Friday, July 3, 2009

Black-backed Woodpecker Surveys 2009. Part 01

It’s hard to believe, but my birding field season is already over. I looked for Black-backed Woodpeckers in fire areas for the Institute for Bird Populations again. It seemed like a rough season with the variable weather, the long drives and, perhaps, my aging body. I am so happy to be home!

I flew up to Sacramento in the beginning of June and Bob picked me up to start our week of work. Peavine was the name of our first fire, and it was a difficult find. After lots of driving on dirt roads and turning around and checking the GPS, we finally found a reasonably close access point. We picked an overgrown dirt “road” we were going to hike up in the a.m. to actually get to the fire. To be clear - this used to be a road, but was no longer anywhere near passable what with all the seedlings growing on it. We made camp late, so we just plopped down, ate dinner and went to bed. We awoke before sunrise and hiked briskly up the steep road. We went about 15 minutes, didn’t see a fire and stopped to take a GPS reading. We realized that we were not in the right place. This hastened a speedy plummet back down the hill, a tricky stream crossing and then a hike up another road. We finally saw fire. Good.
My heart was pumping incredibly fast and I was dizzy with the early hour and the 0-to-60-in-2-seconds quality of the morning. And I was only getting started on the survey. The protocol was a bit different this year, so I had to make some decisions that my fuzzy mind felt ill-prepared to make. Combine that with some steep terrain and the number of birds that sing AT THE SAME TIME in the morning, and I was shell-shocked. I’m supposed to write down not only the birds I hear but those I see at every other point I do. This is in addition to doing the playback surveys for the Black-backed Woodpecker (play a recording, see if the bird responds, collect info if it does), and collecting vegetation data (what kind of trees, how big, how many, how many live, how many dead/burned, how much logging, how much slash, etc). It suddenly dawned me that this was hard. I muddled through with no Black-backed Woodpeckers (BBWO) to show for it. Bob didn't have any either, but but - this was a fire from 2008, so he stumbled upon a ton of Morel mushrooms, which are associated with recent forest fires.
Once we finished we completed our data sheets, ate and packed up to go scout the Government Fire. This was a massive fire along the American River last year that prevented us from getting to sites we needed to survey. A year later it was a survey site. Scouting this fire (and a lot of them) involved driving down perilous dirt roads. Bob has a four-wheel drive, so we’ve never gotten into too much trouble. This one road we went down for Government, though, abruptly became impassable, and there was nowhere to turn around. Bob did some impressive reverse driving while I clutched my water bottle in a death grip - out the passenger side was a steep drop down the mountainside. That ended our scouting for the afternoon. We settled on a few logging roads, plus, for me, the abandoned Iowa Ditch – an old canal - to follow.

Here is me with the Iowa Ditch trailing off in the distance.
And, no, that is not a weird outdoor fashion trend. My hat was pulled down low over my forehead to keep the mosquitoes off me. They were annoying that morning.

The ditch had steep sides from the time when it used to hold water.
Here's my surveying gear. The item with the handle is the Fox Pro playback device. It plays the BBWO call ... and they tend to come if they are in hearing distance.I had no BBWO, but Bob had one at the very last point. I did find some Juncos, though. They nest on the ground and I had set up my flagging/point right next to their home. I knew there was a Junco scolding me, but didn't realize how close I was until I went to collect my flagging.Again, back to camp to wrap up paperwork and eat a bite, then we are off in the car to scout the Power Fire. It was a long drive and the weather was unsettled the whole time.
A light-colored yearling bear ran across the road. This was the only bear I saw all summer. We scouted and decided to follow a few easy roads. We camped next to Cole Creek, underneath a bunch of Sugar Pines.
That night there was a thunderstorm and a little rain. It never really got to us; at one point it sounded very close and then it faded into the distance with a few sprinkles. We did have some precipitation in the morning when I was surveying the fire.
Evidence of some logging - a slash pile and cleanly cut logs.
Bob ended up with a BBWO here, also, and I did not. I saw a mule deer, which was my big excitement for the morning. After we packed up we drove to the Showers Fire, which was near Lake Tahoe. Bob knows someone who lives in Meyers, right outside of Tahoe, so we knew we had shelter for the night. (This ended up being a good thing as when we were driving out to the fire at 4:45 the next morning, the temperature was 36 degrees. It would have been a cold night camping).

Showers turned out to be a prophetic name for the fire. It was cool with rain and some hail. When we got to our trailhead in the morning, we had to hike in 35 minutes and then go off-trail. I had to go straight up a steep ridge that was littered with logs and mountain whitethorn. It was a small fire (I only did 5 points; I usually do 10), but I finally found some BBWO. I stayed with one pair for a bit to enjoy their company. They are such quirky, fun birds. Though the hiking was rough on this one, I really enjoyed being off-trail.

I had to go straight up.

Bob went down thataway.

The sun tried for a bit.
We quit Lake Tahoe and drove down Highway 50 to survey our last two fires. We decided to do a marathon day of surveying so that the following days would be relatively easy. These last two fires - Plum and Freds - had a lot of private property inholdings. As a result, what we thought looked like a feasible survey route would turn out not to be because we would run into a private property sign. We'd take a second look at our topographic maps and realize the private property lines had gotten lost in all the overlays. On top of this issue, when we drove up to Freds it was completely socked in with fog. We couldn't see farther than 50 feet off the dirt road we traveled.We still managed to come up with a survey game plan, and drove back to the comfort of Bob's house, where we would stay for the next two nights to avoid the wet, cold weather. The trade-off was we had to get up at 4:40 a.m. to get to the fire in time for sunrise.

It was windy and rainy again, with a bit of thunder during the survey of the Plum fire the next morning.

No BBWO (there were none last year when I surveyed it, either). It had some nice wildflowers, though.

We got back to Bob’s by 11.30 a.m. and had the rest of the day to ourselves. Only Freds fire to go before I could return home for a 1-week break.

Oaks at Bob's house.

Feral cat at Bob's.
And, look how the next day dawned for Freds fire ...
Blue sky! Unfortunately, I was in that shadow you see for most of the morning, so I was cold. My first bit of sun was near these lupine.

Here are some partially burned snags at the beginning of the Freds fire.
I did not find any BBWO at Freds, and I don't think Bob did either.

And that was it for my first session. Back to Los Angeles with me for a week-long break, and then I was going back out for two weeks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow! great stuff. looking forward to more.