Voices of Prince William Sound

There are a couple sounds I haven’t heard since I’ve moved to Alaska. I haven’t heard sirens. I haven’t heard the steady rumbling of the 60 freeway. I haven’t even heard an ice cream truck or the afternoon call of the elotero man. Alaska, instead, becomes a stage for the symphony of wildlife voices. Tatitlek is one of those stages.

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Tatitlek is a Native village with a population of 88 according to the last census. It rests, nestled just underneath Copper Mountain. Danielle and I were headed there to conduct community owl surveys and give presentations about the US Forest Service and the ecology of forests and owls. After an hour ride on the boat, expertly manned by Law Enforcement Official Andy Morse, we arrived at the dock. Jed Palmer, the Tatitlek school principal, welcomed us to Tatitlek and took us up the road to the school.

When we arrived at the school, the students were at lunch and so Danielle set up the laptop and presentations, while I set up the first activity. After the students came back from lunch and settled into their seats, Danielle, Andy and I introduced ourselves and what we did in our respective work. I spoke about my internship with Environment for the Americas and Andy talked about what it’s like to work in law enforcement for the US Forest Service. Danielle then dove into her presentation about different trees in Prince William Sound and the products and services trees provide to wildlife and also to humans. Midway through the presentation, Danielle paused and told the students they would now do an activity where they were to separate a pile of random products into two groups: made from a tree vs. not made from a tree. Some things were a little easier, such as a wooden pencil, but others were a little trickier, like the bag of marshmallows and tube of mascara. However, the students enjoyed the challenge of speculating what products might’ve come from a tree.

After Danielle’s presentation about forest ecology, I went up to the board to talk about owls.  When I got to the slide about the owl’s vision, I took out an owl mask showing how the owl’s tubular eyes are shaped, and the students had fun holding it up to their face to look through.  As I went through each slide about the owls that inhabit Prince William Sound, Danielle would play a sound clip of the owl calls. The students’ eyes widened with amazement when they heard the Barred Owl’s loud murmuring and the high – pitched too-too-too of the Northern Saw Whet. After the presentation, the students dissected owl pellets and made some amazing discoveries about the owls’ diets.

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As class began to come to an end at 3pm, we announced that Danielle and I were going to be doing an owl survey later that evening and they were more than welcome to join us. Since we had a few hours before the survey began, Danielle and I ventured outside to scout out some good locations to broadcast the owl calls. As we walked, I heard the Varied Thrush whistling in the afternoon breeze. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The clouds had drifted away and it looked like the night was going to be clear. On our way back to the school, we passed through one of the two main streets and a couple of young kids and a big, friendly German Shepard ran up to us. A few of the kids recognized us from school and asked us how our walk went. We told them we had a good time on the trail looking for places to call for owls and that our owl survey was to begin soon.

Jed Palmer and Nichole Palmer, Jed’s wife and one of the teachers at the school, and their daughter, Chelsey, joined us for the owl survey.  We drove out on the road, past the Tatitlek airport, until we reached a trail that led into a forest.  We didn’t enter the forest, but walked out towards the edge.  We stood silent as the broadcast played.  2 minutes of silence, 1 minute of owl calls, 2 minutes of silence, 1 minute of owl calls. This was repeated for 15 minutes. It was getting pretty chilly as the broadcast reached the final track.  Sadly, we didn’t hear any calls at this location and it was past Chelsey’s bedtime so the Palmer family headed home.

Danielle and I, however, went on to the next location near the ferry dock. We didn’t hear any owl calls apart from the ones coming from our broadcast, but as we walked back off the trail, Danielle suddenly pointed to the night sky and said “Northern lights!”

It was true.  There was a single, undulating sliver of green across the sky. Not very strong, but a northern light nonetheless, which was still an amazing sight to behold. We stood in the dark, illuminated just by our headlamps, and watched the northern light roll and expand within the cluster of stars.  Bolstered by the sighting, we agreed to stay up a couple of hours to head out for a second owl survey.

It was nearing midnight when we headed out again.  We were near the ferry dock again, playing the broadcast when we heard what could’ve been our first owl call of the night.  Unfortunately, the owl was a hesitant owl and allowed us barely a second to hear him before he fell silent.  We noted it down anyways, but didn’t record it as a certain identification.

