thursday: i went out on the boat with andrew again, this time for a department of energy and environmental protection (i think, not sure of the exact acronym) survey with two employees, paul and julie. it was around long island sound again, but this time we entered the ocean through the connecticut river.
just like the last boat outing, we were counting mostly cormorants and gulls, with a few oystercatchers, herons, and eiders in the mix. we actually got to walk on one of the little islands, near the pfizer complex in connecticut. it had a lot of construction material remnants that i clambered around on.
when you get really close to the birds, they all start squawking, which sounds like “eh? eh? eh?” i got to be really close to the poor cormorants, since they didn’t have anywhere to fly away.
i even had the chance to drive the boat for quite a while. i’ll see about getting pictures of me doing so up later. it was a totally different experience from driving a car: 25 mph feels incredibly fast on a boat, and at that point, waves start slamming into the bow, making it pitch. logs and buoys are an omnipresent hazard, and shallow rocks can be difficult to avoid. i also had difficulties with overcorrecting when i steered. despite all this though, the experience was great–i even had a silly”invictus” moment when the lines “i am the master of my fate/ i am the captain of my soul” involuntarily popped into my head. i wasn’t even the captain of a boat, much less my own soul…but the poem is catchy.
friday: i went with two members of the salt marsh crew, rocky and kaitlyn (sp? again), and kevin, a bander, to mist net saltmarsh sparrows in narragansett.
the marsh was beautiful, but it smelled like sulfur, brine, and decay. i was trying to stay dry, but it loved me so much it sucked me into itself twice, filling up both my boots with brackish water and suffusing my clothes with its distinctive odor.
getting the birds into the mist nests involved walking in a line across the marsh while clapping our hands, trying to flush birds into the nets. although the mist nets are supposed to be invisible, i found that the sparrows often managed to evade them.
for our morning of stomping across puddles and hopping over channels, the marsh-spirits sought fit to reward us with four sparrows. not that i’m complaining, of course–i’m glad that we had the opportunity to help track a threatened species, and i got to practice my grips on more birds. i did hose myself off thoroughly after i got back to the office, though.
monday: emma and i went with mariel, a plover intern, to look for plover nests/chicks along east beach. i wish i had pictures of it (i’ll probably post some eventually)–even as one who’s not fond of visiting beaches for pleasure, i could still see why east beach’s cerulean waves and sugary sand attract so many people on summer days. unfortunately, it seems that plovers have the same beach preferences as people. it’s the densest nesting site, and accordingly the hardest to survey. also unfortunately, i was not there for sunbathing or frolicking in the waves, but rather, for hard work.
the process goes like this. your goals are to find sand-colored birds and pebble-shaped eggs on a sandy, pebbly beach. these birds have evolved over millions of years to camouflage themselves from predators with far greater vision than you. in addition, the adults actively try to lead you away from their nests by pretending to incubate (false-nesting) and faking an injury (broken-winging). mariel described it as playing hide-and-seek with a chronic liar, and i agree. your only tools are a pair of binoculars, a human-sized intelligence, and patience. sadly, i was bad at using the first, lacking in the last, and drained of the second by dehydration and the sweltering heat.
the day’s work, which included a period of digging up and replanting fence poles, strained the limits of my physical and mental endurance. i could barely keep up with mariel, much less help her any by finding nests. still, i learned a lot about dealing with the heat (bring two water bottles and cover every single exposed inch of skin with sunscreen!) and about the patterns of plover behavior that signify a nearby nest.
tuesday: emma and i went with cindy, a refuge biologist, to ninigret’s rabbit pen to release four new baby rabbits from the rhode island zoo! brian, who i think is a zoo employee, met us there with the bunnies.
wednesday: i went with cindy to check on the new rabbits in the mini-pen. they seemed to be doing well; all four were still there, at least. we didn’t see any of the older rabbits in the big pen, so they’re hiding like wild rabbits should.
