Unchained from my desk for a day!

A couple of weeks ago I got to head outside to help release translocated subadult and adult bull trout into the Clackamas River for a reintroduction project that I’ve been involved with for nearly three years.  These bull trout were taken from the Metolius basin, implanted with radio tags so they can be tracked, and trucked over to the Clackamas River, where they will hopefully reproduce and re-establish a population in a part of their historic range.  It was an amazingly beautiful day out, and I hope the bull trout like their new home!

You can read more about the day at the Columbia River Fisheries Program Office’s Dish on Fish blog, here.

One small step for fish biologists, one great splash for bull trout!

**Please note: this is my personal blog and reflects my personal opinions. Any questions about this project relating to agency positions should be directed to either the US Fish and Wildlife Service or the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Thanks for reading!**

Sooo…this post is going to be about work. Which I rarely blog about, but last week was a good week, so I’m going to go ahead and share. One of the first projects I became involved with when I started my job here almost two years ago was the reintroduction of bull trout in the Clackamas basin, a little bit southeast of Portland. Bull trout once coexisted in the basin with a suite of native fish species including salmon and steelhead. However, bull trout disappeared from the basin in the 1960s (the last confirmed sighting was in 1963) largely as a result of overfishing and habitat degradation. So, now that many of the issues that caused bull trout to be extirpated have been addressed, the Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service, decided that the time was ripe to reintroduce bull trout into the Clackamas to resume its spot in the ecosystem.

Bull trout in the Kootenai River drainage in Montana. Photo by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Stock (used with permission).

The reintroduction project has been in the planning phases since the mid-2000s. Bull trout were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, and reintroducing them to a part of their native range falls under recovery actions planned for this species. Our office provides technical assistance to the regulatory folks, and it was my task to perform the preliminary bioenergetics modeling for bull trout, as well as lead the development of the Monitoring and Evaluation Plan for the project, which is anticipated to continue for up to 20 years (and perhaps beyond that). I am currently the chair of the M&E committee, comprised of biologists from several of the agencies involved in the project. It was a big task to complete the M&E plan, but a necessary one for a couple of reasons.

First, the bull trout population in the Clackamas is an experimental one. The major benefit of having a strong Monitoring and Evaluation program is that we will learn something no matter what happens – we will learn why the reintroduction succeeded or failed. Either way, we will know more about what might work for the recovery of this population as this project progresses, and ultimately for this species elsewhere in its range.

Second, we need to pay close attention to what these bull trout do in the Clackamas because there are other listed species in the basin, such as Chinook, coho and steelhead. In fact, this project has been fairly controversial because of concern for these other listed species, which makes it all the more important that we have a strong M&E program and dot all of our regulatory i’s and cross all of our regulatory t’s. Because bull trout are top predators, where these species overlap in time and space salmon and steelhead may face an increased risk of being eaten by bull trout. Of course, bull trout eat plenty of things other than salmon and steelhead (other fish, insects, etc.). But part of our monitoring program focuses on the interaction of all of these listed species so that project managers can take action if it looks like the impacts from bull trout are greater than anticipated.

Anyway, there’s a bit more to the story, but I’ll cut to the chase. Last week was a big week for us because we finally completed all of the regulatory requirements needed to get fish in the water. About 30 subadult and adult bull trout were collected from the Metolius, implanted with radio tags so we can keep track of their whereabouts, trucked over to the Clackamas, and released in the Big Bottom portion of the upper basin. Yay! There was a fair amount of press there, and it was great to see these beautiful fish swim in waters they hadn’t seen for 50 years. Let’s just hope they stay there! We’ll continue to move juvenils and subadults/adults through July, and our monitoring program will kick in almost immediately.

You can see some of the video footage and pictures that were taken here:

From the Oregonian – http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2011/06/bull_trout_released_in_upper_c.html

From KGW News Channel 8 – http://www.kgw.com/video/featured-videos/Bull-trout-released-in-Clackamas-River-124829994.html

And here are some pictures I took – enjoy!

There were plenty of people on hand to witness the first bull trout release!
Above, this bull trout was just taken off the transport truck. The cooler was walked down to the banks of the Clackamas and the bull trout swam in the waters of its new home a few moments later.
This was the first bull trout back in the Clackamas! Good luck – we’ll be keeping track of you!

