Bald Head Island Conservancy

Recapping Our 2023 Fall Intern Symposium

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By Morgan Greene, Marketing Associate

During the fall, Bald Head Island Conservancy hosts a team of interns who partake in Conservancy research and education efforts. The interns, typically recent college graduates, also conduct research projects of their own that often contribute to ongoing Conservancy projects and broaden our understanding of the island. These projects are an important way for the Conservancy to explore new research and education topics, and give interns valuable experience leading their own independent projects. On December 15, the 2023 Fall Conservation Interns presented their project findings at our Intern Symposium.

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Hannah presents a diagram showing how dune plant diversity increases with distance from the ocean.

Presenting first was Hannah Miu, who measured the lengths of sand dunes around BHI and analyzed dune plant diversity. Not only did her project further our understanding of how sand accumulates and erodes around the island, but it also helped fill a data gap in the Barrier Island Botanist field trip curriculum. Hannah explained to symposium attendees how she used existing GPS data to locate dune transects, or sections of dune landscape, the Conservancy had measured previously. For her plant survey, Hannah counted the number and coverage of dune plants in multiple square meter quadrats to estimate their distribution across the dune transects. Apart from identifying which parts of the island are showing trends of growth and erosion (such as Bald Head’s South Beach, which Hannah explained has been highly erosional since 2007), Hannah used her data to create a dune plant field guide and a dune measurement activity for teens and young adults visiting BHI. 

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Tyler explains how climate change has been impacting bird migrations.

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A map from Tyler’s presentation depicting annual Painted Bunting migration trends.

Following Hannah, fall intern Tyler Petruccelli presented his findings on BHI bird migration trends. Tyler shared that Bald Head has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, which means our island provides essential habitat for migrating birds. Because bird migration trends have been shifting in recent years as a result of climate change, Tyler wanted to see if Bald Head birds have also experienced changes in their yearly migrations. He conducted bird surveys in several different habitats around the island, identifying migratory species and recording when they first arrived on the island, then compared his findings to data from the community science platform eBird over the past 10 years. Tyler found that some species, like our Yellow-rumped Warblers, haven’t seemed to experience any migration shifts recently. However, other species have started arriving later or staying longer on the island (normally a summertime visitor, Painted Buntings were spotted on BHI during the winter in both 2018 and 2019). Still other birds, like the Lesser Black-backed Gull, have begun to establish a year-round presence on the island. In addition to his survey data, Tyler also made a Painted Bunting case study pamphlet, which includes a description of the Conservancy’s Motus tower and a Painted Bunting mapping activity.

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Carson explains the key differences between butterflies and moths.

Carson Loudermelt used her research project to explore the effects of urbanization on BHI moth diversity. After explaining some key differences between moths and butterflies (such as the shorter, fuzzier antennae on moths), Carson shared the importance of moths for the island food web, emphasizing their significance as nighttime pollinators and essential food for island bats and birds. Carson explained how moths are negatively affected by urban light, which is why she wanted to see how urbanization might affect the variety of moths living on BHI during the fall. Carson would set moth traps created from butterfly enclosures and blacklights in urban and natural sites around the island overnight, then collected the traps in the morning to identify and measure the moths inside. She found the diversity of moths in less urbanized areas to be significantly higher than in urban areas, but urbanization did not seem to impact the size of the moths she found. Carson also created a moth field guide, and she set up a sheet and blacklight on the Conservancy’s campus during her study for visitors to observe Bald Head moths in action. During the symposium, Carson suggested that future studies should be conducted during other times of the year to see how moths are affected by urban light in different seasons.

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Jonathan and Charlene demonstrate their comparisons of BHI’s wild and restored oyster reefs.

For the symposium’s final presentation, interns Charlene Trippeda and Jonathan Saldeen presented their oyster reef monitoring project, which contributed significantly to the Conservancy’s ongoing oyster restoration projects and research. Charlene and Jonathan explained how oysters are important ecosystem engineers that build their reefs over the course of several generations, and how these reefs provide important habitats and protection from storms for BHI. Bald Head currently has three restored oyster reefs, with the restored reefs being constructed from oyster shell bags. For their project, Jonathan and Charlene used an RTK GPS to measure the elevation of wild and restored oyster reef footprints (or aerial coverage of the reefs), and took oyster samples from both types of reefs to compare the quality of restored and wild reefs. The interns found that restored reefs are experiencing the same amount of spat, or baby oyster, recruitment as wild reefs, meaning the reefs are growing at about the same rate. Additionally, the communities of crustaceans, mussels, and other marsh fauna living in the reefs appear to be composed of different species, but diversity was very similar between wild and restored reefs. These similarities show that restored reefs are successfully functioning like wild reefs!


Figures from Charlene and Jonathan’s project depicting changes in elevation for BHI’s restored reefs between 2021 and 2023.

Although the restored oyster reefs are still smaller than the wild ones for now, they are likely to grow into large, healthy oyster reefs over time. The duo also took preliminary data at a new site where biodegradable Oyster Catcher substrate reef will be installed. In addition to their field and lab work, Jonathan and Charlene both created educational activities to teach island visitors about oyster reefs: Jonathan added a living shoreline component to our outdoor wave tank to demonstrate how the reefs protect our shoreline from wave-based erosion, and Charlene created an informational booklet to teach visitors about the many important contributions of oyster reefs to BHI.

Following the symposium, Bald Head Island Conservancy staff celebrated with a holiday party and bid farewell to our fall interns. We were all thoroughly impressed with all the hard work our interns poured into their projects and by the impressive results those projects yielded. Although we’re always sad to see them go, BHIC is proud of all our interns’ impressive accomplishments, and we’re excited to see what’s in store for each of them.


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