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Updates from the Field Naturalist

Post by Ben Lemmond, UVM Field Naturalist

Just for a moment, rewind your mental tape back late March of of this year: that time when everybody starts talking about spring (because, you know, the equinox and all) but, if you live in New England, the actual idea of anything turning green anytime soon seems pretty far-fetched. It’s that magical time of year when the petrified dog poop and cigarette butts of last Fall start to emerge from underneath the ash-colored snow on city sidewalks, not to be covered up by anything green for another two months. Poet and author Ranier Maria Rilke once said “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” Think back to early spring. Even in that grey season, with the gears of spring still stuck in neutral, what big moments were setting the stage so that they unfold as soon as things warmed up?

It was around this time of year when I found out that I would be working with the Hurricane Island Foundation for my master’s project, though I hadn’t a clue what exactly that would mean. Being a graduate student, I’ve learned, means constantly doing things you feel wildly unprepared to do. It’s a special kind of limbo, one where you’re constantly travelling between paradoxical versions of yourself: student and teacher, professional and newbie, expert and idiot savant. This way of life almost guarantees surprises, since everything moves too quickly for any part of it to become familiar. Suddenly I am standing in front of a lab room full of college sophomores, explaining how to pipette solutions through a channel slide with a thin slice of rabbit psoas muscle mounted on it, in the hopes of making it twitch with the right combination of solutions. In what strange spring was that vision of myself planted?

Field fashion

I’ve now been on Hurricane for four full weeks, conducting an initial ecological survey and developing my own coarse-filter map of general landscape and vegetation patterns here. This means that I’ve been spending most of my time wandering through the island with a canvas bag full of nature-nerd paraphernalia: field guides, a GPS, binoculars, a hand lens, plants to be pressed, many of these items (except the plants) cycling through my free hands and pockets or slung around my neck, depending on the terrain and the amount of backup I needed to make my way knowledgeably through it. I have to admit, this task has been more challenging than I expected, mostly because the better I feel I understand the plant communities here, the more fragmented, temporary, and in transition they appear to me.

The flip side of this apparent chaos is that every day in the field is another opportunity to be surprised. The other day, I found the island’s one and only eastern white pine next to the island’s one and only red maple on a hillside of an obscure outwash I decided to explore on a whim, after my field foray was officially over for the day. White pines and hardwoods certainly used to be a presence on Maine islands, but were almost entirely cleared for shipbuilding or lumber by the mid-1800s. On a 125-acre island where many of the spruce are ageing out, the presence of these two species is significant, even though I don’t know exactly what to make of it yet.

An interesting facet of the island is that, species-wise, there are many of these lone individuals here: in addition to the pine and the maple, there is exactly one American elm, one grey willow, one royal fern, and one steeplebush here – at least that I’ve found after four weeks of walk-throughs. The other week, a bird-banding class caught the first robin and red-eyed vireo that any of us had seen on the island. Anywhere else, many of these species would be completely unremarkable. But on this island where things are moving constantly and complexly, a place where chance encounters often teach me more than what I set out to look for, even a robin or a pine tree regains some of the magic of something seen for the first time. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true: I have never been so excited to see a pine tree. That might not be what I write in my official report at the end of it all, but for now, I’m really enjoying the way that being on a small island brings these small surprises in to sharp focus.

Ben Lemmond is a graduate student in the Field Naturalist program at the University of Vermont. Learn more about the program at: http://www.uvm.edu/~fntrlst/

Looking out from the high cliffs

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20th International Pectinid Workshop in Galway, Ireland

Conducting drop camera surveys on Muscle Ridge in 2013.

Conducting drop camera surveys on Muscle Ridge in 2013.

I booked my flight to Shannon, Ireland on St. Patrick's Day! In early March 2015, I found out that two abstracts I submitted on behalf of the scallop project team were accepted to be presented at the 20th International Pectinid Workshop in Galway, Ireland. The workshop has been organized around several themes including general scallop ecology and biology, aquaculture, fisheries management, and marine protected areas. The event will bring together scientists, managers, and others who work on scallop fisheries research. It provides an amazing opportunity to build my foundational knowledge on scallop biology, plus get some helpful hints on how to improve our project or other potential analyses to do to understand the effectiveness of small-scale closures in rebuilding the resident scallop population. I also have the opportunity to co-chair the plenary session - Marine Protected Areas with marine ecologist and fisheries biologist, Bryce Beukers-Stewart.

My oral presentation will be entitled, "The effect of small-scale closed areas on giant sea scallop populations in Maine" and the poster will focus on the collaborative project approach including lessons learned through working with a diverse group of fishermen, managers, and scientists. I am looking forward to writing additional blog posts to share what I learn while at the workshop. 

