Skimming Skimmers and Paddling Grebes

A few weeks ago I took some videos of birds at Merritt Island NWR. Here they are!
This first one is of black skimmers skimming along one of the impoundments. I took this while we were searching for the cinnamon teal. I love watching skimmers as they fly back and forth along the surface of the water, leaving a delicate line where their bill has passed through. Sometimes when I ride my bike along the dike roads I see them flying along next to me over the water and I pretend I can fly too, that I’m skimming along with them in the dusk, writing my story with theirs in straight lines on the water. Then they turn and go out, disappearing into the sunset, and I’m left on the road with a sense that I just witnessed magic.
This second one is of  a horned grebe in winter plumage. I was driving along Black Point Wildlife Drive and spotted him in the water next to the road. One of the volunteers told me that while horned grebes aren’t especially uncommon here in the winter, typically they spend their time out in deeper water. This year they are bucking tradition and coming in close, to the delight of many a birdwatcher. I’m not sure if you can tell, but look for the beady red eyes in its black and white plumage. If it wasn’t a grebe, and therefore cute, the red eyes would be somewhat creepy. I love watching grebes dive– they either dive the typical way, arching their necks and going down head-first, or they lower down like mini-submarines on covert missions to recover fish and other small aquatic life.
Interesting fact(s) of the day: horned grebes regularly eat their own feathers so that there is a matted plug of them in their stomachs. This plug probably acts as a filter, or to hold fish bones in the stomach until they are digested. Parent horned grebes feed feathers to their chicks to get the plug started. The babies are downy and active when they burst from the egg, and can swim and dive within a day. They are also incredibly cute, with little striped downy faces. I’d love to someday watch tiny grebes frolicking in a lake, learning to swim and dive and how to plug up their stomachs with feathers, everything you need to know to be a perfect little grebe.

What is a Public Use Intern?

I suppose some of you may be wondering what it is exactly that I’m doing here in Florida. Well, here are a few pictures:

Sometimes I get to help out at festivals, which are quite fun. We set up a booth and people come by and we tell them about the refuge and some of the awesome animals we have here. The kids get to make a stamp bookmark, and I usually have them touch the bobcat and otter pelts and compare them.

Here I am with Connie and Joann, two of the volunteers, also known as the Festival Extraordinaire Ladies.  They’ve got the festival gig down pat. They have also adopted me as a grandchild, though I told them that no one can measure up to the wonderful Grandma I have who sends me cookies in the mail (Thank you Grandma Cindea! I love you bunches!!)

Yes, those are giant ants on the table. No, they are not real, no, we don’t have ants that big on the refuge, and no, they’re not for sale. Everyone comments on the ants, that’s what really brings people over to our table.

Sometimes I help with school programs and we get to hang out with Florida Scrub Jays. They are very curious, and will come land on your head or hand if you hold it out, looking for peanuts. The biologists have trained them to enter traps in order to band them for monitoring purposes. The traps are baited with peanuts, so the jays get a treat for their hassle.

Sometimes I’m allowed to go out with the biologists and do fun biology things, like help restore scrub habitat. As Mike, the head biologist, was explaining to me when he kidnapped me and forced me to help him fill a spray tank, no one has been really successful at restoring scrub, which is a problem for wildlife managers trying to help the scrub jays and other species that depend on scrub habitat. The area we were working in used to be a grapefruit grove, but they are trying to make it

For us, this meant planting seeds in the hot sun in a quarter-acre plot. It was actually quite fun, and there were scrub jays hanging out nearby watching us, and lots of fun birds flew overhead. Also, a man on a motorcycle rode by blaring “Uptown Girls,” which I then got stuck in everyone’s heads (going on a week now).

The field we planted with scrub plant seeds.

Here we all are hard at work. This is what most of the morning looked like, hanging out in a barren field and contemplating the scrub.

Sometimes I hobnob with famous birdy people. Here I am at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival with two other Merritt Island NWR volunteers and Richard Crossley (in the black shirt). He was the keynote speaker at the festival this year, and because I was helping to sell his books I had the chance to hear him speak and got him to autograph my copies of his books, The Shorebird Guide and The Crossley ID Guide (came out just last year). We chatted for a bit, he’s a fun guy. Also takes fantastic pictures of birds.

