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.