Friday, October 21, 2011

Blazing Trails in Conservation

Roughly 75 years ago, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, U.S. citizens realized that changes to the current system needed to be made -- big changes. One major reawakening that people across the nation had at this time was that our resources are finite. In order for these resources to be around for generations to come, the stage had to be set on how to correctly manage and protect our environmental heritage.

Probably the greatest mover and shaker at this time was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who enacted his New Deal program and with it the Civilian Conservation Corps. to provide jobs and help rebuild our broken country. A lot of the work done by the CCP dealt with the restoration and beautification of America's public lands including State and National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and National Forests. FDR knew that in order to establish fundamental standards of healthy habitat management and conservation in America, research must first be done to answer the question as to how to do so.

That brings us to present day here at the Patuxent Research Refuge, the first and only Refuge established for research out of the over 550 National Wildlife Refuges across the country. Last week, this trail blazing refuge celebrated its 75th anniversary as did many other ground breaking conservation organizations right around this time such as the National Wildlife Federation, Missouri's Conservation Federation, and Virginia's State Park system, among many others. As said in Missouri a quarter of a century ago, wildlife were on the decline and it was time to "Bring 'em Back." And so began the hard work of scientists and conservationists who have played such a crucial role in reestablishing our nation's wildlife and habitat.

During Patuxent's 75th anniversary celebration, I had the honor of hearing personal recollections told by some of these trail blazers in conservation. Chandler Robbins, was one of them. Chan's career with Patuxent has lasted 68 years and counting. He has taken part in everything since the development of bird banding, to the establishment of North American flyways (migration routes), and the composition of some of the first field guides that included bird calls, to studies on Albatross at Midway Atoll, to revealing findings on DDT, you name it!

Little do people know, but many of the habitat management techniques utilized across the globe, as well as ground breaking research on pesticides such as DDT - started here at Patuxent. Rachel Carson may have woke up the world to the impacts of DDT, but the research that proved the harmful effects of the pesticide was done here, by using some of the least expected guinea pigs - earthworms.

Patuxent scientists were able to prove the biomagnification effect of DDT by depositing the pesticide in plots of soil where colonies of earthworms were inserted and removed periodically. The result - amounts of DDT origially deposited in the soil were several times less than traces of DDT accumulated in the earthworms and this only magnifies more as it continues to go up the food chain. Some of the most well known impacts of DDT were observed by our national symbol - the Bald Eagle.

As DDT worked it's way up the food chain, it impacted eagles and other birds of prey by causing their eggshells to thin an ultimately not hatch. This sent the Bald Eagle on a steady decline, but with the help of Patuxent scientists and the publishing of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", DDT was outlawed and action was set in motion to restore Bald Eagle populations in the U.S. As a result, Bald Eagles have been removed from the endangered species list demonstrating our nation's evolution in conservation.

This is just one example of the remarkable impacts Patuxent scientists have had on the field of conservation. Other success stories include reestablishment of wild populations of the endangered Whooping Cranes and the use of ultralight planes to guide the birds on migration routes. Establishing power line right of ways that reduce forest fragmentation and provide habitat and foraging opportunities for wildlife. Developing telemetry studies to track populations of grey wolves and their predator/prey relationship with white-tailed deer in northern Minnesota. Determing the impact of lead poisoning on waterfowl, California Condors and a variety of other species from toxic shot, lures, and other deposits in our waterways. The list goes on and on and more research continues to be carried out to reveal discoveries and find solutions to the perplexing enviromental issues of today.

I feel so lucky to be at a Refuge with such a rich history and hearing about all of these profound careers that started at Patuxent makes me feel even more confident about the direction I'm heading in. I am currently blazing my own trails, not so much through reasearch, but by molding the bright minds of youngsters who may one day grow up to be the researchers and conservationists of tomorrow.

As the Baba Dioum quote on a wall in the National Wildlife Visitor Center reads:

In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we've been taught.

