Musings of a roaming nature nerd

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River of Birds

During a cold, sunny October two years ago, Jason and I witnessed migration as never before. Atop a rickety wooden tower, on a pine ridge, in the middle of an isthmus, at Poland’s boundary with the Baltic Sea and Russia, we spent days mesmerized by a river of birds flooding over our head. Hundreds of thousands passerines and thousands of raptors winged their way toward the Mediterranean and Africa. Completely awed, we wondered if we would ever see such an event again.

Yesterday, here in California we once again observed a river of birds in motion. Black-vented Shearwaters are a species of seabird that nests on islands south of southern California, off of Baja Mexico. Only occasionally seen from land, these pelagic birds are most often found miles out at sea. And though their migration does not follow the traditional north-south-north pattern we think of for many birds, they are indeed moving in search of food, which is the reason why many birds migrate at all.

This year an El Nino event is developing in the Pacific and one possible result of that is a massive push of anchovies toward the coasts. In the wake of the anchovies are hungry birds, dolphins and numerous other sea creatures. Observing the movement and frenzied feeding of 20,000+ Black-vented Shearwaters was incredible. And not only were the Shearwaters in motion close to shore, but dozens of other species. Elegant Terns streamed overhead, every single one with beak-fulls of anchovies. Marbled Godwits and Long-billed Curlews foraged in the surf. The early morning sea air hummed with the energy of thousands of wings, churning waves, and the feverish excitement of a few SoCal birders!

(Thanks to Brandon “Babe Lee” Miller for the scope videos)

 

The crew

The hero crew

Black-vented Shearwaters with the Coronado Islands behind

Black-vented Shearwaters with the Coronado Islands behind

Terns with anchovies

Terns with anchovies

Heermann's Gull

Heermann’s Gull

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Jolly birders!

Jolly birders!

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Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

Hi!

Hi!

Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlew

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Willets and Godwits

Willets and Godwits

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The frenzy

The frenzy

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

The hero crew: JP, Babe Lee, A-WOL, and PJ

Happy hero crew at the end of a long day


Revisiting Bird Banding

In 2011 I posted about the process of banding birds.  I have decided to post again because it’s a fascinating and exciting process to handle birds and learn about their physiology, behavior and migration through true hands on experiences.

A few photos below show some of the birds in hand we banded this season and the two videos found provide a closer look at the process itself. This Spotted Towhee Banding video was taken at one of our MAPs (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) banding stations. I do not manage to explain things very well because I was kind of distracted and questioning myself too much, but at least it’s a representation of what we’re doing!

 

With an Anna's Hummingbird

With an Anna’s Hummingbird

 

Wrentit with the mist net behind.

Wrentit with the mist net behind.

 

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

 

Baby and Papa Nuttal's Woodpeckers

Baby and Papa Nuttall’s Woodpeckers

 

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole

 

Bullock's Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

 

Rufous-crowned Sparrow (and Brandon)

Rufous-crowned Sparrow (and Brandon)

 

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

 

Western Scrub Jay

Western Scrub Jay

 

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

 

Color bands on a Least Bell's Vireo

Color bands on a Least Bell’s Vireo

 

Least Bell's Vireo showing active molt in its flight feathers

Least Bell’s Vireo showing active molt in its flight feathers

 

This Nestling Banding video shows Jason handling a 6 day old, Least Bell’s Vireo chick that he’s just removed from the nest in order to put a colored and numbered band on its leg. He’s trying to work quickly so that the parents are not too upset by the absence of their baby. He places the band on the bird, weighs it and will then (after banding its siblings) take it back to the nest right away.

 

Jason with a teeny tiny nestling!

Jason with a teeny tiny nestling!

 

 

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Banded siblings (Anne, David and Brian?!)

Banded siblings (Anne, David and Brian?!)


Blog posts that should have been written


My friend Leo and I recently decided that we truly had no excuse for being such lazy bloggers and made a pact that we each had to update our respective blogs before the end of this week. Writers block, even for something as simple as a blog that perhaps 10 people read, can be debilitating, so I hope to turn my little pact with Leo into something beautiful, sciencey and a bit more consistent! Wedged in datebooks and field guides and backpacks exist little handwritten lists of topics that peak my curiosity, that I desire more knowledge of, or would like to ponder through written word someday. This may not be pretty but let’s kickstart this summer season by honoring the musings from those little lists.

 

Trekking

The natural pace at which we search for ourselves under stones, along winding trails, in the reflections cast from vernal pools, is a walking pace. We may enjoy running, we may need to sit very very still sometimes, we may crave the rush of speed that only comes from 500mph and 30,000ft, but only as we walk can we learn more of how we fit into the natural landscapes of the world. We forget our day-to-day pettiness in the face of immense beauty or terrifying violence and survival. To trek and walk and hike and saunter and explore is to discover our role in the natural history of the planet.

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Wildfire

Fire, at just the right moment burns across a landscape and detoxifies, cleanses and rejuvenates. Fire, at just the wrong moment burns across a landscape and sterilizes, destroys and extinguishes hope.

 

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Snow

As winter allows us to quiet our lives and gather our strength for spring, snow recycles and replenishes our closed, finite water system. The snow may have been long and steady in many places this past winter but as the climate changes drastically snow now becomes a most beautiful luxury; one hopefully not too soon gone the way of dinosaurs and ivory-bills and people ready to stand for a better world.

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Plants

Having always considered myself more of a naturalist than a birder (though birds certainly do take center stage in my life now-a-days), I am still ever drawn to my first love, plants. There used to be a time when taking a walk didn’t involve binoculars, it involved books about shrubs and dichotomous keys and a macro-lens for capturing images of sexy male and female parts when the plant wasn’t looking. In honor of naturalist roots…

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Autumn Mind

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During my weekend of introspective, psychoanalytic, nature reflection I also came upon these thoughts, which while more personal in one way are also an objective way to analyze my natural tendencies for sadness. First I learned to recognize that it is okay to feel sad when plans go awry and friends and family are miles away. Secondly I discovered that my mind is like autumn. While autumn brings bright color and clean air and subdued beauty, underlying the season is the inevitability and melancholy of coming cold and darkness and eerie stillness.
I now realize this is how my brain works. I am perpetually in autumn. I see and appreciate and am fascinated by the world around me but there exists a perpetual loneliness and lingering sadness. I’ve often wondered if my nature indicates a happy person battling with melancholy tendencies or a subdued person who knows to recognize joy and smile at it when it comes along. I’m not sure, but what I started to learn is how to tease apart the lingering from the circumstantial sadness. Together they are unbearable, but differentiating between them is like learning to separate the natural falling of the leaves from the actual death of a tree. Both occur naturally, just as my mind forms emotions natural to me, but one simply passes as a minor event while the other looms large, but for a distant time. My mind was full of falling leaves this weekend but through patient thought, thankfulness and the healing ability to consider the world through metaphor, the long shadows of my autumn mind hide less darkness and instead bring depth and perspective to my inner world.


