Dusky Camp, Part 2. I just got back from a four-day stint out on the Copper River Delta. This time the wildlife crew and I tackled the 100+ nest islands that needed maintenance. These nest islands were installed into ponds across the delta to increase dusky population numbers after they had been affected by the 1964 earthquake. The earthquake lowered the delta’s land elevation, changing the nesting habitat of duskys and making them more susceptible to depredation. By the time I made it out to camp, the wildlife crew had already maintained more than half of the islands that needed work. A nest island would need maintenance if it was missing one or more of its anchors (anchors hold islands in place on ponds), needed more shrub cover, was too bogged down by vegetation or water, or needed its hardware tightened, straightened out or replaced. It was hard but satisfying work.
My teammate for the whole trip was Nick Docken, a wildlife field technician. Our gear on a typical day consisted of a couple of poke boats, anchors, hardware, and tools for transplanting shrubs from the delta to the nest islands. Our poke boats, which are like lightweight simplified kayaks, came in handy for more than just floating on ponds and across sloughs. We used them to transport shrubs across ponds and even as a lever to lift heavy islands that needed anchors installed or hardware replaced. When we approached most of the islands that needed shrubs added to provide concealment for nesting, it was important to keep in mind that any grasses or forbs that were present on the island would look very different in the spring, when geese and other birds are nesting. In spring, grasses and other plants would either not be present yet or not as lush as they appear in late summer. As you can see in the “before” picture of an island we maintained, it seems to have some percentage of cover but it consists of mostly grasses; during the spring, it would look quite different.
One of the highlights of the nest island maintenance stint was spotting a little wood frog hopping among the mud and tall grass. It was so cute! It had this amazing copper streaking that glittered and looked just like the metal. They are prevalent throughout Alaska, and are actually the only frog found north of the Arctic Circle. They survive frigid winters by producing an antifreeze that prevents their intracellular fluids from freezing solid but allows their extracellular fluids to freeze. They essentially fall into a frozen state along with the surrounding environment. When spring arrives and everything thaws out, so do the frogs. So cool! My weekend highlight was getting to go mushroom and nagoonberry picking! I picked delicious hedgehog and chanterelle mushrooms (angel wing mushrooms in photo) and about a half-gallon of nagoonberries. This was the first time that I’ve ever had wild mushrooms, and the first time that I’ve ever tried a goony. Both were DELICIOUS. The mushrooms were so fresh and tasty, and the nagoons had a strong raspberry flavor. I’m definitely going to try and make some jam and maybe even a nagoonberry pie, although I think I’ll get the most enjoyment out of eating them raw.
Nest island maintenance was the last dusky project of the season. The U.S. Forest Service wildlife team here in Cordova has done such an amazing job at keeping these programs going strong. It was sad leaving dusky camp, knowing it might be the last time that I get to participate in this amazing project. Before this internship I didn’t even know that duskys existed, but now I’ve spent a whole summer working on projects devoted to conserving them. I’m so grateful to have had the privilege to contribute to their preservation.