New Year, New Adventure

It's been an intense few months, and they have passed far more quickly than I realized. My first semester of graduate school came and went in a whirlwind, and I've been busy with fun classes, new friends, and a few adventures.

Primarily, I've been working on the experimental design for my thesis. Ultimately, I've learned what NOT to do in science in terms of creating and implementing an experiment, and it's been super duper cool to sort it all out. In a nutshell, I'll be examining the effects of the landscape on the gene flow of bobcats, gray foxes, and coyotes in the Panhandle of Texas. Specifically, I'll get to look at the escarpment, which is the region of the landscape that separates the High Plains from the Rolling Plains in Texas and is part of the second largest canyon system in the United States. Basically, I'll be sniffing around a mini-Grand Canyon looking for mesocarnivores. I start my field efforts in two weeks, and I can't wait to collect samples for laboratory analysis! I am most excited about seeing wildlife again... I've been in the classroom most of the semester, with the exception of a few test scat transect runs with undergrads. It's going to be a seriously intense field effort because I'll be taking classes at the same time, but Mark and I will be helping one another out.

Mark will be looking at the genetic structure and ecology of ringtails, as well as investigating similar aspects of gene flow in raccoons and skunks. I've only seen a ringtail once, and I have zero problem being his field assistant if that means I get to handle one of those little guys! Mark has a lot more trapping experience than I do, so I'm looking forward to brushing up on my injection skills from undergrad and hopefully becoming super efficient at catching every living animal out there!

Although I've primarily been in the classroom and office this semester, I did manage to sneak in a few more adventures:

Lena Thurmond is another graduate student in my lab, and she's looking at the use of anthropogenic structure in a bobcat population. She let me help out on one of her captures... it's been over a year since I've seen a bobcat, and I was so elated!

A few graduate students and undergrad volunteers with our advisor, Dr. Matlack, and one of Lena's cats. This big male was radio collared for Lena's research. For me, it was really cool to see firsthand the wide-open habitat these cats are navigating- it's a far cry from the montane forests of the northwest US!

I was mildly concerned one morning when an undergrad threw herself out of my moving vehicle, but it was to grab this 4.5 ft long bull snake out of the road. I don't have a lot of experience with snakes, so I was pretty stoked to handle her and not get bitten.

 This landscape is just awesome. I'm sitting on top of some huge rocks within Palo Duro Canyon State Park on a morning I took an undergrad out to search for scat. So far, my searches have yielded primarily coyote scat, but here I'm collecting a gray fox sample. Since coyotes are difficult to live-trap, I'll be using scat to extract DNA for that species.

Like I said, this landscape is just amazing! No trees, deep fingers of canyon digging into the earth, crazy dirt formations shooting into the sky, and plentiful wildlife. This was my first "field day" as a grad student on my own project, and these two undergrads were crazy enough to go out with me! They helped me run a road scat transect (because wildlife often travel on roads) and learned about scat and track identification of carnivores. 

We'll be tightening up our schedule for trapping effort next week, and I'll be coming back to civilization most nights, meaning very soon that I will be once again posting cool photos and recounting tales of my glorious mishaps!

I'm currently sitting at my grandmother's kitchen table in North Carolina. Being a tough biologist and all, I opted to not get the flu shot, so I naturally came down with easily the worst flu virus I've ever had. I rang in the new year with NyQuil and saltines (ok, and a little bubbly), but it's gonna be a good one! I really am proud to say that I accomplished my goal to enter graduate school in 2012, and I'm lucky to have been able to design my own project from the ground up based on my own idea. I've already done good things this semester, and I have amazing prospects for spring and summer. As I sit here watching cardinals, the state bird of North Carolina, dance about on the front porch, I'm rejuvenated by and excited for the wildlife I'm sure to encounter this year. And, I got my rabies vaccination, so no one has to worry!

Happy New Year friends!

Amarillo News Channel 10!