Thankfulness

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Spending the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving (and my favorite holiday!) alone and sick is not what I anticipated this year. After a joyful reunion with my new heart-home, the Grand Canyon, I planned to spend one more weekend with my love in the southern desert, before returning here for the winter. Alas, like nature, the cold virus is unpredictable and I went down hard. Finding myself with generous amounts of quiet time, I allowed myself to partake in a favorite hobby of sorts: introspective, psychoanalytic, nature reflection. And I share these reflections in two different blog entries.
Two weeks ago I was reunited with several friends here at the canyon and one of them, Gaby, helped me learn a new way of giving thanks; thanks to the earth, the sky, the two-legged ones, the four-legged ones, and many other elements and creatures of this world. I realized that while expressing thanks for friends and family, for living in this beautiful country and enjoying a comfortable life, I rarely reflect on true thankfulness outside of this norm. Not being a religious person I do not chalk up life’s mysteries to a great spirit but I do believe that expressing thankfulness and gratefulness to the world helps bring us together and see the good in each other. To honor that thought, I found my weekend reflections turning to what Gaby shared with me.
I offer thanks to the Earth, with a capital E, for being so rich with life and beauty and culture that it has to be the best damn ride through the solar system we could ever have!
I offer thanks to the sky for producing rain and snow which freeze and then thaw in rock cracks on the ground, producing ice-wedging, and thereby eroding the Grand Canyon into the magnificent feature that it is today.
I offer thanks to the two-legged ones in the form of my grandmothers. One has been gone for almost 20 years and the other lives 2000 miles away, but both have always been a constant source of support and love throughout my life.
I offer thanks to the four-legged ones in the form of moose. These seemingly prehistoric creatures intrigued me from my first New Hampshire sightings years ago. Their solitary nature, their ability to eat 3% of their body weight every day (as someone who loves to eat I enjoy this in particular), their adaptation to winter so that they don’t feel cold until temperatures drop to about -30F, their tendencies to roam and disappear undetected, and their ability to hold their breath while eating vegetation at the bottom of ponds impresses me to no end.
I offer thanks to the winged-ones in the form of Least Bells Vireos. Not only does their existence provide me with regular employment, but they are feisty and spirited and secretive which resonates with me. I am also thankful that as an endangered bird they have been making a come back in part through habitat rehabilitation and protection.
I also lastly want to offer thanks to the moon, without which there would be no tides, and without which I never would have discovered the beauty of illuminated nighttime walks at the ocean with my someday-husband 14 years ago.
We all have more to be thankful for on a day to day basis than we realize. Heading into the hectic season of consumerism and distractions, simple reflection on true thankfulness regrounds me. What are you thankful for? What makes your world spin?


Vireo Chronology

The fact of the matter is that the real world, (ie. nature; the world outside of the world we have created for ourselves) is a rough place. I find that when I work in environmental education I feel an even keeled sense of satisfaction. There are good days and there are bad days, but over all I know that slowly, the work I am doing is nurturing in students the potential for life long investment in our planet. Doing field biology is like an emotional roller coaster! The highs are super high: the thrill of finding a new nest; the excitement of seeing fledglings for the first time, fluttering and begging for food. But the lows are super low: yet another nest full of eggs just about to hatch, depredated and knocked to the ground; a baby bird being eaten in front of you by a scrub jay; oh, none of it matters because the highway is being expanded into their habitat anyway. Sigh…

Those variations are of course what keeps things ticking. Without some tragedy and some success we would be a rather unbalanced world. Today, I thought I’d share one of the highs which depicts the full successful breeding cycle of the Least Bell’s Vireo. These photos are not from the same nest, because I’m not lucky enough to capture every nest at the right moment, but honestly, the Vireos all look the same so this gives an idea of the chronology of their spring time cycle!

After building the nest together for 4 days, the male and female rest for a day. On the 6th day of the cycle she will lay the first egg.

 

A typical full clutch for Least Bell's Vireos is 4 eggs.

 

Both the male and female incubate the eggs which take 14 days to hatch. They begin incubation when the second to last egg is layed. This male must have been excited because he was incubating just one egg!

 

Day Zero or Hatch day! These brand new babies are about the size of your thumbnail.

 

By Day 5 the nestlings are demanding food about every 15-20 minutes.

 

Day 9 and these babies have almost outgrown the nest. In three more days they will be out of the nest with their parents.

 

A tiny 2nd day fledgling waiting for a tasty morsel to be brought from mom or dad. I can happily report that this young one and its two siblings are still alive 3 weeks after fledging and are just about ready for full independence!

 


Nest Searching

This field season I am monitoring Least Bell’s Vireo (LBVI) territories on a section of the San Luis Rey River. Monitoring the nests is relatively easy; show up, watch for the adults birds either foraging nearby or incubating eggs, take a peek in the nest and skedaddle. It is finding the nests that presents more of a challenge!  LBVIs are not much bigger than my thumb. They are a dusky grayish, white and are in constant motion in dense vegetation. It honestly feels at times like finding a needle in a haystack. Fortunately the males instinctively feel the need to sing as close to 100% of the time as they can. Sing, sing, sing, preen, preen, sing, sing, flutter, sing, smash a caterpillar, smash, smash, eat, sing, sing, sing. He sings while he and his female build their nest together, he sings while she incubates the eggs, he even sings periodically while he incubates the eggs. Hear a bird singing that hasn’t moved in 10 minutes? Nest!

Nonetheless, nest searching still has its challenges, such as today when I donned a full body Tyvek suit to enter a shoulder high stand of poison oak just to confirm a nest location! A few days ago my boss joined me in the field, to help sort out a challenge. I’d pin-pointed a small area as a likely nesting spot for one pair of LBVIs but hadn’t yet located the actual nest yet. We hunkered down to wait near the spot I’d focused on and heard the male singing close by. Soon we spotted him pop up from a shrub and start to forage. At this same moment we saw the female enter the shrub down low. As LBVIs typically nest only 1 meter off the ground we knew we’d nailed down the likely spot. As we continued to wait and observe, the male took off and sang about 50 meters away. Within a couple minutes he arrived back and approached the nest area. We heard her give a scolding, warning call and he backed off. Suellen whispered “Oh wow! She might actually be laying an egg right now and doesn’t want him disturbing her.”

A few more minutes passed and finally she flew out of the shrub and he flew back in. Immediately he began making these super squeaky noises and singing really fast; noises they usually only make when they are excited or agitated. Suellen again whispered “What do you want to bet, he’s excited about seeing a new egg in the nest?!” He eventually calmed down and became quieter. My excitement was still building and after a few more minutes we finally approached the site. A quick scan and I spotted him tucked into a tiny nest completely camouflaged inside the vegetation. With our approach he took off and I used the opportunity to extend my mirror pole and take a quick peak inside the nest. Two perfect little eggs sat inside. One white and one pink, pink indicating being freshly laid!

