Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Day Nine: The Real Fish Fun Starts

June 16, 2015


           I woke up at 6:00AM refreshed and ready to start the day.  We left the hotel around 7:00AM to pick up the rest of the team over in Hamilton where we me up last night.  We got there around 7:30AM and assembled our team.  There were three people from Fish and Wildlife Service: Jeff, Drew (who is in charge of the GIS database for our office) and myself.  The other two members of our team were from the Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA) and their names were Rebecca (Becca) Bearden and Anne Wynn.  Jeff, our fish identifier, was happy to have Becca on our team because she works under Dr. Patrick O’Neil so she also knew her fish and could help him out.  We got everything in order and headed out to our first site.

 Once we were there I offered to carry the back pack shocker. This site was better than the one yesterday.  We got a higher number of fish species and higher abundances but this creek still showed damage from 4-wheler activity.  I had a good time using the shocker and because I was wearing waders, I did not get shocked by it at all.  At this site we also encountered a landowner and Jeff talked to him.  He was curious about what we were doing but completely OK with having us out there, which was good.  At this site Jeff was glad Becca was there not only because of her skills in identifying fish, but also because she decided to call me Dee when she had trouble pronouncing my name.  I don’t mind that much when people mispronounce my name but he was feeling bad about messing it up.  He was very relieved that I was alright with the nick name.

            At the second site we switched up some jobs.  Jeff, who had been on the seine team, took the shocker and I worked the seine with Anne who had been using a dip net. Becca took notes and both she and Drew were on dip nets.  This site was worse than the first one.  There were not very many fish and as we went up stream the habitat was not very good.  It got hard for us to continue to move forward so we went back down stream of where we started.  This part of the stream was only marginally better because we could not see what was in the water due to the sediment we had kicked up.  This was a real problem because if the fish did get stunned by the shocker, we could not really see them before they got a hold of themselves and swam away. There was not much tree cover at this sight either so we were really ready to get out of there by the time we had finished the thirty efforts and two shorelines.

            When we arrived at our third site I offered to take the back pack shocker again.  This site was not very good either but I still had a fun time.  Because of the lack of habitat, we mostly did shore line shocking with the dip nets.  We mainly caught madtoms, only a few darters, and not much else.  My thumb actually started to hurt from using the shocker in so many of the efforts.  Efforts are attempts to get fish; anything from shocking them into the seine, hauling the seine across the bottom of the stream, to shocking in an area and dip netting, counts as an effort.  It was a lot of thumb work which I was completely unprepared for— I should have played more video games beforehand.

            When we were done with our third site we still had plenty of time to spare so Jeff decided that we should go for a fourth site.  Becca took the shocker for this one and I was on the seine with Jeff.  Working the seine was harder in this stream because it was deep with slick rocks and had a strong current which really pulled on the net.  This was a nicer site and we surprisingly did not get many fish but we kept on going even though it was rough against that strong current.  The site ended up taking about two hours to get it done.  When we got back to the hotel we were told that there was a mix-up and someone had already completed that site (hence the lack of fish), but it’s always good to have more data to compare.  It was a long day so right after eating dinner at the hotel I went back to my room and went to sleep.


Day Eight: The Fish Trip Begins!

June 15, 2015

            I woke up at the usual time to get ready, but because I would be going on a week-long trip to north-western Alabama, I chose not ride my bike to work. I do not trust myself to ride with both a duffle and book bag on my back. So as I waited for my ride get ready, I double checked my gear.

           I got into the office a little before 7:00AM and was instantly sucked into the swirl trip preparation. We had six people from our office going on the trip: Jeff Powell, Andy Ford, Tim Mullet, Drew Rollman, Eric Spadgenske, and myself.  Denise Rowell, Public Affairs Officer, also followed us on her own; she was coming along to get some footage for a video about the Hutton Program and the fish sampling.

            Our fish sampling was to be scored using an Index of Biotic Integrity (IBI).  The Butthatchee watershed is a priority watershed in Alabama because of its diversity, and has been designated a Strategic Habitat Unit (SHU). The IBI scoring of each stream is used to give it a rating based on things like diversity and density of fish species, health of the fish, amount of suitable habitat and others factors. All the stream ratings together can give the scientist a fairly good idea of the health of the watershed as well as giving them a good inventory of the fish that live there. They use that score to monitor the status of the stream and to see if conservation efforts are making a difference.  This type of information can be helpful in a variety of different ways and can be used by a lot of different groups, many of which I found out would be out there with us.

