Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Woodpeckering: Part 02

We woke up the next morning knowing it was going to be a driving day. Our goal was to get from the Cold Springs Campground in Mineral King to our next fire - the Vista - in the Sequoia National Forest\Monument. It was quite a long drive (Thank you, Rodney!), which took us, again, through the horrible air of the Central Valley. It was also very hot. We did a quick recon of the area and decided it would be easy enough to drive down a Forest Route to get close to the fire. After that, I would be hoofing it along a road and then going off-road. Rodney had all off-road. We bunked down at Troy Meadow Campground for the night, which seemed to be filled with OHV enthusiasts. Rodney and I went birding at sunset, and I was worried about getting beat up; we looked like geeks with our binoculars, and I am certainly no match for the all the testosterone that filled the campground that night. There was a very large trailer that carried two OHVs that had a stenciled "Weekend Warrior" label on the back.

I should probably give you a brief description of our procedure. We start at sunrise, so that's about 5:40 a.m. this time of year. We survey every 250 meters, which we count off in steps (67 of my steps make 50 meters, so I do the figuring from that). At every point we play the audio of the BBWO, which includes some drumming and some pik-ing and this fantastic snarl/rattle.

They seem to always flare their wings out when they snarl/rattle. We await their arrival for 5 minutes, and document it if they show up. At every other point, we do a passive point count. This means I stand there for 5 minutes and write down a 4-letter code for every bird I hear/see, and estimate its distance from me, in meters. If a lot is going on, this can be incredibly confusing, but it's really fun. We go until we run out of fire or we run out of time. We stop point counting at 9 a.m.; we stop surveying for BBWO at 10 a.m.

The Vista fire was fun to survey. I had a great look at a male Western Tanager, and it was full of woodpeckers. I had both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, the Downys being unexpected at the elevation I was surveying (I think 7,500 ft.). I had no Black-Backed Woodpeckers (BBWO), but Rodney had them at 5 of his 6 points. And, he found a nest! He said it was pretty low - about 5 feet off the ground in a snag - and he could hear the babies inside the hole.

On the way back to the campground we decided to stop at the Bald Mountain Fire Lookout, which was on our way. The person who was working up there said you can see 100 miles in all directions. There was a large fire called the Piute that had started down near Lake Isabella, that we could easily see. It's on the right of this panorama.

We also could see an overhead view of the fire we had just surveyed, the Vista.

He told us how they thought it started: there was a raid to bust a marijuana growing operation (a persistent problem in that National Forest) and all the employees fled. They started a campfire to stay warm. They had to run and it was left unattended and started the wildfire.

Then it was back to Troy Meadow Campground, tear down camp and we were off, this time to near Mono Lake. The ride up the 395 was apocalyptic. There was obviously some kind of fire going on to the east, and a lot of smoke was collecting in the valley throughout almost the whole stretch. It didn't clear up until north of Bishop. We breathed a sigh of relief; we were worried we would be working in very smoky conditions at our next fire. We found a great little campsite at Lee Vining Creek, surrounded by Quaking Aspen and the rush of the creek, then made our way off to the Gas Station to stuff ourselves with food and beverage. Delicious Fish Tacos. Delicious.

The Crater Fire was off east 120, right near Mono Lake. It was a magical morning of birding with the gleam of Mono Lake to the north, the austerity of the surrounding blackened snags, the clear acidity of the blue sky, and the crisp temperatures of the early hours. Mountain Bluebirds, Brewer's and Vesper Sparrows and Violet-Green Swallows abounded. I got extremely lucky and also saw a Lewis's Woodpecker - a first for me. I heard a lot of Pinyon Jays, but was never close enough to the live trees bordering the burn area to see them. (Make sure you listen to their calls; they are really loud, like most jays!) The Black-Backed Woodpecker was also present. I kind of fell for the last guy that came to check me out. He flew in tentatively, but then became more and more curious and got very close. At one point, he was up a snag about 2 meters away from me, cocking his head and perusing me as if he couldn't quite figure it all out. He must have wondered how such a large, inelegant creature such as myself could be making his noise. And, from the ground of all places. I sat down and watched him for a while.

