Week 11 & 12: The debut of the turtles and my thoughts on this summer

I’m on my back, my head propped up on a worn piece of driftwood. I occasionally slap at mosquitoes nervy enough to land in range of my trusty fly swatter, my hand. The waves are calm and barely put up a fight to struggle up the shore before they wash away.  Oil rigs light up the horizon indicating what a passer-by might mistake as a small city. They are no comparison, though, to the night sky. So many all above me. Admirably, they demand my unbroken attention without ever saying a thing.

Ahh, but I hop up. I must check the nest or the buggers will be out and in the ocean before we even know it. I attempt to brush off the sand for a bit before I realize it’s a futile pursuit and put on my uber fashionable, red-light, turtle-safe head lamp. I scan the trench we’ve dug looking for escapees, filling in holes and scaring off crabs as I traipse up the dune. I checked ten minutes ago, there is not going to be….op, there it is, poking its head out of the sand. He climbs out and there’s another behind him. And another. And the train continues. I call Ashley, “WE’VE GOT TURTLES,” and she scrambles up. We ooh and ahh. I keep my light on them and make sure they are heading in the right direction. Which they aren’t. One turns around and heads the opposite direction. One climbs up the side of the trench before he slips down on his back and flails around until I reach down with my finger and flip him back over with a soft reprimand. One seemingly takes a nap. And one is firing on all flippers straight for the sea before her. I assume she was a female. Truthfully, sex is temperature dependent so the majority are probably all males, but never ye mind, because I know with absolute certainty that hatchling was a mini-me.

Eventually, they all crawl their way to the shore, where the sand gets wet but just above the water’s reach. I like to be there for this moment so I can see that first reaction when the water rushes up under them and gets in their nose and covers their flippers. What must that be like? Do they know it’s home? They pause. Then miraculously, many make a mad break straight for the ocean! They get tumbled around for a minute before the waves take them away, out, towards the middle of the ocean. At this point, those of us land-goers fist pump. We’re empty nest-ers now, literally.

Night hatching.

Night hatching.

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With some variation, the above story is what I spent my last two weeks doing. I’m one lucky duck, right? Right. I feel extremely privileged to have had those experiences. Spent with some of the best people, too. I hope I remember those nights for a long, long time. Aside from the task of saving baby sea turtles (I’m being facetious here), we also set some minnow traps with the help of Becky, a biologist from North MS and lovely person overall, and her interns. We were pleasantly surprised the next day to find a gulf salt marsh snake and a banded water snake. We were visited by a slew of interns from Mississippi Sandhill Crane too. It was all fun and games until we got finagled into helping with a unit for fire monitoring. All brush and thorns. I had to channel my inner-Tarzan to get over, around and through some of that jungle.

Gulf Salt Marsh Snake

Gulf Salt Marsh Snake

Another incredibly awesome thing I got to do was excavate nests A-1 and A-2. After three days of the initial hatch we dig up the nest to get hatch success data. Hopefully, you find mainly empty shells though it’s likely you will get 8-10+ that didn’t hatch because of infertility, depredation, or developmental problems to name a few of the most probable reasons. You count them all, obviously, then you examine the unhatched eggs. Sometime you open it up and there is a turtle, curled around its yolk sac that for whatever reason, didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s like sifting through fried eggs, looking for eye spots or a tiny little embryo.  After you’re done, you throw it all back in the turtle nest turned grave and let nature do its thing.  Then you stand up, and think to yourself, ‘I can never eat eggs again.’  That was my experience when excavating A-1. A-2 held more surprises.

Like four baby hatchling surprises.

The four we released after excavating.

The fabulous four.

Our primary goal is to interrupt the natural process for all baby sea turtles as little as possible, if at all. However, the hatchling’s energy reserves come from the yolk sac, the last of which they soak up, just before pipping the egg. This fuels them to climb out of a foot deep hole, into the ocean and traverse the many miles to reach the closest current in the gulf which they hopefully ride until large enough to not be such an easy snack for fish or birds. If these turtles have been lolli-gagging around in the bottom of that nest for three days, chances are they won’t have the energy to make it to the current. So we put them in a bucket, carry them to the shore, and release them there. Why not just put them all in a bucket and carry them to the water when they first hatch then? Let’s revert back to my previous statement that we like to keep things as natural as possible. It’s pretty well accepted that female turtles return to the same beach to nest that they were hatched on, however, science has yet to definitively answer how they know where to return to. Magnetic compass? Maybe. Some believe that it is the initial crawl to the ocean that allows them to orient themselves and do whatever they do that makes them return. There is so much they don’t know, and this is an endangered species, so we try to protect and conserve while taking stringent precautions to not unknowingly err and disrupt these turtles that have survived for so long without us.

