Monday, July 19, 2010

More than just berries

This week, I finally fulfilled my duties as a true biological technician and conducted work all by myself. Kathy and Eric conducted baywater sampling out on the boat each day, which meant all the normal activities that must be completed each week were left to me. In addition to mosquito trapping and marsh sampling, I ate my heart out calibrating equipment and creating dilutions in the lab. I also had to drive to Cambridge (about 1.5 hour drive each way) to drop off samples at a University of Maryland lab.

Working diligently in the lab, processing the catch from mosquito trapping.
Mosquitoes in the state I prefer them in: dead.

Sorting the mosquitoes by species.
So the mosquito trapping is divided up in between 3 parts: the fan, which is what I'm attaching to the tree branch (above), the battery, and the cooler. This fan is powered by a battery that I'm setting up (below). Beside the branch containing the fan (not pictured), I also set up a water cooler containing dry ice. I make sure to open the drinking spout of the cooler so that the dry ice seeps out of the opening. The mosquitoes are then attracted by the cool air, unsuspectingly fly over near the cooler, and are then "sucked" into the trap by the fan. Underneath the fan is a bag that empties out into a plastic cup - perfect for catching bugs.After setting up the traps every Monday afternoon, I then check them the following morning on Tuesday.
This weekend, Kathy and I have enjoyed lazy mornings sleeping in, sipping much missed Starbucks coffee, and painting shells. On Saturday, we visited the town of Chincoteague (finally, after having driven through it each Monday when we conduct our beachwater survey) and explored its many charming used bookstores, coffee shops, and art boutiques. We also indulged in homemade ice cream waffle cones at the local creamery. Afterwards, we stopped at the Chincoteague NWR headquarters and learned all there is to know about its birds, the endangered Delmarva squirrel, and the Assateague lighthouse.

This weekend, we have also dabbled in the culinary arts, cooking Chicken parmigiana, banana bread, sweet potato fries, banana and chocolate chip pancakes (mouth-watering), and ham, spinach, and cheese quiche.
On Friday evening, Kathy and I combed the beach for more shells to paint. While walking back to the car at dusk, we spotted this (what I think) juvenile Common Loon at the top of the beach, near the dunes. It looked very out of place (being that loons frequent freshwater lakes) and should have been with its brethen in the upper reaches of Canada and Alaska at this point in the summer. Of course, I was very worried for its well-being. We realized that it must have been injured, as it didn't fly off when we approached it. Very pitifully, it scooted down the beach (upon our coaxing) with its legs (designed for swimming, not walking) and reached the surf. I was glad it was in the water, as it's a more familiar environment for them (albeit salt water). Unfortunately, I don't think that little loon will make it - but I was excited nonetheless to see one of my favorite birds! (something I wouldn't have expected, being in Maryland)

Sunday evening, we went berry picking on the island, in the hopes of gathering enough to make a couple of pies. We discovered that there are several patches of blackberry, high bush blueberry, and black cherry in the scrub bordering the oceanside dunes. In preparation for the mosquitoes and flies, we wore our bug suits and doused ourselves in 30% deet bug spray. Suited up with buckets in tow, we disappeared into the mosquito-ridden jungle of overgrown vines, scrub oaks, phragmites (an invasive that runs rampant all over the island), and wax myrtle.

After picking berries and swatting flies away for about an hour or so, we headed back to the car. Not even five seconds after sitting down in the car seat, we both simultaneously happened to look down to find thousands of tiny red things crawling all over our legs. I immediately shouted, “Get out of the car!” and jumped out of the vehicle. Upon closer inspection, I realized that these nearly microscopic creepy crawlies were ticks, crawling on every inch of our bugsuits (and underneath them). We both feverishly attempted to brush them off, but ticks have an uncanny ability to stick to anything they attach themselves to.

Being close to the beach, we decided to walk down the dunes and dunk ourselves in the water. Hoping that salt water would do the trick, we waded out into the surf, completely clothed and covered head to toe in our bug suits – amidst several confused
(and frightened) stares. Sadly enough, this would be the first time both Kathy and I have gone into the ocean this summer – only this time, with all our clothes on (socks and all).

