Patience Island is, well, a test of patience

(Photo above) Gaiters, carhartts, and a tucked in shirt-check!

There’s an island out in Narragansett Bay. Recorded at over 200 acres, this island is uninhabited by humans. An island where you just might find New England Cottontails (NEC)… Or maybe you’ll just encounter multiple species of ticks as well as a plethora of prickly, viny plants that attempt to entangle you, preventing you from ever leaving the island. Hopefully you’ve deduced from the title that the island is named Patience.

Cindy finds NEC locations via telemetry

My first experience on Patience was some telemetry work in order to find a NEC mortality. All released NEC have radio collars that we can detect with the telemetry unit. The rabbits were released earlier in the year back in March and unfortunately a loose coyote managed to pick off two of them and cause the death of the third one, the one we were looking for that day. Patience’s vegetation is typically thick and only gets denser as the summer goes on. Cindy, a student career experience program (SCEP) participant got a reading on where the mortality signal was coming from and we set off, arriving at a stonewall approximately half an hour later. Exactly where Cindy’s intern Matt and Cindy were the week before without being able to find the cottontail.

NEC mortality has been found…

Upon coming to the location where the poor bugger should’ve been, he was no where in sight. We went to the point on the stonewall where the telemetry was pointing us to and state biologist Brian Tefft began digging at the base of the wall to no avail. With all of us still determined to retrieve the collar and potentially the rabbit, stones were carefully removed. I was the lucky (unlucky?) finder of the corpse after poking into the wall with a decently lengthy stick. Turns out if you jab the body of what has a mortality signal the beep from the telemetry sometimes changes back to a live one. Anyhoo, body was recovered and placed in a ziploc bag for a necropsy on a later date.

Matt expressing how we all feel at the end of a day/robel pole in action

At this point in the season the vegetation is at its thickest and Cindy, Matt, and myself are in the midst of conducting vegetation surveys. It’s painfully slow and tedious work but the rabbitat (a term we at the RI refuge believe that Rachel Steward coined, don’t worry, you don’t know her yet.) data must be recorded! Transects that are 25-meter lengths are set up going in each cardinal direction - North, East, South, and West. No matter how tall the plants might be nor how an endless number of thorns dig into your skin, your mission is to go in as true a line as possible.

6’4″ committed to accurate data collecting!

There are various factors being measured. One is what plant crosses the transects, for how long, and at what height. Also, within each quadrant (NW, SW, SE, NE) are three points adding up to twelve. At each point we count the number of stems and what species make up those stems as well as the percentage of herbaceous cover and their species. But wait! The first plot in each quadrant gets the special addition of the robel pole! The robel pole is a two-meter long pvc pipe with alternating purple and yellow tape to indicate different percents for cover. In addition the robel pole the basal area was measured using a prism that determine which trees we took the diameter and species type of. Last but not least for the first plot was the densiometer which helps in calculating canopy cover.

1mx1m quadrant/densiometer

An engorged tick.

And so we repeat each step for all the plots. One plot at the minimum takes about two hours. That’s not including the time it takes for the boat to drop us off at the island where ticks await us by the dozen or the bushwhacking required to get out to a plot. Sometimes our GPS unit is finicky and we wander a little before finding the center point within a plot. Face covered in stinging DEET, gaiters secured around boots to keep out ticks, and shirts securely tucked in - we diligently do our work in the name of rabbit habitat (refer to: rabbitat) research. Rumour has it that Cindy’s treating Matt and I to ice cream once all is said and done.