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Two Days at the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

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. Day 1 The Reserve Founded in 1999, the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) covers over 18,000 acres along the...

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.

Day 1

The Reserve

Founded in 1999, the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) covers over 18,000 acres along the coast of Mississippi. In addition to the estuary itself, the reserve also includes rare pine savannah habitat.

Grand Bay NERR is in the center of one such pine savannah, a historic forest that once covered much of the Mississippi coast. As I turned onto the road leading to the reserve, I slowed down to barely 10 mph, marveling.

In the southern United States, there are two wildflower seasons: spring and fall. During my October visit, the grasslands were positively popping with color. Sunflowers were the most abundant, covering the savannah like thousands of tiny suns. Overhead, tall loblolly pines and the occasional longleaf pine dotted the wetland meadow, wide expanses of space stretching between the trunks.

The Grand Bay building, which is shared with Grand Bay Wildlife Refuge staff, is equally impressive. Vaulted above the ground, the structure relies on solar panels and includes two cisterns that each holds 6,500 gallons of rainwater; this water is used for toilets and other non-drinking needs. In addition to the visitor education area, the building hosts labs, offices and more classrooms. In fact, the first time I visited Grand Bay it was as a student at a blue carbon workshop!

My first stop was to meet Ayesha Gray, Executive Director of the Grand Bay NERR. She gave me a quick tour of the dorm (where I would spend the night), and then introduced me to Dr. Mark Woodrey.

We quickly discovered we have an important personality trait in common: we both absolutely love birds.

In fact, Woodrey has spent much of his career studying our feathered friends, both as a state ornithologist and now at Grand Bay NERR. He is interested in documenting elusive marsh birds, such as the clapper rail, as well as the bird and vegetation response to the fires that remain necessary for maintenance of the pine savanna ecosystems.

Studying Pine Savannas

We waked out to the edge of the grassland itself, surrounded not only by sunflowers but also by the yellow, white, blue and purple blossoms of a host of other species. Bending down, Woodrey indicated a few carnivorous plants called sundews, moving grass stalks away so I could see their bright crimson coloring.

Using the landscape as his canvas, Woodrey pointed to two sections of the forest. In one, wide open spaces between trees are filled with swaying grasses. It’s easy to see deep into the pine savanna. When the forest is burned regularly (every two to three years), wiregrass becomes the dominant understory plant, growing in thick tufts. However, in another section the understory grows dense and thick, shading out everything beneath and creating a multi-layered canopy. Burning here occurs rarely if at all.

However, if the forest is not allowed to burn, woody plants and bushes grow up quickly; Woodrey pointed to another section of woods to demonstrate. Unlike the savanna, this area was dark with undergrowth, crowded with plants. Wintering birds and other species that depend upon the open grasslands, such as the uncommon yellow rail, can no longer use the overgrown ecosystems, and they leave for other habitat areas. Maintaining the pine savanna and studying these unique ecosystems are critical parts of work done by the reserve.

nature, landscape, Mississippi

Tracking Marsh Birds

In addition to their work within the pine savannas, researchers also study the tidal marsh. Marsh birds like rails are so secretive in this area that little is known about them, and Woodrey and his team have been surveying since 2003 to accurately assess population and densities.

Researchers have also tracked individual birds using nanotags and radio-transmitters, discovering that when rails have young, they often move up the tidal creeks, illustrating the importance of protecting these areas as well as the wider bays and estuaries. Too cool!

The next day, I would head out into the marsh itself, and I was excited.

Day 2

In the Classroom

It has been a long time since I’ve been in an elementary school, but at 8 a.m. I checked in at the front desk of the Christian Gateway Academy in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Rick Raneau, an Education Specialist for Grand Bay NERR, was teaching first and second graders about carnivorous plants, which he expanded into marine stewardship for the third, fourth and fifth grade students.

Both sessions were engaging and interactive. To learn the different parts of a pitcher plant, one student dressed up with a representation of the different vegetative pieces, from a green shirt to imitate chlorophyll, to a straw hat acting as the lid of the pitcher. After Raneau explained the form and function of each facet of a pitcher plant, every student could successfully call out all the parts and pieces. The students were then ushered over to a table to examine real pitcher plants with a microscope. For the older kids, Raneau used a landscape replica to explain how pollution ran into the bay. A few days later, all the students would take what they learned outside for a tour of the reserve itself.