After about 40 minutes of ensuring total submersion, we headed back up the dunes and drove home. Upon arrival, we both ran to our bathrooms, stripped down, and took a shower. At this point, I had placed the faucet at an unbearably hot temperature – so hot I could only stick a body part underneath the stream for a few seconds before feeling as if I were getting second-degree burns. I had put the water at this temperature in hopes it would kill the ticks. To continue the tick killing spree regimen, I scrubbed my body down with every kind of shower toiletry to my name. I’m pretty sure I succeeded in removing the outermost layer of skin. After washing my skin raw, I dried off, lotioned up, and got dressed. Unfortunately (and unbelievably enough), my obsessive paranoic efforts were to no avail. Once Kathy got out of the shower, we both did a tick check on each other’s backs and Kathy found two ticks still chilling on my lower back. Regrettably, such an experience has guaranteed unnecessary paranoia. Whenever Kathy and I get an itch, we’ll be worried it’s a tick trying to give us Lyme disease.
And to top it off: we didn't even find enough blackberries to make a full pie. We'll have to make a combination of mini pies...

However, this is definitely an experience to tell the grandkids.

On to other news: this coming week marks a 3-day work week (YES!), as we’re road-trippin’ it to Kathy’s house just outside of Roanoke, VA. We plan on stopping in historic Williamsburg, the cities of Richmond and Charlottesville, home of Jefferson’s Monticello. A music festival, water-skiing on a lake, and a much sought after day of hiking will also be included within the weekend festivities.

More details are soon to follow!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Oh Sun, how I hate you sometimes

The heat this week was a bugger. On Tuesday, the high was at 100 and the heat index was between 105-110 degrees. To top if off, Buffy the human slayer (or sweat inducer) decided to stop her AC from working, so we’ve been sweating bullets every time we use the government vehicle.
Daisy, holding up one of the many sponges we caught on our trawling day.

Since we had Monday off on account of the holiday, we started our beachwater survey the following morning, on Tuesday. On a related note, I have this theory that when you hear cicadas, it’s probably unbearably hot – or will be soon. As I was getting ready for work at 5:15 AM in the bathroom that morning, the cicadas were at a deafening roar. Needless to say, as I walked from the house to the office that morning, I was already drenched in a sheen of sweat and not looking forward to being in an un-air-conditioned car all day.
There you have it! An Assateague sunrise! This was taken at 5:30 in the morning the day we did our marsh work.

However, Kathy and I prevailed in the unforgiving heat. Once back at the lab, I went out with Allison, the horse biologist here, and learned the ropes of mosquito monitoring. Starting next week (Monday), I will be driving to three different marshes on the Bay side of Assateague Island and setting traps for mosquitoes (and any other dumb insects that manage to get caught). The cool (literally!) side of this trapping technique is that I get to work with dry ice – so I can pretend I am a crazed laboratory inventor as tendrils of ice-cold air ooze and swirl from coolers I have placed on trees surrounding the traps. Once I set the traps in the afternoon, I return to them the following morning to retrieve the unsuspecting bugs. I then take the traps, encased with hundreds of buzzing and creepy crawlies, and drive back to the lab. Back at the office, I throw the traps into the freezer like the heartless insect murderer I am, and then wait an hour until the bugs buzz no more.
Eric pulling up the trawl net.

During this time, I gather forceps, a light/magnifying lens contraption (so much for the scientific language), a trash can, and revolutionized plastic solo cups to place the sorted mosquitoes. I then take the traps out of the freezer, throw away any poor innocents (aka horse and deer flies [which I don’t mind killing], spiders, beetles, flies, and other bugs that aren’t mosquitoes) and then start identifying the mosquitoes down to the species. The objective of this study is to monitor for mosquitoes that might be carrying West Nile Virus or Eastern Equine Encephalitis – both a concern for the wild herd of Assateague horses and people. The three main species of concern are: Ochlerotatus sollicitans, O. taeniorhynchus and Culex sp. Any other mosquitoes that do not fall under these species are just lumped into an “others” category. Once sorted, I weigh the entire sample, jot down the total numbers from each species, and then conduct calculations to estimate the total number of each species in a particular marsh. After this process is done from each marsh (so three cups in total), I throw the mosquitoes into labeled solo cups, cover them up, and place them into the fridge until I replace them the following week, when I conduct the surveying all over again. Yay!
Just another day in the lab: calibrating sondes. Whoohoo!

