Post 10: Banding Cormorants - The Last Islands Adventure

Via Jon Krupfl
Tent camping can be brutal, especially in the muggy heat.  That hasn't been a problem for me in Wisconsin yet until last night.  I had woken up at about 9ish, late for a workday but early considering the night's sleep had been punctuated by early morning demands of cormorant observation.  Me and Jon the biotech hung out all day waiting for the evening to come.

When time had granted our wishes, our tri-agency program (Fish and Wildlife Service, Student Conservation Association, and the US Department of Agriculture) had been joined by a fourth, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources! All of the acronyms present!  That evening we met and had dinner together at the Sister Bay Bowl, which in the Wisconsin tradition was attached to a restaurant.  Bonding time over we split up into two groups and were on the water by 10pm to get to the islands by 10:30 or so.  We had our orientation on pilot island (the same island I was in the turkey blind the day before) and we were banding cormorants at around 11pm.  I was assigned to be one of the three wranglers, there were two people who applied the bands to to the birds, and another who handed bands out.

via John Krupfl
We took the island by storm, we started by heading south and we scooped up the cormorants often still sleeping in its nest, held them for a few moments so that the bands could be applied and set them down either back in their nests or within close proximity.  Some of the cormorants were not fond of being disturbed as they slept while others seem to sleep right through the banding process.  Those more active of the bunch went on scratching and biting both my full rain-suit as well as the exposed skin around my wrists. (I have the cuts to prove it!)  Probably around three quarters of the birds that we picked up proceeded to dump liquified excrement over my clothes.  A much smaller number, maybe one in six of the birds would vomit up their dinner, some of the fish were clearly recently swallowed as the fish often lie partially intact on the ground.

The smell of the island wasn't so bad but mostly since I had acclimatized a bit to the scent the day before.  To give you an idea of how much poop their was on the ground, with every step I took I sank a few inches in white cake like poop. What an experience!  I'm almost certain a decent percentage of my olfactory had been burnt off already!  One difficulty we encountered was being swarmed by hundreds of flies whenever we were in an area where something obstructed the wind from blowing.  Each of us wearing headlamps would be magnets making it hard to see, let alone breathe, or speak without swallowing some.

Via John Krupfl
The trip was awesome nonetheless, its quite the experience to knock off the bucket list.  Perhaps even more so when I had found out that a bird banding had been featured on an episode of the television show "dirty jobs"!  Our team had exited the island banding 500 birds, which means I probably wrangled about ~150 birds myself.  Not bad for a first timer!  Due to some watercraft difficulties it took us over an hour on the water to get back.  Honestly I was so happy to just be hydrating again I didn't care that we were stranded for a quarter hour or so in the middle of the night.

We had four hours of sleep that night, again basking in the heat and drove back the next day after packing everything up.  The pain came the next day when we had unpacked all of our gear that still had the stench of cormorant poo! What a week!

These islands trips, particularly this last one, were amazing because of the diversity and remote nature of the islands.  I was able to build on the experience I gained working at Horicon NWR and develop knowledge in areas my time at Horicon NWR never touched on like trail building and bird banding.

Post 9: Letter from a turkey blind - The Last Islands Adventure

I started the week driving out at Green Bay national wildlife refuge off the coast of Door County, WI in lake Michigan with Jon Krupfl the biotech.  We had two goals, to observe the band numbers of cormorants on two islands in the refuge and to band more cormorants the following nights. The day started at around 2:30AM when we met up with folks from the United States Department of Agriculture Research Branch at the University of Mississippi.  A fascinating group made up of a few graduate students and two USDA research biologists.  We woke up so early to get to the island to reduce the amount of birds that leave their nests allowing the nearby gulls who are less afraid of humans who would break the eggs at nests that the cormorants were not guarding.  After running onto the stinky island we each set up a turkey blind on an existing scaffolding and hunkered down until 6am when we would begin our observations.  Armed with a spotting scope, binoculars, a walkie talkie, a poop bucket, and enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to feed an army I sat and waited recording the numbers as I went along.

