A Unique Opportunity

When most people think of summer work, they envision flipping burgers, scrubbing floors, or working a cash register. I was fortunate enough to get an internship at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History as a Youth Ambassador. To say the least, this summer has been very special. Not only have I furthered my knowledge of the many species present in Western New York, but I have also had the chance to do and see things that most other people don’t get to do.

Prior to the start of this project, I knew a fair amount of trees and animals, but that was about it. In many areas, my understanding was very vague. Through Project Wild America, I learned a vast number of species in an interesting, hands-on way. While meandering through the tranquil woods, one doesn’t realize the diversity of plant life. There’s the invasive honeysuckle, with its poisonous red berries, chicory, bird’s foot trefoil, and Queen Anne’s lace, to name a few. In addition, I have become familiar with some new birds. After all, that was Roger Tory Peterson’s expertise. For example, I had never heard of a cedar waxwing before. This vibrant bird is very common in New York State; now I am starting to notice more and more of them.

Cedar Waxwing-AS

This internship has had some challenges. Trekking through the treacherous Chadakoin River has proven to be quite difficult. A copious amount of hidden bricks and concrete slabs have really taken a toll on my legs, not to mention entire trees that seem to come out of nowhere from the murky depths of the river. Plus, our target species, the eastern spiny softshell turtle, has managed to evade our nets and sardine-baited hoop traps. These clever reptiles have outwitted us for the last couple weeks, and they might be one of the most elusive species I’ve ever encountered. Although, taking a swim in the river did feel quite refreshing on some of those blistering July days.

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One of the most exciting and enjoyable aspects of this internship are the field trips that we have done. Who else gets paid to go kayaking? Even though our arms were exhausted, it was well worth the journey. We saw majestic great blue herons and double crested cormorants while paddling along virtually untouched sections of the outlet, surrounded by wilderness. Other field trips have included meeting a DEC forester at Harris Hill State Forest, visiting the fish hatchery at Prendergast point, exploring the stupendous Chautauqua Gorge, observing the colossal hemlocks and white pines of the Allegheny National Forest, and stopping by the iconic Kinzua Dam. My favorite excursion was to Rim Rock, which has stunning views of the Allegheny Reservoir and and plenty of boulders to climb.

Rim Rock Overlook Copy

In summary, being a Youth Ambassador has really meant a lot to me. It has allowed me to augment my environmental literacy and respect, which is essential for protecting our natural resources. Furthermore, I have had experiences that I normally wouldn’t get a chance to do, like going to a fish hatchery. When it comes to staying busy during the summer, it doesn’t get much better than Project Wild America.

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)

Turtle Trapping and Field Trips

It was a foggy morning, and we were going to start our first day of trapping. We prepared our venture by prepping the traps with disinfectant . Having  set the traps, we lie in wait in hopes of catching the elusive, spiny soft-shelled turtle. However, we were only able to nab six painted turtles and two cantankerous snapping turtles. Before we were able to log the discovery, time had to pass to allow the snapping turtles to get all their anger out. They sat there clamping down on one another for a few minutes, damaging the other’s shell. Luckily, Twan, the director of the institute, was there and could show us the proper method for handling these primal creatures. Carefully grabbing the turtle by the back of the shell, we were able to tentatively get a measurement without injury to ourselves. Moving on to the painted turtles, we practiced gathering information on turtles by measuring weight, the length of the carapace and plastron, and counting age using the scutes on the top of the shell. This is the same information that will be recorded when it comes to our focus species.

Hailey holding a snapper

Handling a snapper

For our first field trip, we traveled to Harris Hill State forest with forester, Jeff Brockelbank. He shared with us an in-depth look at an ecosystem. There are a multitude of each part of the system, be it trees, insects, animals, or anything else. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was that logging is as much of a necessary part of a healthy forest as growth. For younger, more preferable trees to grow, it is necessary to chop down the already grown trees that take up all of the sun, nutrients, and water.

Harris Hill with Jeff B

Our second field trip was spent in the fish hatchery and Chautauqua Gorge. At the hatchery, we viewed the many types of fish in Chautauqua lake that some of us did not even know existed. Perhaps the most interesting of these species was the spotted gar, which is a large, armored fish that looks like some kind of prehistoric animal. Also, we learned about the efforts to preserve paddlefish in the Allegheny River and in Chautauqua Lake. These are other really cool animal, which are easily identified by their huge, paddle-like snout. Paddlefish can reach six-foot long when they are fully grown, which is why the largest fish ever caught in Chautauqua Lake was a paddlefish. Getting to see all of the work that the DEC did to support fishing in the state was neat, and all of the different species that can be found in WNY.

Fish Hatchery

Fish Hatchery (1)

Although many of the youth ambassadors have lived in WNY their whole lives, many of us have never been to Chautauqua Gorge. This made it especially interesting to get to see such a beautiful place right here in Chautauqua County. When we first got there, we had to go down a steep, but very scenic path down to the gorge itself. Down in the gorge, we got to experience one of the headwaters of the Allegheny, a stream flowing with cool, clean, water. Besides seeing some really neat waterfalls and rock formations, we were able to find a number of uncommon examples of wildlife. Some of these included a Northern Water Snake, and a Ring-Necked Snake. Overall, the trip to Chautauqua Gorge is a must-see to anyone in the area who enjoys wildlife and the outdoors.

Erros-Ring neck snake

Chautauqua Gorge

The research has begun and our excitement has skyrocketed. Hopefully soon we can catch our focus species and begin banding to gather the information we need. We also look forward to other unique field trips where we can learn about the surrounding area and each part of the ecosystem.