Published on August 7, 2020

Summer Projects for Wildlife & Plant Conservation Interns

Eastern Bluebird at a monitored nest box © Gina King
Eastern Bluebird © Gina King

Despite the global pandemic, the Wildlife & Plant Conservation Internship at Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries has been running since mid-June. 

This summer, five interns have been working on a variety of field science projects at Canoe Meadows, Pleasant Valley, and Lime Kiln Farm wildlife sanctuaries. Their favorite projects so far have been nest box monitoring, Bobolink surveys, and amphibian monitoring.

Nest Boxes

Monitoring nest boxes is an ongoing project throughout the summer. The breeding season for Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows begins in late May-early to June, so obtaining data for the 34 nest boxes throughout those months is crucial. Both bluebirds and Tree Swallows are cavity nesters, and the nest boxes give them a safe place to build a nest while giving Mass Audubon the chance to monitor them.

The nest boxes at Pleasant Valley, Canoe Meadows, and Lime Kiln are checked on twice a week and the status of each nest, and any young in them, is recorded. This season, the nest boxes have been home to Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and House Wrens. As of early August, there are three active boxes being occupied by House Wrens and one box with bluebirds. Having the chance to witness the progression from eggs to fledglings in a matter of weeks is an exciting experience for many interns!

Summer interns complete a Bobolink survey at Canoe Meadows
Bobolink surveys at Canoe Meadows

Population Counts

Another bird project—Bobolink point counts—took place in June and July at Canoe Meadows. Bobolinks are a type of songbird that can be found nesting in grasslands and meadows. The male has black plumage with a white backside and yellow on the back of the head. Their song and calls have a distinct mechanical sound to them, making Bobolinks easy to identify.

The birds arrive at their nesting grounds in late May and the young fledge in July. Although listed as a species of "least concern," the Bobolink's numbers are declining in all of their ranges, mostly due to land-use changes. This population decrease makes them an important species to research.

A point count is a type of surveying where the observer stands in one spot for a length of time and records the number of birds—in this case, Bobolinks—they see and/or hear. There are four GPS points in the meadow at Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary where point counts take place. The surveyor records data about the weather before scanning the fields for 10 minutes for Bobolinks within a range of 0-100 meters.

Although this project requires an early start to the day, it's a great experience for the interns!

Eastern Red-backed Salamander (by Kristin Foresto/Mass Audubon)
Eastern Red-backed Salamander

Cover Board Surveys

Canoe Meadows is also home to another exciting field project in June and July—amphibian monitoring. The main species Mass Audubon surveys is the Eastern Red-backed Salamander. These amphibians are unique in that they lack lungs and, instead, salamanders breathe out of glands on their backs. That's why it's so crucial for them to stay moist.

This feature, which makes salamanders susceptible to changes in the environment, also means that they are a good indicator of ecosystem health. Red-backed salamanders can be found living under logs, rocks, and leaf litter in the forest. In order to mimic this habitat, wooden boards known as cover boards can be placed in the woods.

There are four transects at Canoe Meadows, each containing five pairs of cover boards that are labeled accordingly. The interns flip each board over and record the number of salamanders they find underneath as well as the color morph, body length, and tail length of each individual. Another species that is commonly found underneath the boards is the Red Eft, the young stage of the Eastern newt.

Beyond the Field Projects

Nest box monitoring, Bobolink surveys, and amphibian monitoring are only some of the projects that occur throughout the season. The summer interns have also been working hard maintaining the trails at all three sanctuaries, monitoring trail cameras, eradicating invasive plants like garlic mustard and oriental bittersweet, removing barbed wire, searching for Wood Turtles, and (more recently) searching for rare plants.

There's never a dull moment in the life of an intern!