During the day I couldn't help but admire the birds interacting together.  If you've ever been people watching in any public place, I tend to gravitate towards coffee shops, late nights at Denny's and boardwalks (being from Florida), you would love the ability to watch these birds.  Aside from the surrounding gulls, they have no idea you are there and they go about interacting amongst themselves in a fascinating manor.  The two species of birds (the herring gulls and the double crested cormorants) act so differently.  A seemingly slight majority of cormorants were sitting on their nests made of sticks no thicker than half an inch but often a bit longer longer than a foot for the majority of the day.  Often times they could be found "loafing"(terminology stolen from the data recording sheets we used) either near the shoreline or closer to the colony.  They would stand very still not moving a leg for long periods of time perhaps because their cumbersome bodies don't allow much movement.  Other observations include
  • Herring Gulls would all be covering the area between the colony and the shoreline ~50 feet standing around but each gull a good 5 feet between it or and the next gull.
  • Cormorants feed their young by regurgitating fish they caught
    • It seemed they did this by allowing the young to stick its head into the elders mouth causing a gag action that would cause the contents of the elders stomach to be puked up to be snatched by the young
  • Cormorants would be constantly standing with their heads tilted up at about a 15 degree angle with the horizontal
    • perhaps due to the fact that juvenile cormorants to always be asking (by way of bothering the elder cormorant by bouncing their own beak against their elder) and the elders being really annoyed by it
  • Cormorants nests were clustered usually about 1-2 feet apart often causing them to bark at other cormorants who seemed to be getting close to snatch some hard fought branches from their nest
  • Herring gulls seemed to occasionally have a massive squacking battle as the elder white feathered ones would have territory invaded by younger brown feathered cormorants.  One territorial invasion would call for the sqacking of dozens or even hundreds of others in the area.
The initial plan had us packing up our turkey blinds and exiting the island at around 9pm or sundown to again avoid disturbing to many nesting cormorants.  We ended up leaving at around 3pm due to some bad thunderstorms headed our way which was fine by me.  We had hit the quota for the amount of bands we wanted to record and I was exhausted from sitting in the blind all day.

What a day!

Post 7: Brood Surveys!

Okay, so a "brood" is essentially a family of offspring and in the context that I'm speaking in relates to duck broods.  In order to complete our survey we had to wake up at the crack of dawn minus a few hours to go out on these Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA) when its nice and dark out
side.  These WPA's are tracts of land, typically off refuge land, whose purpose are to breed ducks so that hunters can shoot them for fun during the duck season.  Our goal was to walk out to these open pools of water and wait for a few minutes to find out how many we could see.  Most of the pools of water where we stood a chance of seeing duck broods were far from the road and required us to walk in chest waders through vegetation that sometimes was taller than I was.

We saw very few broods the few days we conducted the survey but it was exciting nonetheless.  I still learned about the different classifications of a marsh's coverage, density, and water level.  I was also surprised by the amazing sunrise over the marsh, who would have thought cattails could look so good!

Post 8: Living in Wisconsin

Weeks ago, when I found out I was going to Horicon for the summer I went google crazy.  I sifted through the internet for hours figuring out what Waupun, WI was.  But all of the Google Street View and Wikipedia articles coudn't prepare me for what life is like in rural Wisconsin.

I learned that if you weren't a farmer, you probably worked at one of the local prisons.  Waupun, a city of ten thousand, has 3 of them and it turns out that its known as the "prison city."  If you didn't work there you might be working at one of the various quarries hidden between the hills.  Either way you probably did most of your grocery shopping at the local Piggly Wiggly or Market Fresh Foods, the only two grocery stores in town.  There is a single McDonald's in town, a brand new Taco Bell and Subway along with a Walgreens.  Otherwise the stores in this town are unrecognizable to someone from South Florida.

Wisconsin is awesome, every morning I wake up at around 6am and get ready to drive no more than 15 minutes to the wildlife refuge.  The road that takes me there is surrounded on both sides by the marsh for a decent part of the trip which adds to the scenic value.  The better part, perhaps the best part is driving directly towards this range of hills just a few miles into the distance.  I get to see an early sunrise against these hills and this marsh, almost every morning.

On top of all this, I've made god friends with Dan at the Family Video and Kevin at Chang Jiangs the local chinese restaurant.  I have enjoyed living in small town America, where numerously the vast majority of cars on the road are in fact American brands and everybody seems to now almost everyone.

Post 7 and 1/2: Exploding Seed Pods

Just got back from a day of seed collecting with folks from the refuge fire department and private lands.  We collected a seed called Lupin or Lupinus, a prarie plant that is an important larval food for many species of butterfly.  The butterfly we were collecting it for was the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly which has a wingspan no longer than about an inch and likes to hang out in prairies full of Lupin, like some of the local Waterfowl Production Areas.

This is what science looks like.
Thanks to Rachel for the photo

Post 6: Adventures Abound in Door County!

