Intern Survival Guide: There is No Guide

Student Conservation Association Member Sarika Khanwikar with an endagnered Gopher Tortoise

Sarika Khanwilkar Finds Her Niche at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge

My relocation away from the mountainous Western United States to sub-tropical Southern Florida resulted in something I would call a ‘wildlife shock.’ Similar to a culture shock, the new environment was an intimidating paradise.

A trail on the Refuge, leading from my house to the Indian River Lagoon.

The first challenge was learning about the ecosystems within the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), where I’ve now spent a month as a Student Conservation Assocation/Americorp biology intern. Of particular importance are the “T and E” species (as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service veteran would say), also known as threatened and endangered.

Shorebirds on the Refuge beach.

A few federally threatened and endangered species found on the Hobe Sound NWR include the Florida scrub jay, Eastern indigo snake, Lakela’s mint, and several species of sea turtle. The annual summer sea turtle nesting on the Refuge’s picture-perfect beach initially distracted me from a hidden gem: the Sand Pine Scrub habitat.

Red Mangroves, with their characteristic prop roots, along the Indian River Lagoon.

It only took one walk through the Pine Scrub’s sugar sand for me to recognize its beauty and fall in love. These ancient sand dunes from the Pleistocene period are evidence of once higher oceans, and now provide a home to one of my new favorite animals, the gopher tortoise; which, if you can believe it, is exactly what it sounds like.

A sign along the NWR Sand Pine Scrub trail reminds visitors to watch out for some of the inhabitants.

During my first week, I came upon a gopher tortoise as it was munching away on gopher apple, a low growing shrub that reaches about a foot in height. I was observing it quietly when it suddenly looked me straight in the eyes, froze for a couple seconds, and darted underground. This surprising agility allows the gopher tortoise to build and traverse underground burrows that reach up to 40 feet in depth. Not only are they special in my heart, they have a magnified impact on the ecosystem because their burrows provide habitat to multitudes of other species.

Gopher tortoise, listed as Threatened under Florida state law, eating a wildflower.

While learning about the native wildlife that find refuge in Hobe Sound, who have evolved to survive intimately with each other for thousands of years. I’ve had to undergo my own, much quicker acclimation in order to survive in my new environment. I began my SCA internship as an exotic species but, unlike introduced species who thrive so well they become invasive, such as Brazilian pepper, as I learn my responsibilities and enact positive change, I will find my place.

​My days here always starts out the same, feeding and caring for the animals in the Hobe Sound Nature Center. Mango, the Eastern Spotted Skunk, finds it hard to wake up in the morning, like me, and expresses his frustration vocally. After his monologue of screeches, he pokes his head into view, and can’t resist the smell of the mealworm I placed in the giant run-about ball. While Mango explores during his morning exercise routine, I get time to clean his home and prepare his food. See what Mango’s morning routine is like inside the ball:

Mango, the Eastern Spotted Skunk was found in the wild and taken as a pet, which is not recommended and most likely illegal. That is how he started his journey to the Hobe Sound Nature Center, where he now resides, unable to be released because he was de-scented.

In spite of these routine mornings, there is no such thing as a regular day at Hobe Sound. Sustaining the Refuge in this constantly changing and fast-paced world requires diverse management. I have to be a quick learner, and ready for anything. In order to survive here, I can’t forget to wear a helmet on the UTV, because large branches may whack me in the head as I clear dense bush; and I never wear anything but closed toed shoes, even when I’m not working, a lesson learned learned after I spent 3 days nursing a foot wounded by frightened scorpion. It also means being prepared to break a sweat when you lay down the fire line for an upcoming prescribed burn, or find an escaped snake next to the crocodile enclosure.

This series of hose and sprinklers (pictured below) act as a fire line, to ensure that the fire stays within the prescribed area. Running through sprinklers, a childhood pastime, took on a whole new meaning after that day. 

 


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