January 2018

We kicked off the New Year with another presentation given by the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (AMCS)– this time on seals! Hannah and Alli shared the different types of seal species seen in Long Island waters, their migratory patterns, and behaviors. They also went over what to expect in the field, as we started our seal walks! Recording data on the animal and its surroundings is an important aspect of scientific research, and volunteers can help AMCS understand how many individuals there are and why seals are hauling out in this area.

An indoor winter project we took on was building duck nest boxes to install at Bailey Arboretum. Some of our local ducks such as wood ducks and mergansers (common & hooded spp.) are cavity nesters, seeking out abandoned woodpecker holes or cavities caused by rotting or fire. Building a nest box will help these animals take residence for their nesting season, especially since wood ducks cannot create their own cavities, nor bring material into their nesting place. Our turn out of volunteers was impressive, as they measured and marked all pre-drilled holes, handled drills, sanders, staple guns, and put together the final product. After two weeks, the boxes are looking great and we can’t wait to install them at the arboretum- some are going along the pond’s edge while others are going near the trailhead at the woods edge.

In the third week of the month, AMCS returned and met us at Crane Neck Beach to conduct a seal walk. This took place just after low tide, as boulders were exposed through the water’s surface. Kudos to our volunteers who made it down to the beach at 8:00 AM on a Saturday! STATE volunteers started with a briefing about what to expect on the walk and were asked to pick up marine debris. There is a powerful connection between the animal’s welfare and the amount of debris along the shoreline, so this was an important component of the program. As we neared the point, we saw two robust harbor seals hauled out! Their fur was a radiant white color with the light reflecting from their backs, so it was probably safe to say they were enjoying their sunning session. As we observed their behavior both through the naked eye and supplemented with binoculars, volunteers recorded data regarding what the seals were doing. They were certainly tuned in to what we were doing, and it is also noteworthy to mention that the required safe distance to observe seals from land or sea is 150 feet or 50 yards (Marine Mammal Protection Act).

As part of our series of monthly hikes, we got out on the blue and yellow trails at Avalon on a Friday afternoon. In search of wildlife, we saw a few deer, which there are a lot of at the park. This time we didn’t hear any chirps or see signs of overwintering birds. We enjoyed the sights and there were also quite a few park goers out with their dogs. It is always great to get out and enjoy being in nature, even for our four-legged friends!

Lastly, we did our second seal walk of the season. For January, we lucked out with having both of our walks on “warmer” days. Just like the first time, we headed out right around the time of low tide; this time it corresponded with the afternoon (no early rising!). We ventured down the beach and did not see any seals in the water or hauled out on rocks. However, we took to collecting marine debris and after our weigh in at the end of our walk, our grand total was 39.9 pounds of trash. As concerning as that was, this contribution is just as critical (if not more) than the animals inhabiting the area. Although it is never guaranteed to see animals in the wild, we added the lack of observing seals to our notes. In the long term, these notes as well as any other observational data (water levels, weather, amount of rock exposure, cloud cover, etc.) will provide insight into when seals are hauling out and why. We will resume our walks in February and possibly add some more in March for this continuous project!

February 2018

This month we started with our seal walk with AMCS, which took place on a Saturday afternoon. We didn’t see any seals this time, but were still able to collect a decent amount of marine debris—the fact that this beach has so much trash is baffling each time we return. Due to recent reports of seal sightings and comparing this with our small amount of data, the biologists have an inclination that possibly the seals prefer to haul out in the mornings before there is foot traffic on the beach. We were following low tide, but due to the rocky nature of this area, the boulders are still exposed even during a full high tide. There are many factors that could be causing the seals to haul out at certain times, so we are looking forward to taking a different approach.

The following week, we welcomed a guest speaker, Larry Kick from Applied DNA Sciences. This presentation really encompassed everything about STEM, and it is great exposure for our volunteers to see new innovations in the science fields. They get to take part in a variety of hands on experiences through projects and events, but this might expand their insight into what a scientist does. Larry spoke a bit about his organization, what they do, and showed us some examples of their developments. This company originated in California, and they used plant DNA as a template to create their own unique DNA and molecular tags for security purposes. They can trace products and validate the authenticity of raw materials, finished goods, and packaging. As many of our volunteers are juniors and seniors, this presentation demonstrated that there are a variety of opportunities in the science world, and many avenues that can be pursued! I was glad to hear all of the questions our volunteers had!

As we approached the middle of February, our projects picked up. We held an introductory event for our deer immunocontraception project, which will take place as a long-term study in the village of Head of the Harbor. The first step in this project was to assemble property maps, to mark our study sites. Our volunteers worked together as a team to tediously cut out each small section of map, and orient it onto sheet paper to create a large-scale map. Once we plan out our sites, we will get underway with the next steps. This also served as an opportunity to share with volunteers what the study will consist of, as we will be in need of their help each season!

