Saturday, May 29, 2010

Back in the Wilds

Back into the wilds for week two of my summer adventure in surveying for Flammulated Owls across the Sawtooth National Forest and surrounding areas. The first week was spent on BLM land just south of the forest, this week we moved into the forest near Featherville Idaho, a small central Idaho mountain community, and then had one day near Hailey Idaho.

After a difficult first week we were hoping for a little less punishing terrain, but it was not to be. While the top elevation difference was less, there was much more up and down making the total climbing about the same. In many cases the terrain was steeper than we had previously experienced and the access trails longer. Thus, I return just as tired or more than the first week.

One challenge left over from the first week are blisters on my feet. Miles of hiking on side hills in steep terrain is playing havoc on my feet. How many blister kits can one consume in a week? I did successfully prevent any further deterioration this week although my feet are in a significant state of protest.

The first night out we hiked into Pine Gulch. We met some forest service employees who told us we were crazy and to watch for wolves. I don't think their statement was designed to elicit a response, but I do find it interesting that people are more afraid of wolves than mountain lions. Idaho has more than 4 times as many mountain lions than wolves and they are much more likely to attack people hiking in the dark. In fact, if I were to list the top 10 things that concern me about hiking at night in Idaho, wolves wouldn't make the list. Anyway, the forest service employees were friendly and wished us well.

We were quite surprised when we arrived at our first survey point only to find an adult moose standing there. Did I mention my top ten list for things to be afraid of in Idaho? One thing I have learned about moose in Idaho is that they do not intimidate easily. This one didn't appear to be aggressive, but was in no hurry to leave. We kept our distance but didn't retreat too far. He apparently didn't appreciate the company and slowly wandered off slowly so we could get to work.

We visit all of our survey points hiking in and document the vegetation surrounding the point at 50M and 300M. Arriving at the final point just before dark, we found a well used game trail heading right to the point. The trail had been well used by a Black Bear, albeit a small one. Often small bears are accompanied by much larger adult bears. Did I mention my top 10 list? I am quite sure it had been used that day by the said bear. Wait, it had also been used by wolves in the past day or two. Very cool. We proceeded cautiously and noisily. We completed our work without any interactions. It would be a great night tallying four different owl species - a number of Flammulated Owls, a few Northern Saw-whet Owls, my first ever Barred Owl, and while hiking out, a Great Horned Owl. We even had a Flammulated Owl in our camp!

Day two presented even steeper terrain with dense willow thickets covering the lower portions of the ravines we had to cross. It was a tough, tough night. We did see lots of elk and deer. For anyone thinking that the wolves ate them all, we can tell you first hand where they are at. The highest point of the day was highlighted by a Ruffed Grouse drumming just behind us. We also saw a bull elk run across an open expanse of Sage heading almost straight toward us. It was a little freaky but he diverted just below us. I don't think he ever knew we were there. One of the behavioral changes that elk have made since wolf reintroduction is that they spend much less time out in the open. This bull ran across the sage clearing, then walked through the forest. The true sense of wildness. It was great to observe on such a personal nature. Late in the night we came upon 3 pairs of eyes staring at us, but it was too far away and too dark to distinguish. We were hoping for wolves. Jack took out a brighter spotlight only to reveal more elk. Bummer. I have promised to find Jack some wild wolves before we are done with the season. It would be a slow night with only one Flammulated Owl and two Northern Saw-whet Owls.

We welcomed a road survey on our third night out to help recover from our two hard days of hiking. The rain came in and it drizzled all night. This made it a good night for owls. The theory goes that their food source, moths, aren't flying in the rain. Since they cannot hunt and eat, why not sit around and announce your territory. The highlight was hearing four Flammulated Owls all calling at one location. It was very impressive.