          Along with the people from our office, there were two people coming from the Mississippi Ecological Services Field Office, as well as biologists from the Alabama Power Company, the Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA, including Dr. Patrick O’Neal, one of the authors of Fishes of Alabama), and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).  I was a bit nervous about being able to pull my weight on a team. The teams were a mixture of people from the different organizations and I did not want to reflect poorly on the Alabama Ecological Services Field Office. 
          Once everyone arrived, we met at a site on Luxapalila Creek to do our first sampling. I had a bit of trouble putting on my waders since it was the first time I had ever really worn them, but soon the whole team gingerly scooted into the stream and the sampling officially began.  I was handed a dip net and a jar to voucher fish.  I watched as the more experienced members of the team shocked fish into the seine and did seine hauls.  I help dip net fish when we shocked along the shorelines.  Everyone would crowd around as Jeff and Andy identified the fish and called numbers to the data recorder. As time went on, I felt much better about my ability to contribute to the team.  I was amazed by the variety of fish found in that little creek. 

        Another part of their job become quite apparent—talking to locals and educating them about what we’re doing. About half way through our sampling, a local resident came over to ask about what we were doing. Jeff took the time to stop our collection and climbed out of the creek to talk to him. It is important to keep up good relationships with local landowners and tell them what we are doing.  I’m sure they probably wonder about what all these strange government people are doing in their creek.

       While Jeff was talking to the landowner, we all took a break and Denise interviewed me (and later Andy) for her video.  After he came back, we finished up the last of the sampling and headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up.  We ended the night by eating dinner with other team members. It was an amazing experience, and I couldn’t wait to do it again!


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Day Seven: Gopher Tortoise Scoping--With Purpose

Day Seven: Gopher Tortoise Scoping—With Purpose

June 12, 2015

            I woke up at 5:00 in the morning with no problems and no complaints whatsoever from my legs—they had finally accepted the situation.

I got into the office at around 6:55AM and had time to catch my breath before it was time to head out in the field.  Today I was going out with Josh Rowell, a terrestrial biologist who often deals with the gopher tortoise.   We were going to scope some borrows on a future construction site.  The builder wanted to make sure the threatened gopher tortoise was nowhere to be found before breaking ground.

            We loaded up and headed out to the site to meet the surveyor and his assistant so they could show us the burrows they discovered.  The burrows looked like they hadn’t been occupied in years. Plants and spider webs covered the entrance and there were no new dirt or tracks, but we still scoped them just in case. We found nothing, but I got more experience with the scope and the surveyors got the green light to proceed with the project.

            The surveyors took us on a little tour of the property just so we could see what it was like. It ended up being a nice little walk in a meadow despite the heat and small legion if mosquitos following us—it’s a good thing they do not like how I tasted.

 After our little jaunt, we parted ways with the surveyor and went on to our next destination, which was some land owned by the Mobile Area Water and Sewer Systems. They own the land around Big Creek Lake, which is the city of Mobile’s water supply. They also manage it for longleaf pine and use it as a gopher tortoise conservation area.

We drove deeply into the property and found some burrows. We didn’t scope them.  But I got to see a great example of well-managed longleaf pine.  I had a fun time, and I feel that I improved my skills in recognizing and assessing burrows, which is a skill I never expected.  I went home happy with my short day in the field, and looked forward to the long awaited fish sampling trip on Monday.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Days Three and Four: Gathering Gear/ Gopher Frogs

