Snail Season

In some of my previous posts I mentioned Penny the salt marsh intern. Even though she has been helping out with a lot of the things we do she has another primary purpose. She is here to help with the Salt Marsh Inventory on Moosehorn’s few, small salt marshes. This inventory has several parts including surveys of plant and bird species and measuring the elevation. I am going to focus on the fish sampling since that was what I’ve gotten to help with.

The salt marsh on Hallowell Island is filled with small pools of water that hold all manner of tiny aquatic critters. Not all of them were large enough for us to sample, but for the ones that were we employed a 1 meter-square trap. This net was thrown into the pool from a few meters away and (hopefully) landed in such a way that all the critters did not escape before we could sample them. Then we used a very large and poorly constructed dip-net to scoop things out of the water within the larger trap.

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Example of a pool

We had to hold the net when we pulled it up to prevent it from dumping its contents back into the water and the trap was covered in small, sharp wires sticking out from the sides and corners. So, when we stuck our hands in to pick up the net they cam away scratched. I soon sported Band-Aids on both thumbs and various other scratches where I stabbed myself with the corners of the trap.

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High tide on the shore, with the trap.

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Trap post throw with the dip net

 

Penny was the main net-thrower, which was the strenuous job, so I was in charge of recording data, taking GPS points, carrying the bucket and extra equipment, and handing Penny anything she needed at a given moment. I soon established a very sophisticated system to transport everything in a semi-organized manner. (Eventually we both held one side of the trap and half the stuff. That worked much better.)

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Penny modeling the trap before a toss.

We trekked all over the small marsh and nearby shore taking sample points. Unfortunately we didn’t find any fish the first day. What we did find were thousands of black squirmy things we couldn’t identify. Whenever we brought the net up we would have to dig through them to find anything else. Eventually we discovered that they were mosquito larvae; they weren’t as many in the pools the second day, but as we walked through the grass the mature mosquitoes rose to meet us.

It was rather hot and carrying everything was rather tiring. We soon discovered that we did not bring nearly enough water. By early afternoon our bottles were empty and the GPS batteries were dead. We decided it was time to eat a quick lunch and call it a day. As we ate we watched the other people visiting the island (even though they weren’t supposed to.)

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I can’t really blame them for wanting to visit though. It is very pretty.

Hallowell is part of the Refuge and is closed to camping. However, when we canoed up that morning we saw a red canoe and a tent on the rocky point in the middle of the marsh. We couldn’t completely avoid going over there since some of the supplies had been left right in the middle of the campsite. It clearly wasn’t abandoned so we called back to the office to let someone know. We continued on our business and hoped that the people inside were not crazy murders or anything similarly terrifying, but during lunch I sat on the beach and watched them through my binoculars. (I was trying to get a good physical description of the three of them in case I had to testify in court or something. I probably watch too much television.) The three of them were picking up snails (or “winkles” as they called them. Wikipedia says the Common Periwinkle.) off the rocks. By the time we left they had 3 large bags full and were still going strong. I don’t know what they planned to do with them all, but I don’t think there is a hunting season on snails. Halfway through lunch two more men rode up in a boat and started picking up snails too. It was all very dramatic, especially when Penny went to go pick up flags and ended up talking to them.

Eventually we decided it was best to just leave. Unfortunately it was low tide, which with Downeast Maine’s huge tide differentials meant we had an expanse of mudflat between our canoe and open water. It was not fun to drag a boat loaded with equipment through the mud when you are out of drinking water.

The second day went much smoother since we established a better system, brought a water cooler, and arrived early enough that the weather was nicer and the tide was higher. We even had to wait for the water to start going down. I had time to eat a snack, watching the terns dive into the water for the same small fish we were attempting to trap. (Luckily we did manage to catch some fish the second day. They weren’t the target species, but they were still way cooler than bugs.)

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They really aren’t very big.

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I don’t really know what kind it is, but it is sort of cute.

 

I learned how to pilot a canoe alone and how quickly the tide goes out here. I also learned how paddling a canoe on a small sheltered lake at 4-H camp is very different from paddling in water with currents and strong wind. I saw the (really awesome) discarded remains of some seabird’s lunch, and we chased some loons around the island. (I say, “chased.” We all happened to be going in the same direction and they swam away really fast.)

