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.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

the day of birds

Hundreds of birds swarming everywhere. So many that an ink blot has formed over the sky overhead, shrouding any evidence of light. Their shrieking, incessant cries create a jarring white noise that perpetuates a grating ringing in the ears. Several dive-bomb from above, speeding straight at your face – and then at the last minute, flick their bodies sideways and whiz past your ear, sending apprehensive shockwaves that ripple down your neck, arms, and feet.

This image seems eerily familiar (if not exactly) to that of scenes found in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, “The Birds,” yet you’ll find this everyday occurrence right here at Assateague National Seashore.

Today, I was left in the dust as my fellow water quality comrades went off to Chincoteague NWR to gather some water samples in the bay. They were to have a nice day out on the water, collecting samples and checking out some islands that contained a population of brown pelicans. Since the boat could only hold 4 people, I was assigned a day of “cross-training” and was given the opportunity to work with the plover crew.

A male piping plover.

Since the piping plover is threatened, an enormous amount of management, research, and planning goes into ensuring that these birdies survive and reproduce successfully. To assure their continued existence, the park has devised a number of initiatives that will protect and conserve the species. For starters, they have constructed nest “exclosures,” which are rectangular fences built around a plover nest to ensure that predators cannot access the eggs or the newborn hatchlings. They have also hired an entire crew of field technicians to rove the beach everyday, searching for new and old nests, plovers, and chicks. Once this information is acquired, nests can be mapped with GIS and GPS so that they then can be easily found and checked every day for new eggs and chicks. As the plovers and chicks are checked each day, biologists can get a better idea of nest, hatching, and fledging success, and whether plover numbers are increasing or declining (or staying the same).

Today, I went out with one of the “plover girls” to check nests for eggs, and to make sure sites that had chicks (and their parents) still had them. Each site I’d take out my binoculars and scour the shoreline and dunes for little cotton ball-sized critters scurrying across the sand. If I couldn’t see anything with the binocs, I would have to use a spotting scope attached to a tripod to get a better look. Unfortunately, many of these sites contained literal colonies of least terns, which were also nesting in the area. (Least terns are the smallest, and probably cutest, of all the tern species.)

Problem is, least terns, pardon my French, are bitches. Little did I know these adorable, bite-sized flying beasts will practically knock you down if you dare enter their nesting area. Each time I would try to get closer to an area where I thought there might be a plover, I was harassed and beleaguered by terns. I swear they wanted to eat me.

I would walk out onto the dune and start to set up my tripod only to then whip it up in a flash to use as a swatter for fear of my own life. Although I probably looked like a fool (probably? Uh, yeah, most definitely) I will unashamedly admit that I would take the tripod and swing it around to scare them off (unsuccessfully, might I add).

Beezlebub the demon: aka the Least tern.

In addition to all of these admirable qualities, these nasty, squawking creatures shot torpedos of shit with a vehemence unlike no other. And, although I found bird crap on my pants, arms, hands, chest, collar, shoes, and shirt – as if the terns paid no particular attention to what area they directed their feces, just as long as they made a direct hit - they seemed to take a particular fancy to shooting their excrement straight at my head and face. Fortunately, I was protected by a rather enlarged floppy hat that my boss had given me earlier that morning (he neglected to tell me why exactly I would need such a particular piece of clothing).

A baby least tern: much cuter, and much more friendlier.

On the bright side, I did see a plethora of very cute bird babies today. (And, I really enjoyed the plover work.) I saw a ton of American oystercatchers, which are of a much more amiable disposition and merely scamper away if you happen to be too close to their nest. I saw one set of parents with their 3 babies, which were probably a few weeks old, but still fluffy and undeniably adorable. I also saw tern chicks about the size of my thumb – and very docile and vulnerable, unlike their demon parents. Last but not least, I saw plover chicks - which, according to my boss, resemble cotton balls that have 2 toothpicks attached to them. They are definitely tiny, but very fuzzy and cute.

An adult oystercatcher.

I also got to collect beautiful shells, enjoy the relaxing lull of waves crashing on the shore, and got tan to boot. Not a bad day at the office.

Disclaimer: I apologize for the use of profanity in the above blog post. Although more polite words are more appropriate, the use of curse words seemed entirely necessary in this post to guarantee comic relief.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Kickin’ it on the Eastern Shore

An entire week has passed since I arrived in Maryland.
Assateague Island National Seashore: place where hopes and dreams are made.