Teaching kids to wander into the woods and develop their sense of place in the natural world through keeping a nature journal or by participating in the Junior Duck Stamp program may be the first steps on their path to discovering solutions to evironmental issues currently affecting our planet. Perhaps one of our young visitors at Patuxent will go on to find a way to control the effects of acid rain on brooke trout species living in Appalachian Mountain streams - a place where thousands have blazed trails instilling in themselves a love and respect for nature. While I may not be able to conquer such a feat, I continue to blaze my own trail each day discovering new biking and hiking paths, freeing my mind to the constraints of society, and determining which path to take next as I continue on my journey.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Miss Mandy! Miss Mandy! Look what we found!"

This past month, joyful cries of children have been ringing in my ears. Here at Patuxent, children in nature is a top priority and that is what I devote the majority of my time and energy to. From Nature Tots to Eagle Scouts, we cater to them all.

My experiences here have ranged from puppet shows, to Girl Scout birding workshops and Boy Scout forestry workshops, to flipping over logs in search for bugs with 5-7 year-olds, to creating honey bee crafts for hundreds, just to name a few. Although it may sound like all play and no work, teaching children to get dirty can be tricky at times.

Unlike school teachers who are assigned a single grade, Patuxent is a "one room schoolhouse." Our students vary from toddlers to old timers, but no matter what their age, they all come here hoping to learn something new. As interpreters and naturalists, we must learn how to ensure that our visitors have the best experience possible and come back yearning for more.

To complicate this equation, wildlife do not always cooperate with the interpretive programs we have in mind for our visitors. For example, rarely does a day go by on the Refuge that you do not see a Canada Goose, but for my coworker's "Silly Goose" program, the resident geese decided that they would indeed be silly and not show up at all. So what do you do when the wildlife you plan on observing is nowhere to be found? You look for evidence, in this case, scat (the technical term for goose droppings).

How about when your local bright eyed and bushy tailed squirrel residents on the refuge decide not to appear for their debut when any other day they are constantly scampering about. You look under an oak tree and search for their food source, acorns. For younger children, scat and acorns are just as exciting as the animals they are associated with, but older generations are not as easily impressed.

So, how do you keep pre-teen and teenage Girl Scouts awake on a Sunday morning for birding lectures when they'd rather be sleeping in 'til noon? If all else fails, make a fool out of yourself. Run across the room with mounted birds pretending they are swooping through the air in search for a bite to eat and you are guaranteed to get their attention or at least crack a smile.  

As the Scout motto says, "be prepared." Cram your brain with as much random and interesting facts as possible, because you never know when that knowledge may come in handy. This is especially true as a tram tour interpreter. Unlike a zoo, wildilfe on the Refuge are not kept in cages. They are in their natural habitat and appear at random. Also, unlike your average guided tour, there are no specific stops along the way during a Patuxent Research Refuge tram tour. You have to make due with what comes along and sometimes that isn't much. That's when creativity is key.

These are skills that come with patience and practice which is exactly what I am working towards. I've rambled through the Wildlife Refuge System both on foot and on wheels. I've crawled through crevices in the Devil's Ice Box Cave at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park as a volunteer interpreter. I've grasped the attention of young and old and have been stumped by those half my age and those double my age more than a time or two. No matter how many times I travel the same path, I learn a new lesson with each hike I lead.

Nothing beats seeing the faces of children light up when they've cornered a frog, captured a flying insect in a net, gazed at bald eagle soaring above through binoculars for the first time, or opened their eyes to the mushrooms covering the forest floor. No matter how old you are the wonders of wildlife never cease to amaze us and I am fortunate enough to get the chance to help people discover the beauty of nature each and every day.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sketching the Seasons

"Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend stretches of time just searching and dreaming." - Edward O.Wilson, Naturalist
During one of my last days at Minnesota Valley, I was helping my supervisor, Judy, sort through some new shipments that came in of books and videos to add to the resource library. While doing so, I stumbled across this book called "Keeping a Nature Journal" by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth. I started flipping through the pages and found myself unable to put the book down. Lucky for me, a copy of the book was available in the Blufftop Bookshop.

