As part of an ongoing project, Erika Zambello is visiting all National Estuarine Research Reserves in the continental United States. Established by NOAA, the sites work together toward long-term research, education and coastal stewardship.
The Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) encompasses over 6,000 acres in coastal Alabama, opening a nature center, trails, and guided trips to locals and visitors. In October, I myself became one of those curious visitors!
My husband and I crossed the Fish River in the afternoon, pulling into the Nature Center parking lot of the Weeks Bay NERR. LG Adams, Reserve Manager, met us in the front at the check-in desk. The Nature Center’s interior walls were bordered by glass-enclosed cabinets, inside of which we found replicas of native animal and plant species from the region. In an adjoining room, live native species completed the display, including a small alligator, fish, reptiles, and fiddler crabs.
Because we had arrived in the afternoon, Adams showed us where we would be spending the night the dorm first, then took us out on a few site visits before the sun descended completely
The dorm is amazing. Just finished over the summer, multiple rooms stocked with bunk beds and motion-sensitive lights made up the sleeping quarters. The dorm includes a large kitchen and sitting area, while the roof is topped with solar panels. I felt very cool as one of the dorms first official guests.
After we dropped off our stuff, we hopped in the truck with Adams and Yael Girard, Stewardship and Outreach Coordinator for the Weeks Bay Foundation, to visit the pitcher plant bog managed by the foundation and its staff.
Pitcher Plant Bog
Many NERR sites have wonderful non-profit organizations that aid the reserves with fundraising, advocacy, stewardship, and more. The foundation took over the bog when it was donated in 2003, and since have continually worked to increase the health of the ecosystem.
The bog was breathtaking. Afternoon sun shown through the White-topped Pitcher plants. Other wildflowers, including gorgeous orchids, dotted the landscape in gold, purple, and white blossoms. The wetland practically glowed.
From the bog, Adams showed us the reserve’s focal points, from the raised meeting rooms where the Fish River flows into Weeks Bay, to the living shoreline work-in-progress near the site of an old restaurant.
We stood on the soft sand out at the edge of the bay, watching diving Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns, the water’s flat surface full of static from rising fish. The beach under our feet had actually widened since the living shorelines’ breakwaters had been built and marsh grasses planted, a symbol of the science and stewardship of the reserve staff making a positive impact on the Weeks Bay ecosystem.
Touring Weeks Bay
Day 2 dawned hot and steamy, and after a tour of the reserve’s lab my husband and I met Adams, Michael Shelton, the Coastal Training Program Coordinator, Eric Brunden, Stewardship Coordinator, and an adult tour group at the confluence of the Fish River and Weeks Bay. We boarded a large boat for a 2.5 hour cruise around the bay and up the Magnolia River, a spring-fed waterway that acted as the second tributary of Weeks Bay.
The baitfish were very active again, and the air filled with flying and diving birds, including more pelicans, terns, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and Osprey.
Throughout the trip Shelton taught us about the reserve over the loudspeaker, including monitoring of the bay, the vegetative species lining the shore, and action items we as individuals can take to improve the health of the estuary ecosystem. I loved when the tour participants spotted a Great Blue Heron or Belted Kingfisher and breathlessly asked its name; knowing about a species means caring about its home!
Back at the Nature Center
After we reached shore once more, I had the amazing opportunity to talk to many of the staff. Angela Underwood, Education Coordinator, and I walked the boardwalks behind the center to discuss different educational programs they offer here, not only for K-12 students, but also adults. For example, the Weeks Bay Foundation recently received a grant to take adult kayakers out and about on the bay as part of a guided expedition; for some, it will be the first time they have actually been on the bay.
Drawn to one of the reserve’s classrooms, I discovered a veritable treasure chest full of native species and historical artifacts. In carefully labeled drawers lay marsh bird eggs, the skin of a Fox Squirrel, arrowheads from thousands of years ago, and more.
In the previous century, these skins and artifacts were the best way for students to learn about different species or objects from the outdoor world. In fact, this holds true in the 21st century too: I learned a lot! I’m an avid birder, and yet I’ve never seen a Yellow Rail. Secretive marsh birds, these rails hide amidst the wetland reeds. After carefully inspecting the skin at Weeks Bay, I realized all these years I had been looking for a much bigger bird, when in fact Yellow Rails are barely half a foot long!
Ending in a Pitcher Plant Bog Once More
From the reserve’s nature center, we took one more trip with Adams, stopping at the reserve bog open to the public. Raised wooden boardwalks allow visitors to look over the wetland plants safely, and again, we gazed down at hundreds of pitcher plants plus a host of other beautiful flowers. The path continues to Fish River, where we saw a wide PVC pipe, inside of which nestled a data logger used by the reserve staff to carefully monitor water quality within the waterway.
The boardwalk itself is an excellent representation of the work staff at Weeks Bay Reserve do day in and day out: they take care of the landscape through careful stewardship, introduce visitors and locals alike to coastal Alabama ecosystems, and use science and long-term monitoring to learn more about the Weeks Bay system.
Coastal Alabama is beautiful, not only along its scenic coastline but also within its unique wetland and bog ecosystem. Though I visited for two days, it was definitely not enough time to take in all this reserve has to offer.
Read more about Erika’s estuary adventures on VoicesforBiodiversity.org.
Erika Zambello is a writer and photographer currently living on the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, where she specialized in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer, completing four trips to the Maine North Woods in each of the four seasons, Fall 2015-Summer 2016.
In addition to acting as the sole blogger for the entire Florida State Park system, she is a regular contributor to the Duke Nicholas School, the Maine Sportsman, Bangor Daily News, and 10000 Birds. In the past she has written for The Conservation Fund, the Triangle Land Conservancy, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, BirdWatching Daily, and the Florida Sportsman. Finally, she is the founder and managing editor of the travel website One World, Two Feet, as well as the co-managing editor for the award-winning online magazine Voices for Biodiversity.
Follow her daily adventures on Instagram, or zambellophotography.com.