As Autumn Comes Along…

Greetings again from the North Carolina Botanical Garden!  Actually, greetings from the field on the Southeastern Coastal Plain, where my crew has been spending 95% of our time.  The last time I wrote, we were waiting for a lot of our target species to develop mature seed.  That time has passed!   It’s hard to believe, but Autumn is already here, and we are staying very busy with our rounds of seed collections in North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland’s coastal plain areas.  Our crew of four has split into two teams in order to cover the most ground possible.  My teammate, Lauren, and I have decided to take on a schedule starting in September where we work 8 ten-hour days in a row, and then take off 6 days in between.  This schedule is intense, but rewarding, because it gives us enough time to really cover a lot of ground and make a ton of collections in a week, and then have a nice long chunk of off-time at home before doing it all over again.  Because we do a lot of driving across a three-state range, it makes the 6-ish hour drive to Maryland and some parts of Virginia worth it, and we don’t feel like we have to turn around and drive right back immediately.

My crew has now obtained permits and visited over 75 sites in our range.  By the end of the season, that number will top 100.  It is interesting to see that the parcels of land in conservation are much, much smaller and spread out here on the East Coast than what I observed while living out West.  Instead of working on one or two enormous tracts of Forest Service or BLM land, we have been contacting and scouting dozens of National Wildlife Refuges (managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service), The Nature Conservancy Preserves, State Parks, County parks, and various land trusts.  Some of my favorite sites we have visited have been the National Wildlife Refuges.  These sites tend to be a bit larger, allowing for a diversity of micro-climates and habitats, which seems to provide more continuity for the plant and animal species that make their homes there.  In addition, these Refuges tend to have some spectacularly beautiful views!

Occoquan Bay NWR

A view from shore at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia

Salt flats at Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge

Salt flats at Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge

An advancing storm over Chesapeake Bay as seen  from Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge.  Luckily, we were done with work for the day!

An advancing storm over Chesapeake Bay as seen from Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge. Luckily, we were done with work for the day!

Another interesting thing about these conservation lands in the East is their proximity to developed, urban landscapes.  Occoquan Bay NWR, which has become one of our favorite sites, is only minutes from the urban sprawl that extends out of Washington D.C.  While we are there, the hubbub and traffic (OH, the traffic!) is far from our thoughts as we listen to the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore.  One of our recent collections at this site was Strophostyles helvola, annual sand-bean, or wooly-bean, a cute little viney legume that pops open its pods and hurtles the seed every which way when mature.  Using a bag with a wide opening helps while collecting this little guy!

Strophostyles helvola, with an immature fruit

Strophostyles helvola, with an immature fruit

As September breezes by, the onslaught of hunting season is upon us as well.  When considering that turkey, deer, and bear hunting is allowed on National Wildlife Refuges, one may wonder if the term “refuge” is really appropriate.  I’m sure this is one of the main reasons these Refuges were set up, though, and how they continue to maintain funding.  I know the managers of the lands are doing their best to keep balanced populations on their properties, especially considering how close most of them are to developed areas.  They must be doing something right, because the list of wildlife we have seen while working this season includes bear, deer, bald eagles, osprey, groundhogs, beaver, snakes, lizards, and even an alligator!  This doesn’t even include the countless species of smaller birds or the numerous pods of dolphins we’ve spotted while working along the coast.

Although all the driving and nights in hotels can become a bit of a grind, thinking of all these experiences helps me realize just how lucky I am to have such a fabulous job.  While most of the people of Washington D.C. or Raleigh might think of nature as something “other,” not a part of their everyday environment, I have the privilege to walk within it every day, and witness its everyday moments of radiance and tranquility.  I get to behold the glorious skies and beautiful blooms of her shining moments, and the stinking muck and terrifying venom of her darker side.  And all of these things help to make me who I am, someone a bit outside the norm of this “civilized” society, perhaps, but also one who is in touch with the pulse of nature and the rhythm of the seasons.  I’ll leave it on that note.  Until next time, peace outside!

Emily Driskill

SOS East: North Carolina Botanical Garden

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