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NWP Global Registry of Apprentice Ecologists - Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA

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Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA
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Registered: December 2012
City/Town/Province: Fredericksburg
Posts: 1
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My name is Camille and I am an inspiring Wildlife Biologist. I am currently studying at Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg Virginia to receive my Associates in Arts and Science. I am working very diligently to graduate this spring semester in order to transfer to Virginia Tech to major in Wildlife Science and Conservation. This Summer I was given the great opportunity to intern for the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a Biological Aid at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge located in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I chose to do an Apprentice Ecologist Project because I thought it would be a great way to express myself and share what I did this summer with those who have the same goals, and those who have great concern about conserving the environment.
The Back Bay National Refuge (BBNWR) habitats support a wide variety of biodiversity. The refuge consists of more than 9,000 acres, positioned on a barrier island found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Habitats at the refuge include beach, dunes, woodland, farm fields, and marshlands. Marshlands make up most of the wildlife refuge and is surrounded by several large impoundments. The beach serves as an important nesting and feeding ground for many shorebirds and other organisms. Since, the refuge provides habitats and food for variety of plants and animals; it protects the land for threatened and endangered species such as the loggerhead sea turtle. Loggerhead sea turtles use the beach as nesting grounds during the mid-summer months. A beach is a very intense environment due to constant wind and water activity. No vegetation can successfully endure these powerful natural forces, however the dunes serve as a first line of defense for the marsh and woodland areas from these natural forces. Dunes are supported by salt resistant plants that help stabilize the sandy soil.
As a Biological Aid my main job was to help the experienced Wildlife Biologists with the 2012 Sea Turtle Program. One of the missions at BBNWR is to help conserve the native loggerhead sea turtles because they're considered to be a threatened species. In order to do so BBNWR follows detailed protocols to make sure hatchlings survive and make it to ocean. BBNWR handles and documents all sea turtle nests and crawls found in Virginia Beach. As an inter I would help perform daily sea turtle patrols to locate nests and crawls, help with nest excavations and in-situ procedures, help with nest relocations, monitoring and hatchling releasing. If a crawl is found on the beach, a BBNWR biologist will determine if the nest should be relocated or left in place. There are two different procedures to abide by due to these scenarios.
Before I was able to do sea turtle patrols I had to undergo training sessions on what to do on the sea turtle patrols and how to recognize a sea turtle crawl. I had to learn how to use and how to maintain an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). I also had to learn the safety precautions when using one. While I do the sea turtle patrols in the morning I scan the beach above and below the high tide line, searching for crawls. Crawls serve as evidence that a sea turtle came and crawled up to the beach to lay her eggs, they are usually "U" shaped. While riding on the ATV I carry a tool box full of equipment used to collect data on a crawl and nest. When a crawl was found I had to notify the Refuge Biologists.
After a staff member was notified, the whole perimeter of the nest is flagged off so bystanders will not step on the tracks or nest while we worked. The widths and lengths of the incoming crawl, the outgoing crawl and the nest pit are measured and recorded on a data sheet. Also the date, weather conditions, names of observers and GPS location of the nest are also recorded. After all the data has been taken the crawl and nest pit is photographed. In order to determine whether or not to relocate the nest or leave it in "in-situ" the Refuge Biologist must go through a set of questions or rules (risk analysis questions) that help determine if it's necessary to relocate. Some rules include: If the nest/body-pit is located below the high tide line, if the nest is in an area where there is a possibility that vehicles could run over the nest, if there is a lot of excessive human activity, if there a lot of lighting near the nest that could cause new hatchlings to become disoriented while trying to get to the ocean. If the answer to any of the risk analysis questions is yes, then the nest will be relocated.
When the BBNWR team decides to relocate the nest, the eggs are delicately excavated by hand to ensure that the eggs are not damaged. At BBNWR we had a season record of finding 11 sea turtle nests! I was there for each mission. I helped relocate 6 nests and the other 5 were left in-situ. For all 6 nests that had to be relocated all who helped had to hand dig the nest to find the eggs. This was hard work and was very tedious and meticulous because you have to be very careful not to break any eggs. The first time I got the chance to relocate the eggs I was very nervous because I didn’t want anything to go wrong. I had to slowly remove the eggs individually from the nest being careful not to rotate them.
I would place the eggs into a cooler with a border of sand between the eggs and the sides of the cooler. The eggs are then placed in the cooler in a steady and methodical manner with note taken of the order. The number of eggs in each layer are counted and recorded in order to keep track of the eggs original place in the original nest. When I was placing the eggs in the cooler I had to make sure the eggs were not touching each other. When we encountered large nests, we used extra coolers. After all the eggs were removed, the "bottom nest depth," of the original nest is measured. We did this because we wanted to recreate the nest similar to how the mother turtle originally made hers. Once all the eggs were placed in the cooler, extra sand from the original nest was placed over them, collected in a separate container. We used the same sand from the original nest to rebury the eggs at the nursery site. All the containers are carried over the dunes to the nursery which is back-breaking work! Once all the data has been recorded, the nest cavity is refilled and the crawl tracks are raked up so another sea turtle patroller does not make the mistake of thinking that they found a new nest.