I dropped a GPS point and we hurried away so he could go back to incubating. What a thrill to not only locate the first nest I’d seen with eggs this season, but to bear witness (at least auditory witness!) to an amazing moment in the life cycle of an endangered bird. If these first observations are indicative of the season ahead, its going to be a great one!

A different male LBVI tending to a nest with three eggs!


The Grand Canyon: Week Nine and Beyond…

Day 57: Into the canyon we go! One last weekend romance with our new found rocky, craggy love. Although mere miles from the Bright Angel, the terrain and landscape along the South Kaibab trail provided new perspectives and surprises around every bend. I found myself exclaiming cliches “It’s so amazing!” “We’re so lucky!” “Just look at the colors!” as if I had not been living here for the past two months. The fresh excitement of the experience reminded me of just how little I have really seen of this most magnificent place, and truly how lucky I am to be here at all.

 

Day 58: The Inner Canyon Rocks! (Click below and then click the link a second time in the next window, to watch a short video)

Inner Canyon

 

Day 59: Serenaded by canyon wrens as we walked, our ascent was long and hot and completely awesome. Condors soared high in the sky, ancient ruins hidden above ancient trails beckoned with mystery, and soon ten miles and 4400 feet disappeared behind our laughter and delight at spending another day in this place.

 

Day 60: Beginning of my last week on the job. Back into the distance learning studio to connect with schools around the country. I observed and practiced with my coworkers today, getting back into the groove of high-tech teaching!

 

Day 61: An early morning text from Jason “EVGR near the market!” made me drop everything and race off for some spontaneous birding. Evening Grosbeaks (EVGR) are birds I have been hoping to see since we arrived. Their fantastically brilliant yellow color, their ginormous bill, their gregarious, charismatic behavior and their yet to be explained population decline make these birds intriguing on many levels. Not only did I manage to see (though unfortunately not get great photos of) about a dozen Grosbeaks, but numerous other residents as well. Below is a Mountain Chickadee, Evening Grosbeak (female), Red-naped Sapsucker (female), and Pygmy Nuthatch.

 

Day 62: Back into the studio to connect with schools in North Carolina and on Long Island, NY (of all places!). This grant and donation funded set-up allows for hundreds of students to experience the magic of the canyon and gain important earth science knowledge each week. As much as I love the personal connection which only comes from classroom visits, the kids who join us over the internet are usually bubbling over with enthusiasm and are ready for a memorable and hopefully life-shaping experience!

 

 

Day 63: A farewell lunch and photo-op with my amazing coworkers! While the canyon itself has undoubtedly reached me on a very personal and (I almost hesitate to say it) perhaps even spiritual level, it is always the friends and community which will perhaps be missed the most. Not only have I rediscovered myself as an educator through the help of these wonderful people, but I feel that my life has been enriched through knowing each and every person in this photo. I can only hope that in a small way, the contribution I have made to the canyon and to this incredible team of people has a positive and lasting impact as well.

 

Day 64, 65, 66 and 67: As we packed and cleaned and shared meals with friends and hiked and laughed and bought a few souvenirs, our time began to run faster and faster. Despite the joy, each hour began to feel like a long, painful, drawn out good-bye. If there is nothing else I have discovered over the years, it is that while many aspects of the nomadic lifestyle satisfy me greatly, the transitions become ever more difficult. As I write this from our “new-old home” in hot, sunny southern California, I do realize that every place offers something special and unique and as for the Grand Canyon it is not “Good-bye” but just a simple “See ya later…”  So without dwelling on the bittersweet, I offer the last images from our last days.

 

 

 

 


The Grand Canyon: Week Seven and Week Eight (Yuma)

Busy-ness and travel have consumed my time recently. Even though I have made an effort at capturing photos each day, I haven’t found the time to update the blog. I’m headed into the canyon again in a few short hours for one last trek, so I though I better take a few minutes to share the past two weeks. My camera jammed up a few days ago (too much sand whipping through the air and into the lens) so week eight, spent teaching in Yuma, is not well represented. In any case, I’ll keep doing my best! Only about one week left here at the Grand Canyon. This place we have called home for only a short time feels more like a true home, through the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the community, than most of the places we have lived for much longer.
Week Seven
Day 44: We took Gaby out for an official welcome breakfast at El Tovar and then spent our morning discussing the plight of the Condors and looking for them in a few favorite roost sites down inside the canyon. Jason snapped this shot while Gaby and I watched three birds far, far below… One even taking a bath in a puddle atop the butte!

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Day 45: I love looking for interesting ways the light will play with both the natural environment and the man-made one. Something about the shadows near sunset today really struck me as beautiful.

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Day 46: Red Butte, about 15 miles south of the park boundary, affords an short but amazing hike with views of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff and back toward the canyon’s rim. This special geologic area is one of the only nearby landforms to show off younger rocks that would have once also been atop the canyon, but have since eroded away. The youngest rocks at the Grand Canyon are 270 million years old, but Red Butte rises up with remnants and outcroppings of younger layers, providing clues to younger landscapes that once graced this region. We did not see any new fossils along the snowy, muddy trail, but did come across some chunks of petrified wood, left behind from a forest long ago.

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Day 47: Walking home from work though the Ponderosa Pines, I just had to stop and marvel several times at the intricacy of their bark. Though providing tiny hidey-holes for insects to spend their lives in, woodpeckers still hammer through and scoop them up from those homes. However those holes left behind by woodpeckers, in turn create homes for new critters like the spider living deep inside this one.

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Day 48: Another storm today turned the forest into a swirling, sparkling, wondrous scene of winter!

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Day 49: Before heading to Flagstaff with Kaylyn for an evening outreach event at a middle school, I enjoyed exploring the forest in the fresh snowfall.

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Day 50: Visiting Ranger Maci out at Desert View ended a great week. I learned why the prickly pear cacti are so purple right now (lack of water- makes sense of course!) and I learned how awesome it is to reconnect with old friends. The nomadic lifestyle may not always allow for traditional friendships, but it does allow for many joyous reunions and the slow, meaningful, deepening of connections over the years.

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Week Eight
Days 51-56: Without a properly functioning camera, this week has been somewhat left behind. I traveled to California with a load of our stuff in preparation for the upcoming departure and then headed down to Yuma for my last Ranger-Visits-to-Classrooms. I visited some old bird survey sites from two years ago and discovered that the process of restoration is well underway. My former site that had been covered in tamarisk and smelled of rotten sauerkraut is now gone. All the invasive vegetation ripped out in preparation for new, healthy plantings of cottonwood, mesquite and other native species which will hopefully start to turn the ravaged Colorado River ecosystem around. Now it’s down into the canyon… Just a week or so left…

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The Grand Canyon: Week Six (Phoenix)

Day 38-43: For the first time I have not been diligent with my photos. Fortunately, a wonderful new friend and coworker Gaby, joined me in Phoenix this week and captured some of the fun in the classrooms with her camera! Somehow this week flew by and it was difficult to capture it in images. At least a piece of the story can be shared here.

