Alcatraz Spring 2014

Patrick Mullins, Bio 92

            Alcatraz Island, Wikipedia                                                                   Assessing my internship at the midterm, I wrote that “the work I've been doing on Alcatraz has strongly reinforced my desire to keep working towards my degree and a career working with wildlife,” and I’m happy to say that continues to be the case. Being on the island has been a tremendously positive experience for me; it has given me valuable experience, contact with wildlife professionals from different agencies, and many things to reflect on as I consider my own educational and career goals. My primary goal for this internship was simply to gain some practical experience in doing wildlife biology. I wanted to see what was involved in the day-to-day of wildlife management (particularly in an area with a large human population/footprint) and learn what it’s like to do research fieldwork. Over the course of the internship, I’ve come to see these two different but overlapping areas - research and management - as different paths to pursue educationally and professionally.      

Brandt's cormorant nesting on Alcatraz Island, WikipediaMy mentor, Tori Seher, has been great throughout the internship and I feel lucky to have been able to work with her. Tori has spent her entire career in wildlife management, working for the NPS - first in Yosemite, then on Alcatraz. She’s been generous with her knowledge and experience, and has given me an understanding of what is involved in wildlife management in areas heavily trafficked by people. Although everyone knows that every park is different, in general, management for the NPS seems to revolve around balancing the needs of the wildlife against the uniquely human desire of visitors to have unlimited access to all areas at all times. As one would expect of a long-term NPS employee, Tori is very pragmatic regarding management decisions, and she’s taught me quite a bit about prioritizing which habitats are protected, which species are encouraged, and to what extent. I think that this knowledge and experience will be useful in the future regardless of which direction my career takes.

            Tori has also given me many opportunities to be in the field, in a variety of capacities. Already, at the midterm, I was satisfied that I had gained truly valuable experience as far as fieldwork goes, and the second half was no different. If anything, it has been more satisfying, as projects begun at the beginning of the internship are coming to fruition. The nest boxes for pigeon guillemots which I wrote about at the midterm have been placed in three areas around the perimeter of the island, and cameras have been placed in them. One pair has established a nest in one box; boxes in other areas are being frequently visited by birds looking for nests. The great blue herons I’ve been monitoring (for the Audubon Canyon Ranch’s North Bay Heron and Egret Project) now have chicks - three in one nest, two in another. Spotting the chicks for the first time after an hour and a half of peering through a scope and then following their weekly progress has been not only a highlight of the internship, but a tremendously moving personal experience.

            Great bl;ue heron - WikipediaWhile I’ve unfortunately never spoken to anyone from the Audubon Canyon Ranch about the Heron and Egret Project, I have spoken with other researchers, most frequently and most notably, Heather Robinson from the Farallon Institute. She has been an invaluable resource, and has provided me with not only practical concrete advice from her regarding mapping of research plots, data collection and recording, but also her personal perspective on working for the the government (she is a former USGS employee) versus working for a private conservation/research organization. Thanks to Heather and Tori, I’ve had plenty to think about regarding which path I’d like to follow in my own career and thus my remaining education.

I appreciate the work and results of management, especially in an area so dense with both humans and animals as Alcatraz, one of the most visited parks in the U.S., but at this point, I feel more drawn to conservation and research than to management. Regardless, the experience I’ve gained from being on Alcatraz will be of great benefit, as human populations continue to expand and come into contact with and impact wildlife populations more frequently. And while I might feel differently if I were to intern in a less visited or less densely packed national or state park, and I see the validity of the NPS’ balanced usage concept, my experience and thinking over the semester leads me to think that I would find it more personally fulfilling to pursue work in conservation and/or research. I want to emphasize that much of my experience on Alcatraz falls into this category, and having the opportunity to compare both options side by side and see where they intersect and support each other has been one of the most valuable aspects of the internship experience.

            On a more practical note, the internship has tested my time management skills, especially over the past month, as the semester has been coming to an end and my family has been preparing to move across the country (to Vermont). The past month has been incredibly dense for me as I’m trying to maintain my high personal academic standards, pack all of my belongings, and be a father. Spending my weekends on Alcatraz, especially taking into consideration the commute, has caused me to schedule practically all of my time. Much of my schoolwork this semester has been done in transit, between classes, or late at night, but it has all been done. Whether or not I maintain my GPA remains to be seen, but I certainly don’t resent the time I spent on Alcatraz - quite the opposite, as should be clear from what I’ve written above.

Not only has time management off the island been an issue, time management on the island has also been challenging. This has especially been the case recently as nesting and breeding season is in full swing. On more than one occasion, I’ve had a full agenda that has been completely derailed by faulty video equipment, a gosling straying from its nest, or a dead bird being found on the island perimeter. Being flexible and resetting priorities has definitely been an important skill that I’ve been developing both on and off the island, and I don’t doubt that in the future I’ll have more opportunities to develop in those areas.

            I would wholeheartedly recommend this internship to anyone who is already interested in working with wildlife. I don’t know how suited anyone not already drawn to the field would fare in the position - I’ve done a fair amount of standing outside in the cold and rain remaining as still and quiet as possible. Obviously, this sort of thing doesn’t appeal to everyone, but for any student already set on pursuing a career working with wildlife, this internship could be a worthwhile experience.