Ode to Survey123

In between trips throughout the Great Basin,

To check for ripe seeds on the species we’re chasing,

Seeking drupes, legumes, siliques and achenes,

I spend time in front of my computer screens.

 

I do GIS, data entry, research, and planning.

There are seeds that need mailing and forms that need scanning,

Plants that need filing and labels that need gluing.

After that, though, there’s something else I’ve been doing.

 

What do you think? We have some massive grants?

Maybe we’ve got a greenhouse and to grow out some plants?

I wish I could say we’re programming a drone,

Nope — just making surveys to fill out on a phone.

 

Decimal, selection, and geopoint questions,

Complex choice filters, calculated suggestions,

I spend hours pasting huge excel expressions,

Moping when it crashes upon refreshing.

 

And though I’d still rather pick fruits from a tree,

I do love you and hate you, Survey123.

Working with you can’t beat picking buckwheat,

But your relational questions are really quite neat.

 

Entering data just once – wow, what an idea!

Though making surveys keeps me from Rhus and Piscea.

I do love creating the ideal survey form,

But I’d rather be hiking in a summer rainstorm.

 

I hope that these hours and hours I’ve spent

Sitting at a desk rather than camping in my tent

Will help keep all of the botanists to come

Out in the field with sagebrush, currant, and plum.

 

Britney, Carson City BLM

The quest for two million seeds

My fellow interns and I have been living and working in Carson City for four months now — and though that may mean we are halfway through our internship, we are definitely not halfway through our seed collections! We started off the season with trainings, noxious weed mapping, rare plant surveying, and some outreach activities, but now it’s time to buckle down to reach the almost inconceivable goal of 100 SOS collections. So far, we’re only at fifteen!

Though we attempt to harvest at least 20,000 viable seeds from each population, that can equate to very different amounts of effort based on which species we’re collecting. It almost feels like cheating to collect grasses like Elymus elymoides or Poa secunda, for which we spend a mere hour or two pulling entire stalks and stuffing them in our paper bags. Even easier is Grayia spinosa, a shrub whose papery seeds fall off the plant and into the bag by the hundreds with the slightest nudge. Other species, like Pushia tridentata, test our patience, heat tolerance, and ability to keep track of our pencils as we tally up groups of 50 seeds that we pick one by one for hours on end. Yesterday, I made the mistake of trying to peel an orange after picking Purshia for several hours, and was compelled to spit out my first bite — it’s called bitterbrush for a reason.

So far, my favorite collection has been Cercocarpus ledifolius, a mountain mahogany. I’m familiar with other species of this genus, from college classes on the Mogollon Rim of Arizona, but I never anticipated finding a species that was so tall and treelike. They grow on steep slopes and hilltops in harsh soils, and as someone who grew up in the desert, I can’t help but favor the hardiest plants that grow in the most inhospitable places. I’ve always been fascinated by Cercocarpus fruits; their long, plumose awns make the entire plant look almost fuzzy from a distance. Little did I know those awns inflict an incredibly annoying itching sensation on exposed skin. You would never guess after picking just a few fruits, but the tickle of several thousand left us all squirming awkwardly in our seats on the car ride back to the office. This species also takes awhile to collect, but it is such an awesome plant that I don’t mind that or the itching. I think it is a great candidate for a restoration species and I hope our collections can be put to good use in the future!

We have been able to start collecting in new areas as the snow has melted, including the foothills of the Sierras. I love the open landscapes of the great basin, but there’s nothing like the rocky peaks and glassy hidden lakes of the Sierra Nevada. A six hour seed collection is nothing to complain about when it’s on the edge of a lake with bald eagles circling overhead, or halfway up a craggy mountain pass. Of course, every weekend entails more trips to Lake Tahoe (only 20 minutes away!), which is rimmed by those magical mountains. Weekly activities include mountain biking, birding, hiking, and swimming — hopefully soon to be accompanied by outdoor bouldering, backpacking, and maybe even some paddleboarding!

After long uphill bike ride from Carson City up to the Tahoe Rim, I was rewarded with snowy peaks and lake views.

Frenchman Lake, nestled into the lower Sierras just an hour away from our house.

Britney, Carson City BLM

A Week of Walking

It’s Monday morning and we are getting ready for a full week in the field. We will spend this week, like the past two, searching slopes for Ivesia webberi, which has a threatened status under the ESA. Each morning, we will unfold the various GIS maps we made designating the survey area and determine where we will search that day. Using the GPS, maps, and compasses, we spend the day walking transects, trying to cover every square foot of the possible habitat for the species.

Surveying for rare plants is definitely a high-effort, low-reward field activity, and some might find it boring to walk for hours in a straight line, spaced with fellow surveyors at 15 foot intervals. I admit, it can be a bit discouraging to survey for days with no sign of our target species. Mostly, though, I am just thankful that my job allows me to hike all day. I may be staring at the ground most of the time, but that means I see every plant (and insect, and reptile) I pass. There is nothing like the wide open skies in sagebrush country, so I can’t complain about hiking under those.

