Friday, September 28, 2012

“The Best Field Trip Ever”

Students and teachers on the Chehalis River sampling freshwater mussels
and recording data along the shore.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
“This is the best field trip ever!” is what I heard just minutes after arriving to the Chehalis River, before the hunt for freshwater mussels kicked off. Mussel Academy, as this exciting Connecting People with Nature/citizen science program is officially referred to, brought five student groups from Grays Harbor and Thurston County, Washington area schools, both middle and high school. The premise was for class representatives to learn about freshwater mussels and take their new knowledge back to school as “field experts” for their classmates.  
One student uses an "aquascope" to help him search for mussels
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

The Scientist in Us All
Citizen science is an idea that has been adopted by a number of conservation and scientific organizations that allows for citizens, just like you and me, to participate in and contribute to scientific research. On paper it sounds formal, but when taken into the field with a group of intelligent, curious and energetic 12-18 year olds, the idea ignites a passion for natural science that future generations can depend on.

Keeping Science Exciting
On this day, our citizen scientists helped to survey freshwater mussels in the Chehalis River, a biological hotspot for three types of Pacific Northwest freshwater mussels – Floaters, Western Pearlshells and Western Ridged. These freshwater mussels have become a growing interest to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service because they serve as a long term environmental indicator species, or in other words – when they start to go, it’s a sign that other aspects of that environment will follow.  

Kicking off the day, Teal Waterstrat gives an exciting presentation to
the visiting students about the importance of freshwater mussels in
their local river systems.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
To start the day, Teal Waterstrat, Washington Fish & Wildlife Office Fisheries Technician, gave a presentation on freshwater mussels and their importance. With a natural knack for teaching, Teal had the students captivated within the first few seconds. A follow-up presentation offered the students some hands on-training to identify the different local freshwater mussel species, and randomly select plots in the river where they would be collecting, measuring and returning their finds. This classroom away from the classroom was not to be a boring one.

Two students carefully make their way down to our sampling site
on the Chehalis River.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

“Today we are Scientists”
Next, a short, but slightly rugged trail took the group outdoors to our mussel survey site  “Can we skip stones?” one student asked while waiting for a pair of waders to keep himself dry across the 20 yard stretch of river water that would lead us to the survey site. “Today, we are scientists,” answered Kathy Jacobson, Chehalis Basin Project Coordinator and co-lead for the day’s trip. Skipping stones would have to be for after work. What I soon observed, however, is that skipping stones quickly became an afterthought; this didn’t seem much like work at all.

A team effort between students and teachers to collect baseline data
 will help future freshwater mussel research.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

From Student, to Teacher
There wasn’t an absent smile on the river as students one-by-one splashed their arms down into the water, triumphantly pulling out palm-sized mussels for sampling. I watched as they marched piles of mussels retrieved from their plots back and forth to their classmates who were busy measuring and recording data on the shore. After a couple hours of searching and recording, counts of about 400 total freshwater mussels coincided with the days end. Students, sad to leave the river, carefully returned the mussels to their plots, ready to take what they learned back to their schools where they would then become the teachers. This day, acting as scientists on the Chehalis River gave students the opportunity to have fun in nature, but also helped create baseline data for future freshwater mussel monitoring. Best field trip ever? I’d sure say so.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

From Interpretive to Interactive

A view of Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge. This will be
one location for an interpretive sign on the medial trail.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

I hope after my recent blog entry on technology and nature (for those of you who missed it), you are all feeling a bit more confident about the future of technology and our connection to the natural world. For one U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Wildlife Refuge this connection is about to reach a new level. Through a Connecting People with Nature grant, Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge, home to the endangered Columbian White-tailed Deer, is about to pioneer an all new interpretive media trail which will transform guests’ visits into interactive journeys. This past week, my supervisor Nancy and I took a trip west along the Columbia River to the refuge and learned a little more about this new innovation.

Reviewing one of the old signs, where a soon to be interactive media sign
will be placed.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
A New Era of Learning
Upon our arrival to the refuge, we met up with the masterminds behind the operation, Nancy Holman, Visitor Services Manager of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Complex and Blu Chaney, summer intern with the Student Conservation Association for a crash course overview on the media trail project. Still in the drafting stages, they explained that QR codes (barcode like images that can be scanned by smartphones to send users to specific links) would be included on interpretive signs in five locations around the refuge. A scan of each QR code with a capable device (like iPhones or Android phones) would send users online to varying virtual sections of the trail, allowing them to interact with photos, videos, links, or narrations from refuge workers and biologists. These supplemental media guides will allow users to learn about the refuge and its history, while gaining an overview of wildlife they could potentially spot through a vibrant and exciting angle. In addition, "Wanderer Packs" which include tools like binoculars and hard copies of the QR coded presentations are available for check-out from the refuge and nearby businesses for visitors to use! This evolution from a single standing interpretive sign to a more engaged interaction will open up new windows for education and provide an opportunity for visitors to achieve a refuge experience like never before.

