Monday, October 19, 2009

farewell to Happy Valley

Six months ago October seemed an eon away. Now it’s here, bringing cold weather, an end to field work, and my departure from Utah County (a.k.a. Happy Valley).
So, Utah, we say our goodbyes. I know you certainly won’t miss me, that’s been clear since the ice thawed last march. The question is, will I miss you?
I loved the open spaces. The West Desert where the highway was a dirt road and rush hour traffic meant passing another truck every hour. Sure, the entirety of the Wasatch front is slowly succumbing to the mycelium of urban sprawl, but the deserts are still open- home only to eagles, horny toads, and polygamist colonies.
I am going to miss the wildlife: herds of pronghorn watching us barrel down that dirt highway, golden eagles perched on the power polls that seem to extend to infinity, the elevated heart rate that seems to accompany each up-close encounter with a moose. There were the boreal toads we searched for but never seemed to find and endless piles of minnows to be indentified and measured.
Yesterday I went climbing in Rock Canyon. I was down off the route and belaying my climing partner, Kenny, when suddenly there was the sound of slipping gravel. Seconds later a big horn sheep flew down the path, passing a mere 30 feet below our rocky perch. The big horn sheep moved towards the floor of the canyon, meandered through the dry creek bed, and then began to climb the slope on the opposite side. We watched it bounce its way up the rock and navigate the cliff edges until just the bright white patch of its rump was visible on the opposing slope. We rappelled down and then walked back down to the parking lot as the sun began to set across Utah Lake. Pretty awesome.
The job was great. At an hour that the rest of the working world is contemplating a wardrobe of business casual, we are already suited up in waders and baseball caps and tromping through the great outdoors. For the first few months we focused on frog surveys. At the end of July we switched to fish work. It’s a little hard to admit, as a herpetology geek, that the fish work was actually more fun. Herp work is a lot of searching, flipping over rocks, scanning the ground for elusive creepy critters. Fish work, on the other hand, is very active. Electroshocking, in particular, is almost like a team sport complete with flinging nets and flying fish. It’s reminiscent of that arcade game, the one where you try to hit the gophers with the mallet.
The (undeveloped) land was beautiful, the work was fun, and the critters plentiful, but I think it would be very hard to ever call Utah home. Utah might as well be another planet. In a suburban area stuffed to the brim with people I was on my own outside of work. On weekends that I stayed in town I looked forward to work on Monday, not just because I enjoyed my job, but also because there were people to talk with. I used to think that I liked being totally independent, that I wasn’t such a fan of people in general, but, well that’s just not true. I like friends (well, duh), and it’s infinitely better to actually be in the same state as those said friends because no amount of email or IM can equal a hug, a face to face conversation, or just hanging out.
So, on that note, I make my farewell to Happy Valley (officially known as Utah County) and meander my way back to California.
Yay for friends.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bryce, and then some

We had issues at work on Wednesday. We left the office all bright and cheery, ready to zap and count fish. Unfortunately halfway through the fish zapping and counting process our fish-zapper (technically called a backpack electroshocker) had a bit of a temper tantrum and would shock no more. Those sculpins and brown trout aren’t going to count themselves!!!
Suddenly finding ourselves as a field crew without functioning field instruments we had a team huddle and proceeded onto Plan B: Windshield Biology. We spent the next several hours scoping out access to streams that we were supposed to survey in the next week. The current bone-dry nature of those streams raises doubts about their resident fish population. Moral of the story, you can’t find threatened fish in streams without water.
Thursday was far more successful: our stream had water and our shocker worked. Our presence must have been the most exciting event in the area because we had a very attentive audience of small children for the length of our sampling stretch. Into our normal regiment of catch, measure, weigh, release we inserted an extra step. A surprising number of fish ended up in the waiting hands of future biologists, where the scaly specimens received careful inspection before bouncing back into the stream.
After work on Thursday I headed down to Bryce National Park with two of my coworkers, Matt and Heather. Bryce Canyon is incredible. In the south west corner of Utah, at 9,000 feet, it sits above the desert. A combination of geology and weather (high number of freeze-thaw days) have eroded the canyons into armies of orange tinted pillars (hoodoos they are called).
Ten years ago we passed through Bryce on a family road trip. It was December, and I clearly remember my dad dragging us out of the warm car, pointing out into the blank screen of snow and informing us that this would be a spectacular site, if only we could see it. Visibility was not an issue this time and it was incredible. Pinnacles and walls in washes of pink, orange, and white stood in stark contrast against the cerulean blue of the sky. Ponderosa and Bristle Cone Pines dotted slopes and perched precariously atop eroding spires, roots curling around air where rock once stood.
We camped in the park, and froze our butts off. Despite our college degrees and designation as “biologists” none of us made the intellectual connection that it might be cold at 9,000 feet. It was a wonderful 75 F in the day and an unpleasant 45 F after dark (hats, sweatshirts, gloves…. all at home in 100 F Provo, UT). In three days we hiked all but one of the main trails in the park (the park is actually not very big) and went on a trail ride. Matt had never been on a horse so Heather and I thought it would be quite entertaining to get him on one. We spent 2 hours meandering around into, and then back out of, a canyon. The horses, well trained in the etiquette of trail horse, were on both auto-pilot and cruise control, concerned only with keeping their nose in the tail of the preceding horse. Matt, on a mule named Chubby, brought up the rear. We all survived our weekend adventure; however, I suspect the Native Aquatics field crew might be moving a little slower than usual come Monday.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Utah adventures continue

