel said she believed the birds liked the inlet for the gentle topography of the sand - no huge dunes, but lots of vegetation - and the protected waterways between the boats of the marina, where they can be seen skimming for food. With the breeze blowing off the bay, the sound of causeway traffic is muffled. The birds mostly turn their backs on the road, anyway.
“It’s such a beautiful sight,” she said. “They did so well this year. There’s no reason for them not to come back.”
They are graceful and charismatic birds to watch. Weighing less than a pound, they rarely go farther north than New Jersey or New York, and end up wintering as far south as South America, often in remote rain forests.
As for their chirping, “It’s somewhere between a bark and a quack, almost like puppies,” Tucker said.
“I feel like they’re saying, “Marco! Polo!” Kisiel said.
With no apparent reason, the entire colony will take flight, swoop up and around, and settle on a spot of beach a short distance away.
The juveniles - at this stage all gray - wait around to be fed by their parents, who use a beak with a longer lower mandible as a scoop under the water as they fly just above it. They literally skim the surface of the water for baitfish.
“When [the lower mandible] hits something, they clamp down,” said Todd Pover, head of the state’s Endangered Species Program.
Last year, about 700 or 800 birds started the season in Egg Harbor Township, and by the end of the summer, with the addition of the bird refugees from Stone Harbor, the population had swollen to about 1,700. But because the nesting - they make little divots in the sand called scrapes that typically contain three or four eggs - happened so late, many were lost in a late summer storm.
Read more: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/health_science/daily/20100906_Longport_Beach_harbors_huge_colony_of_nesting_endangered_black_skimmers.html#ixzz0zeLAJ5G7
|Dear NJ WILD Readers, This is grand news. But I, for one, am horrified to realize anew that our new president seems no different from his predecessor in terms of wildlife, preservation, pollution control, and the like. Where is his integrity? Where is his fire?
Yes, rejoice with me and with the non-profits that fought the deaths of our brothers, the wolves, have achieved victory for now.
Mourn with me, that the hope we thought engendered when ‘Yes, we can’ became ‘Yes, we did’ turned to ashes in our mouths.
Keep writing your legislators and this president. Convince him to return to his original promises to tend our endangered climate and planet.
It is VILE that WOLVES have become PAWNS in a POLITICAL CHESS MATCH.
Communication from Natural Resources Defense Council:
It’s fantastic news: yesterday a federal court ruled in our favor and restored endangered species protection to wolves in Montana and Idaho!
The ruling effectively returns ALL wolves in the Northern Rockies to the endangered species list, halting wolf hunts planned for this fall, starting next month.
As you know, the states’ management of wolves has taken a terrible toll over the past year and a half.
Since the Obama Administration stripped these wolves of federal protection, more than 500 of them have been gunned down by hunters or government agents.
In response, NRDC — in partnership with Earthjustice and 13 other conservation groups — sued the government in federal court and demanded endangered species protection for all 1,700 wolves across the Northern Rockies until their population is able fully to recover.
A federal judge agreed, saying that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had acted illegally in removing wolves from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana, leaving them on the list in Wyoming, splitting the population along political, rather than biological, lines.
Now that the courts have called off the guns, you and I can breathe a sigh of great relief that the public hunting of wolves will not resume this fall. Hundreds of wolves that would have been killed will instead be spared.
For that, we have you to thank. You sustained us through this long legal battle with your donations, your online activism and your absolute commitment to restoring wolves to their rightful place in Greater Yellowstone and across the Northern Rockies.
[I SAY WE CAN ONLY DEMAND:]
We can only hope that the Obama Administration will now go back to the drawing board and come up with a solid plan that ensures the sustainable recovery of wolves over the long term.
But if they do not, you can be sure that we will come to the defense of wolves once again. In the meantime, on behalf of everyone here at NRDC, I want to extend my deepest thanks for helping to make this great victory possible.
Natural Resources Defense Council
“These ancient mariners…”
Photo Greg Breese,
US Fish & Wildlife
Climate Change Implicated in Decline of
ScienceDaily (Sep. 1, 2010) — A distinct decline in horseshoe crab numbers has occurred that parallels climate change associated with the end of the last Ice Age, according to a study that used genomics to assess historical trends in population sizes.