This morning I visited the local Amarillo news station with my advisor, Dr. Ray Matlack, to watch him film his weekly educational segment,  "West Texas Wild." I got a behind-the-scenes look at the blue screen, the cameras (all taller than me), and I met a few of the news anchors. We hung out all morning comparing wildlife stories and discussing tornadoes with the storm-chasing meteorologist (he is braver than me!). Afterward Ray and I scoped out some waterfowl on a flooded lake; it's been raining all week and numerous species are very pleased with the churned sediment and elevated water levels. Be sure to tune in every Friday morning to learn a little more about wildlife in the Panhandle of Texas, and be on the lookout for more videography and educational films, because Ray and I have plans, and soon I'll be coming to a television near you!

Sequoia National Forest, Week 1

The end of a run is almost as busy as the beginning of a run. For us, a "run" is classified as a four week period in which Primary Sampling Units, or PSU's (defined in our training book, by the way, as "a unit which is primarily sampled"...), are set and checked once every seven days. Each PSU consists of three stations, and each station has one each of a camera trap, bait, and hair snags, as well as a track plate box to collect the tracks (and hopefully hair) of whomever or whatever decides to enter (or, more commonly, destroy) the box.

The end of Run 1 saw everyone arriving on that Friday sweaty, dirty, and smelly... well, that's not particularly any different from field days all over the world, but the end of a run involves pulling all field sampling material and organizing (organizing?!) data by the end of business, so we were all rushing about. Luckily, we had a week of office work between runs.

The office week included sorting photos ("is that a cow?"), washing track plates, organizing all written data for each PSU, and re-sooting track plates. Our track plates are metal sheets burned with an acetylene torch, the result being a black ash that gets on the paws of an animal and is then pressed onto sticky paper as it walks through the track plate box. I was really excited to learn how to use the torch, as it was highschool the last time I touched one. In learning how to use the torch, I was reminded of our oxyacetylene lesson in highschool in which  one of my fellow classmates caught his pants on fire and didn't realize it until the flames were licking up to his thighs. No one was hurt too badly, so I can laugh in hindsight, but the acetylene torch is no joke and a lot of caution goes into sooting track plates.

With trucks cleaned, blisters healed, and new partners, we embarked south into Sequoia National Forest!

 For this first week I was assigned SCA volunteer Katy, a really awesome chick with zero fear and an intense love for soccer. We were stationed near an area known as "The Needles." The name comes from the intensity of the granite peaks that cap the landscape. Additionally,  the lines on the topographic map are so close together that it looks like needles drew it!

The Needles

 Sequoia is lower elevation that Sierra, and as a result it was HOT. Our first day of sampling was in an area similar to rolling plains in that it was entirely open and the majority of the vegetation was a wheat-like grass (sorry, I don't know the species!). However, it isn't prairie land, so the hills were steep and there were actually a few trees. Because the hike was so long, however, we only got two of the three stations set. On the hike out, Katy saw her first rattlesnake! I tried so hard to get a decent photo, but he was almost five feet long and as thick around as my forearm, so my trekking poles weren't actually long enough for me to be very safe. I did get a decent audio piece, so I will post it later (I have a difficult time with video on this blog domain).
Katy on the hike out from our open site

 You can hardly see him, but this picture is a great example of why those rattlers are a good warning. He was HUGE!

I also found a little scorpion

We stayed at a remote little campsite at the center of our PSU's. Unfortunately, every week we returned, someone had left a bunch of garbage in the non-bear-safe containers and some critters had strewn the trash throughout the site. The first two nights of this week, Katy and I shared the site with two other crew members, Brad and Ben. We had an interesting time starting a fire with random kindling (I brought marshmallows) and chasing some curious cows away from our campsite. When Brad and Ben left, however, Katy and I were happy to have the cows as company, because the trash issue meant there was one very curious black bear who circled our campsite every night. We never saw him/her, but the animal made enough noise to convince us that it wasn't a raccoon.

The rest of our week involved my introduction to some pretty intense hikes (because of the way SCA's rotate, Katy was only with me for the install week). While I've always enjoyed a challenge, I don't think I've ever really had a hiking experience that I disliked in any way... until now. Katy and I had one hike that was 1500 m in to the first station, and it took us four hours to get down (yes, very, very down) because the landscape was literally a slide pf pine needles and rock drop-offs. Using the topo map wasn't very helpful because every time we thought we'd hiked up to a ridgeline, it dropped off again. Katy and I get along famously so the days were full of laughs and exploring and enjoying our surroundings as we completed our tasks, but this site was brutal. It could be the yellow jacket nest I stepped on first thing in the morning, or it could be that the hike out- scratch that- up, was one of the most intense I've ever done while working. Before you assume that it's either A) the worst thing in the entire world and that we are just that badass, or B) that is wasn't actually that hard and I'm just whining, remember that we were carrying fifty pounds on our backs! Despite the site being old growth forest and therefore shady, we both went through four liters of water each and were still dehydrated. However, the site was really beautiful... I just never got any pictures of it the entire run because it was so intense.