An image from a stormy blustery afternoon, birding at Tres Rios Wetlands…

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Excited, eager-to-learn, kiddos!

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Geology rocks!!!

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A hike and birding adventure at the Gila River with my friend Bob from the Tetons. What a great reunion and fun way to unwind after long days of teaching.

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Soaring like eagles around the classroom with a group of kindergartens!

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This student’s “wingspan” reached just over 4 feet; about the same as a raven, but less than half of a condor’s wingspan!

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Back at the canyon, Jason emerged after 12 straight days of monitoring the condors. His 6ft 3in “wingspan” wrapped me in a hug for which I am ever grateful. Good to be home!

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The Grand Canyon: Week Five

Day 30: Although snow persists, the air feels and smells like spring. Another storm is predicted for the end of the week, but today the warm rays of sun which dance through the junipers make winter feel long forgotten.

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Day 31: Ravens are considered one of the worlds most intelligent creatures (in the same category as primates and dolphins). I watched and listened to this one communicate with another nearby. Ravens are thought to have a vocabulary of upwards of 140 “words.” This one shared its knowledge, chattering for several minutes through numerous sounds before soaring off to meet its cohort. Oh, to decipher their native tongue!

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Day 32: Occasionally in the Environmental Ed office we receive Flat Rangers, ever so carefully tucked into envelopes by school children in the hopes of sending their little friends off on great adventures. This was one of the most adorable Flat Rangers I’ve seen. I hope the little third grader in Georgia who gets her flat friend back, will smile as much as I did at the image of her ranger at the canyons edge.

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Day 33: Oblivious at times to the obvious, I discovered that my office is next to an historic graveyard (in my defense, it has been covered in snow for weeks!). The early settlers and pioneers of the area have found their eternal rest amongst the pines atop the rim. The quotes and stories and names etched into the stones shared so much of what this place has meant to people over the years. I found this one truly captivating.

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Day 34: Into the canyon once again to meet my love! In the twilight, we heard a Western Screech Owl and Northern Pygmy Owl calling quietly to whoever would hear.

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Day 35: Hiking out the Tonto West trail took me to radioactive Horn Creek. Contaminated years ago from a uranium mine (before the Park was a Park) the water flows clear and beautiful but also “hot!” Nonetheless, the area is gorgeous and there is a great campsite near the creek. I also discovered my new favorite backcountry privy EVER! A loo with a view!
Later in the day I joined Jason again and enjoyed some great views of a variety of wildlife. I just can’t possibly chose only one photo for this day so below are my favorites.

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Day 36: Intense winds pushed in with a snow storm that would eventually hit overnight. In the meantime the sun still shone and between 40mph gusts I watched rafters having the time of their lives 1000 ft below.

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Day 37: An extra day for this entry so as to round out the canyon trip. In the wake of the storm, the clouds created textures and colors in the canyon that made it appear as though it were the only way this place should be seen. I met up with an awesome hiking partner, Neale, on the trail and later with my fun and energetic coworker Kaylyn, as well. Sharing the hike out with thoughtful and enthusiastic companions made the experience feel so completely alive and thrilling, even in the face of a seemingly endless 3000 ft trudge. I don’t think there has been a bad day here yet.

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The Grand Canyon: Week Four (Tucson)

Day 23: Jason and I took a muddy, dripping walk just to get out of the house, as rain poured all day and night. I enjoyed the reminder of the great eastern downpours of spring, however rain here at this time of year is very unusual. Other than deep puddles there was not much to be seen on this gray day.

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Day 24: An awesome breakfast at El Tovar while looking out at the cloud enshrouded canyon helped calm my nerves about the week ahead. Later in the day I hit the road for my Ranger-Visits-to-Classrooms all across Tucson.

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Day 25: I visited 5 schools and taught 19 programs this week. The week began with 5 back-to-back Geology programs for third graders. Exhausting, but so rewarding to engage little kids in discovering the world around them.
Fun facts about geology:
The youngest rocks at the Grand Canyon are older than the dinosaurs!
Plate tectonics are fun to learn about by using Oreo cookies as the earth’s crust and mantle!
Fossils of Trilobites can be found in the Bright Angel Shale of the canyon. Trilobites were the first known animal on our planet to have eyes!
At the end of a busy day, I enjoyed a long walk just before sunset and shot this image from a wash in Oro Valley. A great way to decompress, reflect on the day, and mentally prepare for the next lessons.

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Day 26: Six lessons, also adding Archaeology into the mix. Some of the kiddos had even gone on a dig with their teacher and were dirt lovers in the making! While examining prehistoric and historic artifacts, we fine-tuned our observation and inference skills to help understand the human stories at the Grand Canyon. The librarian snapped this picture during a geology dance I was teaching the kids about sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks. Who knew that dirt and rocks could be so fun?!

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Day 27: An hour and forty-five minute commute took me to Sierra Vista for the days programs. My voice was beginning to get hoarse and I was grateful to only teach three classes. After a shorter day I took advantage of the amazing weather and went birding on the nearby San Pedro River and grasslands.

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Day 28: I love teaching about ecology because it is a subject I actually know something about! The kids got to examine animal skulls like this coyote skull below, dress up like the endangered condors, and play a guessing game about the canyons rich variety of habitats and wildlife.
Fun facts about ecology:
It takes 9 fifth graders standing shoulder to shoulder to fit inside the 9 1/2ft wingspan of a condor!
When asked to name an omnivore, most Tucson students will name a javelina! That is awesome!
The Grand Canyon encompasses 5 ecosystems, from Boreal Forest down to Desert Scrub. Hiking from rim to river is like hiking from Canada to Mexico!

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Day 29: A twelve hour day, including three classes and a six hour drive north. An incredible week away, but also such a relief to see those big volcanic San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, telling me I was almost home.

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The Grand Canyon: Week Three

Day 16: As I began to amble down the Bright Angel Trail, waiting for my husband to emerge, one of the mule teams trundled past. For over a hundred years these beasts of burden have trekked into and out of the canyon, hauling people, tools, rocks, provisions, even a few of Jason’s beers when he has forgotten them behind! Mules are the sterile offspring of male donkeys and female horses. No generational legacy carries on when all is said and done, but these strong gentle animals keep pushing ever forward through days end.

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Day 17: Rather than skirting the edges, finally it was into the canyon for real! Jason and Vicki and I clambered down together. We passed many people coming up who grimaced and grumbled, but you could see that they also felt such joy in their accomplishment. As they huffed and puffed their way out of one of the most glorious places on earth, the undeniable thrill they carried for their journey shone through and warmed my chilly bones!

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Day 18: What are the words to describe the day exactly? Perhaps sensory images will do? The sound of the Colorado roaring thousands of feet beneath Plateau Point; the ache in my shoulders from sweeping the telemetry antennae; the black specks of Condors across the canyon beeping in my ears; the warmth of endless sun against my cheeks and the grit of mineral sunblock to shield against said warming rays; the bubbling laugh of my friend; the patience and guidance of my love; the flurry of sunlit feathers as a rock wren pulled disappearing acts amongst the rocks; the moon rising and fading in the blue sky; the aerobatics of the ravens, barrel rolling past us; the cold shale seeping through my wool socks and taunting me to put my boots back on; the light as it defined and washed out and cut into and then hid the canyons features.