Anyways, so that is what we did. This was during the day, when they usually hatch at night, so we could see what we’d been missing. They get caught in the tide and wash up and down a few times, that’s all old news, but then…. then they get their bearings. They dip this way, they dip that way and suddenly there is this whole portrait before you of ‘I hatched a half hour ago and yet, somehow I am swimming like it’s the most natural thing in the world right now.’ And just like that, they take off. You sigh, they’re gone, but out of the corner of your eye a tiny head pops above water for a breath of air before going back under. Twenty yards later, there it is again, another breath. Another twenty yards, another breath. That was THE best moment of my entire internship. I can’t pin down precisely why. Frankly, they’re such little guys you can’t help but be concerned for them. You know that they don’t stand a chance. But to see those few poking their heads up as they got farther and farther away, I was able to garner more and more hope. A picture’s worth a thousand words? That picture would have been worth my last twelve weeks of blogging.

My internship ended with one great finale. Jerry had been dying to put the boat through it’s paces. What better way than a staff luncheon at LuLu’s? There is none! A boat ride on the intercoastal, a mahi sandwich, a lovely card and going away present, and one all inclusive staff picture later, it finally dawned on me that my internship was over. Dawned is an understatement, it was more like being hit with a bag of bricks. Firstly, I was sad to be leaving such wonderful people. Despite working for them, I think I gained more than they ever got from me. I can’t count the times they went out of their way to answer my questions, provide opportunities or make me feel a part of the office. More so than that, being able to laugh and joke around. It doesn’t happen like that everywhere. You don’t get the chance to work with such fun people all the time. It was bittersweet leaving my fellow interns as well. Ashley requested a whole paragraph in her honor, but I’ll just say this: she breaks into tears if you play “A Whole New World” from the Aladdin soundtrack and she’s single, gentlemen. And thanks to Adam, I now know what Wisconsians love, and that is milk. I am grateful for this summer for many other reasons too though. For the affirmation it’s given me in knowing this is absolutely what I love and what I want to do. For teaching me to question all things around me.  For allowing me to see the application of what I learn in school in the field and consequently, the motivation to truly understand that content. For a deeper appreciation of the common, and the ability to see it as the extraordinary. And for a million other things, that I’d rather keep to myself because they wouldn’t mean as much to you. That’s the great thing about nature after all, you don’t have to hear it from me, you can walk outside and see it yourself.

You're lookin at the best.

You’re lookin at the best.

The crew.

The crew.

This will be my last post, Thanks for reading, yall.

Savanna

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Week 10

We had a live stranding this week. Sort of. Well, actually, by the time we got there it was dead. Which was unfortunate, for both the turtle and us cause we were pretty excited and the turtle, I’m sure, would have liked to made it a few more years. It was a juvenile green, such a pretty thing. Should it have been alive and in good enough condition, we would have transported it to the Gulfarium, a sea turtle rehab center in Fort Walton.

On another note, I’m a pro, scratch that, fairly efficient…scratch that too, moderately familiar with the ins and outs of manipulating raster and vector data on GIS. Yay, Savanna!! I’m definitely gonna have to take that class though, because predictably, GIS skills are a must have resource looming in the future for any wildlife biologist. It’s a selfish relationship really, I love it for all the information it can give me but don’t care for it otherwise.

My herbicide training came in use this week. We had to eliminate some hazardous chemicals that we had no need for on the refuge anymore. Triple rinse, people! We wore the gas mask things. Defibrillators? Rehabilitators? I can’t remember the word. Brittany, the refuge manager and jack (or jill?) of all trades had some empty wine bottles that she cut herself that we poured the methanol into and left to evaporate. The Alcanox, which is just a light detergent, we mixed in the kiddie pool with water and left to evaporate.