Ever since I can remember, I've always kept a journal, but no one had really ever gave me any guidance as to how to use it. Like a typical child, I spilled out my feelings then ripped out the pages when I thought my mom had read them from time to time. I regret that I didn't keep all of them together so I could refer back to them later. I've gotten better as I've gotten older, but how I wish that someone would have told me when I was a little girl off exploring in the woods and climbing trees that there was a way for me to capture all of those precious moments in a book that I could keep with me always.

Unlike my recently passed grandmother who held dearly to all of her written memories from childhood to adulthood which are now compiled in her book "From Georgia Peach, To Missouri Mule," my memoirs are scattered about here and there or worse, forgotten all together. Luckily, there's still time for me to get my act together and keep it all in one central location, a nature journal.

The summer after my junior year in high school, I was accepted into a weeklong Conservation Honors Program at the University of Missouri in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Conservation. This program first introduced me to nature journaling and was one of the biggest turning points in my life, ultimately leading me down the path of becoming the naturalist I was born to be.

My dad has fond memories of me as a child packing up my bookbag and heading out into the woods, not to return until hours later. We lived in a fairly rural area so I didn't have the luxury of neighborhood kids to play with and my sister, 3 and a half years older than I, had a lot of other things on her plate like sports, gymnastics, and dance. The woods and fields behind our house was my playground and the neighborhood dogs and cats and eventually my 4-H bunnies were my friends. I remember doing a lot of writing and drawing, but where all of those ammature sketches ended up is a mystery.

The Conservation Honors Program was the first time I was formally introduced to nature journaling. We were each given a small, unlined, spiral bound notebook called "Nature Notes" produced by MDC. We were responsible for recording all of our field observations in the notebook, just like real biologists, and were also given journal assignments each night reflecting our readings from Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac." I still have the notebook today, but haven't done much with it since, because I didn't fully understand the concept of nature journaling until now.

Nature journals are not meant to be formal as ours were during Conservation Honors Program. They are also not meant to be kept like a personal diary. Nature journals are a tool for channeling your interpretation of the natural world around you and developing your sense of place in that environment. There is no structure that you must follow, no critiquing by others, no grades. They are for your own personal use, to help enhance the view of your everyday surroundings and intensify the beauty of the simplest to the most beautiful places and life on earth.

As I explore this new concept, I am also exploring a new place. A week ago, I set out on yet another journey to my next assignment as an environmental education/interpretation intern at the Patuxent Research Refuge National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel, MD. They call this area the golden triangle, because it sits smack dab in the middle of Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Annapolis. And boy, has it been a trip so far.

My dad is originally from Alexandria, VA, right outside of D.C. so he joined me on my relocation back to his roots. We were delayed at first by both an earthquake and hurricane Irene that hit the east coast, but we finally made it, safe and sound -- despite the current monsoon-like rain I'm currently experiencing. Unlike Minnesota, I have family close by that I never get to see and am finally able to spend some time with. So far I've gotten to see both my uncle David, who is my dad's identical twin, and my cousin Kristy, one of my uncle's daughters. I've experienced traffic, the metro, and the solitude of the Refuge in the heart of it all.

Patuxent is different from other refuges due to the fact that it has "research" in its title. It was established in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and is the only research refuge in the entire refuge system. Important findings on DDT were discovered here, dwindling populations of whooping cranes were brought back from extinction, and much, much more! The visitor center is also different from other refuges because it is a National Wildlife Visitor Center. So instead of just local environmental issues and happenings, exhibits in the NWVC feature both nation wide and world wide concerns and habitats. Also, like Minnesota Valley, Patuxent is one of the few urban refuges within the Refuge System which means tons of visitors, events, and school groups are constantly coming and going.