Rodney found woodpeckers in his section of the fire, also, so it was a successful day for both of us. We returned to the campground and packed up to go up Tioga Pass. The last two days we helped Dave DeSante, the director of the Institute for Bird Populations, collect data on his plots up near Yosemite. He has been studying these plots in the Hall Natural Area since the 1970s. This was a short drive - a few miles up the hill, and then a small stroll into the campsite at Sawmill Walk-in Campground. There was a stunning view of Mount Conness from the campground. We were immediately confronted with how many mosquitoes there were. If you were walking, it wasn't a problem. But, once you stopped, they descended in droves. We hid in our tents until Dave and Sarah Stock, a Yosemite wildlife biologist who was helping Dave, returned. Over dinner and mosquitoes that evening, we found out that we were doing the B grids of Dave's study site. Our task was to walk the grid (basically making a zigzag pattern as we went) and to find and record the location of every bird that was out there. Any other wildlife observations were also encouraged. Dave knew the area intimately, and had a mental map of where he was. We just had maps he had drawn with the cardinal directions and a compass. There were no GPS points, just landscape features you could look for ("Willow Wonderland", "Pyramid Meadow", "Tarn", etc.) and evenly spaced grid points. I like to know where I am off-trail, so I knew this would be a mental challenge. Most importantly, I wanted to record the birds at the proper grid point, and if I didn't know where I was, that was going to be difficult. Dave sent us off with a "You'll probably be lost a lot of the time", which actually made me feel better. "Good, I thought. He knows I'm confused already."

After several frustrating moments and much trial & error, I realized the only way I was going to be able to keep tabs on where I was, was by walking a line in a cardinal direction, counting off every single grid point (every 40 meters) and using the landscape features only as general guides. One person's Pyramid Meadow is another person's Triple Divide Meadow, I discovered. That finally worked. I set off with renewed vigor, only to have all my energy slowly sapped by the relentless yapping and sipping of the m%^&%^f!@#^* mosquitoes. Yes, I had on spray. No, I did not wear my net. I cannot bird with a net on. Mosquitoes are evil, evil creatures. I was a carbon dioxide-exhaling piece of meat out there.

So, after ripping a hole in the ass of my new fieldwork pants (same fate as last year's), getting the blood sucked out of me, and counting some birds, the day was over. I hid in my tent or wore my head net (affectionately known as the camping burqa) for the rest of the day.

My bites. They don't look as bad as I remembered. This was the day after I got home, though.
Rodney and I found out we had completed our duties with that day's surveying. So, we planned to get up the next morning and head into the park to do a short hike (my desire to climb Mt. Conness was met with "That will take all day."). Just inside the Tioga Pass entrance was a quick jaunt to Gaylor Lakes and the ruins of an old mining settlement. The place was crawling with insects - both mosquitoes and some kind of gnat. The gnats were in thick clouds all around Lower Gaylor Lake, and we saw Gray-Crowned Rosy Finches just snatching them out of the air as they stood on rocks. They barely had to move! The corn lilies were covered with the gnats. Our other good bird sighting was an American Pipit on the snow around Upper Gaylor Lake. I also saw some Ptarmigan poop, but no Ptarmigan.

Hike finished and more blood sacrificed on the altar of the Great Mosquito God, we took off for the airport in Oakland and back to LA for me.

Tomorrow Mark and I off are off to Yosemite for 10 days, then I go out for my final Woodpecker stint. I'll be back the end of July.

Happy Summer!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Woodpeckering: Part 01

Finally. Here I am. I have found that going back and forth between my regular life as a compositor, wife, swimmer and my summer life as a ornithological field worker, solitary person, hiker is difficult. When I come home there is lots to attend to (and work!), so I have not been posting. This is my attempt to break that habit.

First off, I have to confess that my camera doesn't work anymore. Rather, it doesn't work more than it does work, so my words (perhaps linked to others' photos) will have to suffice. I think this is another reason I have not been blogging - the visual images I bring home lead to a story; without those, I flounder.

Thursday the 26th, I flew up to Oakland, where I was picked up by Rodney Siegel, the biologist from IBP who roped me into this adventure. I have known Rodney since 2006, when I did my first birding study - looking for Great Gray Owls. Rodney was the man who trained me, and we have remained email buddies since. Last year when I worked on the WIFL (that stands for Willow Flycatcher) crew for IBP, Rodney joined us for a few weeks and we actually backpacked together for old times' sake. This is the second woodpecker expedition with Rodney; we went out June 03-09 also. We are looking for Black-Backed Woodpeckers (BBWO) in fire areas. These birds move into recent fires to take advantage of the outbreaks of wood-boring beetles that occur. We are doing this in National Forests all around the Sierra Nevada. Rodney took a random sample of relatively recent fires (I think within the past 8 years) for us to survey.
This time out we were making a huge loop. From Oakland we drove to Mineral King, in Sequoia National Park.
I have never seen such terrible air quality in the Central Valley. If you are not aware, there are hundreds of fires burning here in California, and a lot of it gets funneled into the Valley. Unfortunately, this was creeping upslope into SNP. The air quality there was rated "Unhealthful for All" at the rangers' station. And, we were about to backpack twenty-some miles roundtrip, up to elevations of 10,587 ft. Great.

