Musings of a roaming nature nerd

A Day in the Life

Our return to the Lower Colorado is like a homecoming. After seeking birds across the landscape, learning the rhythms of the marshes and deserts, donating blood to the sands as the tamarisk and arrowweed gouged into unsuspecting skin, I can’t help but feel as though returning to the river is returning home. This time, we are visiting the breeding territories of select bird species of interest and surveying the vegetation therein. By better understanding their preferred habitats we can potentially gain perspective on how to conserve those species in the future.

A typical day begins at 5am. I stumble around with Jason looking for clothes and boots, compasses and data sheets. Dave has the coffee brewing and Dawn and Mike are puttering in the kitchen preparing smoothies and bagels. I manage to wash down some yogurt and granola with a strong but creamy cup of coffee, grab my 4 liters of water, schlep my all-too-heavy pack to the truck and we hit the road.

As the sun rises we’re in the thick of it. “Walking” is an understatement for how the next hour will proceed as we make our way to our first plot of the day. Crawling, climbing, tunneling, hoisting, and when we’re lucky, stumbling along with both feet on the ground is how we roll!

Jason ascends through the tamarisk and fallen willow branches, attempting to reach the center of a plot.


With enough navigational know-how, sparsely marked “trails” from previous seasons, and a touch of luck we approach our plot. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to lay out the 10×40 meter survey site with little bloodshed and colorful language. Fremont Cottonwood and Gooding’s Willow will tower above us while a beautiful understory of cattails and fragrant yerba mansa provide lush ground cover, as we meander about measuring stems and identifying tiny flowers. But as we enter our plot we know that, as with most plots, this glorious rarity is not in our cards. Bull-dozing our way through a wall of vegetation we reach the center point and the survey is on.

Shrubs: 3 Tamarisk with 37 stems and innumerable branches radiating in every direction over 2/3 of plot.

Ground cover: 140cm of dead leaves and sticks, 3 holes of unknown locations to fall in, and 13 biting ant nests.

Trees: 1 Fremont Cottonwood, 17m high, in which a Summer Tanager decided to nest, resulting in the need to survey this area in the first place.

Perched in a tamarisk above the debris and ants.


Each member of the crew take turns laying out the plot, recording the numbers, measuring the tree heights, counting the stems, identifying the grasses. We sing, we banter, we bicker, we laugh a lot and we hope against hope that the next site will be better. Data collected, clothes torn, temperature rising above 100… it’s time to move. We stumble and tumble through the biomass to the next plot and it all begins anew.

Jason crawls valiantly toward the next plot.


Look for our unexpected trail partner curled amongst the branches. Good thing he rattled a greeting to us before we crawled his way!


These challenges are a reminder of a dream. To live without compromising happiness, to spend a lifetime learning and exploring and being as much in touch with our earth as possible. On the worst days, when I’ve been bitten by a dozen different insects and I can’t identify half the plants on a plot and my legs are bruised beyond recognition and I think I might cry, I have to just stop. It’s a choice. I have made a choice to experience the natural world on its own terms through some of the most personally challenging and fulfilling work I’ve ever performed and in some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever encountered. When I crawl through the jungle tomorrow morning, heavy survey equipment straining my arms and back, I can know that I am making not only a small difference in the scientific world, but in my own world too.

Cottonwoods and Willows frame the ever blue southwestern sky.

6 Responses

  1. John

    From your narrative above,” to live without compromising happiness, to spend a lifetime learning and exploring and …” Under most circumstances I will gladly accept whatever comes along in meeting similar opportunities, tamarisk of that magnitude might be an exception. Enjoy your final few days knowing that spring with more of the same is just around the corner. You are to be commended!

    October 7, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  2. David "Coffee Brewer" Henderson

    Looks like a wonderful place!
    The job itself looks pretty easy too.
    How do I go about getting such a sweet gig?

    October 2, 2011 at 10:37 am

  3. Dad

    Great pics and narrative. They worked together really well. Rich and descriptive. I felt like I was there. One of your best posts! :-) PS-Nice chatting tonight!

    September 24, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    • Kathryn Burke

      Anne: last March I read in a wilderness tracking textbook that “Discomfort is the price of admission to the theatre of nature.” It riveted me then and still does. I repeat it as a mantra often. Your post resonates in my heart and I must agree with you that what you and I are doing with our lives is turning us into the kind of people we really want to become. We choose to laugh (or to try to laugh) when others would be crying, because it is just SO WORTH IT. Keep up the good work, my friend! I hope our paths cross again soon. Much love to you.

      September 25, 2011 at 6:37 pm

      • annie

        Thanks for the kind words Kathryn! I love the quote you shared and I too hope our paths will cross soon. We might be in Moab in November…

        September 26, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    • annie

      So glad you liked it Dad! Thanks for always reading and sharing your thoughts :)

      September 26, 2011 at 7:52 pm