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.org.

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!

First Thoughts

Griffin: After last year I was content with what we accomplished as a group, but there’s always room for improvement. This year we are only one week in and it seems as if we are on track to expand on last year’s successes. No matter what we are doing, whether it be mapping invasive species or swimming neck-deep in the Chadakoin, the group consistently tackles every task with teamwork and positivity. As I look at the other crew members along with myself, it is clear that we all genuinely enjoy working with the river and everything nature has to offer. Lastly, I know that we will do great things this year and finally catch ourselves a Spiny Softshell Turtle.

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Griffin and Tony in action de-contaminating the seine net.

Tony: At first glance the Chadakoin River is a vile body of water but upon careful investigation, it is thriving. Most people in the area are completely opposed to the idea of ever swimming in the river. I, like many others, would’ve never imagined swimming in the Chadakoin River. This first week of Project Wild America, I have been in the river 3 days. I saw my very first spiny softshell turtle on my second day of work by the Riverwalk. It was quite the sight since it was preparing to lay its eggs in the mulch around a tree. I can’t wait to be able to capture a spiny softshell and accomplish what last year’s group could not.

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First day on the Riverwalk, we observed this Spiny Soft-Shelled Turtle digging a nest in the mulch.

Drew P: The last question I was asked in my interview was “You’re not going to have any problem getting into the water and getting dirty, right?” I didn’t know that I was going to be getting dirty so soon, though, as I was swimming in the Chadakoin with a net in my right hand looking for turtles on my second day. Crazy. Most people in Jamestown would probably think I would have many fatal diseases if I told them that I did that. We saw a Spiny Softshell Turtle early that day, digging in the mulch, prompting my colleague, Griffin Noon, to write an extraordinary piece, “Spiny on the Mulch.” (which will be posted as a blog soon).

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Tony and Drew mapping out some invasive varieties of cat-tails.

Tiffany: Prior to the start of this project, I was not aware of the thriving ecosystem that was right here in Jamestown. I’ve only been a member for about a week, but I have already seen a plethora of species that I did not know lived here. For instance, I never knew the spiny soft shell turtle lived right next to Jamestown’s River Walk. My first sighting of this creature was only a few days ago. I wouldn’t even consider this job “work”. Everything we do, I seem to enjoy. The 7 or so hours we spend out on the field go by so fast. I remember in different settings (such as school) the same amount of time would seem to drag on. This is how I know where my passion lies, and I cannot wait to see what else Project Wild America has in store for me!

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We used these hoop traps to catch several painted turtles in the Chautauqua Lake outlet.

Emma: The second day working with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute for Project Wild America, the elusive spiny soft-shell turtle made an appearance. Of course, before starting with RTPI, I heard many disgruntled stories of missed opportunities of catching such a species. Therefore it was quite shocking when we saw one the first day in the field. Speaking for myself, this slight glimpse into the secrets of the Chadakoin River and the life of the spinys excited me even more for the opportunities this summer holds. Though turtle catching is not the main goal of Project Wild America, it is a big one and I cannot wait to see what other opportunities the Chadakoin and surrounding wildlife have to offer.

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Emma holding one of the many sucker fish we caught on the Chadakoin.

Morgan: At the end of my first week as a part of the Project Wild America Youth Ambassador Program, it was evident to me that humans and our communities have had and continue to have a major impact on the world around us. Garbage is dumped along tree lines, plastic bags are found in caught on rocks in the Chadakoin River, where factories once were dominant. Never once would I have thought that in the middle of a bustling city, that there would be such plentiful life. Nevertheless, hundreds of species of trees grow without bounds, insects fly continuously through the air, and spiny soft shelled turtles, although not always seen, are thriving in this little part of New York State.

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The PWA crew setting up the seine net in an effort to catch the elusive spiny soft-shelled turtles

Mike: Our first couple days at the Chadakoin started out wet, which is a good indication of how the rest of the summer will go. Not only did we walk the river but we attempted to catch turtles the second day as well. Whether it was setting up traps at McCrea point or holding a seine net within the city to, we have already gained an abundance of knowledge and experience about the river.

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Here, we have set up the seine net and are waiting for the other half of the crew to drive the turtles into the net.

Erros: Although we have much to improve upon this upcoming season, I believe last year was very successful. This year though, we will be focusing more on keeping the project more organized and producing more presentable results. Getting around to the different spots that we frequently visited last year definitely brings back great memories and has built much excitement in me. This year we have decided to jump right in with our plans, literally, by getting our feet wet and hands dirty and getting our first feel for the season of our local environment. I have always been curious of nature and can’t wait to not only become more educated on it and do my own research, but also help educate our local community. There’s nothing like spending the hot day in the water turtle trappin’ and I am very grateful to the people of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute for the chance to learn from them, work for them, and help the community through them.