Same birding festival, different day, with Kevin Karlson. He is a co-author of The Shorebird Guide, and also autographed my copy. Another fantastic photographer and birder, and also fun to talk with.

Sometimes I hobnob with snakes (this happens a lot, actually). This is Buddy, our education snake. We hang out together a lot, he’s my bud. The other day I had him out at the Visitor Center, showing him to some of the visitor. Buddy decided he wanted to crawl into my shirt, and did so, going up my right sleeve. He was across the front of my chest before I noticed, so I tried to pull him out via the front of my shirt. He was having none of that, and kept aiming for my other sleeve, like he was going to crawl all the way through. This doesn’t really bother me, but I’m aware that quite a few other people are not fond of snakes and the idea that I would even hold him is disturbing, so I tried to excuse myself from the people I was talking to so I wouldn’t bother them too much. I also wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to get him out of my shirt without taking it off, so I figured I probably should do that in the privacy of the back office, or the restroom. The people I was talking with didn’t seem to mind, in fact the woman starting taking pictures of me with a snake up one sleeve and part of his mid-section out the front of my shirt, his head moving back and forth under my shirt on my other shoulder.

I should have asked her to send me a copy, I’m sure it looked pretty funny.

This is a yellow rat snake we fished out of the trashcan so it wouldn’t bother the visitors. After the photo op, we released it back into the palmettos.

Rat snakes are generally very docile creatures, and all of the ones I’ve handled have been quite friendly. They generally like climbing around my person and going through my hair and belt-loops, which can be interesting, having a live snake-skin belt. This is one of Buddy’s favorite activities when I’m not paying attention. He also likes to go through my braid or pony-tail, so I have to undo my hair to get him out.

If you didn’t have enough of the creepy-crawly, here are some toad pictures! This is a spadefoot toad that one of the biologists brought to show us. He found it in the fire garage, and  thought that might not be the best place for a toad to live.

Only a few more weeks left here in Florida, so I’ll try to get more pictures up soon!

Defecating River Otter “Made My Day.”

Defecating River Otter “Made My Day” Says Young Woman
Merritt Island NWR, FL—Friday, February 10, 2012: a day that will live in infamy. Well, at least to one young woman. It was on that day that Lauren A. Smith, age 24, saw her first river otter (Lontra canadensis) in the wild, along Black Point Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. “I was so excited, I’d only seen them in zoos before!” she gushed.
Resting for the big event
The river otter in question spent a few minutes poking around the edge of the impoundment before it lifted its tail and defecated. It then scampered off into the bushes, but not before Smith managed to snap off a few pictures. “This is why I always carry my camera with me, you never know when you’re going to see a pooping otter,” she said.
Lifting the tail
Smith is a Public Use intern at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, located near Titusville, Florida. Smith, a zoology and English major who graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, has always loved animals. “I’ve known since 5th grade that I wanted to be a zoologist and work with animals,” she said. “The other kids were going around saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut’ or ‘I want to be a ballerina.’ No one even knew what a zoologist was.”

A birder and ornithologist, she jumped at the chance to internship at Merritt Island. “People come from across the country to see the birds here,” she said. “There are fantastic opportunities to see some fantastic birds.” She admits there was an additional consideration in her internship choice— “Spending the winter in Florida was also pretty appealing.”

Taken from the backseat, before Sam opened the truck door to let me out. That is Sam’s hair and beard in the rear-view mirror, not mine.
Merritt Island NWR is a pretty appealing place to a number of animals, including river otters. River otters are found in many of the wetlands areas of Florida. Ranging over large expanses, up to 50 miles, river otters unfortunately often end up as road kill. They can be active both during the day and at night, and are often found hunting for food along water edges.
Playful hunters, river otters will catch and eat a variety of critters found in the marshes including minnows, catfish, crayfish, mollusks and frogs. Because they have very high metabolisms, an adaption to help them keep warm in the water, they must consume at least 15% of their body weight every day.
Otters can range in weight from 10 to 31lbs, males typically weighing more than females. They have webbed feet and short, thick, brown fur to help keep them warm while in the water. While swimming, they close both their ears and nostrils.
Time to head back to the bushes
“I absolutely love working at the refuge,” says Smith. “Any place where you have the chance to see painted buntings, roseate spoonbills, scrub jays, gopher tortoise, bobcat, and alligators every day can’t be all that bad, right?” she adds with a smile.

