Bald Head Island Conservancy

Intern Spotlight: My Journey So Far With the Conservancy

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by Ryan Riggs, UNCW intern

Hello, my name is Ryan Riggs! I’m a junior at UNCW studying Oceanography and minoring in Geospatial Technologies. I hope to earn my drone pilot’s license during my time as an undergrad as well. I’m from Allentown, Pennsylvania, though since starting UNCW two years ago my family has moved to Wilmington, making it my home away from home now. My Oceanography internship class consists of working with a local environmental organization to learn relevant scientific skills, writing bimonthly reports of my experience, then giving a presentation on what I learned and accomplished by the end. I spend every Friday going to Bald Head Island to assist the Conservancy with a variety of projects. I chose to spend this spring working with the Conservancy because of my love of learning and nature. The ability to learn new skills while being outside and on a beautiful remote island sounded like a dream to me, and I just had to experience that. 

The coolest program Bald Head Island Conservancy is conducting on the island that I have had the pleasure to be a part of is the Deer Management program. For the island’s natural ecosystem to prosper the deer population has to be monitored and managed. The deer population can easily get out of hand quickly, due to the lack of predators, when that happens it will disrupt the food chain and devastate plant life. The first project I was a part of was the maintenance of enclosed forest plots, which are part of a long-term experiment looking at impacts of deer herbivory.  In conjunction with these enclosed plots, there are also open plots in similar areas. Conservancy and collaborating scientists will measure plant life density and diversity in areas that are exposed to deer and those that are not. If there is a significant difference in the plots the deer population may need to be managed to ensure suitability. Our job was to clear plants and branches that damaged or breached the fences so that they would continue to exclude deer for this long-term project. 

The second wildlife management method I learned was radio telemetry. This is the practice of tracking specific deer across the island using radio waves. These deer with tracker collars on them have been given an experimental birth control drug. This drug is most effective with two doses, thus tracker collars were used to locate the deer for their second dose. Now after two years, the collars are falling off, as they were intended to, and it was my job to find the collars when they do. The collars have two signals it sends out: the usual signal is a slow steady beep, which indicates the collar is still attached to the deer. The second is a fast beep with no pauses, this indicates that the collar has not moved in 24 hours.

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UNCW intern Ryan Riggs listening for collared deer
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Deer checking us out as we listen for other deer

I went about tracking this location down by triangulating the signal. Once a small enough area was delineated it was time for me to get out on foot and start looking. I was fortunate that I got to experience the excitement of tracking and finding a collar with the help of Chief Scientist Beth Darrrow! The Deer Management program has taught me just how much work has to be done to ensure a sustainable ecosystem. While it may not be classical Oceanography, the sustainability of barrier islands also depends on managing wildlife. I’m so happy to be learning these crucial techniques and skills to be able to contribute to sustainability programs later in my career!

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Ryan triangulated to and found a dropped collar
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The feeling of success! Ryan with his mentor Beth Darrow – and the dropped collar

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