Patrick Garrett ’12- We spent the day traveling through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge one whole day on our Spring Break trip. My favorite moment of the day occurred as we traveled to a new area after doing some bird watching. I scanned the banks in hopes of finding any interesting plant that would be flowering but instead I found something quite different. Upon further observation what I thought was a log twitched and moved a little. Cautiously, I said to our professor, Dr. Ransom, “I think I saw an alligator…” As we turned around to investigate I winced hoping that I was right and alas there it was basking in the sun on the bank! I was proud to be the one to spot the first gator of the trip and to see an alligator for the first time in person but my pride was crushed an hour later when we saw 8 alligators in a small pond while leaving. Somehow my measly one alligator didn’t seem as significant anymore.
We didn’t just see alligators that day though. Today was a day where we immersed ourselves in the aspects of experimental biology we have been learning about throughout the semester. We were in search of ponds with several species of large birds to observe their behaviors. Although we didn’t find the size class we wanted we still observed several smaller species. I spent the morning recording the behaviors of the Boat-tailed Grackle. I must admit that as I plopped down my backpack on the ground and brought my binoculars into focus on the individual I chose to study I was a bit annoyed. We had learned about ethograms (a catalogue of an animal’s behavior) in the classroom but I never thought one would be scientifically beneficial. They seemed trivial in the abstract. However the longer I sat and watched the bird the more I became aware of the intricacies of its behavior and began to respect the ethogram as a scientific tool. The grackle seemed to indiscriminately walk on the ground near the water at first. As time went on I realized that it moved in very specific ways and interacted with other individuals of the same species to establish its territory and obtain food. By the time I packed my binoculars up I had to simultaneously remove my own foot from my mouth.
Next we traveled to a section of 200 year old cypress forest. Although it was so old the trees were miniscule in comparison to the pines surrounding them. We learned this was due to poor soil quality and a layer of bedrock where the trees were planted. The forest looked like a skeleton graveyard because the trees hadn’t leafed out yet. It was really impressive to see how subtle changes in the abiotic conditions of an ecosystem could lead to such drastic differences in community structure and composition.
Our day in the forest ended looking for pitcher plants and bladderworts with no luck (the one organism I wanted to see!). Although I didn’t mind after spending the rest of the day on the beach playing frisbee with my fellow classmates and swimming in the cool ocean water. Sitting by the fire that night we all reflected on the day and our lives at Wabash. It was a picture perfect day with a perfect combination of learning, self realization, and blissful recreation.