“April Come She Will”

With pictures of summer field work adorning my cubicle walls to guide the way, I hunker down in my office planning away for projects to come.

Since returning from Herbarium work in Anchorage, I have been mostly planning for the busy field season ahead.  On our plate we have:

  • Continued surveys of invasive plant species
  • Soil surveys to be conducted at the end of July
  • Raptor surveys
  • A newly funded Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) inventory and monitoring project

Much of my end of preparations for raptor surveys has been completed.  These surveys will involve my supervisor and the other office biologist flying along river corridors in the Fortymile region of the interior, in search of raptor nest sites and raptors themselves (hopefully I will be able to get in on a trip). Raptors in this area include: Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus), Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus), Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos).  I spent some time this fall using ArcGIS to identify suitable cliff nesting raptor habitat.  This involved looking at lots of aerial imagery, and creating GIS layers that might be predictive of cliff areas when aerial imagery was poor or missing (ex. slope, extracting ‘bare’ portions of vegetation layers).  Our wildlife biologist is quite experienced at this and gave me some tips on spotting appropriate landmarks from aerial imagery.  The aerial imagery method is very effective but time consuming and requires experience and practice.  Although it is certainly less selective, I developed some GIS layers that can hopefully help when large areas need to be scanned or can be combined with aerial imagery to make better predictions.


Aerial imagery showing a portion of the Fortymile river. Red dots mark habitat of varying potential with that bright white curve in the upper middle being prime cliff habitat.


Layer showing land designated as ‘bare’ in vegetation surveys. Does a decent job at pulling out the barren cliff faces.


Layer showing slope (red is steeper). Identifies steep portions of the landscape which, in junction with the bare layer, can help pinpoint cliffs.


The main project, however, will be bat inventory and monitoring.  I’ll be handling most of the planning/logistics/equipment/study design/field work so although it’s not plant related, it should be a good experience in planning and executing a study.

Little brown bats are the most widespread in North America and one of the only bat species found in the Alaskan interior.  Very little is known about their habitats/distribution/behavior in this area, however, and with rising concerns about white-nose syndrome folks are eager to find out more.

Our first study area will be the Steese National Conservation Area about 70 miles NE of Fairbanks.  It is an interesting study area for bats because 1) it is northerly: bats are nocturnal and the latitude of this location means it gets VERY little darkness during the summer months—civil twilight persists for the majority of the summer with no true darkness and near the solstice there are only about 1-1.5 hours of darkness a night AND 2) it is cold: some research has predicted that 5 degrees Celsius might be the lower limit for some bat activity—nightly summer temperatures in this area could easily dip below this.  Scandinavian studies have found bats at latitudes up to 69N (above the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn’t set for some stretches of summer) with observations that bats will operate when ambient light levels are lowest (even though prey availability is lower at these hours).

For this first season of the study we are mainly testing field schedule/equipment/methodology and trying to see if we can even find bats in this area at all.  The plan is to procure 10 acoustic bat detectors and place them in strategic areas (likely bat habitat) in the SNCA, returning every 3 weeks or so to switch out batteries/download data and move detectors.  We are hoping to capture information on bat arrival and departure, seasonal changes in bat activity, nightly changes in bat activity and preferred bat habitat.  With smart placement of detectors we will hopefully be able to find some bats and pilot study designs that later down the road will provide more robust data on bat habitat preferences.


A typical acoustic monitoring set-up from a partner agency’s bat monitoring protocol. The detector itself is strapped to the tree in the foreground and the microphone can be seen mounted to a tall pole in the background.

Right now my computer screen is an explosion of tabs for 12V battery brands, PVC pipe, bat detector prices, occupancy modeling studies, battery physics tutorials etc.  Working out lots of logistics for deploying these expensive pieces of equipment in remote areas.


