The Vole and Its Island - Birding For Nick Tepper

In January of 2019 I learned that this vole existed. A small Microtus completely isolated on a tiny Island west of Nantucket. I was compiling a list of species endemic to my home state of Massachusetts at the time, and was inquiring to my friend Skyler about a spider that was discovered on Nantucket. I told him about the list I was creating and he replied "U got muskeget vole right?" That was it. Those few words marked the start of my obsession. It is Massachusetts' only endemic vertebrate species and it was one that I had to see alive in person.

Muskeget is a unique island with a long and complicated history. I couldn't possibly squeeze it all into a journal post about the island's endemic vole but some background is important for those unfamiliar with Muskeget. The island is tiny, only about 240 acres, and it's completely uninhabited. One building exists on the island; a shack owned by Crocker Snow Jr. Aside from Crocker's shack there's what is left of an old duck blind, a pile of rubble that was once another shack, and a portion of land that one may be able to call an airstrip if you go back some years and squint hard enough. That is to say it's more or less untouched by humans. Fishermen and travelers occasionally wander the shores but unless someone is visiting for a specific purpose every once in a while, the island is empty. For those interested in learning more about the history of Muskeget and its vole this journal post discusses that aspect more in depth.

After learning about the vole from Skyler I began scouring the internet searching for any information I could find on it. Microtus breweri the Muskeget Vole, a small vole only known to occur on Muskeget Island, Massachusetts. At the time no photos of a living individual existed online (none that I could track down anyway) and the only photo of a living vole that I could find was a black and white photograph in Crocker Snow Jr.'s book about Muskeget. It became my mission to photograph this species and I would try to get out to Muskeget to search at any opportunity I could. I attended Tuckernuck Christmas Bird Counts and hoped that we might pop over to Muskeget for a few hours so I could search for the vole but that never ended up happening.
One day in September of 2020 my chance to visit Muskeget came. Skyler had found a rare Gray Heron on Tuckernuck Island and then relocated it on Muskeget Island. This was the first record for this species in the lower 48 states so naturally a small boat with some Nantucket birders was scheduled to go out the next morning. I was informed late that evening that Skyler had saved a spot for me on that boat, so if I could make it to Nantucket the next morning I would have a ride to Muskeget Island. Luckily I was able to make it down there in time for the boat. Unfortunately the Gray Heron had moved on and it was never seen in the area again. We got to spend some extra time on Muskeget and searched extensively for the voles. I even army-crawled under Crocker's cabin and flipped some boards hoping to find one, but to no avail. The Muskeget Vole continued to illude me. That trip was extremely special regardless of our failures to find the two targets of the day. I was finally able to experience Muskeget Island and now I was even more under its spell.

In the years following my trip to Muskeget I spent some more time on Tuckernuck and learned more about the Muskeget Vole. Apparently the last published sighting of one was in the 1990s. Beyond that, sightings were based on word of mouth with no photos or evidence that they were credible. We began to get worried that M. breweri was extinct. The only other terrestrial mammal on the island is Peromyscus so were people mistaking those for voles and claiming to have seen some while on Muskeget? In recent years the Great Black-backed Gull breeding population has increased on Muskeget, and tularemia and other tick-borne diseases have been reported nearby. Did these factors in combination with climate change and erosion of Muskeget do the voles in? Tularemia has been known to "burn through vole populations like wildfire" and it has been detected on Martha's Vineyard and Tuckernuck Island very recently. Had the Muskeget Vole silently gone extinct, alone on the island after thousands of years of trials and tribulations? Soon myself, Skyler Kardell, and Nick Tepper made it our goal to get out to Muskeget and do a general presence/absence survey of the voles. At the time we weren't sure if we would be declaring them extinct or documenting the few that we did find but it wasn't looking good.
The process of figuring this all out was long and complicated, but to make a long story short Skyler and I made our way to Harvard to discuss a trip out to Muskeget. We figured out our plan and learned that specimens of Muskeget Vole were obtained in 2015 but that work was unpublished, making the last confirmed sighting much more recent than we'd previously thought. Our hopes for seeing this species began to rise once again, and it seemed like my dream of photographing a Muskeget Vole may finally come true.

Nick Tepper applied for a permit to trap and collect (we would only collect if the population seemed high enough) M. breweri with myself and Skyler as subpermitees since Nick has the most experience with small mammal research. If we collected any the specimens would be donated to the Harvard collections for DNA work in the future. After some waiting we finally heard back from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in June of 2022. We got permission to trap and collect on Muskeget Island! I was on Tuckernuck with Skyler doing some research on Black-capped Chickadees when I found out and Nick was in Kansas doing breeding bird surveys. The next step was actually planning our trip to Muskeget now that all the permissions were in order, but first we all celebrated being granted permission to do this population assessment in the first place.

What happened next is hard to fit into a story about following my dream to search for a rare vole but it certainly can't be told otherwise. A few days after celebrating obtaining the permit with Nick he was in a major car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The news obviously shocked me and others that know him, and it's something that I'm still processing. As of writing this Nick is on the long road to recovery.
Skyler and I decided to proceed without Nick for the time being. The permit expired at the end of 2022 and we knew he wouldn't be able to join us before then. Nick especially had worked so hard to obtain the permit and it felt like a disservice if we didn't use it, even if it would be without him.

Time passed and we continued planning our trip. Eventually we made it out to Muskeget in late August of 2022. We stayed on the island for 4 nights and the two of us extensively trapped all 4 corners of the island. We caught voles in all 4 areas and found enough to collect a few specimens for Harvard. Finally, my dream of nearly four years had come true, I'd seen and photographed the Muskeget Vole; Massachusetts' only endemic vertebrate. A lot of my time on Muskeget is a blur. It was filled with so many exciting moments including the voles and observing some amazing shorebird flocks in the lagoon, but it was extremely bittersweet. Nick should have been there. I wish he had been.

In Honor of Nick we will be doing a Birdathon to raise money for Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. It's explained much better in the GoFundMe so please go read that. If you're able to I encourage you to donate. Nick is an amazing person and I wouldn't have had the opportunity to fulfill my dream of seeing the Muskeget Vole without him.

הועלה ב-ספטמבר 3, 2022 03:01 אחה"צ על ידי liliumtbn liliumtbn






אוגוסט 2022


United States (Google, OSM)


Thank you for writing up this amazing post, Lily. I knew when I saw your photos of M. breweri on iNat that it was a special find, but did not know much of the context on their history on the island. This is a truly special project and one that Nick would have absolutely wanted you both to go ahead with in his absence. I'll read this blog post to him when I see him soon and show him your photos as well, I'm sure he'll be so thrilled to see them and hear this story.

פורסם על-ידי nsharp לפני יותר משנה

@nsharp Thank you so much. That really means a lot to me

פורסם על-ידי liliumtbn לפני יותר משנה

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