Bad days made great in the field

We are pleased to welcome Travis Gallo to the blog this week. Travis (@mellamorooster) is a PhD student at Colorado State University in Liba Pejchar’s lab (@thelibalab). Travis blogs about his exciting and  extensive fieldwork in the Piceance Basin of northwest Colorado. 

When people ask why I like fieldwork, I usually give a generic answer about how I enjoy my office being outdoors or how I have trouble being stuck in front of a computer all year – only because it is hard for me to fully explain how you can be having the worst day ever and then something extraordinary can happen in the field and all of a sudden your day has gone from the worst to the best day ever – and how this can happen day after day.

Snowy landscape

Photo credit: LTS

Before I get all sappy, let me give a little bit of background about my research. My fieldwork is in the northwest corner of Colorado, USA in an area known as the Piceance (Pee-aunce) Basin. The Piceance Basin is home to one of the largest migratory mule deer populations in the U.S. and also happens to be one of the largest natural gas fields in the U.S. Due to concerns that oil and gas development will negatively impact mule deer, our state wildlife agency has been tasked with creating habitat “improvements” for mule deer.  These “improvements” come in the form of removing forest cover to promote early successional plant species that the deer prefer. The thought is that if you increase the quantity and quality of forage for mule deer they will stick around and be less affected by energy development.

 Typical views of pinyon pine and Utah juniper along the hillsides and sagebrush valleys

Typical views of pinyon pine and Utah juniper along the hillsides and sagebrush valleys

 

An old Utah juniper growing out of a box canyon wall

An old Utah juniper growing out of a box canyon wall

My research specifically focuses on how these habitat manipulations impact non-target species – songbirds and non-target mammals. Further, several wildfires occurred in the area at the same time as the mechanical forest removal treatments (don’t worry, fire is a very natural part of the system) – allowing me the opportunity to compare the impacts of mechanical disturbance and natural disturbances on the bird and mammal communities. So, there is my research in a nutshell.

 A sow and her cub captured on one of our cameras

A sow and her cub captured on one of our cameras

 

Our intern Molly conducting a point count and enjoying the view

Our intern Molly conducting a point count and enjoying the view

 

A young mountain lion captured by one of our research cameras.

A young mountain lion captured by one of our research cameras.

I am a true believer that fieldwork allows one to learn a place intimately and appreciate the landscape much more than someone who just passes through. I think this becomes even more special when someone is working in an underappreciated area like the Piceance Basin. So let me walk you through an ordinary day in the field and paint a picture of the Piceance.

A Brewers sparrow nest found by one of our point count stations

A Brewers sparrow nest found by one of our point count stations

 

Sometimes you have to create your own entertainment when bird banding is slow.

Sometimes you have to create your own entertainment when bird banding is slow.

Our days typically start out leaving our mobile home (field housing) around 4:30am to drive to our field sites. The small town of Meeker only has 4 radio stations – a country music station, a Christian music stations, a crappy pop station and a classic rock station – there is nothing wrong with classic rock except this station plays the same songs over and over and over… you get the point.  So the 30-45 minute drive to and from our field sites usually consist of me listening to – and laughing at – my younger technician and intern singing along to all of today’s great [sarcasm] pop hits. As someone that doesn’t generally listen to current pop music it has been a tough transition now knowing a whole lot of Rihanna, Ke$ha and Taylor Swift songs – but I digress.

Sometimes you have to create your own entertainment when bird banding is slow.

We then arrive at our field sites. All of our sites are in an ecosystem commonly known as pinyon-juniper or PJ. Pinyon-juniper forests consist of mostly pinyon pine and juniper trees. Occasionally you may find Gamble’s oak or Douglas fir at higher elevations, but pinyon and juniper are the dominant tree species. The understory is fairly open and consists of serviceberry, antelope bitterbrush, rabbit bush, mountain mahogany and big sagebrush. The forests are interspersed with beautiful sage meadows dominated by big sagebrush. During the summer monsoons after a night of good rain and when the sun heats things up early in the morning, the sagebrush will begin to steam, making for a beautiful morning hike through these meadows. Average rainfall is 28-64 cm so it’s a fairly arid environment. Canyons with steep walls cut through the mountains, and perennially wet pour-offs cut through the canyon walls. Exploring around these more moist pour offs, one will often find stands of chokecherry, columbine, wax currant and desert fern species.

Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)

Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)

 

Mountain ball cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii)

Mountain ball cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii)

We usually conduct point count surveys until mid morning and then spend the rest of the afternoon doing vegetation surveys or checking our remotely triggered cameras. Checking wildlife cameras is like opening birthday presents every day – you never know what you will get. Mountain lions, bears, bobcats and American badgers are common species that we capture on our cameras – cameras that are located a maximum distance of 100 meters from our point count stations, I might add. A few of the common birds in our area are mountain chickadees, black-throated grey warblers, white-breasted nuthatches, pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, Plumbeous vireos and juniper titmice. I would argue that starting my workday to the dawn chorus of these western U.S. birds makes my job the best job ever.

Our field technician, Aaron, loading up cameras to schlep out to their sites

Our field technician, Aaron, loading up cameras to schlep out to their sites

 

All field biologists have great stories and great memories from each season in the field. At the end of each field season I go through my field notebook and write down my best memories from that season. This last summer was the last field season for my Ph.D. research so it was extra nostalgic to go through my notebook this year.  This year’s memories included running into bears, hiking through freak snowstorms, mud fights after a summer monsoon, picking wild mushrooms, creating choreographed dances in the work truck, dodging rattlesnakes, saving a deer mouse after a late snowstorm, and many evenings sitting around on our porch sharing stories of that day with the entire field crew. But my favorite memory has to be watching my intern get bitten by a gopher snake during her first attempt at holding a snake – mostly my fault. She took it like a champ and had no fear trying to catch the next one she saw. I felt like a proud dad watching my young undergraduate intern learn the ways of the field.

Molly being bitten by a gopher snake and me trying to keep her calm until it let go

Molly being bitten by a gopher snake and me trying to keep her calm until it let go.     Photo credit: LTS

 

One day we hand caught a deer mouse that was cold and disoriented after a late season snowstorm and warm it up in our gloves.

One day we hand caught a deer mouse that was cold and disoriented after a late season snowstorm, and warmed it up in our gloves.            Photo Credit: LTS 

 

I would be willing to guess that every amazing memory we have from the field has some connection with nature. I chose this field of work so that I could feel that I was contributing to the protection of nature for future generations to enjoy. Sometimes we get down in the weeds with analysis or bogged down with readings and other micro-tasks that come with office work, but fieldwork and the memories we make always remind us why we do what we do. And those really bad days, made great by some interaction with nature, remind us that it’s all worth it.

 

Black-throated grey warbler

Black-throated grey warbler

Travis Gallo is a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University. His current research focuses on the effects habitat manipulation for game species has on non-target species. You can follow Travis’ research (@mellamorooster) and his lab mates (@thelibalab) on Twitter.

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