A month ago (early June, 2012) I arrived at the Steward B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook Connecticut to begin training for my current job on Calf Island. I’ll get into the training regiment at a later date, I suppose it might be interesting to someone considering entering the field. In the meantime. My last few entries have been annoyingly brief, largely because I don’t have a reliable internet connection on the island. Now that I’ve made the time to find a library with free wifi (and blessed AC), I think its time to explain exactly what I’m doing with myself out here.
After a few weeks of training and orientation, I finally shipped out to Calf Island. Calf island is a 30 odd acre dog-bone shaped island near Greenwich, CT that is half public access and half restricted. On the public side there is a “slightly” out of order float-dock (not connected to land during high tide), a large pavilion, and some forest. The restricted side contains a large chunk of dense, untracked, forest and a tidal marsh full of mussels, shorebirds, and mud. In between the two halves is a narrow strip of sandy beach that is currently also open to the public (it had been closed earlier in the season in anticipation of nesting that never happened). At low-tide a narrow spit of sandbar connects Calf island to neighboring shell island.
I currently reside in the pavilion on the public side of the island with one other island keeper. There are two small rooms enclosed on one side of the pavilion, one of which contains a propane powered refrigerator and our food, the other of which holds a pair of cots and our clothes. Besides those two rooms the pavilion shelters a large fireplace, three picnic tables, and a propane stove we cook on (when we have propane at least). The bathroom facilities are… rustic.
Obviously, this is all right up my alley, given the choice I’d rather spend my days entirely outside anyhow. So the fact that I’m really given no choice at all doesn’t bother me one bit.
Our mission on the island is threefold. First (in my mind at least) we’re here to survey the island, identify potentially problematic populations of invasive plants, and remove them from the island before they can go to seed. At the same time, locating populations of rare or endangered plant species on the island would also be valuable. Second, we’ll be attempting to get an accurate idea of what wildlife the island supports, both avian and mammalian. Third, we’re to act as environmental interpreters to the few visitors the island attracts. We’d like people to treat the place with some respect and – if possible – leave with a greater appreciation of it’s value than they arrived with.
I’m excited to get the wildlife experience, my bird identification skills have waxed and waned over the past few years, hopefully this will be an opportunity to really nail my shorebirds at least. As for the botany side of things, I’m pretty much playing to my strengths there, invasive identification and control is what I have the most experience in, since I expect I’ll continue to work in that field for quite a while, I might as well be good at it.
I’ve been in Pennsylvania for a little less than six months now. Too long, really. But although I don’t much care for sticking in one place this long, the time has been valuable. I’ve at least managed to stay employed the entire time (if underemployed) and taking classes through PSU’s World Campus has been wonderful. If anyone is on the fence about furthering their education but isn’t able to commute to a local campus I heartily recommend the correspondence (thankfully not mail based) programs Penn State offers.
But, although I’m only half done with my GIS certification (I’ll be finished in December), I’m heading out again. This time to the Stewart B. Mckinney Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut where I picked up a job as a Summer Island Keeper. (Which has to be my favorite title ever, I almost want to print business cards solely to show it off). Starting in a few days I’ll be a resident on Calf Island in the Long Island Sound. I’m thrilled.
Take a look at the link above, this place seems awesome. Moreover the job caters to my strengths AND allows me to branch out a bit. A large chunk of my time will be spent on Invasive Species management, which is pretty much my forte at this point, but I’ll also be able to help with some ongoing wildlife work at the preserve. Wildlife Biology is notoriously difficult to break into, and although I actually prefer botany, I’m eager to learn new things.
Pictures and new stories will follow.
It turns out that in my haste to get last year’s stories written down I left out a few. Well, four I suppose. The first is another job report, this one from Piedras Blancas on the California coast (near San Luis Obispo). I spent a little bit of time there in September of 2011. Its a beautiful place, notable for being a historic site (see: ancient lighthouse) and for being an enormous Elephant Seal rookery.
Harbor Seals, Sea Lions, and Sea Otters were also in abundance (or so I heard, I never saw a Sea Otter), but the burgeoning Elephant Seal population at Piedras Blancas was what drew my eyes.