We awoke the next morning to a 6am thunderstorm directly overhead. Lightning with instantaneous thunder always gets my attention. (top 10 list?) My tent was at the base of a tree. Aren't you supposed to avoid trees in a thunderstorm? But wait, aren't you also supposed to avoid open areas as well? Who makes these rules? It quickly passed. We drove thru wind, rain, and hail to our next location near Hailey Idaho. Hmmm. 80% chance of rain through the night. We planned to start the vegetation analysis as usual and hope for clear weather for the night surveys. It would end up being quite beautiful all night. I particularly enjoy my time at the final point before dark. We usually arrive 15-20 minutes before dark. Having completed half of our work (vegetation analysis), its great to kick back for 20 minutes and enjoy the view. This night would be no different. Grouse drumming to the north, a Hermit Thrush signing with all of its energy to the south, beautiful view and calm cool weather. This is the best part of the day, except maybe arriving at your tent at 2am completely exhausted. I can't believe that 25% of our season is already complete.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Meeting the Locals

Part of my owl survey experience as a field biologist I did not expect was the interaction with people. There are probably not many people hiking the wilderness at night that would expect to run into others. We haven't at night, but have had a few opportunities to speak while performing road vegetation analysis. My wildlife management class last semester spoke to this, but once again, its the experience that makes it more real than a presentation.

I first need to say that we drive an Idaho Fish and Game vehicle. This provides us some aspect of authority, but also invites inquiries into all manner of game management topics. We've had a few interactions so far in our first week.

While performing vegetation analysis one day two gentlemen stopped by to see what we were up to. They were interested in talking about mule deer populations. We had to confess that we were just bird nerds in a borrowed truck, and didn't actually work for the Fish and Game. I was able to share some knowledge that a Fish and Game employee presented to our wildlife management course, but made sure they knew that I was not an authority on the populations in the area. They were friendly and interested in many topics including our work. We received the usual response of "you're crazy to do that at night". Yes, I guess we are. They closed by making a statement that the wolves sure have decimated the elk population. To this I did not respond. I could have shared that the Fish and Game research director emphatically stated to our class that they have not, but it was clear that they two were already convinced otherwise, so I let it go.

One morning while we were packing up our make shift tent site, an armed individual arrived. I was near the truck so he asked if I knew who was camping on private land. He introduced himself as the caretaker of that land. He had assumed that it wasn't the Fish and Game. I introduced myself, apologized, and showed him that our map indicated a 1/4 mile stretch of BLM land which was public. He admitted that he knew there was a public stretch somewhere, but didn't know exactly where. He also stated that he had no issue with us camping there, he was just concerned it would set a precedent. Many workers at the nearby Sun Valley resort community squat on the land. They can build a whole tent city in a day. But that is a different issue. Anyway, we had a great discussion about hiking in the dark, mountain lions, coyotes, and wolves. All have been seen in the valley recently. The wolves were an issue. Next week they will bring in sheep. According to him, "Where there is sheep, there is trouble." I once again let the wolf topic drop. This apparently signaled the end of the conversation so he wished us well and drove off. In all it was a very pleasant conversation.

Granted I have only had two such interactions so far, but a general theme has emerged with regards to the standard conversation with the locals. First, they ask what the hell we are doing there. Next, discuss the issue on the top of their mind, but nothing too contentious such as wolves. From there return to our work and what its like to be in the woods at night. Lastly, make some statement about wolves to possibly measure the response. When that fails to result in a strong reaction, cut off the conversation and move on. I'm excited for my next interaction to see if it follows the same formula.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Life of a Field Biologist

I suppose I can officially refer to myself as a field biologist. Last week I graduated with a BS degree in Biology with an emphasis in Ecology. This week I am spending my nights in the wilds of Idaho surveying primarily for Flammulated Owls, but also documenting other owls and nocturnal bird species such as NightJars (Common Nighthawk and Common Poorwill). This is how I will spend my next eight weeks.

Ready to go on day 4.

Flammulated Owls are listed as a species of special or conservation concern by Idaho Fish and Game, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. This is largely due to little being known about their habitat use and requirements. We are working to improve that picture. This is the second year of Flammulated Owl surveys across five western states. Last year all monitoring was performed via road surveys. This year most will be hiking surveys. My partner in crime, Jack, worked the road surveys last year. I met him during songbird banding last fall. He also graduated this past week with a BA in Biology.

My partner Jack.

Just days before launching on this grand adventure, I received the maps for our first week out. Ouch. The off trail hiking would be performed in very rough terrain. Each site has 16 points arranged in a 4x4 grid, each separated by 0.5km. We are hoping to complete 8-10 points in a given night. We choose the priority for each of the 16 points based on satellite imagry looking for appropriate habitat and for accessibility. Accessibility is often only evaluated once on site. In addition to the monitoring portion performed after dark, a vegetation analysis must be performed for each site during daylight hours. The result is a great deal of hiking starting about 5pm and extending until 2-3am.