Cinammon Teal in Florida!

There has been a Cinnamon Teal at MINWR for the past few days now, and no one really knows what it’s doing here. Cinnamon Teal are normally found in the western part of the U.S., and this time of year they should be wintering in Mexico, Central and South America. According to the Merritt Island bird list, the last time a Cinnamon Teal was seen here on the refuge was in 2000.

I went out yesterday morning with some of the volunteers to see if it could be spotted. We met up with three other birders/photographers, and between the six of us we found it (and by that I mean one of the others found it while I was busy watching the Black Skimmers– pictures to come). I tried to take a few pictures through the spotting scope, but every time I clicked this happened:

The Cinnamon Teal is the one in the middle, with its head underwater.

So I decided to take a video instead, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about my timing. That, and we had to go pick up a fire truck for a school program later that morning, so we didn’t have much time to mess with taking pictures.

The Cinnamon Teal is the reddish-cinnamon colored bird in the middle that keeps putting its head underwater. There are quite a few Northern Pintail swimming about in front of it, and a couple Blue-winged Teal snoozing behind it.  The black on the side is because I took the video through the spotting scope with my little point-and-shoot, and I’m still learning the ins and out of digiscoping (taking pictures with a camera through a spotting scope, i.e. using it as a big lens to get pictures of far away birds that otherwise would be little specs).

I also took pictures of the fire truck, and I got to ride in it. It smelled like smoke, and was basically just riding in a big white truck with lots of extra buttons I wasn’t allowed to touch.

USFWS fire trucks don’t have sirens, because they don’t exactly need them to fight forest fires and manage controlled burns. The animals already know to get out of the way, they don’t need a siren to tell them something’s burning. They’re smart like that.

Cary, a volunteer, demonstrating the fire hose

The kids loved the program, and hopefully they learned a little bit about controlled burns as well as all the animals that depend on scrub habitat.

Some of the school group and a chaperone, their teacher, and volunteers Cary and Betty Salter (in fire-fighting garb) and volunteer Bill Nunn

And we are go for launch

One of the perks of living on Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is that NASA shoots up rockets in your backyard. Tonight I went out and watched the launching of the Atlas V Mobile User Objective System 1 satellite. The MUOS 1 is a military satellite, which will “improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move” ( from the Kennedy Space Center website).

It’s a pretty spectacular sight, and I managed to get a video. I apologize for the shakiness, I’m not very good at holding still.

Atlas V MUOS1 rocket launch

If you listen closely you can hear the countdown on the radio. There is an AM station that follows the launches and talks directly to the Air Force and NASA people involved with the launch. It’s very interesting to hear what they do to prepare, and to know what’s going on, especially if there is a weather delay, as there was last time I went to watch a launch.

The large building is the Vehicle Assembly Building of the Kennedy Space Center.

Here are some pictures before and after the launch

A Trip to Viera Wetlands

It seems like every other day I hear someone talking about all the great birds they see at Viera, so today we finally went. Though we missed the Crested Caracara and the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, we did see some other pretty cool birds, including four Limpkin (a life bird for me!)

Here’s my list for the day:

Great Egret
Pied-billed Grebe
  1. Blue-winged Teal
  2. Green-winged Teal
  3. Ring-necked Duck
  4. Hooded Merganser
  5. Pied-billed Grebe
  6. Double-crested Cormorant
  7. Anhinga
  8. Great Blue Heron
  9. Great Egret
  10. Snowy Egret
  11. Little Blue Heron
  12. Tricolored Heron
  13. Cattle Egret
  14. White Ibis
  15. Glossy Ibis
  16. Wood Stork
  17. Turkey Vulture
  18. Osprey
  19. Bald Eagle
  20. Northern Harrier
  21. Common Moorhen
  22. American Coot
  23. Limpkin
  24. Sandhill Crane
  25. Foster’s Tern
  26. Belted Kingfisher
  27. Loggerhead Shrike
  28. Tree Swallow
  29. Palm Warbler
  30. Common Yellowthroat
  31. Savannah Sparrow
  32. Red-winged Blackbird
  33. Boat-tailed Grackle