Interns are heavily relied on in the visitor services program and I was put right to work as soon as I arrived. By the end of my second day, I had already put on two puppet shows with another intern about a migrating Ruby Throated Hummingbird and the animals she meets on her journey south for the winter. Both my coworker and I are responsible for putting on two programs each month, opening and closing the VC, registering visitors for all programs, helping out at events like Honey Harvest Festival and our 5k coming up next weekend. We also host scout groups and fill in wherever else we are needed. Eventually, we'll even be responsible for giving tours on the all electric tram that rides through the Refuge.

Thanks to my new found hobby of nature journaling, I will be putting on a program in October called "Sketching the Seasons" for 8-10-year-old children. It's all been very exciting so far and I am looking forward to the upcoming events. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, I keep my nature notes by my side to remind me that no matter what, there is always time to sit down and sketch the seasons.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ramble on!

Wet hike at Rapids Lake Unit.
Photo by Christine.
One of my duties as a Park Ranger cadet is to lead family-friendly wildlife observation hikes called “Refuge Rambles.” I create a different theme for these hikes each week and give people a little educational lesson before taking them out exploring every Sunday afternoon. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with the hikes so far, but have had mostly positive results.

The first hike I lead was about mammals. I called it “Neither Hide nor Tail.” I got the idea in my head to lead a hike about mammals from the taxidermied woodchuck that sits on our information desk in the visitor center. He’s not the correct stance to be in the display for our exhibits, but he's a great conversation starter for our visitors mainly because of the funny look on his face with his buck teeth sticking out. People almost always think he’s a beaver or a gopher, but he’s actually a woodchuck, which is also called a groundhog. I found this out the hard way after a Park Ranger told a visitor that he was a groundhog and I piped up and said “I thought he was a woodchuck?” only to be informed by the Park Ranger that a groundhog and a woodchuck are the same animal. Some Park Ranger cadet I am...

In addition to our woodchuck friend at the information desk, there are lots of other small – medium sized mammals on the Refuge that are commonly confused for being one another, but if you look closely, neither their hide nor their tails are the same. The woodchuck unlike the beaver, has a short bushy tail and is the largest member of the squirrel family. Also unlike the beaver, the woodchuck builds dens near buildings, usually around steps or other structures. They build an extensive tunnel system which is used by other critters such as rabbits and raccoons. Rather than chucking wood, woodchucks prefer to eat green vegetation, especially dandelions, and can be found climbing small trees to eat the green buds in the spring.

Another mammal that we see a lot of on the Refuge is the muskrat. Both the muskrat and the beaver are part of the rodent family and both build dens, but neither their hide nor their tails are the same. Muskrats are much smaller than beavers and while their tails are also flat and covered by scales like the beaver’s, muskrat tails are long and narrow rather than flat. I brought animal pelts along on the hike to show visitors the difference between the mammals. Muskrat fur is probably the softest of all the pelts I had. Muskrat pelts were historically very sought after during the time of the fur trade. Today, hunting and fishing regulations help protect the muskrat.
Bull snake constricting a 13-lined ground squirrel on our front doorstep! Photo by Christine.
Other pelts I brought along were river otter, mink, weasel, and finally a pocket gopher and a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. The last two pelts were to show that the University of Minnesota’s gopher mascot is actually a combination of a gopher and a ground squirrel. Even the U of M has trouble getting their hides and tails straight. Go Squirrel-Gophers!

Unfortunately, I don’t get a huge turnout for my hikes so I have gradually put less and less energy into developing them. My recent hikes have been a lot less formal than my previous hikes, but still fun and educational. While I love being around people and don’t have much trouble talking in front of crowds, these hikes have been intimidating, especially after my first experience froggin’ around.
Grey Tree Frog door greeter at bunkhouse. Photo by Christine.

