WSU student’s internship takes him on hunt for elusive birds

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Kenny Hernandez pulled on chest-high waders to protect himself from getting soaked, turned on his headlamp, and set out walking through boggy marsh waters that occasionally approached the lip of his garments.

A person sits on the ground holding a tiny, fuzzy bird chick.
Kenny Hernandez doing field work, banding newborn kestrel chicks during the day.

The Washington State University senior then spent the rest of the night slowly moving through the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge with a wildlife biologist who clicked two rocks together, imitating the mating call of a small, shy shorebird called the yellow rail. The pair used a net to catch birds attracted by the sound, attached information leg bands on each, then released the reclusive rails back into the safety of the marsh.

“The whole time, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do that,” said Hernandez, who plans to graduate from WSU in December with a degree in wildlife ecology and conservation sciences. “It was awesome. Yellow rails have a small breeding population in southern Oregon, and it’s really rare to see them. Watching the tiny, secretive birds wander out of the tall or thick grass cover was magical.”

The nighttime excursion was part of Hernandez’s summer internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program based in their Sacramento, Calif., regional office.  The trip to the marsh was unusual, since most of his work involved being in an office, but Hernandez enjoyed the internship’s wide variety of projects. The forays into field work are what stand out after his return to Pullman.

He took part in the internship to fulfill an experiential learning requirement for his degree from WSU’s School of the Environment. When he graduates, Hernandez hopes to re-join the federal government and pursue a career in wildlife conservation.

Before heading west, the Manassas, Va., native had never lived away from family, but was intrigued when a friend of a friend mentioned attending the university. He transferred to WSU and entered the wildlife ecology program, following his lifelong interest in nature and the outdoors.

“I felt like I needed to explore life outside of my hometown,” he said. “It’s dramatic to move completely across the country but being in a new environment helped me grow so much. Now Pullman feels like a second home.”

One way Hernandez met friends was through WSU student club MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences). That organization is also how he found the internship: He attended a resume writing workshop and connected with the event’s host.

A person wearing waders and a headlamp holds something in his hands. The background is completely black.
Hernandez in the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge catching and banding yellow rail birds.

“She helped me with my resume, and after that, I applied to the Migratory Bird Program,” he said. “She knew the program’s internship coordinator and put in a good word for me with the hiring panel. I really appreciate the help she provided to make this dream a reality.”

Hernandez said MANRRS’ support is vital for students who want to succeed after college.

“A lot of students struggle with what to do next,” he said. “Having a group like MANRRS makes you feel more secure about your future, especially since it can help you get a job after graduation.”

MANRRS started on the WSU campus in 2018 and has already grown into a vital resource for students from a variety of backgrounds.

In 2021, a MANRRS alum and Fish and Wildlife Service employee contacted Colette Casavant, director of student success in WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and MANRRS advisor, about assisting current students.

“The alum, Nicole Hams, pitched an exciting program of professional development workshops and internships to support MANRRS students, with the ultimate goal of supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Casavant said. “MANRRS students are prepared because of that program and their work at WSU; the students thrive because of who they are.”