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I feel this photo might be more artistic than I usually manage.

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A bee joined me during my snack break.

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Sea Lavender is really pretty.

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So many pretty things on the beach…

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I found it in 2 pieces and sort of stuck them together for the picture.

 

I really enjoyed working on the island even though I was very sore afterwards. I will always sort of wonder how we managed to lift that canoe back onto the truck.

All A-Loon at Aroostook

The title has far too many Os. Thursday and Friday we went up to The Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge to find invasive plants. Aroostook NWR is located in Aroostook County, often called “The County” because it is basically a third of Maine. I’m not joking.

During the drive up we stopped at Chinese buffet. While Nicole and I were waiting to pay for our food a man came up behind us and began explaining how White-tailed deer had become extinct from Northern Maine, (The word is “extirpated.”) and the Fish and Wildlife Service was to blame. It seems he saw Maury and Mike’s uniforms and flew into a rage in which he failed to consider 1) the various other wildlife/natural resources management agencies at work in Northern Maine 2) the fact that there are plenty of deer in other parts of the country and they might not be here because conditions aren’t favorable 3) there are plenty of other species that are not so overpopulated in certain areas that they cause serious car accidents (*cough* deer *cough*) 4) we were only interns and therefore had absolutely no knowledge/control of the thing he was upset about. (Actually he might have realized the last one, which could have been why he felt comfortable complaining at us in the first place.) After we paid for our food I managed to say something along the lines of “I’m sorry. Have a nice day.” before retreating to the truck. Later Steve told us that he was probably a member of a group that frequently comes to…discuss the same issue with him.

After lunch we continued up to the refuge where we spent the rest of the day walking through a field looking for a certain plant and attempting to catch butterflies for a state survey. I know I walked at least 6 miles (but I think it was more). I needed the exercise I guess, but afterwards I was exhausted and covered in blackfly bites. Luckily we did not find too many plants and the ones we did find were sprayed easily. Hopefully they won’t come back.

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This is a moth from around the office, not an Aroostook butterfly

That night the 3 of us (Nicole, Hannah, and I) journeyed to the town of Caribou, where we found a small pirate festival. We also found a movie theatre with more options than Calais, so we played cards in the truck until the ticket office opened. We even managed to make it all the way back to the refuge in the dark.

The next day we joined Steve while he gave a tour to a visiting group that was returning for their high school reunion. They all grew up on the air force base nearby; they were especially interested to tour the refuge because it was a top-secret storage facility for atomic bombs during the Cold War. The old bunkers where the bombs were kept have historic value, so they weren’t torn down with the rest of the base structures when the refuge was formed. There is also a building so full of radiation that it was sealed instead of destroyed.

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They look a bit like a militaristic Hobbit hole.

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The windows are fake. The building is solid concrete.

 

It might be a very fortunate thing that the bunkers are still around (other than historic value). For the past several years White Nose Syndrome has been decimating bat populations in the North East and is slowly spreading to new caves across the country, mostly on the shoes of visitors. In an attempt to stop the spread, many caves have been closed and new regulations have been put in place for the ones that remain open. However, there may be hope. Incidentally enough a sealed bunker very closely mimics the conditions in a natural cave. It also has the added benefit of being an environment that people can disinfect when the bats are gone so any WNS is removed. Last year they tested it with one bunker and some bats from out of state (There were so few Maine bats left that they didn’t have enough to give to the refuge.) and the survival rate was actually much higher than in a natural cave. That study is on-going and hopefully they will find a way to attract the bats to the bunkers and provide a method to help save many species of bats threated by WNS.

We drove down a giant plane runway that they use for land-speed records. (It may be the largest in the country or was during the time it was used, but I do not know for sure.) That was cool, but my favorite part of the two days occurred right as we were about to leave. We went back to get some better pictures of the bunkers when a pair of loons flew over. They had been in the impoundment near the trailer where we were staying and woke me up a few times.

They flew over as we stood there in the rain listening to their eerie call float over the abandoned bunker field. I decided I’m a fan of loons.

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Maybe if I wave my arms enough I’ll turn into a loon and fly away.

