June 16th, 2014
Well. So much has happened since my last post that I don’t even know where to start. I had my first real field work experience with Dave Parsons, a volunteer, and Jennifer Goyette, our very cool new biologist, three Thursdays ago, and I was planning to write about that. Then I had my first REAL field work experience a week ago, in the Gila National Forest. I spent the time with Mike Fugagli, one of our avian biologists, searching for Mexican Spotted Owl fledglings. Yes, I saw impressive adult owls and adorable baby owls. Yes, I camped in the car and didn’t shower for three days. And, yes, I got the notice to travel, packed up the car with food and camping gear, and drove six hours to a place I’d never been before within one day. I am slightly proud of myself, especially considering that this was my first long-distance solo road trip.
I loved this trip! If all field work were like this, I’d want to do it all the time. There’s something spectacular about being out on the open road: seeing everything on the side of the road from pink-flowered chollas in full bloom to huge solar panel arrays, watching birds (swallows maybe?) swoop in spectacular displays and almost hit my windshield, and feeling this delicious tension between full-throated adventure and “oh, goodness, will I ever find this mysterious campground?”. Sleeping with stars overhead and no lights around is amazing. The endless plains of grass and shrubs and rocks and hills to either side of the road; the huge sky, bright sun, and playful clouds above; they were ridiculously refreshing to me after eight months in cold cold, grey, close-set-forest of Massachusetts. Ahh, New Mexico. But I digress. I know very well that you all were expecting to read something about birds, not just my ramblings about driving on the highway (which starts to sound too much like a country song to me), so here you go:
This was the first Spotted Owl we spotted and, through some stroke of luck, I saw him before Mike. Lucky because that man is quite honestly one of the best bird identifiers and trackers I’ve ever met, and I feel so privileged to be able to work with him! Just sitting around the camp table on the first morning, drinking some cowboy coffee and watching the wildlife around us, he was able to identify at least four different bird species by either sight or call and show me two different nests right next to our campsite. Can I be like him when I grow up, please?
We visited six nest sites, five of which had owls present. Four of those had fledglings, including two with two fledglings! This is actually very important because Mexican Spotted Owls are listed as threatened by the Fish and Wildlife Service and two fledglings are much harder to raise than just one. As Mike put it, it’s kind of like raising a cottonwood tree: easy at first because it grows quickly, nearly impossible to keep it going once it has a 30-foot diameter canopy since it has to be watered at the drip line, which is where the canopy ends—sort of an exponential increase in necessary inputs to get the same output/a not-dead tree in your yard. But back to owls: finding these guys—whether the adults, the fledglings, or especially their nest—was quite challenging. The title of this blog comes from the second-to-last site we checked, when Mike said that the nest was “a clump in that pine tree” and, naturally, there were about twenty such combinations in the direction he pointed. It was always rewarding when at last feathers materialized from bark and I could actually distinguish the owl. Probably my favorite memory is when I saw my first fledgling, or, as I like to call them, puffballs. There’s really no better way to describe these absolutely adorable young owls.
I was pretty sad that this trip was so short, despite climbing ridiculous hills and dealing with ever-present bugs and access roads that would be politely described as “extremely potholed.” But I’ll always keep the memory of this very first field work trip, and the best part is, I still have several weeks left of field work, including one next week to the Valles Caldera with Jennifer. I’ll write about that next time! Until then, happy trails.