I had pretty terrible luck on Monday. Me and Ashley attempted to map part of the firebreak on Little Point Clear Unit. It’s been a while since Jackie has been out there, so she couldn’t give us too much detail on the condition of it i.e. whether it was overgrown or driveable…We got out there and realized we needed waders for part of it, so we mapped as much of we could one way and then started another line. I was driving the 250 through some tall grass when I clipped a water meter. By the sound of it, I thought the truck broke in half. Literally, I turned around and expected the bed of the truck to be disconnected y’all. My life flashed before my eyes. I would forever be the girl that single handedly dismantled the truck to my supervisor and the staff at Bon Secour. In reality, I only broke the step-up into the truck off. Yah, only, right? When I told the maintenance man, Jerry (or silver fox as we sometimes call him since he has such nice hair), he found it quite humorous. I failed to see the humor in it at the time, but I can laugh now. He said to me, “Couldn’t have done it if you weren’t working.”  Everybody was honestly, very nice, about it which I am so grateful for. So, AFTER we had unsuccessfully mapped one stretch of the firebreak since we were waderless…AFTER I had modified the truck with a water meter….we started walking back and THEN it started pouring. We went out again on Wednesday, this time all three of us, with waders, to map the bit we had missed on one line. It was fun, albeit, rough conditions. Incredibly marshy and that grass that cuts your hand’s and arm’s when you try and push it out of the way. One misstep and your up to your thigh in mud. Unfortunately, but at the same time, fortunately, we didn’t see a single snake. Or gator. Boo.

 Yah. Uh-huh. Exactly.

Yah. Uh-huh. Exactly.

In the bush. With my trusty Garmin.

In the bush. With my trusty Garmin.

 

See y’all next week.

Savanna

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Week Nine: A budding oyster biologist

I’d say this week was highlighted by my short stint with Weeks Bay National Estuarine Reserve on a beach mediation project. To give you some background information, this experimental site is in the bay where a lot of ships pass through. The wake stirs up considerable sediment and causes erosion of the shoreline, slowly pushing it back. In an effort to derail this, they put in a reef to create a natural wave break but also 3 cages of clam shells at nine different location along the .3 mile stretch of reef. The cages are positioned on the front, middle and back of the reef and will hopefully recruit different organisms with intent on oysters. Oysters are, firstly, amazing. Never thought I’d get excited about a bivalve but they are so important. They are filter feeders; an adult oyster is suspected to be able to filter as many as 50 gallons of water a day. Along with clearing up the water, they have serious influence on biodiversity and nutrient cycling!! 

 

Which is probably why they taste so delicious. NOT.

 

 Anyways, in what was referred to as the “Weeks Bay Way” we all congregated at the boat dock a half hour later than scheduled. The boat ride to the site was beautiful. It was all sky over trees over water with birds swooping around above. I felt like I was in some prehistoric dinosaur age. This project was in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy so I met quite a few new faces along with the Weeks Bay team, all of which were fun and easy to work with. I served primarily as an oyster counter. They would bring the cages to us and we would count the 75 half-shells in the cage, recording the presence of barnacles, live and dead oysters, mussels, sessile organisms, and anything else worth noting. We did not find many live oysters; it was speculated that maybe the weird spring had something to do with it or maybe just not enough time. There were, however, tons of mussels, barnacles, and those tiny organisms that I memorized for my Biology II class and thought I’d never run into again, like annelids and platyhelminthes. And more crabs than I’ve seen in my lifetime thus far put together. We generally found the front cages to be covered in algae with moderate activity. All the amphopods were middle-cage dwellers along with the mussels. The back cages were half sunk in anoxic mud, meaning you’d find nothing and the other half of the shells would be pretty bare. There was also a team mapping the location of the shoreline using a backpack Trimble to see if it had moved at all. In addition, they measured the distance from reef to shore the old fashioned way aka. the measuring tape. All in all, a great experience.

On another note, history was made this past Friday. The new Alabama state record since 1989 for the Blue Marlin was broken with a 789.8 lb fish at the Blue Marlin Grand Championship fishing tournament in Orange Beach. 122 and a half inches. Worth $251,000. And I got a t-shirt to prove it.

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Soo…who wants to go in with me on a boat??

See y’all later.

Savanna

 

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I sit perched uncomfortably on a kiddie-sized chair at this kiddie table while the librarian shoots me weird looks. To my left are books titled “If I Ran the Zoo”, “Little Bear’s Friend” and “The Big Balloon Race.” To my right is a kid ripping books down the spine while his mom isn’t looking. I reminisce on my own childhood, musing over what experiences made me like I am. Could it have been all the cheesy books read to me about llamas looking for their mommas and dogs named Biscuit? Was it the trips to the pasture to watch my uncle feed his cows until he could hardly walk? Or how different things look from the saddle of the horse? Was it the mix of excitement and fear that pumped adrenaline through my veins as I clung to my Dad wading deeper into the dark blue ocean water? It’s fun to think about. But perhaps, it was God-given. “Is not every landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him?” It makes sense then, that I am led to creation, His most visible fingerprint. Seriously, who but God would elect for a whale in the Arctic Ocean to grow a 9 foot tusk from his upper left canine purportedly to attract the ladies? 