Whale of a Time and Dam Beavers

This post comes to you in two parts. The first was the really-super-amazingly-awesome part. The second is the mostly-miserable-but-still-sort-of-fun-ish part. Technically there is a third part to the week being described, but it shall have its own post.

On July 22nd the YCCs were scheduled to go on a whale-watching trip in Eastport, ME. It just so happened that Team Intern (Team Intern consists of: Me, Nicole, Penny the salt marsh intern, and Hannah the volunteer who is cool and gets to be included since she does everything with us anyway.) was able to go along. (This was especially awesome since it was also Hannah’s birthday.) The boat people were even nice enough to wait for us when a lack of communication made us a few minutes late. (Actually they had to wait on us since we were the only people in the boat, but they were still very nice.)

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50% of this photo op cooperated

First thing on our tour was Old Sow. Despite the name, Old Sow is a whirlpool, not an aged pig. It is actually the largest whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in the world, which is really cool. When I heard this I was going to attempt reenacting Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom” in honor or Media Ecology class and my English Major, but we did not catch the proper tide and jumping into a whirlpool tied to a barrel probably wasn’t one of my best ideas anyway. We were able to float into the middle and watch dozens of small whirlpools swirl up and then disappear. The water was bubbling like a large caldron and you could distinctly see where the currents met. Many seabirds, porpoises, and seals took advantage of the currents carrying food.

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We chased some porpoises across the bay for a while trying to get a better look at the baby one, but the ferry went by and scared them away. We continued on our way out towards the end of Campobello Island. (Really cool place. FDR had a vacation house there despite it being in Canada.)

Once there we floated through a large group of seabirds that flew away as we passed only to land some distance in front of the boat where they were soon frightened again. We saw a flock of Razorbills, which are cousins to Puffins, and I finally got a good picture of the lighthouse that my mom wanted to see when my family came to visit for my birthday.

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You can only go see it from land at certain tides and we did not catch those tides.

AND WE FINALLY SAW A WHALE!!! The captain’s radio conversation with nearby boats paid off and we found a small Minke Whale next to a buoy. He swam around the boat a while until he decided we weren’t really that interesting and left. We then went back into the bay to a rocky point where we saw not one, but two large(er) Minke Whales. (They are one of the smaller species of whale.) I was even able to get a semi-acceptable picture of one after much effort and failure. (Not all of them leap out of the water dramatically like Free Willy or Shamu. These didn’t even flip their tails up; they just showed a bit of their back for a moment and disappeared.) Unfortunately I turned my camera off two minutes before one swam right under the boat! Alas, for pictures that might have been.

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This was the best I could manage.

On the way back in we stopped to pull up some lobster traps. (They didn’t clarify if these were actually their lobster traps, but they had a nifty pulley thing on the boat so I’m going to assume.) We had a short lesson about how to age and sex a lobster before playing with the fish, sea urchins, and giant hermit crabs that were also caught in the traps.

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Again with the not knowing how to rotate pictures…

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After the boat ride we had lunch on some benches at the end of the downtown strip. The local library was having a used book sale up the street and I ended up with six despite my solemn vow to stop buying books this summer. The town center was very cute (and it had an independent coffee shop which is more than I can say for Calais). After lunch we stopped at a nearby State Park and went for a hike. We looked around a small stone beach until Penny realized that the weird brown dirt coating everything was actually poop from the nearby salmon farm; we left pretty quickly after that.

Overall the day was really great, and it helped keep the next day in perspective.

Tuesday it was dreary and damp. The rain was heavy enough to be unpleasant but light enough not to justify staying inside. There were a few impoundments that were in danger of overflowing and washing out, so Team Intern (minus Hannah) was sent out to clear the beaver debris blocking the water control structures.

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I don’t know why I always have the urge to look goofy for pictures.

I don’t know how much you know about beavers, but they are fiendishly clever. Their dams are not the haphazard collection of limbs suggested by cartoons; they are an intricate barrier of mud, plants, sticks, limbs, small tree trunks, and various large rocks. (I will forever wonder how they transported the rocks.) They are wonderful for creating wildlife habitat since they back up streams and flood areas, but they are not so helpful when people are trying to control the water levels. They constantly stop up water control structures, probably because they don’t appreciate wildlife managers trying to do their jobs.