Loads and LOADS of crabs, captured from our trawling day.

When not doing mosquito stuff this week, Kathy and I calibrated several sondes (the data loggers we use for water quality monitoring) and then deployed a few sondes in Sinepuxent Bay. On Thursday, Kathy and I went out with Eric (the boss man) and two interp girls and went trawling for sea creatures. In other words, I was paid to act like a kid again and have fun setting nets and then pulling them back up to see what we found. While trawling, we captured hundreds of Maryland blue crabs, lady crabs, sea robins (cool fish that have modified fins that allow them to literally crawl on the bottom of the sea floor), a couple skates, spot fish, sea bass, a mantis shrimp, a flounder, tunicates, and sponges. It was quite a good find. The interp girls picked several fish of their choosing and placed them into buckets for them to use in their touch tank in the visitor’s center.
A huge ass Blue crab I wanted to take home and fry up (but couldn't).
Sorting through all the creatures we picked up on one of our trawls.

On Friday, Kathy and I worked – an unusual thing since we normally work 4-10s (10 hour days, 4 days a week) each week. However, since we had Monday off on account of the fourth, we decided to take advantage of this opportunity and work – since we were hoping to get off a Thursday coming up in two weeks. In two weeks, I’ll be leaving Assateague for the weekend with Kathy to go to her house in Virginia 7 ½ hours away.
Gotta love the bug suit.
Or not.

Since we really didn’t want to be driving into the night on a Thursday after we got off at work at 5, we decided to see if it would be possible to work another day in a week to get that Thursday off. Fortunately, Eric is awesome and was cool with us taking that option. So, on yesterday morning, we got up before the crack of dawn and started work at 4:30 AM to go do marsh work all day. Although any normal person would wonder why in the hell we would start so early – you would sympathize when learning that the high for the day was 98 degrees. We started our work so early so that we could get a good chunk of the work done before the hottest part of the day. So we finished up with Valentine’s Marsh by 10:30, enjoyed an early lunch on the beach, and then finished surveying Tingles marsh by about 2:00. We then headed back to the office, cleaned the vehicle, and were outta there by 3, just on schedule. I’ll definitely be looking forward to that three-day week soon!

Just your average lunch break: sitting on the beach, catching some rays.

July Fourth Celebrations

It’s hard to believe that an entire month has passed since I first arrived here. And to think – in just over a month (and about a week more) I return to Florida. Although my life here at Assateague isn’t as frenetic as it has been the last two summers, the days still whiz by and I’m left reeling, wondering, where does the time go?

This past weekend, for the fourth of July, three of my friends from Florida made the 17-hour trek to come visit me and spend the holiday in Washington, D.C. All three hadn’t visited the capitol before (with the exception of Courtnee, who had visited when she was seven) so they were really excited to see the monuments and sights. Although I had stayed a week in DC four years ago, there were plenty of sights I hadn’t seen and many others I would enjoy visiting again.

A view of the National Gallery of Art from the National Air and Space Museum.

Again, Kathy fortuitously was headed the same direction that weekend, and, being a doll, dropped me off in the city Thursday night to stay with my Mom, who also happened to be in the city as she was attending a work conference. All the details seemed to fit perfectly.

A view of the capitol building.