A Sneak Peak
After learning about the interactive signs, we hit the trail to get a feel for the potential locations of the 5 signs. Each location offered a pristine view of the refuge, while each media “chapter” focused on a different aspect of the refuge from significance in the journeys of Lewis & Clark, importance of the Columbian White-tailed Deer, and a celebration of women in conservation through the life of Julia Butler Hansen.

A Columbian White-tailed Deer spotted on Tenashillahe Island!
Credit: Blu Chaney/USFWS
Hitting Tenasillahe Island
Later in the day, after lunch at a local pizza shop in the small town of Cathlamet, Washington, we met up with Refuge Manager, Joel David, for a boat trip along the Columbia River to Tenasillahe Island to visit the last potential media trail stop. This was, believe it or not, my first time actually on the Columbia. A number of Columbian White-tailed Deer are transferred to this island to allow them a more private and safe habitat. Joel, however, informed us that the deer have been known to make the swim to and from the island without human help! After a bit of wandering, a single deer finally peeked its head out of the brush to assess what we four humans were doing snooping around their island. It made its getaway well before we were able to get close, but it was a great sight to see nonetheless.

Departing by boat from Tenasillahe Island, along
the Columbia; where deer have been known to swim.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
The First of Many
With our overwhelming dependence on technology these days, this media trail represents the perfect balance between tech and nature. Visitors can come to the refuge and use technology to learn much more than they would be able to on their own, tech-free. And to offer a similar experience to those who do not have the proper technology – the media trail will also be virtually accessible online for visitors to check out from home or public computers before or after visits to Julie Butler Hansen NWR! Though this media trail is still in the planning stages, I am positive this interactive and wonderful use of technology will soon be seen incorporated into National Wildlife Refuges across the nation! An anticipated completion date for the media trail is in January of 2013, so stay tuned for your chance to make a visit to the beautiful refuge, spot some Columbian White-tailed Deer and pioneer this exciting and unique use of technology and nature!

Friday, September 7, 2012

On the Right Path

Marjay snorkeling for fresh water mussles
Credit: USFWS
Marjay Taylor discovered his love for nature in fourth grade. As a student at King Elementary School in Portland, his class took a trip to The Oregon Zoo for a sleepover and was given the opportunity to also feed the animals. When asked about his favorite part of nature, Marjay states, “interacting with wildlife and the outdoors.” This summer, Marjay has done all of this and more as part of his internship with U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s Fishery Resources division.

The Field Experience
Before his senior year at David Douglas High School, Marjay was offered this summer internship after a job shadow with USFWS Assistant Regional Director, Mike Carrier. Though Marjay understands that the “office side of work” is just as important to his future, he feels his internship with the Service has given him a chance to gain hands-on experience and find an even better insight into his future. As for his chance to get outdoors, Marjay says with a smile: “it made this internship one hundred times better than being in the classroom. It showed me that being in the field is the greatest thing in the world.”

Spawning at Little White Salmon National
Fish Hatchery
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
In the few weeks Marjay has been working with Fishery Resources he has spawned steelhead salmon at Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery, where he also worked with a United Cerebral Palsy group during a fishing day; he snorkeled for freshwater mussels, and took on the role of the National Wildlife Refuge System’s famous Blue Goose at the 100th Anniversary Girl Scouts Celebration in Albany, Oregon.(Check out Marjay as the Goose!)

A Day-in-the-Life
Marjay is no stranger to a fast-paced and active lifestyle. In addition to his time spent in the field with the Service, a typical day in Marjay’s summer involves waking up at 6:00 a.m. to spend some time in the USFWS Regional Office before heading off to football training from 3:00-6:00 p.m. After training, which sometimes requires him to run 8+ miles, or wear four layers of clothing to work out in a 100+ degree room, he heads home for dinner (and has been known to eat as many as three chicken teriyaki sub sandwiches to stay energized). The following day his routine is much the same though he transitions between his Service internship and another with The Oregonian.

Showing Pacific lamprey ammocoetes at the Girl Scout
100th year anniversary celebration.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

Career Pathways
After high school, Marjay hopes to attend college, but his extreme adventurousness drives him to also attend school abroad at James Cook University in Australia studying and swimming with Great White Sharks. He also hopes to travel to South Africa to see Great Whites breaching.  

With a warm and outgoing personality, strong work ethic, and passion for nature, Marjay has been a great addition to the Service this summer. We are all hoping to one day find him in a career with the Service, getting to do what he loves – interacting with wildlife.