Tag Archives: ocean

No terning back!

I’ve caught it.

Safety first! Credit: Jackie

Credit:Jackie Claver

I’ve caught what some people call the “bird bug” – AKA the overwhelming joy that follows after working with cool avian critters.

I took in the full expanse of the beach, with lapping waves and a calm endless stretch of sea. It was about 8 in the morning.  I waded up to my knees carrying my provisions above my head. As I climbed aboard the boat, I buckled my life vest and grabbed the metal pole beside the steering wheel. Kate Iaquinto, Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge’s wildlife biologist, took the helm and we started across the open water. The ocean smelled amazing. It was clear skies and sunny, and the rush of the speed and ocean breeze made it very comfortable. The little furry brown heads of seals popped up from time to time, curious about our passing.

After about 10 minutes, we dropped anchor and we waded our way through the water past trails of horseshoe crabs and onto shore.  As I looked ahead, birds were everywhere.  As I wasn’t too confident in my bird identification abilities yet, I asked myself were all of these birds terns?

I followed behind Kate until we came to the camp site set up with tents. In a stretch of sand about 7 miles long, I was informed there were 11,723 pairs of common terns on the island! After not being in the tern colony for more than 2 minutes, poop flew down from the sky onto Kate’s face barely missing her mouth. It was inevitable really, and it could only mean good luck, right?IMG_8603

I was informed to grab a yellow hard hat with marker flags to protect the terns and my head, and off I went with Kate and four Student Conservation Association interns.

Four speckled white and black eggs in the sand. I was surprised at the tern interns’ intense enthusiasm about these eggs. We had passed dozens of nests already. I shortly learned, these were very different. The four interns told me this was a skimmer’s nest. I had never heard of a skimmer bird. Apparently, there had not been a skimmer’s nest observed on the island for quite a long time. What a success!


As we went out into the field, we surveyed the nesting plots where nesting adult terns and their chicks resided.  And boy are the little ones expert hiders. They can find the smallest pieces of vegetation, and under its protective cover they blend in perfectly with the sand.

I read off their band numbers ensuring they were present and healthy, while admiringly looking at the squirmy bodies of fluff. This process of surveying helps Kate and the tern interns identify success of terns nesting on the island. As we moved from plot to plot, laughing gulls called out in hysterical ‘has’ and I couldn’t help but also laugh myself.

Common terns fledge, developing feathers for flight, between 22-28 days old. Their eggs come in a variety of colors: green, creme, turquoise, and brown, with speckled dark spots. They generally have a clutch size of about 1-4 eggs. Roseate terns, a federally endangered species, often reside within common tern colonies. Although common terns are not endangered, they are a species of concern in Massachusetts.

Throughout the course of the day, I had banded four birds with the help of Kate. As I sat on the beach taking pictures, the sun cast a fine glow of colors across the horizon and a pair of oystercatchers moved along the shoreline nearby.

Overall, it was amazing going out into the field at Monomoy and I am grateful to have experienced this unique adventure during my inTERNship.

The view from above – an aerial tour of Hurricane Sandy recovery and restoration sites: Day 3

I’m Rick Bennett, Regional Scientist for the Northeast Region. This week, I am part of a team taking to the air to tour some of the locations that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Each evening, I will be sharing a little about what we saw, the projects on the ground and how we are working to ensure the coastline and the surrounding communities are #StrongAfterSandy.  (Lia McLaughlin/USFWS)

I’m Rick Bennett, Regional Scientist for the Northeast Region. This week, I am part of a team taking to the air to tour some of the locations that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Each evening, I will be sharing a little about what we saw, the projects on the ground and how we are working to ensure the coastline and the surrounding communities are #StrongAfterSandy. (Lia McLaughlin/USFWS)

Today started by flying over Cape May National Wildlife Refuge and surveying more of the New Jersey coast. We looked at beach restoration projects close to communities including Middle Township, where beaches are vital for wildlife and the state’s booming tourism industry – the fifth largest industry in the state by employment. In addition to providing recreational opportunities, these beach restoration projects will strengthen habitats that support an array of fish, wildlife and plants and act as buffers against coastal storms.

Then we moved further down the Atlantic coast to see the roughly 4,000 acres of coastal wetlands to be restored at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.