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Day 19: There are 77 California Condors in the Grand Canyon region. Three weeks ago there were 80. Lead poisoning from tainted carcasses has dropped 3 in this short time. Not only are condors susceptible to the spray of lead ammunition left behind by hunters who refuse to switch to copper ammo, but they are still being somewhat affected by residual DDT and their prehistoric food sources of rotting megafauna are now at least hundreds of years gone. The small population left in the world is heavily managed and monitored as critically endangered. These photos are of two females known as 280 (80) and 634 (L4). 280 is the adult and 634 is her 1 1/2 year old offspring. 634 is too old to be fed by her parents, but she still hangs around them, hopeful for a meal. They ignore her and try to drive her away, but she’s learning slowly. As I headed out of the canyon, I kept thinking of their magnificence (that 9 1/2 foot wing span at close range is breathtaking) and their vulnerability.

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Day 20: Can’t get enough of the views this week. I stopped for a photo just after sunrise near one of the old lodges. Every day I so am happy to be here!

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Day 21: The humidity rose with the temperature and layered the rim in misty fog. Nothing past the edge was visible. Certainly a good day to enjoy the weather from a cozy, warm indoor setting.

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Day 22: Warmth and humid air persisted. I took a walk at mid-day and approached the socked in rim. As I stood quietly looking into the stark white emptiness the clouds began to move. The breeze pulled them back, tossed them about, laid them back down and the ghost of the canyon was gone again. Just one minute of one day.

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The Grand Canyon: Week Two

Day 9: Amidst the rocks and plants and birds and sunset of the day, I felt thoroughly and happily saturated in the brilliant colors of Arizona.

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Day 10: Took a short hike near Hermit’s Rest, a trail at the far west end of the developed south rim area. Ice and snow squeaked underneath our boots. We hesitated on vertiginous cliff edges, watching the ravens plummet suddenly into spirals and then shoot skyward again as if this massive canyon were merely a place to play.

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Day 11: My outdoor time during the work week often becomes limited to the early morning and early evening. I loved the glowing light on the Junipers and Pinyons and Ponderosas when I returned home just before sunset. Ever a reward to be in this place, even if only a few moments are spent outside some days.

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Day 12: Awoke to -5 degrees Fahrenheit. The low had been -15 just before sunrise. The air was stark and still and clear and the canyon was beautiful in the morning light. I only had my poor quality cell phone camera to capture this image but wanted to share it anyway.

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Day 13: First day away from the canyon. After a really fun day teaching 4th graders about pioneer history in Prescott classrooms, my boss and I took a long walk in the nearby National Forest. It is such a blessing to be in a place with so much public land and so much wildness.

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Day 14: Up before sunrise and home after sunset meant little opportunity for exploring. Despite the occasional long day, volunteering is such a rich experience that I wish all citizens could take part in it at some point in their lives. Giving back to the land, to the country and even to ourselves builds lifelong connections to place and community. When we are willing to invest our time and our passion, we can slowly discover the intrinsic value in these places, while building stronger and deeper relationships with each other and the land.

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Day 15: Spent the day in the Distance Learning Studio, standing in front of a green screen, teaching children in southern Alabama about the ecology and ancient ecosystems of northern Arizona. Even if many of these kids never make it out west, I hope that their virtual journey inspires them to examine their world a little differently. There is beauty and intrigue in even the smallest things when we look.

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The Grand Canyon: Week One

Eight weeks in one National Park is more than many of us will spend in any National Park in a lifetime. I have already had the privilege of living and working in three National Park sites. And growing up on the border of the Gettysburg National Military Park adds a fourth!

One week ago, Jason and I arrived at the Grand Canyon and will be spending our days amongst the glory of ancient rocks, wildlife and tremendous sunsets. We are volunteers and are provided with housing during our appointment. We of course are not paid for our work, but the payment of living in one of the wonders of the world is enough!

I have had such a hard time focusing on this blog in recent months. However, I wanted to capture our time here in this amazing place. These are photos from our first week here at the canyon. I will be documenting and sharing our eight weeks in an attempt to get back into the swing of writing, photography, and appreciating nature with both a scientific and artistic eye.

 

Day 1: Arriving at our new home moments after sunset, the scene before us literally brought tears to my eyes. What a privilege to be in the service of protecting and sharing our nation’s greatest treasures.

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Day 2: The light danced through the towering Ponderosa Pines as we walked near the canyon rim looking for Pygmy Nuthatches and elk. I can’t resist these unique pine trees and pressed my nose into their bark. The smell of vanilla filled my senses and I smiled.

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Day 3: We awoke at dawn for a big day out hiking and exploring. Although the views and the colors and the light in the canyon were all spectacular, nothing quite topped waking up next to my sweetheart and seeing that shining sunrise from our cozy apartment.

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Day 4: First day on the job, much of it spent indoors shuffling between offices, filing paperwork and seeking signatures. By sundown I was ready to stretch my legs. I walked past grazing elk and deer, and underneath ravens settling in to roost for the night. As I approached the rim no sound disturbed the air and no people were in sight. Rejuvenation at last.

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Day 5: My new boss sent me on a scavenger hunt around the south rim of the park. During a stop near the visitor center I looked down toward Plateau Point with my binoculars and saw a sight that warmed my heart. Hiking along the trail were two tiny figures. One in blue and one in red. Blue was one of the wildlife biologists and red was my husband, heading out to a well known roost for California Condors. Though not quite visible in this photo, they are in fact standing together at the farthest end of the trail on the point of rocks below!

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Day 6: I returned home well after sunset, and found the image of my apartment quite comforting. The stars were bright and the night air very cold. Warm mint tea and an evening of quiet reflection indoors were a lovely end to a busy day.

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Day 7: The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and at its widest point about 17 miles across. There are endless places to getaway and never see another soul for days or weeks. Yet here on the south rim the human story mixes readily with the natural story. Almost 1000 people live and work in this developed area of the park. While most of the buildings are only about one hundred or so years old, people have called this area home for 12000 years. While I enjoy getting away from it all, there is also something special about living in a place with such a rich human history. I look forward to learning more about the stories here.

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Day 8: The end of the first week since we arrived and a few inches of fresh snow covered the rim. I took photographs of the park to include in letters I am writing to school children who have written in with questions. Photos will never quite do a landscape like this justice, but I hope a few of those children and their parents will be inspired to travel here someday. As I watched an Indian family arriving at the rim for the first time, literally crying out in excitement, hugging each other, taking an impossible number of pictures, I was reminded of the incalculable value of protecting and preserving these places for all time and for all people.