Fairbanks, AK

Exciting First Week

Hello All,

This post is coming at the end of an exciting and interesting first week of BLM office in Carson City, NV.  For starters, I think I may have set the record for fastest worker’s comp claim.  At the end of the first day I was cleaning out a Petri dish used to mix adhesive for the herbarium and managed to put a nice cut into my finger requiring a few stitches.  I have jokingly stated that I was just trying to make a splash on my first day.  Work in the herbarium is relaxing and enjoyable.  In the past I have done lots of collecting and pressing of plant samples in the field, so it was nice to learn the back end of the process and be able to produce a herbarium specimen from start to finish.

Of course, my passion is for work in the field.  Yesterday we visited a former mine site, the American Flat Mine, where my fellow interns and I will help to plan and implement a restoration project.  Ecological restoration was a specialization of my MS, and I am very excited about this project.  We spent the day mapping out the area and generating a species list from a reference area nearby.  Being from Colorado, it was nice to be able to pick out several species I was familiar with, while at the same time learning characteristics of many new ones.  I’ll continue to update this project as the summer continues.

Other tasks of the week have included assisting with a cleanup project as part of this office’s Adopt a Space outreach program, sitting in on stakeholder meetings and assisting with research and development of NEPA documents.  It’s only been a few days, but I can tell it’s going to be a great summer!

Wild horses on American Flat Mine

Wild horses on American Flat Mine


Bank stabilization using willows on TNC property

Bank stabilization using willows on TNC property


Cheers,  Aaron

Big Bear Lake, Jan-Feb

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Non-native Bermuda buttercup at Lytle Creek

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Unauthorized OHV trails in the Deep Creek area

At the beginning of January, my internship at the San Bernardino National Forest shifted focus; I am now a part of our forest-wide restoration program.  I have been working in our greenhouse in Big Bear Lake and at our lower-elevation nursery at Lytle Creek, and I also have the opportunity to be more involved in the planning process.     

We are continuing work in the Deep Creek area, which involves restoring areas damaged by unauthorized OHV use.  As we encounter them, we are also mapping new sites and unauthorized trails that need to be restored.  The area is predominantly high-desert scrub; common species include Mojave buckwheat, holly-leaved cherry, chaparral yucca, Great Basin sagebrush, antelope bitterbrush, brittlebush (Encelia sp.), yerba santa, and cup leaf ceanothus.  Palmer’s oak is occasional and is always an interesting find.  Wildflower-wise, it looks like it will be a better spring than last year; lots of annuals are starting to pop up, including chia (Salvia colombiare), Phacelia species, Oenothera californica, Calochortus kennedyi kennedyi, and Leptosyne bigelovii.  Beaver Dam breadroot (Pediomelum castoreum), which I mentioned in a previous post as an exciting possibility in the area, is another one to be on the lookout for.

Mountaintop Ranger District

San Bernardino National Forest

Seeds – a gift of life!

I am entering the last couple of weeks of my internship and there is a lot happening to prepare for the spring.  Instead of trickling away, it seems as though I will be ramping out!  I have really felt like an important asset to the team more and more, which makes it harder to leave behind.  Although I don’t feel like I am truly leaving it behind, as I have no doubts that I will apply what I have learned to my own life projects.  My plan is to start an organic farm, and some of my aspirations include propagating natives, breeding rare heirloom varieties and adapting them to our ever changing local environment, restoring degraded habitat and native diversity, and creating plant and wildlife habitat.  I believe that seeds are our future, and that they alone harness the power to perpetuate life.  I also believe that growing and saving seed is one of our most important basic human rights and we have to fight for it.  By continuing to patent genetically modified seeds, falsely advertise them as the answer to world hunger, corrupt governments, and promote the use of toxic chemicals on our environment, large agribusiness continue to threaten seed diversity and biodiversity as well as cultural diversity and health around the world.  While we have lost more than 90% of seed varieties, we still have an incredible diversity to work with as long as we take on the responsibility of being seed stewards.  Millions of years of evolution and seed stewardship are the reason for the varieties we have today.  Seeds are not inventions, they are a gift of life.

I am very thankful for all the opportunities that this internship have brought!  Thanks to all!

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I worked with a youth crew to grub Himalayan black berry and Scotch broom, then plant willow and Douglas Spirraea stakes along this degraded creek bank.

