What I Should Have Said at the Podium

Writing is so much easier than talking! Now that a week has passed, I think my blog presentation was not particularly deep or insightful. It seems wrong to leave without telling more about my summer experience, so here is one last blog post.

I had fun this summer, and I grew a lot, though not height-wise. Here are some things I learned, besides the obvious biology fieldwork or management aspects of a refuge:

  • I learned to live by myself and not be lonely, with the help of a bike and my mentor, who shared tips on how to converse with coworkers twice my age.
  • If I get creeped out at night when traveling back and forth from my home and the main building, all I have to do is carry a flash light and look up at the thousands of stars in the night sky. Even though I was born in a city and raised in a suburb, the faintest stars offer more comfort and wonder than streetlamps or neon signs.
  • I should just be myself, as Frank said. It took me half the internship to start joking around and skipping down the halls (with Frank by my side). Even though I liked my internship from the beginning, I acted more like a work robot the first few weeks than an actual person. I kept asking Frank for assignments to do after I was done a project, and it took some time to start showing my personality or chatting about stuff other than work.
  • People disagree on things, but can still be respectful. And, if something didn’t work out the first time, one can always try again.
  • Even though I’m Frank’s intern, everyone else still looks out for me and makes sure I have a good time.
  • History matters, and life is complicated. Before Parker River NWR was established, the locals used Plum Island as they wished by building homes and camps, fishing at the beach, and driving on the dunes. Then, the USFWS gained land for the wildlife refuge by paying landowners fair market value for their property, with or without their consent. While USFWS no longer acquires land this way, people have not forgotten the perceived injustice, and some probably hate the refuge. Although some visitor activities are not related to the big six uses of wildlife refuges, they are part of the local tradition and controversial to keep or banish. Not only do people have problems planning ahead and working in the present, we have to keep the past in mind as well.

And here is something I am still unsure about:

The ethics of biological research. I like seeing the insects from our moth traps and I like sorting them, but is it right to kill them in order to find out who lives in our habitats? One day I spent an afternoon alone in the bio room to sort moths, and I actually took over a hundred and forty pictures of the moths, knowing I would probably never look at even half of them again. I just wanted to take pictures of them so their deaths were not solely spent in a laboratory, to have their bodies identified and tossed. I doubt the moths cared or understood, and I don’t know how taking pictures would even help them, but I started with the large colorful moths, and decided the little ones deserved photos too.

Still, when Jim and Nancy ask me to sort moths again, I do, because I like seeing the moths up close. I appreciate their beauty and diversity, and marvel at the way some shone iridescently or blended in with tree bark. I like placing the moths so they are carefully laid out and separated in paper towel layers, and not in a messy heap. I feel more like a mortician than a scientist when I sort moths.

Yet, how are we supposed to randomly survey moths without the traps? If we caught them live, our handling would stress and kill the moths anyway. If we searched for moths without traps, we would only see the large moths, making the surveys biased. And, if we stopped surveying moths, it is possible that we would miss out on valuable knowledge that may save a species later on. My point is, I think moth surveys are important for the information gained and I actually like shifting through dead insects, but I wish there is a better way.

And here is something I figured out while serving with the SCA:

My SCA experience started with an airplane ride from my home near Philadelphia to orientation near Buffalo, NY. As the aircraft travelled over cities, suburbs, and the countryside, I realized just how much people have altered the landscape. From above, I saw highways cutting through mountains, farms fragmenting forests, and houses dotting the landscape in neat, curved rows. I even saw what looked like a mine, with layers of rocks exposed in a wide hole.

first flight

My view when flying to Buffalo.

Therefore, on my way to orientation, I felt a bit low. All I could think about was how people carelessly ruined habitats, caused the extinction of other species, and led to climate change.

During orientation, my mindset on people began to change. We’re not hopeless, and I’m not alone in caring about the environment. Everyone there cared about conservation, and mentors shared their experiences while interns were excited to start their service at the field stations. Many interns were not even looking for a career in conservation, but wanted to spend the summer doing important work. Now, when I think about the difficult issues ahead, I try not to assign blame, but rather remember the passionate people I’ve met throughout the years—at school, at the zoo, and at the SCA and USFWS—and I know we can work together and fix the problems that threaten our world.

Last Sunday, I went on an introductory flight lesson in the airport next door. The instructor and I boarded a small Cessna, and we took off. We flew around the area, and saw the refuge from the air. The refuge is bigger than I thought! Because so many areas are off-limits to visitors, I finally saw just how large our forests and sand dunes were. I realized that our salt marsh was connected to marshes along the coast, and were lined with manmade ditches that once were meant to drain the marsh for farmland. I compared our nearly empty beach to Hampton beach, a nearby resort with sand combed to look like a pristine lawn, filled with colorful umbrellas and beachgoers. South of the refuge, there was Crane beach, which looked similar to ours and had dunes and vegetation as well.

