The Soggy, Sunless Days on the Chugach

Much of what we saw on our early hikes up near Moose Pass, AK were the opening fiddle head ferns just barely rising out of the ground. According to our mentor, this spring is unlike most with all the cool temperatures and rain. It took until late June for plants to start flowering. Overall, Josh and I have counted 3 days that we’ve seen the sun shine where we live off Kenai Lake. This has been a blessing and a curse, as it has given us ample time to practice and prepare, but also shortens our window for our seed collections.

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Fiddle Head Ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris, along Ptarmigan Lake Trail

Up until this point, we have been floating around different departments to help with projects. One of them involved putting up fencing along the Russian River to prevent any damage or loss to the vegetation along the bank during sport fishing season, where ~150,000 people come to this small campground area to fish over the course of two months. Another project we worked on was treating European Bird Cherry, Prunus padus. In a team of about 4 people, we went in to off-trail National Forest land areas around Hope, AK to find invasive Bird Cherry trees and used Field Maps to create a polygon and record data. The actual treatment entailed hand sawing the smaller saplings and hanging them about 4 feet above the ground to prevent regrowth from the nodes. Herbicide was also applied by our mentor. Another project we participated in was goshawk surveying. This ongoing project focuses on goshawk nesting habitat because habitat degradation is understood to be one of the primary causes of reduced breeding goshawks, thus making it a sensitive and rare species. This process involves going out to previously recorded nest sites, playing a goshawk distress call to see if one shows up, and checking the area for hatchling feathers and fresh feces near the base of the old nests.

One of the areas we are covering for a plant phenology project on iNaturalist is the Trail of Blue Ice, where you’re able to see glaciers that hang from the gullies and ravines in the mountains that border the portage valley. Although there isn’t much flowering right now, we were able to observe small populations of Achillea millefolium, Lupinus nootkatensis, and Geum macrophyllum from our priority species list that are just beginning to bud. We also found Carex macrochaeta, which is common along some of the trails we have hiked. After verifying the species and discussing with our mentor, we agreed that it should be included in our priority species list, as it is a wetland indicator. Because this is the first year the Chugach has had seed collectors, it has been quite exciting to bust out the old plant presses and be a part of building the foundation for future CLM interns.

We have be able to document collection sites for about 7 species on our list. I expect to collect Lupinus nootkatensis seeds first, as they are starting to fruit. We have also practiced collecting data and pressing plants for voucher specimens, which has been another challenge to dry out the material in this humid environment. I cant wait for what July will bring!

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Enjoying the rare glimpse of sunshine and some homemade cheesecake off the shore of Kenai Lake

Wild Life and Wilderness

The first month of this journey has been everything I was hoping for and more! The Tongass NF is so vast and filled with dense wilderness, it’s much more accessible by float plane or boat than by car. So we’ve been traveling mostly by boat, which can present challenges with rough seas or stormy days. However, the weather has been surprisingly incredibly nice. The tales of torrential rain 7 days a week were greatly over exaggerated (please don’t let this jinx me).

As we wait for our targeted species to flower, develop fruits, and then go to seed, we have filled our time with trainings, scouting, rare species surveys, and micro timber sale surveys. We’ve also done a few personal use timber surveys, a program that I believe is unique to Alaska. Each Alaskan resident is given the opportunity to take 10,000 board feet of timber for their personal use (usually to build a house or stock up on firewood). So i’ve gone out to a few different islands with the timber crew to survey the trees they’ve chosen to make sure it’s 150 ft away from any streams or eagles nest, the forest floor is clear of any rare species, and outside of any cultural resource sites. It’s been an interesting experience, my preconceived bias was that these individuals would want the biggest and easiest trees to extract. However, the individuals were very environmentally conscious, and turned down trees that they felt would disturb the ecology of the forest. Its refreshing to see how connected the residents here are with the forest, something that is not as common in other parts of America.

Anyways, I’m super excited for the rest of this adventure. I’ve learned a ton and can’t wait to absorb even more!

Saving Ducks, Treating Invasives and Making Plant Observations in the Chugach National Forest

It has been a month now since we arrived in Moose Pass, Alaska for the Conservation Land Management internship with the USFS. There has been constant on-and-off rain due to the monsoon this year and the flowers are just starting to bloom making it very difficult for us to begin collecting seeds. One of the first projects our mentor had us work on was to create a field reference guide of our priority plant species list for native seed collection.

