Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
My Summer as a salt marsh intern
Northeast Region, August 19, 2014
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The 2014 salt marsh interns, Christine Burns and Megan Kelsall, at an invasive pepperweed workshop.
The 2014 salt marsh interns, Christine Burns and Megan Kelsall, at an invasive pepperweed workshop. - Photo Credit: Brittany Forslind

“So, what the heck is a salt marsh intern?” is the question my younger sister asked me when I told her I would not be spending the summer with her in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but rather working for Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, ME. Honestly, before I arrived at Rachel Carson NWR I didn’t really know the answer to her question. I only knew that I hoped it would help me direct my search for a graduate program. I have known for a while that I want to pursue further studies in aquatic sciences, but I have been unsure of how that might pan out. This summer, I was hoping to gain field experience in salt marsh ecology because I have been strongly considering coastal ecosystems, like salt marshes and estuaries, for my future studies.


As a salt marsh intern, I am working with the Land Management Research and Demonstration (LMRD) team. The LMRD team has the huge task of trying to evaluate and monitor the health of the refuge’s salt marshes. They do this through measuring the elevation of the surface of the marsh, sampling the fish, and surveying the vegetation as part of the Salt Marsh Integrity (SMI) assessment project.

The LMRD team started off the summer with Surface Elevation Tables (SET) data collection. Surface Elevation Tables are used to monitor minute changes in the elevation of the salt marsh over time. We would walk out to pre-established benchmarks throughout the marsh and take millimeter measurements of marsh elevation while balancing on a long plank to make sure that we did not step into our plots and compress the sample site. Over time we can see how the salt marsh is changing on a very fine (millimeter) scale and see how it reacts to changes around it, both natural and human induced. During these first few weeks of SET data collection I received a lot of training. I learned how to walk through the marsh to minimize trampling as well as how to identify some of the common marsh plants.

In July and August we completed nekton sampling. Nekton are defined as free swimming organisms. We are specifically interested in small fish called mummichogs (Fundulus heteroclitus). Nekton sampling has been my favorite task thus far because we spend all day out in the marsh and we get to really know it. I believe that it was during nekton sampling that I started to gain my appreciation for the marsh and all of its wonders.
Now, having spent a summer as a salt marsh intern, I would say that being a salt marsh intern means spending all day outside in the hot sun, being feasted upon by insects, falling flat on your face in the marsh, and coming home covered in mud. Being a salt marsh intern also means counting 750 fish in one trap, balancing on a metal plank in the marsh, and watching herons and egrets wade through pools of water.

Being a salt marsh intern has helped me to find the direction I was looking for at the beginning of the summer. At the start of this summer I was not committed to pursuing coastal ecology because I did not have enough experience to say definitively that I loved it. Now I am committed. My experience as a salt marsh intern has given me a strong starting point from which I can start to look for graduate programs. I am sad to be leaving this place, but I have learned a lot and I am grateful to everyone here at Rachel Carson NWR, especially the LMRD crew, for sharing their knowledge and experiences with me this summer.

Contact Info: Christine Burns, 207 646 9226 ext 31, christine_burns@fws.gov
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