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.
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.
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!