The refuge was not completely unique. Yes, the refuge is surrounded by developed areas that once held dunes and forests, but the beach, dunes, and salt marsh extend beyond its boundaries. While my lesson was meant to teach me the basics of aviation and aircraft control, I left with one more message: there are more natural places than I thought, which means there are more wild places left we can conserve.


The refuge is big!


Managing a Wildlife Refuge

I am a management intern at Parker River NWR, and because management involves balancing all aspects of a refuge, I spent the summer working with everyone. Here are a few things I learned:


Refuges are established to conserve wildlife and their habitat for the American people, so biology exists to ensure that its inhabitants are well protected. Some projects going on at Parker River include surveys of the salt marsh sparrow, research on migrations, and protecting federally endangered piping plover. The research a refuge conducts will lead to knowledge on a habitat and its species, and help the writing of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), a fifteen year guide to refuge management.


A great egret in our salt marsh.

Our biology staff consists of three people: Nancy the biologist, Jim the biotech, and Frances the invasive species biotech. Yet, whenever a big project occurs, our biology staff seems to quadruple in size. During nekton sampling, our team had the three bio staff, four YCC members, Tim the SCA YCC leader, three volunteers/interns, and me. Every week, people from UNH, UMass, or Maine come by to conduct their research projects, which are related to our salt marsh. Bill helps with our waterfowl surveys, and researchers work on the salt marsh sparrow project that spans several marshes. In refuge biology, volunteers are always welcomed in fieldwork, and the refuge works with other organizations on broad projects that include area outside the refuge boundaries.

Visitor Services

At orientation, someone said that refuges need outreach before biology, because a public that understands the importance of conservation will support research. Matt always says that the most important message of any outreach program is to let visitors know about the USFWS and what a National Wildlife Refuge is. Parker River is not a reservation or park, but it is a National Wildlife Refuge.

Our visitor services staff includes Matt and Jean, the gatehouse keepers, and a whole lot of volunteers. There are volunteers at the front desk, in the visitor’s center, on the beach, or on special programs. Some people act as “plover wardens” and keep visitors away from plover nests on the beach. Others, such as the trained master naturalists, lead behind-the-scenes tours, tide pooling programs, and other special events. Tom, a gatehouse staff, sells passes, collects fees, and keeps our parking lots from getting congested with vehicles. Once again, volunteers and seasonal staff are necessary to keep a refuge running day-to-day.


The visitor’s center, from behind the front desk.

Law Enforcement

Someone told me that the most important staff members at a wildlife refuge are the manager, maintenance mechanic, and law enforcement officers. While the purpose of a refuge is to protect wildlife and its habitats for people who are educated by outreach, law enforcement officers are needed to keep the refuge safe to begin with. After all, research and outreach cannot happen if there are people who vandalize refuge property or poach wildlife. So, Christopher and Gareth take turns patrolling the refuge to respond to emergencies, keep drivers from speeding, and stop visitors from trespassing.


Riding along in Christopher’s new truck with another intern.


Bob is the only maintenance mechanic at the refuge, and he makes and fixes almost everything. In fact, he once made a fully functioning grill out of a metal drum that washed ashore, and Frank cooked burgers with it.


Bob’s grill.

Maintenance mechanics are vital to a refuge because everything must be updated or eventually breaks and needs repair. Just this summer, the air conditioning unit was fixed, several vehicles were repaired, biology equipment was built, and lumber was cut for Great Bay NWR’s boardwalk. In the fall, the fields are mowed, and in the winter, used equipment is fixed and the roads are plowed. A few volunteers help Bob mow the lawns, build signs, and maintain the refuge.


A few months ago, our manager Graham left to work in the Regional Office, so Frank the Deputy Refuge Manager has a lot to do. For a month, Sarena came from Headquarters on a detail, too. Other administrative staff are Jan, who works at the office desk, and Peggy who is here once a week to help with our budget work.

According to Matt, Bob has the best job because he can create finished products with the least paperwork. At the time, Matt had just gotten off the phone with IT staff at the Regional Office to talk about getting a computer for a visitor’s center display. Whenever we want to buy something with computers and information, the Regional Office has to be involved. In order to buy equipment on the refuge, staff have to fill out acquisition forms, too.

