Urban Ecosystem Observations 2016. Lessons learned in the Moshassuck valley and the surrounding community. Greg Gerritt Oct 4, 2016
There is much to learn from studying the urban section of a small watershed, and each year I watch the lower reaches of the Moshassuck River and its environs more carefully and with greater understanding. Every year I learn new things and see things I have never seen before. While I am familiar with the watershed all the way to the headwaters in the Limerock section of Lincoln, I pay special attention to the forest at Providence’s Collyer Field, the North Burial Ground, the ancient travel corridor on the even older river terrace that is now North Main St, and the tidewater along Canal St until its current confluence with the Woonasquatucket River just south of Citizens Plaza. I also try to keep the larger context in mind as I deal with the creatures great and small and use the observations of nature in my other projects..
I spent last fall and winter mapping the forest that Friends of the Moshassuck has planted over the last 18 years at Collyer Field http://www.themoshassuck.org/treeplanting.php . We digitized the map and it is now on our website. http://themoshassuck.org/trees_table/ We have planted trees in this tangle of Japanese Knotweed for 18 years, just the few trees a year we could water with a bucket from the river in the summer heat We have almost covered the site, about an acre in all. Over the years we have planted about 95 trees, and 89 of them are still growing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQfWmu3UZMg This gives a pretty good picture of what the site looks like https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xNCecyutjQ There are also a few trees that were growing prior to FOTM beginning work in 1998 along the edges of the site, especially right along the river. I used to refer to it as a gallery forest, but the planted forest and the river forest have since merged. The long term goal was to create a semi wild New England forest that would shade out the knotweed. I am starting to doubt that we shall completely obliterate knotweed on the site with shade, knotweed begins growing each spring before the leaves come out on the hardwood trees, so it survives even though it stunts as soon as the tree leaves come out. The tallest trees are now 30 feet tall, and many parts of the site are in shade all day once the leaves come out. We may never obliterate the knotweed, but the forest is walkable in ways it never was when the knotweed ruled unchallenged. It would be interesting to know how the fauna has changed since the forest began, but we have neither baseline data nor current studies. Anecdotally I would say more birds use the site, but what would be really telling is the the health of the salamander population. We have seen salamanders every few years., but other than presence we know nothing. So we can not even ask has the development of the forest improved the habitat? Though we know it has.
Friends of the Moshassuck has no legal right to use the site. We squat based on a handshake deal I had with the station manager when it was owned by Bonanza Bus line. The current ownership will not speak to Friends of the Moshassuck. It is their way of avoiding legal liability for what goes on on the land. But it might be time Peter Pan realized that it is time for a change since it is so close to the river and almost completely in the zone protected by the updated wetland regulations. It is also on a dead end street with a city park between the corner and the site. FOTM has suggested that the City of Providence ask Peter Pan to donate or sell the site to the city to expand the park. I have communicated this thought to the Parks Department leadership, and while it is looked on favorably, the capacity to pull this off seems to be missing. The City also has concerns about maintenance costs, but the site is already maintained by Parks Department crews and FOTM could assume a portion of the burden. If Peter Pan will not donate the land (and take a nice tax break) I am sure we could raise enough money to buy an unbuildable acre of protected wetlands. If anyone has pull that I do not, and can get the right ear to move this forward, I would love to hear from you. This land has value for ecosystem services, and as a hotspot for biodiversity in a very damaged ecosystem. It could easily (well maybe not easily) be turned into a site to explore urban forest restoration and the ecology of damaged urban rivers.
I walk much of the length of North Main Street in Providence nearly every day, walking the ancient path along the terrace of a river that lost most of its flow 13000 years ago, leaving a spectacular view across a valley much too big for its river. . North Main Street and Pawtucket Avenue constitute the easiest way to walk from the waterfront in Providence to the falls in Pawtucket, crossing the divide into the Blackstone Valley at a low spot with a low angle hill up to the ridge. Runners can make the trip in about 30 or 35 minutes and walking time is about 2 hours if you keep moving. I am guessing that there was much foot traffic back and forth between the villages and waterfronts for thousands of years. It is such an appropriate travel corridor that Ben Franklin used it as part of the Post Road he laid out from New York to Boston. The anomalous site in the trip is the side hill from the waterfront along the tidewater of the Moshassuck up to the terrace rising from just beyond the corner of Smith St. and N Main to Olney St. and the end of Benefit St. My guess is that there is something in the terrain there that made it the easiest way out of the river bottom, maybe a stream, but I can not tell what it was due to the walls built throughout the cut. Once up on the terrace you are near University Heights and University Marketplace. The shopping center is full of tenants, but from there north to the city line more than 25% of the store fronts are vacant. That may be a higher commercial vacancy rate than any other main street in the city. People have been wondering what to do about it for decades, and no solution has arisen. It is a land out of time, a long time traditional path that has lost its way. Neither Providence nor Pawtucket revolve around the head of navigation or the downtown waterfront any longer, so there is no real connection or commerce between the two places that requires a people oriented corridor along the terrace, and the quick route by car is I-95 along the river bottom until it cuts through the cliff/watershed divide at the beginning of the curves in Pawtucket. I think the steepness of the hill on both sides of N Main also contributes to its lack of commercial walkability, which is reflected and amplified by it being difficult to cross.