The first night out presented a daunting landscape. More than 3000 vertical feet up to the first point. We were way too late arriving at the site to perform the vegetation analysis and visit the points before dark. Thus we headed directly to the highest point arriving right at dark. We were happy to have the boss along on the first day to ensure he had a proper perspective to what a reasonable expectation would be. Completing 8-10 points per night would be a huge challenge in terrain like this. The highlight of the evening was watching a Long-eared Owl, a life bird for me, hunting just before dark. We wouldn't hear any Flammulated Owls in this location. We reached our tents, with only six points completed and total exhausted at 3am. My circadian rhythm refused to adapt so I was wide awake at 6am...

The second night had a little easier terrain so we developed an aggressive plan to visit nine points. We were able to complete vegetation analysis on 5 of the points and arrive at the top of the mountain just before dark. It was beautiful! We could see the Lost River Range (highest mountain range in Idaho), the Pioneer range (second highest), and the Sawtooth Range (one of the most beautiful). The biggest challenge for this night was that the forest had been thinned many years back. All of the limbs from the thinning were spread across the forest floor. There was also a lot of dense underbrush. We had to fight through this all night long. It was very tough work. We did record a number of Flammulated Owls, at least six unique birds. We recorded eight detections, but a couple probably represent the same bird heard from two different points. We completed our nine points and arrived even more exhausted to our tents at about 3:30am. Wide awake again at 6am... I did manage to doze off and on until 10. Needless to say I was dragging ass. The boss, who also joined us on night two, took pity on us and assigned a road survey for night 3.

Night 3 we performed road surveys. The boss left so it is up to Jack and I for the rest of the program. The idea with the road surveys is to survey the access roads for the hiking areas surveyed during nights 1 and 2. This can then be used to compare if road surveys provide similar results for a lot less work. The highlight was the first point where we had 4 owls calling simultaneously, two Flammulated and Two Long-eared. Even better was the fact that the two Flammulated were each calling with different common Flammulated calls. In preparation I had studied the calls of the two species from recordings. I was somewhat prepared, but still challenged when only hearing one of the calls at a time. These overlaps of 4 owls helped dial it into my brain. In 5 minutes I learned more than I could in hours of studying recordings. Thus the power of field experience. In the end the road survey was very effective. Martin Canyon: 8 unique birds (road), 6-8 (hiking), Quigley Gulch: 2 (road), 0 (hiking). Not sure if this will effect our plans for coming weeks or not. For now, its back to the dirt. The road surveys finished by 1:15am and I was in bed by 1:30am. Slept until 9:30! Yeah!

On night 4 we finally got to execute our plan. Arrive early, hiking at 5pm, complete vegetation analysis on all eight plots, arrive at last just before dark, then retrace our route back performing the survey protocol. It worked flawlessly. We were back in camp just after 1:30am. It was a slow night with only a single Flammulated Owl detection and one Northern Saw-whet Owl detection. We did find cougar tracks made that same day. Hmm, doesn't that put the whole predator-prey situation into context! While quite cold, it was another gorgeous night to be out. One of the challenges in detecting owls is listening for the faint calls in the distance while dealing with the wind, rustling of trees, airplanes, etc. It is very, very hard to determine if you actually heard something or if the owl call is just stuck in your head. We call these "phantom calls". If you point in a direction and ask the other person, maybe they will also hear phantom calls. Its a lot harder than you think it would be. Most of the detections we log are ones we are sure are real. There could be more owls out there, but they either aren't calling or aren't close enough to the point for us to be sure.

I called Karyn. She asked if I was having fun. Hmm. Interesting question. I don't think fun is the term to use. The experience is tremendously rewarding. It is also filled with deep rooted misery. If the schedule continues it will indeed be the hardest sustained work I have ever done. The learning experience, the nature experience, the views, being on the top of an Idaho mountain at sunset, and knowing that you could be eaten by a mountain lion at any moment all come together to make it a great and rewarding experience. Experiencing the wild in the wild is awe inspiring. Is it fun - no - but it is fantastic! I am very glad to be doing it. Ask me again in another seven weeks!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Summa Cum Laude, Sort of...

