First Impressions of an Amateur Naturalist

This guest post was written by Brookhaven Lab science writing intern Kenrick Vezina, who joined our team this month and will be sharing Brookhaven science stories from inside and outside laboratories on site through mid December.

On Saturday, September 10, I rode into Brookhaven National Laboratory for the first time. Within two hours, I was watching a handful of white-tailed deer on a strip of grass near the Princeton Avenue gate.

I'm a new intern in the Lab's Media & Communications Office, fresh from MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing, here to report on all of the fascinating physics, chemistry, and energy research taking place on the Lab's 5,300-acre site.


Groundhogs have a variety of common names, including woodchuck, land-beaver, and my personal favorite: whistle-pig. Their burrows are often co-opted by other species, such as red foxes, as den sites.

But with my scientific background in zoology and wildlife biology, I'm also interested in the wide range of ecology and natural history that can be found here without ever stepping foot inside a lab.

Since that first day, I've seen groundhogs (also known as woodchucks), gray squirrels, turkeys, more deer, blue jays, robins, geese (so many geese), and a mouse. I've heard a handful of birds singing that I don't recognize off-hand. Not to mention the many insects and other invertebrates which defy quick and easy identification.

I'd heard from my friend and colleague (and former intern) Emily Ruppel that BNL is chock-a-block full of wildlife. One time I asked her if I would enjoy living at Brookhaven. "There are turkeys outside my window," was her response. Yet I am still impressed by how many animals there are wandering around campus.

The developed portion of BNL strikes me as a gigantic suburban lawn: vast expanses of short green grass interspersed with roads, buildings, and small stands of trees. This preponderance of edge-type habitat makes the site a perfect home for deer and turkeys. It's worth noting that the vast majority of BNL's acreage is undeveloped. I look forward to staging expeditions into the more remote regions.

Just yesterday, I saw turkeys behind the meteorology building on my walk home, and decided to investigate. In my lifetime, wild turkeys have gone from something rare and seen only in basted, crispy-brown form on the Thanksgiving table to a bird as familiar to some backyards as house sparrows.


A white-tailed deer resting in the grass. Deer have become extremely common in the American Northeast now that wolves and mountain lions are no longer around to prey on them.

Rounding the corner of the building to the stretch of grass bordered by a strip of woodlands, I found no turkeys -- but there was a white-tailed doe standing on the edge of the forest. She saw me at the same time I saw her. We both froze.

After a moment of mutual surprise, I walked over and took a seat at the base of a streetlight about 100 feet from her.

She continued to watch me. Another deer, smaller, was foraging just inside the trees behind her. Every few minutes, she would step closer to me. I stayed as still as possible, trying to exude an unthreatening aura. I could tell she was a bit agitated from her body language: alert and erect, with her tail twitching as though she wanted to flash her namesake alarm signal.

After a while, she seemed to relax, lowering her head as if to eat -- then snapping it right back up again, perhaps hoping to catch me in the act of moving while I thought she was distracted. She continued to make furtive movements toward me, and began to stomp her front hooves every few steps, like a child in a huff. When she was about halfway to my position, she let out a loud snort. These are all part of deer's alarm communications, meant to inform other nearby deer of a threat and to potentially startle predators.

After about half an hour of close scrutiny by this doe, I decided she'd had enough stress and continued on my way.


The abundant lawns of Brookhaven National Lab and its location along the Atlantic Flyway make it an attractive staging point for migrating Canada geese.

I'm sorry to say I also disturbed a mouse -- white-footed, I suspect -- when I lifted up a large wooden board on the edge of the woods near my dormitory, Cavendish house. I'd expect a startled mouse to bolt for cover (and to make me jump in surprise when it did), but this little fellow just poked up out of his nest and tilted his head to look at me. I felt rather guilty for pulling the roof off his home and lowered it back to the ground as gently as I could.

I'm going to wrap this introductory post with a bit of a literal heads-up. Now is an interesting time, ecologically. We're shifting into fall, and with the change of seasons comes all sorts of wildlife activity. Long Island is located along the Atlantic Flyway, a major migration route for birds of all types that follows the eastern coast of North America. In particular, hawks and other birds of prey are moving south, and a glance skyward could reveal some interesting transients--including merlins, peregrine falcons, osprey, and northern harriers.

I'll keep you posted with what I spot as I explore our property more. I'll admit my first impression when someone says "government lab" is of gray concrete and white lab coats--yet the predominant color at Brookhaven appears to be green.

For an entire gallery devoted to images of Brookhaven Lab's wildlife, click here.


More like this