Midway through my academic career studying biology and environmental science, I came to the figurative fork in that good ol’ path called life and got stuck deciding whether to specialize in botany or wildlife. After some path pacing, it came down to botany for two simple reasons: plants don’t move and I can slice them open without tasting my breakfast for the second time. I’m joking, kinda. I believe that ultimately, your passion finds you.
So here I am now, a CLM intern at the BLM field office in Tillamook, OR studying under the botanist Kurt Heckeroth, and I could not be more grateful! Of course the best part about being the intern is that you get to do all sorts of cool stuff, which may include hanging out with wildlife biologists all day banding Northern Spotted Owls. This experience I am about to share does not reflect what I do on a daily basis as an aspiring botanist within the Seeds of Success Program. But there will be more news of that nature next month!
I am lucky to have ended up in the Pacific Northwest, as it is the home of the oldest cathedral forests on the planet. The remaining old growth forest canopy towers over 300 feet occupied by ~1000 year old Pseudotsuga menziesii, ~500 old year old Tsuga heterophylla and Thuja plicata. Here one can become lost studying the symbiotic connections between all trophic levels of life. This web has many center points, one of which includes the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) as part of a keystone complex*, involving ectomycorrhizal, Hypogeneous fungi (truffles), P. menziesii, and the Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus). Truffles are an essential food source for the squirrel, as well as a major contributor to water and nutrient cycling between host plant species, such as P. menziesii. The squirrels disperse truffle spores, scattering them along the forest floor by way of their feces. Spotted owls prey on flying squirrels and thereby bring the tropic levels full circle.
Spotted owls are specialized organisms, needing large swaths of intact old growth to breed and hunt. They are thereby incidentally good indicator species, one whose absence/presence tells us about the health of a forest. Due to extensive logging of PNW old-growth timber beginning in the 1830’s, the spotted owl was listed as threatened in the 1989. Today, with less than 13% of old growth forest remaining and the barred owl invading their territory, the spotted owl population is still declining.
Many of the wildlife biologists that I went out with to band the owls commented on how their days as a species could be numbered. When the wildlife biologists at the Tillamook field office invited me out to band I knew that as a botanist, this was a once in a life time opportunity I could not pass up: to lay my eyes up the charismatic organism that symbolized the fight to save old growth trees.
After too long of a drive, we rallied and walked into BLM land of the West Cascades, with a container of mice and Scott, one of the only certified bird banders in the Salem district. We were not 500 feet off the road when a male spotted owl responded to Scott’s impression of squeaking and hooting. But, it was the female who showed up first. One of the many tricks of bird banding is feeding the owl mice, a lot of mice. After about the third mouse, the owl becomes more comfortable, and if you’re experienced enough, you can catch them in mid flight.
After catching the owl, another person has to be sitting down ready to be handed the owl. The seated person holds the owl legs firmly as the bander applies the bands as well as weighs the bird and inspects the bands of the tail feathers. With the female owl, Scott also inspected the brood pouch. If it was wide and a little inflamed with a reddish, purple hue, that indicates that the bird is nesting, but alas, the female we banded was not nesting. Scott also checked the ears for infection or mites, because that indicates the overall health of the owl. There is video footage of the banding that I uploaded to the media gallery, unfortunately, they did not post well to this blog.
Reference for keystone complex*(http://www.drakehs.org/academics/seadisc/endangeredspecies/2008/northern_spotted_owl/northern_spotted_owls_niche.htm)v *
Tillamook BLM Field Office, OR