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Before

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After

The point is that is isn’t easy to clear out beaver debris. We had to clear out as many large pieces as possible from behind the dam and in the pipe. We were ankle deep in mud that smelled terrible (two words: castor oil) and the light rain was falling the entire time. I couldn’t put up my raincoat hood because my bangs would fall into my eyes, and I couldn’t brush them back because my hands were covered in stinking mud. We finally knocked off the top of the dam to let water flow, but due to poor communication the middle still stuck up and there was no way to clear what was left until after the water level dropped.

After lunch we had to go out and do it again. Certain factors might have made it more difficult than it needed to be, but that is all I will say about that.

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When beavers become too much of a problem they are caught and released somewhere else where they will be less likely to cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Despite everything it was really cool to see the amazing things that animals could make with nothing but sticks, plants, and mud (and rocks). However, I was not upset to spend the rest of the day doing paperwork in a dry set of clothes.

Up a Creek

The Youth Conservation Corps aims to get young people involved in conservation through various activities. Here, they alternate between helping with assorted jobs around the refuge and going on really cool trips. Probably the highlight of ____(insert preferred period of time here)_____ was when I was asked help chaperone the overnight trip to go white water rafting.

I did a brood survey that morning so I woke up at 3am, worked until noon, ate lunch and drove (well, rode) across the state to the rafting campground on the Kennebec River. The six of us (me+4 YCCs+ Stephanie the YCC leader) stayed in a cabin that could conceivable sleep about 30 people plus a futon chair that would have served very well for a hobbit. After a painfully disappointing dinner (I really didn’t think anyone could screw up grilled fish, but they managed it.) we returned to the cabin to spend the rest of the evening. This basically involved ensuring that the YCCs didn’t get into trouble, but there was the added benefit of wifi. I am a child of my generation (my laptop was part of my egregious over-packing) so I reveled in Internet access that did not involve driving to Dunkin Doughnuts.

The next morning we packed up all our belongings and had them moved into the van before breakfast. Unfortunately my stomach was upset, which is not really something you want to happen when you’re about to do something fun, but I managed to eat a prepackaged bagel, which is about as boring a breakfast as you can get. At least raisin bran has raisins in it.

We were given instructions, assigned a river guide, and, after some discussion amongst ourselves about how cold it would be, we were properly outfitted with helmets, life jackets, paddles, and “splash jackets.” We boarded a bus and began a 45-minute drive to the launch site. (For some reason it did not originally occur to me that we would have to go away from the campsite to go down the river, but…duh. Sometimes I make myself feel stupid.) Once we arrived we got a paddling cram session and carried our inflatable raft down a very long flight of stairs. (Luckily there were metal poles to slide it along. This was good because, despite being canvas filled with air, the raft was really heavy even with seven people. The only difficult part was not falling down the stairs when it gained momentum.)

We started off at the base of a dam. Apparently the dam people have an agreement with the rafting people and they release a certain amount of water everyday at certain times so that there is enough for a safe trip. In addition to our group (of about 20 rafts) there were other companies on the river in their own large groups. We would float along and see different colored boats. And, these river guides were much more coordinated than a layperson would think. There was a complicated system that seemed like it involved speaking beaver. (They slapped their paddles against the water to get each other’s attention, much like a beaver slaps its tail.)

Based on the tales of our river guide our trip was actually pretty tame. There was only one class 4 rapid and there was only one feature that made it a class 4. (Please don’t ask me to explain the classification system.) I thought it was wild enough, but we succeeded in mostly keeping everyone inside the boat. There were a few close calls, like when one girl was swatting a bug instead of holding on or the other time when she dropped her paddle and a boy jumped in after it or when she almost bounced out but saved herself by clinging to the life jacket of the person in front of her. After passing the major rapids some of the YCCs even sat on the prow, but we were unable to fling them off. In one place we got out of the boat and swam the rapid (Swimmer’s Rapid. Imagine that.) before meeting back up with the boat. I did much better actively swimming than attempting to float along. Either way I got a face full of water from both directions before clambering back into the boat. I felt like a waterlogged cat. We stopped for lunch at a spot down the river, and the people somehow managed to cook wonderful chicken on a grill made of cinderblocks and metal fencing. (The fish still seemed to be a lost cause.)

