New England Cottontail Monitoring at White Memorial and Throughout Their Range

New England Cottontail, Range and Population Monitoring Focus Areas
(Top image by John Huff Foster Daily Democrat via AP, bottom image by USFWS).
Habitat management performed throughout the range of New England Cottontail (NEC) and assessing the conservation status of the species is being partially measured during the winter of 2016 - 2017 at White Memorial.  A total of two plots were selected on the property, which are located at Apple Hill and on North Shore Road.  The Apple Hill plot is being managed to ensure adequate habitat for NEC and other early successional habitat species.  The North Shore Rd. plot is a grassland that has been permitted to revert to early successional habitat through ecological succession.
Transects were flagged using orange and yellow surveyor tape
on the Apple Hill Plot on East Shore Rd., Morris, Litchfield Co., CT, USA.
This project is coordinated by the NEC Technical Committee and researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey.  The monitoring objectives are to assess occupancy rates of both cottontail species (Eastern and NEC) throughout the NEC range, observe how this occupancy status changes through time, and to determine how management activities influence the changes in the occupancy status of both species.  White Memorial's two plots were part of a total of 283 plots selected throughout CT, MA, ME, NH, NY, and RI.  Connecticut currently conserves the largest number of NEC populations in the habitats of highest priority and is surveying the bulk of the total plots (83 plots).  The plots consist of 200 meter long transects that are spaced every 30 meters, ultimately sampling piece of land approximately 2 hectares in size.  The plots were visited at least 24 hours after a fresh snowfall, when the temperature remained below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and with very little wind or no rain.  Each plot was visited a total of 4 times within a 4 - 6 week time period.  The location of cottontail scat was georeferenced and collected for future molecular analysis to determine the species.  
Cottontail scat and tracks observed in fresh snow.
Various habitat measurements were recorded throughout the plot that described the vegetation density at various heights, land management, and land cover types.  Generally, the vegetation favored by both cottontail species is very dense and can consist of several thorny plant species, which makes working in them very labor intensive and at times dangerous.
Habitats in the Apple Hill Plot on East Shore Rd., Morris, Litchfield Co., CT, USA
We wore protective clothing consisting of chainsaw chaps, leather gloves, and heavy winter coats.  Several volunteers supported this project at every stage.  Jared Franklin, Ireland Kennedy, Rachelle Talbot, and Ben Vermilyea helped with the initial plot layouts in the autumn.  Jared couldn't get enough of walking through the pucker-brush so he returned to help with the surveillance portion.  Liyanna Winchell, Naomi Robert, and Nicki Hall decided to brave the single digit temperatures and searched for cottontail spore.  We observed several areas within the plots where scat was deposited very densely while other areas had little to no spore, all of which was deposited within approximately 36 hours of the snowfall cessation.  Initially, there did not appear to be strong relationship between the habitat characteristics and spore density within each plot, which suggests that animals congregated in these microhabitats.
Nicki Hall (front) and Naomi Robert were a couple of the brave souls who bushwhacked through some of the densest, thorniest habitats and during days when the daily high temperature remained in the single digits.

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