Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Maine DIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Intern Week 5

February 13-February 19 "It's not all Fun and Games, Especially Since I Damaged my Boss's Truck"
I got stuck a few times.

I have something to admit folks; the dates really don't have much to do with what I actually write. I just take notes down in my IFW field notebook and notice that I often miss things from weeks before and will weave them in where appropriate. This is one of those examples.

A regional wildlife biologist job doesn't consist of all awesome things; there's often a lot of maintenance work that one would hope to escape in a job like this. But, alas, it is all a part of the job and is what keeps the ol' wildlife system working!

As you all know, we have got a lot of snow recently. A LOT of snow. And there are a lot of doors surrounding the office building. One of my days, already cut short from slow driving in after a class, was spent shoveling out the doorways to meet state codes to allow for fire escapes and yadda. The picture below is the deepest one I had to dig out.

Several weeks ago was another labor intensive task (my favorite), which was slightly more wildlife related. The state operates and manages Wildlife Management Districts (WMDs) all throughout the state, and when a new parcel of land is acquired, we have to blaze the property lines to prevent any future confusion or accidental law violations. This involved walking out there with a machete, locating the line, and following it for about a mile while swinging the machete at any twig in the way of the line.

It seemed pretty easy at first, then we hit some really thick patches of young hemlock trees. Here's an example of what it looked like after we cut through; beforehand, imagine just not being able to see through, with your vision completely blocked by the boughs.
You can just barely make out the tunnel going through to the other side in the center.

We did, however, stumble across a new moose yard when we were out there, so that was exciting!

Finally, bad things happen.

For example, when I was doing Wood Duck boxes on my own one day, this happened.

Oftentimes they are preventable, and some are not. Almost everyone in the department has damaged a state vehicle in one way or another; my boss having flipped a snowmobile on his very first day, a colleague having ripped the skid plate off of a truck, a warden putting a big dent in the side from a tree, etc. I added myself to that list recently by absolutely scraping the heck out of the side of my boss's truck while trying to be thoughtful and moving it for him before we blocked him into the garage with the snowmobile trailer. I have now learned that even if your mirror makes it past the garage entrance, it doesn't mean that the rest of the vehicle will in the truck world.


Well done Greg.

No no really, good job.

I contacted my supervisor about this immediately (as any intern should) and left him a voicemail (it was approximately 6PM and everyone had gone home at this pont, except myself and my co-intern). I've learned that they really don't pick up their phones often and I have yet to see him or hear from him, so who knows what he things about it. I did at least offer to bring it to the garage in Augusta for repairs and back for him since it literally just came back from doing so.

In closing, I want to close with a memorium of this truck before I got my hands on it. Thank you all for coming.

-trumpet taps playing in the background followed by bagpipes-

Maine DIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Intern Week 4

February 6 - February 12 "I appreciate the offer, but I'm working"

Finally, some fisheries work! Even though I'm primarily a wildlife guy, I've never done anything related to fisheries before and was hoping to get some good fisheries experience with this internship. So far, I haven't been let down.

Like the wildlife work, IFW fisheries work has its own 'bread and butter'; this primarily takes the form of creel censuses and lab work. Creel censuses are pretty straightforward; fisheries biologists go out onto bodies of water and take data on fish being caught by anglers. We'll approach them, ask them what fish they have caught, and if they have kept any, we ask to see them and gather data on them. We also give them the option of letting us take the fish. For the most part, people are pretty open to these things, and about half of the folks will let you take their fish. These are used for population estimates, and if they're taken back to the lab, they can be aged, dissected to determine eating habits, and more.

Ice fishing derbies are great for this, because our sample size gets a lot bigger. For those that aren't involved in the scientific field, a larger sample size means that we can make a better, more accurate guess as to what is going on (like whether the number of fish are growing or shrinking, if there's a disease that can cause some concern, if a fish species is dominating a lake, etc.). This past weekend, Sabattus Pond had hosted its own ice fishing derby, and so IFW was out in force to gather data (as well as to enforce laws in the form of eight Game Wardens).