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I also worked with the youth crew removing false brome.  We scalped the clumps of grass with the roots from the ground, bagged it, and seeded out a couple native grasses and forbs.

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Salt Grass Gardening in the Sierra Nevada (Carson City)

Welcome to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Great Basin! This is the first week of my invasive species/noxious weeds internship with Dean Tonenna, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Botanist, in Carson City, Nevada. Dean wasted no time putting myself and two other interns out in the field on an experimental native plant relocation project Monday. Who knew my first day would involve a little bit of “gardening” in the desert?

Two other interns and myself jumped right in on Monday with salt grass rhizome collecting. Tuesday morning found us in a collaborative meeting with several other local agencies and non-profit organizations who are focused on invasive species and noxious weeds eradication. Dean updated the group on some of the BLM projects and welcomed feedback from the other groups. After lunch, we headed north of Reno to Swan Lake. We planted rows of salt grass rhizomes along the bank; our transplantation is experimental. Our goal is to establish a healthy population of salt grass at Swan Lake to combat erosion and dominance by cattails and invasive species/noxious weeds. Before leaving the site, we took a moment to enjoy the little “garden” we had planted. You can enjoy our “garden” too (see below)!

A view of Swan Lake from an interpretive trail.

A view of Swan Lake from an interpretive trail.

John, Maggie, and Olivia dig the rows for the salt grass garden.

John, Maggie, and Olivia dig the rows for the salt grass garden.

Maggie and Olivia place rhizomes in the rows.

Maggie and Olivia place rhizomes in the rows.

The finished "garden" along the bank of Swan Lake.

The finished “garden” along the bank of Swan Lake.

In addition to efforts revolving around the Seeds of Success and invasive and noxious weeds programs, we will be developing an interactive map of Swan Lake using ESRI’s Story Map program. We will be partnering with a local teacher to develop the Swan Lake map and other curriculum that meet state standards. This is a unique opportunity for the BLM and other agencies to collaborate with the local schools to teach students about the important ecological properties of Swan Lake and the current conservation challenges facing the BLM and other land managers.

I look forward to meeting the rest of the six-member team in the coming weeks and learning about the ecology, geology, and botany of the Sierra Nevadas and the Great Basin! While I am excited to learn about the native and noxious vascular plants of the Great Basin and Sierra Nevadas, my heart belongs to the lichens. Therefore, I am also looking forward to collecting and identifying lichens while out in the field working on other projects. Bring on the botany!

-Maggie Gray, Sierra Front Field Office, Carson City, Bureau of Land Management

Fairbanks, AK

After a lovely trip home and (partial) reprieve from the cold, I settled back into Fairbanks…for two days.  Monday morning found me on a plane to Anchorage where I was to help BLM and Alaska Natural Heritage Program folks with projects down there.  While ‘down south’ I worked in the University of Alaska-Anchorage Herbarium identifying, mounting, labeling and accessioning specimens collected under BLM projects.  As I’ve probably mentioned before, I find mounting plants to be a terrific creative outlet.  These little Botrychium alaskense were my favorite.


Although most of the plants I was working with were from my subject region (interior), I also processed some plants from the Aleutian Islands, which was a fascinating experience as these islands are such a unique ecosystem and certainly have different flora from what I have encountered in my mostly land locked forays up in Fairbanks.

In the office I am getting geared up for the summer field season, even though it is many frigid months away.  The exciting happenings here are a bat project that was funded for this year.  We are going to be doing acoustic monitoring of Little Brown Bats in the interior and I am working away ordering and gathering equipment, developing methodology and study design and learning as much about these little guys as I can.

I’ll leave you with some nature eye candy from a personal hiking and ice climbing trip.

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Fun with aerial imagery (1)

Greetings, World!

