Tree Hugging, Literally

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The sun is setting, the clouds beginning to turn various hues of reds and pinks. The saturation of color quickly increases as the sun retreats behind the mountains that make our sunsets so brief and yet so spectacular. It is quite seldom that I am to be found out in the sage at this hour of the day, my responsibilities with school generally keeping me in town until the late evening.

Today, however, it is the plants that keep me out of town. I am currently finishing up the last stage of data collection for my Douglas-fir study, and that is the vegetation surveys. As plants do not become more quiet or elusive as the day progresses–unlike birds–a lot of my work time occurs in the evenings. Additionally, plants do not mind the music blasting from the chest pocket of my flannel shirt, with Metallica, Nirvana, and the Beastie Boys keeping me company through the monotony of these surveys.

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The data I am collecting from my summer field sites are rather minimal compared to previous studies I have been involved in, taking measures of only canopy cover, ground cover, tree size, and tree health. However, when combined with my avian surveys and the remote sensing work, it will become a powerful resource for the final analyses of my study.

If my shirt survives the frequent barbed wire fence crossings I must hazard, they inevitably become ripped and sticky with sap when taking the diameters of the larger Douglas-fir trees. This process often requires me to claw my way through low branches and shrubs, before bear-hugging the tree in a desperate effort to wrap a loggers’ tape around the trunk. I have yet to encounter anyone during the course of this entire study, and I am unsure who would be more surprised to see the other, the tree-hugging biologist, or the unusually adventurous hunter. Regardless, I am glad to have sole occupancy of the landscape, and to have this opportunity to hug the trees.

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Island Hopping

The day’s first rays of sunlight creep over the dark horizon, finding me crossing through the ocean. I have been awake for a couple of hours already, the alarm on my wrist watch jarring me awake after what seems to be only moments after falling asleep. Waking up in the total darkness of early morning can be a challenge, as it is nearly impossible to tell the time without the assistance of a time keeping device. For me, this results in panicked wake-ups before my alarm, scrambling to find my cell phone to ensure that I have not overslept.

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This is my daily routine, as I complete the field work for the project I began setting up last fall. By the end of the morning, I will have put in several hours of hiking, listening, and watching, often returning home before my roommates have woken up or eaten breakfast. With these early starts and my seeming inability to take daytime naps (I either cannot fall sleep, or wake up several hours later–completely disoriented and hopelessly groggy), I have taken to the habit of turning into bed before the sun has set on the day, a challenge equally as daunting as napping.

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Though the sunrise is far from marking the beginning of my day, the first golden illumination of the landscape is the moment of the day that I look forward to the most. I soon approach my destination, a dark, dense island of trees amidst the sea of sage. Cold fingers gripping an even colder GPS unit, I quietly make my way to a small orange flag that I had placed weeks ago when I first visited this stand of Douglas-fir. Leaning against a tree, I feel the warmth of the sun finally penetrate the cool, still air as I begin a ten minute avian census, recording all the birds I see and hear from this spot. Having completed two other points before sunrise, I know I have several more to complete before my morning is over. There are birds to be seen, and there is nowhere on Earth I would rather be at this moment in time.

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The Ecological Research of a Couch Potato

Driven by necessity, not all of my current work revolves around birds. This semester, in partnership with classmate Brandon Cary, I researched forest health decline in Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) near Gunnison as a term project for my Forest Ecology class. While this subject actually does relate to birds, and indeed this project will feed into a grant project that I will begin next summer, it does take a peculiar turn in that we never left campus or went into the field to conduct our research.

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We focused on using remotely-sensed data (“satellite imagery” for the layman) to analyze the effects of recent Douglas-fir Beetle (Dendroctonus pseudotsugae) on the health of Douglas-fir “islands” within the Gunnison Basin. We primarily used an index of forest health called Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which is a quantified measure of pixel’s greenness that varies between -1 and 1, with higher numbers exhibiting the highest amount of green reflectance, theoretically indicating better forest productivity.

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A screenshot of the work process in ArcGIS

Using ArcGIS mapping software to run our analysis, we indeed found a statistically significant decline in forest health based on NDVI values, confirming what anyone could determine if they hiked through a local stand of Douglas-fir. We also attempted to find correlations between this decline and other remotely sensed factors, such as elevation and slope, though none of these were statistically significant.

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Overall, I found this research project to be inspiring due to the fact that we were able to collect an enormous amount of relevant data from the entire span of the Gunnison Basin without ever leaving my apartment. However, this is thankfully not a substitute for actual field work, which continues to be the best way to collect observations and data from the real world, leading in turn to truly ground-breaking discoveries. As such, I am currently writing a grant proposal to continue my investigations into the Douglas-fir habitat next summer, with a much greater emphasis on their associated and seldom studied bird life.

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In my free time, not being a couch potato

As always, if you have any comments or questions on this post or anything else, drop me a comment or an email!