At the North Burial Ground I use the gate across from the Armory to enter as it is the gate closest to home. Ever since some of us in the neighborhood convinced the Parks Department to unlock the gate, the Burial Ground has become much more of a community resource with more walkers every year. It is also an amazing wildlife sanctuary.
The limestone steps lead down from the river terrace to what were once wetlands and flood plains below. Moshassuck means where the moose drink, and moose are denizens of swampy areas as they eat water plants. The draining of the wetlands and conversion to agriculture probably started early on once the Europeans controlled the land, but the original burials in this ancient (1700) cemetery were on the higher ground. Digging the Blackstone Canal from Saylesville to the waterfront in Providence required dredging and deepening the lower half of the Moshassuck River, and likely drained some of the wetlands in this area. The lower elevations of the Burial Ground are an outwash plain, an area of sand deposition, laid down as the glacier melted, with a relatively small esker snaking through the plain in the northern half of the cemetery. The esker’s sand deposit shows signs of being mined at one point, but is currently covered by the largest contiguous stretch of forest in the Burial Ground. Just to the east of the esker is a small pond. The pond is about 300 ft long by 100 ft wide, less than an acre. It is fringed by trees ands shrubs around most of the circumference, with an inflow in the Southwest from the storm sewers of the cemetery and an outflow going west towards the river in the north. There is also a small mowed peninsula sticking into the pond from the center of the west side.
This pond may have more life per acre than any parcel in the city. The pond is the home to a population of Painted turtles, and one or two Snapping turtles and a red eared slider that someone must have let go. In the spring the Painted turtles line up on one log in the southwest corner for morning sun, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNDdCljQtyA and it is from that site I have been able to count as many as 17 turtles at one time, with at least 5 different year/size classes present. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfPruv9ZWm0 Once the summer warms up the turtles are more likely to be seen swimming around the pond. Over the course of the summer I also occasionally saw, and filmed, a very young turtle sunning on a small stick in the northwest part of the pond in the hours that that sector received sun. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ex3uBtOuCh0 Another, somewhat larger, turtle would set up on another small log in the water nearby. When I started closely observing the turtles there were 6 painted turtles in the pond. The next year there were 9, the following year twelve, and the last few years hovering at about 16 or 17. I have not tried individual identification, but there are clearly differences in size between those born in different years, so it might be possible. I have enough raw footage that never made it to youtube for anyone who wishes to do a study using video. Turtles nearly always are difficult to video well. I suppose with the right filter it is possible, but my camera almost always offers up purple light reflecting off the shell and head
The biggest thrill this year was the regular appearance of muskrats, starting just before the first of the year, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wv_I339c01g and continuing into summer with some young ones in addition to the adults. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPPfUqvns54 Took me a while to figure out what I had when i saw the babies grazing in the little meadow at the north end of the pond, but I figured it out in a day or so. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2hL-2VmbKk and watched as much as I could. They are manic eaters, but if you stayed far enough away they would let you watch with the camera as they mowed through the vegetation.
I saw bats frequently in the evenings for a few weeks in spring. I only got a bit of bat video this year, so I include its link in a short video wth a variety of other creatures later on in the section highlighting hawks. The only hopeful news I hear for bats is scientists are starting to find treatments for White Nose disease. We shall be much poorer if the bats to do come through this.