After our volunteers committed to 5 hours of building duck nest boxes in January, it was finally time to install them! Due to the nature of the installation process, if the ground was frozen, it would have interfered with the productivity of this project. We were keeping our fingers crossed as our eyes were on the weather, and we lucked out! It was a little overcast, but temperatures had increased and it was a perfect day to get the nest boxes up. So on President’s Day, we headed to Bailey Arboretum to see the rest of this project through. We chose where each nest box would go along the water’s edge, and split up into groups where volunteers took on various roles—we had groups focused on digging, volunteers putting the 10-foot steel poles into the ground, and others who worked with the drill to get the boxes secured, along with the predator guards. At first, it was a little tricky, but once we came up with a method, it seemed to take off. I am entirely grateful for one of the dads who happened to have much larger drill bits from his work supplies in his truck, and he didn’t hesitate to help us out. Without his assistance it would’ve taken us much longer. Our volunteers successfully installed 5 nest boxes and we are looking forward to hearing if any ducks take up residence during the nesting season! Typically wood ducks and merganser species occupy these nest boxes, and the arboretum staff will keep us in the loop! A big thank you to our builders, installers, and parents!

Looking forward to the upcoming gardening season, we had a meeting to draft our plans for Arcadia this spring! It is almost time to start some of our seeds indoors; thinking about the fruits, veggies and herbs that we will grow has us looking forward to warmer weather. It will be here before we know it! Volunteers discussed the seeds we have and what we may need, what we noticed in last year’s garden, what can be improved, and companion plantings. We spoke about the necessary requirements to make a garden flourish, and factors that we would monitor throughout the growing season. Along with some resources and materials, volunteers split into groups and worked in a collaborative effort to map out which plants should go in each of the raised beds. Both groups shared out at the end of our meeting, and compiled their ideas into one master plan. Can’t wait to get these seeds started!

To wrap up, we had another seal walk with AMCS, this time at 9:00 AM. I had gone to assess the beach with Hannah earlier in the week to see if there were any observations consistent with our theory, and we saw one large harbor seal (which flushed as another beachgoer was walking along the shore, and shortly after it returned to the same haul out rock!). Likewise, we headed out and this time we saw two harbor seals! They appeared to be robust and healthy, and were aware of our presence. Volunteers stood at the back of the beach and observed their behavior for about 20 minutes. At that time, volunteers recorded their observations and data, such as how many seals were hauled out and how many were in the water, what they were doing, the amount of cloud cover, GPS coordinates, the time, and if there were any other people or boats present in the area. Only one seal was hauled out and it flushed back into the water after a few minutes. However, volunteers noticed a second seal in the water and both seemed to swim around and continue to pop their heads up. It almost appeared to be in a playful manner. After a few times of not seeing seals, it was nice to observe them again, and as always, our volunteers diligently picked up marine debris. Maybe they just prefer mornings!

March 2018

We took to the trails again as we did our monthly hike- this time we went on the red trail leading us to the labyrinth and from there we headed down to the duck pond. We had a few minutes to reflect and look out onto the water, and stopped at the upper pond after we looped back around. It was a little brisk, but a nice afternoon for a hike through Avalon.

That weekend we welcomed our 5 interns for our deer immunocontraception project to the park for a drone test flight. The goal of this study is to successfully utilize techniques that provide individual identification and remote delivery of contraceptives that will further reduce the need to capture and handle deer for the purpose of sterilization. We are working to practice humane population control of white-tailed deer in the village. By using a drone to fly over various wooded areas and fields in the park as well as over other land areas in the village, we will be able to record a rough estimate of the amount of deer populating the area. We will also be using wildlife trap camera footage and eventually welcome public sighting reports to incorporate into our population counts. Glad to be getting the initial phase of this unique project started and sharing a real field study with our volunteers!

Next, we kicked off the gardening season by starting our indoor seeds. Volunteers examined seed packets, schedules on when to start seedlings indoors for each plant, transplanting dates, and gathered this information to determine which seeds to use. We also formed an assembly line to partially fill our seed trays with soil, moisten them, and add a fresh layer of soil on top. As volunteers finished these, they carried them inside to the table where additional students were creating labels and carefully placing the seeds in the trays. Success! Time for the seedlings to start germinating under the grow light! When the time comes we will be ready to transplant multiple varieties of tomatoes, parsley, onion, eggplant, spinach, celery, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. We are also trying to grow a small hybrid watermelon to conserve energy and space.

The following weekend was Saint Patrick’s Day and to celebrate, we ventured through the woods of Avalon Park on an owl prowl! We had guests from Smithtown High School East’s Earth and Outdoors club along with one of our leadership program staff members Steve, who is the famed owl caller. We began the evening with a cookout over a campfire and had a potluck dinner: smoked salmon, eggs, French toast, hot dogs, sausages, chili, and beans were some of the items on our menu. It was nice to use a grate over the fire and see volunteers taking turns cooking. After our feast, we quickly moved all the leftovers inside (to avoid raccoons and other wildlife munching away at a free buffet!) and started making our way out on the orange trail. Volunteers brought a couple of flashlights, which we tried not to use too much, but only to see where we were going on our way back. We relied mostly on dim red flashlights that don’t seem to spook the owls. Steve called for screech owls and boy did we hear them! There were many calls back and forth between 2, 3, 4 owls at a time. We did happen to hear one great horned owl as well, which we didn’t want to call for since they prey upon screech owls! Volunteers very carefully and quickly shined a light up into the trees as the owls were near to try and see them, but no luck- they are very swift and agile. However, one of our Smithtown friends had night vision goggles, with which he was able to observe a screech owl. We also had the opportunity to discuss vernal pools and spring peeper frogs, an educational and fun night indeed! A HUGE thank you to Steve and the Earth and Outdoors club!

