Year-End Conservation Roundup

2021 is drawing to a close, and at the end of our first year of blogging, it seems like a good opportunity to bring you some updates on the projects we’ve been telling you so much about. Even as the weather outside turns frightful, we’ve still been hard at work in the field and in the office. Check out the updates our team has for you: 

Native Habitat Restoration 

Thanks to the hard work of a local Eagle Scout named Anna and the Acton Conservation Commission, the field site whence we shared the stories and pictures of our black locust removal has been replanted with native vegetation. The site also boasts new interpretive signage to let park visitors know about the wood turtles and the importance of our management actions for this state-listed species. 

Conservation Society members and loyal blog readers will recall our work day at the box turtle field site planting native wildflowers earlier this summer. We’ve followed up on that work by returning to the site with brush cutters and loppers to cut back the sprouting tree oaks that popped up across the area we had cleared to create scrubland habitat.

A man in a red jacket and a ZNE baseball cap stands on the left side of the image facing right. He is wearing ear protection and safety goggles as he operates a harness-mounted brush cutter on a long pole to trim a sprouting oak cluster about six feet in front of him.
ZNE Senior Field Conservationist John Berkholtz uses a brush cutter to trim back the re-sprouting tree oaks.

Keeping these trees from resprouting will help native shrubs, including the smaller scrub oak, establish themselves and ensure continued sun for our wildflower plantings. These, in turn, will then attract native pollinator insects. The open area will also be ideal for box turtle nesting, and for use by declining shrubland birds such as brown thrasher and indigo bunting. On the edges of the cleared area, we thinned the regenerating oaks but left some still standing, which will be perfect for creating the open-forest habitat favored by eastern whip-poor-wills – another local bird in need of conservation help.

Ten brown-silver fish about as long as an adult's index finger school together in the corner of a white plastic bin filled with water.
Three-spine sticklebacks await marking in a holding bin.

On Your Mark, Get Set, Fish! 

Our Gone Fishin’ blog post introduced many readers to one of our lesser-known projects monitoring and protecting a rare landlocked population of three-spined stickleback fish within the city of Boston itself. One of the challenges surrounding our management of this population has always been estimating exactly how many fish there actually are and creating a plan to sample the population in a consistent way that will give us plenty of time to react if the population starts to shift. Our team put their heads together, and in consultation with some local fish experts, we performed field trials of two marking methods for identifying fish we had caught before: spine clipping and VIE. “Spine clipping” refers to clipping off the tips of one of the hard, bony dorsal spines that give this species its name, while “VIE” is an acronym Visible Implant Elastomer tags. These tags are essentially small beads of brightly colored plastic inserted just under the fish’s skin. After marking several fish with each method and keeping them overnight for observation to ensure their health was not impacted, our team universally felt that the VIE treatment was faster and easier to consistently identify than trying to determine which one of the quarter inch long (at most) spines had been clipped. This method will be used going forward to help us estimate population size via “mark-recapture” methods, which let us guess how many fish there are based on how many previously caught fish we find on each survey attempt. 

Marbled Salamander Success 

After an initial scouting foray failed to turn up any marbled salamanders at the healthy source population we’ve been using for our reintroduction efforts, our team regrouped and made another attempt. This exceptionally wet year has definitely reduced marbled salamander breeding activity, since they rely on areas not yet flooded in early fall to lay their eggs, but we did manage to locate one pool where larvae were large and abundant. We returned to that pool with dip-nets in hand to collect some larvae for headstarting and reintroduction at the Middlesex Fells, and in an hour of surveying we caught more than 60 larvae! We took 36 of these little ones in a special aerated transport case to be headstarted at Stone Zoo, where they will spend the winter in luxury accommodations before their reintroduction at the Fells in springtime.

A dozen small black salamander larvae dart in various directions in a plastic holding tub filled with water. Their feathery gills and tiny developing arms are visible.
A small sampling of the larvae caught this year, now being headstarted at Stone Zoo.

As these updates illustrate, lots of the work we’ve shared with you here on the blog are just single episodes in ongoing management plans, many of which will span years and may never truly be “finished.” As long as we continue to improve our understanding and stewardship of the natural treasures in our own backyard, though, that’s enough. This will also be the last blog post of 2021 as our team takes a well-deserved rest, but the ZNE Conservation Blog will return in 2022. See you then!