During our first few weeks here, we have been assisting the USFS with other projects including putting up fencing along the shore of the Russian River to protect the vegetation from people who come for sport fishing season and treatment of an invasive plant species called Prunus Padas commonly known as European Bird Cherries.

European Bird Cherry, Prunus padas, is a highly invasive, rhizomatous plant that was planted as an ornamental years ago in Hope. Now certain remnants of it remain in the forest and have been visited over the last ~5 years by workers of the Forest Service to eradicate it from the area to prevent it from overtaking the native plants.

One day when we were out in Hope, Alaska searching for European Bird Cherries, our mentor discovered a Harlequin duck with a fishing line caught around its neck and attached to a log along the shore of the river. My mentor picked up the duck, I cut the line off of the duck’s neck, and we returned the duck back to the river.

Rescuing a Harlequin duck

We have also been using iNaturalist to make plant observations on any plant species we find while we are out scouting for possible seed collection sites along the many trails of the Kenai Peninsula. Additionally, we created 3 project pages on iNaturalist. One for users to make and share observations of plants and fungi throughout the Chugach National Forest, and two of which are for specific wildflower viewing areas where we have asked users to upload photos and information on plant phenology.

Below I have provided the links to our Three projects for anyone interested:

When we are not out in the field, we are usually in the office practicing keying out and pressing plant species that we have collected.

June in the Chugach National Forest has been a difficult time for seed collection since most plants are still in early stages of phenology. Hopefully more plants begin to flower in July!

Beauty in the Unexpected

When we travel to Midwestern prairie remnants to collect from an extremely long list of target species, it can be disappointing to ID a species with a large population that is not on your list. I am here to argue for the beauty in the unexpected undesirables (those not on the list). We see everything from abundant plants that we have more than enough seed from to rare plants to things that are not plants at all. During a recent hitch to northern Minnesota, we were scouting a large prairie remnant when I stumbled upon the Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae). It is the state flower and a beloved symbol of the area. Even though I had previously lived in Minnesota for four years, I had never seen one until this scouting trip. It was certainly not on our collection list and only had a population size of five across the section we saw, but it was still special to see.

Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae)

Our target species are often difficult to find and/or produce very little seed. This makes it difficult to find the perfect collection population, but also makes the effort worthwhile by filling in the gaps. Unlike our target species, we often see the same plants over and over again in large populations that make us wish they were on our list for ease of collection. One such beautiful plant is the purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea). When it is not blooming, the blue-ish gray spikes predominate the landscape. When it blooms, the spikes turn strikingly purple and the small flowers are quite a sight (even if you have seen them many times before).

Purple Prairie Clover (Dalia purpurea)

We visit large ecosystems that support much more life than just the plant populations. From the less desired ticks and mosquitos to the frogs and snakes that jump out as we walk through the field, the sites are full of life. Some USFWS offices create partnerships with local farmers to use cattle or even bison to graze and help manage the land. While driving away from a field site, we saw one group of such bison. Within the field sites, animals tend to run away quickly or hide from us. Try to find the frog hidden in the photo below.

I spy a frog

June was a month filled with discovering new sites, seeing many plant species for the first time, and collecting populations of successful seeds. I am excited to see what July brings.

Life’s a Hoot in Ruidoso, New Mexico

The fascinating thing about moving to a new place is the people you get to meet. Sometimes you never know what type of connections you will develop, the stories you will hear, the advice you will receive, and the memories you will make. More importantly, the opportunities the future will hold because “It’s all about connections” as stated by Kathryn, the FS Southwestern Regional Botanist, over lunch in Santa Fe.

Taylor, one of my CLM mentors at the Smokey Bear District, pointing to the different mountains surrounding Lincoln County to Peter, CLM co-intern, at Windy Point Vista Point of Interest.

My CLM mentor, Larry, is all too familiar with this concept. On more than one occasion he mentioned one of the factors that led him to become the Wildlife Biologist at Smoker Bear District for the Lincoln National Forest was because the HR person was someone that knew him from a previous job in Oregon. Of course, the HR individual put in a good word for him. Nearing end of the story, Larry mentions he genuinely loves his job because for the past 35 years he worked closely with Mexican spotted owl across the Lincoln NF. This raptor species was another reason why Larry took the job here as he previously worked with the Northern spotted owls on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie NF.

A pair Mexican spotted owl fledglings perched on a white fir branch in Lincoln FS.
A female Mexican spotted owl feeding a dead mice to one of her fledglings.