If cuteness is not a factor,(the baby muskrats and tadpoles win on cute) the most charismatic megafauna that is seen regularly at the pond are the herons. The pond is frequently visited, usually at times when food is abundant, by Green Herons, Black Crowned Night Herons and Great Blue Herons https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkTl-UdYoZo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkJuGAeaaHA I have watched for enough years to realize that each of the birds that comes by has their own personality. Not only between species, but individually within a species. This spring a Great Blue Heron showed up that was more skittish than any I had ever seen before. Setting up at the places I would normally set up the camera to catch the action caused this particular heron to fly off, whereas normally Great Blues would stay and continue to hunt while I watched. The Night herons are rather easy to catch in pixels. They tend to stay on the far side of the pond, with no access behind them through the tangles. From that side of the pond they are content to let you watch and film. The Green Herons are much harder to video. They tend to hunt among, and stay close to, the brush along the edge of the pond, so they are hidden as you approach the pond and take off before you see them and are ready to film. I am hoping next year I am more prepared. There were two Green Herons around on at least one day, but I usually saw only one on any particular day. Kingfishers are another predator that frequents the pond. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6175AHjsGTU
The reason the herons come visit so often and often stick around for a few days, is that there is an abundance of food in the pond. The pond is a murky brown all summer, both from runoff and algae. The water seems relatively clear in the early spring, but very soon acquires a murk. Considering how many ponds in New England are named Mud Pond, it is a pretty normal pond despite the fact that it is at least partially a human created stormwater system. Lots of vegetation and an abundance of organic matter like leaves and acorns provide a strong foundation for the food chain. Insects are abundant, including water striders https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEsf-O0HktE and dragonflies https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLAMAfRDzyw Insects are an important component in the diets of critters higher up the food chain, Sunfish eat many different small creatures, and clearly there is much food as they have a rather large colony of nesters each year. I have noticed the nests for several years, but this year i was able to get some pretty decent footage and was able to see the fish on their nests repeatedly during the several week mating season. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtvzUMSZx70 I know Blue Herons feast on the little fish and have a video record of one heron catching two fish in the space of 5 minutes. I am starting to suspect that Herons target the pond twice a year, when the sunfish are breeding in the shallows and when the frogs have emerged in July after overwintering as tadpoles.
Frogs have been described as being a very intermediary player in the food web. Bullfrogs eat almost anything they can catch from dragonflies to other frogs, and get preyed on extensively by everything that is bigger than them, including people. This year I ended up focusing more on bullfrogs than in past years. I was able to video the tadpoles much more extensively https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nybSrrEeYxI especially tadpoles in the water after the previous years cohort turned to frogs. Some especially good footage of tadpoles swimming up from the bottom to breach the surface has finally convinced me that the bullfrog tadpoles are surfacing for oxygen rather than anything else. I am guessing the pond is pretty anaerobic due to the decomposition of repeated algae blooms. Methane bubbles are frequent anytime the bottom is disturbed. Bullfrog tadpoles occasionally fall prey to predators, but once the tadpoles from the previous year turn to frogs in July they are much more vulnerable. I have watched this cycle in past years, but this year really documented the decline of the Bullfrog population between mid August and Mid September. There were hundreds of little frogs lining sections of shoreline, but after the herons visited you might see two or three. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYbWjPxibuI
Before moving on it should be noted that over the last few years the number of Canada Geese regularly visiting the pond and eating in the burial ground has grown significantly, and that mallards live there as well in differing size communities at different times of the year. Neither species appears to rear young there. Wood ducks and Northern Shovelers were also seen at the pond this year along with a plethora of small birds.