One of the basic challenges of any land management agency is figuring out what’s out there. The BLM Las Cruces District manages 5.4 million acres of public land. Although I do my best to get outside and visit as much of it as I can, that’s a lot of land to cover. There are many GIS layers we can use to get around this problem and understand what’s happening on the landscape in areas we can’t personally visit and experience, but one of the most informative is aerial imagery. Trying to understand aerial imagery is also, in my opinion, just about the most challenging and entertaining thing you can do with maps! My basic process in training myself to understand aerial imagery is to stare at maps for a while, guess what I’m looking at, and then go outside and see if I’m correct. Sometimes this is part of my job, sometimes this is just what I do for fun. Once you get a good sense of the relative scale of the different shrubs, what grasses to expect in what context, and the like, you can get a surprising amount of information from aerial imagery and, in reference to Stillman‘s recent post on this blog, sometimes you can even make out the stems of ocotillo from aerial imagery! Of course, there are still many things you can’t understand without being out on the ground.

There are also various programs that implement basically the same approach in an automated computational framework. LANDFIRE, for instance, produces vegetation maps by taking vegetation plot data and then running GIS wizardry to interpolate and classify all of the areas between the plots. That’s useful, but not nearly as much fun. So here are some examples of what plant communities look like in aerial imagery vs. what they look like on the ground. I’m anticipating doing a few more posts like this, hence the “1″ in the title of this post.

In the Las Cruces District, most of our vegetation is grassland or shrubland. Our two most abundant shrubs are Larrea tridentata (creosote bush) and Prosopis glandulosa (honey mesquite). Many of our grasses, especially Dasyochloa pulchella and Muhlenbergia porteri, are typically abundant hidden within either of these, or in the interspaces of shrubland rather than occurring as grassland. Our most abundant perennial “grassland” grasses include Pleuraphis mutica (tobosa), Sporobolus flexuosus (mesa dropseed), and Bouteloua eriopoda (black grama). We also have a few ubiquitous annual grasses that sometimes form annual grasslands, most notably Aristida adscensionis (sixweeks threeawn). This is what they look like:

Larrea tridentata shrubland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

Larrea tridentata shrubland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

Prosopis glandulosa shrubland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

Prosopis glandulosa shrubland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

Pleuraphis mutica grassland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

Pleuraphis mutica grassland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

Sporobolus flexuosus grassland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

Sporobolus flexuosus grassland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

Bouteloua eriopoda grassland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

Aristida adscensionis grassland, on the ground:

Same site from the air:

In that last aerial image, you might notice that Aristida adscensionis is basically invisible in aerial imagery, but looks like a thick carpet on the ground. The aerial photograph might have been taken in a dry year, or during the middle of summer when most of the annual grasses have dried up and blown away, or Aristida adscensionis might just be too diffuse to ever be visible in aerial imagery–it tends to form fairly uniform stands that don’t offer a whole lot of contrast. Yucca elata, on the other hand, is fairly sparse but stands out prominently in the aerial imagery–that’s what most of the dark blobs are, and in a few you can tell from the shadows that you are indeed looking at relatively tall, narrow plants (at least, if you click & open the full-size image!). The smaller dark speckles in there are a mixture of sparse perennial grasses (Sporobolus airoides and Sporobolus flexuosus), perennial forbs (mostly Croton pottsii), and small shrubs (Ephedra trifurca, some small, young Prosopis glandulosa) but not very intelligible in the aerial imagery. In the next post, I think I will dive into the various flavors of Prosopis glandulosa shrubland.

All aerial imagery is via Google, using screenshots from Gmap4.

The Botany of Love

It’s that time of year again. Stores are inundated with pink and red candies, flowers and cards. Valentine’s Day, or as I like to call it, Single’s Awareness Day. One of the multitude of days in the year where folks spend exorbitant amounts of money on various botanical offerings to validate their love for one another. Generally, such offerings are red, to symbolize love, or pink for friendship with a smattering of white for purity/devotion. But what are the origins of sending flowers for St. Valentine’s? The accepted history of the infamous day generally comes from the Roman priest, Valentino who opposed the Roman military’s policy of no marriage, because it was felt that single men made better soldiers. Valentino married young lovers in secret in defiance and was eventually discovered and crucified. So much for love. Another legend involves various pagan holidays celebrating fertility and the birth of man. Celebrations associated with this involved imbibing heavily and beating women to promote fertility. I swear, I can’t make this up (history.com). But what about flowers? Where do they come into this particular celebration?