And my ears. Oh but they were loud, audible faintly even through the walls of the room I lived in on site.
Even diminished as it was in September, there were dozens of the flubby behemoths stretched out on the beaches. Reportedly they were ‘weaners’ — juveniles who hadn’t yet mastered feeding themselves, but would hopefully figure it out soon — and so were undersized. Undersized.
I’ve always known them by their enormous hanging (pendulous?) noses. To my dismay they don’t develop those right away. That was both disappointing and initially confusing, since as juveniles they look quite a bit like massively over-sized Harbor Seals. The picture here really doesn’t do the scale of them justice, but no one took me up on my suggestion that someone climb down the cliff and pose with them.
However, most of my time at Piedras Blancas was not spent looking at seals or lying on the kelp-strewn beach. While there we spent most of our time helping the BLM manage their ice-plant infestation. Ice plant is a ground hugging succulent, apparently resistant to salt and everything but incredibly determined efforts to remove it. The folks at Piedras Blancas have done an amazing job of doing just that though. Leveraging truly massive amounts of volunteer (and intern) man-power to clear the historically and ecologically significant grounds of the lighthouse from its droopy clutches.
The Ice-plant removal went well enough, although our best efforts paled in comparison to what the volunteers had accomplished in the past. I’ll return to my stay there with more detail in the future.
As I’ve already mentioned, I spent the last half of the summer of 2011 working in southern California in a town called Alpaugh. Alpaugh didn’t have a whole lot going for it. However I have no complaints about the job I was sent there to do. Along with three other interns I spent the majority of my time in Alpaugh removing an invasive annual called Five-Hooked Bassia from a restored wetland area. I hope that my efforts actually made a difference, though its often hard to tell with invasive plants, especially those that have entrenched themselves deeply in the seed-bank.
Atwell Island was the name of the BLM site where I was stationed. Historically, it had been a wetland. Unfortunately as agricultural pressure in Tulare County increased the water tables dropped and the wetland that had been their for all of living memory vanished.
Over a decade ago, the land managers in the Bakersfield office of the BLM decided to fix that. Slowly, the wetland at Atwell Island is being restored (its considered a “model” restored wetland in California by virtue of the fact that in spite of budget cuts and a climate difficulties, it still has water in it). The native plants and animals are returning, some of the waterfowl reportedly arrived days after the pumps started. It is a beautiful place already, and will only become nicer as time goes on.
Assuming it isn’t dominated by an invasive plant first.
Over the course of the nearly three months I was at Atwell, we killed a lot of Bassia, a truly stupendous amount, we pulled miles of the stuff, racing against nature to get it out of the ground, dried, and burned before it could go to seed. We removed it with clippers, and hoes, and with booted feet and our bare hands when nothing else seemed to work. The soil was baked hard, and although the roots didn’t go deep, missing a root fragment and allowing the plant to recover wasn’t an option for any of us.
We did not succeed. The finale of the project was marred by the emergence of the Bassia’s seeds, each sporting the five barbed hooks that give the plant its name. They clung to everything they could, which was — of course — why the plants were everywhere in the first place.
It would be easy to get discouraged by the fact that the seeds were already emerging by the time we finished the project, however the territory we finished prior to that day was impressive. Someday I’ll figure out the mileage. We did the best we could, even after it started going to seed we kept pulling, and we finished everything we had hoped (in our most optimistic of initial appraisals) that we would finish.
And this project did matter, it wasn’t as exciting as herding Bison on Catalina, but it also felt much more like real land management. Assuming our removal of the Bassia takes, then in the future the native species that were planted to complement the man-made wetland area will have a better chance of survival. Their continued existence will allow a larger community of migratory birds and waterfowl to visit the wetlands, and a little bit of nature will be a smidgen more whole.
As I’ve mentioned, Catalina Island sports a fairly robust population of American Bison. Yes, THOSE American Bison, the ones that were nearly eradicated in the late 1800’s by wildly overzealous hunting. Normally native to the plains-states of the United States they have nevertheless made themselves quite at home on the rugged face of Catalina.
