I Should Have Taken That Left at Albuquerque—Part One
Back in the day, I was a wildlife biology grunt. What that means is that I had my B.Sc. from an accredited university and was qualified to do field work for grad students and other researchers. Yes, five years of college yielded me the opportunity to walk around in the heat of a southern Oregon summer, the rain of an Oregon summer, clean out animal cages, count and measure dead fish, wash mud from benthic amphipods, and a host of other career building tasks, including working with black-footed ferrets (see earlier posts). And I loved them all. Most of the time.
One time I didn’t love it, and seriously reconsidered my career choice, occurred shortly after I’d gotten married. My new hubby, Scott, and I had been married for two months when I was scheduled to work on a northern spotted owl population/habitat job several hours from our home. Scott was working on his Ph.D. and had to stay in town, so I ended up moving away to live with fellow grunts for the course of the field season. Not the ideal way to start a marriage, being away from each other, but as science-types who preferred field work to office work, we knew our lives together would be filled with many hours, days and weeks apart. (Besides, the reunions were fun ; ) But I digress….)
So, I move off to southern Oregon in April of ’92 to begin a long field season of hooting for owls. There were two senior grunts who’d been on the project for a year or so acting as our immediate supervisors, all of us under one primary investigator. It was the senior grunts’ job to show us what we were to do over the next few months. This meant learning to read the maps and notations of grunts past, techniques for finding our way into and out of nest sites (big shock--the “finding our way” bit plays an important roll in this post), how to entice the owls and follow them, how to make proper notes, etc.
On a fine spring day, during the first week on the job, one of the senior grunts (can’t recall his name, so we’ll call him S.G.) brings me and another newbie or two into the hills of southern Oregon. We travel on pitted, gravel logging roads. S.G. gives us some tips on navigating these less than ideal thoroughfares, lest we get flattened by a laden log truck barreling downhill or fall off the edge of a cliff. Neither a good prospect, and no one wanted to do the paperwork for those scenarios. So off we go, up into an old growth forest, the traditional habitat of the elusive northern spotted owl.
As you can imagine, the scenery is superb. Dazzling blue skies, every shade of green and brown you can think of and some you can’t even name. The air is fresh, with the tang of pitch and warm undertones of rich earth to give you a hint of what early man must have experienced here. It is the forest primeval…except for the occasional log truck, but that’s neither here nor there.
S.G. pulls off at a cleft in the hillside at a known (to the researchers, not the general public) owl nesting site. Well, not the actual site, but where we begin our search. The nest itself is deeper in the dense forest. We take a compass reading (we each have a compass to get our bearings as well as for the whole “make it official” science aspect. Note: I forgot what the reading was while I listened to other pertinent instructions. Yes, this will be of importance in my near future.) and head up into the woods. With the road hidden beyond the foliage and thick trunks behind us, S.G. takes one of the sacrificial mice we carry that has been bred for a higher purpose than scurrying around a garbage heap and sets it on a branch. He hoots a couple times and within minutes a medium-sized brown and white owl is in a tree nearby.
Large dark eyes blink slowly at us, as if we’d woken him up. Which is possible, since they are nocturnal and it’s late afternoon so he’s just starting to rouse for the evening’s activities. The mouse shifts on its branch and the owl catches the movement immediately, his round head swinging in the rodent’s direction. With half a flap, the owl is off his branch and on the mouse. He sinks his talons into it, bites down on the neck, then flies off toward the nest where his mate is hopefully brooding eggs.
“Come on,” S.G. says, and we follow the owl through the woods.
We stumble over roots of trees that have been in existence before Oregon was a state, before the country was more than a few colonies. Sunlight dapples the thick carpet of fir needles, blinding us to the owl’s flight path now and again. We cross several ravines cutting through the earth, go up another, and after several minutes, S.G. has us stop. Panting from our trek, we look up in the trees. We’ve lost the owl. Damn.
“There.” S.G. points up at a branch ten or so feet away. The owl waits for us, eyes wide and blinking, beak empty. He’d already taken the mouse to his mate and returned for another. Obviously he’s been part of the study for some time and knows the routine better than we newbies do.
S.G. offers up another mouse (we carry them in a covered tin bucket with holes punched in for air) and the owl is on it in a flash. We set off after him and are able to track him to the nest—an untidy, thick mat of branches and down. The male sets down on the edge of the nest and we can just see the female peek over the top to take the mouse from him. Typical behavior in many species, the provision of food is a trait females will often test in their prospective mates. The newlywed in me gets a little misty-eyed. How romantic. Though I’d prefer a steak to a raw mouse, the intention is the same.
We all sit down and make our observations, both official and anecdotal. Talking quietly, as to not disturb the owls any more than necessary, S.G. gives us more pointers on what we need to do with our information. After several minutes, S.G. says it’s time to go. We are to leave one at a time and meet back at the truck. I go first.
It doesn’t take long for me to lose sight of my fellow grunts as I head downhill, and I’m sure I’m going in the right direction. I look at my compass. Yep, that’s the heading. Um…Isn’t it? I keep going and cross the ravine, not realizing I should have crossed later and turned up a ravine further downhill than the one I end up traveling.
After fifteen or more minutes of tromping through thick woodlands, where every tree looks exactly like every other tree, where turning up one wrong ravine cuts you off from sight and sound of your coworkers calling for you, I realize I’m lost.
In the woods.
With evening approaching.
In cougar country.
(To be continued…)
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