The following morning, Courtnee, Jesse, and Dawn arrived (slap happy to boot, as they had been driving throughout the entire night and morning) and we had lunch on Capitol Hill. Once there, we visited the National Gallery of Art (upon my request) and was very excited to see that several of Monet and Renoir works were on display. We also saw the only Leonardo da Vinci work in the Western hemisphere – a painting of a woman’s face entitled, Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474/1478). This frieze had two sides – one side featured a woman’s face, and the other side was a landscape. We also saw works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Rubens, and the very famous painting of Napoleon Bonaparte in his study, by Jacques-Louis David (c. 1812).
Auguste Renoir, A Girl with a Watering Can, 1876

After the Gallery of Art, we visited the National Air and Space Museum and then headed back to the hotel and had Chinese takeout for dinner. The following day, we spent the entire day outside, visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial, the WWII Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Museum of American History, and the Natural History Museum. For lunch, we were suckers for buying a very stereotypical hotdog from a corner street vendor – and then ate them under a big oak tree on the National Mall lawn.

These are the classy people I call friends.

On the day of the fourth, we visited the White House amidst a gaggle of protesters swarming the front gates. Rows upon rows of cop cars and secret service men lined each side of the street surrounding the house. While facing the front lawn and fountain, I saw men dressed all in black placed at each corner of the top of the roof, AK-47s in hand. Other policemen were stationed at each gate leading to the house, while others bordered the protesters. Wondering whether or not this was atypical, I went up to a policeman and asked, “This may be a stupid question, but – is there usually this much security, or is it because it’s the fourth of July?” I was promptly answered with, “This is just like any other day.”

A view of the White House, with secret service men on the roof.

After staring at all of these black vehicles, men in uniform, and shouting men and women toting posters and doling out flyers, I realized I would have to give up my dream of becoming president (I kid). I realized that presidents have virtually no freedom. Although I knew our leaders were in the constant public eye and had every move watched and judged, I didn’t even think of the fact that they have no liberty to even partake in the simple things in life – such as reading a book in one’s backyard or walking to the corner cafĂ© to enjoy a steaming cup of Joe. Such things would be impossible without being bludgeoned by protesters, photographers snapping your picture, and potential assassins watching your every move. Presidents require constant supervision and that’s something, until visiting the White House, I failed to appreciate.

The Lincoln Memorial.

After the White House, we visited the Ford’s theatre, where we enjoyed a very interesting and informative interpretative talk inside. The four of us sat as close as you could get to where Lincoln sat that fateful night – right next to an alcove jutting out from the balcony. We learned that Wilkes Booth had manipulated a very strategic and well-thought out plan to assassinate the president. Being a well-known actor and having featured in several plays at the Ford’s theatre, Booth knew every nook and cranny to the establishment – so had planned to place a certain piece of wood in the door leading to where Lincoln sat so that others could not reach Booth after Lincoln was shot.

A view of the inside of the Ford's theatre.

On the night of the play, Booth snuck into the room undeterred, as the “security” for the night had left earlier. At this point in our nation’s history, the “secret service” was still a fairly new concept and there was hardly any cause for the president to be protected. Having watched every rehearsal and previously acted in the same play that would be played for Lincoln, Booth knew every part to the play in which would influence a certain reaction from the audience. In this specific play, there was one point in the show in which only a single actor was on stage, and he delivered a certain line that was particularly funny – a statement so hilarious that the entire audience would erupt in laughter. It was during this moment that Booth shot Lincoln – straight behind his left ear, which caused him to immediately lose consciousness and slump forward in his chair.

The area of the balcony Lincoln was sitting in - and was shot.

Although a gunshot would generate a significant resounding bang in a theatre, the sound went unnoticed, as everyone else in the theatre had been laughing. After shooting Lincoln, Booth wrestled with Colonel Rathbone (sp?), who was sitting with Lincoln when he had been shot. Booth stabbed Rathbone a couple of times and then jumped from the balcony onto the stage. Once on stage, Booth very dramatically held up his bloodied dagger, uttered a few lines in Latin from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and then ran to the back of the stage, leading to a door that opened outside, where he escaped with someone waiting for him. It wasn’t until later that Booth would be shot in a barn, unable to be brought to justice for what he had done.