Not too shabby for starting at noon and getting rained on multiple times, not to mention putting up with some pretty gusty winds. I also put together a short video with some of my pictures/videos I took today:

In case you’re interested, here’s the link to the Viera Wetlands website:
Viera Wetlands- Home

On the way home we passed this sign. Unfortunately, we were too late to discover what the PMS problem is, but it must be pretty good since this is the second part. I can’t imagine what two sermons on this topic would entail, but I’m sure it’d be enlightening. Or something like that.

“All the best stories are about love.”

Red River Gorge, Kentucky, November 2011
Baltimore, Maryland, June 2011

“That which I have learned I leave as my legacy.
Close all gates behind yourself.
Every generation should have its own Bible.
The walls we erect to protect Ourselves from early pain often shut us off from later joy.
To immerse oneself in the natural world is to share a universal thread with every living thing.
Always declare yourself to the person you love.
Live each day not as though it is your last, but as though it is the last day of the lives of the people you meet.
All the best stories are about love.”

Merritt Island NWR, Florida, February 2012

Howard Frank Mosher
from the book On Kingdom Mountain

A Day At the Beach

Sit.
Damp sand.
Watch waves roll.
Wind pulls the ear.
Listen, it says, feel me.
Sun at my back, warm, bright.
Shorebirds scurry, fast fast probe, take flight.
Beyond the waves dolphins flash, light gray blurs.
A pelican dives, comes up empty, and tries again.
The sand is soothingly cool between my toes, firmly soft.
Why am I here, I wonder, how is my being me? 
Why this spot, this desolate stretch of shore, with seaweed and shells?
A sanderling quickly trots by, and it suddenly all doesn’t matter.
In this moment all is well, the air is clear.
I can see for miles all around except behind.
Forward changes every time I turn my head.
As the sandpiper flies, I’m already there.
Sun shows the way, reveals wonder.
Wind whispers comforts, gentle mantras.
I stand, ready now.
Direction steels conviction.
First step.
Go. 
~~~
 
I wrote this today while I was sitting on the beach at Canaveral National Seashore, playing with words. It took me much longer than it should have because I was slightly distracted about halfway through, and it was very difficult to resume my original train of thought.
If you ever go to Canaveral National Seashore, I would not recommend visiting parking lot 5, the last parking lot from the northern entrance (Apollo Beach). Not knowing any better, I parked there. I meandered down the beach a ways, then sat down to write in my journal.
Not where I sat. I have no idea how this got out here, or what it’s from.
As I was writing, an older man walks by. I glance up and wish I hadn’t. I see his feet first, sneakers, white tube socks, and then… let’s just say there was a distinct lack of material around his nether regions. It was cold out, the breeze was pretty chilly, so he also had on a windbreaker. To keep warm.
I also happened to see said gentleman again when he came off the beach (fully clothed, thank goodness; and this was completely unintentional on my part, I was trying to avoid him) and I must say he would have been sent home from Highland Middle School—his shorts were not fingertip length.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Stop 5 is where the nudists go, because it’s out on the end. The beach stretching south is undeveloped for miles, until you get to Playalinda Beach, the part of Canaveral National Seashore nearest Merritt Island NWR. There, it’s Stop 12, the furthest parking lot north, that’s the nudist part.
I’ve been told that the beach here was traditionally a nudist beach, but when the NPS took it over there was some confrontation between nudists, NPS, and the local police. Now there is an unofficial agreement that the nudists will go to the furthest stops, and no one will bother them. However, they don’t exactly have this up on a sign, so how are we innocent tourists supposed to know this?
Nude willet: acceptable. Nude old men: not so much.
Reminds me of when I was in Oregon, and we went to a hot springs alongside a stream near the field station. The pool was slightly larger than a hot tub, barely enough room for the four of us (and, actually, not all that hot). We are all in bathing suits, I should point out. A man walks up and, in front of us, proceeds to strip and then get in with us. We were sitting in the deeper, warmer parts, so he was in the ankle-deep section. Quite suddenly we all realized we were ready to head out, and quickly did so.
