A Year of Gratitude – Palo Interns are the Glue that Binds
January 8, 2021
As we reflect back on the past year and its many challenges – the COVID-19 pandemic; the nearby Woodward and other California fires that impacted our staff, loved ones, communities, and field station; shifts in our fieldwork, training, funding, work, and personal lives; and broader political upheaval and civil and social movements – we find ourselves focusing in on the things and people that we are grateful for and that brought us strength in 2020.
The glue that has bound the year together at the Palomarin Field Station has been our interns. Every year we are deeply grateful to and moved and motivated by our interns. They always bring and give so much to Palo during their relatively short time with us. We are therefore swimming in gratitude for our 2020 interns, who went through the thick and thin of it with us during a year marked by waves of upheaval the likes of which we haven’t quite seen before. Here we pay tribute to their constancy, tenacity, flexibility, spirit, and many contributions; describe the wild arc of this unusual year for them; and highlight our current interns who have been with Point Blue for much of this rollercoaster.
The year began quietly, with a reduced crew of two interns – Samantha Chavez and Hannah Roodenrijs – who “held down the fort” that winter like champions. They spent their days running the mist nets at Palomarin and Pine Gulch (in the nearby Bolinas Lagoon Open Space Preserve), advancing their skills while banding overwintering and resident birds, collecting weather and plant phenology data, conducting outreach to visitors, caring for the field station, delving into scientific topics and bird identification knowledge, and generating capstone projects.
Hannah and Samantha also helped welcome, orient, and train the arriving spring crew. Arriving in early to mid-March, the spring crew consisted of new banding and nest searching (“gridding”) interns at Palomarin, as well as our Spotted Owl interns who lived in a different residence nearby in the seashore. Shortly after the last of them picked out their bunk bed and unpacked their belongings from their travels to live here in Point Reyes National Seashore, the Bay Area initiated its Shelter-in-Place order as COVID-19 was starting to unsettle the world. The interns all elected to stay here instead of returning to shelter with their families elsewhere. They became “family units” with the rest of their field crew and housemates, and continued the fieldwork and training of their internship, which due to the shelter-in-place order, for the Palo interns was restricted at first to our 36-hectare “backyard” of Palomarin. It was of course a very different season than most: there were no in-person visitors to give live bird-banding demonstrations to (we closed the field station to the public for the safety of the residents and community); access, shutdown, or safety restrictions impacted what sites we banded at; the interns never met in person most of the Point Blue and even Palomarin staff, who were working from home when not in the field; the Palo and Spotted Owl crews interacted virtually; and the only constancy was change, given evolving regional and internal safety guidelines as the science and policies themselves evolved.
Yet the birds still migrated and nested, and likewise, our interns continued to document them, continuing the legacy of the decades-long Palomarin dataset. And throughout, the interns impressed us with their positive attitude, sensitivity, learning capacity, and flexibility.
In June and July, summer internships ended. Some of our interns (Maggie Brown, Evan Lipton, Sarah Stewart, and Mary Kate Lisi) moved on to their next field positions, departing into the brave new pandemic world. Others (Mary de Aquino, Bernarda Vasquez Avila) stayed on long enough to help transition the new interns before moving on themselves – Bernarda back to her home country of Ecuador. In large part because of COVID-19, we decided to follow the spring/summer season with a combined fall/winter banding season at Palo to limit training and transition cycles, and to hire locally. We were grateful to have been able to fill all four banding positions with recruits from various local Point Blue projects. As with the March shutdown, this transition period was once again marked by unusual circumstances, with the Woodward Fire nearby in Point Reyes National Seashore resulting in temporary closure of the field station and evacuation of the interns to a Point Blue residence in Petaluma along with cars filled with our most-vulnerable data binders. Even upon returning to the field station, they experienced continued challenges related to the smoke that descended in the area from other fires, with much field work curtailed due to poor air quality (including one infamous day when nets had to be shut due to apocalyptic dark skies in the middle of the day making it too hard to see if there were birds in the nets!) – all a solemn reminder of what others were enduring throughout the region. And once again, these interns displayed a roll-up-their-sleeves attitude and a spirit of generosity and flexibility that contributed to all of us, and Palo, getting through this period.
