Reflections From a Summer Intern: Working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service
What species of tree is this? What condition is this tree in? Is there any browse? Is it girdled? What herbaceous species are competing with the sapling? Was it planted with a mat and/or a tube? What nursery is this tree from? Working as a summer intern from Saint Michael’s College, all of these questions seemed a bit overwhelming at first. I was hired to help the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Resources Office with monitoring plantings for riparian restoration projects. Coming into the job, my plant identification skills were weak and my knowledge of restoration projects was limited. But as the summer moved on and as my knowledge grew, I started to understand the importance behind these questions and the insight that is unearthed by their answers. The following highlights are examples of what helped mold my summer of work into a summer of learning as well:
Riparian Restoration Projects
Vermont’s landscape is not only marked by its Green Mountains, but also by its sprawling farmlands. These farmlands create a portrait-like landscape that symbolizes Vermont. Land clearing for agricultural purposes led to the loss of floodplain forests, which often has a detrimental impact on both the water quality and habitat quality for various terrestrial and aquatic species. These riparian areas provide important habitat for Federal Trust Species, including migratory birds, anadromous fish, and Federally-listed threatened and endangered species.
The Partners Program works in conjunction with other Federal and State agencies, municipalities, and non-governmental organizations to provide technical and financial assistance for the restoration of riparian habitats. In the case of farmlands, the Partners Program works with the USDA and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) in order to restore riparian habitats for migratory birds and inter-jurisdictional fish. With the aim of continuing adaptive management for riparian restoration projects, multiple sites are monitored annually, focusing primarily on the effectiveness of planting projects.
The Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Resources Office has been monitoring riparian plantings since 2007. The monitored sites serve as a representative sample of riparian restoration projects conducted in Vermont. Leah Szafranski, Monitoring Specialist/Biologist for the Intervale Center, works with planting contractors and natural resource planners throughout the state to identify monitoring opportunities. This summer Leah Szafranski and I monitored 27 riparian restoration sites. At each site permanent transects are set up and specific information is collected using a GPS. Data on individual trees will then be collected for the next 3-5 years.
This field season the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Resources Office started its first season of bird monitoring associated with riparian restoration projects. The riparian restoration projects are developed to meet life history requirements of migratory birds, as the buffers can potentially provide nesting habitat, foraging sites, and cover from predators. Fifteen sites were monitored, information was collected for bird species that were seen or heard within 50 and 100 meters of a designated point, within each selected site. These 15 sites were chosen to represent projects of various stages of growth: unplanted sites (future riparian restoration projects), previously planted riparian restoration sites, and established forested sites. The number and diversity of birds present at each site will help to evaluate bird use of riparian restoration projects.
As the summer comes to a close my knowledge of the natural world has expanded tremendously; I can now tell the difference between a silky and a red osier dogwood, I can assess the health of a tree with just a glance, and I can easily identify the call of a red-winged blackbird flying overhead. I also better understand the benefits of riparian restoration projects (including improving fish and migratory bird habitat and providing bank stability through root structure) and the importance of monitoring these sites for tree health and survivorship.
Now that I am capable of answering the questions that were once so foreign to me at the start of the summer, I am beginning to generate some questions of my own. Working on these restoration sites with the aim of continually improving how these projects are carried out, I begin to use what you see in the field and apply it to adaptive management. For example, seeing continually unhealthy trees of one particular species planted on sites, and seeing continually healthy trees of another species makes you question and better understand the importance of species selection. Or seeing tubes girdling trees makes me question if planting trees with tubes truly enhances the trees’ survival or not. Should sites be more densely planted to improve survivorship rates? I find that as my summer was focused around answering questions regarding these riparian restoration projects, I realize that there are more benefits behind asking more questions rather than simply supplying answers. These questions may not generate immediate answers, but they are the type of questions that can spark an idea that could potentially enhance these projects in the future.
By Nicole Marcotte - 2011 Saint Micheal's College Intern