Going South for the Winter

My time in Newport has come to an end, but thanks to Environment for the Americas my adventure in Oregon is still on the horizon. I was invited to work under the auspices of Klamath Bird Observatory to band birds during the Fall migration. Within the world of ornithology, KBBO is a powerhouse of scientific data purposed for the conservation of migratory bird species. Research coming out of the center contributes to understanding the habitat needs of wildlife, resulting in the publication of bird databases, the development of policy suggestions for documents like the upcoming State of the Birds report, the founding of citizen science projects, and the creation of education programs. Knowing their dedication to a higher caliber of science, I’m incredibly happy to be involved with KBBO projects on migratory birds. The Shorebird surveys of the EFTA Internship was a great segue into learning about the biology of birds through field research with KBBO. It is humbling to know that both EFTA and KBBO have confidence in my birding experience and skills to take on the task of catching and banding birds. Packing my bags in Newport was done with much anticipation for what lied ahead.

Bolting from the coast to the land they call “Southern Oregon” was a trip, to say the least; as soon as I passed the Cascades it was hard to believe that I was still in the same state, let alone the same continent. Within thirty minutes the landscape changed drastically. In place of lush temperate rain forests, violently windblown headlands, and the lingering scent of wet mud were conifers sparsely clinging to towering cliff sides, scrub and bush sucking the land dry, and the haze of dust getting flung up by pick-up trucks zipping down highway 97. Coming from D.C., where the humidity stubbornly reminds nature’s conquerors of the swamplands it once derived from, my body craves moisture. In Newport, as wet as it is, I already felt the strain of a dryer climate on my skin, leading me to immediately invest in a bottle of heavy duty moisturizer. Now that I’m in Klamath I realize that I am a wimp–the additional three bottles of Cocoa Butter in my shopping cart last week confirms that I am indeed in a new, much dryer, place and there’s a lot of new things yet to learn and discover about Oregon.

We didn’t spare any time. En route to Klamath Falls my friend and I stopped by Bend, Oregon to hike in Smith Rock State Park. It seemed too easy to not take advantage of. The route between Newport and Klamath practically invited us to take the mountainous detour; we would only be 45 minutes away. The park was epic, with lots of scenic views and trails for all sorts of recreational activities. In one path alone we crossed paths with birders, rock climbers, mountaineers, tourists, photographers, and adrenaline junkies hurling themselves off of the cliff side with a harnessed pulley system. The last of these outdoorist groups kindly dared us to take a leap. Cautiously scanning the drop from Smith Rock to the hiking trails [what seemed like] thousands of feet below, I decided against the impulsive temptation: I had places to go and birds to band.

The destination was a U.S. Fish & Wildlife cabin tucked away in mountainous forest alongside a big lake. I imagine a real estate agent would describe the place as “rustic.” It’s made of all wood, with cute little windows, picnic tables outside in the yard, and a back porch. Inside there is aged furniture to lounge on and an abundance of birding books, everywhere! It’s practically a birder’s dream here. There’s all sorts of cool birds that I’ve never seen before that hang out right outside our windows and all of the resources you can imagine available to you to identify them. On the drive in I already saw six species that were new to me. Little did I know what the next week would bring…

To be continued. Maybe there will be some bird pictures, maybe some videos…I hope the anticipation doesn’t kill you. Tune in soon.

Bird on!

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Your birds are our birds too, P.II

Let’s recap. Through these posts you have seen that birds are: fun inspiration for games (yay!), way too cute for our good, scientifically interesting, and just ridiculously cool. Did you know, that birds are cultural too?

Woah, I know, it’s crazy. Allow me to explain…

Back in June I was contacted by an elementary school located from a town right outside of Bogotá, Colombia. The request was simple: “Do you know of a school that would like to make contact with us to talk about birds?”

Turns out, there was, in fact, such a school, and that school was right here in Philomath, Oregon. While coming from two completely different schools, countries, and even continents, they had a common connection. What, you might ask? If you can’t get the implication by now, I worry a bit for you, but I’ll help you out: BIRDS! This school in Usme has a neat program where they seek out connections with North American schools based on the shared wildlife. In turn, our Philomath-ian students were participants of the USFWS Shorebird Sister School Program, and have a whole semesters-worth of knowledge about migrating shorebirds. The opportunity was ripe and ready for the picking.