The ride to the Cold Springs campground in SNP took us through from the valley through foothill and into Sierra Mixed Conifer regions. A gray fox ran across the road on our drive up. What a gorgeous creature. We spent the night car camping at the aforementioned Cold Springs. We discovered when we went to the ranger station that yellow-bellied marmots
are a problem in Mineral King. The current thinking, as related by a campground volunteer, is that it seems to be the lactating females who are drawn to nibble at our radiator hoses and other such delicacies under the hoods of cars. They think the animals are either getting some trace minerals from their snacks, or are getting high. Whatever the case, Rodney and I were a bit concerned about leaving the car unattended for a 36-hour stretch while we backpacked in over Farewell Gap to the National Forest outside the National Park. They recommended leaving the hood open; the rangers said that seemed to discourage them. ? OK. When we saw people who had the underneath of their cars wrapped in tarps or chicken wire, we were doubtful, but we didn't have a choice. We had no tarp or chicken wire and there wasn't any available.

We spent a relaxing night at the campground. Here's the river that ran through it:
We took a walk and came back to find a deer nibbling on & licking my tent (what's wrong with the animals in Mineral King anyway?)
One corner was covered in deer slobber. Bad deer.

Next day was up and out over the pass. I still can't figure out how long it was. The signs and maps all seem to say different things. Suffice it to say, it was somewhere between 10-14 miles one way, and it featured a 3000-ft. elevation gain (from 7,500 ft. to 10,587 ft.) and then a 1,500-ft. elevation loss. As it turns out, it is very difficult to carry a 35-lb. pack that far at that elevation with unhealthful air. I was coughing at the top - Farewell Gap - when we took a break for lunch. There was much more snow than in the picture I link to. We had to cross a small snowfield on the other side, as we entered the Golden Trout Wilderness, part of Inyo National Forest. I really dislike crossing snowfields; they seem to be inevitably on steep slopes and I am walking on melting snow and if I, say, slipped, well, it's going to be awhile before I stop. Scary. I don't look down and don't think about it too much. I find that gets me through. And, it was quite windy through the gap, but the wind was nothing compared to on the way back. That adds to the challenge of walking on the snowfield.

So, we made it over and to the survey site. It took about six hours. Exhausting hiking, but stunning scenery. We were above treeline and could see as far as the smoke would let us! This is a little closer to the amount of snow, but there was even more.

Rodney and I had a hard time finding a campsite because it was very steep around the study area. We finally decided to just plonk our tents down on a bare patch in between two creeks. We were desperate to go to sleep - we were both exhausted - but the site was completely exposed to the sun and we would have roasted in our tents. We were sitting and waiting for the sun to go down behind the mountains to the west. Inevitably, it did. When I got in my tent to settle down for the night, I realized I was filthy. I saw rivulets etched in the dirt on my arms. I was too tired to do anything about it.

After all this, there were no BBWO! The nerve. Rodney did see a black bear and a goshawk, though. I flushed a sooty grouse. She really let me know of her displeasure, by constantly clucking as I walked away.

After several kilometers of surveying, it was back to camp to break everything down. We left at 11 a.m., a little ahead of schedule. Rodney and I are good hiking partners, because I am better at the uphill and he is better at the downhill. So, I pull him up the mountain, and he pulls me down the other side. I was going as quickly as possible, because I could feel everything from the knee down hurting from the day before, and I knew that the sooner I finished, the better for us both. When we returned to the 10,587-ft. Gap, the wind was roaring through it. Small pebbles were hitting me as I turned around to check Rodney's progress across the snowfield. I actually had to grab the sign marking the pass because when the wind caught me crossways as I turned, it started to blow me over. I don't know how fast that is, but I would have to guess maybe 50 m.p.h. We made it back to Mineral King by 4 p.m. That was the hardest hike I have ever done, even harder than the Hetch Hetchy last year, mostly because of the elevation. The car was unscathed (Thank you, oh Great Marmot God) and we drove back to Cold Springs and collapsed. End of the first survey on our second trip, and we were wiped out and had no woodpeckers to show for it.

To be continued ...