 The third day involved road drops... meaning that the hikes weren't very far from roads and we didn't have to suit up for all three at once. The drive out to our first site was easily one of the most beautiful I've ever seen! We were really in the heart of the Needles on this day. On the early morning drive, we saw several critters, including squirrels, tons of adorable cottontails, and one grey fox.

One cottontail was brave enough to let me lean out of the truck window and snap a few.

Katy and I thought our second hike would be as easy as the first one and that we would probably complete the day an hour earlier than usual. The hike in question was only 317 m from the truck! It was pretty much straight up, but the directions from the crew who did this hike five years ago said to stick to the ridgeline and avoid the brush.

Well.... it wasn't exactly that easy. The brush was everywhere! It was impenetrable. Manzanita is a real pain in the ass- it's similar to the northwest plant called Alder in it's rigidity, satanic nature, and desire to suck you into the earth (I'm only slightly kidding). The "manz" was uphill, sidehill, downhill. It was indeed a slippery slope. Looking at the topo map and comparing it with the written directions and drawings, we decided it would be best to scale some rocks and approach our site from behind. We climbed for about half an hour and dropped into a pretty little stream full of wildflowers:

 It took us THREE HOURS to hike 300m! THREE! We were not impressed with ourselves, and even less impressed with how overgrown the site was and how difficult it was to swim through the vegetation. But, it is wonderful wildlife habitat, and it if were easy everyone would be doing it!

Day four, by comparison, wasn't that hard at all. We had some longer hikes and a little confusion with abandoned service roads, but since it was a drive out day (that alone takes four hours), the sites had to be a little easier. Because the vegetation changed in the five years since it had last been serviced, however, we were unable to get to one of the locations in time because an old road was so overgrown.

I think this is a juvenile male western tanager. I tried so hard to photograph an adult tanager, but alas!

We had an awesome install week. It was really hard physically, but Sequoia National Forest is SO beautiful. We even saw a few Sequoias (we camped right by the famous Trail of a Hundred Giants). Here are a few landscape photos:

 View of the Little Kern River 

 Nature is so large and we are so small. It's beautiful.

 Searching for lizards!

We get paid to work here!

I'm definitely having a "top of the world" moment.

Mountain Lions!

We just ended our third week in Sequoia National Forest. With many highlights to write about, I must share the most epic of them all:

Yesterday, while hiking back to the truck (the glorious truck that would take us home, since it was the end of the week and we were exhausted), admittedly tuckered out and shuffling, I looked down and stopped short. There in the sand, atop OUR thirty minute old boot tracks, were mountain lion tracks! I asked my partner, Ben, if it was what I thought it was. As we were bent down looking at the track, we noticed several more along the old, reclaimed service road, and heading in the same direction we were heading. Since it had taken us no more than thirty minutes to hike out to our station and start the hike back, the tracks were at the oldest twenty five minutes old. Which meant that we had likely walked right by the cat! We very quickly righted ourselves and looked up and around instead of down at the track. Listening intently around us, we cautiously continued towards the truck, which was about 500 meters away. While we walked, we took note that the great cat was still using the road ahead of us, perhaps very closely ahead of us, and the angry birds and squirrels up ahead confirmed that we were indeed close to the cat. As we walked together, Ben pointed at another set of much larger tracks. There were TWO mountain lions walking the road.

Well shit.

I am a stickler about carrying my bear spray. Anyone who knows me knows that I always carry it (I was taught well by my good friend Bobbie). Bear spray shoots fifteen feet and promises to deter any charging animal from eviscerating you (that is, of course, if you draw faster than they can run. Which isn't always likely.). Stronger than military-grade mace, it will put the largest grizzly bear on his behind and send mountain lions screaming like babies. As my luck would have it, I noticed yesterday morning that the safety trigger on my bear spray had been lost in the field, and I decided to take the spray off my pack for this short, last hike lest I accidentally spray myself . What could possibly go wrong in thirty short minutes on an abandoned service road?