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Dive Master Training 101

On December 12, 13, and 14th, 2014, I began my dive master training with Blue Horizons Dive Center in Glen Mills, PA. By gaining this certification, I will be able to lead other certified divers on local diving excursions and build my confidence in supervising interns who dive with the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership as part of research projects. Successfully earning this certification will also bring me one step closer to getting an instructor certification which means we could provide dive training opportunities as part of our programming on Hurricane Island. 

To earn the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) dive master certification, an individual must complete timed waterskill exercises and challenges; master underwater demonstration-quality skills including how to conduct a diver rescue, how to complete the 24 skills in the basic open water skills circuit (e.g. partial and full mask clearing, swimming without a mask), and how to accomplish practical skills (e.g. dive site setup and management, mapping a dive site, giving a dive briefing, and executing a search and recovery scenario); demonstrate they can teach workshops including SCUBA Review in confined water, skin diver course and snorkeling supervision, discover scuba program in confined water, and discover local diving in open water; complete practical assessments in working with open water diver students in confined and open water, continuing education students divers in open water, and certified divers in open water; and demonstrate their knowledge with a final exam. Finally, dive master candidates are also evaluated on their professionalism. 

In the video, I was in the midst of working through my first skill circuit as part of my dive master training. I definitely have a lot to learn and improve upon. For example, I'm not always using the correct hand signals and I don't quite have a great handle on my buoyancy which is an extremely important component of diving to limit damage to the marine environment. Going forward, I am excited to continue to improve upon the skill circuit and increase my comfort level with teaching scuba skills rather than just practicing them while conducting dives for the scallop project. Stay tuned next month for more updates about my progress! 

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Forest Health Assessment Results

Post by Chloe Tremper, Science and Education Intern 2014

Throughout this past summer, I have gotten to know the forests of Hurricane very well, particularly the spruce-fir stand on the northern half of the island along Slocum’s Trail.  Red spruce (Picea rubens) is by far the most dominant species on the island but is generally only found in the interior the spruce-fir stand on the island.  White spruce (Picea glauca) lines the edges of the stand along trails and the coast but is completely absent from the interior of the stand.  This reflects the white spruces near inability to survive in suppressed conditions and reproduce in closed canopy conditions.  Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is the last species of tree I found within my study area and the least abundant.  However, when it was found it was generally in plots near the coast and it was always found in concentrated groups.

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   Coring a red spruce to count growth rings to estimate age

Coring a red spruce to count growth rings to estimate age

Very few of the trees within my sampling area had reached their full growth potential, despite some of them being well over one hundred years old.  This can mostly be attributed to having grown in a less than favorable environment with high competition for very limited resources among individual trees.  Hurricane’s climate (particularly its regular inundation of ocean fog) and shallow, acidic soils are two factors making the island a harsh environment for the trees to survive in. 

Overall, Hurricane’s spruce-fir stand is doing pretty well.  Fire is the biggest risk currently facing Hurricane’s forest due to the massive amount of dead woody debris on the forest floor and the fact that spruce needles are extremely flammable.  The possibility of windthrow (when trees are uprooted by wind) is also fairly high due to the shallow soils and the naturally shallow rooting systems of spruce and fir trees. There is also the potential for an infestation of witches’ broom (a dense mass of shoots growing from a single point off a tree caused by variety of things – generally fungi or a virus) as it is already present on some of the spruce trees along the eastern coast of the island. 

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The Art of Scientific Illustration

Northern Black Racer Lifecycle, Zoe Keller

Northern Black Racer Lifecycle, Zoe Keller

I wanted to share a few thoughts about the importance and relevance of scientific illustrations in effectively investigating and communicating science. During the programs we run on Hurricane Island for students, we often dedicate time to nature journaling and drawing from observations of newly collected samples or specimens.

Why bother drawing when you can just snap a photograph? For one thing, drawing forces you to look more carefully at every detail of your subject as you depict it on the page. Illustrations can also simultaneously show several different stages of development, multiple angles, and highlight specific characteristics of the subject while still keeping it in the context of its environment. Most importantly, drawing allows you to omit distracting information to help focus the viewer on the details that are key to identifying an organism, or are important to that subject's life history. Zoe Keller has a beautiful example of this in her illustration of the lifecycle of Maine's Northern Black Racer snake Coluber constrictor (you can see more of her illustrations in her blog, Compass and Wheel). In one compelling image, Zoe is able to convey important information about how the pattern of Coluber constrictor is different from juvenile to adult snakes, what this snake's eggs look like, the structural anatomy of this snake's ribs and vertebra, and how snakes shed their skin.

If you think you can't draw, never fear! You don't need to be an expert artist to take down valuable visual information that can inform you back in the lab more reliably than photography. Even if you start with simple gestural drawings that note an organism's movement, or sketches that inform coloration, patterning, and shape, this can supplement your field notes and help you remember more about what you observed.

If you are interested in reading more about how to make good observations, the importance of illustration, or want to see some great examples from different naturalists field notebooks, I recommend Field Notes on Science & Nature, edited by Michael R. Canfield.

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