Narwhal. Puts my tooth aches in perspective.

Possibly the one instance where females can’t complain they have it worse due to birthing responsibilities.

 

But I digress.

This week consisted of more mapping, GIS training and staff meetings. A low-key week, for us. We continued mapping the firebreaks until we made it all the way around one unit. This stretch was much easier than the last; we could actually drive it, which means we were more than a little spoiled. I’ve very faintly started to enjoy my online GIS class. Despite it being detail-intensive and the half hour it takes me to figure out how to edit an existing polygon, it’s really impressive in the range of it’s capabilities and helpfulness. I’m certainly not a pro, so I’m considering taking the GIS course offered at State. Like I mentioned earlier, we had a complex-wide staff meeting at Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR. The chance to see the management, hear the projects completed and in progress, and understand the overall protocol of such a meeting was a good thing. Packing all seven of us in the Expedition for a two-hour car ride was also quite enjoyable, if not a tad stuffy.

Keep on keepin’ on.

Savanna

 

 

Aside

Lucky number 7

I wish I had more time or more internet (no wifi at the house) so I could write y’all better posts that really give you the full circle effect of my job here. Alas, you’ll have to bear with my attempts now because it’s 9:20 and past my bedtime. This week has been EXHAUSTING.

We continued on our mapping adventures. This time it was endangered beach mouse habitat. Walk the dunes for an hour, switch out. Walk the dunes, switch out. Forget to put sunscreen on neck and get crispy burnt. Fantasize about diving into ocean in work clothes, continue walking dunes. We then moved on to the fire breaks which if you ask me, isn’t much of one considering I can’t see over some of the bush that has grown up in it. Spider web attack is imminent. Never thought I was that bad of a sweater until I took off my hip waders and could have wrung out the bottom half of my pants. Good times, though. Guards are let down when one’s pants and shirt are a different color from perspiration and you’re so tired anything is humorous.

This was USGS’ last week here tagging turtles and I got to go out with them a few nights to see them take blood and tags on the turtles that came up to nest. All very interesting stuff. All very interesting people. They’ve got some high tech on those turtles. And they actually can take a sample of the shell and tell what the turtle has been eating by analyzing isotopes, which I thought was insanely cool. I didn’t get to see one nest, which I was hoping, but maybe someday. Me and Ashley probably looked like grade A goofball’s because I’d get a text at 12 or 2 or 3 and go into a frenzy trying to get out of the house and make it down to the beach. Random socks, hair doing who knows what, tripping over ourselves cause we were still half asleep. I’m glad I got the experience though, because it was amazing to see those huge turtles, to touch their carapace and their fuzzy nose and think about the thousands of miles they have probably swam in their lifetime.

On my two days off I spent one of them sitting in a doctors office for the majority of my day getting a physical. And the other I spent taking the pack test, a 3 mile walk in 45 minutes with a 45 lb pack. It’s one portion of certification required to allow me to participate in prescribed fire burns. Thank the Lord, I passed. With 3 minutes to spare. However, today I hobbled, waddled, staggered, stumbled, limped and groaned my way through activities requiring the use of the lower half of my body. It was especially painful transitioning my foot from the gas to the break. Probably not the most comforting thing to tell. Might should’ve kept that to myself. I did however get to meet and talk to a lot of the fire crew and refuge members (the test was taken at Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR.)  I still have to take some online courses and a formal training of the tools used to burn before they’ll let me light anything on fire, but it won’t be too long. So watch out. 

Not many pictures this week, unfortunately. I was lookin through and found these though.

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lemur selfie. from our trip to the zoo.

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Licked me half to death

10:15 PM. The things I do for y’all.

Savanna

 

 

 

 

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Week Six: Happier than a Camel on Hump Day

It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that I’ve been here a month. When I think of it in terms of work, that seems nearly impossible. It was just yesterday that I was working up my first nest, and trying to remember which key went in which lock. But, since it is half way through my stint here at Bon Secour NWR, it’s time for some reevaluation.

  • How can I improve?
  • Have I really been doing my best at tasks already given me?
  • Can I tap into my employers for any more tips, advice, stories and information?
  • Where can I find more opportunities?
  • Have I let routine dim the beauty this job allows me to see daily?