Basically, the administrative staff deals with running a refuge by making sure bills are paid, forms are filled, work is done, and employees are happy. Frank keeps his office door open so anyone can walk in and talk about their problems, and our staff seems to get along well together. When Frank isn’t in the office, he’s out in the field with the biologists, taking a trip to Thacher Island with the YCC, sitting at a staff meeting, or helping anyone with their projects.


The boardwalk at Great Bay NWR, repaired by this summer’s YCC crew.

Volunteers and Working Together

Even with an amazing staff, work wouldn’t get done without all the volunteers and outside help! Grace and Gordy are two contractors who come a few times a week to clean our headquarters and the refuge bathrooms. Outside of Parker River, Great Bay NWR has maintenance helpers, and Thacher Island has a crew who cleans, repairs, and runs the island. At Parker River, research projects involve outside organizations, visitor’s services and maintenance have volunteers, and everyone works together so the refuge can conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

Tagging Semipalmated Sandpipers

On Tuesday (8/6) I helped the biologists tag and band semipalmated sandpipers, a species of shorebird.


A semipalmated sandpiper with color bands. Photo taken by Frances Toledo.

We installed four radiotelemetry towers throughout the refuge that will pick up radio signals from the birds’ nanotags. The towers are part of a study on how shorebirds use Plum Island (the island that holds the refuge) and the different lands. Our research partners have towers from Canada to Cape Cod, and they will pick up signals from our sandpipers and other tagged birds. On a larger scale, the towers will give data on how birds migrate throughout the coast.

SI bird tower

The new radiotelemetry tower, photo taken by Nancy Pau.

Kevin (a helper from the Biodiversity Research Institute), Wesley (an intern), and I set up the mist nets at Nelson’s Island, which is within the refuge. As soon as we set up the nets, a flock of semipalmated sandpipers fly straight at them. In less than five minutes, we caught over fifty birds!

semipalmated sandpipers

A net with lots of birds! Photo taken by Nancy Pau.

Kevin is the only one who has training in handling birds, so Wesley and I just tried our best to keep other birds from flying into the nets. The birds flew in flocks that can shift shapes and change directions, but thankfully they avoided the nets after seeing their peers get stuck.


Banding pliers, a scale, and calipers.

Eventually Nancy, Frances, and two sparrow researchers showed up and helped tag the birds. We only tagged the more light weight birds because they would stay in the area longer to eat before migration. I recorded data while Nancy and Kevin weighted, measured, banded, and tagged the birds. Then, we released the birds.


A semipalmated plover, but we banded it anyway!

Differences Between Working in a Zoo and Working in a Refuge

Last summer, I was a public programs intern at the Philadelphia Zoo. I created interpretive activities and programs so our visitors could learn about our animals and conservation efforts. The other interns and I participated in puppet shows, animal birthday parties, and public talks about orangutan conservation…

Orangutans from Borneo and Sumatra are endangered because of deforestation and habitat fragmentation. A lot of orangutan habitat is converted to palm tree plantations, because the tree’s fruits produce palm oil that is used in products from soaps to fortified cereals. Just take a look at your shampoo bottle or snack bar for these ingredients: palmate, vitamin A palmitate, sodium laureth sulfate (usually made from palm oil), stearic acid, and so on. Luckily, not all products need palm oil, and those that do can use sustainable palm oil that comes from existing plantations without the need for further deforestation. To help orangutan conservation, we encouraged visitors to pay attention to the products they buy, and ask companies to use sustainable palm oil or thank them for doing so. To learn more, visit the zoo’s UNLESS campaign page: http://unless.philadelphiazoo.org/

So last summer, I got a taste of conservation from a zoo’s standpoint and learned about wildlife, how to engage the public, and how to stay positive. It’s hard to feel good about humanity when we’re poaching species to extinction or polluting our own water. But at my internship last year, I was surrounded by people who cared about conservation as much as I do. We are not alone. As the zoo’s campaign says, “Together we can save them.”

The same passion for conservation existed at my SCA orientation, where the mentors, USFWS staff, and interns shared their experiences and aspirations with the group. Of course, not everyone had identical feelings about conservation. Some people were concerned about animal welfare and wanted to protect species from our harm, while others hunted or fished but had great respect for the wilderness and its inhabitants. Despite our differences on how we view or use wildlife and lands, we still agreed to care deeply about conservation.

There are some differences between working in a national wildlife refuge and working at a zoo. For one thing, I am a management intern, not an education intern. I still perform some outreach, but not nearly as much as last summer. In contrast, I help with a lot of biological fieldwork, which did not exist in the zoo. At the refuge, we have to travel by vehicle to conduct fieldwork and hope for good weather and data. The zoo was small, so the interns just walk to their stations, where we can expect shelter and particular zoo animals. I am also the only SCA intern at Parker River NWR, whereas at the zoo I was one of a few dozen interns, if we only count those in the education department. Clearly, the Philadelphia Zoo focused a lot on educating visitors, while the refuge must balance outreach with biology. Of course, the zoo probably has more visitation than the refuge, and the zoo doesn’t need to go through arduous research when its partners conduct the fieldwork.