Introduced in the 1920’s for the filming of the not-exactly-classic movie “The Vanishing American.” After filming concluded fourteen individuals were left on the island due to budget constraints. With no natural predators and (if not abundant) sufficient food, the herd eventually swelled beyond its means.
Over time, Bison watching became a staple of the Catalina Island tourist experience. However, large grazing animals can devastate fragile grassland and sedge communities with ease and it eventually became clear that something needed to be done to control their burgeoning population. The current target Bison population for the island is (a somewhat arbitrary) ~150 individuals. A removal effort conducted several years ago achieved that number by relocating many of the females to the mainland (the bulls were deemed too large and aggressive to safely move) the resulting population is therefore heavily male-dominated a circumstance that benefits both tourists (everyone wants to see the bulls fighting during the rut) and the Conservancy (Reducing the number of females on the island greatly reduces the amount of work needed to carry out species management).
The current plan on the island is to administer a contraceptive (via dart-gun if necessary) to all viable females every year. The contraceptive in question reduces the ability of the target females eggs to interact with spermatozoa, thus making breeding impossible without the physiological effects of sterilization. The catch, of course, is that this requires all of the islands Bison to be rounded up every year for processing.
That was my job while on the island.
Broken down into simple steps, my days basically went like this.
Arrive at work at Seven in the morning and feed the Bison we’ve already captured and penned. They weren’t, as a general rule, too happy about being stuck in the corals, getting out of the truck wasn’t a very good idea most of the time.
Once feeding is finished either head to the last known location of a herd or set out blindly in an attempt to find an unreported group.
IF we found a group half of us would stay with the trucks while the other half bailed out, grabbed backpacks, and attempted to herd the Bison in the direction of the pens using only strong language and thrown rocks. This worked about as well as you might expect it to. Bison are surprisingly quick, even on incredibly steep slopes, and could easily out distance us.
IF we managed to get them back to the catch pens then everyone would get back in trucks and attempt to herd them manually into more secure locations. Again, this involved a lot of trial and error.
IF we didn’t manage to get them back to the catch pens (as was the case most days) we’d lay out a trail, Hansel and Gretel style, of alfalfa between where ever they were ignoring us from and the pens in the hopes of luring them closer before the next day.
IF we didn’t manage to find any on a given day we’d instead busy ourselves repairing the damage that the captive Bison were constantly inflicting upon the pens and hoping that tomorrow we’d have better luck.
All in all we managed to capture ~90 of the Bison roaming free on the island – that number including all but ~18 of the mature females – before our time ran out. Enough to call the whole operation a success, but not a particularly resounding one.
Especially since the last sizable herd of females managed to evade us with a newborn in tow.
One of the eight Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, Catalina’s immediate neighbors are Santa Barbara Island and San Clemente Island.There are two major (relative to ghost towns) towns on Catalina Island: Avalon and Two Harbors. Avalon is located near the Southeast tip of the island, and it is where the majority of the island’s permanent residents reside. Its a tourist hotspot and a beautiful place to anchor, should you be of the sailing persuasion (As many of the part-time residents are). Two Harbors is located on a narrow strip of land (only half a mile across) near the center of the island. As the name suggests it boasts two (2) harbors, and is the location of the notorious (On the island at least) “Buccaneer Day,” an event I missed by just over a month, where residents and visitors alike dress up like pirates and drink heavily.
I’m actually pretty bummed I missed that. From the stories I heard its a fantastic time.
Most of the island is maintained by the Catalina Island Conservatory (CIC), which does a fantastic job protecting the island’s fragile ecosystems.
Among other things, Catalina boasts several endemic plant species as well as two populations of a species of endemic (and endangered) fox. The CIC wages constant war with a never-ending influx of invasive plant and animals species and does so while attempting to maintain cordial relations with the island’s opinionated human population.
Previously the CIC has come under fire for removing invasive feral pigs and goats from the island, and its current treatment of the Bison is also somewhat controversial. However, given that the island’s Bison are by no means a native species and should therefore logically be removed completely, the CIC’s current plan to simply control the population via yearly contraceptives represents an elegant compromise between their desire to protect the native flora and fauna on the island and the local economies dependence upon the Bison as a major draw for tourist dollars.