By Jack Spaulding
During July and August, Purdue University researchers and their conservation partners, including Indiana DNR, released 65 juvenile hellbenders into the Blue River in southern Indiana. All hellbenders released this year were collected as eggs during the 2015 nesting season. The past summer’s release is part of a long-term, multi-partner collaboration to restore the state-endangered salamanders in the Blue River, where they were historically more common.
Forty-two hellbenders were fitted with radio transmitters and are being tracked as part of a study examining how captive-rearing conditions affect their survival after release. Purdue researchers will track the hellbenders into the spring of 2022. Results of the radio telemetry study will help Purdue and partnering zoos’ efforts to enhance captive-rearing techniques, with the goal of increasing survival for released hellbenders in the future. Additional releases are scheduled for the summer of 2022.
Hellbender recovery in Indiana is possible by donations to the Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund and accomplished through several partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies in Kentucky and Ohio, The Nature Conservancy and a number of Indiana zoos.
Barn owl nest box surveys
Barn owls were once common in the Midwest. They lived in hollow trees and wooden barns; hunting hayfields, idle grain fields, pastures and other open spaces for small rodents at night. Over time, many wooden barns have been torn down or converted into metal barns and are difficult for barn owls to access. Few modern farms offer the land the owls need for hunting. Large open grasslands of 100 acres or more are required to support a family of barn owls, which can eat more than 1,000 voles and mice in a single year.
Our Indiana ornithologists (biologists who study birds) have installed more than 400 nest boxes throughout the state since 1984 to provide protected nesting sites for barn owls. In the winter of 2017-2018, a comprehensive survey of 246 nest boxes was conducted to check whether they had been occupied since the time of the last statewide survey in 2013. A record 43 nests were found active in the winter survey, more than double what was recorded in 2013 (18 nests). The next comprehensive survey of barn owl nest boxes will be this winter.
DNR staff and volunteers continue to place nest boxes in barns and other buildings to help barn owls safely raise young. To support the work, donate to the Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund, or check out building and installing an owl nest box of your own at https://www.in.gov/dnr/fish-and-wildlife/files/fw-barn_owl_nest_box_building_guide.pdf. Check out the barn owl nest webcam at https://www.in.gov/dnr/fish-and-wildlife/wildlife-resources/animals/barn-owl/barn-owl-nest-webcam/ later this winter to see the owls in action.
Saving Indiana’s endangered freshwater mussels
Freshwater mussels are one of the most imperiled groups of animals in Indiana. Certain species’ populations have dwindled to the point that without help, recovery is unlikely. Strategies vary depending on the circumstance, and biologists use a variety of methods to improve mussel populations, including relocation. With relocation, a portion of the adults from a thriving population are collected and relocated to an area where population numbers are very low or no longer exist. In 2015-16, Indiana had the opportunity to participate in a multi-state effort to restore endangered mussel populations using the relocation method.
An impending bridge project on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania required the relocation of several federally endangered mussel species. Instead of relocating them to another section of the Allegheny River, as would normally be the case, they were used to bolster populations within other areas of each species’ range. Indiana was fortunate enough to receive more than 3,000 adult clubshell (Pleurobema clava) for reintroduction into the Eel River in Cass and Miami counties. All clubshells were marked with a small, numbered, plastic tag and PIT tag (a microchip similar to what’s placed in a dog or cat) or received a small dab of glitter glued to the outside of their shell. Annual monitoring has determined only seven individual mussels are known to have died since the move and their growth has been excellent. Our biologists’ next step is to document reproduction within the relocated population. Finding small juvenile clubshells (which are about the size of a nickel) can be a challenge, as they tend to bury deep into the gravelly substrate. Biologists plan to sift through sections of the riverbed later this fall in search of juveniles.
Freshwater mussels serve as natural filters and help improve water quality in Indiana’s rivers and streams. Efforts to reintroduce, monitor, and improve existing populations of freshwater mussels are funded, in part, by the Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund.
Shrubs for shrikes a success
Loggerhead shrikes are one of Indiana’s endangered bird species, with fewer than 10 breeding pairs recorded each year in the entire state. Indiana’s DNR staff has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and Indiana Audubon Society to plant young cedar trees in areas where shrikes are present. In the past two years, 58 eastern red cedar trees were planted. These trees provide nesting habitat and cover for birds to escape predators and bad weather. Biologists monitoring these birds determined in the summer of 2021, Indiana’s shrikes successfully raised 14 young.
Donations through the Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund, license purchases and support from partners through their Adopt-a-Shrike Program, provide the necessary funds to support shrike conservation efforts including purchasing cedar trees.
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Spaulding’s books, “The Best of Spaulding Outdoors,” and his latest, “The Coon Hunter And The Kid,” are available from Amazon.com.