One more difference between the zoo and refuge is that the zoo has individual animals as conservation “ambassadors” of their peers in the wild, and the refuge has the actual wildlife. Yes, the zoo’s animals are still wildlife and they are treated as such, with enclosures and activities that resemble the wilderness. However, most of the animals have names, known personalities, and relationships with their human keepers. The animals at the refuge are mostly seen as a population because they come and go based on the time of the year, so we don’t know individuals as well. We have more named vehicles than named wildlife, and the only animals we keep are fish in a visitor’s center tank, or dead specimens. Still, the zoo celebrates a leopard’s birthday, and the refuge celebrates plover fledglings. The zoo and refuge use and conserve wildlife in different ways, but in the end, both have dedicated people who care about what they do.


Stella the giraffe, from the Philadelphia Zoo. Photo credit goes to DJ Konstanzer



Mishaps in Fieldwork


1. Timing is perfect

2. Equipment works perfectly.

3. The weather is perfect.

4. When surveying wildlife, a diversity of species is found. Each animal/plant is tame and can be identified, measured, and released unharmed.

5. Everything is clean and dry.


1. Timing almost never works out.

On Wednesday (7/24), the bio team set out to do nekton sampling in the salt marsh. Nekton sampling involves using throw traps in pools and ditch nets in creeks and ditches to sample the fish, shrimp, and crabs in the water.

We already pulled some ditch nets and sampled a few pools in the morning, so we planned to finish the rest of the sampling after lunch. We forgot one important part of our salt marshes: the tides.

The high tide covered our salt marsh with water, including the creeks, ditches, and pools. The marsh became one big wetland. Since the pools, creeks, and ditches were no longer separated from each other, we could not sample them individually. The one pool we could sample had already been sampled before the flood. Oops.


There was nothing we could do to make the water lower, so we waited.


After the morning sampling, we left our throw traps and other equipment in the marsh so we could come back to them in the afternoon. Thanks to the tide, this happened:


Jim et al.’s throw trap…

Throw trap

But the marsh flooded…


Really flooded.

Luckily, we recovered our equipment afterwards. Tides are part of nature, and nature cannot be fought. But, we can observe and learn from nature, so we will (hopefully) remember to check the tide charts in the future.


2. Equipment breaks, is missing, or needs improvement and adaptation.

Nancy: “We should make another dip net! We have three throw traps, but only two dip nets!”

Kaytee: “We couldn’t find the third one, it went missing. We had this discussion last year, didn’t we? Why didn’t we make another dip net last winter?”

Nancy: “This winter, we’re going to make another dip net.”

(throw traps are square mesh boxes that are thrown into a pool. They lack mesh on the top and bottom. The trap is thrown and lands in the pool with the water level below the top of the trap, so the trap holds mud from the bottom of the pool, along with fish, shrimp, and other nekton that cannot escape through the mesh. A dip net is a pole with a flat rectangular net at the end, and this net is used to catch and bring up the nekton inside the throw trap for handling and measuring.)


On Monday, we split up into small groups to sample areas of the salt marsh. Jim, Josh, and I rode in a pickup truck to get to our designated sites, all located in a stretch of marsh next to the thin dike.

We just arrived to our section of the dike when Jim says, “Oh, you know what we forgot? The dip net. We can’t sample without the dip net.”

So Jim drove the truck backwards to Frances’ truck and grabs a dip net. Then we drive back to our section of the dike.

“Oh, we forgot the meter, for measuring salinity and temperature. We need that.”

So Jim drove the truck backwards to Frances’ truck again, and Josh gets the meter. Then we drive back to our section of the dike, and we’re finally ready for sampling.


On Wednesday, just after we arrived at the refuge and split up into groups, my group realized we were missing two ditch nets. We called the other groups and drove by their equipment, but no one had extra nets. We called someone to check the parking lot at headquarters for our missing nets, but they were not there. So, we had to forgo two ditch net sampling points, and use throw traps in pools instead.

Kaytee: “So now we need two new throw trap points, to make up for the two ditch nets we won’t do.”

Frances: “Okay. Sze Wing! Close your eyes.”

So I close my eyes.

Frances: “Are your eyes closed? This has to be random! We need points that are random.” So someone takes off my sunglasses. Yes, my eyes are closed.