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Elyse and Erros examining a red-spotted newt found in the JCC Woodlot

Returning to the Chadakoin

Passing through the center of Jamestown, the Chadakoin river has always been the focal point of the city. No matter how much the city continues to change and develop around it, the steady flow of water from Chautauqua Lake has remained constant. To help conserve this valuable natural resource, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute will soon select eight of the brightest high school students in the area to become Project Wild America Youth Ambassadors. Along with their two crew leaders (myself and Heather Zimba) they will spend the summer studying the Chadakoin River Corridor, and encouraging the people of Jamestown to enjoy and preserve the wildlife that lives here.

To help guide the Youth Ambassadors, I was selected as one of the crew leaders. I’m Adolf Zollinger, and I am a sophomore at Jamestown Community College. I am a part of the Environmental Science program, and plan on transferring to SUNY ESF to continue learning about the natural world. Besides working with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in 2015, I also worked as a field biologist for Western Ecosystems Technology, Inc.

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Last summer I assisted in turtle trapping and learned how to properly set and bait traps.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to be one of the crew members of Project Wild America. Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the publication of Roger Tory Peterson’s Wild America, our intention was to continue the work of Mr. Peterson by preserving and documenting the fantastic array of wildlife that is here in Jamestown. Despite suffering from the effects of heavy industrial activity in the 1900’s, the Chadakoin River and the surrounding ecosystem have rebounded in an astonishing way. Now, the entire Chadakoin River Corridor is home to a huge variety of wildlife, including some extremely rare species that have carved out a niche for themselves within even the most urban parts of the city.

PWA Crew & Leaders

2015 Project Wild America Youth Ambassadors

Between the Warner Dam and Buffalo Street impoundment, a population of Eastern Spiny Soft-Shelled turtles has managed to survive, despite having to live in a part of the river characterized by the concrete and rubble that was left over from the factories built along the banks of the river. It really is amazing to be able to walk along the Riverwalk and to be able to see a truly unique animal thriving, despite making their homes right in the heart of the city. Many questions remain about how exactly this reptile is able to accomplish this feat, which is why one of the main goals of the PWA program is to observe and collect data about the Eastern Spiny Soft-Shelled turtles.

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Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera)

To determine the overall health of the Chadakoin River ecosystem, we plan on conducting a series of surveys that will help show what wildlife is present in and around the river. One technique that specifically addresses water quality is a macroinvertabrate survey. Macroinvertebrates are the tiny animals that exist on the rocks and sediments on the riverbed. By collecting a sample of a particular part of the river, the different species that are present are identified and recorded. Some species can only survive in very clean waters, while others tolerate pollution well and can live practically anywhere. This means that having certain species in the river can indicate whether the water quality needs to be further tested for environmental contaminants.

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WAVE sampling entails capturing and identifying macroinvertebrate species. Certain invertebrates are more sensitive to pollutants that others and their presence is indicative of the surrounding environment’s health.

The Youth Ambassadors will also complete a series of bird surveys throughout Jamestown, to try and determine whether the existing habitat is enough to support healthy bird populations. As we noted last year, there are some really unique birds that have made their homes around the city. Some of these include Black-Crowned Night Herons, Bobolinks, Chimney Swifts, and even Ospreys that enjoy the rich food sources upstream of McCrea Point.

Osprey

Osprey

It is also worth noting that we intend to survey the plants that exist in the city, including any invasive species that are present. After completing training at Letchworth State Park, my fellow crew leader (and myself) will be able to show the PWA members how to enter any data regarding invasive species into a database monitored by the state.

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Yellow Iris is an emerging invasive plant in local wetlands.

The most important goal of Project Wild America is to communicate what we find to the community, and to showcase the amazing natural resources that are here in the city. To accomplish this, our Youth Ambassadors will be working with a number of local organizations to complete a series of educational outreach events throughout the summer. Whether it is organizing an invasive species pull, or helping elementary students plant trees, the PWA Youth Ambassadors will have a busy summer getting involved in their communities.

 

Great Times on the Riverwalk

When I arrived at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute on the first day of the project and learned about the game-plan for the next six weeks, I felt a few different ways. I felt curious about what we would find, excited to be working on the river for a large portion of our time together, and ready to get going. During the first day, we got rolling pretty quickly as we hopped right into making two turtle traps and minnow traps out of bottles. And ever since then, it has been a major learning experience but has been very fun nonetheless.

