Citizen Scientists Can Help Endangered Species Conservation Efforts

A Blandings turtle  —  Image courtesy

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

On Wednesday night, the Conservation Commission heard a presentation from local herpetologist and biologist Bryan Windmiller, who spoke about several endangered species in and around Bedford: Blanding’s turtles, wood turtles, the Bridle Shiner minnow and Britton’s violets wildflowers.

“I primarily work on vernal pool issues and turtle conservation [and] I do local rare species conservation projects. I just started a non-profit—Grassroots Wildlife Conservation. Our mission is to try to enhance populations of rare species with the help of people living in the same town [where the species are found],” Windmiller said.

Windmiller said that his organization works on conservation projects with schools and other groups. “We try to [identify] small scale things that can be done to improve the lot of some of the rarer species that live in Massachusetts,” he said.

Just before attending the Conservation Commission meeting, Windmiller said he had been at Hanscom Field, checking on a wood turtle that, due to the warming weather, was coming out of hibernation. As they do with the Blanding’s turtles, Windmiller and his organization use radio tracking devices to understand the movement of specimens in the wild.

“Wood turtles spend the cooler months in streams—they’re in Elm Brook—and then during the warmer months they generally come up on land to feed,” Windmiller said. “We don’t know how many there are—we actually found this first wood turtle year ago. Since then, we found the shell of a dead one and have photos of another one. . . . I know [Bedford resident] John Zupkus years ago told me about finding a wood turtle right along the Route 62 corridor. We had no idea where it came at the time from, but it probably came from this same population.”

“Right now, we’re trying to get some basic information about how many turtles there are [in the area]. We radio-track and are trying to find out where their nesting sites are,” Windmiller added. “We hope to work with MassPort to try to come up with a conservation plan.

With Blanding’s turtles, primarily at the Great Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, Windmiller’s organization does what he termed an “extensive conservation management project.”

“The population [of Blanding’s turtles] at Great Meadows is the third largest known population in Massachusetts,” Windmiller said, “but it has declined by about 60% in the last 40 years. So, I’ve been working with a bunch of partners—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others—trying to find ways to help restore the population. We radio-track females to their nesting sites in June; we protect the nests from predators, and we take some of the hatchlings and ‘head-start’ them [by] raising them for nine months. During that time, they grow to the size of a wild five year old [turtle]; then we release them and radio-track them. Their odds of surviving to adulthood are much increased in that way.”

The people who care for the turtles during this nine month time period are usually school children. Though there are regulatory limits as to how many turtles can be raised in captivity, Windmiller said he would like to also get Bedford Schools involved in the project. “I do curricular programs and take kids out on field trips as well,” he said.

Another project that Grassroots Wildlife Conservation has been doing for about one year centers around the minnow called the Bridle Shiner. “Probably the largest population in Massachusetts is in Vine Brook in Burlington and Bedford, particularly behind Flatbread Pizza,” Windmiller said. “It’s primarily a coastal plain fish that lives in small streams and ponds and originally had a range from North Carolina up to Ontario. It’s gone extinct in North Carolina and Maryland, all but disappeared in Pennsylvania. In some other states—including in Massachusetts—it has declined very sharply.”

Windmiller added that the cause for the loss of the minnow population has not been determined, although speculation is rife. However, conditions in the Vine Brook are greatly advantageous—again for reasons unknown—so the idea is identify why Vine Brook’s environment is so beneficial and then replicate those conditions so that the fish can proliferate in other locations once conditions have been optimized.

“The Vine Brook runs within a short distance of very heavily built up areas for more or less its whole path: through Burlington, into Bedford and into the Shawsheen River.” said Windmiller. “For whatever reason, Vine Brook has the most pristine fish community that I know of in Eastern Massachusetts. Not only is it loaded with this very rare species—a protected species—and probably in the summer months, the Bridle Shiner is the most common fish on Vine Brook; it’s also loaded with two other fish species: Creek Chub and Creek Chubsucker, which aren’t listed [as endangered] but are listed as ’species of conservation need’ in New England. Something about whatever’s happening in Vine Brook is really good for the fish.”

Small captive populations of Bridle Shiners are also being kept at Drumlin Farm and at two Burlington schools with the idea of doing a small breeding project.

Windmiller also spoke briefly about a wildflower called Britton’s violet, a species that is globally threatened but grows in at least one area in Bedford. The mainstay of the flower’s remaining world population grows along the banks of the Concord River, Windmiller said, although the numbers are no longer such that they turn the banks of the river purple as naturalist William Brewster (1851-1919) recorded.

What citizens can do to help these conservation efforts is to familiarize themselves with what these endangered species look like. Particularly in the case of either of the two turtle species, Windmiller welcomes calls about sightings as well as help to protect individuals if the turtles are seen in dangerous places.

“I sense what you want people to do is to keep their eyes open,” Conservation Commission administrator Elizabeth Bagdonas summarized. “[But also] people in Bedford have worked on these bio-diversity issues before –there are people who would be very interested in getting an assignment, so to speak.”

“I would be delighted,” Windmiller responded. “We could get some people to monitor the Britton’s violet populations here and, with the fish, what we really need to do is gather a lot of water quality data, as well as if anyone has any expertise in identifying aquatic plants. We want to map the plants that are in Vine Brook, but the water quality stuff requires less expertise to do. They could borrow some of the monitoring equipment and go to different places at different times and record the data. We keep all our data on the cloud on Google Drive so that anyone can post it.”

“What we’re trying to do. . .is to get people involved, help inform them, and to give them a way to actually work on a local manifestation of this bigger global issue of protecting rare species,” Windmiller said.

To learn more about the project or to become involved, contact the Conservation office at 781-275-6211.

Go to this link to read a recent Boston Globe article about Windmiller’s work with Blanding’s turtles at Great Meadows:

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Terry Gleason
October 6, 2022 3:48 pm

Brings back memories of when I met Bryan as a volunteer for his Bridle Shiner minnow project at Wilson Mill Pond. That let to a native wildflower project and discussions about turtles and the rail trail that continue to today. Thanks Citizen for the flashback!

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