Even though, Danielle and I didn’t hear many owls, the students could hear our owl broadcasts from their homes. They knew it was our broadcasts, but they commented later that they now knew what owl voices to listen for in the night.

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Departing Alaska, My Unforgettable Experience

It is still hard for me to believe that I spent 5 months in Alaska, and that my internship has come to an end.. As a recent graduate undergraduate fresh out of college, this internship experience was a dream come true. Being part of Environment for the Americas and the USDA Forest Service allowed me to take my B.S. degree in Wildlife Conservation Biology and apply to the “real world”!

Not just any world, but only one of the wildest places in the United States, ALASKA!

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Each month was so distinct and memorable. I was always working on something new. Whether it was preparing for shorebird surveys or traveling to an island to work on a fish pass. I always had the opportunity to learn a new skill or apply a skill had learned in school or on my own. For example, painting! I really enjoy painting and as a minor in Art in college I learned various techniques. Yet, I had never painted on windows! I had the opportunity to do in Cordova, for the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival. I also helped the Girl Scout’s earn their art badge by painting shorebirds too!IMG_1407

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During the month of May I surveyed shorebirds for 3 consecutive weeks. Each day was also full of new surprises! Whether it was spotting my first black bellied plover or seeing the change from 100 to 2,000 shorebirds over night! Each day I felt thankful for the opportunity to witness the stopover of such amazing travelers.

 

I have a lot of great memories, and experiences which I could write about for days. I am sure you have read my previous blogs which reflect on those experiences. So I thank you for reading my blog! I have decided to summarize my internship experience with a few of my photographs that I took during my term in Alaska.

Thank You!

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Alaska is a very beautiful place. Which I hope continues to be conserved, appreciated, and protected for the wild place that it is.

Another adventure! Building habitat for wildlife.

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During the course of this summer over 300 nest islands were monitored, installed, and maintained. As the field season winds down and my internship comes to an end, we conducted maintenance on our last islands for the year.

Nest islands allow Dusky Canada Geese nesting habitat. Early in the season we monitored all of the nest islands and when we visited islands we made sure to note which islands needed landscaping maintenance.

 

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The primary way we get to our islands is with the air boat and poke boats. IMG_7645

Once we found our island that needed landscaping we dug up holes on the island or covered bare areas with sod and/or sweet gale (Myrica gale). Sweet gale provides cover for nesting geese and we try to make sure there is at least 30% sweet gale on the island.IMG_1968

Working in the Copper River Delta was hard work but also very rewarding and fun! I really enjoyed kayaking through the Delta and sliding on the Delta mud. I often used Delta mud to cover my skin to prevent the bugs from biting me.

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It was an amazing field season working in the Copper River Delta! Seeing Dusky Canada Geese, moose cows and calves, coyotes, shorebirds, and a BEAVER made being out in the Delta all that more adventurous!

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Part 2: Studying The Invasive European Black Slug in Eshamy Bay

I packed my bag and left Cordova for the first time since my arrival 4 months ago and headed to Whittier, Alaska.
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Once I arrived in Whittier I had to take an underground tunnel to meet up with Alaska Geographic.

IMG_7220IMG_1731We then hauled all of our gear to meet a small charter boat that would take us to Eshamy bay, about an hour and half away from Whittier.
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Alaska Geographic and I parted ways once we arrived to Eshamy. They camped near our study site while I camped with the Forest Service working in that area on conducting other projects. We found an islet to call home for 3 days.

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Early in the morning I was shuttled to my work site where I met up with Alaska Geographic’s youth group (10 teenagers), team leaders (2) and photographer (1). The first day I introduced myself, the slugs, and the project to the group. I went over key characteristics of the European black slugs and why it is important to collect the data we were collecting. I had everyone participate in a demonstration to teach everyone the sampling techniques we would be using, then I split the group into two. The majority of the participants data collection was something new, so I had to make sure I explained what transects were as well as the difference between shrubs and herbaceous plants when we collected habitat data.