Dawn, Courtnee and Jesse in front of the National Air and Space Museum.

I was so glad to have attended the interpretative program, as I hadn’t known all of these details concerning Lincoln’s assassination. It was so interesting and definitely shed more light into Booth’s thought and planning for such a horrendous murder. After the theatre, we headed back to the hotel and ate dinner. Later that night, we headed to Capitol Hill and spread stark white hotel towels on the lawn and waited for the fireworks to start. While sitting on the lawn, we listened to several well-known artists who were performing on the capitol steps. Such artists included Reba McIntyre, the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish (whose name eludes me), and several other country singers. I think Adam Lambert (although I’m probably incorrect) sung the Star Spangled Banner. After the show, the fireworks started at the National Mall, very close to the Washington Memorial. As we were oohing and aahing at the dancing lights parading on the roofs of city buildings, suddenly we heard an ear-splitting BOOM! as several cannons went off very close to where we were standing. Just across from the capitol steps, at least 10 cannons were shot intermittently throughout the entire firework extravaganza. It was definitely a fourth to remember.

Early the next morning, I had to say my goodbyes to my three comrades as they left to travel back to Florida. In the meantime, I read in the hotel lobby until Kathy whisked me away from DC and drove us back to Assateague.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Out on the Bay

On Friday, Kathy and I made the 2 ½ hour drive to Annapolis to attend the “America’s Great Outdoors” listening session, featuring Secretary Salazar, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and Congressman Sarbanes.

The week before, I had received an email from Daniel Parr in the DC SCA office informing me of this event, and expressed that he hoped I could attend. Quite fortuitously, Kathy also received an invitation and wanted to come – so thus the transportation quandary was solved.

This “listening session,” among several others that will be occurring across the U.S., was designed by President Obama to bring together people of all backgrounds with a common goal in mind: conservation. With these sessions, Obama hopes to relieve an ever-expanding pandemic, creeping into each home, school, and work place: Obsessive technology user disorder; or, in other words, nature-deficit disorder, coined by the insightful Richard Louv (author of Last Child in the Woods – I highly recommend). Although I’m obviously embellishing, Obama hopes to bring together farmers, forest landowners, sportsmen and women, conservationists, youth leaders, business representatives, etc. to consider this problem that is currently plaguing our children and the rest of the population. He hopes to “listen and learn” from these sessions, devising creative and innovative ways to conserve outdoor spaces and get kids outside.

At this particular session, saving the Chesapeake Bay was the presiding theme. Several heads and CEOs of NGO and federal agencies were present, including representatives from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation, and Bob Stanton (sp?), who was the most recent Director of the National Park Service. He gave several inspiring talks throughout. I found it very exciting that Congressman Sarbanks has written a new piece of legislation that will (hopefully) pass in Congress: the No Child Left Inside Act (a play on Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act). This Act will hopefully address these issues, as well as provide funding to public schools in initiating more environment-centered curriculum and activities.
Overall, the session went well and it was interesting to listen to proposed solutions and ideas to engaging youth and instilling citizen stewardship.

After the session, Kathy and I went to Sandy Point State Park to stick our feet in the Chesapeake. I had been talking about seeing the Chesapeake since I first arrived here, and was so excited to have finally seen it. For years I’ve seen “Save the Bay” stickers on people’s cars – but knew I couldn’t be revved about saving the bay without having appreciated it first.

Driving on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge!

The Chesapeake Bay, with the bridge in the background. This was at Sandy Point State Park, where you can swim until your heart's content. Unfortunately, we didn't bring our swimsuits, so we have to look forward to next time.

The Bay water was considerably warm - even warm enough for a Florida girl used to 80-degree water.

More people lounging about at the Bay.

Just another Monday: collecting water from the surf for beachwater survey.

Any images come to mind? Such an outfit deserves such an epic pose.

YAY, uniform. I'm holding a Diamondback Terrapin, whoop.