They Finally Let Me Outside for Good Behavior (or Something…)

In the past two weeks, I’ve actually gotten to go outside three times for work. Wow! Imagine that – a biologist actually being allowed to go outside…since I have no window in my office, I’d practically forgotten what sunlight is like. Which may explain the pale, pasty complexion and vitamin D efficiency that I’ve fallen prey to lately…

Anyway, I spent two days looking at project sites on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, which is my new turf. On the first day I got to see my first endangered arroyo toad, along with some of the beautiful beaches and heavy amphibious vehicles the Marines use in their water-to-land assault operations (guess which I was more excited about).

On the second day, I assisted one of our office ornithologists in his weekly endangered least Bell’s vireo nest surveys. Which was really cool – we found several nests with eggs and chicks, and lots of other cool critters as well. I’ll put a link to some of the more interesting photos to the right so you can view them all!

The following week I participated in searching for endangered light-footed clapper rail nest surveys at the Tijuana Estuary just south of San Diego. It was a lot of fun, but a lot of work! We were walking around in boot-hungry mud and cord grass trying to find nests with eggs, but not step on them. We only found three nests with eggs, and they all appeared to be viable (I checked the fetal heartbeat with the Egg Buddy) so we didn’t collect any of them for contaminants analysis. We did take one egg back to the refuge to be incubated, as it appeared to have been abandoned by the parents. We saw several clapper rails, but they’re very speedy so I didn’t get any pictures of them. But I did get lots of other photos, so take a look at the slide show link to the right. I was completely filthy and muddy and sweaty and sore, but I also had a really great time – I think I might have even got a little sun on my neck. But just a little…I was wearing a big hat and plenty of sunscreen. I’m still working on keeping up that pale complexion and vitamin D deficiency…

Hope you’re all doing well and enjoying the spring!

And we set off two ground sensors, too!

I was fortunate enough to be able to leave the confines of my windowless cube-shaped office on Friday and escape into the Otay Mountain wilderness, just north of the US-Mexico border. A couple of us went on a tecate cypress reconnaissance mission for a monitoring program we’re developing for the Thorne’s hairstreak, a rare butterfly that lives in tecate cypress stands. It was a super nice day, and trekking through very dense prickly stabby vegetation left me sweaty, covered in charcoal (some of the stands we visited had burned recently), scratched, and minorly impaled. Needless to say, I was happy – I really do like being out in areas where I’m more likely to be speared by some sort of yucca plant than shot by a stray bullet (as is the case at home) or succumb to a severe case of carpel tunnel syndrome (as is the case at work).Actually, it was kind of sketchy – we came across numerous signs of illegal immigrants who cross the border and travel through the mountains (sneaker-not boot-tracks, empty waterbottles), and the brush is so dense that you’d practically be on top of someone before you knew they were there. Luckily, we didn’t run into any trouble, but we did set off at least two of the Border Patrol’s ground sensors, who deployed a helicopter to investigate us on two separate occasions. And holy balls – we saw a lot of BP agents, all driving brand-new trucks. Our government spends a lot of money trying to keep people from crossing the border, but I can’t see how it’s really worth it. We went to take a look at the border fence – we went all the way to the end of it – and people cut through it and tunnel under it, and the feds just patch the fence and wait for them to do it again. It’s just a cat and mouse game, and we keep spending the money to play. Pointless – we could be doing so much more with those dollars! Sigh…

Oh well – enjoy some pictures I took…

I spotted this burrowing owl from the road – the first one I’ve ever seen in the wild!

Moon setting over a ridge…

Looking southeast into Mexico…

The end of the border fence. Guess which side is Mexico!

It’s not all about birds and butterflies…

It’s also brodiaea season! Brodiaea filifolia, or thread-leaved brodiaea, is one of the several endangered species that I work with in my turf. It was a nice rainy winter, so the brodiaea is up and blooming. Some years it doesn’t bloom at all, so it’s always cool when the purple flowers open up and you can see where the populations are. These pictures were taken Monday, when I went to see one of the largest populations left in Carlsbad, on the La Costa Greens preserve. Enjoy!