The splash jacket they provided was a waterproof pullover that went over your normal clothes, or at least it was waterproof up until the point where we were in the water. They were also rather moldy. I spent all of lunch drying off and then we returned to the river for a leisurely float the rest of the way downstream. We landed just as a large, dark cloud began menacing us from over head. I was very glad to have worn my clothes that dried quickly.

After we returned to the van and fresh clothes, we loaded back up for the return drive. I took over driving when Stephanie was tired and I soon became very glad that my personal car is not a 12-passenger van.

It was really fun, but I was rather sleep deprived by that Wednesday. I was awake more than 19 hours on Monday. We went rafting on Tuesday, which was not exactly restful for most of the way. Wednesday I woke up and did another 3am brood survey, so I was running on fumes. Based on the looks I got, I was not exactly coherent the rest of the week while trying to readjust my sleep schedule.

My camera isn’t water proof so I don’t have any pictures from this trip. Have a moose:

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Wild Goose Chase

Every summer Canada Geese (or Canadian Geese as they are often called) lose their flight feathers for a period of time so they can regrow them for the next year. This period is also when broods are still to young to fly, so there are a few short weeks when (almost) all of the geese we see on the marshes are flightless.

This is when we catch them….

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Swim faster little birds!

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SS Henry & the rest of the Moosehorn Fleet

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No one seems to be hurrying in this picture.

 

With a (supposedly) highly coordinated effort of canoes and people on the dike, we herd all of the geese in an impoundment towards one corner where nets and a corral have been put up. If everything goes well the geese actually go into the corral instead of 1) disappearing into the marsh plants 2) diving under the boats and swimming away 3) escaping over the dike when people don’t walk fast enough 4) finding a way under/around the nets or (my personal favorite) 5) flying away in complete contempt for the flightless periods set down in bird books.

Even if everything doesn’t go perfectly you can still catch a few with a bit of luck. This is how we ended up with a pen full of 55 geese of varying ages on a dreary morning in June. I actually got to go into the pen and attempt to catch them so they could be put into more manageable crates, but I only managed to hold onto 1. The other 54 were caught by more experienced goose wranglers.

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They really wanted out.

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This is me not doing very well.

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There was the 1 I finally managed to catch and hold onto.

Once all the geese were safely boxed away (and after a truly heroic feat by one of the YCCs who chased one bird down the dike and across the road into the bushes) we begin the task of banding each one. This requires determining the age and sex of each bird as well as properly attaching the metal band and telling the person with the notebook all the information. Sure, this sounds simple enough, but this description lacks several factors.

There are at least 12 people standing around the immediate goose-handling area. (Plus a few more watching the show from a safe distance.) Six of these people are high schoolers and only about four of the others know what they’re doing. It is misting rain so the ground is muddy where it has been well trampled by feet, both avian and human. And let us not forget the geese.

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1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12 plus me taking the picture

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In case you were wondering it was the people in the brown and tan who knew what they were doing.

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I even got the FWS patch in the picture.

 

I have often heard tales of the mean farmyard goose, but those pale in comparison to an angry wild bird. They do not much like being penned up and shoved in a crate. (Can you blame them?) Nor do they like being picked up by humans and held upside down while their tail ends are…examined. (Again, can you really blame them?) Geese are pretty large birds, much larger than the only other birds I’d ever banded, the timberdoodles. They have very powerful wings used for flying and bashing interns in the face. They have claws on their webbed feet, which scratch rather painfully when kicking you. They also bite when given the opportunity (and when held upside down between your knees they have the opportunity). They also make use of projectile excrement. (Luckily I managed to avoid that particular method, but several people walked away covered in goose poop.) The goslings stop being cute when they try to bite you.

After each goose was banded it was put back in the pen so they could all be released at once. They all gave us dirty looks as they swam away, but everyone (except the geese) declared the morning a success. We packed up the nets and pen just as it started raining for real. Then we just had to wait for our ride to pick us up.

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The key was to hold it still and keep its feet away from your face.

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The bird wouldn’t smile for the photo op

 

Something struck me as I hid from the rain under a canoe. I was wet and covered in feathers, mud, and blood of unknown origin, but I realized that I had really enjoyed it. Even being wet and cold couldn’t counteract that feeling. The only negative thought I had was that I would have a lot of laundry later.

