Feb. 15, 2012 – On a humid, summer morning, students gear up for a day of field work, ready to put their newly honed skills to the test. But this is far from a typical day in the woods. The students — participants in a residential field experience at the Mountain Lake Biological Station — spend the day setting mist nets, shooting dart guns, positioning camera traps, and capturing, tagging, and releasing wildlife.
The experience is the culmination of Associate Professor Marcella Kelly’s Wildlife Field Techniques course. Students spend the spring semester in the classroom, learning how to identify tracks, set traps, and use a compass and topographic maps. In August before the fall semester begins, they set up residence at the biological station in Giles County and spend 10 days working directly with faculty, graduate students, and wildlife professionals from a range of agencies.
“We tried it as a lecture and lab before, but it’s been a field course since 2004,” Kelly remarked, adding that students did not get nearly the same experience from a weekly lab section. Senior wildlife science major Cari Lynn Squibb observed, “The setup of the course helped my understanding and comprehension of the material more than any other course.”
At the biological station, students begin with a series of workshops presented by wildlife professionals and then engage in live capture-mark-release methods of assessing wildlife populations, practicing with dart guns, mist nets, radio telemetry, and other capture methods. “I learned about pest control and management, how to set traps for large mammals such as bears, and how to set up a cannon net to catch birds of prey,” Squibb said. “We also learned a variety of chemical immobilization techniques and practiced using blowpipes and CO2-inject darts on a decoy.”
Scheduling the practical field experience in the summer offers students exposure to a greater variety of species. “One group that did small mammal trapping caught two flying squirrels and even came across a timber rattlesnake on their trapping grid,” explained Ashley Love, a senior in biological sciences. “We also captured a variety of interesting images on the camera traps, ranging from hikers to deer, a mother bear and her cubs, bobcats, and even a coyote!”
The program partners with Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute (CMI), the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, giving participants a chance to learn from professionals in their field and to explore career opportunities with these agencies, as well as gain experience that will be valuable in their professional careers. “Recruiters often call me to ask if a student would be a good fit for a job,” Kelly said.
CMI Director Scott Klopfer noted that he and many other employers expect graduates to have some sort of field experience when applying for jobs. “We need them to have those skills,” Klopfer said. The course also serves to remind students why they have a passion for wildlife science. “It often takes an experience like this to reignite that interest you had coming in,” he added.
Students describe the course as one of their best academic experiences. “We spent several long nights collecting data and putting the presentation together, but in the end it was all worth it,” Squibb concluded. “Seeing our hard work take the form of descriptive graphs and tables was very rewarding. The data collection was quite exciting and I found out how truly terrifying being in the dark woods with a swarm of angry hornets can be!”