This is our vehicle of doom: aka "Buffy." Usually she never disappoints, but to our own stroke of luck, we found that her AC did not work yesterday - miserable. We had to drive in 92-degree weather (and with heat index, felt like it was 104) with the windows down - having wonderful hot air blow in our face all morning and afternoon.

Valentine's Marsh: one of the two marshes we do surveying in. We have to trudge through many miles of sometimes waist-high cordgrass to find little PVC wells just barely sticking out of the ground.

Kathy, being a badass. This is the typical outfit we wear when we're doing marsh work. Official bug suit, festooned with a bug net over the face and rubber boots for the feet.
We found this Risso's dolphin carcass on our drive to Valentine's. The vertebrae were huge!

So Sunday I decided to make homemade honey wheat bread: pretty healthy, considering the recipe called for no sugar (just 2/3 c honey) and just 3 tablespoons of butter. Ended up being pretty delicious!

BABY!!! The Chincoteague herd has loads of babies, while the Assateague herd has only one foal.

Another foal with its pregnant momma.

The Chincoteague herd! (in the distance) Kathy and I see both herds (Assateague and Chincoteague) every Monday, when we conduct our beach water survey.

Two foxes making out. What dogs...

Now they're performing some sort of ritualistic dance...

A breeding pair of American oystercatchers.
Well, I leave you with that for now. Until next time, have a fantastic fourth of July!!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sally Sells Sea Shells at the Seashore

I realized today that I still can’t suppress the urge to hold a shell up to my ear to listen to the ocean.

After work, Kathy and I rode our bikes over to the island to look for shells. When I went out with the plover crew last Wednesday, I couldn’t help but pick up shells along the way (and probably appeared useless or had ADD: oh, look! A nearly intact whelk shell! Over there - Isn’t that a plover?) and found some really large clam shells I wanted to paint.

My sexy beach cruiser bike: my mode of transportation around the island.

So many of them have been bleached out by the sun and are completely white – yet still have beautiful ridges running along the length of their outer sides. I thought that I could paint sunset scenes or other images on these stark white shells to give them some color. When I told Kathy this, she thought it was a grand idea and proposed we comb the shore this evening.

Kathy, clad in rather stylish chest waders and green life jacket, with sampling cup in hand, collecting beach water for our Monday beachwater survey.

I finally decided to be a tourist today (while simultaneously taking water samples) and brought my camera with me on our beachwater survey. Again, Kathy and I were lucky enough to spot the Assateague herd frolicking in the surf – babies in tow.

Two lovahs taking a nice stroll (while nuzzling) along the beach.

Check out the little foal and his mommy! (and the two lovers)

We were also graced by a wonderful sunrise this morning (although these pictures were taken about an hour after sunrise). One of these days, I will sacrifice my beauty sleep to leave the house around 4:45 in the morning to provide you all with some (hopefully stunning) sunrise photographs.

While riding along the beach, Kathy and I noticed a fin slice the surface of the water – a surface so smooth and unbroken it mirrored the sun in perfect symmetry. The dorsal fin was rather small, but not large enough to be mistaken for a shark or dolphin. As the fin rose from the surface, it then gently slid back down into the water, tailed by a large, half-moon gray back that suddenly spouted a breath of water and air. We both said to each other, “that is definitely not a dolphin.” We gazed out in the open ocean for another ten minutes, silently watching this sylph creature glide through the water in quiet amazement.

When we got back to the park headquarters, we asked one of the mammal biologists what whales frequent this area, and discovered that what we probably saw was a pilot whale.
This isn't my picture, but gives you an idea of what a pilot whale looks like.

Since the park does not have much of a marine mammal program or active research and management, Assateague mainly deals with stranded and beached marine creatures – so most of the marine animals they see are sadly, already dead. I felt pretty lucky that we saw a true living pilot whale – doing what whales do best. I am also hopeful that I will have the opportunity to help if an animal needs “rescuing” or has been beached – I’ve been told sea turtles, seals, whales, and dolphins have been known to show up from time to time.

Well, that’s it for now. Hopefully by the next entry I will have some pictures of me in my stellar (i.e., sexy) uniform.