Sunday, July 3, 2011

Point-Counts and Vegetation

Let me run through the typical day of counting birds out in the field.  First you wake up at 1:45-2:00am and check the weather.  If its too rainy or windy then you just have to wait around and hope it stops because the birds wont sing consistently enough in those conditions for the data to be considered "good science".

Alder Flycatcher in mid-song through my binoculars

Then, assuming the weather is nice or has cleared up, you jump out of your sleeping bag and double check your gear before heading out.  Did I remember my compass, GPS, thermometer, camera, whiteboard, clipboard, data sheets, pencils, shit-kit (shovel and TP), rain gear and mosquito headnet if your not already wearing it, sunglasses, knife and of course the shotgun.

Tim Walker fixing himself some grub

Now, throw on your knee high boots and grab some snacks for the road.  Maybe shovel in a few scoops of granola before packing up the bear-safe bearbins.  Flip on the electric fence while being careful not to zap yourself and now your ready to hightail it to the first point, hopefully by 3:00am when the counting begins.

Extensive burned areas.
The hiking was slow and irksome in Kanuti NWR.  It varied from complete bogland to firm lichen-covered ground to dense forest and lastly to tussocks.  The tussocks are the absolute bane of any hikers existence.  They are formed by grasses that frow in clumps and capture soil at their base. Each year they grow taller and wider until you have a landscape right out of a Dr. Seuss book. They are too close together to walk between, too loose to walk on and usually surrounded by pools of water hidden beneath the edges of dead grass which blanket over the spaces in between.  I attempted to take pictures of them to show what they were like but it was nearly impossible to get the point across with a photograph.  The reason the terrain varied so much is because over 75% of the Kanuti NWR has burned in the last 10 years which has created a mosaic of habitat.  Tough to navigate but very interesting to study.

We arrived at this point before 3:00am

At each point we would stop to get our bearings, being quite as we could in order to minimize the effects we might have on the birds around us, and then perform the count.  Anything heard or seen was recorded and we were as specific as possible. The biologist I was with knew all the songs, calls and winnows (sounds made with the feathers) of the various species in the area.
Tim taking a lunch break after a long day

We would also record the mammals encountered on and in between points.  Often times we would have beavers, muskrat and red squirrels on point.

From the first point to the last you have 6 hours to complete as much work as possible.  Usually we would be able to get 12 points done on a good day.  Once 9:00am rolled around and we had finished our last point-count we would take a break, eat some food and chat about what we had been seeing/hearing that day.  Then it would be on to the vegetation transects.

Now I am somebody who has an inherent interest in most things biological.  I am constantly fascinated with the life that surounds us from an ecological, organismal and physiological perspective.  Plants are no exception.  They just draw me in as I look first at their flowers, and then the leaves, and then the stems and branches.  Each plant is unique and beautiful in its own way.  Piercing through that wall of green into understanding, in which each plant suddenly jumps out at you as its own being, can be a heavy experience.


Suddenly you can't help to notice the variety of plants and the spectrum of niches that they fill.  Some of them only appear in water, some on dry soil, some on bogs, while others grow only in areas that have recently been burned.  The diversity of life in every habitat tells a story about where that land came from and where it may be heading if you only stop to read the signs that are right there in front of you.

Marsh Marigold
Lowbush Cranberr

Various Lichens
The vegetation transects would take far more time than the point-counts and were also more taxing.  Often, we would not return to camp until 3:00-4:00pm which means that we were working about 12 hour days fairly consistently.  The most difficult part was dealing with heat. That was a factor I had not anticipated much being up in Alaska.  However in the summertime here, especially in the lowlands, the temperature would rise to over 60 degrees F every day.  The sun is stronger here too.  It has less ozone to pass through and it is up for a such a long time that it can really heat up on a clear day.

The bending and ever-changing course of the Chalatna River.
After returning to camp around 4:00 and being exhausted, just wanting to lay down for a few hours, the sun would be at its peak.  Inside our tents by 5:00pm the temperature would reach 110 degrees F, sweating you out of the tent and often into the swarms of waiting mosquitos.  It was the overcast afternoons that were a blessing of cool breezes and shelter from the sun.  However they too presented difficulty because a cloudy afternoon would often mean a rainy morning.

A block of 25 random points showing the basic routes we would hike. Chalatna ALMS Plot 5

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