For all those not completely aware, I was offered a seasonal full-time biological technician position at Assateague National Seashore for the summer [in other words, I will be an actual EMPLOYEE (that entails bi-weekly payment for my efforts) for the federal government!] Assateague is managed by the National Park Service, so as soon as my uniforms arrive, I will look like a bonafide park ranger (although I’m considered a tech – everyone just wears the same outfit. The difference lies in the style hat you wear). And don’t worry, as soon as I receive my uniform, I’ll be sure to post pictures of me in it just so you can wish you had one too (or laugh at my expense).
Hudsonia House: my humble abode. It is two stories, but each "story" is a separate living area. I live with 4 other girls downstairs, while 2 girls live on the top floor.

So for all you Florida crackers (and wannabes), you’ll find that Assateague isn’t too much of a change of scenery. Growing up in Titusville on the eastern coast (just 2 ½ hours southeast of Gainesville), Canaveral National Seashore and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) were at my disposal – a mere 20-minute drive away. MINWR is home to hundreds of wading and shore birds, an extensive wetland/salt marsh ecosystem, endangered scrub habitat (also home of the FL Scrub Jay), the Indian River Lagoon, and Canaveral National Seashore – a nearly pristine, untouched beach and dune landscape that has yet to fall victim to Florida tourism and all its accoutrements (i.e., towering condo buildings, cement sidewalks and boardwalks, inordinate amounts of pollution, etc.). Despite some differences in the beach scene, Assateague is very similar to the natural environment in which I grew up.
My side of the room. I share a room with one other girl, Daisy. It's a pretty small room, but I also only have to share a bathroom with her (rather than the whole house), so it's pretty nice.

Assateague is home to a plethora of birds, most of them migratory. In the short week I’ve been here, I’ve seen a myriad of loud-mouthed red-winged blackbirds, willets (whom I’ve determined to be extremely mentally challenged – one nearly flew right into me as I was biking down the sidewalk – it then proceeded to shriek and attempt to flee, only to continue flying in front of me), the endangered (or threatened?) piping plover [which has undergone and continues to experience extensive management and research by the Assateague piping plover crew], several laughing gulls, ring-billed gulls, ospreys [whose nests (that contain chicks!!!) are located at several of the tide stations in which I have to take water samples], cormorants, a TON of glossy ibises, eagles, herons, regrettably, a lot of brown-headed cowbirds, loads of swallows, and much more. It’s definitely a birder’s paradise (as is MINWR).

My summer reading list. Just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible and The Glass Castle. Both amazing - I highly recommend. I'm now reading Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

I’ve also seen a ton of wildlife – from white-tailed deer (which are WAY bigger than the wussy ones in FL), Sika deer (introduced from Japan by the good ol’ Boys Scouts of America), the endangered Delmarva Fox squirrel, Diamondback terrapins and mud turtles, and the famous (or infamous) Assateague wild horses! There are actually two herds, purposely separated by NPS and the USFWS. One herd lives on national park land, while the other herd exists on Chincoteague NWR (in Virginia). I saw both the same day, on the first day of work (what luck, huh?). Both herds fulfilled my stereotypical image of horses on the beach – they were running and mingling along the shore, whinnying and rearing up whenever a huge wave crashed on the sand (okay, maybe they weren’t whinnying, or rearing up on their hind legs…but they were on the beach with their legs in the water). As it always is, I didn’t have my camera on me so I cannot share that image with you (this one has to stay in my heart).

A diamondback Terrapin. I saw this fella trying to dig himself a hole next to the sidewalk I was biking on. He didn't seem to mind me getting uncomfortably close to take his picture.

Assateague’s “wild” horses are a huge attractor for tourists and visitors to the park – so unfortunately, the park service must manage an invasive species. Although they’re cute (and especially the wittle foals), the horses trample fragile and vulnerable vegetation, compact soils, alter the hydrological regime of the wetlands and salt marshes, and eat a lot of essential native vegetation (if only we could train them to only eat Phragmites, which is an especially vicious breed of invasive plant that runs rampant throughout the island). Although under heated debate, it is presumed that the horses came to be here when farmers of old let their horses run free to evade taxes on their land. Others think that the horses escaped and “swam” to shore from Spanish ships that had barely grazed the East coast on their way south to Florida. The former explanation is more likely. The horses will probably be the closest thing that comes close to Yellowstone. As it was in bison and bear jams, people driving along Bayberry drive (the one road that runs along the entire barrier island) will suddenly veer off to the right or left of the road (despite oncoming traffic) to stop and catch a glimpse of the horses. Often, several cars will do this – so inevitably, traffic piles up and car travel is on an inch-by-inch basis. Looks a lot like the wetlands in Florida, right? This wetland runs out into the Sinepuxent Bay. It lies on the western side of Assateague Island.