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Nomad Abroad: England

 

Were I a more diligent blogger, thoughts and stories of my recent travels would have poured forth daily as I struggled to keep up with the immense task of documenting such a wonderful adventure. But while I jotted down notes and snapped numerous photos it has taken time for me to process all that I saw. Fully living the experiences seemed better at the time than documenting every moment. Now, as I look back on the past 6 weeks, the itch to write has risen and I will try to share a few stories and thoughts from my time away.

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While enlightening to travel abroad, it is challenging to feel like a naturalist while walking cobblestone streets, viewing thousand year old architectural feats, and running for trains in Europe’s most metropolitan cities.  But beginning our trip in olde England was the perfect introduction to European nature and the fascinating interplay between wild places and humanity. From the moment our plane landed and I spotted a Kestrel hunting in the grassy strips between the runways of Heathrow, I knew a change of perspective would be required to find nature as I know it. Having lived in the western US for a number of years now, I am used to serious wilderness. Little human contact and seemingly untouched wilds (even if in reality early natives traversed the land thousands of years ago). However, English nature-scapes were more reminiscent of my east coast roots, where human history mingles with nature amongst the boulders and pines and brooks. While hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire I always found it intriguing to traverse part of an old rail-bed or discover an out-of-place apple tree grown from the discarded remnants of a logger’s lunch. England had a similar feel, though granted, emerging from even older history!

For instance, Hampstead Heath is a massive green space on the outskirts of London. People trek up there from the city as an escape from the smog and noise. It is easy to get lost on the paths wending through the forested hills. Jason and I watched as another Kestrel hunted in a field and then battled with a Magpie over its freshly killed meal. We could have been a million miles from civilization at that moment. Yet the paths we walked are the very paths which the infamous outlaw Dick Turpin frequented 300 years ago. And during World War I, it was said that the huge guns in France could be heard from the hills of the Heath, echoing eerily across the channel. Human history runs so deep in the landscape of England that disentangling it from nature becomes almost impossible.

Farther west in the countryside of Dorset we climbed over grassy terraces from the bronze age and hiked along paths on which kings trod hundreds of years before. We birded at nature reserves where cows and sheep grazed peacefully and watched the sea pounding at cliffs where some of the world’s first dinosaur fossils were discovered in the 1800s. Although wilderness as I often think of it was not present, the natural scenes of the English landscape were not diminished. In fact  England served as a pleasant reminder that while humans may alter landscapes in dramatic ways, we are also wholly and inextricably part of this beautiful planet.

 


500 Birds

Some people collect fine china or vintage cars. Some people collect stamps or old coins. I collect memories of all the bird species I have ever seen. This is called keeping a Life List and in theory it is a record of all the birds I have identified over the course of my life. Since I didn’t start keeping this list until I was 27, it really only represents a span of 5 years or so. But in those 5 years I have seen and recorded exactly 500 species of bird in North America.

The list I keep is in the form of a birder’s journal, which has little black and white sketches of all the North American birds, and space to record the date and location and notes of each first sighting. By keeping a life list not only can I keep track of which of the 900+ birds of North America I have seen, but I record a wonderful memory at the same time. For instance, if I open my journal to the Hummingbird family of birds my mind is flooded with memories from trips, places I’ve lived, numerous events and happenings:

Magnificent Hummingbird: April 22, 2011 along the Super Trail in Madera Canyon, AZ- huge hummingbird with striking aqua-green throat”

Calliope Hummingbird: May 15, 2007 Schwabacher’s Landing in Grand Teton National Park, WY – perched atop a conifer by the river”

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: June 26, 2010 busily feeding at Pine Grove Furnace in Michaux State Forest, PA”

Rather than just collecting a check mark on a list I have the chance to collect memories in a new way. When I think of the first time I saw a Crested Caracara I remember a hilariously wonderful and rainy road trip through south Texas. When I pull out the journal and notice when and where I saw my first Canada Warbler, I remember an awesome hike with friends in Northern New Hampshire on our first wedding anniversary.

My 500th North American species was a bird called the Yellow-throated Vireo. I saw it in a forest just north of Carlisle, PA. Sighting the bird with its goofy little yellow spectacles was wonderful, but the memories that go with that… of the absurdly loud target range somewhere nearby, of the yummy coffee I sipped with my husband, of the cool humid air and beautiful early morning sunlight shining through the trees… those memories will stay strong too.

Seeing 500 species in North America is a milestone in the birding world, but for me it is also a chance to reflect on the adventures of the past years. The birds and the memories are invaluable!

A slice of life... list

 


The Nasties: Rattlesnakes

Having just arrived in the warm, green, humid east, rattlesnakes couldn’t be farther from my mind… And yet when I took a jog this evening along the broken sidewalks and tree lined streets of suburbia, I found myself gazing suspiciously at small dark branches laying near my path and instinctively shying away from bushes that I couldn’t see beneath. You never know what’s lurking! Rattlesnakes certainly live in the east, but the chances of seeing one anywhere, let alone in a neighborhood are slim. California however was a whole different story. Rattlesnakes were everywhere and as a result I have become a little more wary on my jogs!

In my eyes snakes have never been nasty. From the time I captured my first Milk Snake at age 9 and named it Molly after my best friend, to the Boa Constrictor I received for my 17th birthday, I have always found snakes fascinating. I now know better than to keep them as pets (they live a looong time and are not well suited for captivity), but still find them intriguing. Rattlesnakes win a slot in the nasty category, not because they aren’t amazing, but because they really do frighten me a bit.

San Diego County seems to have a plethora of rattlers and I saw them just as often in our garden as I did in the field. We gave them nicknames like Smuuv and Sweet Baby Sprinkles, but in all honesty the Speckled, Red Diamond, and Southern Pacific rattlers are nothing to be trifled with! They rarely resort to using their dangerous bite, preferring to rattle and retreat as quickly as possible, but their venom is deadly. The Southern Pacific (ie. Sweet Baby Sprinkles) is known to inject a neuro-toxin which doesn’t respond easily to normal anti-venom and can result in weeks of painful recovery in the hospital if one is lucky. There is little time to react if faced with a rattler coiled in strike posture, however “you will find yourself teleporting instantly away from the snake and not exactly knowing how you moved” a coworker reported early in the season. I found this to be true with most of my encounters. Trundling through sage brush one day, I almost stomped on a Southern Pacific, which reared up and rattled at the last moment. I leapt/ teleported/ flung myself away and looked back in time to see the snake (still in strike posture and rattling like crazy) moving away into the brush. My heart couldn’t stop racing and my knees were weak for a long time.

While watching the Speckled rattlesnakes in our garden, Jason remarked that despite our own fears, the world must really be a frightening place for a snake. You have one dangerous weapon but it’s on your head. As you slither away from predators you must both face the danger and try to navigate how you are fleeing. You are incredibly vulnerable and powerless except for your bite and predators such as hawks and mountain lions know how to avoid your fangs and will eat you. Once, in a Utah canyon I found a huge mountain lion scat with a huge rattle in it. Despite their reputation, rattlesnakes aren’t always the baddest beasts out there!