The new research also indicates that horseshoe crabs numbers may continue to decline in the future because of predicted climate change, said Tim King, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a lead author on the new study published in Molecular Ecology.
While the current decline in horseshoe crabs is attributed in great part to overharvest for fishing bait and [partly for the use if horseshoe crab's blue blood] in the pharmaceutical industry, the new research indicates that climate change also appears to have historically played a role in altering the numbers of successfully reproducing horseshoe crabs. More importantly, said King, predicted future climate change, with its accompanying sea-level rise and water temperature fluctuations, may well limit horseshoe crab distribution and interbreeding, resulting in distributional changes and localized and regional population declines, such as happened after the last Ice Age.
[from cfe: sea rise and accompanying Delaware Bay rise is already severely trimming beaches in the south of NJ, such as Reed's Beach and the Fortescue I visited and reported last Thursday, where the majority of our horseshoe crabs must come ashore to lay their thousands upon thousands of eggs, and nourish migrating birds. Rarities such as the seriously endangered red knot and the rarer and rarer ruddy turnstones are bearing the brunt of water rise limitations in our state.]
Horseshoe Crabs — Kimbles Beach, Dale Gerhard
“Using genetic variation, we determined the trends between past and present population sizes of horseshoe crabs and found that a clear decline in the number of horseshoe crabs has occurred that parallels climate change associated with the end of the last Ice Age,” said King.
The research substantiated recent significant declines in all areas where horseshoe crabs occur along the West Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida and the eastern Gulf of Mexico, with the possible exception of a distinct population along the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
These findings, combined with the results of a 2005 study by King and colleagues, have important implications for the welfare of wildlife that rely on nutrient-rich horseshoe crab eggs for food each spring.
For example, Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles, which used to feed mainly on adult horseshoe crabs and blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay, already have been forced to find other less suitable sources of food, perhaps contributing to declines in Virginia’s sea turtle abundance.
Additionally, horseshoe crab eggs are an important source of food for millions of migrating shorebirds. This is particularly true for the red knot, an at-risk shorebird that uses horseshoe crab eggs at Delaware Bay to refuel during its marathon migration of some 10,000 miles. Since the late 1990s, both horseshoe crabs and red knot populations in the Delaware Bay area have declined, although census numbers for horseshoe crabs have increased incrementally recently.
“Population size decreases of these ancient mariners have implications beyond the obvious,” King said. “Genetic diversity is the most fundamental level of biodiversity, providing the raw material for evolutionary processes to act upon and affording populations the opportunity to adapt to their surroundings. For this reason, the low effective population sizes indicated in the new study give one pause.”
These studies should help conservation managers make better-informed decisions about protecting horseshoe crabs and other species with a similar evolutionary history. For example, the 2005 study indicated males moved between bays but females did not, suggesting management efforts may best be targeted at local populations instead of regional ones, since an absence of enough females may result in local extinctions.
“Consequently, harvest limitations on females in populations with low numbers may be a useful management strategy, as well as relocating females from adjacent bays to help restore certain populations,” King said. “Both studies highlight the importance of considering both climatic change and other human-caused factors such as overharvest in understanding the population dynamics of this and other species.”
Background on Horseshoe Crabs
Horseshoe crabs are not crabs at all — in fact, they are more closely related to spiders, ticks and scorpions. While historically horseshoe crabs have been used in fertilizer, most horseshoe crab harvest today comes from the fishing industry, which uses the crab as bait, and the pharmaceutical industry, which collects their blood for its clotting properties. While the crabs are returned after their blood is taken, the estimated mortality rate for bled horseshoe crabs can be as high as 30 percent.
The research was published in the June issue of Molecular Ecology and was authored by Søren Faurby (Aarhus University, Denmark), Tim King, Matthias Obst (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and others.
The 2005 study was published in the Transactions of the American Fisheries Society and authored by Tim King, Mike Eackles Adrian Spidle (USGS) and Jane Brockman (University of Florida).
Email or share this story:
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by United States Geological Survey.
- Søren Faurby, Tim L. King, Matthias Obst, Eric M. Hallerman, Cino Pertoldi, Peter Funch. Population dynamics of American horseshoe crabs-historic climatic events and recent anthropogenic pressures. Molecular Ecology, 2010; 19 (15): 3088 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2010.04732.x
- Tim L. King, Michael S. Eackles, Adrian P. Spidle, H. Jane Brockmann. Regional Differentiation and Sex-Biased Dispersal among Populations of the Horseshoe Crab Limulus polyphemus. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 2005; 134 (2): 441 DOI: 10.1577/T04-023.1
Note: If no author is given, the source is cited instead.
