The Nature Conservancy, Swanquarter, NC

Coleman Davis is a Hyde County native and a familiar face at the Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge. He is going on his seventh year of research at the refuge. Among other things, Davis is monitoring an oyster reef that the Conservancy built in 2011. The data he collects guides our Chapter’s management practices and is shaping our long-term plans for the area. Did we mention that Coleman Davis is 17 years old?

Davis has been visiting the refuge since before he can remember. He and his sister werehomeschooled through middle school and completed refuge data collection projects in place of a standard science curriculum progression. “I got accustomed to being around the refuge,” Davis explains, “and I started doing things like helping out at a hunt station where my sister and I created a project to survey what ducks were eating by dissecting their gizzards after draw hunts.” He began working with the Conservancy when he was 11.

Davis was the ideal candidate because of his wealth of knowledge and commitment to conservation. “The amount of data that he’s collected has been a tremendous help to us,” shares Aaron McCall, Northeast Regional Steward. Because of the scale of our work, Chapter staff are not able to visit each field site as regularly as they would like. Volunteers are key, and Davis has proven himself invaluable.

Coleman Davis has been monitoring the oyster reefs at Bell Island since he was 11  years old.

The Conservancy built the Bell Island oyster reef to stabilize the shoreline and reduce erosion adjacent to the fishing pier, the only land-based public fishing access for miles. Limestone was chosen because it creates habitat for oysters and mussels. Davis came on board to monitor the impact of the reef, which quickly showed itself to be a hands-on commitment.

Davis measures dissolved oxygen, salinity, temperature, turbidity, depth and the erosion width from a marker to shoreline. In general n ew oyster reefs slow erosion, but the Bell Island reef is remarkable because marsh is accreting, or growing, behind the reef. Not all measures are applicable at every site, now that the shoreline is growing back. When Davis started his monitoring work, he was getting out to Bell Island every other week or so. Now that he is at Christ School in Western North Carolina for high school, he visits during his breaks. “It’s kind of become an integral part of my life,” laughs Davis.

The results of Davis’ hard work are encouraging. “He’s documented the accretion that’s occurred, the finfish that are associated with the reef at different times, and he’s monitored changes in water quality,” lists off McCall, “It’s been a tremendous help having someone like that who just takes on a project.” Some results have been gradual, and some seem to have happened overnight. Davis noticed some unexpected changes last summer.

Before the reef was installed, the coastline was all grasses. Now, the reef is lessening salt spray and reducing the salinity of the soil, which is allowing trees and shrubs like loblolly pine, wax myrtle, and marsh elder to grow up to the shoreline. Davis turned his observations into a research study for the refuge, in which he established 14 transects in the marsh with five sample sites. At each site, he recorded GPS coordinates, elevation, distance from the center point of the sill, woody and nonwoody stems and the age of representative trees and shrubs and took samples for soil salt analysis. The data that he collected confirmed his suspicions —the reef, coupled with elevation and decreased soil salt concentration, is correlated with an increase of woody plant growth.

Discoveries like that are what make research rewarding. “I’ve learned all sorts about estuarine communities and how marshes behave and develop over time,” shares Davis, “and with places like this, you can’t go short-term or you only get snapshots.”  As he starts into his senior year of high school, Davis is hopeful that he will be able to continue his monitoring work through college.

We visited Bell Island with Coleman Davis this summer. Watch this video to learn more about his monitoring work on the coast.