When I was in the field, my daily worries tended to revolve around avoiding poison oak, not walking into a live fire impact zone, or getting wasps and biting ants out of my pants. But always in the back of my mind was that reminder to be vigilant, to watch every step, to listen for that tell-tale rattle. I will enjoy and shiver at the memories of these interesting creatures, but for the time being, will very contentedly take my evening jogs on the pavement of suburbia!


The Nasties: Poison Oak & Stinging Nettle

The last month of field work has just begun, which means the start of vegetation surveying and the start of a whole new slew of nasty field encounters. Plants do not always get top billing in my blog entries, but today two plants have made the grade: Poison Oak and Stinging Nettle.

Poison Oak

Poison oak it isn’t all bad for nature’s non-human critters. It produces berries, which are eaten by a number of different birds including the Wrentit, found throughout our area of California. And its dense viney growth adds a thick layer to the understory in which some birds may nest and small mammals may find protection from predators. However, having had two mild cases of poison oak so far this season I can attest that the bubbled, blistered rash produced by its oil is at best uncomfortable. And at worst, the oil (known as urushiol) from the leaves, stems and berries of this plant cause severe itching rashes, swelling and may even need steroid treatment to get it under control.

Urushiol (which is the same oil found in poison ivy) actually changes the make up of the skin cells it comes in contact with. The body’s immune system then reacts as if these altered cells are a disease and attacks. The itchy rash we get is from the body attacking itself! Over time our bodies become really effective at fighting off this perceived threat and as a result our reactions to the oil only get worse. Washing exposed skin within a couple hours of contact can prevent the rash from developing, but since even a tiny, trace amount of oil is incredibly potent it is difficult to fully detox. And since the effects of contacting the oil may not be felt for several days one’s anxiety has extra time to build, wondering if the tell-tale rash will appear! Getting it on your clothes or boots or backpack is just as problematic. The oils can stay viable for years and the next time you put on your pack or lace up your boots, you might be spreading the oil onto your hands and elsewhere. Yikes!

A 1-2m high barrier of Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettle is another story. There is no waiting to see if symptoms emerge. Brushing against this plant produces an instantly painful sting! The stems are covered in needle-like hairs which when touched, inject a mix of chemicals into its unfortunate victim… often yours truly! Reactions tingle and itch and go numb for anywhere from a few minutes up to 24 hours. I tend to fall into that 24 hour end of things of course, and have to say that it is a strange sensation to have both numb and stinging appendages for that length of time. On the flip side, bees and butterflies love to feed from the flowers, and through trial and error people have found that young nettle shoots can actually be tasty. Cooking young shoots removes the stinging chemicals and the plant can be enjoyed in soups, salads, teas and other dishes. It is even said to improve inflammation problems such as arthritis. Certainly this plant is not without benefits, but a too-close encounter with stinging nettle can definitely ruin your day.

Despite the intense sting, I’ll take nettle over oak any time since the lasting effects are much shorter. And although lacking in the same “icky” factor that ticks possess, both poison oak and stinging nettle are a significant enough bane in the field to warrant making the nasty list!

I'll think I'll be looking for an alternate route around this wall of oak!

 


The Nasties: Ticks

My roommate and I have been talking lately about how any time a friend or colleague moves to a new location (Alaska, Belize, the Florida Keys) you typically see photos and hear stories of the amazing things they are doing. The grizzly that walked through camp. The glorious sunset that colored the mountains purple and red. Whether on facebook, over email or in an old fashioned letter, these are the kinds of things we all share with each other. After all, who wants to see pictures and hear stories of the swarming mosquitoes, the invisible and impossible-to-remove thorns in our socks, the endless exhaustion and filth and bruises? But it’s almost too easy to share only the fun, amazing and beautiful things. Every job, every lifestyle, even the best ones, have a challenging side and that can make things interesting too…

So over the next few blog entries I plan to pay homage to the less enjoyable things.

Lets start with ticks.

 

 

I’m from the east. I know about ticks. While backpacking in Kentucky one time, a tick fell out of tree above me and into my cup of tea. After a day in the woods of New Hampshire (and after showering!) I found 9 nymphs embedded in my stomach. Oh, I know about ticks! But I was not quite prepared for California ticks. There are 47 different species of tick in California and 4 in San Diego county which like to latch on to humans. And while some of the tick borne diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Fever are less common here, not a single day goes by without a tick. I had to excuse myself from line at the post office after work, because I could feel one crawling up under my sports bra. Jason put his hand in his pocket the other day to discover a dozen ticks that had fallen in and couldn’t get back out. We find them crawling out of our clean laundry and sitting on the seat of the work trucks, waiting for us in the morning. We flush them down the toilet and they crawl right back out like little scuba divers resurfacing from a strange adventure. And while it disgusts me, it has made me start to think… man, ticks are really something!

There are two categories of tick in North America: Soft Ticks and Hard Ticks. The ones typically found on people are hard ticks (the little flat ones). Most hard ticks go through 3 or 4 life stages. Once hatched from its egg the six-legged larva seeks out its first meal of blood, usually on a bird or rodent. Once it feeds it molts into an eight-legged nymph, which also seeks a blood meal. After this meal it molts into an adult and will then die after its third feeding. An adult female will feed and then lay between 2-3000 eggs before completing her life cycle and dying. Many of the hard ticks live for over 3 years and can go months without feeding (soft ticks can go YEARS without feeding). They remain somewhat dormant until the right stimuli, such as carbon-dioxide (ie. breath), heat or movement, trigger their little senses and they lumber into action. Ticks are not fast moving and do not jump. They simply walk around, climbing vegetation and stretching out their tiny arms to grasp passersby in an act called “questing.” They are even known to recognize frequently utilized trails through grass or brush used by deer or fox or humans, and quest near those. Very little preys on ticks, although it is thought that possibly some herptofauna and a few birds such as grouse or turkeys eat them occasionally. They are very resilient and are very difficult to detect when they are on you, let alone when they are hiding in the grass. Considering that I spend most of my days bushwhacking through thick vegetation or trying to follow animal trails, my abundance of ticks is pretty easily explained. I just wish there was some way to avoid it!

I know for many of you reading, the very idea of this is at best repulsive. We live in a modern era where we can be as germ and bug free as we like. Not so many generations ago this would not have been the case. No one liked it, but they had no choice but to deal frequently with parasites like ticks. Although I can not wait for a tick free day at the end of the season, I’ve learned that I can deal with it too. And even though these are mean little blood sucking bastards, they still have an interesting existence. Hell, just the fact that they get around by “questing” is something I can relate to! My whole life feels like a quest or a journey- waiting to see what opportunity looks good next! In any case I love what I do too much to let a few creepy crawlies overshadow the positives. But yes, ticks do win the first slot in the nasty category!


S.M.E.R.