The result: these fantastic videos, prepared by our friends in Usme, Bogotá Colombia and our colleagues in Philomath, Oregon. I hope you enjoy, and take it as a testament to the power of birds to connect people far and wide.

First up: a video from the Eduardo Umaña Mendoza School addressed to Philomath Elementary:

And to follow: the response from Philomath Elementary to the Eduardo Umaña Mendoza School:

 

Shorebirds of Newport, OR

If I had any doubts about my assimilation in Oregon, I confirmed my total transformation into a local yesterday afternoon by foraging a nature trail for berries. In season are the  Himalayan blackberries, an invasive fruiting plant that has taken hold of the coast. In my personal effort to control the pest, I found myself walking the Hatfield Estuary Trail. I know the area well: it was one of my shorebird survey sites. The migrating shorebirds are on their way back south now, and as I cautiously maneuvered my hands through the thorny depths of the blackberry bushes I could hear their “peeps” echoing through the mud flats.

http://invasivore.org -Photo courtesy of Sheina Shim

Himalayan blackberry: http://invasivore.org -Photo courtesy of Sheina Shim

In my closing weeks I am prepping documents for my successor to learn from my experience here. One of these was inspired by a moment of nostalgia that hit me on the trail. The first day I walked the trail I did not know what to expect, or whether or not I would be able to put the training EFTA gave me on shorebird ID into practice. Throughout the season, I slowly came to learn and love the birds that visited the mud flats, a learning process that I hope to kick-start with this shorebird field guide made just for the Yaquina Bay survey sites. While I was lucky enough to have Stephanie around to show me the ropes, I’m hoping this will help the next intern out in case no one is available to walk through the surveys with them.

These do not depict all of the bids that it is possible to see along the Oregon coast, or even within the Yaquina Bay area. For example, Sanderlings are very common to the coastlines. These lists include species that are likely to be seen more frequently than others within the mud flats of a estuary sites a few miles inland from the mouth of the Yaquina River to the Pacific Ocean. Though it is very basic, this could be helpful for someone, like me, who starts off a season with no knowledge of shorebird ID in this area of Oregon.

Enjoy!

Shorebird ID for Yaquina Bay-1  Shorebird ID for Yaquina Bay-3Shorebird ID for Yaquina Bay-2

Connecting People With [la] Naturaleza

To continue with a common theme in my recent posts, I’d like to share the perspective of another individual. Hey–I only have so many jokes to muse you with, so I brought in some reinforcements: Meagan, the fantabulous U.S. Wildlife Service Education Program Coordinator. She made my outreach dreams come true. I thought it may be interesting for you to hear from a partner on the initiatives coordinated by EFTA Interns and all of the amazing, capable professionals and institutions we cross paths with.

This is a reflection of our time working together on administering programs for the Connecting People With Nature Grant. This is an award we received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop initiatives that would leverage partnerships to engage local audiences with national wildlife refuges and outdoor recreation sites. We completed this mission by organizing “tri-lingual” (Spanish, English, and Spanglish) off-site education visits to a summer school program, a science career panel, kayak tours for Spanish-speaking audiences and members of low-income housing units, and in organizing the various IMBD events on the coast. The scene opens on the second bilingual kayak tour we hosted in the Siletz Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a beautiful estuarine habitat full of birds, animals, plants, and magic:

After our first round of bilingual paddle tours, we were ready to take on the 2nd tour. Lucila and I learned specifics from our tour in July like: make sure you have a sturdy paddler in the front of your canoe-otherwise the person steering in the back will have to do twice as much work! Children have a lot more fun paddling in double kayaks with their parents, than sitting stagnant in canoes. In English “loose hips save ships” is a fun phrase, but bicultural people would rather demonstrate this understanding by showing you their “Shakira!” in the kayak. With a little experience, the second bilingual tour was a breeze.

Luckily, we had two helpful volunteers to support us with safety, and a bilingual observer with experience leading kayak trips. The group synthesized very well, and spirits were high. This could also have correlated with ideal weather conditions, but I would rather attribute it to the group.