After scarfing down a quick lunch, I was on the move again with Dr. Jonathan Pitchford and Woodrey for a boat tour of the estuary.

Boat Through the Estuary

Fall colors come to the marshes in their own way. The vegetation is dominated by the dark juncus grasses, bronzed and even a deep brown. Along the open water grows a border of green-yellow Spartina alterniflora, shorter than the nearby Juncus roemerianus.

The channels we explored were wide and shallow; up close the water flowed in a tan shade, but at greater distances the surface reflected the blue of the October sky.

Our first stop was a small island of trees and bushes, a conglomeration of live oak, cypress, Christmas berry, bacharrus and more. As I hopped out of the boat, my boots made a light, tinkling, almost glass-like sound instead of the dull thud I had been expecting.

The island is made up of thousands and thousands of oyster shells. Native American groups created the mounds over millennia, piling used oyster shells in ever-growing stacks until they were large enough to reach above even the high tide mark.

The added height from the shells allowed plants to grow above the waterline, accumulating additional layers of soil. We walked to the center of the island, past yukka plants and a smattering of invasive grasses, and then to the other side.

Here the marsh was dry, mud cracked and covered in a film of salt. Rhizomes — root structures — from Juncus grasses formed spiral patterns against the earth, appearing to my eyes like a topographic map of a mountainous desert. Tiny succulents grew like mini-fingers, a popular salad topping in local restaurants. Pitchford tasted one first to prove to me I wouldn’t drop dead, so I snapped off a small piece and popped it into my mouth, enjoying the salty flavor.

Like the pine savanna from the day before, discoveries were constantly underfoot in the marsh around us. Small, white aster blossoms dotted patches of vegetation like stars.

Back in the boat, we continued past reeds, brown pelicans, terns, gulls, double-crested cormorants and, far above, a trio of American white pelicans. While we watched, the birds swirled ever higher before disappeared into the glinting sunlight.

Here and there mini-forests of PVC pipes peaked above the Juncus and Spartina, designating various research areas. At one such site, a wooden boardwalk beckoned to us and as Woodrey “parked” the boat, Pitchford and I jumped off.

We walked down the narrow boards one by one. “We are studying the effects of sea level rise on marsh elevation and marsh vegetation,” Pitchford explained, “Specifically, we measure erosion, accretion, and subsidence at the Surface Elevation Table (SET) sites and then we have transects that run through those areas where we monitor vegetation.” From our vantage point we peered down into the shallow water between the grasses, full of minnows and snails and other plants.

I get why they love working here. “Right now, my favorite part of working on this estuary is learning something new every day” Pitchford said, “A new plant, a new bird, a research project I haven’t heard of before, the list goes on and on. Plus, I really enjoy working with the stewardship team in the field. We have already spent many hours working together in the marsh and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. We get a lot done, but it never feels much like work.”

Nanotags and Marsh Birds

My favorite site was still farther, across from an island of pines. A single tower, almost like a weathervane or satellite structure, stretched up from the marsh, alone in the landscape.

The tower tracks the marsh birds’ nanotags; when one comes within 500 m of the tower, its location is downloaded so scientists can track the movements of under-studied species like the clapper rail.

I could have stayed on the water for hours, but eventually we returned to the boat launch.

From pine savannas to Juncus and Spartina marshes, researchers at the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve seek to explain these unique ecosystems and to protect them — now and into the future.

See more photos of the reserve at Voices for Biodiversity! 

Photos are copyright protected, and may not be reproduced without permission.

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, @a_day_in_the_landscape or

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Meet the Author

Voices for Biodiversity
An online magazine connecting humans with the natural world to help all species survive and thrive together. Voices for Biodiversity shares the stories of eco-reporters from around the world, using the ancient human art of storytelling to connect people with each other, other species, and the natural world. Our goal is to connect the human animal with the global ecosystem.