Since joining the team at Horicon I've made three trips to the Islands Refuges that we also manage.  The islands refuges are located off of Door County, WI in Lake Michigan very near to Green Bay.  On the mainland we usually stay in a small town called Sister Bay which has under 1,000 residents which is about a four hour drive from our refuge.

Plum Island
I took the first islands trip with Christina, another intern, and Ashley a visitors services staffer.  We went to Pirate and Gravel islands with Sumner Matteson and an old college of his.  Sumner was an avian ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and he was doing research on Caspian turn colonies on the islands and we were to help him survey the nests and count the eggs.  We split into two groups of two and split each island with caution tape.  Each pair had a (nontoxic) paint gun and notebook as one would shout out the numbers of eggs in a nest and the other would record the data.

My favorite part of the trip was our ability to watch the different birds (caspain terns and herring gulls) interact.  The required far more personal space than the terns and often squacked at other birds.  The terns on the other hand were far more civil, standing or sitting on their nests, not moving much, and certainly not saying a whole lot.  The behavioral differences between the two highlight the fact that birds, like humans seem to have cultural differences depending on population.

Plum Island
The second trip to the islands was a single day trip with John Below, the law enforcement officer.  I had gone up with John to support the guides who were giving public tours of our islands at Green Bay NWR.  For this assignment I had to read the Comprehensive Conservation Plan or CCP on Green Bay NWR.  It was a fascinating read, learning about the mute swans who were breeding with trumpeter swans.  This was bad for the trumpeter swans who only recently came lost their "endangered" status because these hybridized swans were incapable of producing offspring.  Otherwise it was great to be able to work on a visitors services project and learn about Jon who had been a peace corp volunteer in Jamaica, the country where my parents were born.  I learned quite a bit talking to him about working with people especially working across a cultural divide.

Plum Island
This most recent trip was by far the most exciting.  A far larger group of us, nearly half the refuge staff including Brad and Shawn from fire, Hallie and a volunteer from visitors services, and Sadie, Rachael, Jon, Christina and me from biology.  Our team had three different objectives but the exciting part about the trip was that we were going to be camping on plum island which was totally removed from society.  No running water or electricity, let alone grocery stores and gas stations. Since we had such a large team and an equally large amount of gear we had taken two trips onto the island by boat.

Back-Country Camping on Plum Island

The big trip's objectives was split essentially along department lines.  The biology was to assist the double crested cormorant observation crew visiting the islands from the USDA.  Unfortunately a heavy fog stopped us from participating in the cormorant observation but it gave me a chance to work with the fire crew on their objective to build a trail for visitors.  Trails typically work entails clearing brush, anything from downed trees to those still standing so that people won't get lost along the route.  We did this work on Plum island which was virtually untouched by human hands but was large enough to support a vibrant ecosystem.  The trail covered the southern coast of the island and it was beautiful to be working along the steep bluff carved out by the centuries.  The visitors services team, set out to plot a trail on another part of the island and find spots to put up interpretive signage.

Post 5:Sumner and the Pelicans

It sounds like a band doesn't it?  Well Sumner is actually an avian ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and a pelican is actually a type of bird.  A few weeks ago during the air boat component of a waterfowl survey we noticed that a massive colony of pelicans had left their marsh island nests.  Me, Jon, Ashley(visitors services), and Sumner had the opportunity to take the air boat onto the refuge and survey some pelicans.  Armed with tally counters and chest waders we descended upon the small island counting nest after empty nest.  We found pelican egg shells littered all over the place without a pelican in sight.  When we arrived at the end of the island we noted that it in fact was only separated by a very shallow bank which would allow a predator to cross easily explaining the abandoned colony.

Flash forward a few weeks later we did a nest count of another more isolated island on the refuge and found hundreds of nests with pelicans to accompany them.  Good news, the pelicans seem to have renested and this years population numbers are saved!

Post 4: What I learned about Horicon National Wildlife Refuge

My first week was one punctuated adventure after another.  The very first day I had met Jon Krupfal, a Biological Technician

at the refuge who had worked at Horicon NWR for twenty years.  I started out, after getting shown around the office and finding my desk, exploring the refuge by truck with him.  We talked about the history of the refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and shared a few good stories.

