The birds of Nevada’s Sagebrush Sea

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome back Matthew Podolsky, biologist and co-founder of Wild Lens, to wrap up our month-long series about fieldwork in remote and isolated places.  Matt shares his recent experience conducting bird surveys in the wilderness of Nevada.  For more about Matt and Wild Lens, check out his bio at the end of the post.

Although I now consider myself to be more of a filmmaker than a biologist, I struggle with losing my field biology roots.  In all the stories I tell in the films that I produce for Wild Lens (the non-profit video production company I co-founded), I strive to find the unique perspective of those on the front lines of an issue – the field biologists. Since this is the style of storytelling that I connect with, I value opportunities to play this role myself.

So when the opportunity to spend five days in the remote sagebrush steppe of central Nevada doing songbird point counts presented itself, I did not hesitate to accept. I left all my filmmaking equipment in the closet and headed off to play the role of field technician for the first time in two years.

Sunrise on the Diamond Mountain Range, Nevada.

Sunrise on the Diamond Mountain Range, Nevada.

I’m always a little bit nervous when starting a new field job, and my two-year break from fieldwork definitely increased this anxious feeling. On the long drive down to our first study site I poured over recordings of the songs of all the most common birds in this remote area. I would be doing these songbird surveys with my good friend Lindsay Alsup, and she was actually in a similar position to myself. Having taken an extended break from this type of fieldwork to get her master’s degree in landscape architecture, she was also returning to fieldwork for the first time in several years. We quizzed each other over and over again with songbird recordings as we made our way south through the sagebrush sea.

Central Nevada is an outpost of wildness that is often overlooked by adventure-seekers. Numerous mountain chains stretch North to South across this desert landscape, many of them with jagged peaks reaching well over 10,000 ft., and in the wide, open valleys between these mountain chains – the sagebrush sea. Nowhere else have I seen such vast expanses of pristine sagebrush habitat. As you start to climb up towards the foothills of the mountain ranges, you experience the slow transition into pinyon-juniper forest. This transition zone was our destination.

Lots of people are concerned about the loss of sagebrush habitat, especially as it relates to declines in populations of the Greater Sage-grouse. For field biologists working in the Great Basin region, this issue is all pervasive. The issue of sagebrush habitat restoration is extremely complex, but one specific component that has been getting a lot of attention is the concept of juniper encroachment. Since the mid-1800s pinyon-juniper forests have been slowly expanding into the sagebrush habitat, taking over areas that had long been strongholds for many sagebrush obligate species such as the Greater Sage-grouse.

The sage thrasher, a denizen of the Sagebrush Sea.

The sage thrasher, a common denizen of the Sagebrush Sea. Photo credit: Neil Paprocki.

So when searching for a way to slow down this loss of sagebrush habitat, the removal of these encroaching pinyon-juniper forests has been identified as one potential strategy to achieve this larger goal. But how would one go about removing these now well-established pinyon-juniper forests? And will the birds that thrive in these sagebrush ecosystems actually return if the pinyon pines and juniper trees are removed? These are the questions that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) is working to answer.

A treatment site at which prescribed fire was used to remove trees in the foothills of the Southern Ruby Mountains.

A treatment site at which prescribed fire was used to remove trees in the foothills of the Southern Ruby Mountains.

Back in 2008, sections of the pinyon-juniper forest at our study site were treated using either prescribed fire or mechanical removal (cutting down the trees). USGS has continued to monitor these treatments sites since that time, in an effort to determine whether or not the wildlife that thrives in sagebrush habitats will return. Lindsay and I were now a part of that effort, returning to these treatment sites to collect data on the songbird populations that have taken up residence.

Which brings us back to that car trip listening to recordings of bird songs – the ability to identify bird species based solely on their vocalizations would be the single most important skill for this stint in the field. Over the next five days we would be spending each morning walking to pre-determined points and identifying all the birds species that we could detect by either sight or sound within a ten-minute period. We were participating in a long-term study that is trying to answer some pretty important questions about habitat restoration and management.