Sabattus is notorious for its horrific ecological past. Through the 1900s, it was heavily polluted by a nearby poultry farm that resulted in major algal blooms in the pond, shutting down the beach on its south end and choking out the life within it. While that problem has been largely fixed now, it is now facing a new problem; it has been overrun by introduced pike (Esox lucius) and crappie (Pomoxis sp.).

As the intern, I had the pleasure of walking around tugging a little sled behind me with my equipment while my fellow biologists took the farther reaches of the pond with their snowmobiles. Eagles soared overhead, looking for forgotten fish on the ice (remember how often it is for eagles to starve from my first post?!).
It was pretty cold out there.

There were several hundred people on the ice at any given time; I was told that somewhere between 800 and in excess of 1000 had come through the derby entrance. I interacted with probably about 100 of them. There was a wide range in how people reacted; some were ecstatic and very kind, others were very cautious and seemed weirded out. Some people didn't even realize I worked for the state despite my uniform, which was especially apparent when I walked up to a group of teens who were talking about how they hadn't seen any wardens around so "it's not a problem" (I had no idea what they were up to, but it wasn't my job to enforce any law; I was just there to collect data and not cause a problem). It also became apparent with the amount of alcohol I was offered by overly nice fishermen, to which I always replied "I appreciate the offer, but I'm working." Most people were pretty understanding. It's good to know that people at least have a really high opinion of our state's biologists!

After gathering a full sled worth of pike, crappie, and perch, I tugged my loot to our trucks and met up with another biologist, an old coworker of mine from a diner in my high school years and a Unity grad. We took a quick spin over to check out the current standings for the derby; at the time that I left, the winning fish was 15.82 pounds. There were some pretty big pike coming out of that lake! (Although, I'm told that even bigger fish have come out of that lake before).
The winning fish of the day. The children's competition entries are the perch on the left.

These fish are dissected back at the office and data is gathered on what they've been eating, their weight, size measurements, and more. The cleithrum is taken from behind the gills (a bony plate that gives the gills some structure) and, once cleaned off in some boiling water, they can be used to age in a manner very similar to a tree; rings form throughout the cleithrum, with each ring representing an approximate year.

The fisheries lab.

Boiling the flesh off of a cleithrum so the rings can be seen.

This was just the start of my fisheries adventures, and I hope to get involved with more soon!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Maine DIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Intern Week 3

January 29-February 5 "It's Probably All Gonna be More Boring than this Post"

So, week three was very interesting and I worked an extra day. That extra day was this past Wednesday. I was alerted the day before that "tomorrow is probably your last chance to go on a bear capture with Randy (Maine's bear biologist)". I didn't even know this was occurring, so I suddenly cleared my schedule for the next day and prepared for a hike up to La Grange to meet up with Maine's bear crew.

Now, mind you that morning was a bit of a cluster; we got a pretty nasty amount of snow fall. My car is a two wheel drive little sedan, and having to drive through the back country roads to meet my coworkers at a location in Canaan was a real challenge. Cars were off the road here and there, the roads hadn't been plowed for hours, and help seemed far away. I could've turned around and honestly should have, but pressed on.

Turns out, they moved from Canaan to a location in Clinton, so I felt a little goose-chasey trying to find them. I finally located all of them up an icy driveway, where two biologists stood with hockey helmets on.

"We've got two deer in a trap" my co-intern told me.

I didn't even KNOW we were doing a deer capture today. I've seen the deer crew at work before, but had never seen them capture a deer. Normally, only one wonders into the square kennel-like netted structure, but this one had two. So, Kyle Ravana, Maine's deer biologist, and Kelsey Sullivan, Maine's gamebird/waterfowl biologist, were padded up and helmeted, ready to get in the ring with the deer.

The purpose of the deer study is to monitor deer population and habitat use; each captured deer get's a radio collar and ear tags. If a hunter shoots a deer with ear tags, this information is used to model the deer's population size in a "mark-recapture" style equation. The collar lets biologists find out where they're hanging out.