My second hike was on frogs, which I am not very knowledgeable about. I borrowed the information for the hike from another intern who works at the Rapids Lake Education and Visitor Center by the bunkhouse that I live in. Apparently, he knew a lot about frogs while I had very little knowledge about them and attempted to teach myself and others in the few short days that I had time to prepare. Needless to say, things didn’t turn out so well. 

The plan was to bring nets and an aquarium on our hike so that we could collect frogs or whatever else we could find along the way, but the frogs didn’t cooperate and my fellow hikers were not pleased. One older woman criticized me to the point where I felt I needed to start thinking about a change in career while the mom and her two-year-old daughter who joined us were too worried about getting their shoes muddy to step off the trail and search for frogs. Heaven forbid they track mud through the Mall of America where they planned to go afterwards.  
Donnie hiking with us on the Long Meadow Lake Trail.
Photo by Christine.
My self-esteem was a little shot down after that, but luckily one of the volunteers at the Refuge has taken me under his wing for the summer. His name is Donnie and he joins me on each and every one of my hikes to help answer questions and keep people entertained. He is a wealth of knowledge and I’d be lost without him. The past couple of weeks, Donnie, the volunteer, brought his spotting scope along on our hikes which allowed us get an up close and personal view of wildlife we saw on the Refuge. 

Another hike I lead had a waterfowl theme. Prior to working at Minnesota Valley, I had an internship at Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. My boss, Tim Haller, was responsible for coordinating the Missouri Junior Duck Stamp program with my assistance. So, I am fairly knowledgeable about waterfowl. Plus, Minnesota Valley has a plethora of taxidermied waterfowl they like to call “ducks on a stick.” Just in case the waterfowl were as scarce as the frogs on my previous hike, I made sure to bring out the ducks on a stick so even if we didn’t see any waterfowl on the refuge, people would at least get a good view of the birds.

Snapping turtle at our bunkhouse. Photo by Christine.
To my surprise, the waterfowl living on the Refuge turned out to be right on cue. As soon as we got to the wetland on our hike, we saw movement in the water and luckily, Donnie was able to zoom right up on what we were seeing with his spotting scope. Very rare to see this time of year was a female hooded merganser and a trail of ducklings following behind her. No sooner did she swim away before a wood duck and its babies came swimming past. In addition to this waterfowl action, the egrets on Long Meadow Lake were thick and at one point in time a great blue heron came swooping in. Before we headed back we saw on a turtle on a log that appeared to be doing some calisthenics with one of his back legs. The up close view with the spotting scope showed us that rather than doing a yoga pose, the poor little guy was trying to shake a leach off his leg that just wouldn’t come unstuck. One of his turtle friends attempted to help his comrade but couldn’t figure out how to get up on the log.

My last hike was a success as well. This past Friday the other visitor services intern that we have been expecting to join us at the dorm finally arrived all the way from North Carolina. So this time, I had not only my regular helper Donnie join me on my hike but another friendly face as well. Best of all I had a frog expert leading my hike this time.

Christine holding Crayfish.
The Saturday before my herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) theme hike, I went out to catch a few frogs so I would definitely have some to share this time in case we didn’t run into any on the hike. As I was walking out the door I asked an inquisitive little boy and his mom that were in the visitor center if they wanted to join me. They ecstatically agreed to help out and help they did. Alex, the little boy, caught five baby American toads to use for show and tell during my hike and asked if it was O.K. if he could lead the hike the next day. Any reason to take me out of the hot seat is fine by me, so I told me that he sure could. 

It was nice not being the center of attention for a change and both Alex and the wildlife helped with that. On our herpin’ hike we caught even more baby American toads as well as two adult toads, a garter snake, and a crayfish. In the middle of all the excitement, two white-tailed deer came strolling almost right up to us. It was a sight so see. Everyone left with a smile and I was able to let out a sigh of relief.
Peregrine Falcon released on refuge after rehabilitation from injury.
Photo by Chirstine.

