Another Successful Year

In honor of RTPI’s Wild America Wednesday, we thought it would be appropriate to celebrate another successful year of RTPI’s Project Wild America (PWA) Youth Ambassadors Program! Beginning in 2015, PWA began with a small group of ambitious students ready to roll up their sleeves and get dirty as they got acquainted with the Chadakoin River and the surrounding urban ecosystem within the City of Jamestown. Fast-forward to 2017, our crew has grown as have as our projects. We hope you enjoy this selection of photos from the summer season as well as the report for this year’s program.

From the first day, our students could tell they were in for a fun summer! To help our students get to know one another, we split them into teams and had them compete in a relay race, testing their knowledge and agility! Here Makenna races towards the “pond” to capture a fish.


The theme of our first week focused on learning about Roger Tory Peterson and the birds that inspired him. Here our students practice their birding skills in Willard Park, where Roger spent time as a young boy.


During our first week, and weeks after we conducted bird banding with PWA students.


Alex Shipherd, SUNY Fredonia biology student and past PWA crew leader, removes a Chestnut-sided warbler from a mist net. Alex assisted in all bird banding operations throughout the summer.


Alex, with the help of Tiffany Donaldson past PWA crew member, place the warbler in a holding bag to keep it calm before it receives its band.


At the end of each banding day our students assisted Alex in taking nets down.


Our students took part in leading many educational programs throughout the summer, reaching hundreds of people within the community and inspiring them to become better stewards of our unique environment.


PWA Youth Ambassadors engaged visitors at this years inaugural McCrea Point Park Festival.


They also joined they Mayor and city officials in the official re-opening of the park since its renovations.


At the festival, students showed off our very first captured Musk turtle marked for study.


After the festival, our students focused on invasive species, biodiversity and lots more turtle trapping.


Students pull and check turtle traps.


PWA students even got to do a little kayaking to explore the upper parts of the Chadakoin River/Chautauqua Lake Outlet and record as many species as possible.


While PWA tabled different events, they often surveyed the public to get their input on different environmental topics. Here, our crew leader Becky Rew asked visitors to RTPI’s Wild America Festival about biodiversity.


PWA students also helped raise awareness of the Eastern Hellbender by dressing up as SAM (Slimy And Misunderstood) the hellbender.


Our students put in a lot of hard work at the Wild America Festival!


As the last week came to a close, PWA students focused on water quality and sampled for microplastics and various macroinvertebrates.


After taking samples in the field, our students took to the lab to test their samples.


Here our students process a water sample in search of small plastic particles.


The samples were further processed and our students learned how harmful plastics can be!


After six weeks of hard work, the 2017 PWA Youth Ambassador program came to a close and our students gave a final presentation to community members about what they had found.

For more information, check out our report here and to read more about our adventures and findings visit!

Welcome Our New Crew Leaders

Please join us in welcoming this year’s Project Wild America Youth Ambassador Crew Leaders, Morgan Motherwell and Becky Rew! Morgan participated in PWA last year as a crew member and has completed her first year at the Rochester Institute of Technology where she is studying Environmental Science. Becky joins us from Jamestown Community College, where she studied Environmental Science as well. Becky will be transferring to SUNY ESF this fall to pursue Conservation Biology. Both of these wonderful young ladies will be leading our crew through a busy summer season, exploring Jamestown’s wild side and connecting the community to the life that lives in their backyards!

Rebecca (Becky) Rew is on the left and Morgan Motherwell on the right.

Calling All Students

Are you interested in pursuing a career in environmental biology or environmental education? Are you a junior or senior in high school, or a college student looking for an exciting summer packed with relevant experience? Please consider joining the Roger Tory Peterson Institute’s Project Wild America Youth Ambassador program. Through this program you’ll have the opportunity to work alongside RTPI biologists and staff as they investigate, monitor and improve habitat for unusual and threatened species in the City of Jamestown, as well as raise public awareness and increase community engagement.

For those interested, applications in PDF can be picked up at RTPI or found here:

PWA Crew Leader Application 2017
PWA Crew Application 2017

Completed applications can be dropped off in person or emailed to Elyse Henshaw at ehenshaw AT

RTPI is very excited for what the upcoming field season has in store, and look forward to once again being immersed in water, mud and adventure alongside another great crew of students that will be doing the same as we explore and discover the natural wonders within the boundaries of our own city!

