Don’t just take our word for it – A short teaser for Unspotted

Because we wrote a book review last week, we thought we would give you a little teaser into the book itself, especially since he touches on so many stories that we can relate to on this blog. Don’t just take our word for it, read this short excerpt from “Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard” by Justin Fox to see for yourself. Like what you’ve read so far? Read until the end of the post to find out how you could win a free copy of the book!

“We walked a little way up the slope following the spoor. Quinton pointed at the ground again. It was animal droppings, known as ‘scat’. It’s difficult for lay people to fathom the excitement scat induces in zoologists. Quinton fell to his knees like a worshipper and studied the specimen closely. He explained that usually only half the scat is taken for analysis, as it serves as a territory marker for leopards. Samples are soaked in formalin, washed, and the hair separated from other remains before the sample is oven dried at 140°F.

Then the analysis can begin. To identify prey, the hair length and color is noted, as well as cuticular hair-scale patterns. The presence of bone fragments and hooves also aids identification. Small rodents are more difficult to identify, although teeth found in the scat can help. Quinton explained that through scat research he’d recorded 23 species in the diet of these opportunistic feeders, including everything from lizard to cow. I thought of the many hours he had spent soaking scat in formalin and baking it and then the days spent examining it. This kind of dedication needs to be fed by a particular brand of obsession.

We pressed on up the pass, switchbacking on increasingly precipitous bends, creeping along the mountain face on a hairline track that led us into a world of jumbled sandstone and bright green fynbos. Clouds cast giant dapples across the valley. All the while the bleating transmission from Max’s collar grew more intense. At the top of the pass we got out and Quinton aimed his VHF telemetry at a nearby koppie. The signal was strong. He switched to a UHF aerial and got a GPS fix from the collar. Max was roughly 900 yards to the west, just this side of a tall ridge. The four of us spent a few minutes scanning the area with binoculars, but saw nothing. Every bush and boulder looked vaguely feline. Every feature in the landscape seemed ideal camouflage for a leopard.

“Okay, we’re going to have to hike in after him,” said Quinton. “It could be a bit rough.”

The two retirees opted out, saying they’d rather sit and look at the view. Out came folding chairs and a flask of coffee. Knowing a wild goose chase when I saw one, I half wanted to join them. But I’d come to the berg to bag a leopard and this was as good a shot as any. Hats, water bottles, telemetry, binoculars—we were good to go.”

Like what you’ve read so far? Want to know how it finishes? You can purchase the book here, or retweet us @fieldworkblog on Twitter and we will randomly select someone to give a free copy to! 

 

“On the borders of mythology”: a review of Justin Fox’s Unspotted

About a month ago, the resident bloggers here at Dispatches from the field (Catherine, Amanda, and Sarah) were asked to review a recently published book about fieldwork: Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard, by Justin Fox. Naturally, being both field scientists and bloggers, we were all excited to see a copy of Unspotted arrive in the Dispatches inbox, and we thought we would share our thoughts on Fox’s book in this week’s blog post.

Unspotted tells the story of Quinton Martins, a scientist whose doctoral thesis focused on the “near mythical” Cape Mountain Leopard. While most field biologists catch, tag, or collect so many of their target species that they begin seeing them in their sleep, Martins spent the majority of his research time tramping around the Cederberg mountains of South Africa, simply trying to lay eyes on his elusive study subject. When he ran out of funding, he poured his personal funds into his quest – even selling his car and resorting to hitchhiking as his mode of field transportation. As Fox aptly puts it: “Quinton Martins is mad. Not in some superficial, mildly nutty way, but rather with a deep and abiding insanity.” Nor did his obsession end with his doctoral thesis: Martins is currently the project manager of the Cape Leopard Trust, an organization he founded with the goal of understanding and preserving the entire Cape Mountain ecosystem.

From the beginning, Fox effectively and realistically conveys the ups and downs of fieldwork. The story is told in first person; the reader accompanies Fox on his trip to the Cederberg to “meet Quinton…and, hopefully, one of this spotted friends”. By telling the story through his eyes – the eyes of a neophyte, learning about the challenges and triumphs of working with these large cats for the first time – Fox makes the story accessible to all readers, regardless of their own field experience.

Unsurprisingly, seeing things from Fox’s point of view also led to a number of the funnier moments in the book. Anyone who has ever turned up dressed inappropriately for the field will sympathize with his failure to bring a sweater on his first foray into the mountains, and his quiet desperation as he waits in the cold spring evening for Martins to finish setting a trap – eventually bursting out, “Um, I think I m-m-might need to head back to the ve-ve-vehicle before hypothermia sets in.”, only to be completely ignored by the fixated (and more appropriately dressed) Martins.

But perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Fox’s extensive descriptions, which illuminate the pages of the book. He eloquently and vividly describes the landscape, the fieldwork, and the people he meets. He effectively uses figurative language to paint pictures in the reader’s mind, describing a local fish as “a cross between a leopard and a daisy”, and repeatedly comparing Martins himself to the leopards he tracks with such dedication. Fox’s use of metaphors and similes bring his experiences in the field to life: you feel your teeth rattling right along with his as he rides up a dirt track in a truck that “bounce[s] over boulders like an inebriated frog”. And he does a great job of describing some of the unique and somewhat eccentric characters he meets in the field in a way that allows the reader to connect to them.

If we have one criticism of Fox’s book, it would be that it left us wanting more. Offering a bit more background information – about the natural history of the leopards, the goals and results of Martins’ research, and the larger implications of his work – would provide a context that is somewhat lacking.

Overall, Unspotted is a quick and engaging read, and we would recommend it for both field biologists – who will see many of their own stories reflected in its pages – and for the general public, who may gain some insight into the unique “madness” that drives field biologists to do what they do.

You can find Justin Fox’s book Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard on Amazon.ca.

Souls of the Vermilion Sea – a blog post

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Sean Bogle, a videographer and Project Director of the documentary series Eyes on Conservation. Check out his bio at the end of the post and a link to the documentary he talks about in this post!

When I was younger I wanted to be a cowboy, being from Texas. The thought of trotting across vast landscapes alone, surrounded by nature, with streaks of yellow and orange in the sky struck me as “the good life”.   However, this dream became no more than a dried up hoof print when I learned that the life of a cowboy involves shoveling horse manure.

Being a child, I quickly moved on to another dream. I gravitated towards the birth of video technology when my father purchased an early edition two part video system – one part being the video camera, and the other part being a condensed VCR with a strap. This interest was considerably less filthy than being a cowboy and I could be as creative as I wanted.

Time went on, life went on, and now the two dreams have collided: I am now a wildlife researcher and filmmaker. I suppose my early goals were actually foreshadowing for my chosen career. Now I am lucky enough to be able to conduct wildlife conservation research while also documenting my efforts and the efforts of other conservation enthusiasts to share with the rest of the world. These are rare circumstances, but I have only focused on enjoying this combination.

Even more rare than the opportunity to combine conservation and filmmaking is the subject of my current project: the vaquita porpoise. With less than 100 individuals remaining, the vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. After having worked on many marine mammal research projects for the past 5 years (specifically pinnipeds, such as Steller sea lions, Northern elephant seals, Hawaiian monk seals, Northern fur seals), I had a personal interest in this issue, and I wanted to address it. I thought that since I have a talent for filmmaking, an interest in wildlife research and conservation, and the passion to make a difference, I had to make a film that would not only spread awareness of the vaquita’s plight, but would also document the dedication of those on the front lines of the fight to save this species.

the vaquita porpoise

The subject of my current project: the vaquita porpoise. Photo credit: Tom Jefferson.

Female Steller sea lion with pup.

Female Steller sea lion with pup. Images were collected pursuant to NMFS Permit #14326.

Since the middle of 2014, I have been investigating the issues facing the vaquita. I have learned what the major threats to the vaquita are, who is on the front lines of this issue, and what needs to be done to prevent the extinction of this unique species. The most direct threat contributing to the decline of the vaquita is the use of gillnets. Gillnets are commonly used to harvest an array of fish species from the Upper Gulf of California. Vaquita get entangled in these nets, which prevents them from surfacing for air and ultimately results in death by suffocation. The use of gillnets for fishing is driven partly by the demand in the US for blue shrimp, which is considered a delicacy, and the demand in China for the swim bladders of the endangered totoaba, which is thought have medicinal qualities and is a symbol of wealth.

After about a year’s worth of developing relationships and making plans, it is now time to jump in and start helping: recently, we began filming for Souls of the Vermilion Sea, a Wild Lens documentary about the vaquita. Ideally, for a project of this magnitude, funding would be secured before moving forward, but in this case, waiting is not an option – the vaquita has very limited time. Current predictions suggest that this unique mammal will be extinct by the year 2018. Time is of the essence, and I believe we need to unify our efforts so we have the greatest impact in saving these creatures.

Filming Souls of the Vermilion Sea in the Sea of Cortez.

Filming Souls of the Vermilion Sea in the Sea of Cortez.

