by Sharlissa Moore, ’02
It was a beautiful, blustery March morning when a group of SCA alumni and Conservation Leadership Corps students visited Environmental Studies on the Piedmont (E.S.), an environmental research and education station in Warrenton, Virginia, just an hour outside of Washington, DC.
Research at Environmental Studies is closely linked to its conservation education initiatives, which work to re-connect young people with the natural world through hands-on and inquiry-based learning. The day trip was one of a number of activities planned nationwide by SCA’s 50th Anniversary Alumni Council to reengage alumni in SCA’s conservation mission.
We started our field trip at a breeding pond where scientists are studying Jefferson Salamanders. To the delight of the group, we were allowed to remove some of the salamanders from a trap, and we proceeded to weigh and measure one unsuspecting, writhing specimen. We also got to touch and examine a clutch of unviable eggs, which had unfortunately been infected by a fungus.
After the salamanders, we pulled out binoculars to get a better view of the local birds, such as the turkey vulture, and then headed inside for lunch. At lunch, we met the Director Emeritus of E.S., William Sladen, and his wife, who are longtime supporters of SCA. Mrs. Sladen presented an engaging slideshow of the wildflowers of the Environmental Studies station.
The most popular with the group was the Eastern Skunk Cabbage, a plant that grows in soft wetland soils and produces a foul, but harmless, odor when its leaves are torn. The odor both attracts pollinators and fends of large animals. The skunk cabbage is also notable for its ability to produce heat, allowing it to grow up out of frozen ground. We were all eager to witness such an industrious plant, so we ventured out into the woods to a location where one was rumored to be seen. Unfortunately, the skunk cabbage turned out to be elusive, but it is not a plant any of us is soon to forget.
The final stop on our journey was to see the swans. The Swan Research Program (SRP) at Environmental Studies has been in existence since 1969 and is known for its research into using ultralight aircraft to teach lost migration routes to swans, a technique shown with geese in the fictional movie, Fly Away Home. This method is being used to help recover the population of Trumpeter Swans, which was nearly hunted to extinction. We learned that unlike some other birds, Trumpeter Swans must be taught their migration routes; the aircraft serve as surrogate parents, guiding the swans on their migratory path.
Researchers at E.S. are also using satellite monitoring to study Tundra Swan migration from Alaska’ North Slope to the U.S. mid-Atlantic region. You can view the tracks of the Tundra Swans on the E. S. website. Additional research projects at SRP include studying Trumpeter-Tundra hybrids, which are likely to become more prevalent to due to climate change, and controlling feral swan populations in a non-lethal manner.
We headed back to D.C. tired, yet satisfied, after another successful alumni event. As the SCA Alumni Council continues in its second year, be on the lookout for similar alumni programs in your area. We’re seeking to reengage SCA’s 50,000 alumni in conservation work in their communities, in turn enabling them to inspire even more people to put conservation in action.
Photo, from top: Swans at Environmental Studies; SCA Conservation Leadership Corps member Brenda Lopez with the salamander; Brenda Lopez looks through the field scope while SCA staffer Leib Kaminsky awaits his turn; the field trip group at ES.
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