Despite some struggles that I had along the way, everything seems to be coming into full circle now. I’ve got to see a lot of Minnesota thanks to some friendly locals and friends and family that have came to visit. Over my 4th of July weekend, my mom came to visit with a friend for a few days. We stayed in Rochester and biked and tubed along the Root River one day and the Zumbro River the next, biking about 50 miles total over the weekend. All in all, I’ve had a good experience here in Minnesota and I’m glad that things are finally looking up. 

Great Spangled Fritillary
Photos in Butterfly Garden by Christine. Bottom: Red Admiral posed on Purple Cone Flowers. 
I've also gone on hikes on my days off with both Donnie and Warren another volunteer. Warren is a retiree who is very active in the nonprofit organization Earth Watch. He travels around the world helping the environment in a variety of ways through Earth Watch Expeditions. This week Warren took the new intern and I to the the Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area on one of our days off where we hike around and identified wildflowers. With Warren's help, I plan on leading a wildflower walk for my last hike before I vacation back to Missouri for 10 days. 'Til next time I’ll keep rambling on!      
Warren and I at the Grey Cloud Dune SNA with the Mississippi River at our backs.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Deciphering MN

Happy 4th of July! For the first time since I can remember, I am not spending my independence day celebrating Tom Sawyer Days in Hannibal. I have to admit, I kind of miss it. You can't beat Hannibal's 4th of July celebration. To make up for my absence in Hannibal, my mom and her friend are paying me a visit. We will be spending the next few days biking along and tubing down the Root River in southern Minnesota. Having their company is like having a little piece of home here with me, but it's not enough to cure my homesickness.

I thought those would be the last words coming out of my mouth this summer, but this internship hasn't turned out to be everything I expected. It has been a struggle to adjust to my surroundings and at the same time I am having an internal battle trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I also haven't made a lot of friends here, which has made deciphering MN that much more difficult.

While juggling all these things, I have to remain professional at all times. Living and working on a Refuge that sees such a high volume of visitors constantly puts me in the public eye. This will only continue to increase as people flock to the Refuge this summer as an alternative to the state parks which are currently closed due to the Minnesota government shutdown.

Ultimately, this internship is just one more thing I can chalk up as experience. Now I know better than to rush into things before considering my options and I want to make sure that I don't make that same mistake again. After my internship is over, I hope to spend a little time reflecting on life somewhere closer to the people that really matter to me. This time around, instead of focusing on MN the state, I will be deciphering MN the person -- Mandy Noel.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Busy Bee

When I first moved here I had plenty of time on my hands to keep this blog up to date, but that obviously hasn’t been the case during the past few weeks. My introductory and training days are over and now I’ve gotten into the full swing of things. Not to mention I don’t have internet access at the bunkhouse which makes updating this blog a tad difficult. Regardless, I would still like to keep people posted as little or as often as I can.

After a lonely week of having the entire bunkhouse to myself, I now have four other roommates. Three of the guys are from Minnesota so they usually leave me home alone on the weekends, but last Saturday another girl moved in who is from California so I will finally have someone to keep me company on the weekends. The two guys that share a room here were actually lab partners at Stevens Point in Wisconsin and didn’t realize they would be living and working together until they moved in! I guess it is a small world after all.

Speaking of it being a small world, get this! Last Saturday when I was working at the Bloomington Visitor Center, a guy walked up to the information desk and started asking questions about the trails. I noticed he had a University of Missouri hat on so I asked him if he went there. He said that he did and I told him that I went to Columbia College. Then he started talking about his summer job which dealt with him traveling to different airports and working on towers. His description sounded very similar to my friend’s boyfriend’s job. They both go to MU also so I asked the guy if he knew them and he did. Turns out I had actually met the guy who was in the visitor center at my friend’s house in Columbia, small world indeed.