It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing getting to where I am now. To make a good film, I had to build strong relationships with those on the front lines of this story – and trust takes time to establish. However, working at these relationships paid off – these experts have been so generous with their knowledge and hospitality. I would have not made the progress that I have without their help, and I owe them all a great deal of gratitude. I also have depended greatly on the supporters of Wild Lens, this vaquita film project, and the protection for the vaquita. This support is crucial in creating change. It is refreshing to know that there are people out there that are dedicated to preserving the planet’s integrity by protecting its biodiversity.

 

Filming in the field is in many ways very similar to working on a research project. Communication with others is important, so that efficiency can be maintained and protocols can be followed. Weather can be an unpredictable factor that influences productivity, so you need to adapt and be flexible and know how to use the time you do have. This particular issue has already arisen several times as I have been filming down in San Felipe, Mexico, where the vaquita story is unfolding. We recently had the remnants of a tropical storm brush the coast, which did not make for good filming weather! But in the end, the storm provided an opportunity to catch up on organizing gear and the footage that I have captured over the last 3 weeks. These are moments that are well embraced.

Northern fur sea l pup.

Northern fur seal pup. Images were collected pursuant to NMFS Permit #14327.

And of course, there is never enough time to do everything you want to. As I move forward with this film project, I am also mentally preparing for my next field season on the Pribilof Islands, where I am a long term assistant on a Northern fur seal project. In less than 3 weeks I will have to switch from flip flops, t-shirt and shorts, to Xtra-tuffs, thermals, and rain gear – which may be a tough shift! I sometimes have a panic moment, wondering whether I will be able to make the transition from filmmaker to scientist. But then I remember that these roles are not so different after all, and how lucky I am to have a chance to combine them!

Sean Bogle has been a part of Wild Lens since 2011, when he first became involved as a videographer documenting the conservation efforts of the Maasai giraffe in Tanzania. Following this contribution, he became the Project Director of the documentary series Eyes on Conservation. He works closely with biologists in every stage of production to tell their story. Prior to his involvement with Wild Lens, he worked on the front lines of conservation conducting research studies on a spectrum of species from fish and small mammals to charismatic megafauna like pinnipeds. He is currently creating a documentary film, Souls of the Vermilion Sea, telling the story of the struggle to save the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. Check it out at http://wildlensinc.org/eoc-single/souls-of-the-vermilion-sea/ and visit their kickstarter page if you want to contribute!

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

Reference:

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.

 

The California condor Search and Rescue squad

Here in eastern Ontario, it seems that spring has finally sprung!  We at Dispatches from the Field couldn’t be happier: from the first appearance of spring flowers to the arrival of migratory birds and the sudden bursts of frog song, we love this time of year.  Spring is a time of new beginnings – and in honour of that, we’re trying something new for the month of May.

In several previous posts, we’ve talked about the fact that fieldwork often happens in the most unexpected places – from botanical gardens to urban beaches and polluted city harbours.  But just as often, fieldwork can take biologists to the ‘ends of the earth’, and fieldwork in remote and isolated places is a completely unique experience.

During the month of May, Dispatches from the Field will be collaborating with our good friends, the wildlife filmmakers at Wild Lens, to share that unique experience in multiple ways.  Dispatches will feature a great lineup of guest posts from people who have worked in the most amazing and untouched places, from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to remote stretches of Patagonia, while Wild Lens will be releasing a short film about studying seabirds in the Aleutian Islands, and several podcasts focusing on the experience of remote fieldwork.  So stay tuned for an exciting month, and make sure to check out the Wild Lens blog to learn more about some of the stories we’ll share over the next few weeks.

This week’s post is written by Wild Lens co-founder Matthew Podolsky, who tells us about one of his experiences working with condors in the remote regions of the Grand Canyon.  For more about Matthew and Wild Lens, see his bio at the end of the post.

Mist over the Grand Canyon

Mist over the Grand Canyon

In the Grand Canyon of Arizona, California condor biologists have been aiding park service law enforcement by tracking the movements of condors in areas where people have gone missing. There have been a handful of documented instances of condors feeding on human carcasses in the Grand Canyon, and the folks from the park service recognize the utility of using the condor’s ability to find carcasses in this vast desert canyon system. I am one of several condor biologists to have aided the park service in the recovery of a human body from the Grand Canyon.

In addition to my own account, I was able to share the stories of several fellow condor biologists in my documentary film, Scavenger Hunt.  (Check out the trailer for this film below!)