Assateague Island is actually an over-the-bridge drive (or walk, or bicycle ride, in my case) from the mainland in which I live. The mainland itself is a peninsula that is bordered by Delaware Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, the Potomac River, and Chesapeake Bay. On the left side of the Chesapeake stands the rest of the state of Maryland and Virginia (and home to our nation’s capital). Just 25 minutes from Assateague housing is the state of Delaware (which I hope to visit at some point).

Assateague wild horse poo! Didn't think I could get one blog post in without animal excrement, did ya?

Through word of mouth, I’ve discovered that Washington, D.C. is just a 2-hour drive away, Philadelphia is 2 ½ hours, Virginia can be reached in less than half an hour, and the New Jersey and New York shores can be reached by an hour drive and ferry ride. The place is really central to a host of big cities and cool stuff to do – it’s just a shame that I didn’t bring a car up here. Fortunately, (or unfortunately) it seems I am the ONLY seasonal here that didn’t bring a car – so hopefully I will be able to catch rides with people to explore the surroundings. Nearly everyone here is also from Maryland or somewhere fairly close – with the exception of one lone Texas ranger, I think I came from the farthest direction. Most other people come from Virginia, Rhode Island, and PA. And, most of the seasonals are here for their second, third, or sixth season – so it appears Assateague is an awesome place to work.

Assateague Island National Seashore: tourist's paradise. It's a lot like Playalinda, except for all the people and the lifeguards. Interesting NPS trivia: the National Park Service actually HIRES lifeguards! How crazy is that?! They work for the feds...but they're lifeguards. WHAT?!

Thus far, I’ve had an entire week of work – as a volunteer. Fortunately, I found out on Wednesday evening that my background check went through – so hopefully this Monday I will start work as a paid employee! I haven’t been trained in everything I’ll be doing yet, but I can now say I know how to drive an SUV on the beach (drop the air in the tires to about 20 psi, stick the car in 4-wheel drive, and hold onto the wheel). Each Monday, I conduct a beachwater survey – which entails driving out on the beach and collecting water from several sampling sites. Each water sample is measured for salinity, pH, and temperature. Once all the samples have been acquired, they are then processed in a lab in Salisbury, MD. We usually receive the results the following day, providing us the necessary information to determine whether or not we should shut down the beach. The processing in the lab involves analyzing petri dishes of the sampled water to determine whether there are any significant colonies of bacteria that would make it harmful for humans to swim in. Pretty cool.

Assateague Island National Seashore. See Mom? They allow dogs here. You should totally bring Chloe when you come up.

Other work includes use of a boat to drive to tide stations at specific points in Sinepuxent Bay (the area of water in between Assateague Island and headquarters, which is located on the mainland-peninsula) and hooking up equipment to get tide/weather information. Kathy, the intern I work with, and I also had to take water samples from sites on Assateague and in Virginia to analyze for brown tide (somewhat similar to Red tide). Throughout the week, we also have to check a NOAA weather station for rainfall data (that is then sent to a research station in Colorado for analysis). Each Thursday, I have to conduct marshwater sampling at two different marshes on the island. Each marsh has about 40 wells (constructed from PVC pipes) that contain water. At each well, I have to measure the length of the water column, and use a data logger to measure pH, salinity, and water temp. Ultimately, these wells will provide information on how the hydrologic regime of the marsh ecosystem is changing, and whether outside sources (i.e., human development, pollution, etc.) are changing the properties of the water. Later this week, I should be trained in another aspect of my job – mosquito monitoring (wearing bug suits and all). This task should entail setting traps and then checking the following day for mosquitoes – whatever are trapped must be collected and then analyzed in the lab. I’m pretty sure this is one part of the job I have to do by myself – so should be interesting.

Overall, I’m really excited about everything as it seems this job will give me a solid foundation for water quality monitoring and work that will be essential knowledge in any aquatics-related job or venture I have in the future. This position seems highly varied and contains work from all sides of the spectrum – so it should really boost my skills and experience. There’s also talk of conducting marsh bird surveys and vegetation sampling – so I’m super excited for that as well.

Anyway, I don't have any more pictures to share with you, so I shall put this post to a close. Hopefully I'll get some pictures of me on the job so you can get an idea of what I actually do here (and maybe show you the horses as well...)