Hitch 5 - Serendipity

It is a good word to describe this hitch, serendipity. Sometimes, the best things happen when you least expect it. But, when taking the time to relax and actually enjoy the setting you find yourself in and appreciate those who share it with you, some crazy-cool things can happen.

8/5/2012 – Surveying:
Surveying, it’s what we do, and it has become second nature for us. Throw on a pot of coffee in the early am, pack up the gear, and head out. Surveying late? Enjoy the morning, sleeping in, grab lunch and a few snacks, head out, and watch the sun set. The quantity of visitors to the sites has remained low, with the lakes in a tough spot. There are burn bans for most of Oklahoma. The heat, although diminishing, had been crazy hot. The lakes are several feet lower than at the beginning of the season due to region-wide drought, and boat ramps in certain shallow areas are closed. Finally, all lakes have alerts out, warning visitors of blue-green algae and that swimming should be avoided. Alone, none of these are good for water based recreation. Together, they are hurdles diehard fans of lake life have trouble overcoming.

8/6/2012 – Eufaula Lake Memorial Overlook Trail:
Once the workweek started, we headed over to Eufaula Lake’s Overlook Memorial. The recreation area has a nice view of the Eufaula Dam and a hiking trail, the Younger Bend trail, which needed some attention. We spent the day brushing the trail, starting from the trail head. This trail has metal diamonds nailed to trees to mark the trails path, one of the more rustic ACE trails. Brushing this trail was difficult, because the path to the first and second mark was completely overgrown. Passing on a hike would have been impossible. After finding a bench amongst the brush, we knew we were headed in the right direction, and we soon found the first marker. We progressed up to the second mark, about ⅛th of a mile from the trailhead, but we had to call it a day there. Fortunately, the trail opened up and was much clearer after the second marker, although more work is needed to replace fallen markers and remove deadfall that obstructs the trail beyond that point.

8/7/2012 to 8/16/2012 – Surveying:
After the trail work, we entered a long succession of survey days that kept everyone busy, but we tried to squeeze in some adventures here and there. Jeff took a day trip to Tulsa to visit a museum or two and see some Art Deco architecture Tulsa is well known for. Rain finally came to the southern Great Plains this week, helping to briefly cool off the area and quench the ground’s cry for water. Jeff’s dad and younger brother dropped in to visit for a couple of days, meeting the team and bringing a big, goofy smile to Jeff’s face, and Abby visited a friend in Missouri who works at a wildlife refuge there. We were all headed in different directions at different times for surveying, but survey days came and went without difficulty.

8/17/2012 – Interior Least Tern Habitat:
Today was the outcome of a random conversation with a local who regularly visits one of the recreation areas we are surveying. While talking to him, we learned of some nearby habitat used to support an endangered bird. That conversation turned into an idea, the idea turned into a phone call, and the phone call turned into one of the best conservation projects we’ve had so far this summer. Our extended run of surveying was almost a countdown for today, a project we had all been eagerly anticipating, working on Interior Least Tern habitat.

The Interior Least Tern, a subspecie of Least Tern, is an endangered migratory bird that comes from Central and northern South America to use barren or sparsely vegetated sandbars along the Arkansas River, among other river systems, as nesting grounds during the summer months. Listed as an endangered subspecies in 1985, it is estimated there are 7,000 pairs with 1,000 of those pairs breeding. Along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, the US ACE manages a few small islands, one a natural sandbar that was enhanced to suit the terns nesting preferences and three others artificial sandbars constructed specifically for Interior Least Tern nesting.

We started the day at one of these sandbars with Stacy Dunkin and Tonya Dunn, biologists of the Environmental Analysis and Compliance Branch of the US ACE Tulsa District office, Dustin Taylor and Scott of the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge, and, as chance would have it, Matthew Koenig, an SCA intern working on invasive species removal at the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge. Our task for today was to remove vegetation from the sandbar. Interior Least Terns are very picky about their nesting sites, choosing clean, barren sandbars far from terrestrial predators and with a clear view to any predators that might fly over. Such sandbars are few and far between due to modern flood controls. Using a helicopter, a broadcast herbicide was applied earlier in the season to eliminate vegetation on the sandbar, but water level decreases after drought conditions set in exposed much more sandbar. Taking advantage of the newly exposed sand, sesbania, a plant that thrives in hot, dry weather like we are having this summer, took over the exposed area and would cover the entire sandbar if not removed. The plant grows to 8-10 feet tall, and most were mature, about to set seed. We hand pulled the ‘baby trees’, clearing a large section of the sandbar. A brushhog was used where we were not working to clear additional area, but it eventually broke down in the thick brush. Tackling the project as a team, we were able to clear about two acres, almost the entire sandbar. Everyone enjoyed this project, with the combination of an airboat ride, an endangered specie, field work, and good company making it a great day for everyone.

8/18/2012 – Surveying:
Headed back into a weekend of surveying, we were physically exhausted but in high spirits from our conservation work. We took advantage of the much less strenuous survey time to rest and plan our next conservation project. Now, we are coming into the home stretch of surveying. With little time left, we are wondering how we are going to fit in everything we want to do before the season ends. So many plans, so little time!