Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge’s newest intern shares her summer experiences

Rachel Barda spent her summer working at the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. The University of Georgia student is working toward a degree in biology.

By Rachel Barda, Directorate Fellowship Program, Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge

I start most mornings among native grasses taller than my head, illuminated with delicate webs catching light in the morning dew, that shield me as I pass quietly to my field site. They are the great equalizer, where little and big alike are invisible, and deer or great egrets seem to pop up out of nowhere, about as surprised to see me as I am to see them.

I make my way across a dried-up bayou, where fresh vegetation have replaced the water and the ground still bounces like moss. The golden orb-weavers, who connect the branches that line the path like an arc, loom above me every morning. The fabric of this landscape is breathing, and breathtaking, but it’s not the reason I traveled hundreds of miles from my home state of Georgia.

I came to Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Texas for one reason: to study the plants. I applied through the Student Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that matches people to Department of the Interior agencies around the United States.

This is my fifth experience with SCA, which is crazy to think. I started as a high school student in Yosemite National Park, where I spent five weeks backpacking and surveying areas of the park for evidence of use by visitors. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, playing in granite mountains and traversing among black bears and bighorn sheep. I bathed exclusively in waterfalls and streams that run through the park, and it was there that I discovered my love for going disgusting amounts of time without using soap. More importantly, I discovered my passion for exploration, a strong motivation against fear over the years.  

My third experience was as a visitor’s services intern at Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer, Alaska. It was there that I got my feet wet in plant identification and mycology (the study of mushrooms), as well as field research as a volunteer biological technician assistant for about a month. This basically meant sticking my hands in some deep holes in the sides of cliffs on a remote island about 5 hours away from the nearest hospital – by boat. We were doing this to measure the health of tufted puffin populations and fork-tailed storm petrel chicks.

By pulling them out of their burrows and weighing them, the scientists at the refuge learn incredible amounts about the health of the bird populations, as well as the health of the ocean, which houses their food source. Looking down at least a thousand feet, at white water swirling around rock against the vast blue-black ocean, it was there I decided to dedicate my life to protecting and preserving the landscapes and habitats that make this world special.  

Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge, the 30,000-acre refuge home to migrating birds and somewhat terrifying alligators, turned out to be my next major stop on the journey to become a field biologist. I am currently making my way through a degree in Plant Biology from the University of Georgia, set to graduate next summer.  When I saw an opportunity to work side by side with professionals in their field, and to learn hands-on about plant research field techniques, I couldn’t believe how lucky I’d been.

I am currently working on mapping the invasive and native plants and herbs in a few selected study plots on the refuge, as well as determining the health of seedlings planted. Because invasive plants like Chinese tallow or trifoliate orange threaten to shade out the native bottomland hardwoods that provide food sources and habitat, the refuge has taken on the impressive task of re-foresting the land with native trees, one at a time in areas where they can’t regenerate on their own.  

The high humidity and heat of the summer here are perfect to prepare me for solo hikes through the Amazon, if I’m ever so lucky, and noticing the minute differences in the hundreds of plants on the refuge has made me a far better botanist.  This refuge will hold a special place for me for its welcoming beauty and depth of knowledge, and I hope others will have the opportunity to experience it as I have.

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