03 June 2009

Life in the Forest.

In Trinity County there is not a single traffic light. There are about four people per square mile and according to the 2000 US census, Trinity County was home to a mere 13,022 people. On the other hand, Trinity County is home to a plethora of trees: the Douglas firs with their rugged bark and vertical low-lying branches, the madrones with their smooth orange trunk that peaks out from under their flaky bark, the sugar pines with their intimidating widths and mosaic lavender-colored bark, and the tanoaks with their ubiquitous pollen.

Trinity County lies just east of Humboldt County, which houses the major towns of the area, Arcata and Eureka, and Humboldt State University, which has one of the best wildlife management and conservation programs in the country. The eastern most town of Humboldt County is Willow Creek, a small logging community where cans of “cream of spotted owl soup” can be found lurking in the windows of the town’s few, but friendly businesses.

The trees of the region are of the utmost importance. Since the 1980’s, spotted owl advocates, researchers, and the logging industry have been butting heads. The old-growth forests mean habitat for a charismatic, threatened species for the former and money for the latter.

Spotted owls nest in the cavities of broken-top old-growth trees, often Douglas firs. In April, a female, who often remains with her mate for many breeding seasons, will lay one to three eggs. Rarely does a pair fledge more than two young, and even more seldom do the juveniles survive into adulthood to produce young of their own. Thus is life in the wild, a constant struggle of staying alive and passing on one’s genes, but nestled in the Klamath Mountains of northwestern California, a watchful distance from its feathered friends, is Klamath Biological Research Station.

KBRS, as it’s often called to avoid a mouthful, resides just five miles east of Willow Creek, about a mile past the Humboldt/Trinity County border, in Salyer. When driving down the curvy mountain roads of highway 299 between Eureka and Redding, a little green sign marks one’s entrance into each town, and informs of the town’s population and elevation. Salyer is such a small town that if it were not for the sign and the general store/post office that faces the town’s only intersection, one would continue on highway 299 without even realizing they had passed through a town. A few years ago Salyer also had one restaurant, a shack-like building that served Mexican breakfast and lunch from 6:30 to 2:30 everyday. It was called Whole Enchilada, but they didn’t stay open for very long. The building still houses the Redbud Theatre, where plays are put on twice a year.

KBRS, owned and operated by Dr. Alan B. Franklin, is the home of the longest running spotted owl population and demography study in the country. It all began in 1985, with Alan Franklin and Pat Ward tromping through the brush and poison oak and over the rugged mountains of the Lower Trinity Ranger District in the Six Rivers National Forest. Now, twenty-five years later, the group includes two year-round biologists, six research assistants during the breeding season, a graduate student and his assistant who are studying the affects of barred owls on the spotted owl population, and yes, Alan still visits at least three times a year.

During one of the lax Monday afternoon meetings, Alan, on his first visit of the season, goes around the room asking the research assistants how old they are. The majority of them weren’t even born when the project started, and those remaining were still in the single digits.
The station can house up to twelve people and includes a main house, a bunkhouse, three trailers, and a laboratory. There are two bathrooms, one the size of a small closet. The atmosphere is pleasant; everyone gets along and shares the items that become scarce when one lives in a minute town, like new music and fine foods.

Every few weeks the group gets together to exchange perspectives on a current dilemma in conservation. Opinions float freely in the air like the pollen from tanoak trees, and playing the devil’s advocate is praised. But conversation is not limited to science. The evening, hour long drives up the unpaved mountain roads to the spotted owl territories facilitate philosophical conversation ranging from religion to politics, music to literature. NPR is almost always on the radio.

The laboratory at KBRS plays a small but significant role in the research at the station. It’s used for processing owl blood samples, drying owl pellets, and identifying mosquitoes. Attached to the lab is the ‘mouse-house’ where up to fifty mice are kept for use during spotted owl surveys.
One may still wonder: what does the spotted owl crew do in the forest, except tromping around on steep hills and brushing by fields of poison oak? It’s all about leg bands and mice. At around six p.m., three teams of a crew leader and a research assistant will head into the mountains to established spotted owl territories. The hike can range from 100 feet to 2200 feet change in elevation, from unsteady rocks to soft leaf litter, from nearly flat to nearly vertical.

In the beginning of the season the priorities are to find which owl pairs are nesting that year and to identify each owl by a leg, band, and tab color combination. The crew puts a mouse down on the forest floor and waits for the owl to swoop down and take it. What the owls do with the mice helps determine whether or not the pair is nesting that year, but watching the owl’s behavior overall is essential. If the owl, frequently the male, brings the mouse to a broken top tree, it’s likely the pair is nesting. If the owl stashes the mouse in a nearby tree, they’re probably not nesting that year. It’s often not as cut and dry as it seems, primarily because the owls do not know the crew’s protocol for confirming a nesting pair. The owls are living creatures, incapable of the uniform behavior researchers would hope for.

Keeping a spotted owl in sight at all times is incredibly difficult. Owls have evolved feathers that allow for nearly silent flight, and they are normally active at night, making them nocturnal. The setting sun hinders the crew’s vision, and the highly evolved owl feathers make hearing the owls fly away nearly impossible. But with well-trained eyes, spotlights, and persistence the team has collected the needed data every year for twenty-five years.

Toward the middle and end of the season, the team is mostly concerned with monitoring the nests, recording which nests have succeeded and failed, and ultimately catching the juveniles to band them like their parents. The spotted owl adults exude a noble character. They perch on branches high above human reach with pride radiating from their black eyes. The juveniles, on the other hand, who first emerge from the nest as a ball of white fluffy feathers, have an innocent disposition and a limited understanding of the rules of flight. They make a humbling addition to the experience of being a researcher at the station.

The season begins in the rainy month of April with sporadic sightings of adults, some as old as twenty-two. It ends in the midst of the hot and dry California summer, with young spotted owls eager to take on the world, or maybe just the Lower Trinity Ranger District of the Six Rivers National Forest, but life out here is far from simple.