I was beginning to feel the weight of the importance of this data that I would be collecting. Although I was playing just a very small part in a much larger research project, that familiar drive to achieve scientific accuracy for the greater good had returned to me full-force. As I walked out to my first point on that first morning in the field with the sun just starting to illuminate the valley below, I was surrounded by bird song. It took me a few moments to fumble around with my equipment and familiarize myself with the data collection protocol as I began my first point count, but I quickly calmed down and entered an almost meditative state of bird identification.

Juniper titmouse surveys his neighbourhood.

Juniper titmouse surveys his neighbourhood. Photo credit: Neil Paprocki.

This meditation lasted the entire morning, and stretched out over the course of the next five days. I walked through the remote Nevada foothills with my ears and eyes on high alert, and I experienced the familiar contented feeling that comes with getting to know and understand an ecosystem. The dry, buzzy song of the ever-present Black-throated Gray Warbler, the simple two note phrase of the Gray Flycatcher, the endlessly complex and exhilarating song of the Brewer’s Sparrow, along with so many others – Mountain Chickadee, Sage Thrasher, Juniper Titmouse, Cassin’s Finch, Pinyon Jay, Mountain Bluebird – this landscape belonged to them, and I felt waves of appreciation to be a visitor in this beautiful and remote ecosystem.

A storm rolls through the valley.

A beautiful and remote ecosystem: storm rolls over the sagebrush steppe.

Of course the ultimate question remains: can we restore sagebrush habitat by removing pinyon pine and juniper trees? As an observer playing a very small role in this long-term research, I am certainly not qualified to answer this question. Lots of experts in this field hold strong opinions about this issue (you can hear one opinion strongly in favor of this approach from episode 11 of the Eyes on Conservation podcast which I produce and host!). But let’s take a look at the research that has been published so far by USGS as a part of this study. There’s a lot of complex statistics in there that I couldn’t even begin to decipher, but in the end it boils down to this statement in the discussion of the paper: “The effectiveness of these management actions in establishing sagebrush-dominated communities that support dependent wildlife, such as sage-grouse, remains unsupported by a critical evaluation and is thus unknown.” (Knick et al. 2014)

Of course this doesn’t mean that these types of treatments can’t be effective in restoring sagebrush habitat – just that we don’t currently have the evidence to demonstrate their effectiveness. As is the case with much scientific research, the ultimate conclusion is that we need more research to answer the bigger question. I can only hope that my very small contribution to this long-term study will aid in this process. Ultimately, some very difficult decisions will have to be made, as habitat management strategies are developed to have the greatest benefit to both sagebrush and pinyon-juniper ecosystems.

In the meantime, this research has provided me with a much-needed break from my daily routine, and has re-invigorated my desire to tell stories from the perspective of biologists and researchers working in spectacularly remote landscapes.

Scenic shot of wildflowers in Nevada mountains


Steven T. Knick, Steven E. Hanser, M. Leu. 2014. Ecological Scale of Bird Community Response to Pinon-Juniper Removal. Rangeland Ecol Manage 67:553-562.

Matt hard at work conducting songbird surveys.

Matt hard at work conducting songbird surveys.

Matthew Podolsky helped found Wild Lens in 2011 with the goal of bringing biologists and filmmakers together to produce films that would have an impact on critically important wildlife conservation issues.  Immediately after the inception of Wild Lens, he began full-scale production on his first feature length film, Scavenger Hunt.  Matthew also served as producer and co-director of Bluebird Man; he is a producer on the Eyes on Conservation documentary series and serves as the host of the Eyes on Conservation podcast.  Prior to his work with Wild Lens, Matthew spent four years working as a biologist with the endangered California condor, spending time with the wild population of condors in Arizona and Utah, as well as with the captive breeding program in Boise, Idaho.  Matthew received both a BA in Cinema/Photography and a BS in Environmental Science from Ithaca College.


One thought on “The birds of Nevada’s Sagebrush Sea

  1. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 05/06/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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