Talk NERRDy to Me: Sue Bickford

Dec 17, 2019 | Healthy Habitats, Reserves, Talk NERRdy to Me

Talk NERRdy to Me features leaders and luminaries from across the NERRS. This month, our Maine correspondent, Nik Charov, walked across the Laudholm campus to the Coastal Ecology Center to pester Sue Bickford, the Wells Reserve’s GIS & Stewardship Coordinator and humble recipient of the 2019 NERRS Impact AwardAll images courtesy Sue Bickford—and her drone.

Nik: You were a combat weather forecaster in Iraq?!?

Sue: I was an aviation meteorologist in the Air National Guard, and I went to Iraq in 2004. I was stationed in Tikrit. The command center was inside one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. There was a little utility shed outside that had brooms in it, and that was my bedroom. My first briefing, I walked to the mic and said “Good morning general, I’m here to brief you on the weather,” and there was dead silence! [Sue has a famously high voice.] They thought someone had let a child into the room. 

Nik: Or there was helium floating through the palace. Combat meteorology—were you predicting “the fog of war”? 

Sue: I attempted to forecast dust storms but those storms got the best of me just about every time. The palace was right next to the Tigris River and I convinced myself the military had actually sent me to Mesopotamia. It was the only green vegetated area for thousands of miles, so in that sense, I was pretty lucky.

Nik: Did you think about the Wells Reserve while you were there?

Sue: If I was pretty stressed out or to help me get to sleep, I used to envision, in vivid detail, a walk from my office all the way down to Laudholm Beach, and then reverse it and come all the way back. It worked miracles. 

Nik: A mental story map. …You’re really a maps person. 

Sue: I think graphically in pictures.  

Nik: Did you have any experience with drones in Iraq, or is that something that came later? 

Sue: It was pretty early for drones at that time. I actually got involved with drones because of bunny poop.

Nik: That’s how… most people… get into drones…?

Sue: No, but that’s how it happened for me. The only way we could say for sure that we had endangered New England cottontail rabbits at the Wells Reserve was to go out on snowshoes in the dead of winter and crawl through the barberry looking for bunny poop, or “brown gold” as we fondly called it.

One day I had fallen forward in my snowshoes, and I hadn’t seen bunny poop all day, and I was freezing. I was thinking, “there has to be a better way to find these darn rabbits!” Two months later I was in a Brookstone, and they were flying a drone inside the store. The possible uses of this technology hit me like a lightning bolt and I had to have one.

Nik: When was that?

Sue: 2010. I bought it, brought it home, and my husband and I put it on the driveway. I’m not very patient with directions, I usually look at the pictures and go. So it took off and headed right for my husband’s head! He did one of those tuck-and-rolls, then got back up and stood behind my shoulder. That’s what he has done ever since! I was hooked and things kind of snowballed from there.

Aerial view of the Wells Reserve in southern Maine.

Nik: From Brookstone to unmanned aerial marsh vegetation monitoring in nine years.

Sue: It’s been quite the ride. I was in graduate school at Antioch University and I needed a senior project, so I created The Way Forward, which was a road map for the NERRS on how to adopt drones and their uses. We say drones are best suited for dirty, dull, or dangerous missions, and although the marsh is never dull, it can certainly be dirty and dangerous!

Nik: Where’d you grow up? 

Sue: Rochester, New Hampshire. I was lucky enough to grow up in a time and a town where kids could bicycle anywhere. My backyard was very large—basically the whole town. I biked to City Hall when I was 12 and asked for a road map, and I started marking off all the roads I’d ridden. I guess that was my first mapping project. 

Nik: That’s so on-brand for Sue Bickford. Weren’t you part of the NOAA/NERRS delegation—SEAL Team Nina—that went down to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria?

Sue: We helped cut their trails back so they could get to their infrastructure again. I also brought my own DJI Mavic drone so we could do twice as much mapping. The Jobos Bay staff will be able to tell from aerial photographs what species of mangroves are growing back.

Nik: For those who don’t know about monitoring in the Reserve System and what it’s for, there’s a lot of taking snapshots that you can compare over geography or over time. Not just photos—soundscapes and chemical snapshots too.

Sue: It’s about recording baselines.

Nik: And technology now allows us to do it better than sending two interns out in a canoe, for instance. Another monitoring project you began is the soundscape ecology project?

Sue: Last spring we had a two-day soundscape ecology workshop and four other Reserves came. They each went home with a sound recording box. On Earth Day, we recorded for an entire day at the same time at all of our Reserves. Then we compared our soundscapes. Recording baseline data helps us see how soundscapes evolve. We’re already seeing changes; we don’t have meadowlarks anymore in Wells, we barely have bobolinks. 

Nik: What are some of the strangest things you’ve heard?

Sue: We’ve heard gunshots, interns’ conversations, lots of trains, planes and automobiles. But once, in the middle of the night, there was one single whippoorwill call. We never knew we had whippoorwills because we’d never been listening at 2:00am and we never heard it again.

Nik: Speaking of change: you’re stepping down as stewardship coordinator.

Sue: After twenty years, I’ve gone to part-time. 

Nik: What are you going to do with yourself now that you’ve got free time?

Sue: I’m helping schools get drones into their STEM classrooms. Drones are a whole new pathway to get students into critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication: all skills needed in the 21st century workforce.

Nik: You like working with students? How do you feel about the future?

Sue: I believe they will figure things out. Our job is just to set them up and help them get the skills needed to do that.

Nik: Lightning round: fresh or salty?

Sue: I’m a salty person.

Nik: Yes, you are. Favorite animal?

Sue: Foxes, I guess.

Nik: Why?

Sue: I have no idea. Although, the day before I left for Iraq, a pair of foxes came around the corner, and I ended up marrying the gentleman I was walking with when we saw them.

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