Our current interns have just a few months left in their fall/winter banding internship. Brandon and Oliver have called Palo home since March of 2020, while Caroline moved to Palo in August from nearby Point Blue field housing where she had been since March during her Spotted Owl internship, and Sophie joined us in September from her nearby Point Blue internship with STRAW. It has been wonderful to call this crew part of our Palo family unit. Let’s introduce our current crew!:
Brandon Dunnahoo started birding while growing up in Texas, and his love of nature and wildlife led him to pursue a wildlife biology degree from Texas State University. He has been banding here at Palomarin since March, so this second internship provided an opportunity to advance and expand his technical skills, so that he can apply them to future work in this field. Brandon says “It’s been a great opportunity to be a part of an incredible community of researchers and support staff at Palomarin all working together to further our knowledge of the natural world”. Brandon hopes to study the migratory connectivity of Chuck-will’s-widows in graduate school, using similar technology to what we’ve been using with songbirds at Palomarin in recent years.
Oliver Nguyen hails from Boston and cultivated their interest in birds working as a research assistant at Tufts University. They started at Palo as a nest searching intern last spring, spending days “wading in a sea of poison oak and blackberry thorns and cursing at Wrentits for their capricious ways” (spoken lovingly of course). For their spring internship capstone project, Oliver combined artistry, observational skills, and creativity into an interactive web map called Palo Grid Wars. This current banding position provided a chance to expand on the banding knowledge they had gained previously, with nestlings at Palo and mist netting at Manomet. Oliver says, “After working at Palo, it made me realize that birds are everywhere, even in urban environments. As a BIPOC kid growing up in the suburbs with little exposure to birding or hiking, I want to bring the experiences and curiosities of observing birds to urban marginalized communities. Enjoyment of nature should be for everyone and meeting so many other diverse birders has made me more determined to make it so”.
Sophie Noda is what we call a “recapture” in the bird-banding world! She was previously a bird-banding intern at Palomarin in spring 2019, and we were excited to welcome her back in fall 2020 after she spent much of the intervening year interning for Point Blue’s Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed (STRAW) Program. On returning to Palo, Sophie says “After a fulfilling season spent at Palo that felt much too short, you can imagine how especially lucky I felt to have the opportunity to return to Palo this fall and winter to band birds again.” Sophie’s future career goals are centered around continuing to work with birds and incorporating habitat restoration into that work, while also hoping to “empower BIPOC folks in this field, center on their stories, and build a community of scientists that is diverse, inclusive, and equitable.”
Caroline Provost is from North Carolina and learned about Point Blue when taking an ecology course at the University of North Carolina Wilmington taught by a former Point Blue Farallon Biologist, Dr. Steven Emslie. After working on our Spotted Owl project in the spring, she was eager to continue working for Point Blue at one of the longest running mist-netting stations in North America, the Palomarin Field Station. “Working here as an intern is allowing me to advance my career pursuit in non-game avian conservation and natural resource management. I am fulfilling my dreams here at Palomarin and although I am in no rush to leave, and life at Palomarin is something I will always cherish, I am excited to see where this takes me.”
The current interns have become pros at dealing with ever-looming and sometimes novel safety considerations, the constancy of change, the heavy events of the last year, and major disruptions to their patterns and lifestyle – all the while becoming technical pros at extracting, identifying, ageing, sexing, measuring, and banding birds, at giving bird-banding demonstrations to the public through virtual Facebook Live events (replacing in-person demos), and so much more! We acknowledge what a year it’s been for them, are privileged to have had our current interns with us for this long, and are grateful for their commitment and for all that they bring to Palo every day they are here.
Happy new year, Palo interns – and to all of you out there!