It is theorized, that Geoffrey Chaucer, of The Canterbury Tales fame, initiated the concept of romantic love and the giving of gifts with his Parelement of Foules in 1382. In it, he describes love birds (actual birds) on St. Valentine’s Day. Through a serious of events, this evolved into gifting on the day of St. Valentine, especially amongst nobles. Offerings of flowers became popular and became romanticized (no pun intended), and were thrown into much of the popular art forms of the day. We could also go back to St. Valentine himself, who allegedly received flowers while he was in jail from the couples he had wed. Popularly though, Chaucer is often credited with modern Valentine’s gifting (history.com, proflowers.com).

King Charles II of Sweden is credited with the idea of sending red roses as a non-verbal communication of love (usatoday.com). A few centuries later, Americans spend approximately $1.9 billion on flowers for Valentine’s (2014).

(slightly) Wintertime Archaeology

This is my first post a a CBG Intern. I am interning at the Buffalo Field Office in Buffalo Wyoming where I have been a BLM Archaeological Technician for the 3 previous seasons. This is my first winter in the office. Being from North Carolina, it is strange to say this, but compared to past winters in Wyoming it is freakishly mild. We have had temperatures averaging in the high 40′s and low 50′s for the past several weeks, which in the typically tundra-like Great Plains this isn’t the way things should be. I hate to complain but I would like to have some nice snow to XC ski on and thick ice to fish on, but alas I will have to deal with floating rivers and fishing in a tee shirt. As far as work goes I am doing a great deal of database entry and work in the file room until the Plains are completely free of snow drifts. I can not do archaeological survey with 100% confidence unless the ground is completely bare. The old snow drifts out there will remain untill the nights stay above freezing. Thus it is office work for me for a while.



Nathan BLM BFO

Ocotillo: Bizzare and Beautiful. And Sharp.

Hello Everyone,

I confess that it has been awhile since my last post, so you will have to forgive my absence. Part of my excuse is that in December I was able to take a three week break from my CLM position and go back home to northern Illinois for Christmas. I expected that the trip home would give me just a taste of a real winter with snow and ice. Well, it was fairly cold in Illinois, but for those three weeks in December it snowed more here in Needles than it did in Chicago! I did not see a single snowflake up north, and I missed the first snowstorm to hit Needles in more than 50 years! Now that I’m back in Needles I might be tempted to complain that I miss seeing at least a little bit of snow, but then I walk outside and realize that it’s 70 degrees in January, and I feel pretty good about life.

Is that fog? In the desert? Why yes it is. It's winter here, and it's been raining.

Is that fog? In the desert? Why yes it is. It’s winter here, and it’s been raining.

My CLM internship has been extended again, so that means that I’ll get to stay here in Needles until May, which will give me a full year in the Mojave Desert. That is great for me, and I am especially looking forward to being here for the spring and the possibility of some spectacular spring-blooming plants (but we need to get enough rain this winter – so I’m crossing my fingers). So far in January I’ve spent most of my time here at the office working on research and planning to establish long-term vegetation monitoring plots in our field office in the spring.

Since I haven’t been out in the field much since early December, I don’t have any new pictures or discoveries to share with you. So instead I’ll pull out some old pictures from the fall and we can look at one of the most distinctive desert plants here: ocotillo.

This is Fouquieria splendens (ocotillo). You can see that this one doesn't have any leaves at the moment, and that is how these plants spend much of their year.

This is Fouquieria splendens (ocotillo). You can see that this one doesn’t have any leaves at the moment, and that is how these plants spend much of their year.

Fouquieria splendens, the ocotillo or coachwhip, is a bizarre plant. It is a woody shrub, with dozens of long, slender stems that branch at the base of the plant and then extend vertically straight up into the air or in a spreading arch. The plants can be up to 20 feet tall, and dominate the landscape in the broad valleys where they grow south of Needles. The stems are grayish-green with fissured bark, and are densely covered with long spines up to 4 cm long. Ocotillos are leafless for much of the year, a behavior that conserves water during dry periods.