Unfortunately, the Mexican spotted owl is federally listed as a threatened
species under the Endangered Species Act. The decline of the species is due
to habitat loss and alteration caused by timber harvest and wildfires over the years.
Therefore, part of Larry’s job is to conduct owl surveys, which determine the
location and distribution of owl pairs and nest sites and determine if they are
successfully producing offspring.

Luckily, Larry took us with him on an owl survey on our third day on the job. As we drove into Lincoln NF, I didn’t know what to expect other than Larry was looking for the owls while we did some botanizing along the way. However, Larry explained the survey process starts by hiking into the forest with a known pair activity, in other words, where owls were known to nest. Often occurs in the Canadian life zone, which consists of mixed conifer forest that includes species such as white fir, Douglas fir, southwestern white pine, ponderosa pine, etc.

Mixed conifer forest found in Lincoln NF.

Once at the area, owl calls are played off a recording, or if you are like Larry, different
owl calls are imitated to entice the owl for a response. Usually, this part of
the survey process would happen in the night. If there was a response, they
would go back to the area the next morning and look at any owls or fledglings
on the surrounding trees. Once an owl is located and no fledglings are in sight,
they try to locate the nest by offering a live mouse to the male or female owl
hoping it will take it back to their offspring.

Unfortunately, there was no response in our first location. However, at our
second location, Larry was able to locate the fledglings after seeing the
shadow of an owl fly over him when he imitated different owl sounds. You can
hear his excitement as he called out to us to come over where he was.

As I approached where he was standing, I saw a bundle of football size white fuzz on a branch. It was my first time seeing a pair of fledgling and I didn’t expect how odd
looking they were going to be. Nonetheless, it was a sight to see. Larry then
located the female owl nearby, which was difficult to spot as it camouflaged
with the bark and branches of the trees. Larry then carefully removed a live
mouse from a container and placed it on a nearby branch. Watching, we saw the
owl position itself for flight and take the mice without making a sound. Eventually,
taking the mice to one of the fledglings.

As Larry shares information to the group about the species, a male Mexican spotted owl “successfully” takes the mice that was placed on a branch.

We continue marvel at the raptor species, but eventually, it was time to head back to the office.

New surroundings and a love for the unknown at Umpqua National Forest

Umpqua National Forest, a land of many tall trees and rushing waterfalls, has become my home for the next six months. It was initially terrifying having just graduated school and moved across the country, however, now it has all become so familiar. Everyday visits from the blue jays and other winged pleasantries are an everyday occurrence that starts the day with a sense of joy and peace. One of the things about moving across the country and living all by yourself post-graduation is a journey of self-discovery. Something you may have once held true twists and turns and becomes a completely different reality when you’re abreast with the solitudinous of nature. Being immersed with the entities that this planet calls its children puts into perspective the true purpose of oneself. A quote from Anne Frank reads, “I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.” As you enter the grand domain of nature you start to find those worries and anxieties that you hold so tightly to your chest peel away as if they were never there in the first place. Personally, living within the natural world has helped quell an incredibly anxious time of existential dread. Umpqua National Forest has become the perfect antidote for this never-ending disease.

A great view of the North Umpqua scenery atop the Pine Bench Trail

Besides the philosophical transformation taking place within the forest, I have been put to work and have made great progress in plans to collect seeds. My co-intern Casey and I have begun to map different collection points for the particular collection species native to Umpqua, my personal favorite being the yarrow. Although we have begun to make progress, much of our duties insofar have been delegated to the removal of invasive species such as himalayan blackberry, scotch broom, and certain thistles. Most of our days include mapping of treatments for invasives and getting stabbed by himalayan blackberry while treating. As well, we have also had the luxury of doing rare species monitoring at Tiller Ranger Station, climbing Mt. Fuji in the Willamette National Forest to identify White bark pine, and plenty of other out of the ordinary training opportunities. One especially important to me was being able to get my felling and bucking license after not being able to get it the previous summer. I’m sure there will be plenty more training opportunities in the future for us to capitalize on.

Atop Mt. Fuji

Lastly, I feel it is important to talk about the incredible coworkers that I have that are making this experience that much better. Everybody who I have run into at the Botany Department has helped me in some sort of way whether it be in plant identification or just making me feel welcomed. As everybody knows coworkers can make or break a job. I can tell that mine are going to make it better. Until next months post…

(Some extra pictures to finish off the post)

Western sheep moth on some Ceanothus
Western Rattlsnake Plantain (I thought these only existed out East!)
Dog for good luck