Before putting the eggs back into the ground at the nursery site, we dug a hole the same depth and length as the original nest in order to place a cylinder shaped predator-proof cage inside. The eggs are then placed in the cage to protect the eggs from predators such as ghost grabs, raccoons, or any mammal that will dig them up. These cages are placed at the BBNWR nursery which is located behind the dunes. While getting ready to place the eggs into the cage, they are covered with an umbrella so they won’t get over heated by the sun. The BBNWR team and I, while working tried our best to work quickly in order to rebury the eggs; because it is not natural to have the eggs exposed to air after being laid. By working quickly and carefully we try to reduce the amount of air time the eggs will experience during the relocation process.
I would then place the eggs into the predator-proof cage in the reverse order in which they were removed from the original nest; meaning the first egg that was put in the cooler had to be the last one placed the cage. We did this because we wanted to keep it as natural as possible. The way the mother laid the eggs is how we try to place the eggs in the new nest. The remainder of the relocated nest cavity is filled with the extra sand brought from the original nest. The top of the predator-proof cage is secured with a top and the nest number is placed for identification.
If you weren't tired from doing all that work, doing in-situ nest was considered the easy sea turtle work! These nests were left in place because they passed the risk analysis questions. The procedure to protect these nests were less elaborate. We would put four posts with "Please Don’t Disturb" signs and reflectors on them at each corner of the nest. We would then put flagging tape around the posts. In the center where the nest is we then placed a predator guard cage over the nest.
When the rate of sea turtle nests being found slowed up the BBNWR team and I got ready for the Nest Monitoring (Nest-sitting) part of the Sea Turtle Program. I helped the Refuge Biologist set up a training session for the Nest Sitting procedure. I had to give a presentation for over 60 volunteers explaining the sea turtle program and what we do at BBNWR. I was so nervous! I volunteered extra hours to Nest-Sit. When I nest-sat I would pitch a tent behind the dunes at the nursery site during the night time and watch the nests. While nest sitting observations are recorded. While nest-sitting we are looking for any nest activity giving hints that the hatchlings are ready to appear.
The best part of my adventurous summer at BBNWR was when I actually got to help guide the first nest hatchlings to the ocean. I felt accomplished and joyous. I felt sort of like a mother letting go of her kin because I spent so many hours trying to take care and conserve these marvelous creatures. It gave me hope. Guiding them to the ocean was a lot of work too!
When it was time for the hatchlings to begin emerging, Refuge personnel are contacted immediately. The hatchlings are not released until the BBNWR team arrived. The emergence time is recorded on the Hatching Data Sheet by the nest-sitter. Once the BBNWR team arrived, the hatchlings are removed from the predator-proof cage and placed into another cooler containing moist sand from the beach. Gloves are mandatory for anyone handling the hatchlings. Then the cooler is carried over the dune to the beach. There the BBNWR team and I had to prepare for the hatchlings to crawl on their own to the beach. Since the BBNWR beach is driven on only by personnel there are a lot of tire ruts, we know this is not natural and makes it difficult for hatchlings to crawl to the ocean with the tire ruts in the way, so we smooth them out and make a path for them. We don’t carry the hatchlings to the beach ourselves because we want them to “imprint” on the beach. However, we do prevent any potential predators from eating the hatchlings if necessary. When all the nests in the nursery have hatched they are then excavated. The Refuge Biologist has to determine when the nest is to be excavated. Data on remaining un-hatched eggs is recorded. Dead hatchlings and infertile eggs are frozen in the biology freezer located at BBNWR.
I've always loved the Earth, and everything within it. There is a saying: "The purity of a person's heart can be quickly measured by how they regard animals, as well as the environment around them (anonymous)." I hope when one looks into my heart they will see humility, love, and compassion for others. I know and believe that everything has its own purpose as to why it is here. The Earth consists of multiple ecosystems meshing into one and coinciding with one another, with balance. In each small part big or small whether it is a decomposer, primary consumer, the top predator or prey everyone has a role in the web of life. It truly does saddens me when I see other people not considering their impact on others. Humans tend to be very selfish. I think it's very important to take care of all areas, not just the Back Bay area because everything is interconnected with each other. Hence, whatever impact man has on the Earth good or bad ultimately the results will always come back upon him. I try to carry myself like a caretaker of the Earth and take of it the best way I can.
My experience with helping with the Sea Turtle Program has helped others in the community to appreciate what they have in their very own backyard. When I was out on the Sea Turtle Patrols and excavation sites people would stare at me and ask questions. I loved answering questions because I felt like I was giving some insight on the importance on taking care of nature. If your good to nature it will be good to you in return. People in the Virginia Beach area can still be able to enjoy the wonders of the Logger Sea Turtle if we keep up the efforts to save the species.
My Apprentice Ecologist Project has helped enriched my life because I got to experience a once in a life time event at a young age. Not many youths can say they helped lead a bunch of baby sea turtles to their journey to their life to the big ocean! All this has inspired me to keep pushing myself to finish school and become an outstanding Wildlife Biologist and Conservationist in order to keep preserving the Earths treasures!
Date: December 22, 2012 Views: 5775 File size: 17.9kb, 111.9kb : 720 x 960
Hours Volunteered: 528
Volunteers: 86
Authors Age & Age Range of Volunteers: 15 to 60
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