Category Archives: week one

week one: 06/02-06/08 part three

saturday: emma, jen (my roommate), and i went to narragansett  to check out the r.i.n.h.s. bioblitz. from the website:

A BioBlitz is an attempt by volunteers, working scientists and avocational naturalists, to tally as many species of organism as they can in 24 hours on a particular parcel of land.

although we missed the first night of rainy chaos, we arrived early enough on the second day to participate in a bird-watching walk led by an extremely knowledgeable guy named dan. he could identify every bird species by their calls or a short glimpse, and he knew a lot of plant and insect species as well. i had the opportunity to crack open whole new sections of my sibley: tyrant flycatchers; wrens; thrushes; mimids; wood-warblers; and tanagers, cardinals, and their allies (italics mine, another cute [to me] birder-ism).

a photodump follows:

flying camera!
flying camera!
the camera in motion
the camera in motion
turtles someone found. i forgot their species.
a whole flock of fat roosters.
ladybird beetle having a ball. also pictured: unlucky red aphids.
ladybird beetle having a ball. also pictured: unlucky red aphids.

i doubt anyone initialized the new england cottontail slot that day.

id station
id station
plate of mushrooms. delicious.
plate of fungi. delicious.
wooly sheep
wooly sheep

week one: 06/02-06/08 part two

thursday: emma and i went to the nearby ninigret wildlife refuge to check on a pen of juvenile new england cottontail rabbits.

File:New England cottontail.jpg
new england cottontail. credit: wikimedia

the new england cottontail is, for various bureaucratic reasons, not yet listed as an endangered species, but is in fact endangered due to declining habitat ranges and competition from the eastern cottontail, a visually identical species nonnative to the area but apparently able to outcompete the new england in the same niche.

n.e.c. holding pen. one may be seen, with difficulty, in this picture.
n.e.c. holding pen. one may be seen, with difficulty, in this picture.

the four specimens in the pen came from the rhode island zoo, but i think the coastal program is trying to establish a breeding stock on a nearby island that future rabbits can be pulled from to repopulate new england. we set up camera traps to observe their movement between the mini-pen they were first housed in and the larger 2-acre pen we released them into that day.

later, i drove on back roads across almost half of rhode island as a dry run for a bat survey route that night.  similar surveys have been and are being conducted across new england to assess the populations of cave-dwelling bats that have been decimated by white-nose syndrome, a poorly understood fungal disease. the survey measures ultrasonic bat cries with the anabat:

the anabat. surprisingly expensive. credit: titley scientific website

we had to jerry-rig this little device to the roof of our car in a plastic green bucket and tie the whole thing down with kayak cords. on top of our white hybrid van, gliding along silently at a constant rate of twenty miles per hour, it probably baffled onlookers.

driving along narrow, sometimes unpaved and unmarked roads while trying to navigate using a complex list of incomprehensive directions cluttered with marginalia was difficult. because emma had to pick up her car on the way back, i drove back to the pond house alone, which, due to my inadequate navigational/driving skills, was more stressful than i care to admit. by the time i reached the wooded gravel trail that led to the house, i was thinking solely of eating dinner and taking a break, and wasn’t at all expecting, as i turned a bend, to be faced with this sight:

view of watchaug pond from the van
view of watchaug pond from the van

in contrast to the wooded, enclosing path that had preceded it,  the kettle pond was both visually refreshing and comforting in a way that, upon retrospection, was due to my opinion of the pond house and its eponymous l.b.o.w. having changed without my conscious knowledge from being temporary quarters to something of a domicile, or, to use a less fitting but more emotionally evocative phrase, a home.

after dinner, emma drove the bat survey route while i navigated. despite the cloudy, moonless sky, and occasional light showers (that i would have been much more worried about had i known then how much the anabat cost), i’m not proud but also not ashamed to say that we were only slightly lost three times.

friday: after a highly educational f.i.s.s.a. training course, we looked over the results from one camera trap, and deleted any photos that were triggered by plants moving in the wind, or other non-rabbit activity.

one example of what the camera trap caught
one example of what the camera trap caught

there were more than 10,000 photos on one card alone; needless to say, we didn’t finish the task, although looking at photos of baby rabbits is hardly a task in the first place.

we also extracted the bat survey results from the anabat and looked at them with the appropriately named program analook, which shows bat cries in the form of a spectrogram, with (i think) octaves/second on the y-axis and time on the x-axis. this is an example of a result:

bat call
picture obtained from this website:

achieving the results we did from this survey, i felt like a prehistoric shaman happening upon an auspicious arrangement of scattered lizard bones, or seeing a favorable confluence of stars in the night sky.  though multiple factors: 1) inexperience, 2) inclement weather, 3) unreliable technology, were working against us, we managed to find more bats than our supervisor said she had ever seen on that route.