A day at home in southern California: The 4400 acre Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve

 

Dawn

Sitting quietly between the hills, fog waits. A young mockingbird determinedly chatters into the darkness. In response coyotes take up the call with howls and laughs… and so the morning chorus begins. Without a stage, without a spotlight, engulfed in darkness, yet with perfect timing, the world sings. Desert Cottontails dance out of the sage, into the fields, back to the sage, erratically showcasing their agility and ability to survive. As a gentle breeze swirls through the groves light appears in the east. At the sun’s command the curtain of fog slowly lifts and the earth awakens.

 

Morning

The hills themselves are revived under the golden glow slowly creeping down their boulder strewn slopes. Their tangle of vegetation brightens and deepens its green hues as the light shifts. Datura’s hallucinogenic and deadly blooms fade, while bright red and yellow monkey flowers open, inviting hummingbirds to feast and pollinate. Darkling beetles begin to trundle across dirt paths seeking meals of fresh decay. True to their name, fence lizards scurry up walls and fences vying for prime sunning spots. Up in the steep-sided gorge, full of rushing water and clear pools, crayfish savor the sun’s distorted reflections off the water as they hide in broad daylight from Great Blue Herons. As if delighted by the new day, life abounds in a fever of activity.

 

 

 

 

Afternoon

The air remains cool but the sun burns hot. Ground squirrels with mouthfuls of orange and avocado scamper from groves to burrows with their tasty treasures. Rattlesnakes bask and wait for careless squirrels. Although many local squirrels gain immunity to venom as youngsters, an unlucky baby could satiate a rattler for weeks. Red-tailed Hawks circle with vultures on thermals. Looking for a meal or just enjoying the view? Their calm demeanor seems to indicate the latter. Under increasing heat, all but the whine and rattle of grasshoppers subsides and the reserve quietly passes the day.

 

 

Baby Red-tailed Hawks

 

Dusk

Light creeps back up the boulder laden slopes and shadows slink forth. The glow of a purple sunset escorts Black-crowned Night Herons through the canyon to their roost. A muted chorus of ravens, frogs, chirping squirrels, briefly crescendos and then gives way as Great-horned and Barn Owls announce the return of the dark and damp. Their throaty calls and shrieks are the only sounds as darkness becomes complete. Newly revealed moon and stars soon disappear behind the flowing marine layer. Again fog fills the canyons and blankets the hills. Then, sitting quietly, it waits for the encore at dawn.

 

 

 

 


Those Dastardly Cowbirds

 

 

The Brown-headed Cowbird has a bad reputation. Being, what is called an “obligate brood parasite,” cowbirds exclusively lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and then leave, letting the “adoptive host parents” do all the hard work of raising their chick! The nest hosts often don’t understand what has happened and end up incubating the new egg along with their own. For several days the cowbird mother revisits the nest to ensure that her egg is still there. If she sees that it has been removed or destroyed, she might lay another one or even destroy the host eggs, forcing the parents to re-nest, thereby giving her another chance to lay. Females will do this up to 90 times with different nests during a breeding season! The successful cowbird egg typically hatches a day or so before the host eggs and the baby demands copious amounts of food with its loud calls. The host parents feed it constantly, to the detriment of their own eggs and young. The cowbird baby grows quickly and grows large- often developing to twice the size of much smaller frantic parents. In the end, these parents will exhaust their entire breeding season feeding a baby that isn’t even their own! For an endangered sub-species like the Least Bell’s Vireo, the loss of a nesting cycle to brood parasites is devastating.

Despite their negative portrayal as a destroyer of happy homes, the Brown-headed Cowbird has a fascinating natural history, which also may explain why they evolved to parasitise nests in the first place. True to their name, cowbirds are found around cattle. Before cattle appeared on this continent, they mixed with bison herds, and prior to that may have evolved alongside large mammals in Africa. They are often seen perched atop the backs of plodding bovine, waiting to pluck tasty insects from the churned up dust or from the backs of their mammalian hosts. At least in part because of this great food source, cowbirds tended to follow the herds as they roamed. Well, if you’re following migrating bison chances are you don’t have time to build a nest, incubate eggs, and feed your babies for weeks on end. By that time the herds would have moved on and your food supply would have vanished with them. It is much easier to let someone else care for your eggs and feed your babies.

Cowbirds are gregarious and flock together in large groups everyday. Newly fledged juveniles eventually make their way into these social groups and learn the family trade. The cowbird is adaptable and now lives in most habitats across North America. They don’t mind the disturbances that humans cause to the landscape and take advantage of the habitats and nest of birds that they might not have historically encountered. As one biologist put it ‘Brown-headed Cowbirds behave in such a dastardly way!’  But are the cowbirds to blame for the endangered status of a bird like the vireo? About 97% of their attempts at parasitism actually fail. Unfortunately, the poor state of things for vireos gets chalked up to good old human degradation of habitat. Really, the cowbird’s unique natural history makes a lot sense for the world in which they evolved. We are the ones who changed the game and now point fingers at the cowbirds. Cowbirds are not helping the matter, but are they really the dastardly ones?!

Biologists have different methods for handling nest parasitism. One way, of course, is to just let nature run its course. This sounds realistic but perhaps a little heartless. And that strategy works best when humans haven’t already interfered with the process from the beginning. When endangered species are involved some sort of action is taken. Some biologists remove cowbird eggs from host nests and replace them with clay ones. This is to trick the cowbird mother who might be monitoring the situation, into thinking that her egg is still in the nest. Also, the nest hosts occasionally abandon the nest if they see that one of their eggs is gone. The clay egg is a good decoy. It will never hatch, but provokes the right stimuli from both the cowbird and host parents.

Other biologists remove the actual cowbirds from the equation. A few birds are captured and put in a large cage. Because cowbirds flock together, other birds see the captured ones and sneak into the cage to engage in their daily chat! Once they get inside, they can’t get out. They are provided with shade, perches, food and water, but are successfully removed from endangered species habitat during the critical breeding season. Once the breeding season winds down, they are released unharmed. These temporary measures provide reasonable solutions to tricky problems.

Managing the impact of cowbirds is necessary, but admittedly while I keep a non-biased perspective in the field, I do find the clever ways and unique story of the cowbird fascinating. Dastardly or not it has somehow parasitised its way right into my heart!

 

These aren't the best shots, but at the top of the page you see a male and female cowbird, and in this photo you see one of the holding areas for the cowbirds during breeding season.

 


A field biologist… Part 4

With a seemingly ever tired mind and body, words have not been flowing like they used to. But I made another little video to share from today’s site. I did not mention this in the video but the poison hemlock by which I am surrounded, is not poisonous to the touch like poison ivy or oak. It is a non-native and very invasive plant from Europe and Africa. It can be mistaken for wild parsnip and its roots are poisonous if eaten. Fortunately, I am not attempting to make any salads while in the field so it just tends to be a nuisance!

Enjoy!

Clicking the link below will take you to vimeo where you can watch the video:

Survey in Ysidora Basin


A field biologist… Part 3

Another day, another river… learn a little more about what a field biologist studies!

Clicking the link below will take you to vimeo where you can watch the video:

San Luis Rey Survey