Talk NERRdy to Me: Angela Underwood

Mar 23, 2021 | Reserves, Talk NERRdy to Me, Weeks Bay, Alabama

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29-soon-to-be-30 Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov zoomed to Alabama to talk with Angela Underwood, education coordinator at the Weeks Bay Reserve, about BIOdiversity and equity, remote estuary education, and joining the secret society of the Jubilee.

Nik: Welcome to the “show,” Angela!

Angela :This is really exciting! It does make me nervous, though.

Nik: We’re talking the day after tornadoes ripped through northern Alabama, and you’re nervous about talking to some idiot from Maine? What’s worse in your mind: a hurricane or a tornado?

Angela:Tornadoes still frighten me more. They’re so unpredictable, although the forecasting has gotten better. But neither one is something you’d want to go through.

Nik: Has Weeks Bay been hit lately by either?

Angela: We were hit by Hurricane Sally last September. It was predicted to be a Category 1 hurricane and weaken as it came up on shore, but it actually did the opposite. There was a lot of damage to trees, wetlands, and rooftops. We’re still recovering and probably will be for many years. A few weeks later we had Hurricane Zeta.

Nik: Right, we got into the Greek letters. Because #2020.

Angela: What a year, right? Zeta pushed a lot of water into Weeks Bay. We had piers destroyed from the uprising of water.

Nik: Weeks Bay has a tiny little river mouth, right?

Angela: It does. Please don’t ask me how wide though!

Nik: You’re an education coordinator. Every fact is supposed to be at your fingertips!

Angela: I know, I know! 

Nik: Is part of your education work to teach people about coastal hazards?

Angela: We do, especially with our Coastal Training Program. We also are partnering with the Northern Gulf of Mexico Sentinel Site Cooperative to train teachers on some new curriculum on sea level rise and coastal hazards, to get students thinking about how communities can be more resilient.

Nik: What’s the reception from teachers and students when you talk about sea level rise and climate change in coastal Alabama?

Angela: Really good among our teachers. They want more knowledge on it, because they want to be able to teach their students better.

Nik: You’re not from the coast, though, right? You actually went to Auburn. Quick question for you: why is it the Auburn Tigers? Have there ever been tigers in Alabama? There are bears in Florida, aren’t there? Jaguars in Jacksonville?

Angela: I went to school there and I have no idea! You know how sports teams are. They pick aggressive…

Nik: …charismatic megafauna? Yeah. OK. But you did your masters in biological sciences?

Angela: I did. I went to a small school in Montgomery for my undergrad and then completed my graduate studies at Auburn. That’s the area I’m from, too. I focused on the ecology of the ecosystems in Alabama. I consider myself a naturalist, but learning about estuaries didn’t actually come until I moved down here and took a position as an educational assistant at the Reserve. I had a lot of knowledge about Alabama ecosystems, but estuaries were new to me. Ok, now let me ask you a question for a minute.

Nik: Oh boy.

Angela: In the US, where does Alabama rank for biodiversity?

Nik: Are you in the Top 10? Yes? Top 5?!?

Angela: We used to be #5. The four above us were all big huge states west of the MississippiCalifornia, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico… But east of the Mississippi, we’re number one.

Nik: Ok, why?

Angela: I’m glad you asked! I call Alabama the Goldilocks state. It’s not too hot, not too cold. We get lots of rain, especially along the Gulf Coast, so we have great water resources. If you start at the top of the state, you have mountains and cave systems that are actually hotspots for cave biodiversity in the entire world. As you come down, you have…

Nik: Racetracks!

Angela: Prairie systems. You keep coming down and you have long-leaf pine forest with these pitcher plant bogs, and all along the coast you have the delta and the estuarine systems, and right at the coast you have the dune systems.

So you have this magnificent rich ecology in Alabama. For biodiversity, we used to rank #5, right behind New Mexico. I used to joke that if we could just find a few more species, we would beat them. Well guess what? As of a few weeks ago, I read in the news that now we officially are #4.