The attendees of this tour were all from the Salem Albany area, or the Willamette Valley. My efforts with the camps in the area proved to be fruitful after finding out where people reserving the spots were coming from. It was a beautiful night, with sightings of beaver-Oregon’s State Mammal-and peeps! These peeps were Least Sandpiper, always a pleasure to have returning visitors. One thing this whole group had in common: a connection to a distant land. No participants were from an area close to the kayaking site, but we all traveled there to share this experience with the other animals stopping over in the estuary.

This theme carried on tour our lessons at the Taft 21st Century Summer Camp. After teaching this diverse group of students about birds and pollinators, we combined the material to demonstrate how birds and pollinators are important in many cultures. Introducing migratory birds in their schoolyard, we led students on a journey to the over-wintering grounds of the Common Yellowthroat in Chiapas Mexico. Students were able to see how a year in the life of a Common Yellowthroat ranged from the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, to the tropical rainforests of Mexico. The students had fun learning how to dance Merengue with movements imitating migratory bird behavior, making bracelets with colors coordinated to different countries’ bird bands,  dressing a student up to identify adaptations birds use to migrate, and walking the school grounds to find as many migrating birds as possible. By Lesson 3, we adapted to keeping activities interesting for such a wide age group, and the students learned that when we walked in the room, it’s bird time!

The summer camp with Taft was my last program with Lucila, and it was a blast. We were able to combine our creative minds, sharing our passion of connecting students with the outdoors. This summer has been full of collaboration, and what a fascinating journey. We met all kinds of community members, learned so much from people living here, and were able to spark an interest in conservation with those we worked with. Thanks to this grant, we have memories learning how to rescue kayakers on a cloudy June morning, successfully fording a river with new kayakers in July, and dancing Merengue in a rubber room pretending to be Warblers, Whimbrels, and Hummingbirds in August. Best. Summer. Ever.

Build-a-Bird: in this activity the students learn the adaptations of a migratory shorebird by flipping cue cards and reading each card. The card directs for a student, a willing victim, to be dressed up as a shorebird!

Build-a-Bird: in this activity the students learn the adaptations of a migratory shorebird by flipping cue cards and reading each card. The card directs for a student, a willing victim, to be dressed up as a shorebird!

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Build-a-Bird: Our willing victim in full-gear and ready for his migration to the wintering grounds! This game comes from the US Fish & Wildlife Service Shorebird Sister Schools Program and was adapted for use in our summer programs.

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Band yourself! In this activity, students select a country on a map that represents the official color bands for migratory shorebirds. They then get strings with the corresponding color, make a bracelet, and get “banded” as shorebirds landing in the corresponding country. We asked students to look at a National Geographic poster to see what kinds of migratory birds fly through the country they selected, which Flyway that bird migrates on, and where else that bird may be found along the Flyway. This is a fun game adapted from an activity developed during my time with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center 2013 IMBD Festival. It connects the cultural practice of making colorful threaded bracelets, an art form found in many Latin American countries, with the scientific concepts of shorebird migrations and bird banding.

Variable conditions

As my internship comes to a close, I find myself spending [possibly] an obsessive amount of time looking at Field Technician positions.  Strolling through the different list-serves is eye-opening to the assortment of positions out there for biology nerds: a tech to search for dead birds along power lines, a tech to lunge themselves into the depths of underground caves in search of resting bats, a tech to spend two months in an isolated island that is regularly inundated by tsunamis to survey migratory birds (yes, this is a real job). Some of the announcements sound like something out of an episode of Bear Grills, fascinating, but terrifying to imagine yourself doing. One thing is for certain: you must be really passionate about biology if you’re going to withstand 120○F weather for 7 hours on end for the sake of finding one or two rare lizards.

A common theme shared by all of these posts, besides needing to be head-deep in the pursuit of knowledge, is a basic skill: “must be able to withstand variable conditions.” Growing up I watched a lot of Animal Planet and National Geographic. There was a Saturday-morning broadcast where a strapping young man would take the audience on journeys deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia, where he would stealthily creep up behind a grotesquely huge python and mutter information about how easily the beast could strangle him to death. Enthralled, I watched every second at the edge of my seat, fantasizing about the day that I could jet set off to some faraway land to crawl through raggedy bushes in pursuit of neat animals. He made it look so cool, and so ruggedly glamorous.