Generally speaking, a lack of blog entries can either be attributed to a lack of noteworthy events or too many noteworthy events in my life. If there is nothing blatantly exciting in my life I have no inspiration. If life gets too exciting I have no time. I would say that my current literary dry spell is due more to the latter, coupled with a healthy dose of extreme laziness.
I am sure I filled June with noteworthy adventures, but none are swimming to the surface of my mind, so let’s just jump to July. What a month!

Red Kayak, White Water, Blue Lake…
In celebration of the 4th of July, a coworker, Heather, and I hijacked (with permission) a pair of kayaks that had been collecting dust and spiders in the lot behind the Division of Wildlife offices. After informing us that these were “lake” kayaks my boss asked us where we were taking them….. Utah Lake, Utah Lake via three miles of the Provo River…
By “lake” kayak my boss was referring to the length (14 feet), completely flat unstable shape, and lack of spray skirt. None of this would have been an issue except we launched ourselves down a narrow (ish) river, with current and riffles. I spent the next 2 miles exploring ways to submerge myself in knee deep, 50 degree water. In the more stable 12 foot kayak Heather seemed to have none of these problems, and spent a significant amount of time watching me wrestle my boat and chase down escaping hats and water bottles. We eventually floated to the edge of the lake where bucolic scenes of beavers, muskrats, and mutant feral ducks were replaced by screaming jet skis, wakeboard boats, and Utah’s standard sized monster trucks. In Utah, entertainment value is directly proportional to the size and decibel level of the motor.

Meanwhile, at work (yep, I actually work 40 hours week) the frog chasing season is coming to a close and I am settling into my new role as professional fish zapper. Electroshocking is a standard method for surveying fish populations. Simply put, to implement this survey technique you jump into a stream and apply an electrical current. Wait! Electricity and water! Woah!
It’s not as sketchy as it may sound. We wear waders (no skin-water contact) and use nets to chase down the fish. The fish are zapped just hard enough for them to momentarily jump and freeze; giving us only a moment to scoop them up before they swim off. It’s fun, like that gopher bopping old-school arcade game, and when you mess up and stick your hand in the water… Zap!

In other news, I went rafting down the San Juan River in southwestern Utah, and it was AWESOME!
Here are some photos:
River House ruins.

The flotilla, I captained the small blue one.

Rana pipiens (leopard frog)not actually from this trip, but I thought it was a neat picture.

donkeys in the desert.

Me, displaying some awesome river fashion (I lost my big hat on the 4th of july adventure and was trying to make do with a bandana)

I spent half an hour watch a half dozen lizards use an ant's nest as an all-you-can-eat buffet. The winged reproductives (alates) were leaving and the spiny and side blotch lizards were going nuts. I was sitting two feet from the nest and they hardly looked my direction as they snatched up tasty little ant snacks.

...toad... awww isn't it cute?

Pottery shards, the crunch of history in a footstep (just kidding, but we did see a lot of these, and if you weren't careful you could definitly walk right through them with out noticing)

Monarch's cave ruins

Petroglyphs at procession panel. The one in the middle nicely portrays my feelings I think.

Jon demonstrates proper use of binoculars- for lizard identification.

The Leopard lizard was a little irked that I noosed it, so it chomped the noose.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This past weekend I went to Great Basin National Park, in Nevada, to participate in mountain kingsnake surveys. Below are pictures of some of the scaly critters we found. The red, black, and white striped one would be the kingsnake.

The view from the campsite. The wildflowers are very impressive right now.

Desert Horned Lizard

Mountain Kingsnake

Gopher Snake

Work is going well. We have switched from hunting spotted frogs to searching for the slightly cuter Boreal Toads. Look at that cute little toad face...

Other noteworthy tidbits…
I took the Biology GRE in April and have signed up for the General GRE in July, so it looks like I really will be applying to grad school this fall.
My vegetable garden is actually growing, and I am immensely proud of it.
I went trilobite hunting this weekend. I got to bash open slate and find nifty fossils inside. There is something remarkably satisfying about creating large piles of rubble.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

work and play

too much work to write, so pictures instead.

I finally figured out how to work the macro function on my camara!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

toads and other photo-worthy subjects

Here's a stack of pictures from the last week or so of fieldwork.

Four wheelers! This is certainly an exciting addition to fieldwork. I got paid to ride this around looking for toads. What a life!

Spring has finally come to Utah, and it's really pretty.

Playing with snakes. What's new? (Thamnophis elegans)

Great Basin Spadefoot toads.

