Kicking off the Coalition’s protection of Cuttyhunk with an internship immersed in island life

Skylah Reis spent the summer just seven miles from home but a world away from where she grew up. And during those ten weeks, the New Bedford native helped to launch the Buzzards Bay Coalition’s new, long-term role in protecting and managing the unique lands and habitats on Cuttyhunk Island.

“It was amazing, really one of the best summers of my life,” Reis said, reflecting on the pleasures of living amidst the natural beauty of the island and becoming a part of Cuttyhunk’s unique community. Most of all, she said, she enjoyed discovering such a special place so close to her home.

“I grew up in New Bedford, and I had never heard of Cuttyhunk until I started working on the Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farm (owned by founding BBC Board Member Seth Garfield) when I was 17,” she said. “But I had never lived on the island or visited during the summer months before this summer.”

The Harvard University senior knows the island well now, having spent 10 weeks living there while completing an internship that centered on gathering data to inform the Coalition’s management of the Cuttyhunk reserve, which was acquired in early July. During that time, she established protocols for ongoing surveys of the island’s breeding population of Common Eider ducks and of the island’s vegetation. And she conducted an initial survey study of both the ducks and the vegetation.

[In August, Reis shared her experience on Cuttyhunk Island with the Harvard Club of Cape Cod, which helped to support her internship. The slides from that presentation are available on our website. —Ed. ]

“Eider are really interesting. They form these duckie daycares where, after they are hatched, the ducklings are watched over by ‘babysitter’ hens in creches or groups rather than by their mothers,” Reis said. “By counting the creche sizes and the ratio of attendant hens to ducklings, you can get an estimate of the productivity of the female eider for that season.”

Once abundant in coastal Massachusetts, the Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) all but disappeared as a breeding population from the region by the end of the 19th century. In the mid-1970s, conservationists reintroduced the sea birds to the area and a number now breed on Cuttyhunk. However, there has been little study of the health of the island’s eider population in recent years. The survey that Reis began this summer will help scientists to fill in this gap.

Beyond counting eider ducklings and their caretakers, Reis also spent hours studying the distribution of three distinct habitats on the island—grasslands, shrublands, and maritime forest—and the specific vegetation in each. The point of the survey work is to develop a detailed picture of the island’s protected lands. The data will provide critical information to guide the Coalition and others in permanently protecting and managing these habitats.

While it’s far too early to draw conclusions from the studies that Reis conducted this summer, she has already learned a lot.

“At a broad level, I learned how to conduct independent research and developed the ability to curate a uniform scientific protocol. That’s something I’ve never had to do at school,” Reis said, noting that Coalition staff provided her with the mentorship necessary to make that leap. “Now, I feel very confident, walking away from this summer, with the idea that I’m able to develop an independent project and can apply the critical thought that it requires.”

She also developed some very specific skills, such as data analysis. “For example,  I had to do a little bit of mapping, both for the vegetation and the eider surveys, and that was a kind of ‘teach-myself’ moment,” she said. “I’m really glad that I’m walking away from the summer with that in my toolbox.”

The project reflects a natural progression for Reis, who expects to graduate from Harvard this spring with a major in integrative biology, an approach to understanding biological systems that combines natural sciences with economics, sociology and other fields. As a young girl, she first became interested in science by attending the New Bedford public schools’ SeaLab marine science education program. It’s also where she first encountered the Coalition, where she is now a newly elected member of the Coalition’s board of directors.

In addition to the field work, Reis also managed the boat pumpout station that the Coalition operates in Cuttyhunk Harbor. She also assisted the Coalition’s land management team with a variety of tasks, from beach clean ups to posting signs that identify newly protected beaches, woods and grasslands and thank the many organizations that contributed to the effort.

“During the summer, a lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘We really, really like those signs. We’re so glad that you’re here and have a presence on the island’,” Reis said. “Doing the work and the surveys would have been a lot less fun and fulfilling, if I didn’t have that constant community support, engagement and curiosity. That honestly felt like the most important part of my work at times, explaining to people why I was here and why the Coalition is here.

“Sometimes people would come up to me on beach and ask what I looking at through my binoculars,” she said. “I would show them the baby piping plovers or eiders they hadn’t noticed. Those were really some of the most special moments of the summer.”

All in all, Reis said that her field research on Cuttyhunk affirmed the essential value of connecting scientific knowledge and perspectives with the social and economic concerns and interests of the communities in which scientists work.

“This is such a large piece of land and Cuttyhunk is such a unique place with its own traditions. To be able to preserve the land forever and bring the community together to effect such a big change is really inspiring,” Reis said. “I’m really excited to see what the Coalition is going to do in the coming years here on the island and to see how this project will make Cuttyhunk accessible to more people in New Bedford and surrounding areas that wouldn’t know of such a place.”

Category: On the Land

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