Leaving the pond heading southwest you have a good view of I-95 and the traffic whizzing by. Often one sees Red tailed hawks in this area. I think the resident hawks do not like the fact that I take their pictures so they have developed the habit of flying around me and calling as i walk by. I offer up some flying hawk video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IXb1JQMq2Q I learned that snakes are an important part of Red Tailed hawk diets. I have seen hawks feeding on snakes several times in recent years, and include a segment of eating a snake in this video highlighting early spring animal appearances. It also highlights flying bats. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaQ-Yk47S3A
My video work in the NBG first focused on the life in a little wetland near the maintenance building. I stumbled upon a congregation of little black tadpoles one spring day, and have been visiting regularly ever since. The last 4 years with a video camera. The tadpoles inspired the whole video project which lead to much more in depth study of the pond, and a study of tadpole development in Fowler’s Toads, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpFEc8u1k_A one of the two amphibians that breed there https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9zXQ-C3ZyU I have video’d not only the Toads https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFZ8tmyu7HU https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3qd91gBW8g https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfrcqqi50L0 but also the insects that frequent the pond https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tj4F3Y6GV9E
When i first moved to Rhode Island 20 years ago I ended up part of the stakeholder process looking into what to do about Combined Sewer Overflows in stormy weather. Eventually a large tunnel under the city was built to store combined rainwater and sewage until it could be treated at the Fields Point Sewage Treatment Plant. This system, and the associated infrastructure, some of which is still in process, has dramatically reduced pollution in the bay. One slightly sour note, the Moshassuck River hosts one of the largest Combined Sewer Outfall, number 220, that has not yet had its sewage captured or treated, something that clearly shows up in fish surveys https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGe0KK0zQV8 which we conducted in partnership with the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, our neighbors across the western divide. My role 20 years ago was to advocate for what is now called Green Infrastructure or Nature Based Solutions, which over the last 20 years has become the way to manage stormwater in more and more situations, but it was a new concept back then. As I studied the little wetland I came to understand it not only as a biological system, but as a rainwater runoff catch basin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNli3vk0FUc . This has lead to further exploration of the use of new stormwater systems as a way to create amphibian habitat as amphibians are among the most endangered taxa on the planet and continue to lose wetland habitat at a high rate. I am not sure where the exploration will go, but more and more people are looking at the requirements of amphibians and how we might use rainwater to provide habitat. RI stormwater regulations currently do not permit the creation of stormwater systems that hold water long enough to allow amphibian breeding cycles, but there is no doubt that there are places in Rhode island in which this is not only possible, but would provide real community benefits. As part of my work in the Green Infrastructure Coaliton I am pushing to include biodiversity and habitat creation as factors to keep in mind when creating ways to clean runoff. It will be a long slog, equivalent to moving the needle on compost laws and regulations, but I think it is an idea who’s time is coming. I now know how much water it takes to fill the pond (1.5 inches of rain) and that if it is full it will have some water in it for at least 10 days, though I am wondering about the changes occurring as the vegetation in the pond covers more and more of the bottom with both cattails and pickerel weed spreading. When i started the project a dry period in the spring or summer would present cracked mud all over the pond. Now vegetation blocks the view and binds the bottom sediments as well as sucking up water.
I am also pondering what might be done to this particular rainwater system to improve its performance. This year the basic lesson was the resilience of the Fowler’s Toad system,. Unlike many amphibians, Fowler’s Toads breed over an extended season, I heard mating calls at least 15 evening this past spring. Maybe this winter I will see if anyone has info on how often females can lay eggs over the course of a month. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWXSJdHbXmw The extended breeding season has been critical to breeding success as the last two years the early cohort of tadpoles have all died when the pond went dry, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e3e9zDFJUo only to be followed by a second wave that made it through to hopping toadlets when the pond stayed full long enough in the summer rains. Considering this record, that Fowler’s toads have successfully fledged a large cohort each of the last 5 years, I am unsure it is wise to modify the pond. But I think the continued high sedimentation rate from the sand piles at the NBG is both helping the cattails expand in the pond, and shortening the hydroperiod. I am looking to bring in some experts to help me ponder these questions, and help me think about what data would capture the conditions best. What factors make it a Fowler’s toad haven? And can we apply what is learned here to other locations.
Heading further downriver the Moshassuck River becomes tidal, the northern most extension of the bay into the city, just as Charles Street crosses a little bridge and becomes Canal St. The stretch south to Smith St is very shallow, though fish are occasionally present, but below Smith St river life flourishes despite the shopping carts, old pilings, and street runoff. The view is from the sidewalk. Eels, carp, and blue crabs are seen occasionally throughout the warmer months. Menhaden have been described as “the Most Important Fish in the Sea” for their role as the base of the vertebrate food chain, and by mid August the river fills with the flashing of silver as the sun reflects off menhaden from 2 inches to 14 inches in length. The young swim around in large schools with their mouths open filtering water and eating the zooplankton they find. https://youtu.be/AnJTFUpgb9o Usually you see over the course of the fall menhaden in small, medium, and large sizes, with 3 or 4 year old fish topping out at about 14 inches. They often stick around until November, and last winter stayed until early January before heading out to sea. There are probably millions of little fish in the urban rivers, but this year there has been a school of at least 10,000 adults slowly swimming the area around Citizens Bank and RISD and they seem to dominate the arena. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rAAlUmB8OI All of the herons are known to stop by the Canal St section of the Moshassuck on occasion, as would be expected based on the amount of food available. This year for the first time small river herring have been seen in the fall coming down from the rivers at the head of the bay and heading to sea to grow.