He explained how the marsh covers about 32,000 acres and is split and managed in the north by the federal Fish and Wildlife service while the south end is managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.  Millions of years ago during the waning years of the ice age, receding glaciers, carved out a shallow bed that was able to hold water enough for the marsh to form.  Its fascinating evidence that taught scientists much about the ice age.  Thousands of years later the refuge was established for the purpose of providing refuge to nesting redhead ducks but has since become a refuge to many other animals specifically many species of migratory bird.
Ice Sheet during Pleistocene Era. Image Via UWGB

Post 3: The Journey to Wisconsin

Google maps puts the drive from my home in Coral Springs, FL to Marsh Haven Nature Center outside of Waupon, WI at just over 1,500 miles in 22 hours. That, with an extra ~2 hours thrown on top to get from Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge (in Sanibel, FL) to Coral Springs.  Reality dictates a maximum of 10 hours of driving a day, with the exception being the first day where we won't hit the road until midday.  My father and I ended up driving in roughly 3-4 hour blocks all the way up, stopping overnight in Gainesville, FL and Louisville, KT.  It was a gloomy drive most of the way up but I enjoyed it.

Highlights include
  • Realizing that the 4G on my T-Mobile phone is far more limited outside of south Florida than I thought
  • Driving through the amazing scenic hills of Tennessee
  • Seeing the words "Welcome to Chicago" from Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, former Chief of Staff during the first Obama White House Administration
  • An awesome traffic jam in Chicago which didn't bother me the slightest since the city skyline was amazing.
  • Having great conversations with my dad about everything from politics to gas prices

Post 2: Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge -- An Orientation in Review

I've had an amazing week here in Sanibel, FL.  Its as if the SCA and FWS had known exactly how much time we needed to spend hearing from experts, working on group projects, and in the field to not only make a great learning gain, but also keep the experience engaging and dynamic for all types of students.  The days followed a regulated structure with interesting ground rules such as, no cell phones during training hours and bonding activities carried out through the day.  The training was structured with the usual icebreaker activities but in such a way that they explained the purpose of our being here and really did kick start us into learning about each others.
The most exciting thing we did on Tuesday following the initial dinner was go kayaking at Tarpon Bay.  It was a great chance for us to learn about the coastal ecosystems that line Florida's west coast.  Fun fact, the intercostal waters are died red due to tannins released from the roots of the mangrove trees.  The same type of substance that turns tea red!

On Wednesday we had a great opportunity to go out into one of the smaller tracts of land that.  We met up with the refuge biologist and a few of the research assistants and walked us through the hiking path checking no-kill rat traps along the way.

Thursday was perhaps the most eventful day.  Toni, a visitors services ranger led us through a fascinating presentation about how the Fish and Wildlife service works with the community to promote conservation.  Interns and staff alike walked the beach together collecting litter and interesting things on the beach as we went along.  Following that was a fascinating presentation on "Cultural and Intergenerational Awareness" by Angela Park.  She talked about how the conservation movement was being starved of diversity and the benefits of having a multifaceted organization were.  What fascinated me the most was her interest and focus on working with people from different backgrounds and how we can approach unfamiliar situations and build positive outcomes.

That night me and a few other CDIP interns got together in the breakfast area of the hotel and started chatting.  We had one of the greatest conversations I've ever had spanning personal life, philosophy, politics, social problems, and environmental issues.  I was so glad to be apart of the conversation that started with three other interns and lasted all night long.

Of course, sleeping so late caused us to require tons of coffee in the morning and throughout the day.  Luckily most of the day covered logistical issues and formalities making it easy for a mind running sleepless to follow.  We ended the day with a dinner on one of the pristine beaches of Sanibel Island.  We all reminisced about the week's experience and positive energy ran through our veins as week looked towards our summer long internship and the experiences yet to come.

Post 1: First Day of Orientation

I started orientation looking lost and stumbling into a hotel conference room knowing I was at least an hour late.  You can typically gauge how lost and how late you are when

   1. People who don't know you volunteer information about your whereabouts for you and

   2. When you walk into the room you belong in the 40 odd people inside all watch in wonder as you stumble over your own bags to find an open seat.

Shortly after walking into the silent room the ice was broken by Emily Poore, a staffer from the Student Conservation Association(SCA).  She came right up to me and said "Hi Zack! Most of us already ate but I put aside some food for you so you can just pull up a seat and eat.  We will be starting shortly."  And just like that orientation begun.

We had some light warm up activities like a massive floor puzzle in which the pieces each reflected an interesting part of some of each of the other interns. Then we had a few speakers from both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the SCA including some basic norms and expectations for the rest of the week.

After the orientation, I went back to my dorm to find out out that my roommate hadn't even landed yet. That night, approaching midnight the sound of the retreating electronic lock made it to my ears.  Moments later I met Phillip, the cause of the sound and the stranger who might change this internship for the better.