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We used transects to collect data to find out where slugs were present using a 20 meter drag line and sampled 1 meter on either side of the drag line. We saw a significant decrease in slug presence once we were in an open meadow, indicating that slugs might prefer closed canopy habitat. We also observed the majority of the slugs on or near skunk cabbage.

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After completing transects we collected slugs to manually remove them from the area in attempt to manage their establishment and spread in west Prince William Sound and Wilderness Study Areas.

The second day we continued collecting data followed by removing more slugs. We removed more than 200 European black slugs from our study area!

Our observation of slug presence on skunk cabbage made me aware of their potential negative impact on Alaska’s wilderness areas. Although this is just my thought based on my observation-  Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is an herbaceous plant I observed to be first to flower late in the winter, emerging from the snow, which is consumed by bears as they wake up from hibernation as well as deer. This made me wonder- Can invasive European black slugs predation on skunk cabbage affect mammals like Sitka black-tailed deer and bears? I really don’t know the answer, but I definitely know that more research needs to be done on the impacts of non-native European black slugs in wilderness areas in Alaska.

Overall, it was amazing to lead a group of young individuals into the field. I really enjoyed the experience and I definitely would do it again!

 

 

Part 1: Studying The Invasive European Black Slug in Alaska

For the past two weeks my role in the wildlife devision of the U.S. Forest Service changed temporarily from studying Dusky Canada Geese to European Black Slugs. I spent several weeks learning all about the slugs, and wishing that more was known about the species.

Background on European Black Slugs:

European black slugs (Arion ater) were introduced to much of the Pacific Northwest of the United States and southern British Columbia in North America from Europe. As global climate changes, they are expanding their range and invading new areas like Alaska. It is believed that within the last 20-30 years Arion ater has been becoming more frequently reported in Alaska (South-central and -eastern Alaska). Cordova, Alaska (where my internship takes place) is an area where the non-native slugs are well established.

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My Job:

Facilitating a study on European black slugs’ presence or absence in Eshamy Bay, in West Prince William Sound (a newly reported area where slugs were observed in 2012) with Alaska Geographic’s youth group.

Preparing for the Project:

Before heading out to the field I had to find the best sampling technique to study European black slugs in Eshamy Bay. I reviewed a vast amount of literature on various study methods and invasive slug removal. I learned that there are several ways invasive species are managed: Manual, Biological, and Chemical methods were the most frequent in the literature. Manual removal of slugs is really time consuming and may not be effective in large scale areas, but it is the safest for the environment and other wildlife. Biological control uses the introduction of predators, parasitoids, and pathogens as a way to control problematic invasive species. Biological control methods have the potential to have adverse effects on existing ecosystem through the introduction of predators or diseases that often don’t exclusively prey on the invasive species but also native species, often creating a bigger problem. Chemical control methods are commonly used in agriculture to control pest such as slugs, but they also affect non-targeted species such as birds and even humans.

Learning all about slugs and management practices was very fascinating. With the help of my supervisor Erin Cooper we decided to repeat the sampling technique used on Observation Island  (a small island near Cordova where slugs were introduced).

You may be wondering HOW DID THE SLUGS ARRIVE TO ALASKA? Well, it is believe that slugs were introduced to Alaska from Washington state. Slugs could be transported through potting soil or in nursery plants, as well as on pallets and cargo that is shipped from one place to another. In Cordova, slugs are observed to be concentrated on or near populated areas where human activity is frequent. This could indicate that slugs are predominately spreading by human activity such as through existing roadways and human transport via boat or vehicles, because they are not observed in areas of low human activity.

How can European Black Slugs impact Alaska’s wild areas?

This is the big question I asked myself. I found little information on how they can affect Alaska’s wild areas, since most of the information I found were based on Arion ater’s negative impact in agricultural settings. The literature indicated potential problems such as the negative impact on native species through competition and/or predation, but I was unable to find the concrete answer I was looking for. The date got closer, and I had purchased all of my equipment to head into the field to collect data on Arion ater in Eshamy Bay with Alaska Geographic’s youth group and boy was I in for an adventure!

 

Read my next post to find out more about the European Black Slug Project in Eshamy Bay with Alaska Geographic!