Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ticks, Spiders, and Annoying People, Oh My!


This past Thursday, my Behavior Patterns of Animals class hopped crammed into a couple of vans and drove the 7 hours each direction to Chincoteague, Virginia, home of the famed wild ponies, for a three day field trip. I was very excited about the ponies because when I was a kid, I read and fell in love with the Misty of Chincoteague books. As a west coast kid, it always seemed to me that I'd never actually get to Chincoteague, much less would I ever get to see the ponies. I also have long been a total horse freak, so that was a real treat.

So much about this trip was kind of annoying, but in the spirit of trying to be a more positive person, I will attempt to not dive right into the bitching, especially as I had several days to rant with a few other aggravated people on the trip. Instead, I will tell you that we went to the Assateague Island National Wildlife Refuge and it is stunningly beautiful. In fact, we happened to go at a time they were calling for thunderstorms each day, which meant we had some amazing and breathtaking clouds, skies, and sunsets.

We got to go into some restricted areas with the rangers, which meant we got to get super close to the ponies, as well as visiting some very untouched areas of the refuge, such as a beach completely without any human footprints. That was so nice. In addition, we all had collection permits, so we were allowed to keep all the cool shells and such that we found along the way.

We stayed at the Marine Science Consortium on Wallops Island, which provided us with dorms and a cafeteria breakfast at 7:30 in the morning. We did tons of walking and far more birdwatching than anything else, because our prof is a birder. I like birds, but in my experience of growing up with 'the birdman' (as he calls himself), I know you're either a birder or not, which makes more than one day of birdwatching a bit boring because you're totally ready to look at something else. All of my classmates are pre-vet or Animal Science majors except for the three of us in my major. However, I will say that we wildlife biology people were fairly impressed that we actually got to see, in the flesh, some of the birds we've been studying. It was also cool that we knew more about some things than anyone else, so our 'expertise' was deferred to a few times. I get a huge thrill from actually being able to apply the things I've learned in school, I think mainly because it reinforces that I am actually getting an education.

The second day, we met up with another biologist guy who took us to the restricted naval base portion of of Assateague Island. In addition to the Navy stuff there, there was also a NASA installation. I think I was more impressed with the battleship and cruiser training facilities there than anything else. I wanted to take pictures of them because they were so cool, but considering it's a restricted military area, I figured it might look sketchy rather than innocent and that they would probably take issue with my photography. Essentially, they were huge installations that were as much of a working battleship or cruiser as could be plopped onto dry land. Everything on them worked, including the radars, guns, and missiles. We also saw a few rocket and missile launching getups and learned about how they fire both into the ocean. Apparently they have a high-speed camera that takes pictures of the missles as they're fired. We also saw a big ammunition locker, made of several feet of concrete and dirt above ground because of the marshy conditions and high water table. There was also a big centrifuge deal, of which I forget the actual term, but essentially they put the missles in there and spin them around to make sure everything is smooth and balanced before firing.

There was also a very old house that had belonged to Mr. Wallops, the original owner of the island, who was kicked off his island by the Navy, thanks to imminent domain or whatever the hell you call it. I really wanted to check the house out, too, but we were too busy offering our warm bodies in sacrifice to the bloodthirsty ticks hidden in the fragmites and marsh grasses. See, the biologist directed us past the battleship and cruiser, past the house, to a more remote portion of the island. Apparently, they have a peregrine falcon or two out there on a platform and my professor really wanted us to see it. The thing was, the platform was like half a mile to a mile away, so all one could really see was the big plastic doghouse igloo with a black speck perched on top. Even the prof's scope didn't help much.

Anyway, we'd all piled out of the vans and start trekking through the grass. None of us had known we were having a tick lunch party, so no one had worn any bug repellant. We all got out on the point all right, except for the biology dude who pulled off a couple ticks, we looked at fiddler crabs, and got around the bend to get a better look at the falcons. However, when I realized that the flattened grasses we were standing on were home to eleventy billion black spiders, I started getting the heebie-jeebies and headed back toward the muddy portion so I could at least see what was under my feet. I like peregrine falcons a lot, but I have seen my share of them in California, plus it was hard to get excited about looking at a doghouse igloo and a magnified black spot.

There are two things in this world that turn me into the grossest freaking girly girl: spiders and ticks. People seem to think it's really funny when I run around screaming and yelping, the bastards. I had my first tick ever last summer in Scotland, and it was a somewhat traumatizing experience that I was hoping to not repeat.

Anyway, after about half an hour of fucking around with the scope to no avail, we headed back to the vans. This was when the reality of the ticks dawned on us all. I placed myself in the middle of the group and tried to look at the stalks of tall grass I had to brush past. At one point, I looked down and, lo and behold, there was a sneaky tick hanging on to the fragmites bent across the trail. I would have absolutely walked into it, had I not noticed. Ugh. So I spent the rest of the afternoon there on the island freaking out about ticks and being hyper-vigilant. We drove to the beach area and as we were standing around by the vans, my professor found a tick on him. He put it on his finger, I guess to show everyone what they look like because the Animal Science girls.. well.. they're not outdoors people, to put it kindly. Anyway, he brought that tick finger near me, WAY too near me, and I nearly fell down, I couldn't get away fast enough. There may also have been some yelling and squealing and people laughing at me.

When we went on the beach, the biology guy told us we'd find all sorts of random debris amongst the shells and ocean detritus. Because the Navy and NASA do test firings and such, there was a possibility that we would find some of these parts on the beach. This was yet another highlight of the day, whereupon every random piece of garbage we found was labeled 'a NASA [piece of garbage]'. Such as, "Oooohh, look! I found a NASA rubber glove!" or "Wow, this [NASA aluminum can] must be part of the nose cone!" Yeah, we're dorks and perhaps easily amused, but it was fun. Then, to top it off, we actually found a real, honest-to-god rusty nose cone! I had wanted to find a true piece of NASA debris as a souvenir, so I was going to bring it home, but out of context and without any markings on it, it kind of wasn't that cool.

In any case, it was an interesting weekend. Two of the Animal Science girls got ticks on their hoo-has, and I am thanking whatever gods may be that I managed to escape that fate. If you're interested in my trip pictures, they can be found here. The pony ones didn't come out as well as I'd have liked, but I think the rest of them are pretty damn nice, if I do say so myself. :)

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