Getting Started with Project Wild America

Although I’ve lived in Jamestown for a number of years, last Tuesday was the first time I’d seen a spiny softshell turtle up close.  It was just basking in the sun with a shiny shell and body that sort of resembled a large gray pancake.  I was pretty excited to see this goofy-looking turtle in the Chadakoin over by the Gateway Center. Spiny Softshell turtles are just one unique species that lives along the Chadakoin River here in Jamestown, and this species of turtle is one of several species that will be monitored by the Roger Tory Peterson Institute’s Project Wild America program this summer.

Spiny Softshell adult female

This is a female Spiny Softshell Turtle, one of many occupying the Chadakoin River corridor.

My name is Heather Zimba.  I’m from Jamestown and am currently studying environmental science at SUNY JCC.  I was recently fortunate to be hired as a Project Wild America crew leader along with Adolf Zollinger.  As PWA crew leader’s we will be leading a group of high school students in conducting conservation projects along the Chadakoin River this summer.


Myself and fellow crew leader Adolf Zollinger had the opportunity to visit Letchworth State Park last week for our iMapInvasives training.

Our PWA crew will be observing and documenting the populations of various species, including the spiny softshell turtle and common musk turtle.  Some of our other projects will include: conducting water quality tests, sampling for micro-plastics in the Chadakoin and holding several educational events in the community.

Testing the Chadakoin for the presence of micro-plastics.

Testing the Chadakoin during the 2015 field season for the presence of micro-plastics.

Through our observations and surveys we are hoping to gain more knowledge about our native and invasive species along the Chadakoin.  We are planning to collect data that can be used to gauge species populations, distributions and health.  We are also planning to use macro-invertebrate surveys and water samples to test and give an indication of the water quality of the Chadakoin River.  Once we have collected this data we will communicate our results to the public and city officials to increase their awareness of the Chadakoin River’s ecosystem.

WAVE Training (2)

WAVE (Water Assessments by Volunteer Evaluators) sampling requires kicking up macroinvertebrates from the streambed and collecting them in fine-meshed kick nets.

In preparation for our surveys and fieldwork, Adolf and I have been training and reviewing protocol that we will be using to conduct surveys.  Last week we reviewed Water Assessment Volunteer Evaluator (WAVE) protocol and attended an invasive species training, which included training using iMap Invasives, a database used to map out invasive species. We have also visited and selected various field sites along the Chadakoin, including McCrea Point Park, Panzarella Park, the Riverwalk, Chadakoin Park, Millrace Park, and the Levant (where the Chadakoin turns into the Cassadaga) where we will be conducting our surveys.

iMapInvasives Screenshot

iMapInvasives will be a handy tool in mapping invasive species along the Chadakoin this summer.

We have selected eight high school students from the area to participate in the PWA program.  This year’s applicants are all high achieving, well-rounded students.  I believe we are going to have a great group to work with and carry out the various projects we have planned. I am very excited to be involved with this program and I look forward to going out and studying the Spiny Softshell turtle population and various other species along the Chadakoin, and then sharing this information with the community.

Final Thoughts

When we first started trying to catch the Spiny Softshell turtles, we didn’t really know what to expect. It seemed like it would be easy enough, but we soon learned just how elusive these animals are. Despite our best efforts, we have yet to catch one specimen of this interesting reptile. However, we can honestly say we’ve learned a lot since our first few days in the river, and have developed a technique that seems promising. In fact, this whole experience has been an eye-opener for us, and we have come away from it with a new viewpoint on the Chadakoin and nature in general.

Final  Thoughts:

Griffin: One thing that I knew from the beginning of the project was that I would enjoy it, and I really have. We have only spent six weeks on the river but I have definitely learned a ton about the river in our backyards and the species that live in and around it. I’m excited to hopefully inspire people to take a closer look at the nature right in the middle of the city. Also, even though we were short of catching a Spiny Softshell Turtle, we have learned about them from simply observing them and trying to catch them. They’re very fast and seem to always be on alert, like they knew we were coming for them. It would have been exciting to catch one, but we did everything we could. Overall, this summer was a huge learning experience for me and I had a lot of fun as well.Spiny Male Swimming

Matt: Growing up, I always had an interest in nature, and I loved to observe wildlife. This project has helped me to develop my interest and stewardship of the environment. In order to utilize our natural resources, it is also necessary to protect them. The Chadakoin River is no exception, as it is a hidden treasure right in the middle of Jamestown. Previously, I never would have considered it to be treasure; I was under the misconception that it was highly polluted and that it only had carp in it. However, I learned that this is not true, as the river is teeming with a plethora of species. Therefore, it is important to teach people to respect it and to be good stewards, too. I am glad that I was able to be a part of this project, and I am confident that it will continue to be successful in the future.