Scenery shot. Heber Valley, Utah. My "office" for the last three weeks.

It's Boreal Toad breeding time. Notice the egg strands. Very cool.

I don't think this fellow is going to be breeding this year. Found in a pond, somehow still alive despite the pink thing being its lung. Probably was attacked by a bird.

Toad eggs

herons in tree

Working hard, well... they are... I'm obviously not if I'm taking pictures.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My paper is officially accepted into Copeia!!
Party: my room, with the gecko, and maybe a sleeping dog. It's gonna be rockin'.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Birds are getting busy

Matt gets the friendly cows and I get the horse that flipped out and charged across the field... no fair.

Seriously? It's snowing and we are looking for frogs? I think the frogs are laughing at us. That's my boss, she doesn't seem to mind the snow.

I rode 30 miles on my bike today. It was a test run to see if biking to work is feasible from my new housing location. It is only 9 miles from the house to the office but I think adding an 18 mile ride to each day would really turn my usual routine of hiking and falling into the water into a full daily triathlon. I am not that hardcore. Thirty miles might sound like a lot, but 30 flat Utah valley miles are roughly equivalent to 5 hilly Bay Area miles. They have a lovely system of bike paths following the Provo River through downtown Provo. After finding this bike path I promptly went 5 miles in the wrong direction because I went upstream instead of downstream. The river flows into Utah Lake, I live next to Utah Lake…. Duh. I guess my inner fish instincts were erring toward salmonid tendencies.
I finally managed to roll home and was greeted by the two large mutts and one small daschund. Evidence of their afternoon of mischief was scattered across the backyard. One recently crotchless lacey thong and a shredded Book of Mormon. Grandparents, don’t worry, neither were mine. I picked up the religious confetti from the lawn (seemed like the respectful thing to do) but left the underwear.
Work is still fun and my waders still leak. It’s been less than two months and I am on my third pair. I would rant longer about the leaks, but the amount of water they let in is insignificant compared to the inflow every time I fall in. I have a tendency to leap first, sink, and then look at my soggy situation. We spend a lot of time going through wet meadows, which could be more accurately described as grassy streams. It is like one of those arcade games where the little digital dude has to jump across floating mushrooms. Grass blobs bob innocently, looking oh-so-solid until you jump on. This is a great balance building exercise; standing one legged on a floating ball of vegetation, arms waving like a windmill, mouth going like a sailor. Based on this description, it’s actually surprising that I only fall in two to three times a day. Falling in would be significantly less annoying if my waders didn’t immediately fill up with enough water to drown a large mammal. Theoretically all those leaks should let out the water, but apparently my waders only leak in the inward direction. I clearly wasn’t paying attention in the physics lesson when they explained this phenomenon (“ wet wader reverse osmosis”). At this rate I will soon perfect my techniques of wader-water-removal Yoga. “Downward Bog” is my favorite. Handstands work, but then all the nasty footy swamp water flows straight into the face. I can accept soggy toes (or perhaps zombie feet…), but I draw the line at duckweed in the hair.
Interestingly, all this time spent looking for frogs is helping me to become a better birder. One of my coworkers was pondering the identity of a marshy bird with a brownish head, black wings, and silly looking long bill.
“Oh, you mean the Avocet? They were with the snowy egret and killdeer…”
Oh, wow…. I guess all shorebirds are no longer “curved bill dowagers”. However, it’s certainly baby steps for the ornithological advancement: anything smaller then a starling and colored brown is presumed unidentifiable. I like the bigger birds, like the Sandhill Cranes we see on a regular basis. They are nesting in the wetlands we frequent and it is remarkable how well they blend in with the reeds and bulrushes. More than once I have been sloshing along, minding my own soggy business, when suddenly a huge bird (we’re talking 8 foot wingspan here) emits the cackle of an angry velociraptor and launches itself out of the reeds towards my head. Pretty cool for something with feathers.

(Sandhill Crane nest, after mama bird went kamakazi-crane and then stood cackling at me from a pond 20 feet away)
Also cool: Osprey courtship.

Geese also seem to have no issues with fecundity. A week later the eggs were replaced with a fluffle (originally a typo, but I think I like the word) of little gooselings, fulfulling my daily quota of cuteness.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Explainations for the pics... oh I guess I could add that...
1. Hot springs at Fish Spring Reserve in the West Desert.
2. Wetlands in the middle of a desert. See those reeds? those are 4+ feet tall and we walk (or in my case fall) through that. Frogs live here, so do cows.
3. Hatching eggmass, Columbia Spotted Frog. Awww cute little tadpoles.
4. Grass. I was standing up to my wader clad knees in swamp mud, but it seemed like a good time for a photo.
5. Tiger salamander. It had leaches, look closely and you can see them.
6. Columbia spotted frog. Not a great photo, but oh well.
7. Working hard
8. Carp. but check out the scales. see how they are all different. genetic epistasis at work!!!
9. measuring a fish, yeah that's me. carp have spines, so do catfish. makes them really fun to grab out of a net.