June 8, 2015
            After a weekend dominated by sleep, waking up at 5:00AM on a Monday was very difficult.  But, I did it and thankfully my legs had stopped complaining. My ride to the office was more pleasant, and after the excitement, I was a little bit relieved that day three was going to be an office day. I got to the office, changed out of my riding clothes and joined my mentor Jennifer to get ready for the day.  We got right to work gathering the things we would need for the fish sampling trip. I helped her pack, unpack, and carry things until there was a good sized pile of gear in Jeff’s office.
As we gathered equipment, she explained the uses of each piece.  She also taught me how to be safe around them, and shared some personal experiences that might help me in the field. The more equipment included the back-pack shocker, jars for preserving fish, labels, a clipboard with data sheets, and various kinds of nets. We had three dip nets and one seine net to be used for the trip.  Unfortunately, they needed mending, and we could not find the twine to repair it.  Being a biologist sometimes means improvising.  So I found an alternative, and I spent what seemed like forever mending those nets.  I must say I think I did a fairly good job.
After lunch we continued to gather the rest of the odds and ends for the trip, we ended up finding the correct twine after the fact. We also compiled a short list of the things we could not find, and Jeff offered to take care of it.   After that, I made travel arrangements because Jennifer would not be going with us on this trip and I needed my own room. We still had awhile before it was time for me to go home, so I studied a book on freshwater mussels so I could prepare for the mussel sampling trip. The next few weeks were going to be action-packed and I was looking forward to it.
Day Four: The Dusky Gopher Frog

June 9, 2015

            After a day in the office, I was excited to be going out in the field again.  So I almost did not notice the sullen pain in my legs as I rode to work bright and early for another day of adventure.  Today I would be going out in the field with biologists Matt Laschet, Dianne Ingram, and Tim Mullet, who usually deal with more terrestrial creatures. However, today they were going out to take a look at some ponds that could potentially be suitable habitat and reintroduction sites for the endangered dusky gopher frog which was thought to be extinct in Alabama. There has not been a sighting of one in years, but they are hopeful that they might return naturally or be reintroduced into ponds.

So we got the gear together that we needed, and Dianne, Matt, Tim and I left the office. The pond’s location is called the Laurendiene property and is owned by the city of Mobile. As we drove down one of the dirt roads on our way to the pond, Matt spotted a freshly dug gopher tortoise burrow on the side of the road.  We all jumped out of the car to take a closer look and see if the tortoise was around. Sadly it was not, so we called one of the property managers and flagged the burrow so no one would accidently run over it. That was pretty exciting because the gopher tortoise is a threatened species that needs longleaf pine habitat to survive and it’s always good to see a new burrow from one.

We drove through the bumpy dirt roads and eventually came to the first pond which resembled the type dusky gopher frogs need to breed and hatch eggs. We got out and Matt waded out into the pond to take the depth measurements.  While we waited, I appreciated the beauty of the area. Dianne identified bird calls and Tim took a recording of the natural sounds for possible use.  Once we were done, we got back into the car and went on to the next pond which was not as suitable as the first.  On the way out, we stopped at a pitcher plant bog. 

Unfortunately, a downpour cut our trip short—that’s Mobile weather for you. We ended up getting back at around 10:20AM and Jennifer really had nothing planned for me. I discovered that paperwork also plays a huge part in biology.  I watched as Jennifer completed paperwork for her Endangered Species Act consultation projects.  It was actually pretty cool. I ended up learning a lot about what they do with the Endangered Species Act, and how they review federal projects to see if they have any impacts on nearby endangered species. If the project has negative effects, biologists propose a way to do the project that would have less or no impact. They determine the possibility of impacts using a combination of Global Information System (GIS) technology, surveys, and prior knowledge.

I spent the rest of the day reading about more fish and mussel stuff and learning a bit about GIS. All in all, it ended up being a fairly productive day despite the interference of the rain, which conveniently stopped in time for me to go home—no catching I cool car ride for me.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Day Two: The Alabama Beach Mouse


June 5, 2015

            On day two, I once again woke up at the crack of dawn.   This time, my legs were complaining about the abuse I had put them through the day before. I ignored them and once again made my way to work, although a bit more slowly this time. Today I was to go in the field with another biologist in the office, Bill Lynn, who is the lead recovery biologist of the endangered Alabama Beach Mouse (ABM). On the dunes of a stretch of Gulf State Park, we checked on some home-made tracking tubes to monitor the ABM population.

The tubes are about two feet of PVC pipe with a cap on the end.  Bill places sunflower seeds inside the cap to entice the mice.  A piece of paper with an ink pad on the end is placed within the tube. The mice climb into the tube and have to walk through the ink to get to the seeds on the other side.  As a result, they eat the seeds and leave their tracks behind. Bill then takes the papers and looks for tracks.  This indicates beach mice are in the area.  He has to go out once a month to replace the paper and seeds.