Completely ridiculous.

Armed now with only a rock (which would probably just piss something off even more and make them decorate the nearest fir with my entrails like a holiday tree in retaliation), Ben and I were anxious as we slowly advanced to the truck. In most cases, a black bear will only charge you if defending a cub or a food source. A grizzly bear has a considerably more sour temperament and will do the same thing, but with more unpredictability and often without being provoked. Moose are stupid and angry and not to be trusted. The mountain lion is none of these things, yet all of these things, and probably the most dangerous, as they are silent and will usually only engage with another animal if they are going to kill it. In short, a bear will mock charge you, size you up as a competitor or a threat, but a mountain lion almost always has one thought: can I kill this? With many friends having been stalked by the mountain lion, it is not an encounter I craved on foot. Even as I type, my friends and I are discussing how bear spray is not a competitive weapon against the speed of power of a mountain lion.

And now, almost comically, Ben and I were walking alongside these tracks. We realize we are upwind of the track direction (meaning they couldn't smell us). As I'm about to shout out, make a lot of noise, we suddenly hear a crash around the corner. The crash is very big and very fast and to our right, and very seriously close. Milliseconds later, a second crash echoes to our left. The birds and squirrels are angry. Ben and I freeze like prey, waiting for more sound. Nothing.

The wind had suddenly shifted us downwind of the cats (which in this case was in our favor, but that is not always so...). With this wind change, we startled the two cats and they bolted before our noise could do the same thing. We were only 100 meters from a mother mountain lion and her half-grown cub! With the hair on my neck rising and my senses on overload, we also bolted through the space we last heard sound, making noise and trying to sound big. In doing so, we noticed more tracks, but these ones were pointing in our direction.

The cats were walking right towards us!

When we got to the truck, we reasoned by the tracks that the two cats had walked along the road to our truck (likely drawn to the smell of rotting chicken in the cooler) and had balked at the sight of the vehicle. Turning back, they backtracked their own tracks up the road the way they had come, which was right towards us. We were closing the distance to one another in a very short amount of time. Thankfully, I noticed that first track and we were as ready as we could have been as opposed to what would could have easily been a bad situation as we hiked in exhausted silence. And this all took place in a very short period of time.

One hell of a thrill! I consider myself competent and able in the field, but the laws of nature are simple: let your guard down and you die. Always a chatterbox in the field, I don't think many days pass where wildlife doesn't know exactly where we are, and being ever vigilant in observing our surroundings helps keep us safe. By noticing the faint tracks in the sand, we knew what was there, but being tired probably assisted us in getting close to the cats because of the wind direction and our lack of noise.

The smaller of the two mountain lion tracks.

A great run in Sequoia! Lots of fishers, hills, bears, and beautiful scenery. And, as we've found, there are a few cougars in the area! More on that later...

Thought For The Day

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming 'Wow! What a Ride!'"
― Hunter S. Thompson

Run 1, Or, I'm Tired of Katy Perry

I'm currently taking a break from cooking and packing to spend the month of July camping in Sequoia National Forest for this next run, where things are sure to be a tad more unbridled than the last run. However, the last three weeks involved plenty of adventure as my partner Rachel and I began station checks for mustelids. With half of our stations at higher elevation (7,000 and 9,000 ft) and the other half at 4,500 ft, we had a nice mix of easier vs. more difficult hikes. I finally saw fisher tracks! This is my first experience with fishers (

Martes pennanti

), and while I've previously only seen a few marten (

Martes americana

) tracks, it's been a blast viewing photos of different species at our camera stations. Rachel and I had one set of stations where, every single week, bears would come and steal our bait, and one week a bear grabbed the cord holding our camera to the tree and chewed it off. Another bear was camera shy and slapped the camera to face another direction so he could snack in private. As I mentioned in the last post, I can't share project photos, but I can share the stories... for example, seeing my first wild flying squirrel on camera, or a black bear sow with a very curious cub.