My eyeballs are still burning.

You learn something new every day…

“Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you always will.” 
— Vernon Howard
 
They say you learn something new every day. Well, on Sunday my something new was learning how to shoot a handgun. It was an interesting experience. Wayne, one of the USFWS guys who works over at Headquarters took us interns (Patrick, Meghan and myself) to the shooting range, where he is a range officer, to fire off some rounds. 
Patrick, one of my fellow interns, showing off and shooting one-handed. He’s had some experience.
  
Prior to Sunday afternoon, my only experience with guns was of the squirt and glue variety, and that blow gun in Ecuador. Not that I would know, but it seemed to me that none of those are quite like a Beretta, though at least the blow gun had the potential to be lethal (if your dart was tipped in poison, which ours weren’t. Or so they told us…).
Meghan taking her turn. She, like me, had never fired a gun before.
 
Needless to say, I was slightly apprehensive about holding a real-life actual gun, let alone pulling the trigger. Burning yourself and gluing your fingers together with hot melted glue is one thing, shooting a hole in your foot quite another. However, once I figured out how to aim the thing properly, I wasn’t such a bad shot. We were shooting at metal plates, and in my final rounds I managed to hit about six in a row before my eyes would get too out-of-focus and I’d miss. And I’ll admit it, my arms got tired. It’s hard to hold your arms straight out in front of you like that for extended periods of time. 
Picture proof I actually did it!
 Though I’m probably not going to be rushing out and purchasing a gun for myself, I did enjoy the experience more than I thought I would. And, I think knowing how to handle a gun safely is an important thing to know. Knowing how to fire one safely could potentially come in handy someday, if I ever have the chance to use a tranquilizer gun perhaps. I’m sure they’re exactly like either handguns or glue guns. 
~~~
On Monday (my weekends are Sunday and Mondays) I went kayaking with some of the volunteers from the refuge: Trish, Betty, Roz, and Trish’s friend, Mary. We launched from the boat ramp near Trish’s house in Cocoa Beach and spent a morning paddling around in the mangroves and canals. It was fantastic.
Trish heading into the mangroves
Mary and Betty
 Betty loves the mangroves, and she loves to tell people about them, so the morning was not only fun but educational. She had us all lick black mangrove leaves, to taste the salt secreted on them. Surprisingly, I managed to teach her a few things too, about preen glands and how not every species of bird has them (during my research on parrot coloration I learned that some parrots and a few other birds, ostrich being one, don’t have them). We also discussed feather lice, ticks on birds (and people) and feather-degrading bacteria and fungi. You know, normal things to talk about with friends while kayaking. And, I will have you know, I did not bring up any of those subjects, I just added to the conversation. It started when we saw an anhinga preening and went from there. 
 
Hanging out with the volunteers is always a hoot, they’re all so interesting and such characters. I’ve long ago realized that being old is a state of mind; you’re never too old to do what you love and what gives you joy. 
Someone had anchored this plastic chair in the middle of the mangroves, probably to sit in while they fished. The water is only a few feet deep, and the chair is sunk into the muck.
 
And, in other non-related exciting news (but since when does anything exciting ever have to be related?) my little brother Eric was named Employee of the Month at the Enclave!!! 
I heard the news yesterday, when I called home and was told he had some news he needed to share with me. We had the usual game of 10,000 questions:
Me: “What’s your news Eric?”
Eric: [silence] 
Me: “It’s something at work?”
Eric: “Yes.”  [silence] 
Me: “Do you get to clean the toilets now?”
Eric: “No.”
Me: “Well that’s good, you don’t want to do that anyway.”
Eric: [silence] 
Me: “Come on Eric, just tell me, I want to know your news!”
Eric: [silence]
Mom: “Just tell her what it is.”
Dad: “Finish what’s in your mouth and then tell her.” (They were eating dinner when I called, and put me on speaker phone). “Stop cramming more in there and finish chewing.”
 
