Monday, January 14, 2013

My refuge, my home: A firsthand account of summer at Chincoteague

Today, you're hearing from Jenna Valente, a recent graduate
who has been interning at Chincoteague National
Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. 
So there I was, an eager 22-year-old entering the last week of finals that I would ever have to take before receiving my prized bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine. I was continually searching for new job opportunities in the area I am most passionate about: the environment. Approximately two months into my search, my attention was drawn to a posting for an internship at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. I arrived at Chincoteague searching for knowledge and adventure and my refuge experience provided that plus a lot more.

After an extensive interview process, I was offered a position working with the biology department, studying the population and nesting habits of federally threatened and endangered shorebirds. I was placed on a team with three other people to form the unstoppable force that is now known as the “Cedar Island Rock Stars.” We monitored Cedar Island, a remote barrier island off the coast of the quaint fishing town of Wachapreague, Virginia.

                          The Cedar Island Rock Stars
Over the summer, I established a deep connection with Cedar Island and the wildlife that called it home. Like the barrier island that I worked on, I found myself dynamically developing with the knowledge that I was acquiring. I truly became engaged in my work and will never forget the first nest that I found, hatch that I saw, fledging that I witnessed and American oystercatcher that I banded.

Although I only observed these birds for four months, I felt a part of their successes and failures and rooted for them all the way. My life became like something out of National Geographic. With the 56 breeding pairs of piping plovers and 47 breeding pairs of American oystercatchers, there was never a dull moment on that island. I found that I transformed into a vigilant mother figure and I was constantly concerned with my brood’s whereabouts and safety. 

Summer flew by in a blink of an eye, and many of my roommates and close friends began packing up and heading back out into the world in search of their next career ventures. I, however, remained through the fall with an internship with the visitor services department. With a bachelor’s degree in communication, I found it imperative that I learn how to overcome any challenges that may accompany interpreting resources to the public.

One of the many awe-inspiring sunrises we had the privilege of witnessing on our boat
ride to Cedar Island. These moments alone made us look forward to waking up
before sunrise!

One day, a few visitors inquired about the roped-off the loggerhead sea turtle nests that we find on the island. They did not understand why it was necessary to block off such a large section of beach just for a nest. I took their curiosity as an opportunity to put my interpreter cap on and educate while creating meaning.

I spoke about how we have learned a lot about the nesting habits of loggerheads. Using egg samples to construct a maternal DNA database, the common belief that loggerheads return to their original hatch site to nest as adults has been debunked. We now know that mothers have nested in several different locations up and down the coastline. This new data encouraged our biologists to provide an even larger area of protected beachfront for safe nesting grounds. My challenge was conveying why sea turtle nest protection is important to everyone. The group gasped in shock at the fact that only 1 in 10,000 sea turtle hatchlings will survive to maturity without ever experiencing the impacts of humans on the oceans and their nesting habitat. The moment I made the strife of the sea turtles clear to them, I knew I had changed their perceptions.

The refuge’s purpose is to provide wildlife some sanctuary from the encroaching outside world, and it offered me the same circumvention. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge became a refreshing tonic for my soul. I appreciate the experience that I have had at Chincoteague; I could not ask for a better team of supervisors and I know that when I leave here, I will have acquired a well-rounded experience that will make me a multifaceted addition to any organization’s team.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Meehan, CNWR, Maintenance Div.January 14, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    It sounds as if you had a great experience both with the wildlife work and in educating the visitors. I happen to be in a position to know that you did a great job and have been a real positive asset at CNWR. So congrats on a job well done and all the best in whatever and wherever you go. You'll bring a lot to the table.