week one: 06/02-06/08 part one

sunday: i arrive at my quarters, the refuge-owned “pond house,” a colonial revival named for its proximity to watchaug pond, and a misnomer in my opinion, as watchaug is really a kettle lake: a lake formed when a block of ice calves from a glacier and is surrounded by glacial outwash (thanks for the definition, wikipedia). (edit: actually, it may be a kettle pond after all, if it receives water from precipitation or the groundwater table. it’s still more of a small lake than a pond in my opinion.) the pond house is more than a hundred years old, and even through renovations, its history has been preserved in details like the etchings on the coat rack, dated as far back as 1911:

large mouthed bass, caught July 2 1911, weight 6 1/2 lbs
large mouthed bass, caught July 2 1911, weight 6 1/2 lbs

every morning, if I so choose, I can walk a step towards the bedroom window and be greeted by this vista:

it's not a room of my own, but at least it's a room with a view
it’s not a room of my own, but at least it’s a room with a view

it’s not hard to understand why humans are attracted to large bodies of water. though modern technology has divorced us from the need, for virtually all of our evolutionary history, we had to remain close to water for survival. still, despite being aware of this fact, i failed at first to extract from the pond a sense of beauty, greatness, or any other l.b.o.w.-derived emotions that drive up the value of waterfront property.

monday: my first day on the job consisted of administrativia, online driving training, and hands-on experience driving a large truck. to say i failed abysmally at the last task would be true, but too negative to include on this blog–let it suffice that driving (large vehicles but really, in general) is one skill  which i hope to improve with experience.


a salt marsh. credit: wikimedia

i went out on the rhode island salt marshes with my co-intern emma and three other refuge staff: kaitlyn (sp?), neil, and rhonda. we saw plenty of birds, like grackles, barn swallows, ospreys, red-winged blackbirds, ibises, and egrets, but our goal was to search for saltmarsh sparrow nests.

File:Saltmarsh sharp tailed sparrow.jpg
saltmarsh sparrow. credit: wikimedia

the saltmarsh sparrow is a timid, elusive, vulnerable (literally, according to the i.u.c.n.) bird that nests in ground vegetation along the high tide line of, obviously, salt marshes. the males of the species might be well anthropomorphized as “deadbeat dads”: they don’t help build the nest or raise their young, and don’t even defend their own territory. silly birds.

our process was to walk in a line across the marsh, flush out sparrows, and watch their flight patterns to determine if they were females sticking close to a nest. each stomp of my rubber muck boots produced a crunching sound, likely due to dead grasses and crustacean shells, but which to my paranoid imagination sounded like a nest and eggs being crushed. it was a singularly nervewracking experience. thankfully, i don’t think  i crushed any, and our day of effort was rewarded by the discovery of a single nest with four eggs, which, at that moment, i was more impressed to see than if they had been fabergés.

interesting(?) side note: i learned that the salt marshes themselves are vulnerable to extirpation due to a combination of excessive nutrient loading and rising water levels. high levels of nutrients (in particular nitrogen) cause the plants to grow too much above ground and too little below ground, leading to a lack of mass in the root system that holds the marsh together, which in turn lowers the elevation of the marsh and makes it susceptible to flooding, a problem exacerbated by rising water levels.

wednesday: emma and i went with our supervisors, andrew and suzanne, out boating to survey birds around the long island sound region.

the boat we used. andrew, who is pictured, was at the helm.
the boat we used. andrew, who is pictured, was at the helm.
view from the boat
view from the boat

some of the birds we saw were mute swans, american oystercatchers, herring and great black-backed gulls, double-crested cormorants, and common eiders. we paid particular attention to counting the nests/chicks of the american oystercatcher, which i believe is a species of concern in new england. it was a quick crash course in bird id, supplemented by frequent referrals to the well-worn copy of sibley’s field guide to birds of e.n.a. that i borrowed from the office and grew to love (it’s perfectly concise and has just the right amount of detail, plus sibley uses cute [to me] phrases like “our [italics mine] largest gull,” which sort of inspire pride in and stewardship for the birds of north america)  over the course of the week.

two asides: 1) i was unreasonably happy to be loaned a pair of excellent binoculars i would never be able to afford otherwise, the nikon monarch 8×42. 2) i had the chance to steer a boat for the first time, albeit for less than five minutes.