Coincidentally just before our fourth nor’easter, we attended a Spring Equinox Celebration event at the Center for Environmental Education and Discovery, or ‘CEED’. Located at the Washington Lodge, CEED was recently founded and this historical mansion will be used for their events as an environment and arts center. In Latin, the word equinox means ‘equal light’. There are two times of year, spring and autumn, when the Earth’s tilt on its axis is considered to be perpendicular to the sun’s rays (the Earth is neither tilted towards or away from the sun). As the sun crosses the celestial equator from south to north, this equinox marks the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. For many cultures, this symbolizes new beginnings, renewal, rebirth, and many worship the sun’s journey in a spiritual manner. The vernal equinox is also used in calculating the dates for Passover and Easter. Traditionally, celebrations are held with bonfires, music, dances, balancing an egg on its head or planting seeds. Volunteers assisted with painting an environmental mural (which was really unique in telling an interpretive story), seed planters and egg decorating crafts, and orienteering course and with a live animal show. Marshmallow roasting, a hot chocolate stand, live music and a tribal dance around the campfire were also among the festivities!

This is the time of year when we have volunteers cleaning out our Bluebird nest boxes to make room for our spring migrants. We actually did it a bit later this year, and yet again the ground was blanketed in snow. Temperatures rose to near 50 degrees so it made for a good afternoon. We replaced the first box with a newer one and installed it on a wooden post, and then focused on removing the nesting material from the rest. However, on our third box as the volunteers started taking out the nests we were in for a surprise…field mice! They typically will take up residence in the winter months and use the old bird nests to bundle up. We felt bad evicting them due to the fact the ground was nearly frozen and the white layer of snow doesn’t exactly help with their ability to camouflage, so we left them in. We found this again with about 3 other boxes as we carefully observed them. Some were very small, probably juveniles and one box had four mice in it! Talk about a full house! Overall, there were still a decent amount of boxes that were cleaned out and ready to go and as the volunteers checked the last couple of boxes in the fields a snowball fight broke out. Nobody is ever too old for some winter fun! We will head back out in a couple of weeks to finish clearing out the boxes, hoping those mice let themselves out following the snow melting.

We welcomed a couple of presenters at the end of March, one was our very own STATE alum, Mikaela Neary and in conjunction with the Seedlings program we had Chris Paparo, otherwise known as “the fish guy”. It is always wonderful to have some insight into what others (including one of our past volunteers!) are up to in the environmental world, and great that we can have the opportunity to hear about their talents. Volunteers learned about diamondback terrapins, our only local brackish water turtle species as well as what types of wildlife research is out there. Mikaela shared her college experience thus far with our volunteers who are possibly interested in getting involved in similar work after they graduate high school. Chris shared his photo collection and educated us on various types of plankton, invertebrates, bony fish, sharks, cetaceans and whales. What is more important is how this translates into protecting our environment and our waters. He said, “you can protect the whales all you want, but if they have no food its all for nothing”. He spoke about the efforts to protect bunker, which is a major food source for many large marine vertebrates, and how this may be attracting them back to our coasts. Overall, these two presenters hit home in speaking about the best methods to conserve animals and the environment they live in.

To conclude, we had our first outdoor Arcadia day of the season and our praying mantis egg case collection! We divided up our group for the garden in which some volunteers worked on preparing the rest of the indoor seeds we didn’t get to plant last time as well as re-painting our Arcadia sign that was in need of a face-lift. The others outside started to prepare some of our raised beds by raking, overturning soil, and adding a layer of nutrient rich compost. They accomplished setting four of these, which will soon be ready to nurture our transplanted seedlings, and next time we will be planting our outdoor seeds and bulbs. It’s nice to see the garden coming back to life! The next day, volunteers were back again for our praying mantis egg case hunt that actually took place the day before Easter. So it was your not-so-typical egg hunt. Again, this occurred a bit later in the season for this year, but with the undeniable force of four storms our outdoor activities got a little delayed. Also, we are planning to have a second nest collection day as we started off with a bit of a struggle- the reeds and branches were almost completely horizontal, very few were freely standing. This is not typical, and the heavy snow we encountered this winter presented a challenge for this project. After volunteers started to find the first few, it was successful from there; even the public asked what we were doing and contributed a few nests (our volunteers had some teachable moments!). Our volunteers gathered 58 egg cases, and James was our winner of the egg hunt challenge with 22- got to love some healthy competition! The prize? A brand new Avalon tote bag displaying the most recent design! We will be back at it again next week!

April 2018

May 2018

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