BEDFORD — Standing waist deep in Vine Brook, near the parking lot behind the Flatbread Co. restaurant on Burlington Road, biologist Bryan Windmiller instructed half a dozen volunteers on the fine art of seining for fish.
Windmiller and volunteer Dave Winchester, a science teacher from Lynn Classical High School, each held one side of a large net that stretched almost all the way across the 10-foot-wide section of flowing water.
“When we move the net toward you, start shuffling your feet along the bottom and splashing,” Windmiller told the volunteers.
The group complied, as Windmiller and Winchester swept the net along the bottom, then out of the water.
“We’ve got some,” Windmiller announced, and everyone converged to take a look.
Among several fish species, he pointed out a 2-inch-long, straw-colored minnow with a black stripe running along its sides from the base of the tail to the tip of the snout.
Winding through a maze of office parks, shopping malls, and heavily trafficked roadways in Bedford and Burlington, Vine Brook seems an unlikely place to find a rare species. But the small stream, scarcely more than a few feet wide in places, is home to one of the rarest fish in Massachusetts: the bridle shiner.
Windmiller, with the help of his group of enthusiastic volunteers, has launched a research project aimed at finding out how the shiners have managed to survive in such an urban setting, and to develop a conservation plan for the species.
The Vine Brook population is one of the five largest known in Massachusetts, and is by far the largest that has been found in the eastern part of the state, said Windmiller.
“The area near Flatbread pizza in Bedford is the best area for shiners in Vine Brook proper that we have yet seen,” he said. “There were also huge numbers of shiners last summer’’ in Meadow Road Pond, next to the Staples parking area just north of Burlington Mall.
Windmiller, a Concord resident, recently started a nonprofit called Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, which works on enhancing populations of rare species with help from local volunteers.
In addition to developing a conservation plan for bridle shiners in Vine Brook, Windmiller said he hopes to identify other nearby bodies of water that have similar habitat — but no shiners — and possibly reintroduce the fish to these sites using captive-bred young.
The bridle shiner (notropis bifrenatus) is listed as a species of special concern by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program . Originally found from North Carolina to Ontario, the shiner has disappeared from much of its former range, Windmiller said. A 1998 survey showed the fish had disappeared from many locations in Massachusetts.
Last August, Windmiller, Winchester, and John Berkholtz of the Stone Zoo counted an estimated 1,500 shiners in one day in Meadow Road Pond and Vine Brook, five times more than in the 1998 survey.
For reasons that are not yet clear, Vine Brook is a hot spot for the fish. And that raises an obvious question.
“Why does such an intensely urbanized brook somehow support a rather pristine and unique fish community?” Windmiller asked. “Vine Brook has almost no nonnative fish, and bridle shiners and creek chub — not on the state list of endangered, threatened, and special concern species, but on the Massachusetts list of ‘species of greatest conservation need’ — are the two most abundant fish in parts of the brook that are right next to large roads and tracts of commercial development.”
To answer that question, and help determine potential reintroduction sites, Windmiller’s immediate objectives are to collect data on what microhabitat factors — other fish species, aquatic plant species, water chemistry, and general stream characteristics — in Vine Brook are associated with the shiner abundance.
That’s where the volunteers come in.
“Heretofore, we have worked mostly with schoolchildren on head-starting projects,’’ in which juveniles are raised in classrooms until they are ready for release, said Windmiller. “Here, we’re trying to recruit local adults to help with field data gathering and monitoring.”
He is training volunteers to monitor water quality by measuring factors such as pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and calcium, nitrogen, and phosphate levels, all of which can affect plants, fish, and other aquatic organisms.
Windmiller is also teaching them how to sample and identify submerged aquatic plant species, such as elodea, in which shiners like to hide.
Volunteers must be able to find and identify bridle shiners. The fish tend to form distinct feeding schools in open areas, which allows observers to make population estimates, but the volunteers are trained to distinguish between bridle shiners and other species they resemble, such as golden shiners and young creek chub.
Bedford resident Tim Gray, a freelance business writer and writing teacher at Boston College, said he was drawn to the project out of a concern for endangered species and the global extinction crisis.
“Losing biodiversity in our world strikes me as a bad thing,” said Gray. “I can’t help much globally, but I can help here.”
Other volunteers include Susan Erickson, a teacher at the Thoreau School in Concord; Meghna Marjadi, a wildlife biologist and Americorps volunteer from Wayland; wildlife enthusiast and Bedford resident Terry Gleason; Peter Moulton, an instructional assistant in special education at Andover High School; and Andy Xin, a senior at the University of Maryland and an intern on another one of Windmiller’s projects, monitoring the Blanding’s turtle population in Concord.
Threats to bridle shiners include introduced fish species such as largemouth bass and bluegill sunfish, which prey on the small fish; a decrease in native aquatic plants that shiners depend on for cover; lack of open areas in which the fish like to feed; chemical pollution, including road salt and hydrocarbons such as gas and oil in runoff from roadways; and turbidity, suspended particles in water that can inhibit the shiners’ ability to see tiny aquatic invertebrates that they eat.
Another threat to shiners is channelization, the straightening of streams by digging ditches to redirect the flow, said Windmiller.
“Vine Brook used to run through the Burlington Mall parking lot,” he said, “but they moved the brook out of the way’’ during the mall’s construction. “The ditched part of the brook has no shiners.”
In spite of the environmental issues facing the stream, Windmiller said, Vine Brook has relatively clear water and thick beds of aquatic vegetation.
As a nonprofit, Grassroots Wildlife Conservation depends on grants and donations for its operations, said Windmiller. Because the bridle shiner project is new, there is no funding yet, but some institutions are helping in other ways.
Several schools and organizations, including Lynn Classical High School; Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton; the New England Aquarium; and the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, have started captive breeding programs for possible future reintroduction efforts, and the Bedford Department of Public Works has agreed to supply water-quality test kits.
The Flatbread Co. has even gotten involved with early fund-raising efforts.
Charmaine Krystal, who manages the bar at the small chain’s local outlet, has been running monthlong fund-raisers for animal shelters and rescues since October 2011. Krystal said each fund-raiser typically yields from $400 to $1,000.
“The money is raised by a percentage of beverage sales and a raffle,” she said. “I ask breweries to donate items . . . and I make a tote bag with something appliqued on it representing the critter.”
She said the events have raised thousands of dollars for everything from bats to cats, elephants to tigers, and now she is helping Grassroots and the rare fish she was surprised to learn lives in the stream right behind the place where she has worked for the past seven years.
“It seems like the world is falling apart when you read the horrid headlines,” said Krystal. “But there are people out there who keep doing good deeds, and maybe they are the glue that keeps it all together.”
Don Lyman, a freelance science writer and biologist, can be reached at donlyman@ ix.netcom.com .