Hummingbird Monitoring in the Grand Staircase


Rufous hummingbird–  The birds often rest for 10-20 seconds to recover from the stress of handling before they fly away.

As I sit in the office in Escalante, I can’t believe my time here is almost over! The fall rains have come to this formerly hot and dry desert landscape, and a familiar chill is in the air once again.  Except for the one main highway that runs through town, none of the roads here are paved.  The remaining roads are made of clay and silt, which makes them pretty dangerous when it storms, and impassible when the scourge of floodwaters literally wash them away.  Back when summer was in full swing and the area was more reliably safe to traverse, our team was able to conduct surveys of many different animal species on the monument.  Our boss, Terry, partners with the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, so we spent many early mornings driving to beautiful sites along slick-rock rivers and in the crisp mountain forests.

A typical day goes something like this:


Drop-net feeder trap

We arrive to work between 4:30-5:30 am in order to make it to the sites early enough.  The birds are more active and numerous before sunrise.  We begin by getting all the banding equipment in order and setting up the drop-net traps.  If we have time before the survey begins, we scramble to make a fire to keep the frigid winds at bay.  Then, eyes still red from lack of sleep, we begin trapping! The traps have a feeder hanging in the center.  Once a bird lands and begins to drink, we trip a wire from about 15-20 feet away.  A circular net drops around the feeder and makes contact with the base.  The bird is unharmed and still free to fly around in the enclosure.  We simply grab a small mesh bag, walk up to the feeder, and very gently reach in and get the bird.


Teeny tiny hummingbird band!

Terry is trained by the network to examine and band the birds, so once we deliver the birds to him, we begin to take data.  First, exact species, sex, and age is confirmed.  We then look to see if the bird already has a band.  If not, the bird’s tarsus is measured to make sure the band will fit.  Too big and the band either falls off or gets material wedged inside.  Too small, and you risk injury to the bird.  Each band has a unique number used to identify the bird if captured again. Banding species of any kind is a very precise and meticulous process, but is especially important in this situation as hummingbirds are obviously very small.  Can you imagine using a special pair of pliers to apply a metal band to an ankle that’s barely bigger than a piece of pencil lead?  Special care is always taken to make sure the birds are not injured.  I’m glad Terry knows what he’s doing, because I’m not ready for that kind of pressure!


Feeding post-banding

Next, we gather information about the bird’s specific markings, colors, and condition.  We measure the birds weight, length of the wing chord and culmen (bill), how much fat is present, wear on the body’s different feathers, and more.  The four most common hummingbird species we encounter are: Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Calliope. We all try to work as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that the birds don’t endure more stress than necessary.  Hummingbirds have extraordinary metabolisms, so they lose a lot of energy in the short time we have them. Because of this, we make sure to feed each bird before releasing them.



Fire: our saving grace on the mountain during those cold 30-40 degree mornings

Each survey period is precisely five hours long.  We take care to measure the change in temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover every hour.  We also record the number of birds that simply fly by to check the feeder out, rather than stop for a drink.  Birds are discerning creatures, and many of them are rightfully skeptical that their usual feeders are now surrounded by a mess of unintelligible equipment.  Usually after the first 1-2 hours, the number of birds we trap takes a dive.  This is a time for us to  desperately run to the fire and warm our freezing hands.  Once the survey period is over, we pack up and find a nice spot overlooking a lake or river to eat lunch, remembering all the fascinating species we caught that day!


Though getting up at 4:00 am wasn’t always easy, it was definitely worth it.  Those early mornings were some of the best of the whole season, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything- not even more sleep.

Lauryl McFarland

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument




Autumnal Equinox


Yesterday was the Fall equinox for our latitude, which means our days are drastically getting shorter: approximately 5:35 minutes per day in the months of September and October. At this rate, although the day length difference does begin to decrease with a tapering effect, at the end of October we have a sunrise at 9:30 am and sunset at 6:00 pm. At the end of November, 9:44 am and 3:52 pm. Aye, winter is upon us.

The Equinox also allowed the opportunity to reflect on a productive field season; friendships made, concepts learned, surveys conducted, data collected and water conserved (who needs showers?).


Field-family photo


Too much time in the backcountry can make you behave quite strangely.

After a season of primarily surveys and monitoring, it was refreshing to finally do some seed collection for the Wrangell-St. Elias native seed bank. Since our focus for the seed is restoration in disturbed areas of the park, primary successors were the focus of the collections. Two weeks were spent scouting and collecting from Calamagrostis canadensis and Elymus trachycaulus and Oxytropis campestrus populations, while also finding time to obtain some smaller collections of various wildflowers and some less abundant grasses. We were lucky enough to have a lovely SCA crew working with us during this period and it dramatically increased our productivity. As it turns out, 10 individuals can collect an awesome amount of seed in 2 weeks. Thanks guys! As far as seed processing and refinement goes, we processed most of the small collections ourselves, but our larger collections will soon be sent off to a plant materials center once dry.

A seed mix was derived from a portion of this years seed, along with that from previous years. The goal was to restore vegetation with this seed mix to a series of gravel slopes in the Kennecott Historic Mining District within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. With the help of the SCA crew that aided us in our collections, the first stage of a small restoration was conducted in the areas. Fingers crossed for successful germination!


Native seed mix to be sown in Kennecott


Collecting Bromus ciliatus in the Wrangell Mountains

As the field season is officially over, we start to find odds and ends things to fill our days; Preparation of voucher specimen for placement in the herbarium, seed cleaning, educational programs and so on. Without a doubt most time consuming of tasks will be writing our 2016 Summer Report. The end is near, and it certainly feels odd writing a summary report for this season.

Synced with the Equinox are many more Alaskan pleasantries. Here in Alaska, this part of the year is a wonderful time for folks to come together and celebrate with recently acquired game, particularly moose and caribou. I am not much a fan of red meat, but caribou heart just may be the most incredible muscle tissue I have ever consumed.

In other news, a winemaking project with blackcurrants and blueberries will be wrapping up soon, and we are quickly accumulating snow on the glaciers in Thompson Pass, which means backcountry ski/snowboard season is here. October will be swell.


Delicious caribou heart.


This candid male moose had an uncomfortably small flight zone earlier this summer. I wonder if he escaped the ravenous hunters this fall.

The summer—no sweeter was ever;
   The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
   The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
   The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness—
   O God! how I’m stuck on it all.
The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
   The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
   The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
   The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
   I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
– Robert Service


I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever leave this place.


Above Nabesna Mine with a glimpse of the Nabesna River. The Nabesna River is famously fed by Nabesna Glacier, the longest valley glacier in North America.




Winter is coming

Summer ended with a bang here in Vernal, and across the rest of Utah as well.  The official first day of fall coincided with a massive cold front that brought torrential downpours, high winds, and even a few tornadoes across the entire state.  It started snowing again in the Uintas.  That trend will probably continue until the peaks are buried deep under 4 feet of snow.  That was something I learned firsthand in May about 2 weeks after I got here, when I tried to climb Marsh Peak and ended up fighting through waist deep snow for hours with nothing to show for it.

We are still in limbo over most of our collections.  We have our eyes on two different eriogonum species that will probably be collected soon, but we are worried that most of our remaining collections won’t be ready until after we leave.  The Sarcobatus vermiculatus seems to be coming along well and will probably be caught, but Most of the artemisia species are still barely flowering.  The only way we could get those is if me or Hannah extends into November.  That’s a possibility but not likely.  I’m waiting to hear back for a job that starts in November and Hannah has her own plans.  I guess we will have to count on next years interns to get those collections.