Frances: “Okay, now put your finger on this map. Keep your eyes closed.”


Frances: “Let’s see… No, your finger didn’t land on a pool. Try again.”


Frances: “… No, it’s still not on a pool. That’s a ditch. Try again.”

Poke. Poke. Poke. Poke. Poke.

Frances: “Okay, that’s good! Now we have two pools.”

And that’s how we adapted to the situation.

At lunchtime, we found the two ditch nets in the parking lot by headquarters. Oops. Lesson learned: always check to see if necessary equipment is packed before heading off.


Last week I had fun building an automated radiotelemetry tower to track birds. Then this happened:


Thanks, gravity. Photo taken by Frances Toledo.

But things can be fixed, especially with Bob as our mechanic. Nancy ordered a new tower, and this time we will get it right!


3. Weather is not always perfect.

Frank: “Matt and I planned to take the boat out this morning to go through the marsh and put up flags for the kayak trail. If the weather gets better in the next hour or so, you can come along. If not, we might have to cancel.”

Me: “Okay, sounds good.” I like going out on the boat!

A half hour later, it’s thunderstorming and water is pouring down in sheets.

Sometimes, weather forces us to cancel plans. Other times, such as when we pulled pepperweed or installed radiotelemetry towers during the heat wave, we just have to deal with it. Always dress for the weather and bring plenty of sunscreen and water.


4. When sampling wildlife/plants, you get what you get.

From one throw trap, we got over 150 mummichogs, several silversides, and a few shrimp. We must have spent half an hour or more at that trap. We had to get three consecutive scoops with the dip net until we could stop sampling. Often, we would have two empty scoops, and then the third one will contain a fish or two.

From another throw trap, we got nothing. Six consecutive empty scoops with the dip net.


At night, moth traps use light to attract insects, mostly moths, and ethyl acetate to kill them. Unfortunately, with a large sample we sometimes get a lot of bycatch, and must separate the moths from the other insects before we send them to an expert for identification. I like seeing the diverse sample of moths, although I have to remind myself that it’s probably a bad idea to lean so close to the insects when I try to take a close look. I’m sure it’s not beneficial to breathe in ethyl acetate fumes, along with dust and loose moth scales. I might develop an oddly specific allergy to moth scales. Also, it probably looks weird that I’m leaning over a pile of dead insects so closely, with a pair of forceps that look like chopsticks.


Mmmmm bugs… No, let’s not take this picture out of context.

After a certain amount of sorting, all that is left are moths no longer than a few millimeters, mixed in with a dusty heap of other insects. The task becomes tedious, but there is always room for fun.

Me: Holding up a fly with my tweezers. “I think these are greenheads, but they have red eyes.”

Josh: Squints. “Huh, they do look like greenheads.”

Me: “Maybe their eyes turn red after they die.”

Josh: “I knew they were satanic.”

(Greenheads are horseflies that bite saw into the skin and drink blood. They are actually a sign of a healthy salt marsh. Despite their bloodlust and painful and itchy bites, they have colorful iridescent eyes and a mouthpart that sticks out, reminding me of Pinocchio’s nose. Not that Pinocchio ever used his nose as a bloody saw. For some reason, they fly into vehicles and try to bite the fuzzy ceilings.)

Moths, moths, moths!

Moths, moths, moths!


5. Things are never clean and dry.

Nancy, Wesley, Kaytee, and I used a metal plank as a portable bridge to cross creeks and ditches in the marsh. By this time, the water was up to my thighs. Nancy crosses the plank slowly because it wobbles, and there’s a current running through creek. But thanks to my thick rubber hip waders, I wasn’t afraid of the water. Besides, there was plenty of room on the plank for me to walk on. I proudly made it to the other side of the creek with nothing wet but my hip waders… Then I stepped in a hole, tripped, and fell into the saltwater until it was up to my chest and filled both my waders.

And no, we do not have a photo of that, that goodness!


I think salt marsh mud smells like rotten eggs because of sulfur-emitting bacteria and decaying organic matter. I spent the whole day mucking about the marsh and handling critters from the brown pools, so my hands smell like the salt marsh mud, along with old rubber from the hip waders. I’ve already showered and washed my hands, and it’s been six hours since I was in the marsh, but my hands still smell. If someone works in a salt marsh long enough, will they permanently reek of sulfur?


Lessons learned: no matter how much planning is involved in a project, things will go wrong. Just go with the flow, and adapt to meet the goals. Working outside is always harder and more fun than working indoors, as long as you are prepared for bad weather, mistakes, and lots of laundry.

Why I Pull Perennial Pepperweed

Because it builds character and muscles. Grrrr! (pumps biceps)

Jean gave me a hat, and this is my first selfie ever.