i’m getting better at driving off-road, i think, or at least getting less nervous about it. i realize now that my fears of driving alone/on the highway/for long distances/at night/in bad weather were actually luxuries that i could afford to have because i didn’t need to drive at all in school or very much at home beyond a quick trip to the mall. when my job requires me to drive under these conditions, as it already has/will, i simply have to do it, regardless of my irrational fears. of course, if i felt i was truly in danger or endangering someone else, i wouldn’t be driving, but i think my many fears are due to inexperience rather than total incompetence (i do have several stereotypes working against me though!).
driving back to the pond house from kettle pond, i was stopped in my government vehicle by a nice couple who wanted to know if they could walk their dog on the trail (i live in a place that people visit to hike in! it’s wonderful and i feel like i should be paying to live here!). i wasn’t sure about the exact policy, so i couldn’t actually help them much, but just being recognized as part of the refuge “team” made me feel all official-like.
that feeling of competence was quickly erased by the afternoon terrapin survey, however. i went out on palmer river with meghan, a uri student, and peter, her professor.
the survey of diamondback terrapins, meghan’s senior thesis project, is done by kayak. i was really looking forward to kayaking, but my enthusiasm was tempered by the quick realization that i am a slow and terrible kayak-er. i guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise, seeing as how i’m a dud at all things athletic, but it was still embarrassing to lag so far behind the others on the way back that peter had to drive the truck up the river so that i wouldn’t have to paddle all the way back to the starting point. i did manage to help spot a few terrapins though, so i wasn’t totally useless…
the diamondback terrapin is the only turtle that lives in brackish water around this region. it can actually survive in both fresh and ocean water. however, even though it doesn’t have competition from other turtles in its estuary/salt marsh habitats, its population is still declining.
it’s a very hard specimen to spot: it sticks only its head above water for short intervals, so it kind of looks like a little stick bobbing up and then disappearing. meghan’s project is not only tracking terrapin populations, but also studying what conditions they’re best observed in, which i think is really interesting. hopefully, i’ll get to go out surveying with her next week too.
this week had a few uneventful days due to poor weather unsuitable for fieldwork.
monday: emma and i went to two rhode island beaches: second beach and napatree point, to look for piping plover nests.
the piping plover is listed as threatened in rhode island, apparently partly due to its popularity in the 19th century as a source of decorative feathers for women’s hats, which i find odd, since it’s not a particularly colorful bird.
compared to saltmarsh sparrow males, piping plover males are much more active fathers. they make depressions in beaches called scrapes, often following the contours of natural objects like branches or seaweed, and the females pick one for their nest.
both males and females actively defend their nests to the extent of their little fluffy abilities, which consists of whistling shrilly and faking a broken wing as a distraction. we used the defensive behavior of the birds to tell when we were near a nest; they’re virtually impossible to find otherwise. even when i was six feet away from one, it was still hard to pick the eggs out from the smooth pebbles scattered across the shoreline.
wednesday: we assisted adam and megan, two phd students at the university of rhode island, with mist netting birds near trustom pond.
i was unqualified to take birds out of nets or band them, so i just carried birds around and helped record data. i was amused to find out that netted birds are stored in drawstring bags and carried around clothes-pinned to one’s body.
we saw mostly redwing blackbirds, song sparrows, common yellowthroats, and catbirds, but found a couple of birds uncommon to mist nets as well.
the information adam measured included some data i expected, like age and weight, but also some that i had no idea were important, like skull development, fat, the presence/size of a brood patch (for females), and the extent of cloacal protuberance (for males). these latter features can only be determined through blowing on the bird to see under their feathers, which i imagine must feel strange and uncomfortable for them.
bird extracting from nets/banding/recording is an extensive process, but thanks to adam’s expertise it all went along smoothly, with minimal disturbance to the specimens. after most of them had been released, adam showed me how to hold birds in the photographer’s grip, as shown with the bobolink and kingbird, and the bander’s grip, as shown below:
i hope i get to tag along with adam and megan in the future. not only did i learn a lot about bird id through visual appearance and calls, holding them is fun.