So, with myself quickly fidgeting my camera gear together and my fellow biologists getting ready, we full-on sprinted toward the trap (called a 'Clover Trap') where the deer were held. The faster we got there, the less likely a deer was going to hurt itself or pull the trap out of the ground and escape.

We all fell in unison down an icy hill. Our ice grips didn't do a thing for us as we slipped along the woods at the fastest speed we could go.

The two deer saw us coming from a ways and were panicking. Probably more surprising was when the two armored biologists opened up the door and tackled them both. They thrashed, kicked, and bounced about in that small trap; one almost got out with its head just out of the door. They let out goat-like bleats as they were wrestled down. It looked violent, but these biologists have done this over a hundred times before, and they knew the proper deer-martial-arts techniques to avoid accidentally breaking a leg or catching a hoof to the throat.

With them pinned down, Kendall, a highly revered and humble wildlife biologist from my office in Sidney, began to rip out the equipment from his bag. Two collars, ear tag clip, ear tags, pliers, and a screw driver. All high-speed.

The biologists were sucking wind from exhaustion as the deer still fought. Kendall had me load up the ear tag clips and get the collars ready to rock. One collar was screwed on and adjusted. Then the other. Then came the ear tags, much to the dismay of the deer. With each numbered and collared, we opened the door entirely, and the biologists let off the deer. They bounded off, white fluffy tails a-floppin', slipping and actually falling on the ice where we had. Everyone fist bumped and congratulated each other. A real efficient biologist team doing some awesome work.

But, me and my co-intern were on a time crunch to meet the bear crew up in Old Town. So, with conditions still poor, I parked my car at the nearest Dunkin' Donuts and hopped in the IFW truck, all the way up to a gas station in Old Town. Three vans of University of Maine Orono wildlife seniors awaited. The biologists showed up in their much bigger, much nicer trucks, with some mean looking snowmobiles in pickup.

The bear crew is a bad bunch (of course, "bad" meaning "really, really cool" in this sense). It consists of Randy Cross, a 31-year Maine bear veteran with scars all over from bear captures gone wrong; Jen Vashon, Maine's lynx biologist and Bear Study Leader; Lisa "Kid" Bates, a real fierce Unity grad who survived a helicopter crash with an impaled leg and amnesia, dragging her unconscious and horrifically wounded copilot through the woods to safety; Ethan "Roach", an ex-deer crew member; and Jake "Jumper", a smoke-jumper who jumped into forest fires for a living and perhaps the only current biologist in Maine with no college education.

We drove over to a location in LaGrange where a collared black bear was hibernating. A mile or so into the woods, in a patch of alders, under a collapsed tree, was a lone, small black bear; it was a yearling. Normally, they still have their mothers with them at this time.
The bear as it was found; partially covered in snow and curled into at tight ball. We ensured it was in better cover by the time we left.

The bear crew pondered at what may have happened to the mother; hunting, roadkill, abandonment; who knows.

The crew tranquilized it with a jab-stick and let it settle before moving it out. After about half an hour, it was considered clear, and they tugged it out and carried it over to a blanket with an assortment of gear.

Since it was tranquilized, this was a bit more relaxed and less pressed for time than the deer. The bear crew took a shed paw pad sample, its weight (40lbs!), and other data. They also fixed a new collar onto him since he was beginning to outgrow the one he got as a new cub.
About to weigh the bear.

About to give the bear a tattoo identification on the gums with a tattoo gun.

Affixing the new radio collar.

After this was all said and done, we administered the antidote for the tranquilizer, placed him back into his den, and "tucked him in" by placing pine boughs and brush over his den to help him keep warm. He was, after all, covered in snow when he was found.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it out with the bear crew again as it requires a huge time commitment, but I hope to be catching more deer in the near future!

Next week will finally be when I get into fisheries stuff. Should be fun!