Jean gave me a hat, and this is my first selfie ever.

But actually, I think the reason I (somewhat) enjoy pulling pepperweed is because it feels good to get rid of an invasive species. I pull because I don’t want to come back in ten years and find the grassland covered with pepperweed, so other plants no longer exist. I feel like it’s my duty to try and repair the damage humans have done to ecosystems. It would be partially my fault if other species disappear from the area or become extinct due to this invasive plant.

We pull bags and bags of pepperweed. The refuge owns some land and an old house called the Pink House, and Frances and I pulled there on Tuesday. Frances expected to harvest three garbage bags of pepperweed. We got eight bags. She returned later and pulled a few more bags. The bags go to the incinerator.

I know the battle isn’t over even if we pull every pepperweed plant, because the weed can sprout again next year with just a few inches of roots. Next year, there will be more pulling and pesticide spraying. Still, I believe that every little effort counts. New Hampshire has pepperweed at a few locations, and the plant has not reached Maine. It’s up to us to keep it out of Maine, and get rid of it here.

Whenever I ask Frank if I can pull pepperweed with Frances he goggles at me and asks if I came up with a delicious pepperweed recipe.


The Typical Untypical Day

A very long post about a day in my intern life, advice to future interns, a few things I’ve learned in one day, and thoughts in my head.

I’ve realized that my blog posts are mostly about an event that happens, or some project I work on. None of them are really about my life as a refuge intern, or my day-to-day schedule. The reason I haven’t written about a typical day here at Parker River NWR is that there is no typical day. Every day is a new adventure.

I don’t have a set schedule where at 8 o’clock I have to help do sparrow surveys, or at 12 o’clock I have to eat lunch, or at 2 o’clock I have to write my blog… Which is probably why work is fun, and I haven’t written a blog post in two weeks and have six more posts to write before August 9th. Oops.

Anyway, since I don’t have a typical day, I might as well tell you about today, Monday July 15th (though this post may be published later in the week).  Since some readers may be prospective interns, I’ll throw in some future CDIP advice as well. First of all, get a calendar, or you’ll end up like me, with six posts to write in four weeks.

I think writing in present tense and including my thoughts would be fun, as if I am narrating today.

I wake up at around 6:30 AM, but stay in bed until 7:30. This is actually pretty typical, since I’m not a morning person. After hitting snooze on my phone alarm multiple times and accidentally dropping the phone once, I finally get dressed, gather a few things, and head to the main building to brush my teeth and eat cereal.

I walk by Frank’s office (he’s my supervisor) to say hi, but he’s talking to Jean (she’s visitor services). So, I just wave and meet Frances (biotech) in the bio office to tell her about some patches of pepperweed I discovered this past weekend. It’s too late to slay them because they’re seeding, but I put their location on a map so the Weed Warriors can destroy them next summer.

Frances has a cool USFWS hat, so I put it on. It’s brown (like every piece of USFWS clothing) and has a big brim. It looks like a ranger’s hat, which means it’s 110% cooler than any other hat in the world.


Isn’t this the coolest hat? Photo credit to Matt Poole.

There’s a tide pooling program at ten, so I print out the program documents I’ve worked on and start gathering the supplies. ID charts, handouts, coloring pages… While I’m assembling the materials, people start commenting on the hat.

“Nice hat. You know, I have one of those, maybe I should wear it today,” Matt (visitor services) says. He’s doing the tide pool program, too.

“Yeah, I have one too, but I never wear it!” Jean shouts. She’s not angry about her hat, that’s just how she talks.

And soon, I realize most of the staff members have this ranger hat. Nancy has one. Frank has one. Maybe it’s a USFWS trend. I wonder if I’ll have one someday. I hope so.

So Matt and I travel to the tide pool meeting place in the Tickmobile. I nicknamed the blue minivan Tickmobile because last week, I found three ticks crawling inside while I checked the vehicles’ gas mileages. The Tickmobile’s A/C also smells like mouse urine, and according to Matt, mice lived inside the A/C unit in the winter. This is also the vehicle I used to go to Thacher Island to poke smelly gull eggs. Today, it is filled with greenheads, biting horseflies that find the dark, warm interiors of cars irresistible.

Once we arrive at the site, Matt greets everyone with enthusiasm, and briefs them on today’s program. How does he talk like that? He chats with the visitors effortlessly, so genuinely. I don’t think I would sound that natural, not that I’m not excited about tide pooling, but that keeping up a lively conversation with strangers can be challenging. What would I sound like if I were in Matt’s shoes?

Me: “Pretty hot and humid, huh?”