We built bottle traps to trap small fish and macroinvertebrates.

We built bottle traps to trap small fish and macroinvertebrates.

 

There is just so much to learn being on the Riverwalk even for a day. We noticed many different species of birds that I am still working on learning, countless macro-invertebrates, a few turtle species, some fish, and seemingly endless amounts of plant-life. I still can’t say I know all of the species, or even most for that matter, but I have certainly improved in that area from when the project began. One specific thing that surprised me the most was learning and identifying invasive species when we were at the Riverwalk. They were almost everywhere; at times you could see Japanese Knotweed wherever you looked. The invasives usually take a large toll on the environment that they live in, for example, Multiflora rose will take over the area that it grows in so almost nothing else is able to grow in the same area.

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Multiflora Rose bush

 

The fun on the Riverwalk doesn’t end at just identifying species, people enjoy their time on the river by kayaking, fishing, boating, and even swimming. We have trekked up and down the river, that forces us to swim at some points, in hopes of finding turtles. That was an experience to remember even though we didn’t catch any Spiny Softshell Turtles. Throughout the entire time, there were many citizens of Jamestown who were more than eager to share their wisdom with us about the turtles, and whether they were actually correct or not, it was still a good feeling to know that they were interested in the river flowing right through the city, seemingly undisturbed by the cars that pass all day and the tall buildings near it. As many people told us what they thought as there were people who asked us “What are y’all doing?,” “You can actually get in this water!?” and questions like that. We would go on to tell them that we’re from the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and we were working on the Riverwalk and collecting information on it, especially the Spiny Softshell Turtles. It was fun to talk to people about what we were doing because they all seemed so interested in it. My advice to anyone that hasn’t walked along the Riverwalk is to simply visit if it for a few hours on a sunny day. You’ll be amazed with everything you see, dragonflies buzzing around you and turtles paddling in the water are just a couple of the jaw-dropping reasons to adore the riverwalk.

Male Spiny Softshell Turtle swimming near Warner Dam.

Male Spiny Softshell Turtle swimming near Warner Dam.

The Beginnings of My Scientific Career

This project has been in full motion for several weeks now and I have to say, it has been a “Shell of a good time!” We have captured and studied much of what can be obviously caught at the Chadakoin River, especially along the Riverwalk. We have still not caught our targeted species, the legendary elusive Spiny Softshell Turtle, but we are making amazing progress with every failed attempt. It’s July 30th, my birthday, and I believe that since the beginning of the project, June 30, a month has passed, but in actuality it feels like I have learned years’ worth of information, knowledge, and experience. My birthday is passing and I have learned extensively this past year, but none of it has been as fulfilling, fun, and exciting as what I have been taught, experienced and observed during this special program.

We have gone to the Gorge outside of Mayville, the Fish Hatchery outside of Mayville, Rimrock in Allegheny National Forest, Young Forest in Harris Hill State Forest, and Hearts Content Allegheny National Forest. These field trips has taken me to new and interesting places that aren’t very far away and have exposed me to new outdoor settings where I can explore and let my curiosity take over and guide me through new adventures. I have also been taken kayaking, with this awesome program, up the Chadakoin River, from McCrea Point, to the locally famous Chautauqua Lake. I experience how it feels to be in water by myself, in basically a balanced plastic raft and a stick, and sense all of the different scenery around me from the tall maple trees and the mini pools of Lilly Pads, to the Great Blue Heron flying right over me. Not many people can feel proud to kayak up and down a river with a group of close crew members, experience all the beauty of nature, and on top of that get paid to do so.

Rim Rock Overlook Copy

At the beginning of the project we built small fish traps and big floating turtle traps. We used some PVC pipes, wire netting, and some PVC glue to put together our turtle trap, which to this day we are still working on because we had an unfortunate sinking of both our turtle traps. We made the fish traps out of two liter soda bottles and string and then we put the world famous scientific method to the test and tried to determine which color traps would work best. We listed our question, background research, hypothesis, and our dependent and independent variables. Then we went out to our backyard pond and tested it out, we found that the more clear plastic bottles caught more fish than the tinted green bottles. We too have to disinfect all of our traps before moving them to a new body of water to prevent cross contamination and the spread of disease, as part of our scientific protocol and our trapping license. As a team we have also identified a caterpillar to be a Viceroy caterpillar. We then decided to try and get it to become a butterfly. We found its favorite foods, Poplar and Aspen leaves, and in a few days it had already went into metamorphosis and created it chrysalis. Then a weekend later we finally observed the beauty of the Viceroy butterfly, which mimics the color patterns of the Monarch Butterfly to avoid being preyed on. We also were able to participate in macro invertebrate surveys where we put nets at the bottom of the river and kicked up all the insects, larvae, and other small macro invertebrates in the water into the nets. We then had to one by one hand pick out on hundred macro invertebrates to bottle up in alcohol and ship out to the DEC, where the real professional scientists will make serious decisions on how to deal with the different watersheds in New York State.