Despite my lonesome weekends, I have been keeping pretty busy. My work days are typically jammed pack from the moment I walk in door. Since the Bloomington Visitor Center is in such in urban setting, the constant incoming of visitors and school groups keeps our hands’ full. Luckily, I really enjoy keeping busy, especially with the type of work I get to do. When I’m not working at the information desk with other staff and volunteers (who have been as entertaining as the job itself), I get to help out with interpretive and educational programs on the Refuge and at the Refuge Partner Schools. So far I’ve helped kids learn how to dip net for macro invertebrates, navigate around the Refuge using a compass, and bird watch among other things.

Yesterday we had two school groups come to the Refuge for bird watching activities. We also had a heat advisory all day and after trekking through trails and the woods with groups of 4th and 6th graders I was pretty worn out. Even though these groups of kids were only a few years apart in school, their level of interest was drastically different. The 4th graders were so excited to be in the woods looking for birds that I had trouble keeping up with them while the majority of the 6th graders could care less about birds and didn’t dare venture off the path in fear that they might get a tick. Two 6th grade boys were falling so far behind I had to tease them that they must not play sports or be very good athletes since they couldn’t keep up and even that didn’t work very well. They admitted that they were lazy. I guess that’s hormones for you.  

In addition to helping the visitor services staff with their programs, I also have a few projects of my own. Every Sunday afternoon I lead family friendly hikes called Refuge Rambles. Each week I develop a new theme for the hike. Last week my program was called “Neither Hide nor Tail.” During the hike I explained the difference between woodchucks (a.k.a. groundhogs), beavers, muskrats, otters, and minks. I had pelts available to show that neither the hides nor the tails of these animals are the same and pointed out spots along the trail that these animals might be found. A family of muskrats has been really active near a lookout point of the wetland on the Refuge. A volunteer and I saw an adult muskrat carrying its babies through the water one day and I was banking on us seeing a muskrat during the Refuge Ramble. Unfortunately I didn’t have a big turn out for my program but I did bump into plenty of people along the trails. I was able to show them the pelts and explain the difference between the mammals so it worked out well.

Some other projects that I have in the works are developing geocaching on the Refuge, leading a bicycle friendly wildlife observation tour of the Refuge, and providing an online outlet for Refuge visitors to upload their pictures. All of my ideas were accepted by the Visitor Services Specialist, which was a great feeling, and hopefully they will all be a success!

On my days off I have been spending a lot of time relaxing, biking, and figuring out what I want to do next with my life. I have been watching USA jobs closely and so far I’ve applied for a visitor services job with the Forest Service that did not have a specified location and an education technician at Rock Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado. I’m also looking into getting my masters’ in environmental education perhaps through the Peace Corp.’s Masters International program. The only two schools that have a master’s program for environmental education through Masters International are Stevens Point in Wisconsin (where some of my roomies go to school) and Colorado University in Boulder. Both of these are ideal locations so I will definitely be looking into them and possibly a SCEP position if I’m lucky.

For those of you that aren’t aware of what Masters International is, it’s basically a program sponsored by the Peace Corp. that allows you to begin your master’s program, and then commit to two years of the Peace Corp. while working on projects dealing with your master’s/thesis. After completing your two years of service, you then return to finish your masters program. I’ve always wanted to live in another country, specifically Latin America, but any country would do, to help those in need and really make a difference in people’s lives. It would be fantastic if I could do all of that while getting my master’s.

Another program that would be great to be nominated for if I go on to get my master’s is the SCEP or Student Career Experience Program. This program allows you to work for a government agency while completing your degree then almost guarantees you a position within that agency upon completion of your degree. I’m not sure if I could do both the SCEP and Masters International, but we’ll see what happens and I’ll be sure to keep you posted on what comes next.   

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Backyard

Check out what my backyard a.k.a. the Rapids Lake Education and Visitor Center looks like!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Little House on the Prairie

My life has changed drastically in the past few weeks. At the beginning of the month I graduated from Columbia College with a B.A. in environmental studies and did not skip a beat before leaving my quaint apartment in Columbia, Mo. and returning for a short time to my childhood home in Hannibal, Mo. For quite awhile now I have been itching for some new scenery and to be on my own putting my degree to use. 