No field biologist is as elegant as the adventurists you see on TV. Those shows are just that: glamor. I would love to see a show that represented what field work can really look like: walking on a sand dune during 50 mph wind gusts and getting knocked over consistently by dust devils while losing tissue samples of the birds you painstakingly hiked to find to the wind; drinking the salty sweat dripping down your face in the blistering heat of a mosquito-infested lagoon while slowly contemplating exposing your skin to the swaths of hungry insects to walk your transect completely naked for the sake of temporary relief; walking for weeks on end with 50+ pounds stuffed into your backpack to find waterfowl nests, all the while not showering and hoping you don’t get attacked by a bear and praying the worms eating your away at your hand can be killed off with a simple cream; crossing paths with potential murderers as you creep through urban neighborhoods and forests in the middle of the night in search of bats surviving in human-altered habitats. The list of scenarios that I’ve heard of and experienced goes on and on, yet there’s hundreds of people across the country that line up for these jobs. Are we all crazy?

Possibly.

No, we’re all mission-oriented. When you have an idea in mind, that is burned into your very core, you are capable of doing anything to hold true to your values. I’ve met technicians sorting through bird poop who looked up and smiled at me, excited to take the samples back to the lab and see what insects that animal was eating. Her goal was to assess the impact of ornamental plants in urban gardens, invasive species that do not host the same insect community and thus limits the availability of prey for migrating birds. While this sounds all hunky-dory, what’s the point? To borrow from the National Park Service, the mission is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values…for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” This phrase may not pin on the head for every professional in the life sciences, but the sentiment speaks true to the ideal that Field Technicians are seeking: a way to understand and protect what we have.

Walking down from the lighthouse I realize I must look ridiculous. Standing at 5’2, I stack on at least four layers of clothing to shield as much of my body as possible from the bitter cold wind. This effort ends up making me look like the ice-climber. In fact, my look comes complete with the big poofy rain pants, the round hiking shoes, the hooded bomb jacket, the scarf wrapped around my entire neck and face, and a scope hinged over my shoulder in place of a hammer. Visitors pass me by and always chuckle a little. Putting myself in their shoes, I laugh too, I know very well that my disdain for cold weather inspires a pathetic look in my eyes like the gaze of a sad, lost puppy.

Scanning the parking lot, the fog violently slaps itself on to the paved plateau. I don’t blame it; particles of salt water get torn away from the surface of the Pacific from miles away, tossed together into a wind tunnel, and molded into a massive hand that berates the headland. The tsunami everyone fears has happened at Yaquina Head multiple times in the form of this fogged beast. Once relieved from its savage upbringing, the fog consumes the park, reminding each being–animal, plant, and human–the power of the elements. This is not the kind of day that one would want to be outside. And when I say “one,” I’m talking about me.

Or so I thought. Once upon a time I convinced myself that I could only function in weather above 80 degrees. From working out here, I’ve learned that I am capable of withstanding anything because a little crummy weather is minimal to deal with in comparison to an unsettled conscience. The mission is what counts, an ideal for which many have and will continue to willingly sacrifice their comfort, sanity, and sometimes even pride. Putting my personal preferences aside has given me opportunities beyond my imagination. In only six months, I went from a total newcomer in an unknown land to a kayak guide on local birds, became a seabird observer on an open-ocean boat, got called a scientist by little kids (this occurrence was too cute not to mention), experimented with parasitology, hiked the Cascades for rare plants…the list goes on and on. While to you this may not sound incredible, being able to see the world from multiple perspectives has been the most rewarding learning experience I’ve had thus far. Had I stayed at home, in the comforts of my humid, hot summers, I would still be reeling under the wheels of regret and unsatisfied curiosity. Now there is something that is pointless.

Settling my gaze upon the scene, I chuckle back at the visitors. As variable as the conditions are, it doesn’t prevent me from being excited…I cannot wait to see what awaits me next in my mission to understand and protect nature.

Bird on!