Restored marshes at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge will provide benefits to several adjacent and nearby communities such as Milton and Milford in Delaware and create additional habitat for red knots, American oystercatchers, and piping plovers. The restored marsh will also improve the communities’ ability to withstand future storms and sea level rise, improve wildlife habitat, and improved access.

After Prime Hook, it was time to survey two more projects further south on the Delaware shoreline – one at Hail Cove on Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge and another at Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge.

An important stopover for migrating waterfowl, Hail Cove – part of Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge – is considered among the top five Maryland waterfowl areas. With the construction of 4,000 feet of enhanced shoreline that’s been planned for the site  – intended to reduce erosion from the Chester River – over 400 acres of marshland will be directly protected, stabilizing habitats and buffering nearby communities from storms. Incidental benefits of a neighboring salt marsh include storm surge protection, water quality improvement, fisheries production, carbon sequestration and wildlife related recreation.

“Living shorelines” utilize plants, sand, and a limited use of rock to provide shoreline protection and maintain valuable habitat. The 20,950 feet of living shoreline that will be constructed at Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge will dissipate wave energy and slow erosion, protecting more than 1200 acres of high tidal high marsh. This marsh is vital to the continued habitat health of Smith Island’s soft crab fishing industry and for protecting the villages of Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. The refuge supports one of the largest concentrations of wintering waterfowl in the Chesapeake Bay, as well as important habitat for fisheries and non-game wildlife.

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Life in the lab: The less glamorous side of marine biology

Today you’re hearing from Melissa May, a doctoral student in marine biology at the University of Maine, about her work studying how mussels respond to changes in salinity. For this post, we’re switching from freshwater to saltwater mussels in our series.

Sure, being a marine biologist is awesome, but it’s not all whales and ocean excursions.

Most of us spend a fair amount of time in the laboratory, bent over microscopes or analyzing data. And, more often than not, our research subjects resemble slimy blobs instead of adorable animals. But, we lab rats get a different perspective of the world. We see inside the cells, we manipulate the unseen, and we play with expensive equipment.

I study mussels – the same ones you’ve sautéed in wine. On the outside, there isn’t much to them, but we all know it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And take it from me, they’re fascinating!

What I find particularly interesting is that they can live in salty, ocean water or nearly fresh, estuarine water. They can actually change how many amino acids (just like the ones we take in vitamins) they produce to prevent themselves from taking on so much water that they burst or from losing so much water that they shrivel and die. Pretty cool for something that doesn’t have a brain. This is no simple feat either; the task puts a fair amount of stress on the animal.

Mussels image from NOAA Mussel Watch Program.

Mussels image from NOAA Mussel Watch Program.

When put into freshwater, mussels clamp up their shells, turn on and off genes, and start pumping those magical amino acids out of their cells until their entire bodies match the salt content of the water. So that brings me to what I study: how do they do it? What genes do they turn on? What happens to their cells when this salt-stress occurs? Spending all of my daylight hours pent up the lab helps me answer some of these questions.

Just like you and me, when faced with a stressful situation, mussels change how they act (so to speak) to cope with the stress. They make stress proteins, they stop growing, and they focus on survival. Some probably even stop sleeping.

But mussels are not created equal, and some are better at this than others. Some have no problem dealing with freshwater. How do I tell what sets them apart? For one, I grind up pieces of mussel tissue and look directly at the DNA. I can then tell if the DNA from one (or at least some of the genes) reacts differently when the salinity is lowered. I also look directly at the cells and look for changes. I’m still working on figuring out how it all works, but I at least get to take pretty pictures in the meantime.

A microscopic image of mussel gill tissue magnified 2,600 times.

A microscopic image of mussel gill tissue magnified 2,600 times.

You’ve probably been wondering why normal, more popular people should care. To this I say – our world is changing, the climate is changing, and it is very possible that all of this “global warming” could cause the water in our oceans to be a little less salty.

No problem for our super tough mussels, but what about the more sensitive ones? Will they die? Will they toughen up? Only time will tell, but maybe, just maybe, all of my hard work will give us a better guess at what will become of the precious, delectable mussel. And if you don’t buy any of that, just remember: happy mussels are tasty mussels.