Throughout my last semester I searched for jobs all over the country from the Redwood Forests to Cape Cod to the Florida Keys. Luckily, the opportunity to travel out of my comfort zone arose after a successful interview for a visitor services internship at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge which is located in and around the Twin Cities. Since I found out I landed the position several months ago, I have been dying to get up here and now that I have finally arrived, I am beginning to see that life here is everything I had hoped for and more.

Thanks to my loving and supportive parents who joined me on my trek up country, I am now officially moved in to my summer bunkhouse on the Rapids Lake unit of the Refuge or what I like to call the "little house on the prairie." Minnesota Valley is a very unique refuge. The bunkhouse is on a more remote part of the Refuge, but the visitor center that I work at in Bloomington on the Long Meadow Lake unit is literally a hop, skip and a jump or should I say a drive, bike or a light rail ride away from the Mall of America and downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

Despite this Refuge’s highly urban local, the natural resources are rich and pristine. From what I have been able to observe, Minnesotans truly value their environment and work to preserve it in all its glory. I have visited some extremely rural areas in my day, but in the short time I’ve been in Minnesota, I have observed wildlife up close in personal far greater than ever before.

For instance, while on lunch break during my first official day at the Bloomington office, as many as three wild turkey were wandering in the forest only a few feet away from our picnic table. But these game birds don’t even make up half of the song birds, waterfowl, and birds of prey who call the Refuge their home. Bird feeders outside the visitor center see a steady stream of red-wing and yellow-headed black birds, chickadees, orioles, finches, warblers, woodpeckers (one of which constantly has his head buried in holes it has pecked in a tree outside our lunch room) and many more. Some of these birds I’m told are so well adapted to the area, they have managed to maneuver their flight patterns to cooperate with the major airlines from Twin Cities International Airport. 

My supervisor, Park Ranger Judy.
In addition to familiarizing themselves with trains, planes, and automobiles, wildlife in the metro area have also learned to cope with the people that operate these machines. One friendly bird that is commonly spotted at the Bloomington visitor center is a red-tailed hawk who’s not a bit intimidated by the many visitors as he swoops through the Refuge keeping the thriving population of ground squirrels in check. Another fearless animal that has been caught on security cameras at the Bloomington visitor center is a coyote that is assumed to have a den nearby. My boss informed me that one day the coyote nearly walked into the visitor center with its sights set on a St. Bernard hiking with a family on the Refuge trails. Whether it’s the critters or their caretakers that cause wildlife to thrive here is unclear, but there is obviously hard work and devotion on both ends.

In Missouri, which is a mostly an agriculture state, the majority of outdoorsmen I have come across are largely hunters and anglers. Minnesota outdoorsmen on the other hand, seem to be equally as interested in the wide variety of recreational opportunities made available to them in addition to seeking game. The state is known as the land of 10,000 lakes and apparently they have made it their goal to match and likely surpass that number of lakes with parks and trails. Along just about every roadside in this area an additional path is set aside for bikes and pedestrians which are both in abundance.

Just last week I was joined by another intern as we crisscrossed through trails along highways, over rivers, and through woods all the way from the Refuge visitor center in Bloomington to Minnehaha Falls, a waterfall just a short hike away from the light rail which runs through downtown Minneapolis. The ride was exhilarating and the view breathtaking, but to me the people here are just as astonishing as the scenery. 

Everyone I’ve met so far has been extremely friendly and generous which has made me feel right at home. My surroundings haven’t varied greatly from the environment that I am used to. I am still in the Midwest and I basically just followed the Mississippi  River north, but whether it’s the people, the resources, or the recreational opportunities, I am finding that this state is a better fit for me. This summer is not only looking like it will be a lot less humid, but a lot brighter as well.  
Wetland on the Long Meadow Lake trail.