Quacking Up the Wrong Tree

The thing about the normal workday is that it is at a certain time convenient for human beings. The thing about animals is that they aren’t usually active at times convenient for human beings. (Can you really blame them? They like to be alive and we tend to kill them.) Therefore, it is rather safe to assume that they will not be very active during typical business hours.

Despite that, the job of a wildlife biologist is to study the wildlife, so they will often need to work at odd times…like 3am. This is how I found myself 30 feet up a tree before dawn.

One of the primary jobs of the refuge is to provide habitat for waterfowl. This requires figuring out which types of habitat the waterfowl use, especially for raising young since they are the future of the species.

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One of the many broods of Canada Gees we saw around the refuge.

So, we simply have to observe the waterfowl with their young. This is easier said than done because even if they were active at human times, they won’t exactly swim out the ducklings/goslings if there is a potentially dangerous predator (intern) about. To stay hidden we put up various types of tree stands around the impoundments several days before our surveys. Then, we go out there half an hour before dawn and wait to count the ducks. (One must be very sure to mark the trail clearly to ensure finding it in the dark. The last thing one needs is to get lost in the woods at 4am.)

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It isn’t this easy to see when you first get out there.

If you manage to find your tree, you climb up and stay there for 2 hours until the survey is over. I suggest bringing warm clothes because even if it is the middle of July it gets cold sitting still in the misting rain before the sun comes up. I also suggest finding something to help you stay awake because not only is sleeping not helpful for counting ducks, nodding off and falling out of a tree is not helpful for being alive. (The safety harness is your friend, even though it doesn’t seem like it when trying to get it unstuck from branches on the way up.)

Even though I was not a huge fan of turning my sleep schedule on its ear, waterfowl brood surveys were probably one of my favorite activities this summer. I could count the bright feathers on a male Wood Duck and watch semi-fuzzy ducklings feed. I got to hear the ghostly call of a loon through the mist. I watched the sun come up and greet the world. I enjoyed the peaceful silence that can only be achieved by sitting still with nature. If waking up early and sitting in a treetop is the only way to experience these things than I will do it gladly.

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I also had an angry squirrel throw things at me. I could have missed that, personally, especially since you will all think I’m making it up. I didn’t believe it either until after the first ten times. That’s nature for you, I guess.

Woodcock Pick-Up Lines

I know I said I would only refer to them as timberdoodles from now on, but I had to make a brief exception so I could make a weak joke about sleazy pick-up lines for the post title. I’ll switch back to saying timberdoodles from now on.

So it turns out that birds don’t line up at the office door to be outfitted with radio transmitters; we actually have to catch them first. In order to do that without trekking haphazardly through the woods, someone very clever designed a trap for catching timberdoodles.

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A view of a trap

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One of the cells before netting

These traps involve a chicken wire fence with two netted cells at each end. We rake on either side of the fence to expose the mud and create an earthworm buffet. Birds find this exposed ground and feed along the fence until they come to a cell. They go inside to enjoy more worms and can’t get back out since the opening is much smaller from the inside.

We (the interns) go check the traps everyday, and on the (pretty rare) occasions we find a bird we radio someone who knows what they’re doing. This is how I actually got to hold a timberdoodle. (The previous sentence and others like it are why these birds should not be known by their usual name.)

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This picture might be familiar to you…

We observe the age, sex, bill length, and weight. Then we give it a stylish ankle bracelet (band) and record everything in the handy-dandy banding notebook. If the bird is female we also take a blood sample and attach a radio transmitter (especially if it has a brood). Then we let the bird go on its merry way. Sometimes when I’ve let one loose it actually walks calmly several yards into the woods before flying away.

The most bothersome thing about checking these traps everyday is that it is rather difficult to walk down the trail. Since the purpose is catching timberdoodles, the birds have to feel comfortable enough to approach the traps. This means that a lot of brush is left up for shelter. This is all very good for the birds, but not so good for a person trying to walk. Most of the time we are hunched over awkwardly and getting smacked in the face with branches. Add the fact that we’ve had quite a bit of rain this summer and we are hunched over in shin-deep water and being smacked in the face with wet branches. Even with rubber boots and a raincoat I come back soaked and spend the rest of the day slowly drying out.

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It’s a really good thing these birds are adorable.