We had one marten who was very angry at the track plate box and flipped it in the process of tearing out the back wire to get at the bait, two weeks in a row. I was surprised that the little weasels have the strength to do so, but I've been assured that they have really bad attitudes (reminds me of bobcats!). Rachel and I were unsure if it was a marten (we found scat at the box) or a bear ripping up the box, as most often the bears are guilty of "womping" the track plate boxes to get the meat inside. To determine the culprit, Rachel and I laid a large log over the box so that a bear could still lift it, but not a 1kg (two pound) marten. Sure enough, when we came back last week, the marten had conceded and entered the track plate box to get his prize rather than tear the box to pieces.

Rachel and I found lots to talk about this last month. Her and I are similar in our ability to talk, quite literally, about anything. We discussed everything from grad school to baking to research projects we'd worked on to why that particular hill totally sucked to... Katy Perry. Actually, we didn't really talk about Katy Perry. Rather, we talked about how we didn't want to talk about Katy Perry. You see, when I was on the bear project last year, I lived with five men in the woods all summer. I learned a lot about what men want in a woman, and I learned a lot about this particular performer. The discussion about how I got tired of hearing about female celebrities stuck, and from then out became a metaphor for which everything we didn't want to do, or hear on the radio, or disliked. While I'm sure this is not the household legacy the singer envisioned for herself, the metaphor became an expletive when faced with a particularly rotten piece of chicken not stolen by a carnivore: "This chicken stinks! Katy Perry!"

Rachel recording data

Two weeks ago we saw a ringtail run right in front of us on the road! Ringtails


Bassariscus astutus


are mammals in the raccoon family and are sometimes referred to as ringtail cats. Neither raccoon or cat, these little mammals are generalist omnivores, eating whatever is available, from fruits to insects to small mammals. They are adorable!

A ringtail, post-release, from another project last fall here in the Sierras. Photo by M Cancellare

To my mother's terror, I also saw my first wild rattlesnake! Rachel worked in the Sonoran desert for a year and has a lot of experience with rattlesnakes, so she helped me get as close as possible in attempts to take a photo. Sadly, the little guy was pretty scared, so we opted to leave him alone as opposed to agitate him with the camera. Next time!

Lower elevation, in rattlesnake territory

While embarking on one extremely miserable route to a station (it took us one hour to hike 200 meters downhill), through brush, burrs, poison oak, and a lot of Katy Perry's, we were rewarded at our wits' end by a very rare encounter. As Rachel barreled through some very nasty vines, I paused a few feet behind to contemplate my next step and catch my breath. Suddenly and silently, I caught movement about six feet in front of me. A screech owl alighted on the branch right in front of me and stared at me very intently. In that moment, I was very happy to be wearing my sunglasses, because she did not look happy with me. I started slightly when  heard a rapid clicking and thrashing to my left, and when I turned I was met with two more pairs of yellow moon eyes. Juvenile screech owls! The adult in front of me suddenly took off, likely trying to lure me away from her young, who were obviously learning to fly. One of the fluffy juveniles was comically hanging sideways onto a vine and clicking at me rather angrily. The little bird had apparently tried to fly away and landed in a rather compromising position instead. His wings outstretched, I watched him silently from two feet away, both of us pondering our next move. He decided first and took off, narrowly missing my face and crashing to the ground right at my feet. I wish I had picked him up immediately, but I wasn't sure if it would be too stressful; I wasn't really concerned about the horrible bite I would have received (one of our crew members has worked with owls before and said it wouldn't have been horrible for the bird if I'd helped him out of the vines). Fortunately for the owl, another take-off was all he needed to escape the vines that were limiting his training session, and he flew to the tree above me and perched. The second juvenile regarded me coolly, seemingly unafraid like his sibling and every bit the wise characters of movies, so I moved in with my camera to get photos. By this time Rachel had crept back to take some photos, and I was able to get two feet from the owl for a good snapshot.

 Isn't he adorable?!

Well, it's 8:45pm and I'm supposed to be in bed in an hour and I still have tons to pack for camping this week in Sequoia, so I've got to cut this posting short. Katy Perry!

Disclosure: I often blast Katy Perry songs on the radio when driving in the field truck with the windows down.