Nik: We’ve been working on extirpating things in New Mexico for a while now, too. You’re welcome. How did you get into nature? I always ask that; it’s one of the most important things to know about people who work in our system. We need to know where we came from, so we can grab more “ones of us” coming up now.

Angela: I always enjoyed being outside. My dad would take me fishing as a child. But I don’t think it was a straight path for me. In college, I was really interested in human biology and genetics, but I took one ecology course. Later I was able to take a two-week study abroad program where I went to the Amazon rainforest in Peru. Being there and seeing it made ecology make sense to me.

I went to grad school thinking I was going to teach biology. But I met this great professor there, and she and her husband were both naturalists working at Auburn. She specialized in pitcher plant bogs. And I was like ‘pitcher plant? What’s that?’ I decided to work with her, and that’s when the world was opened up to me about Alabama. If I could, I would just take people all over the state and teach them about the wonders of Alabama.

Nik: You had to go down to the Amazon to learn that?

Angela: I did, yeah. And I learned that Alabama has habitats that rival the Amazon for biodiversity! There are some well-maintained pitcher plant bogs that have more biodiversity in a meter square than the Amazon does.

Nik: Are you constantly dragging your own kids off their screens and into the outdoors?

Angela: I have two girls, nine and four. They get very little screen time, haha. They’re outdoors constantly. Though during COVID, we got really into iNaturalist together.

Angela’s two daughters, appreciating an Alabama ecosystem.

Nik: I want to ask you about a phenomenon I learned about in the Weeks Bay Visitor’s Center down at the annual meeting in 2015. Have you ever actually seen a jubilee? So apparently there are just times of year there when you all can go out with a wheelbarrow and gather up four or five seafood dinners from the shore of Mobile Bay? 

Angela: No, I haven’t, and I’m so disappointed! Jubilees tend to be a well-kept secret among the locals, because when it happens they want to be the ones to go scoop up the flounder and the blue crab.

It tends to happen in the summer, when there are wedges of low oxygen because of the hotter water. That incoming tide pushes the wedge of low oxygen in towards shore and pushes all of those ground and bottom dwelling species like the flounder and blue crab and eels.

They’re not dead, they’re just a little stunned. People will go out and gather them, hundreds at a time. The story is that this only happens in one other place in the world, and that’s in Japan. 

Nik: So you have to be on a text alert to catch it?

Angela: You really do! That’s what people do, they call each other. Since I don’t live right on the Bay, I’m never going to catch it.

Nik: Bummer. Hey, you all recently won a national art contest! Or enabled a win, at least?

Angela: It was a school we worked with that won it. We have good connections with a lot of the local art teachers. A teacher reached out to us and said they wanted to apply for this art contest. They’re not able to take field trips here because of COVID restrictions, so they asked us if we could bring the estuary to them! 

We went out and gave a short presentation to each of the art classes. We talked about the different animals and biodiversity, showed them some preserved specimens, and let them ask questions. They were able to touch the specimens and make sketches and produce that incredible mural. I was honestly so impressed.

Nik: WAIT! the kids made this beautiful artistic representation of the estuary without even getting to go there?

Photo Credit: Outdoor Alabama

Nik: It’s above water and below water… They got all that without even getting there? 

Angela: They were 7th and 8th graders and so talented, and they really have a talented teacher too. We went in the fall and she had only had the students for two months at that point. I was really proud of them, it’s always really fun to go into a classroom and get to be in the students’ “habitat!” For me it doesn’t compare to being able to bring them out into the estuary, but it is fun to go into schools.

Nik: I hope we can all get back into that, as soon as we can. Thank you so much, Angela.

Angela: Please edit out any places that sounded stupid!

Nik: I’m sorry, we can’t do that. You’d never hear my voice at all.

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ReservesTalk NERRdy to Me: Angela Underwood