A perfect mid-survey lunch spot.

Last week, persistent rain forced us to return to the office after just two days of surveys, and a few skids on the muddy roads on the way out of the field made us glad we hadn’t left any later than we did. This week, with temperatures of 90 degrees to look forward to, I don’t think we’ll have that problem. Hopefully, by the time we troop back into the office, dusty from a week of walking, we’ll have found some more Ivesia webberi to report to the Fish and Wildlife Service!

Hunting for Cactus

After a drizzly Saturday of cross-country skiing at Lake Tahoe, I was awakened by the sun pouring through the big windows next to my bed. It was almost 7 a.m., and I put on some hot water for tea. I checked my email on my phone, and was greeted by a late-night email from Dean, our mentor. He was going on a last-minute rare cactus survey, the results of which were due the next day – did any of us want to come along? He was leaving for the field in less than three hours.

One of my fellow interns and I went into high gear to prepare for the field. We scrounged together a little food, packed some clothes and gear, and bid goodbye to our other two housemates / interns who decided to stay home.

The drive to the field site took us through vast basins of sagebrush, sagebrush, and more sagebrush, dotted with occasional groups of grazing cattle or wild horses and rimmed by dramatic mountains. We spent the day searching for Grusonia pulchella (sagebrush cholla), a BLM sensitive species, near proposed mining sites. The first challenge was finding the sites, which were marked by a (sometimes fallen) wooden post that looked very similar to the multitude of other posts scattered throughout the area. We didn’t have GPS coordinates for the points, so we used a printed map with sometimes inaccurate points provided by the mining company. Getting to the points required driving on some semi-sketchy 4-wheel drive roads and subsequent rock scrambling, but we were rewarded by some amazing views.

We surveyed eight sites without finding any G. pulchella individuals, but we did find some other cactus species and were introduced to many new shrubs and forbs in the surprisingly diverse sagebrush community. We also found an historic sheep camp (evidenced by trampled soil and ubiquitous old sheep droppings), an old mining site complete with extremely rusty metal cans, and some Opuntia sp.(prickly pear cactus) individuals, all of which would be disturbed by mining activity.

Finally, on our last site of the day, we found the species we had been looking for! It was a tiny little cactus tucked in behind a small Artemisia arbuscula, and in the waning daylight we marked it with a GPS and flagging tape. I was struck by the fact that a mining company would be forced to change their plans because of the presence of this single rare plant – it really is awesome! Hooray for plant conservation!

We drove a short distance to a dry wash, set up our tents in the dark, and sat around my backpacking stove listening to the nighttime desert noises. Mostly, the noises consisted of crackling power lines and a mysterious high-pitched squeak/chirp/whine. I didn’t last long before crawling into my sleeping bag and falling asleep.

After a little more surveying and the drive back to the office the next morning, we spend the rest of the week doing trainings and attending a grass identification class at University of Nevada-Reno. We spent those two days of class with our eyes glued to the microscopes, picking apart tiny grass spikelets and sending glumes and lemmas flying across the table. Our eyes and bodies were tired after sitting still for hours on end, but now we are ready to identify any grass that comes our way – well, only if we are equipped with a microscope. After a long week, we were ready for another weekend of outdoor adventures before heading to Boise for a busy week of pest management class.

Britney, Carson City BLM

Snow and Plant Specimens in Carson City

This week my two fellow interns and I started our stint on the BLM Carson City botany team. As a California girl who has been chasing summer around the globe for the last 2 years, I was more than a little anxious about moving to 4800 feet in the middle of winter. Being surrounded by snowy mountains and bundling up for even a brief trip outside might seem normal to many, but for me it is new and exciting. I love the landscapes of the arid West in all seasons, and under snow they are even more magnificent.

Due to muddy road conditions, most of the field sites we’ll use this season are inaccessible, but we did get to take a short trip to a restoration site worked on by last year’s crew. We wandered around the site, reviewing familiar species and encountering new ones, while learning about the history of the site and BLM’s role in management. This project has the potential to be a model for restoration using only native species, something that can be controversial in agencies that represent the interests of multiple groups: recreational users, ranchers, conservationists, fire crews, and more. I’m already learning a lot about the opportunities and challenges presented by working for a federal agency, and the remarkably broad impact of these organizations.

Other than training and a few field trips, we spent some time working with herbarium specimens collected by previous interns. I’m not shy about admitting that I am a hardcore plant systematics nerd, so getting to key out plants and check out the huge collection in the UNR (University of Nevada-Reno) herbarium was like being a kid in a candy store. I also got to realize my childhood dreams of doing arts and crafts for a living, as we spent an afternoon mounting pressed plant specimens. There is nothing that compares to the aesthetic appeal of a perfectly mounted, beautiful plant specimen, wouldn’t you agree? I am really looking forward to keying out, pressing, and mounting our own specimens once we start collecting seeds in a few months.

If I get to identify plants and look at snow-covered mountains every day, I think I could get used to the cold…

Britney Zell, Carson City BLM