One of the benefits of working as a field biologist is having the occasional opportunity to live and work in extremely remote locations. The Northern Arizona desert is as close as I’ve gotten to living in isolation – we had a field crew of 10 people and maybe 60 or so folks living in the little highway community of Vermilion Cliffs while I was there. But although very few people live out there in the desert, a whole lot of people come to visit the area.

Vermillion Cliffs, the condor release site

Vermilion Cliffs

The Grand Canyon is close to the Vermilion Cliffs and the condor release site – especially if you’re flying. The best nesting habitat for these birds is found in the Grand Canyon. There are caves found in a particular sandstone layer of the canyon that the birds seem to be attracted to. But how much food could a condor really find down in the canyon? There just aren’t too many large animals down there: in fact the most abundant large animal to be found in many areas of the canyon is the species we belong to – humans!

A radio transmitter attached to a condor feather

A radio transmitter attached to a condor feather

I was working along the South Rim of the canyon, keeping track of a group of birds with binoculars and radio telemetry. (Each and every condor is outfitted with a radio transmitter, and this is what allows biologists to track the birds’ movements.) I got a call from our field manager, who told me that there was a missing person in the canyon and that I should expect a phone call from park service law enforcement.

Sure enough, a few minutes later the call came in. The ranger gave me the location where this man had last been seen, and I told him that I would let him know if I had any condor activity that might indicate that they had found something. This would of course be an indication that their missing person was probably dead, since condors are most interested in dead animals (being strictly scavengers, they feed exclusively on dead animals).

The next day while out on the rim doing telemetry surveys for the condors – which means I was swinging a good size radio antenna around – I was approached by an unusual group of people. They asked me if I was one of the condor biologists; I said yes, and before I could start with my spiel about condor natural history they introduced themselves as the family of someone who was missing down in the canyon.

They had been told by the park ranger that through my work tracking the condors, I was helping them find their loved one. After getting over the shock that a park ranger would have shared this type of information, I got into a long and interesting conversation with the family. They were fascinated by the work I was doing and by the ability of our crew to track the movements of each individual bird.

The situation became tricky, however, when I did start to notice some activity right in the area described to me by the park ranger. Three birds were circling down in the canyon and acting like they had found a carcass. It could have been a bighorn sheep or a burro, but I decided to call up the ranger and let him know what I was seeing – from inside my truck, after parting ways with the family of the missing man.

The next morning I was hiking down into the canyon with the ranger and two other park service employees in search of this missing person, who we were assuming at this point was likely dead. It took several hours to hike down to the area, but once we were down there the condors quickly led us to the body of an older man. The birds had just started to pick at the body – it was gruesome, but I was happy that the condors hadn’t yet started to really dig in.

We took a few steps back from the body to assess the situation, and the park ranger noticed the son of the missing man hiking down a switchback on the trail above us. He took off up the trail to divert him. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to break this news to a family member after just discovering this man’s body.

Airlifting the missing person's remains out of the canyon

Airlifting the missing person’s remains out of the canyon

I was told that I was absolutely not obligated to help with the removal of the body, but I could see that they were going to need an extra hand. We had to roll the body to get it into the body bag and we were situated on a precariously steep talus slope. We were able to get it all wrapped up however (with only a few close calls), and the ranger called in the helicopter to airlift the body.

The next day I was invited to participate in a park service incident assessment meeting – everyone who had been involved in the recovery of the missing man shared what they thought had gone well, and where they thought there could be improvement. I don’t remember what I said – probably something about collaboration between the condor crew and the park service – but all I could think about while listening to everyone’s assessment was how silly it all seemed. Here was an entire room of people talking about what that did right and what they did wrong in the recovery of this missing person – but it was the condors that had found that body!

Later on in the meeting someone actually brought this up in our discussion – how could they justify spending all this money and risking additional lives when they could just rely on the condors to find the people who go missing in the canyon? Of course the condors only develop an interest in missing persons after they have expired, so if your goal is to find someone while they are still living this would pose a bit of a problem. I guess that’s why they haven’t adopted this type of policy as of yet.

Beautiful, huge, and wild: it's not easy finding anything in the Grand Canyon

Beautiful, huge, and wild: it’s not easy finding anything in the Grand Canyon

Months later I received an extraordinarily thoughtful and unexpected thank you card from the family of the man whose body I had helped recover from the canyon. It doesn’t seem strange to me anymore that these people connected with me at that difficult and grief-filled moment. The condors allowed them to take a step back and look at their situation from a broader perspective. Maybe even from the condor’s perspective – an intelligent animal that shows what could be interpreted as respect for its own dead, but sees the body of a human as just another carcass.

 

Matt Podolsky handles a California condor

Matt Podolsky handles a California condor

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.