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...)


Tessa Rose said...

Sounds relaxing. Glad you are having fun, and you get paid, so it's win win win win win. =) I'd love to see more pics, and I hope that you'll be able to do some traveling, but spending all summer working at the beach doesn't seem like a bad alternative either. Miss you. <3

tiertza said...

Thanks for the post! It sounds awesome so far. I'm glad you were able to fit in the poop shot. It's just not a wildlife blog without scat. =) I hope it gets better despite the summer heat. We're roasting down here in the 'Ville.
Take care!

P.S. - BATS!!!!!!!!! =)

[kades] said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
followkatie said...

It looks like something is missing from your bedroom wall, so I might just HAVE to send you some mail. ;) So glad to see you're having a stellar time, boo. Father Almighty will be very pleased to see the poo pic.

Oh, and before I forget: P.S. I MIIIISSSSSS YOOOUUUUUUUUU!

love you, xo, Kades

heartmarrow said...

Also: ARRRRRGHHHH. I hate the way blogspot makes you post comments. JUST FYI.