I feel so blessed to call this work and learn a plethora of new and curiosity sparking knowledge as I help capture turtles for a summer job. All my friends either work at a small business, a café, or at the world not-renowned McDonalds. I laugh when they tell me about their miserable, trash taking out and burger flipping jobs, as they continue to mock and joke about me and my job. They laugh at me for posting pictures of animals on social media, but I laugh at them when they tell me about how they have to work until midnight or how they can’t “hangout tonight” because they have to wake up at six o’clock in the morning. It’s also funny when they sit there and argue competitively over who makes the most money or who works the most hours, while I show them a picture of my several hundred dollar check that I made by catching dragonflies and taking pictures of them.

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I feel proud to be a part of this project and what it stands for, as I actually acquire some valuable wisdom and experience and help push the environmental sciences forward, even if it is a miniscule amount. I have had tons of amusement during this project and have created strong bonds to the people I work with and have started friendships that otherwise I would never have had. I learned the responsibility of having a real job that expects something from you every day and challenges you to keep learning and demands serious commitment. We have had to trek through the heavily mosquito infested forests and through the long muddy trails that make you feel like your sinking with every step you take. We have had to swim in the myth driven “dirty, radioactive river” and push turtles downstream, as we completely bash our shins on concrete chunks or old partially taken apart bicycle frames. I come home every day with a new bug bite and a different bleeding scratch on my leg than the day previous, from the fields of barb wire we go through, or actually just Multi-Floral Rose, and then put on a brand spanking new bandage on the cut I deem worthy of covering.

It has been a joyful summer with much to be happy about. I have learned extensively about the environment, conservation biology and its procedures, surveys, and protocols. It has been a pleasure to work with people at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History and my crew members. I can’t actually put in words how much I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this project and learn all this new and amazing knowledge on the science of the outdoors. I feel happy and lucky to have found the projects application and filled it out to see where it would take me. I never thought it would take me to where I am now, but I am thankful that I did. I will continue to follow a career in the sciences and hopefully continue to work with nature and the environment to further better understand what we are all blessed and inherited with, the Earth. – Erros Quiñones (Turtle Trapper #1)

New Techniques

We arrived at McCrea Point one sunny Tuesday morning, starting off our week of work, anxious to get on the water. Our excitement only grew when the kayaks came rolling in from Evergreen Outfitters. Paddling along the river there was so many things to see and learn. New plants, animals and so on. The experience itself was an enjoyable and relaxing one. It was tranquil, quiet. On our journey down the river, we spotted blue herons and some painted turtles.

Kayaking the Outlet

Before entering the water, we had to first learn the technique of paddling, how to correctly hold a paddle, and how to sit correctly in the kayak. Learning that, we headed into the water. Along the way, we goofed off and splashed one another, joked around and had fun. Just a normal day in the office for us. Out of this, we got the experience to kayak and very tired arms.

Crew with Kayaks

Even after out excitement with the kayaks, even more was to come. Our viceroy caterpillar had formed a chrysalis in the previous week. When we headed to the institute the next day, we had found that it had come out and formed into a beautiful butterfly that looks something like a monarch, but not quite. After discovering this, we set the butterfly free into the the butterfly garden at RTPI.

Erros with Viceroy

It was nice to take a break for a couple days, but it was time to get back to trapping turtles. Having just acquired a new thirty-five foot net from the DEC, we were confident that we would catch some spiny soft shell turtles. However, we were unaccustomed to such a hefty net. Consequently, there were some struggles, along with trial and error. The best way to use such a large net is to have two or three people holding, while everyone else pushes turtles downstream toward the net. They lift the net simultaneously, and anything in the net is now trapped.

Practicing with the Seine net

Unfortunately, the elusive turtles managed to evade our trap. Nonetheless, we did not come up empty-handed. We were happy to catch a carp, some over-sized shiners, and a peculiar fish called a sucker. Our technique had worked to some point. Yes we managed to catch other critters, but not our spiny softshells. As elusive as these creatures are, we are still in high hopes of catching them before our last week is in the books.