 After a few more minutes in this vein I was given the clues “I got a certificate,” “They spelled employee wrong, they forgot an l” and “But they spelled the month right.” We eventually put everything together to determine the good news. YAY Eric! I’m so proud of you!!
AND, I found his picture on the website! Here he is hard at work landscaping (I think it must have been staged, because he looks way too clean to be actually working. I’ve seen his clothes when he gets home from work). Eric is the one in the brown Brown’s hoodie, in the picture under the words “Supportive Employment.”

Greetings from Sunny Florida!

Currently, I am residing in Florida, on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. I live in the bunkhouse on the refuge, sharing space with four other people. It is a great building, only a few years old, and very comfortable. As far as free housing goes, this is just about as good as it gets. My only gripe is the toilet paper dispenser. I fail to understand why putting the dispenser below the level of the toilet seat is handy. I have to bend over completely, chest touching my legs, and then reach down, hitting my hand (and the tp) on the floor, in order to get some toilet paper. As I’ve been here a month now I’ve perfected my tp grabbing skills and can usually manage to avoid it hitting the floor.
Stupid toilet-paper holder.
 I should probably now also mention that any views expressed here on my blog are my own, and in no way reflect the views of the Student Conservation Association (who placed me in this internship), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (who my internship is with), or NASA. I shall now refrain from making a comment regarding the government and the toilet paper holder placement.
The Vehicle Assembly Building. It’s so tall that when they first built it clouds formed at the ceiling, they had to install fans. I think they used to assemble space shuttles and rockets in there.
Some weird golf-ball thingie, there might be some kind of radar or satellite in there, I’m not sure.
 
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is a unique place, and one that I am finding myself to enjoy more than I thought I would (I mean, it’s Florida and flat, no mountains, but the awesome birds here make up for it). Originally the 140,000 acres of the refuge were bought up by NASA for the Kennedy Space Center, the majority of the land as a buffer zone around the NASA buildings and launch pads. Eventually U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service got involved and turned the rest of the land into Merritt Island NWR and Canaveral National Seashore, which encompasses seven different habitat types: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes and estuaries (that’s two), freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks, all of which contain copious mosquitoes (to which I can personally attest). Canaveral National Seashore is part of the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in Florida, stretching 24 miles down the eastern coast. These areas are home for over 1,500 species of plants and animals, including 15 Threatened or Endangered species. “With an excellent long-term working relationship among NASA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, this unique area is a shining example of how nature and technology can peacefully co-exist.” (from the Merritt Island NWR website, which I recommend for further details on the history of MINWR).
And they mean it too. The guard at the pass booth has a gun, I hear. I wouldn’t know, I’m not authorized to go on NASA property yet.
Sunset from one of the impoundment roads
 
I am a Public Use Intern, which means I work at the Visitor Center, sometimes helping with school groups, sometimes manning the front desk and showing people where to go to see roseate spoonbills, and sometimes doing fun intern stuff like organizing filing cabinets. Whenever I get too over-stimulated by the filing I go play with Buddy, my supervisor’s pet red rat snake. I’m currently working on a presentation about red rat snakes, so I’m sure pictures and more information will be coming soon. I also get to help with the Eagle Watch, where we set up spotting scopes on a bald eagle nest and show visitors the eaglets jumping around. Pictures of that are also forthcoming.
Two great egrets
One of the roughly 5,000 gators on the refuge. This guy (or gal) is probably about 10ft long.
A northern mockingbird reading one of the signs along Black Point Wildlife Drive. The birds here are smart!
 
Merritt Island is a wonderful place, especially for birds. The birding is fantastic—I’ve been here a month now and still haven’t seen everything I’d like to or gotten bored. Just today at the feeders behind the Visitor Center we had painted buntings and a white-winged dove. You know you work somewhere cool when you can casually glance out the window and see painted buntings all day.
Painted buntings, male (on left) and female (on right). There are three pairs that frequent our feeders.
I am very much looking forward to my next two months here, getting to experience and know this amazing place!