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An Unconventional Class

This week’s blog was written by Devin G., a Bucktails alumni. He shares his experience studying in Grand Teton National Park earlier this year.

Early in 2020, I was presented with an amazing opportunity to take a winter ecology class in the heart of one of America’s most beautiful national parks. I was able to study the winter environment of Grand Teton National Park for nine days after the start of the new year. Packing my winter essentials, I could not wait to experience the harsh beauty of the snow-covered environment. When I arrived at the Jackson Airport, the cottage-like aesthetic perfectly complimented the colossal Tetons, barely visible through a thin flurry of snowflakes. A short drive through the park brought me to the Teton Science School’s Kelly Campus, a quaint mosaic of relocated buildings and cabins nestled just within the park’s boundaries.

I was fortunate to have this view of the Tetons every morning from my room

Awakening early to catch the sun’s first beams of light illuminating the dignified mountains, I was ready to begin the course. The class was split into three major sections, each focussing on a different, yet related subject. To start the week, we were taught the skills of a winter naturalist, three days of journaling, snowshoeing, and observing nature. This part of the class was led by everyone’s vision of a true “mountain man”, Kevin Taylor. A master at all things tracking, he gave us a plethora of tips and tricks in identifying and interpreting animal tracks. In deep snow, identification can be tough, but where the powder hides evidence of what made the tracks, it reveals even more. Direction of travel, speed, and size can all be revealed if studied by a trained eye. Following an indistinct set of tracks and using the skills I learned, I was able to determine that an elk had traveled through the forest, walked across a fairly steep hill, and bedded down under a fir tree for the night. Pairing this skill with others in snow dynamics allowed me to observe the natural world in even greater detail.

Elk feed on their winter range outside of the town of Jackson

The science and dynamics of snow structure was the topic of the following section. Taught by the knowledgable Ben Rossetter, this topic was more in-depth than I ever could have thought, including everything from snow formation to snowpack change and fluctuation. I had known that snow was important to the environment but I would have never guessed the true extent of its significance. Not only is it a reservoir for water in drier seasons, the snowpack itself creates important habitats for small mammals. This subnivean environment allows life to endure the bitter cold of Wyoming winters by creating a more stable temperature through the snows insulative properties. While some animals are able to survive the winter under the snow, others, along with plant species, must endure the frigid cold in other ways.

Using the tools of a snow scientist, I observe the structure of snow grains making up the snowpack

This was the focus of our third and final section of the course, the wildlife and plant adaptations that allow them to survive bitter winters. For example, aspen trees have a powdery substance on their bark that acts as a sunscreen to protect the tree as well as photosynthetic bark which helps them produce energy when they are lacking leaves. We also discussed three major ways that animals deal with winter conditions, including hibernation, migration, and resistance. Each of these methods of survival depends on unique adaptations that allow for extraordinary feats. Arctic terns are able to fly from the North Pole to the South Pole, nearly 44,000 miles making it the longest migration of the natural kingdom! Moose, on the other hand, opt for resistance and have a few key characteristics that permit their survival. Their ability to lift their legs to eye level allows them to traverse deep snow that would obstruct other species. When it comes to hibernation though, Alpine Marmots take the cake. Entering their burrows in October and emerging in April, these animals can lower their heart rate from 120 beats per minute to a mere 3 or 4!

After a long hike in snowshoes, the view of the Tetons was worth every minute of it

This post only scratched the surface of my amazing experiences during this course. It was a time of firsts; my first time snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, visiting an elk feed ground, seeing a cougar, and learning that the classic “snowflake” is actually called a snow crystal. I will cherish these memories for the rest of my life and look forward to participating in further opportunities to learn about the world I live in.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

Making Conservation Happen

This week’s blog was written by Sinclaire O., a Bucktails alumni. She shares how she made the switch to composting.

Have you ever felt like you weren’t doing enough? It is almost like you just can’t be content with what you have done. At one point, a few years back, I felt like that. I was always outgoing, trying to make new friends or get involved with new things, but something was missing. I even found a new love for volunteering in middle school that I have been continuing ever since, but it still wasn’t enough. I might have been giving back to my community yet there was something missing. It wasn’t a person or group of people, it is who we, as a human race, call home. Earth wasn’t getting enough from me and that was about to change.

The house I lived in when I went to middle school and the first few years of high school had a regular weekly garbage pick up. Just like everyone else, we would put out our garbage and that would be it. There was one thing I began to notice that many other people were doing and what we weren’t, recycling. This realization came around the same time I felt I as an individual needed to do more to help the environment. So I approached my mom and we discussed and agreed to start recycling everything we can to help do our part. I know now that it is hard to know what is actually being done with our recyclables but the action of trying to do your part is what makes me feel good about what I have done so far.

My at home composter

After five years of continuing to recycle, it is still going on strong in our household. This past spring after following climate activist groups and learning more ideas on how to do my part, I felt it was time for me to continue doing my part. After learning about waste in landfills and how bad it is to throw away uneaten food when you can turn it into compost, I knew what my best project was. It took some convincing but before long I had a functional and an environmentally friendly composter. I made sure my family members remembered to put their food scraps in a different pile so they can be composted. After a couple of weeks I had soil being produced and our household even had less garbage being thrown out.