Chadakoin Habitat

Adolf: When two of my high school teachers first showed me the application for this project, I was immediately interested. Now that there is only a few days left, I can honestly say I learned even more than I expected. Despite living in WNY for my entire life, there are some species of plants and animals present here that I had no idea existed. Even more important than learning about the huge variety of species in the area, was getting to see how unique of an environment the Chadakoin provides. At first glance, it looks like a small river that just so happens to run through Jamestown. However, once you have the opportunity to explore it, you will soon realize how much habitat it provides. Besides the rocky, faster moving part that passes by many of the residential areas in Jamestown, water from the Chadakoin allows healthy wetlands to exist near McCrea Point. It really has been fantastic to be able to learn more about the wildlife and natural beauty that can flourish so close to highly developed parts of the city.


Hailey: This summer has been full of new and exciting experiences. In the beginning everything started out slow, getting used to the area and building the traps. After becoming acquainted with the Riverwalk area, and eventually the water itself, we began to really get into our main goals for the summer. Unfortunately, catching the turtles that we were expecting to catch did not happen. Overall, having this experience and being able to join RTPI on this turtle hunt has been amazing. It has opened up my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities in the science field. I now can identify plants and animals that I couldn’t before, I am also able to teach friends and family a little more about the environment the next time that we go on a hike, go camping or go on an adventure outside.

Hailey holding a snapper

Jeremy: The past six weeks have contained some of the most interesting days of my life. The natural world has always been an interest of mine. As a young lad I looked forward to our family nature walks. Discovering new trails, plants and sights instilled within me a lust for adventure. Finally, through this program, I have been provided the opportunity to be on the other side of the adventure. I, along with the other youth ambassadors and our supervisors, have been the individuals tasked with preserving this adventure. Although we might not remember many, if any at all, we learned of the many different species of plant, tree, bird and animal. We studied the health of a forest with the help of forester Jeff Brockelbank and examined the importance of repopulating different fish species in the lake. We found and studied all the varying species within the presumed unlivable Chadakoin river and learned that it is not nearly as dirty as people believe. It is difficult to express how the information and experience gained through the past few weeks is invaluable as it can be applied at any moment when out in the wild and I hope to never stop learning about the natural world around us.

Jermey & Matt with Musk Turtle

Erros: I have seen the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History’s logo before and I have faint memories of coming to the institute as child on multiple different field trips, through my school and other programs.  I think the association I made between the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History and animals, insects, birds, and nature in general is what made me spark the interest in the logo on the application and eventually deciding to pick one up. That decision in that split moment is what enabled me to get to where I am now, studying nature with all my curiosity and being paid to do something I love. I’m proud to be a part of this wild project and participate in all of the adventures we have been in. I like to be able to find myself identifying damselflies one day and then get a notification telling me to go to this spot on the river to hunt down these smart and slippery ancient dinosaurs the next day. Even though we have had little luck with getting our hands on the Spiny Softshell Turtle I am still very optimistic. I believe that we can out smart these almost fossils and do what humans have been doing for millions of years, use our immense brains to checkmate these turtles and equip ourselves with our resourceful tools to do so. We have done a lot this summer and I feel accomplished with our project, but these turtles will be our final test to see who has really learned something, and I believe will pass with flying colors.

Nature Taking Over

It was three summers ago when I was first introduced to the Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera). I was in the back of Twan Leenders’ (RTPI President) car along with a couple of my Jamestown Community College professors with eyes peering through binoculars, attempting to get a better look. Having seen these turtles in more “remote” locations along Conewango Creek and the Allegheny River, I never expected these turtles to be in such an urban center. Growing up my perception of the river, like most others, was that the Chadakoin was too developed and too dirty to support life such as these incredibly odd creatures. However, I was pleasantly surprised that day, and have been more and more surprised each day I have spent on the river since then.

Excavating Female

As I now walk the Riverwalk with our Youth Ambassadors, I am taken back at how nature is staking its claim within the city and poking through cement walls, abandoned buildings, old train tracks and more. Where nature gets its hold, it takes over what was originally its’ own. Amazingly enough, I have noticed that nature not only takes over man-made structures, but also takes over man as well.


While we have worked along the river over the past couple of weeks we have been immersed in nature’s beauty and uniqueness surrounding the Chadakoin River corridor. It’s been a joy to see each of our students gain a deep interest and understanding of the habitats and species within the area we are studying. I think nature has begun to take our students over and I am excited to see what they learn from it as we continue our work together.