While not quite official yet, I have just completed my second undergraduate degree - B.S. in Biology with an emphasis in Ecology, from Boise State University. I can pair this with my original degree B.S. in Mathematics and Computer Science from Willamette University (1988). As a second degree this one took significantly less time than the first time around; completed in under 2 years.
While I have received highest honors on the dean's list for each semester I have been enrolled, I am not eligible for graduation honors. Graduation honors at Boise State are only given to those individuals receiving their first undergraduate degree. Apparently my past experience at graduating has somehow given me an unfair advantage over the poor, and much younger, individuals trying their first time around. I am not sure if my first degree has provided that advantage, but my 21 years of work experience definitely has. Anyway, if they were to give me the honor, Summa Cum Laude would be the answer. This is for cumulative GPAs higher than 3.95. Mine came in at 3.98! A single A- tarnishes my transcript, although its possible I may have earned one B in this final semester. But hey, they don't count the final semester! It will be another week before my final semester grades are in and I know for sure.
The education experience has been a great one for me. I enjoyed all aspects of school this time around. I was definitely more focused and worked much harder as my grades show. But I also have to wonder about a number of changes in the school environment and possible grade inflation. Of course, its easy for me to say "back when I went to school", but the truth is, I have now completed two degrees separated by multiple decades. I have experienced a small private school and a large state school. Maybe my memory is failing me, but there is one aspect that truly seems reduced now and that is student accountability.
In my experience many students expect A's in their classes, but they don't expect to work for it. I see individuals just going through the motions who complain if they get a B on an exam. I listen week after week as student beg for extra credit opportunities because they didn't do the work the first time around. Many professors don't put up with this, but many go out of their way to enable it. Take my physics class as an example. I wonder how someone couldn't get an A in this class. The exams are curved up to a 75% average, the lowest exam is dropped, and there were sufficient extra credit opportunities to raise your grade a whole letter grade. There were 30 points extra credit given for completing all of the homework. The homework didn't have to be right! Maybe school was like this first time around, but I sure don't remember it that way. To be fair, not all professors operate this way. There are a number, generally more experienced, which truly hold students accountable to know the material. These individuals are highly respected by a few student and widely criticized by the others.
The next step? More school! Two years of school was far too short. I am not ready to be done. Therefore in August I begin my next educational journey, a three year masters program in Raptor Biology. I am still working through what my specific thesis focus will be, but I am making progress. It will definitely focus on some aspect of avian predation, most likely involving avian prey.
Before worrying too much about that, I will spend the next eight weeks surveying for Flammulated Owls for a partnership including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM, and the Idaho Fish and Game. I will spend 4-5 nights a week hiking through the backcountry, stopping occasionally to survey for owls. The general plan is to cover one previously assigned 16 square kilometer section of forest per night. We plan to drive as close as we can, set up camp, and the hike into the area before dark. Starting 30 minutes after dark we will start surveying 8-10 pre-assigned points within the area. At each point we will perform a 10 minute protocol including a silent listening period, then a series of playbacks of owl recordings each followed by another silent listening period. Near 2am (hopefully) we will hike back to camp. The next day we move to the next location. This will definitely be an adventure as this will involve 10-12 miles of hiking per night in very rough terrain. I look forward to the adventure. After this program is complete, I will return to the Idaho Bird Observatory to band songbirds daily until school starts in late August.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Dorky Great Horned Owl

On this morning's bird hike through Hull's Grove Karyn and I discovered some great birds. The highlight of the day was finding a recently fledged Great Horned Owl chick trying to balance on a power line. His/her three siblings were comfortably in a tree just 30 yards away. According to an employee of the foothills learning center, this chick was still in the nest yesterday. It apparently made it out of the nest and to the wire, but no further. We watched for an hour as it tried to get up the nerve to take the next leap. We eventually left him/her there to face the challenge alone.
Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl.

Other great discoveries of the day included a Pied-Billed Grebe on a nest in the upper pond. There was be in the lower pond for a few years, but this is the first we have seen in the upper. His/her mate was fishing nearby.
Pied-billed Grebe.
The Lazuli Bunting are back and singing with a vengence.
Lazuli Bunting.
And there is always a Red-tailed Hawk flying overhead!
Red-tailed Hawk.