Inside look of the composter

I am still continuing to compost and recycle through the cold winter months and brewing my next environmental project. On top of what I am doing at home I have been volunteering at Lacawac Sanctuary by helping them and promoting conservation. There is always a way to help the Earth, both big and small. Sometimes it takes a little nagging and persistence but once the job gets done, the sense of accomplishment you feel after all the hard work is worth it. As Neil Armstrong once said, “That’s one step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

The Daily Life of a Dragonfly

This week’s blog was written by Jocelyn G., a Drummers alumni. She shares some interesting facts about dragonflies.

I have always wondered about dragonflies and decided to find out some more about them and learn about conservation efforts for them. They have always been one of my favorite creatures.

Dragonflies start off in little eggs usually laid in water or on plants. They then grow to tiny nymphs and then into adults. This all happens over a span of 6 months to a year, this is their average lifespan. Once they are fully grown they can be very colorful. Their bodies can be a blue green color or a yellow red color, Their wings can also be colored as well usually having a yellow tint. Their wings can move very fast with between 50 to 90 beats per minute.

Here is a picture of where I once found a dragonfly this is a
good example of the type of area you will find the dragonflies.

These interesting insects have a carnivorous diet. They eat things like mosquitoes, flies, bees, and butterflies. In general they eat other small insects that they can catch due to their excellent ability to maneuver and out fly their prey.

This is a dragonfly I found in the forest when hiking.

Because of their diet dragonflies tend to live around wet forest areas, by streams and ponds. There has been a decline in dragonfly population over the years because of the decrease in forests being wiped out for agricultural purposes. So if you would like to see some more dragonflies around and would like to help with the conservation of dragonflies there is a very easy way to help. If you have a garden or an extra space in your yard you could make a small garden pond to attract insects and other small creatures that live in ponds or lakes. Then maybe you would see more dragonflies around. A very simple and easy project to try out. I know I will!

The photos used in the blog belong to the author.

A Day with Elk

This week’s blog is a guest post by Canyon M., a Bucktails alumni. He shares his experience spending a day in the field with a biologist.

January 31, 2020, I had the most amazing experience with wildlife. As part of my outreach for the Wildlife Leadership Academy, I contacted my local state deer biologist, who happens to live near us, and scheduled a ride along for a day. The day I was riding along was an exciting one: the deer biologist, Dr. Chris Rosenberry, was going to Benezette, PA to capture, tag, collar, and check for pregnancy in female elk.

Me and a female Elk

The whole day was very interesting. We met at 4:30 am to drive to Elk County, where we connected with other elk biologists. Then, around 7 am, we free-darted a habituized elk to check for pregnancy. After using the ultra-sound and performing other routine tasks, we gave the elk a reversal for the tranquilizer, waited until the elk stood up and was okay, and then proceeded to the next elk. The next elk that we checked was in a trap called a clover trap. Named after its designer, the clover trap is a rectangular, steel box frame that has netting around it with a trap door connected to a trip line. The animal walks in to get the bait, which is alfalfa hay and walks into a wire connected to a pull pin which, in turn, releases the door down to enclose the animal. Once we processed the elk in the clover trap, we headed back towards home. On both elk, I was able to do the DNA samples and the ear tagging which was really neat.

Tallying results

Although there were only two elk and the majority of the time was spent on the road, the whole day was a fun and unique experience that I will never forget.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

The Threat of the Round Goby in Pennsylvania’s French Creek

This week’s blog was written by Emma O., a Drummers alumni. She shares how the round goby is affecting native ecosystems in Pennsylvania.

A truly beautiful fish, the round goby displays a smooth gray color that is mottled with patches of brown, black, and a splash of green. Though elegant in its physical characteristics, this fish has come to be treacherous in the Commonwealth’s waterways.

Round Goby, Neogobius melanostomus

The impact of this invasive species includes the fish’s preference for consuming native aquatic species, such as darters, sculpins, and mussels. Additionally, the round goby maintains the unique adaptation of having a well-developed sensory system, allowing the fish to hunt in complete darkness; thus, the fish easily outcompetes native species if they are pursuing the same food sources.

French Creek in autumn. It runs through a state park.

Along with these nuisances, the round goby competes with native species for spawning sites, often aggressively chasing fish from prime habitat. With such environmental impacts, the round goby has also negatively affected the nation’s economy. For example, many productive lakes have been forced to close during peak angling season due to the high threat of the fish, causing a striking reduction in profit for such businesses. The fish has recently taken over French Creek–a tributary of the Allegheny River in Northwestern Pennsylvania–wreaking havoc on the native species’ ecosystem. For reference, French Creek is considered one of the most biologically diverse aquatic ecosystems in the nation, cradling around 19 threatened and endangered species. Specifically, according to the Pennsylvania State University’s research, the round goby targets multiple species of endangered mussels within French Creek–the only habitat in which they have previously been able to survive.

French Creek is known for its excellent biodiversity.

With ecologists, field biologists, and anglers alike quite concerned over what seems to be an invasion, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has recently petitioned to enact a $150 fine with each round goby found in a bait shop’s retail tank. The process for such reform, however, is slow, so Pennsylvanians should take precautions against invasive species such as cleaning their boating equipment, changing their ballast water, and removing pests from their clothing and/or pets.

The photos used in this blog were sourced from the Creative Commons on the internet. You can find them here, here, and here.