This is the 6th field report of my work on surveying for Flammulated Owls in and around the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho. You can read all the previous posts in The Life of a Field Biologist, Meeting the Locals, Back in the Wilds, Drizzle, Rain and Mud and New Players.
Another few weeks in the field have passed since my last update. The last few weeks have presented numerous adventures and opportunities to meet and work with new people. In some ways the work gets easier as a routine develops, but it also gets harder as the fatigue and wear on my body continues to grow. I estimated during my first post that this could be the single hardest sustained activity that I have done in my life. This is definitely proving to be true. I can't remember the last time my ankles weren't sore, that I wasn't dragging with fatigue, or covered in bruises and scrapes. With that said, I am enjoying the work, seeing some great parts of Idaho (and not so great parts), and experiencing some excellent wildlife. I am also getting in pretty good shape! I wouldn't trade it for anything.
The last 4 weeks I have had the opportunity to experience a different field partner each week. I continue to occasionally work with my original field partner Jack, but we have split up to take on new members. One week each with each of the BLM raptor survey crew, Heidi and Jesse, then one week with a member of the Curlew crew - Stephanie. This next week, the final week of the project, I will also have a guest partner, either Stephanie or another Curlew crew member Kurt. The turn over of partners provides an opportunity to share learnings and focus areas. We are all biologists, but each have studied in different areas, with different emphasis and interests. One week I spent some of each of the day time hours watching soccer in a coffee shop, another is spent touring the City of the Rocks, another is spent hiking in search of a rattlesnake den (4 mile daytime hikes not recommended when you are also hiking all night!). It has been a great experience.
One of the best experiences occurred this last week on one of the final points of the evening. We started our protocol which begins with a 2 minute silent listening period. We had just started and Stephanie whispers that a small owl landed just in front of us about 15 feet away at eye level. I had missed it coming in. She turned on her headlamp to reveal a small Northern Saw-whet Owl staring at us. Very cool. This was the closest wild (not netted) Saw-whet I have seen. We tried to focus on our job of listening for other owls, but it is difficult with one of the cutest owls on the planet so close. Once the playback of the Flammulated Owl began, the saw-whet flew off. During the next silent period it returned to a branch nearby and proceeded to scold us. It was making it very difficult to listen for other owls. Another playback, another silent period where we were again scolded. This continued for the remaining time in our 10 minute protocol. We suspect it had a nest very close nearby, so we hustled to gather our items and leave it to its territory with a new found confidence from clearing it of the intruders. What a great experience.
On the not so great experience list is passing dead cows.
This cow is one of two we would pass while working in the Albion mountains, right next to the road. Our locations in the Albions were littered with cows grazing in our public forests. In this case the owners must not have any responsibility to clean up the carcass. It has been there for more than a week. It highlights the role of predators and scavengers. The Albion mountains lack wolves and grizzly bears which naturally fulfill the role of opening up the carcasses for others such as the Turkey Vultures. If the wolves were there, they would probably be blamed for the cows death, which was clearly not the case. Scavengers clean up the environment and prevent the spread of disease. In this case, they will not be effective without a full compliment of scavenger skills and capabilities. Thus a carcass which would be completely gone within a week in a natural environment, sits bloated and un-opened after more than a week in a crippled ecosystem. When will we learn?
To provide a little more insight into the perverse nature of field biologists, I thought I would share one of the activities we do to pass the time. We have all studied organism taxonomy of some sort. This usually involves the study and memorization of the scientific names of species. These names usually have greek or latin flavor to them, but might just be latinized names of individuals important to science or common english descriptors. The Flammulated Owl is an example; it's scientific name is Otus flammeolus. A pitcher plant was named in honor of Sir David Attenborough - Nepenthes attenboroughii. Jack and I created a game where as we travel and see an animal, we identify it by its scientific name if we can - Taxedea taxus for the American Badger, Marmota flaviventrus for the Yellow-bellied Marmot, Odocoileus hemionus for the Mule Deer, etc. This was first extended to road kill, of which we have seen a lot. We then applied latinized adjectives to the names such as Spermophilis mollis deadicus for a very squished Paiute Ground Squirrel or Felis familiarus desicus for a dessicated house cat. Sometimes the road kill is simply Mutilatus unidentifiticus. Upon finding a dead Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) fledgling, we determined it was Asio otus infantium pickedaparticus. Yes, it is making light of a very sad situation, but it keeps us engaged and helps us to learn the true scientific names. Yes, we are a weird bunch ...
This brings me to some of the things I have learned so far during my 7 week field season searching for owls. I have learned...
- ... that no matter how good of shape you are in, you can still push yourself beyond your limits.
- ... that you should not follow too close to your field partner through the brush. Tree limbs to the face at 2am have a way of restoring your focus!
- ... there is no more beautiful sound in the world than a Hermit Thrush signing in the woods just before dark.
- ... that the sight of unknown eyes shining toward you in the dark is exhilarating!
- ... there are way too many cows in our national forests. One reason I do not eat beef, feedlots would be another...
- ... Garmin GPS devices are some of the most amazing products on the planet. I can honestly say that our lives depend upon them.
- ... that nature is incredibly complex. Once we think we have it figured out, it throws a different result. For example, we try to predict the result of our owl surveys when evaluating the vegetative qualities of a particular environment. Sometimes we are right, more often than not we are wrong.
- ... where most of the free wi-fi hotspots are in small town Idaho - Cyndie's cafe Featherville, Oakley Public Library, Bent Bean in Burley, ...
- ... the anti-wolf coalition has been very successful in getting it talking points established in the minds of rural Idaho.
- ... that as my other biologist friends have stated, I hate ticks (although I have only had a few).
- ... that sleep is optional ...
- ... that there are many wonderful people I have met that are committed to saving the environment and the wild animals around us. Unfortunately I have met and seen many, many more who are hellbent on destroying it as soon as possible.
- ... that it is impossible to get far enough into nature to not see the impact of humans. No matter how far you hike off trail, no matter how remote you get, there are still beer cans littered everywhere.
- ... while I have appreciated hiking on a 4-wheeler trail on occasion, they and their riders are not fiends of the environment.
- ... that my decision to pursue this new direction in life was absolutely a great idea!
- ... that sitting on top of a mountain, filled with endorphins from the climb, watching the sun set, listening to the Hermit Thrushes sing their last evening song, and enjoying the view, is one of the most amazing experiences in life, followed only by the relief of arriving at your tent 4 hours later.
And so I prepare to depart for my final week in the field surveying for Flammulated Owls. New partner, a mix of new and repeat destinations, and probably the hardest agenda of the 8 week program. I am somewhat relieved it will soon be over and a bit sad that it must come to an end. After a vacation I will begin banding songbirds for fall migration - starting July 19th. I report back to school on August 14th.