Number of stories in archives: 90,848
United States Geological Survey (2010, September 1). Climate change implicated in decline of horseshoe crabs. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 7, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/08/100830131344.htm
Filed Under (Adventure, Agriculture, Delaware Bayshores, Farmers, Farmland, Farms, Fishing, Harvest, Indians, NJ WILD, Preservation, Restoration, Revolutionary War, Solitude, Tranquillity, protection, rivers) by Carolyn Foote Edelmann on 14-09-2010
Another Quest for the Real and the Beautiful in New Jersey
Salem County - Summer Central
NJ Wild Readers know that every so often, I need to run away from home. Not far. Still New Jersey.
You know, I take the dappled roads, to watery reaches, to peace and beauty, where traffic does not exist and there’s no such thing as road rage. Instead, peace surrounds me on all sides.
One of my favorite destinations is idyllic Salem County on the Delaware Bayshore. There, I ride alongside healthy crops, even the soybeans higher than my knees. In Salem County, my favorite signboards, the ones trumpeting PRESERVED FARMLAND are the norm, not the exception. On the Delaware Bayshore, I take every road that says NO OUTLET, because the outlet is the Bay. Or a marshland. Or a meadow. Or a swamp. Or a forest. Or a fisherman’s haven.
I wrote about the fishing haven, Fortescue, last week. Today, I’m lonely all over again for Salem county vistas and history.
Salem County Perfection
In Salem County, there doesn’t seem to have been any drought.
“Beneath the spreading XX Tree…” Salem County - No Drought Here!
In Salem County, peace reigns.
Salem County Peace –Alloway Creek
In Salem County, water is a constant companion.
Salem County - Alloway Souvenirs of Yesteryear
In Salem, history throbs at any crossing; above, alongside and below any bridge.
Hancock’s Bridge Pilings
Over this bridge rushed furious Redcoats, smarting from a recent defeat at a nearby bridge. Whipped into fury over having been conquered by our ragtag and bobtail army, they burst into the idyllic Quaker home of Mr. Hancock, slaughtering right and left, soldiers sleeping the sleep of the just after their recent victory. The Brits did not take kindly to being outsmarted by ordinary people fighting for liberty. Hancock House is open almost every day of the year, where Alicia, the Ranger, will tell the proud sad tale anew, and guests may walk from room to room and floor to floor, even on the Fourth of July, pondering what it takes to win through to freedom.
Hancock House’s Majestic Facade Belies Massacre…
Summer shadows bless Hancock House today, reminding us to pay any price, bear any burden to remain free of tyranny. In this house, the sleeping soldiers sacrificed that which our Founding Fathers were willing to barter for liberty - their lives, their fortunes - but not their sacred honor.
Hancock House - Where Summer Shadows now Whisper Peace
From this peaceful waterway, belligerent redcoats came.
Past an herb garden bearing these very varieties, soldiers rushed, bayonets at the ready.
Salem County Held Swedish Dwellings Such as This, Before the Advent of Quaker brickwork.
Quaker Brickwork Includes Initials of Mr. and Mrs. Hancock and 1734 Date
In Salem County, The Past Lives On
In Salem County, PRESERVED FARMLAND SIGNS Greet Travelers at Any Bend in the Road
Before or after watery wanderings and farmquests, I wend my way into beautiful downtown Salem, which is being courageously and assiduously restored by proud and determined residents.
Jewel in Salem’s Crown is the Salem Oak. Under this majestic tree, the founder of this town negotiated with and paid the Indians of the region for his land. This was unusual even then.
Now that we have lost the Mercer Oak, this may be the most famous tree in New Jersey. It has the shape ours once bore on Mercer Street, purportedly beneath whose boughs General Mercer, though bayoneted, conducted the Victory of Princeton.
To my eyes, the Salem Oak looks healthier today than the last time I was there. What do you think?
Salem Oak - New Jersey’s Most Famous Living Tree?