People: “Yeah, I heard it will be like this for the next couple of days.”

Silence. I try to think of another topic.

Me: (To a kid) “So how old are you?”

Kid: “twelve.”

Me: “Cool. Good age to be.”

Parent laughs a bit. More silence as we slap away at the greenheads. Only a few minutes later do I realize that I could have mentioned my age, and started talking about where I go to school. It’s a bit late for that, and we’re bleeding from greenhead bites.

Writing is so much easier than talking. Besides, when people talk to kids, they tend to have a higher voice. I can’t go much higher unless I talk to kids in a falsetto voice. And that’s creepy. So, here’s some advice to me and future CDIPs: get out of your comfort zone. For me, that means I should talk more and help lead a few more tide pooling programs. Connect more with the people I work with, and with visitors, too.

After everyone shows up, we go into our vehicles and make our way to Sandy Point, a state owned beach at the end of the refuge and Plum Island. Sandy Point is in an odd location, since to get there people have to drive through the refuge and go through our toll booth. Yet, our law enforcement officers don’t have jurisdiction there since it’s not federal property. At the same time, we can still protect the threatened piping plovers and least terns there.

Back to today. So now we are tide pooling at Sandy Point. There’s a lot of biodiversity here! That’s one of our main messages, but I am surprised by the things we find. Pam (a volunteer and master naturalist) and I share a bucket as we search for some critters. Actually, we don’t have to search. Everywhere we look, there’s something alive. We catch shrimp, crabs, a hermit crab, and a sea urchin. A sea urchin! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a living one outside of an aquarium. We also pick up a few periwinkles and limpets, which I don’t count as catching since they’re so slow. There is also an amazing variety of seaweed and plants. At the end, someone even finds a sea star.

Oh, sorry I don’t have pictures. I left my camera because I didn’t want to drop it into the water by accident.

Finally, Matt brings the group together again, and works his visitor’s services communication magic. Once we have gone through identifying our critters, we let them go, and the group disperses. Apparently this group isn’t as excited with learning about tide pool creatures as with catching them. That’s when I learn that every time visitor’s services has a program, the outcome is largely dependent on the group of visitors you’re working with. With some groups you can talk more about biodiversity or environmental science, with others not so much. It all depends on the nature of the group, and never turn something fun into a lecture of main ideas. However, one big idea we always tell our visitors is that this is not a preservation, or park, or reserve, but a national wildlife refuge. Here, wildlife comes first.

By noon we are back at headquarters, eating lunch. Today, I eat a PB&J, which is typical. I have to go shopping soon. Last week I told Frank I had enough groceries for two weeks, but I forgot that I don’t cook for lunch, and I’m running out of bread for PB&J’s. Oh, but I have tortillas in the fridge. Maybe I can make PB&J wraps and put off shopping.

Nancy (the biologist), Bob (the maintenance man), and Sarena (the new manager on detail until August) talk about their kids at lunch. Apparently, their kids are all at that age where they don’t like wearing clothes and the only way they move is run.

I remember a few weeks ago Nancy and I were out at night, checking on the moth traps. To be exact, she was checking on moth traps and I was tagging along to see what moth traps were. Anyway, Nancy said she liked to work here because everyone in USFWS was down-to-earth, and just enjoyed the simple pleasures of life. People here liked time with their families, and were not overly concerned with getting more money, or a higher up job. People here already like their jobs, because their jobs protect natural resources. Nancy makes the USFWS sound like a giant family of people who love what they do, because they do what they love.

Frank, Matt, and Frances join us at the lunch table, and start talking about Friday’s potluck. “I might bring some jambalaya,” Frank says. Everyone else seems impressed. I don’t know what a jambalaya is, but maybe I do need to go grocery shopping soon. I planned on bringing my fudgsicles to the potluck, but that doesn’t seem as appropriate. Besides, with the heat wave this week, I don’t think they will last until Friday.

After lunch, it’s back to work. This afternoon, I help Frances and Josh (a volunteer) fix our nekton traps. We will use these traps and nets to catch nekton, which includes living things in our ditches and pools. I’m excited to start nekton sampling. It sounds like we will spend a day in the salt marsh, catching fishes and other critters. I’ve realized with this summer’s fieldwork that I like small habitats, like the pools in our salt marsh or the tide pools, because they have interesting and often overlooked life.

Our nekton traps are in rough shape. Sharp metal mesh sticks out, the screws don’t go in quite right, and they are pretty dirty. But, what’s the point of getting them clean if they are just going to get thrown into the muck and algae of our pools? More advice to future interns: don’t worry if some equipment never gets cleaned to your standards. Like the Tickmobile, for example. Or Jean’s office space, which isn’t dirty, but it’s full of stuff. Years and years of stuff, some of it quite interesting. It’s fun to look at her office, which is right behind mine.