            It was on one of these monthly trips that I was accompanying him along with another biologist, Dr. Tim Mullet. Tim is a soundscape ecologist and new to the office, so he was coming along to get a feel for beach mouse work.  Around 7:30 in the morning, we were all packed up and on our way to Gulf State Park.  We got to the park and immediately went out onto the dunes, trekking through the shrubbery to recover and record tracking tube usage.  I was able to contribute by recording the findings in Bill’s note book, dating the backs of the collected papers and inking the new sheets.

 It was a hot day out on the sands of the dunes with no shade, and Tim who just moved down from Alaska was having a hard time. But with a little help from a case of water bottles, (that I was carrying in my book bag) we all got through it. After all of the tubes were checked and restocked, we took a much deserved break and went back to the car.  After leaving the site, Bill showed us around Gulf State Park which Tim and I had never really been through before.  The air conditioning was nice!

When we got back to the office I once again reviewed my fishes. The list of species was in no way short and I spent the rest of the day looking up fish to acquaint myself with what I might encounter in the Buttahatchee River next week.  After that, it was time for me to bike home, again, in the scorching sun.  My legs complained all weekend!

Despite the heat, it was such a fun day, and I learned so much about the ecosystem of the sand dunes.  We saw ghost crab burrows, coyote tracks, an osprey, and more plants than I would have ever imagined. It was a great way to end my eventful (if short) first week on the job and it got me pumped for what the coming weeks might hold.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Day One: the Rangia Clam

My first day on the job, I woke up at five in the morning to get ready for the office. When I left the house I was excited, but by the time I got there, I was exhausted. The last three months spent studying for AP tests and finals had not prepared me for the four hilly miles in the summer heat. I somehow made it... even a little early.....which gave me time to catch my breath before my first day officially started at seven in the morning.  What a day it was! My mentor, Andy Ford, immediately put me to work helping him and my other mentor, Jennifer Grunewald, get the boat ready for the trip. Today I was helping them contribute to an international endeavor—not bad for the first day.
            Some researchers from Russia with the Papanin Institute for Biology of Inland Water, in a partnership with the Columbia Environmental Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey, in Columbia, MO were looking at a species of Rangia clam that was expanding into the Baltic Sea. They thought it might be the common Gulf Coast variety Rangia cuneata, but to know for sure they would need some specimens for genetic analysis. So Catherine Richer with USGS called Paul Johnson, with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to help collect some specimens. He is a bit far away from the coast, and needed our help.  So we packed up the things we would need and went down to Mobile Bay to collect some. We departed from the office around 7:30 and drove down to Meaher State Park to launch the boat and collect the eighty individuals that were requested. I was a bit nervous because I had never been on a boat bigger than a canoe before, but decked out in my new water boots and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer hat, I was ready to try it out.

We launched the boat, (a process in which I was unfamiliar) and once on the water, Jennifer brought out the GPS and showed me how to work it.  We were not exactly sure where the Rangia were going to be, but Andy had a pretty good idea. So, he navigated us to a mud flat area in the Upper Mobile Bay along the right descending bank approximately a half mile south of I-10. We dropped anchor and hopped out of the boat into the shallow, but murky water choked with floating algae.  We were lucky that this area was absolutely choked full of Rangia clams. All we had to do was bend over and dig our hands into the muck, and we would come up with handfuls of them. We quickly collected more than the requested eighty clams.  As we collected our samples, we saw a curious visitor.  An alligator approached us to see what we were doing in his territory.  After observing this amazing creature, we decided to take ninety individuals back with us.
           When we returned to the office, Jennifer showed me how to clean and package the clams so they would get to their destination alive and ready for processing. We did not have enough room in the foam shipping box for all the clams, so we only sent eighty-four and returned the rest back into the Bay. Afterwards, we had a lot more time than expected.  So until it was time for me to go, Jennifer gave me a book about the Fishes of Alabama to familiarize myself with some fish taxonomy and identification to prepare for the big fish sampling trip that they had planned in the Buttahatchee River for the week of June 15th.