By Lexie Beach, STC Communications Coordinator
Back in November, I had the opportunity to participate in a fun Citizen Science Field Excursion organized by STC staff at the Barrier Island Center (BIC) in Melbourne Beach, FL. For those who are unfamiliar with the BIC, it is an environmental education center located in the heart of the Archie Carr National Refuge that is jointly managed by STC and Brevard County’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. With staff and volunteers based year-round at the BIC, STC conducts a variety of programs in partnership with the local community that are building coastal awareness and stewardship for the Carr Refuge and the entire barrier island ecosystem. Activities include guided sea turtle walks, beach clean-ups, and dune restoration projects, just to name a few. The BIC also hosts visiting school groups as well as local residents and tourists and is the site of STC’s annual Tour de Turtles release each summer. The facility and its exhibits are open to the public for free and many of the programs are offered for little to no cost.
Along with a group of 20 budding conservationists, I spent a beautiful fall day exploring Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, feeding sea horses at the Vero Beach Marine Lab, checking oyster gardens in the Indian River Lagoon and learning about citizen science projects from around the world. We were also treated to several special guest presentations over a picnic lunch in Sebastian Inlet State Park, which looked especially picturesque that day.
The morning began with a short shuttle ride to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, America’s first National Wildlife Refuge! After learning about the Refuge’s history from an extremely-knowledgeable volunteer, we were free to roam and explore the scenic trails while trying to spot local wildlife. More than 30 species of birds use Pelican Island as a rookery, roost, feeding ground, or loafing area and 16 different species of birds nest there. Several species of sea turtle as well as Florida manatees and bald eagles are also occasionally spotted within the Refuge.
Our next stop was the Florida Institute of Technology Vero Beach Marine Lab where we learned how we could help save sea horses through a citizen science initiative. We even got an up-close look at newborn sea horses as well as several other species, such as clown fish, which are bred at the Lab for aquaculture use. During our sea horse presentation, I realized that sea horses and sea turtles actually share many similarities when it comes to the threats they are faced with. Water pollution, shrimp trawling, and harvest for consumption in the Asian market are all major threats to these charismatic species which make their home right here in Florida waters.
Other highlights of the day’s adventure included a great presentation by STC Board Member, Peggy Cavanaugh, whose passion about online citizen science projects was positively contagious! Husband and wife team Paul and Anne Lins also spoke about their incredible experiences as volunteer marine mammal responders and sea turtle stranding rescues. We finished the day out on the dock of Hog Point Cove Sanctuary learning about the oyster gardens that are deployed there to help gauge the health of the Indian River Lagoon.
This particular field excursion was just one of the many environmental stewardship workshops the BIC organizes each month. The majority of these programs are free, with some of the more involved ones costing a small donation. This Citizen Science Field Excursion also included lunch and transportation from the BIC. A schedule showing all the activities taking place each month at the BIC can be accessed on the STC website and BIC Facebook page, so you can be on the lookout for programs that interest you.
As the human population on Brevard County’s coast continues to grow, STC and the BIC will play an increasingly important role in protecting the fragile barrier island and its globally important sea turtle nesting beaches by educating the surrounding community and providing hands-on learning opportunities for all ages. To learn more about the BIC, visit http://www.conserveturtles.org/barrierislandcenter.php