So Frances, Josh, and I are struggling with the nekton traps when Lauren (a sparrow researcher) walks into the bio room. “Hi! Mind if I put some samples away?” She says in an upbeat voice as she heads to the freezer. In the bio room, there’s a large freezer, the kind people use if they have lots of meat from hunting or if they buy everything from a Sam’s Club. In our case, the freezer is filled with dead birds. Lots of dead birds frozen solid, from songbirds to chicks to hawks to an egret to a snowy owl that people have found dead and given to the refuge. It’s like the birds are all asleep. Lauren adds her sparrow blood and feather samples to our collection of beautiful, creepy, dead things. Then I laugh, because now that I think about it, it’s kind of funny and freaky that a few feet away from me is a freezer full of dead birds, not frozen chickens or turkeys but birds that still have feathers and organs. I mean, where else can I work where it’s normal for someone to drop off tubes of bird blood from a lunchbox into a freezer full of dead birds? Just as normal as if a businessperson comes by an office to drop off paperwork from a briefcase into a mailbox.

One perk about working in a wildlife refuge is that I got used to creepy dead things. (Wow, that last sentence makes it sound like the refuge is full of dead spiders or zombies. Don’t worry, if we have zombies, they’ll be adorable plover zombies.) I used to avoid dead bugs or other bodies. Ugh. I couldn’t stand the stiffness of a dead animal, or how insects crunch and crumble. Now, I pin insects, and I can handle dead sparrow chicks and poke gull eggs. They were once respectable living creatures, and now they’re organic matter, food for microbes, scavengers, and decomposers. Part of the food web.

After a while, we finish fixing the traps. It wasn’t super exciting, but I got to use a drill and a hammer, which was fun.  I like working with my hands, which is one reason why I like fieldwork, even if it’s pulling pepperweed. I feel like if I use my hands to do or build something, the results are tangible.

By the time the traps are finished and the bio room cleaned, it’s nearly the end of the work day. So, I spend the rest of the time asking Frances about her master’s thesis and pulling out a metal splinter from my thumb. I think I’m using a surgical knife to poke out the splinter, which is probably a bad idea.

Then Frank comes back, so I meet up with him. This week, my vague schedule consists of pulling more pepperweed and helping Tim (SCA YCC leader) and the YCC (Youth Conservation Corps) kids with their boardwalk repairs at Great Bay. Everyone calls them the YCC kids, but they are in high school, and they are all taller than me. Besides, they chose to spend their summer fixing and maintaining refuges, which shows they’re more than kids.

Josh, one of the YCC members, has a camo wide-brimmed sun hat. Tim has a wide-brimmed sun hat. Matt wore his hat to tide pooling today, and Jean gives me a small wide-brimmed straw hat, and tells me she will try to bring a bigger one. I think a new fashion trend is hitting Parker River NWR.

After work, I hang around the headquarters. I mean, I live a minute away, where else would I go? I eat some maples cookies that Jim (biotech) left on the kitchen table. The rule of the refuge is that food left on the table is free-for-all. Mmmm…

Then I shower, go online, write this post, eat dinner (more PB&J’s today, finally ran out of bread). I Skype my parents, and my brother is there too! He lives in Seattle, but he is spending a few days at home to go to my cousin’s wedding. I haven’t talked to him in a while. So here’s more advice for future CDIP’s: don’t forget about your friends and family! Even if every time you call home your dad tells you to go to bed, take lots of pictures, hurry and go home before it’s dark out, and your brother makes weird faces over Skype, and your mom reminds you to go to bed early, dry your hair before bed, always use sunscreen, don’t exert too much, stay safe, don’t go out at night, eat healthy, keep cool, go home before dark… Just keep in touch. They love me enough to let me live where I live and work in a refuge, so I try to stay in touch.

Which reminds me, I should contact my CDIP mentor again. I haven’t talked to him in a while. Yes, don’t forget your family, friends, and mentors!

Now I’m going to brush my teeth and go to bed. It’s already late, and I’m getting up at 5:30 tomorrow to pull pepperweed. Another untypical, adventurous day lies ahead.

(Now it’s Tuesday, so I might as well mention what I did today, since it was another untypical day. I got up at 5:30, picked pepperweed with Frances from 6:00 to noon, ate lunch, worked on some paperwork for refuge hunting, discovered a tub of ice cream in the headquarter freezer (not the dead bird one), and helped the bio staff make radio telemetry towers to track birds. Today’s work ended at 5:00, unless you count writing this blog.)