This week, as all the others, brought a mix of new challenges and old. Saturday I took a shower during lunch break. (Since we live within a hundred yards of the office, we eat at the bunkhouse.) That’s how dirty I was. So nasty that I sacrificed FOOD for a shower. That morning, we had closed and picked up the funnel trap on one of our units since we were mostly catching crabs. What that means is 60 yards of fencing that’s six inches in the ground being ripped up, rolled up and relocated to the pole shed. The trap has been there long enough for plants to grow roots through it and along it; it was going right down the middle of one plant. Throw in the fact that I was missing gloves and the swarming yellow flies, and it makes for a great occasion. Weirdly enough, I hopped back in the truck with energy I knew not the source of. That was the first hard manual work I’d done here. And the feeling it gave you, was enjoyable. It’s easy to forget the satisfaction of working with your hands.  I was dirty and tired, but I didn’t mind.

 

Heave ho.

Heave ho.

I also dealt with the not so glamorous part of our job this week. Dead turtle strandings. I was two for two, one on Monday and one on Tuesday. Both were …. ripe. I would’ve given anything for a gas mask at the time.

She makes dragging deceased turtles around look fun.

She makes dragging deceased turtles around look fun.

 

It’s rained a good bit the past few weeks so the herp traps have picked up some. We got a black racer. She had some spunk. I was already working out a good story for my snake bite scars in case she did get me.

We even tagged him. Fourth scale on the left from the subclava.

We even tagged her. Fourth scale on the left from the subclava.

I think I’ve finally found my place here in Gulf Shores. On my days off I went kayaking, rode my bike on the state park trails, worked on my tan, did a little fishing, read my book, ate some good food with good company. OH…and saw Brad Paisley in concert. I’d agree with Brad. It’s gonna be hard to beat this summer.

Needless to say, I did most of the work here.

Needless to say, I did most of the work here.

We're both actually pretty weird.

 

Thanks,

Savanna

P.S. Turtle fact: it’s thought that turtles use chemoreception to navigate or locate through olfaction. Meaning, turtles can respond to chemicals recognized in the water through smell. And just by smelling it can regulate or release hormones and stuff in their body. Something like that. I read it in a book that described it in much more detail with much bigger words.  Personally, I can’t get past the fact they can smell underwater.

What we know is a point to what we do not know. My boy, Emerson.

 

 

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Week Cinco.

I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.

Emerson

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The pier on the Bay in Fairhope.

We kicked the weekend off right by heading to Fairhope for the First Friday Art Walk, something the volunteers put us on to. Fairhope is a smallish, artsy town about an hour away. Every first Friday of the month they have a small art show at the local center and the businesses downtown stay open late serving grapes and fermented grapes (wine.) There is also live music, which was probably my second favorite part. My first favorite part is all the cute old ladies that come out with their cute old husbands and dance and hold hands. I’m so sappy.

Before mentioned inspiring old people.

Before mentioned inspiring old people swingin the night away.

Fairhope, again.

Fairhope, again.

By far, the coolest part of my week though…..

Goes by Maggie. Nesting mother that was tagged by USGS afterwards for oil spill research.

Goes by Maggie. Nesting mother that was tagged by USGS afterwards for oil spill research.

I tried to put the video on here as well, but y’all, I can barely figure out how to change the background color. HOWEVER, I did put it on YouTube. I think I created a page or something. Anyways, here is the link: http://youtu.be/pDI54NweHWY. I don’t know how to get it to link directly. So copy and paste away. It’s a really cool video. It’s already got like, two views. From me. Haha.

 

Aside from that, I’m also working on an online GIS course, pesticide training and vegetative mapping of plots of newly planted sea oats for dune restoration. We’re up to turtle 9 on nests. No strandings lately, and I hope it stays that way! For me and the sea turtles. Loving these volunteers. They’re all friendly and good co-pilots in the early mornings. We did get to go out with Ben, a researcher, to little Dauphin Island to do nesting shorebird surveys, which means, we got to ride the boat! I do believe Ben qualifies to be on Fast and Furious after riding with him to and from. I got a small shower. I loved it though. Ben is very much an ecologist and thinks out loud a lot so I’m always making sure to listen to him and try to pick up on the way he thinks things through. None of the birds appeared to be nesting which was unusual. It was good habitat, the right time and there were plenty of fish in the sea, or birds in the sky rather, to pick from. So if they’re not nesting here, where are they nesting? I sure don’t know.

Me and Ashley.

Me and Ashley.

 

Thanks y’all.

Savanna

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