Getting into the swing of this new job has been an experience! Bobbie and I spend our days laughing and talking about all sorts of fun things, from conservation to research to interesting (and often hilarious) life experiences. Although these conversations are between huffing up hills and counting pellets and measuring trees, we manage to pass the days in the field without a dull moment. The past two weeks of work have been insane! Each day is an eight to ten hour lesson on wildlife, plant life, and life as a researcher. Bobbie is teaching me so much that I've begun to feel like the lesser life form of a sponge because I am constantly soaking it all in! My hiking legs are starting to develop and I'm needing less and less time to rest during the day. We've developed an efficient system of working together and keeping a constant eye out for fun critters and potentially dangerous wildlife. I've lost count of the number of snowshoe hares we see each morning on the drives up the mountain (and we count their pellets- now that is a number close to infinity- good for the bobcats!). We see ground squirrels, which are darker and smaller versions of the bigger pine squirrels in the trees above us. The ground squirrels do a great job of letting everything in the forest know that we are around with their angry chattering or occasional surprised squeaks when they see us (it's pretty adorable and we monologue for them daily). We count the squirrel middens as well- piles of pine comb pieces that squirrels leave when eating the center of the combs. We often come upon numerous holes in the ground with several middens around them: this indicates a healthy and well-fed population of prey for the bobcats should the cats choose to pass through the area.
This week we worked in both burned areas as well as cut areas- parts of forest either cut for timber or have had wildfires come through the area. The common misconception is that all wildfires are terrible- this is just not true! Wildfires are a natural and absolutely necessary component for the survival of healthy ecosystems. A variety of flora and fauna benefit from wildfires, and although the area looks a little barren and blackened, flowers such as fireweed grace the ground with vivid fuchsia blooms once the heat has gone. few if any animals die in these fires: larger animals and birds take flight, while smaller ground dwelling species burrow underneath the ground and wait out the flames without harm (even with little oxygen). While no one wants to start a fire, natural fires allow forests to regenerate and repopulate the land and species who live there. I will have to get a good photo to post at a later time.
Cut areas are not as fun. Bobbie and I use a CB radio to make sure we know where the logging trucks are so we don't drive off the mountain as we round narrow corners. The loggers bid and cut areas of the national forest (legally), but unfortunately the fragmentation of the land renders it useless for a variety of wildlife. Deer, mountain lions, bobcats, and many other species will not pass through these areas because there is not enough cover from potential predators. Wolves and coyotes will use these areas to pass through, but a lot of animals are not comfortable with the fragmented habitat to use it. Small mammals, or "smammals" as we call them, seem to do alright, but the cut areas are dotting the landscape bare and are causing animals with larger home ranges to move away because these areas are not suitable for hunting or living safely.
Here are a few photos from the last two weeks:
My boss, Roberta Newbury (Bobbie) having a "top of the world" moment in a cut forest. The wind was particularly bad this day and we were very concerned about trees snapping and falling down on us. This photo was taken just after seeing a coyote run across the road up the hill and after we were away from worst of the wobbly trees.
A moose skull from a winter kill, most likely by wolves. Wolves gang up on a moose and run them until they are exhausted through the snow, injuring them badly on the legs by biting them. Once the moose falls, they make the kill. We could see teeth marks on the skull. Notice my foot provides comparison for how HUGE these guys are!
Juncos are little brown birds that nest in the bear grass on the ground. We have to be careful not to step on a nest! Aren't these eggs perfect?
Measuring the Diameter Breast Height (DBH) of trees in a vegetation survey. We want to know how dense the forests are that bobcats prefer to inhabit.
Thor is Bobbie's husky and our guard dog some days. He is an enormous and spirited dog that does an excellent job protecting us. He has fought off bears, mauled skunks, and killed shrews (the last two were not the best scenarios, but we are happy to have him throughout the day because he knows if something is around before we do).
Boreal toad we found snacking on bear scat (note: he wasn't in the scat)
Great blue heron in Big Foot Bog... these guys can be like three feet tall! Imagine how big that tree is.
Bobbie's photo (most of the above are hers) of Big Foot Bog. That water, in addition to being 40 degrees F, is almost chest deep! It looks shallow, doesn't it? I tried to get in... FAIL.
Being mature and acting out the worst possible scenario for this summer.
All in all, the past two weeks have been awesome! In addition to site surveys, we have also spent some time doing bobcat telemetry. Yesterday was one heck of an adventure, as we discovered that one bobcat was extremely close to us (the louder the beep, the closer the cat, the harder your heart pounds...). This prompted a mini excursion that led us through one very cold and fast-moving creek (remember, 40 degrees. However, you don't really notice it when you are hoping to see a bobcat!). As the beeps from the antenna we were carrying got louder, we followed the sound through the woods. We kept going and going. Wait, isn't he supposed to be thirty feet from us? Where is he?! These cats are so fabulous: this predator knew we were on his "scent" and managed to keep ahead of us without a single sound or the twitch of a leaf. No bolting, no dashing, nothing. He quite easily outwitted us and proved why they are amazing animals! Although the grass was a little high and there were some fallen saplings and crunchy leaves, he managed to get through all of it without a sound. How cool is that? Why didn't we get the cool senses and crazy leaping abilities? I would settle for just being able to see better at night (and so would the other drivers...).
On the way back to the truck, I managed to notice how cold the creek was, and that it was at thigh level - something I hadn't registered before.