After 8 weeks of surveying for Flammulated Owls in 2010 (summaries: The Life of a Field Biologist, Meeting the Locals, Back in the Wilds, Drizzle, Rain, and Mud, New Players, and Bloaticus [this last one is the best]), I wasn't sure if I would have an owl job again. While I greatly enjoyed the time spent in wild places listening to wild and sometimes elusive birds, the disruption of my other life activities was fairly high. Regardless, the opportunity once again arose and I answered the call.
The Idaho Bird Observatory, where I perform my research, where I sometimes work, sometimes volunteer, and sometimes receive sponsorship support, received a last minute contract to perform Great Gray Owl and Northern Goshawk surveys for an exploratory mining operation. They needed experienced biologists which were available on short notice, could get the job done with little supervision, and were crazy enough to snowshoe through the woods at night for hours on end. I got the call. Through a temporary (permanent??) lapse of judgement, I agreed to participate!
My field partner would be none other than Lauren, who is also my upcoming field assistant on my Northern Goshawk Thesis research. These owl surveys would provide a good training and team-building opportunity before my project begins just three weeks from now.
The first weekend out we had hoped to preview the area and complete one of the transects. The preview was successful - conclusion: there is lots and lots of snow. The snotel site on the edge of the study area reports 93 inches to be exact. This would require some adjustment in the plans. We snowshoed in 3 miles to the first of 17 transect points, arriving about 45 minutes later than we had planned. Traveling over the crusty snow and up steep slopes took more effort than we had planned. Some areas were just too steep to ascend, so we had to work around the area. Upon arriving at the first point, it started to rain. The protocol can be completed in a light drizzle, but nothing heavier. We completed the survey at this point with no detections and started moving on toward the next point. The rain steadily increased as the clouds lowered to surround us. It was clear that this was not a passing issue. We called off the remainder of the night and headed back toward the car. We were right - it rained and rained and rained. It rained all of the way home and well into the next day.
Another weekend, another attempt. We planned a different route, expecting to climb a ridge and begin the surveys at the highest point and work our way down through the night. This required us to begin hiking 1.5 hours earlier, allowing 3.5 hours to reach the first point. The snow was lighter on the lower elevations allowing us to hike without showshoes for the first 1.5 miles. The weather was clear and beautiful with little wind!
|Lauren near the ridge over our study area.|
|Me on the ridge with beautiful views overlooking our study area.|
The hike up the ridge was spectacular, but a great deal of work. There wasn't a ton of wildlife on the hike, but we did see Northern Flickers, Steller's Jays, Mountain Chickadees, a Red-tailed Hawk and a Turkey Vulture. The Vulture was hanging out near a dead skunk that we found on the trail.
On our trip back down the mountain hours later, it would appear the vulture got its fill of the skunk.
The owl surveys begin 1 hour before sunset. At our third survey point of the night, the sun was just setting through the trees. A great finish to the day and start to a long night.
The routine of navigating to a point, extracting gear from your pack, executing the survey, packing up, and moving on quickly becomes routine. A few points from the end, we realized how cold it was getting when the water in my bottle was frozen. Steady showshoeing with brief (5 minute) stops kept us plenty warm so not to notice the cold. After completing 16 survey points, it was time for the 4 mile hike back to the car. By this time the snow crust was firmly frozen allowing us to remove the snowshoes and hike on top of the snow, increasing our speed. We arrived at the car about 1:15 for our 2 hour drive back to Boise. The net result: Transect A is complete with no owl detections. We logged 11.9 miles of hiking/showshoeing and approximately 4000 vertical feet of climbing. Ouch. The stairs are very painful today...
Next week we get to do it again!