From Citizens Bank Plaza I have two choices when heading to work, south along the Providence River to the Point St bridge or going through downtown. The trip along the river often provides fish viewing opportunities in the warmer months with the canoe landing along S Water St a favorite spot to check for fish. This part of the Providence River has been resculpted numerous times since Roger Williams arrived. From a salt marsh beginning it became a very busy port, now it is park lined with granite walls. Water quality is way better than it was 50 years ago (there have been Cholera epidemics in the Moshassuck basin) if not yet good, and there seems to be more life than in the recent past. Downtown provides a different perspective, and there is a need to focus on it for a bit. Most of downtown Providence, between the East Side (College Hill), Weybosset Hill, and Smith Hill was formerly wetlands. It is for this reason that I enter the fray of discussing downtown real estate and the Rhode island economy. Several hills were cut down in order to provide the materials used to fill this area. It means that downtown is rather a low spot, and subject to storm surges from hurricanes (1938, 1954) and very vulnerable to rising sea levels.
A big question, one I came up with just the other day when sitting at Senator Whitehouse’s Energy and Environment day, “Is it going to be cheaper to start an orderly retreat from the coast now, starting with everyone below 10 feet above sea level, or should we just wait for the big disaster and then retreat with lives in tatters?” Of course an orderly retreat from the coast goes against everything the US has been built on, the can do eat the planet attitude. I suppose you could fill another 10 feet higher every 100 years and keep burning carbon until it is all gone. But that seems a much worse alternative than an orderly retreat and green energy. My guess is in the places poor folks live near the water, the government will improvise a retreat, but where rich folks own land and in the centers of major cities, they will try to armor the sites, go up, or go with buildings that are designed to flood. More saltmarsh is probably a better solution.
The fortifications to preserve downtown ultimately will be overwhelmed if we keep burning fossil fuels, but in the short term will have the effect of further distorting our economy in the favor of the rich and further increasing poverty and unemployment in the rest of our communities. Providence and RI continue to cling to the old ways, with real estate development continuing to line the pockets of the rich and the campaign contributors, especially those taking advantage of huge tax loop holes available to commercial real estate development. In an age in which many Americans lost considerable sums of money from trying to put roofs over their families heads, the favoring of commercial real estate interests and banks is both politically stupid, and likely to lead to further crashes, bubbles and various and assorted financial shenanigans as well as greater inequality, which makes the bubble/bust cycle run faster. All of which undercut our communities and our ability to respond to climate change in ways that make us more resilient and and slow down the pollution and the changes. I do not have video of this, though occasionally when i speak out I end up on RI Future but until Rhode Island adopts policies reflecting this statement “You can not end poverty without healing ecosystems,. You can not heal ecosystems without ending poverty. And if you do not shut down the war machine, hard times are coming”, we are likely to have downtown landlords fattening on public subsidies until the sea floods it all, while more low income people stream into the center of the city as they get pushed out everywhere else.
For all the Rhode Island politicians who talk the talk on climate change, i have seen few walk the walk and actually take concrete measures to reduce Rhode Island’s carbon footprint in a meaningful way. One has to say folks are not serious about climate change if they are supporting the construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure as that will overwhelm any of the cuts we make due to efficiency, the use of Green energy, and improvements in the transportation system. The big thing these days is natural gas. It is touted as a bridge fuel, but it is a bridge to hell, bringing hotter weather and higher water, and anyone offering us a future with more gas is just kicking the can down the road and making it harder to repair the fabric of the climate and of our communities.
It is so interesting that the development strategy so touted in RI, using real estate development in pursuit of meds and eds to drive economic growth, will have such adverse effects on Rhode Island that it will ultimately undermine all of the gains the landlords hope garner by speeding up the sea level rise that will cover the lower parts of the city over the next few decades and drawing more displaced people into the center of the city. I am hoping common sense, and self preservation for our communities prevails, but the science denial that has swept the country, and the mountains of money in the political system make it likely that a self defeating strategy of ever more stuff, driven by ever higher subsidies to the rich and the permanent loss of place for the poor will lead towards climate collapse, economic collapse, and community collapse as the storms and droughts upset the planet. I said publicly when the speculators were building the Providence Place Mall that we would be better off with saltmarsh. And what I have learned traversing my watershed with eyes open these past 20 years, tells me that saltmarsh sounds like an even better idea now.