GGAS intern restores habitat – and her career June 27, 2012Posted by Ilana DeBare in Conservation, Golden Gate Audubon
By Ilana DeBare
Salt grass? Gumplant? Sticky monkey-flower?
Rachel Spadafore knows them all. And she’s helped scores of Golden Gate Audubon volunteers restore prime bird habitat along the bay by returning these native plants to the San Francisco and East Bay shorelines.
For the past year, Rachel served as GGAS’ first Restoration Coordinator. Her work involved leading teams of volunteers during monthly work days at Pier 94 in San Francisco and Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline Park in Oakland.
Rachel, 29, formed her love of nature as a child in the Alleghany foothills of Pennsylvania. She received a master’s in environmental management at the University of San Francisco, where she was inspired by a professor with expertise in tidal wetlands restoration.
But her career plans hit a brick wall after graduation due to the recession – bad news for Rachel, good news for Golden Gate Audubon.
There were few openings for newly-minted environmental scientists. Rachel ended up taking a less-than-thrilling office job for a green building company.
Then she found out that GGAS was looking for a restoration intern, and jumped at the chance to get back into the field, even if it was just a couple of times a month.
“I love being outside,” she said. “It was so refreshing after being in a cube for almost a year. I felt I’d gotten back to who I was and what I enjoyed.”
Rachel’s work centered on two sites – Pier 94 and MLK Shoreline – at which Golden Gate Audubon has been the lead agency in habitat restoration.
On a typical Saturday work day, Rachel would stop by the GGAS office at 7 a.m. to pick up picks, shovels, buckets and birding scopes. She’d arrive at Pier 94 or MLK about 45 minutes before the volunteers – walking the site to assess the progress of recently-planted grasses and shrubs, or deciding which non-native invasive plants should be the focus of that day’s attack.
As the volunteers worked, she’d point out birds and their songs. And when they were done, she’d lead a bird walk to explain how wildlife would benefit from the restored landscape.
Although Rachel had done some birding before the GGAS internship, her personal expertise was in plants. So GGAS Volunteer Coordinator Noreen Weeden helped bring her up to speed on the avocets, clapper rails, osprey and other avian inhabitants.
“Noreen is a top-notch birder,” Rachel said. “She took me out and talked about all the different birds that use the sites.”
What was most surprising to Rachel about her Golden Gate Audubon experience?
“The level of interest in this kind of work in the Bay Area is so high,” she said. “On the East Coast, it’s a little like pulling teeth. But people here – totally normal people, not scientists or activists – want to do something good on a Saturday. They may not know what a wetland is, but when you help them make the connections, they get it.”
Meanwhile, Rachel’s internship helped restore not just the two sites but her own stalled career.
She was recently hired by Audubon California for a full-time job as a Restoration Ecologist. She’ll be overseeing restoration work at Arambaru Island, a 17-acre island near Tiburon with a variety of mini-ecosystems ranging from tidal wetlands to vernal pools.
Oversight of the Pier 94 and MLK work days is now being passed on to Kisha Mitchell-Mellor and Jonathan Barber, who have both worked as volunteers for GGAS’ restoration programs.
And Rachel will be out of her cubicle and back with the salt grass, gumplant and monkey-flower on a full-time basis.
“The most rewarding thing with GGAS was watching the site transformation,” she said. “Watching the native plants establish themselves, and the volunteers removing huge quantities of invasives. And then seeing the changes in the bird communities moving through there.
“If you vegetate a whole new section, you may not see birds nesting there right away. But you’ll see them start coming to check it out.”
Want to get involved as a volunteer in habitat restoration at Pier 94 or MLK Shoreline Park? No experience necessary — just enthusiasm! The next work day at Pier 94 will be on Saturday July 7, from 9 am to noon. The next one at MLK will be on Saturday July 21, from 10 am to 1 pm. For more information, see the volunteer section of the Golden Gate Audubon web site or email email@example.com.Tags: Golden Gate Audubon Society, habitat restoration, Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline Park, Pier 94, Rachel Spadafore.