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Boonton resident aids endangered
species in Rhode Island
KINGSTON, R.I. -- September 23, 2003 -- Like many students, University of Rhode Island junior Victoria Potucek spent her summer going from one beach to another. But rather than spending her time tanning and swimming, she was working to protect one of Rhode Islands most endangered species, the piping plover.
The tiny shorebird nests on several beaches in the state, but its breeding success depends in large part on the efforts of human helpers like Potucek.
"Predators like skunks, foxes, coyotes, gulls and crows all eat the birds eggs and some will also eat the chicks," said the Boonton, N.J. resident. "The chicks are an easy snack for gulls."
Beginning in May, Potucek worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to monitor the adult birds as they arrived at their nesting beaches and watched for mating behavior high-stepping and flying in figure eights. "As soon as we see that two out of their four eggs have been laid, we put a wire cage exclosure around the nest to exclude the predators," explained the 20-year-old wildlife biology major. "Only birds can get in and out of the exclosure, and a mesh netting over the top keeps out avian predators."
Once all the exclosures were in place, Potucek monitored each of the 52 nests for 28 days until the eggs hatched, and she then continued monitoring for an additional 25 days until the young chicks began to fly.
"I saw a lot of signs of predation this year," she said. "A lot of adult birds were killed right outside the wire caging. And there were lots of skunk tracks around the exclosures." Despite the predation, however, 58 chicks survived to begin their migration south.
Piping plovers are still endangered in Rhode Island, Potucek said, but the population is increasing. "We started monitoring the birds in 1992 with only a handful of pairs, and now the population is way up. But theyre still going to need this kind of monitoring for many years to come."
Funding for Potuceks summer research was provided by the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its eighth year, the program based in URIs College of the Environment and Life Sciences teams students with faculty, research staff and graduate students to help them gain skills that will ensure their future success.
"Ive always enjoyed wildlife, so I entered URI as a wildlife biology major. As soon as I completed my first semester, I completely fell in love with the program," she said. "I had no interest in birds before I got involved in this project, but now Im really interested in birds and that might lead me in a new career direction. The project has certainly helped me with the Field Ornithology course that Im taking right now."
While Potucek is considering going to graduate school when she completes her URI studies, she is also continuing her work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a volunteer helping them with educational programs through the fall.
"I didnt have a strong science background in high school, but the science side of what Im learning is really cool. Im really enjoying it," she said.