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Scientist Sweats It Out In Salt Marshes To Study Pollution's Effects On Shore Birds

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The shore bird colony at Chincoteque, Va., where UVA grad student Charlie Clarkson has spent much of his summer.
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The shore bird colony at Chincoteque, Va., where UVA grad student Charlie Clarkson has spent much of his summer.

They may not know it, but a flock of shore birds from Chincoteague, Va., are proving very useful for one environmentalist studying the effects of mercury pollution.

Shore birds can tell researchers about the health of oceans and bays, because they eat fish and other wildlife in their same ecosystem. So once a week since April, University of Virginia graduate student Charlie Clarkson has driven from his home in Charlottesville to a salt marsh near Chincoteague to study herons, egrets and ibis.

He wants to know if mercury, emitted by coal-burning power plants, is taking a toll on the baby birds.

"I've been monitoring the growth and development of the nestlings for the past three years," says Clarkson as he drives through the coastal area, on his way to his latest research trip.

He parks on a causeway and hikes into the salt marsh, carrying a small tent, his trusty binoculars, a case filled with equipment, and several gallons of water. He moves slowly over the spongy ground toward one of the largest wading bird colonies on the eastern shore.

"You have to be constantly cautious of where you’re stepping, but also you've got the ... gnats, the no-see-ums, the many thousands of mosquitoes, and of course the blazing sun from which you see no cover whatsoever," says Clarkson as walks gingerly through the marsh. "So you have to be well prepared when you come out here for a full day of work."

Sometimes, he says, he's covered with mosquitoes as he crawls into the tent, where he'll sit for hours, making notes on the birds. Then he hikes into the colony, where the birds get excited. They often vomit, which -- while less than pleasant -- leaves Clarkson with something to study.

He opens his case and takes out jars of ethanol, dropping in partially digested shrimp, fish and other bird food for analysis in the lab. So far, he's encouraged by what he's found. Mercury levels are relatively low, and the birds are growing nicely.

At maturity, the great egrets can be three feet tall and have wing spans of up to 7 feet, but Clarkson isn't nervous around them.

"They're surprisingly docile actually," he says. "What they'll do is they'll retreat, but not very far, so they keep a wary eye on me. They make a lot of noise, but they don' t attack, and they kind of wait patiently while I do my thing and then return."

After a day of gathering samples and taking notes, he heads back to his car, contemplating the five hour drive back to Charlottesville. If the tide is coming in, a 20-minute hike could easily turn into a 40-minute one.

"You know, at the end of the day, regardless of how miserable of a day it has been in terms of being eaten alive by mosquitoes and dealing with hundred degree heat indices," he says, "I always have to remind myself that I am out playing with birds for a living.”

And Clarkson says that makes him a lucky man.

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