Across the road, travelers may refresh themselves at the Salem Oak Diner. Even though it has some exotic red-leafed tree on the cover that bears no resemblance to any oak of any species or era. Even though it has red white and blue flags over it now, to urge people to come there.
Under New Management
They never USED to need to urge us. I found out the reason for the changes — why there’s no longer a grilled corn muffin on the menu. Why the motherly and venerable waitresses who know their way around what used to be a unique menu are no longer there. Change comes to Salem County. The first owner was ill, and sold it to a long-time waitress. She kept the old spirit, the heart of the town, the place where all the locals gathered and the many lawyers of the region knew they could come for reliable meals in the middle of complex cases. The waitress sold it to what the Germans call ‘auslanders’, what Cape Codders call “people from away.” Why that should change it, I don’t know. But it did. The food’s ok. The spirit of Salem, however, is no longer palpable inside. There are few enough restaurants in the region, that you might as well stop there if you’re feeling a bit ‘peckish.’
But no longer will the people at the next table plunk down a bottle of ketchup as a poet friend and I finished ordering our food. “For breakfast?!”, we queried. “Oh, you’re not from around here…”, they realized. In other words you didn’t either grow the tomatoes or pack them when Heinz reigned above Salem fields….
They Still Have the Weekly Specialty - Made by a PA. Dutch Cook - one day a week!
We’re Not Only the Garden State - Where the Diner Capitol
The Salem Oak Diner IS real…
But Salem is also known for preservation of its vital farms — Learn from them!
Filed Under (ART, Adventure, Agriculture, Birds, Cumberland County, Delaware Bayshores, Farm Markets, Farmers, Farmland, Farms, Fishing, Food, Garden State, Local Food, Migration, Migratory Flocks, NJ WILD, Oceans, Preservation, Solitude, The Seasons, Tranquillity, protection) by Carolyn Foote Edelmann on 13-09-2010
Help Yourself Heaven - Salem County, New Jersey
NJ WILD readers know what has to happen, “when the world is too much with me, gathering and spinning…”
I must take myself off to New Jersey beauty and solitude, in this case some of our Land’s Ends.
Thursday morning, I ‘flew the coop’, heading to the Delaware Bayshores. It was a scintillating day upon which to snatch a bit of Labor Day Weekend, before it officially opened to the rest of the world.
90-some miles from my Canal Road door, Salem and Cumberland Counties beckoned. In a matter of hours, I had made the most of our least known ‘maritime provinces.’ A few pictures follow - other posts are ‘brewing’…
Enjoy scenes of tiny Fortescue, on the Delaware Bay. Those waters knew a storm was in the offing. Humans did not. Sunbathers and fishermen fringed the last stretches of New Jersey land, as though sun and summer would last forevermore.
“Old Fisherman Crossing, Creek Road.”
When I’m near signs like this, I know ‘I’m not in Kansas any more.’
Fishermen’s Quest — Higbee’s Marina, Fortescue
Gull Heads into Pre-Earl Winds
Sun and Summer Last Forever
Fortescue Stilt Houses — Horseshoe Crab Heaven in Late May
The Brooding Bay Knows Hurricane Earl is Coming
Fortescue is birders’ heaven, especially in spring - when horseshoe crabs tumble ashore to lay eggs by the millions. This narrow strip of sand, –along with a handful of others along the Delaware Bay, including Reed’s Beach–, must nourish the last of the red knots, surviving ruddy turnstones, laughing gulls beyond counting.
Arctic journeys await knots and turnstones. If they cannot fatten sufficiently on these delicate sand bands, these shorebirds either cannot reach their breeding grounds, or cannot breed when they arrive.
We don’t see these rarities in obvious swarms in autumn migration. This year, they face the peril of oiled marshes surrounding the battered Gulf of Mexico.
Salem County is mostly agrarian, then, abruptly maritime.
A handful of hours in her green, then along her sand and blue reaches refreshes, me as though I’ve been away for weeks.
Give the Delaware Bay a try. Nobody seems to realize -
New Jersey is the only state with three coastlines…
On my way back to the ‘mainland’, and on over toward Cumberland, I stop at a Help-Yourself farmstand for pristine, luminous produce.
It’s because of Salem and Cumberland that New Jersey remains the Garden State. Keep them that way.
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL LAND TRUST, such as D&R Greenway, which has preserved over two thousand Salem acres recently, keeping New Jersey GREEN.