Here's a close up of one of those leafless branches. Those are some very sturdy, serious spines. Good luck climbing this plant.

Here’s a close up of one of those leafless branches. Those are some very sturdy, serious spines. Good luck climbing this plant.

When I first arrived in May, the large fields of these bare, thorny plants gave a particularly harsh and intimidating face to the desert. But their character changed dramatically after we were hit by the first summer rainstorm. Just three days after it rained, the ocotillos had produced a dense covering of lush green leaves. These plants, which had previously appeared gray and inescapably dry, transformed almost overnight into vibrant green spots of life against the bleak desert landscape. After a couple months and a dry spell the ocotillos dropped their leaves, and have returned to their formidable dry season appearance.

Add a little rain, wait 2 or 3 days, a flick of my magic wand and...Poof! Now we have leaves.

Add a little rain, wait 2 or 3 days, a flick of my magic wand and…Poof! Now we have leaves.

When rain does show up, ocotillo produces a high density of leaves in a hurry. They need to take advantage of their chance to photosynthesize while they have the water resources to do it.

When rain does show up, ocotillo produces a high density of leaves in a hurry. They need to take advantage of their chance to photosynthesize while they have the water resources to do it.

Here's a little perspective for you. I'm 6'3''. So we're talking about a pretty substantial plant here. And they are especially striking because most of the other plants that grow around them are low-growing species.

Here’s a little perspective for you. I’m 6’3”. So we’re talking about a pretty substantial plant here. They can grow up to 20 feet tall. And they are especially striking because most of the other plants that grow around them are low-growing species.

I have yet to see the ocotillos blooming, but when the time comes this spring their flowers will add another splash of color to these plants. They produce dense spikes of bright red flowers high up on their stems. Hopefully I’ll be able to get a good look at some in a couple months, and I’ll share pictures with you (but they would also be worth looking up on your own right now). Ocotillo nectar is an especially important food source for hummingbirds as the birds migrate north in the spring. Of the desert flowers that hummingbirds use for food on their migration routes, ocotillos may be the only one that will produce nectar reliably even in very dry years. The birds require this dependable food source to give them the energy to make their long migrations.

I have not seen flowers or seeds from ocotillo, but you can still see some of the leftover structures. In the spring, those stalks will be full of brilliantly red flowers.

I have not yet seen flowers or seeds from ocotillo, but you can still see some of the leftover structures. In the spring, those stalks will be full of brilliantly red flowers.

I haven't seen very many of these, but here is a little baby ocotillo. Is it cute? Sure. Charming? Absolutely. Huggable? Not so much.

I haven’t seen very many of these, but here is a little baby ocotillo. Is it cute? Sure. Charming? Absolutely. Huggable? Not so much.

Ocotillos are a Sonoran and Chihuahuan Desert species, so we have them here in the southern part of the Needles Field Office where the Mojave Desert meets the north edge of the Sonoran. Their range extends to the east all the way to Texas. Ocotillo is in the Fouquieriaceae Family, and one of its cousins is the equally bizarre boojum (Fouquieria columnaris) of Baja California, a similar species that can grow more than 60 feet tall. If you’re looking for pictures of strange desert plants (which I recommend), this family is a good place to start.

In fact, I think I’ll leave you with even more plants to go look up. I learned about these from a book put out by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson (a good place to visit I’m told). There is a plant family called Didiereaceae that appears only in Madagascar. Do a search for “Didiereaceae” pictures. First, you can probably tell that they are totally wild and strange plants. Now compare the ocotillo pictures I’ve posted to some of the Didiereaceae plants, especially the genus Alluaudia (maybe do a separate search for this one). They look pretty similar right? Probably related? Well, it turns out that these two families are not closely related at all. Didiereaceae are somewhat related to cacti, and have succulent leaves that are different from ocotillos. And yet they have evolved with a strikingly similar appearance and growth habit. This is called convergent evolution, a process by which organisms that are not closely related are shaped by similar environmental conditions so that they evolve to have similar traits that have developed independently of one another.

How amazing is that!? Guys, plants are so cool.

Until Next Time,


Needles Field Office, BLM