Art and Freshly Harvested Tomato on my D&R Greenway Desk
Produce Fresh from Bill Rawlyk’s Farm for Staff at D&R GReenway’s Kitchen
Bill Rawlyk Blueberries One Hour Old -
on bench in D&R Greenway’s Meredith’s Memorial Garden
The Barn in Princeton from Which we Save Land in Seven New Jersey Counties
USA Today used an indelible headline recently, with regard to the Gulf: OIL AND LIFE DON’T MIX.
NJ WILD readers know my deep (no pun here!) concern for all creatures of the oiled Gulf, and especially for saturated marshland as ‘our’ shorebirds fly their predetermined routes to winter grounds to the South. I worry about everything down there, of course the humans who normally fish and all who eat that seafood now; the birds above all, I admit; the grasses and the peat and the flowers and the reeds of wetlands in this region; all entities, actually, from plankton to whales. Our worry is not unfounded,
My deepest (again, no pun) alarm has been that oil was not only entering the waters from the burnt well, but seeps and seeps through the ocean floor. Our greed for the easy life, our refusal to set alternative fuels into motion for our world, is being pointed out now, steadily, dramatically, tragically, by Mother Nature and Father Neptune.
My profoundest question is — have we passed The Tipping Point?
How very odd that no one has studied the Gulf as Cornell and NOAA are about to do — considering the vital worth of the Gulf on so many levels (again, no pun.)
How can it be that the Army Corps of Engineers has not studied this resource! And NOAA/the federal government? Why haven’t scientists used the Gulf as focus for learned papers and doctoral theses? Why doesn’t the Gulf matter to humans?
It is essential to birds!
From my cherished Cornell Ornithology Lab:
July 12, 2010
CU researchers listen for whales amid undersea oil clouds
Out of sight, whales cruise the Gulf of Mexico depths — their hidden world threatened by huge clots of drifting oil from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well.
At the same time, there are almost no data available to measure changes to the Gulf’s ecosystem — including whale populations — caused by the massive leak.
“Night after night, on TV and on webcams, we see oil spewing from the bottom of the ocean,” said Christopher Clark, head of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “You wonder ‘What can we do? What’s the impact of this?’ In the case of marine mammals, we don’t know because we don’t even know what’s there.”
But now, Clark and his team are collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in a multipronged effort to discover the numbers and locations of whales. They will assess the potential impact of oil clouds drifting below the surface — a by-product of the oil spill and the dispersants used to break up the oil slick.
The team will anchor 22 marine autonomous recording units (MARUs) to the sea floor in an arc stretching from Texas to western Florida, along the edge of the continental shelf. These units will record underwater sounds for three months before they receive a signal to let go of their tethers and pop to the surface for retrieval. After analyzing the data, the team will deliver a report to NOAA and other agencies involved in the oil leak response.
The MARUs will listen for endangered sperm whales and a small population of Bryde’s (BRU-des) whales. They will also pick up sounds of fish and ship traffic. Some devices will be placed in areas apparently unaffected by the oil, to collect “control” site information. Others will be close to the gushing well. The goal is to document the state of the sounds in the ecosystem over an extended period of time, compare them with known information of the oil spill.
“This will be the first large-scale, long-term, acoustic monitoring survey in the Gulf of Mexico,” Clark said. “We can provide one more layer of understanding about this ecosystem, using sound to measure animal occurrences, distributions and communication, as well as background noise levels from shipping and weather, and perhaps experience ways in which these features are being influenced by the oil.
The whales are oversized canaries in the coal mine — they reflect the health of the environment.”
Clark says sperm whales are ideal subjects to monitor. They are big, and hunt for squid at great depths (about 1,000 meters down) using echolocation. Once sperm whales detect prey, they emit a very rapid sequence of clicks. By measuring the number of clicks in a given time period, scientists learn about the whales’ hunting success and may estimate how many animals are nearby.
Clark is also seeking funding to use free-floating recording units to record the ocean’s electrical conductivity — a measurement directly related to how much oil is in the water. Such a device could also continuously record ocean sounds and help researchers confirm how many animals inhabit oiled parts of the gulf. Clark feels strongly that even after the current set of recording devices is removed in early October, others should be deployed to continue monitoring throughout the year.
Pat Leonard is a staff writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.