We also saw tons of ground spiders. They usually hide down in the hole when they see you coming, but this bad-ass came up to see what I was doing as I snapped a few pictures of him.  Also, a couple of days ago I finally got my first view of El Salto Falls, on Buena Vista Creek in Carlsbad. It’s a wonderful waterfall (very rare in the area) that has about a 40-foot drop. Native Americans have been visiting the falls for about 9000 years, and it’s on their list of sacred places; you can’t access the falls, but if you park at the northwestern corner of the Kohl’s parking lot off of Marron Road, peek over the fence and you’ll have a great view. Very cool!

The hills are alive…blah blah blah blah blaah blaaaaah…

About once a week I get to leave the dim confines of my office and drive up to Palomar Mountain. I spend the whole day looking for butterflies! Me and the rest of the survey team are specifically searching for an extremely rare endangered butterfly, the Laguna Mountain Skipper. We think their flight season is almost over (sightings have tapered off a bit), but I thought I’d post some pictures of some of the butterflies – and other things – I’ve encountered on the mountain. Enjoy!

Here’s the Laguna Mountain Skipper. It’s about the size of your thumbnail, maybe a little bigger. There’s a look-alike species that is also present, just to try to fool us; but I’ve been scoring 100’s on my LMS tests, so I think I’ve got that problem licked.

See that little white dot on one of the leaflets? That’s a skipper egg. The butterfly will land on horkelia (the host plant pictured here), curl her abdomen around the underside of the leaf, and deposit one egg, maybe another one on a neighboring leaf. They’re kind of hard to find, and each individual lays only maybe 100-200 eggs before dying. Most of the eggs are parasitized by wasps, or grazed by cattle when they eat the plant. It’s tough being a skipper, and I’m surprised any of them make it to adulthood!

This is a funereal duskywing; there were a lot out this week but they moved very fast and were hard to photograph.

Here’s a lupine blue – there were a ton of blues out last time I visited the mountain, and there are a bunch of different types. They are some of my favorites! They’re still relatively small, a bit larger than the skipper (some of them).

This is a Melissa blue, which hasn’t been documented on the mountain until now. I took this picture because I thought the butterfly was really pretty!

This Mylitta crescent is quite a bit bigger than the other butterflies pictured; kind of mid-sized. There are a lot of larger butterflies on the mountain – we’ve seen monarchs, admirals, and swallowtails. This one just happened to stay still long enough for me to get a picture of it!

Sick of butterflies? I came across this Southern Pacific rattlesnake last time I was out in the field. I also saw two green racers, but this rattler let me take several photos of him. Don’t worry – I didn’t almost step on him, and my camera has a very good zoom lens. This guy was easily as big around as my wrist, and I’m not sure how much more of him was in the burrow there. I’m definitely learning to watch where I walk!

Horkelia, where art thou?

A couple times a year I get to leave the sweet, dry, temperature-controlled confines of my office and head out into the field to help other biologists on monitoring projects. This past week I joined a crew of my fellow desk-jockeys to search for Horkelia clevelandii, the host plant for an endangered butterfly, the Laguna Mountain Skipper. When this project was described to me, I was told that it would be “really mellow, walking around in meadows looking for a little plant”. The name Laguna MOUNTAIN skipper should have tipped me off though – every day we drove up to the top of Palomar Mountain and searched for this small plant in yeah, a couple of meadows, but it seemed like also a lot of brambles and steep forested areas, and bouldered slopes. It was nice though – very pretty out there – aside from being all by myself in mountain lion territory (I carried a knife but I don’t know what good it would’ve done), having a member of our team lock the keys in the car at the end of the day with the clouds rolling in and the temperatures dropping, torrential rains and inpenatrable mist all day on Wednesday, and the pain, my god, the pain. But we had fun, too. We all had radios to keep in contact, and I gave myself the handle of “Dorkelia”. The mist and rain on Wednesday were unbelievably pretty, even if I did have about 20 pounds of equipment strapped to me, a clipboard in one hand, a GPS unit in the other, while trying to scale a 5.10 cliff face. I learned that given a radio, a GPS unit, and a sunny day a person (the same person who locked the keys in the car – who was NOT me) can get lost for two hours. Anyway, here are a few pictures of our adventures – enjoy!

I snapped this picture on the way up to the top of the mountain.

Here’s a nice patch of Horkelia that I found. Most of my sample plots did not have any, but the few patches that I did spot were really dense.

Here’s Kurt, trying to break into our vehicle with a wire hanger. We didn’t have cell phone coverage, but eventually walked to the observatory office and called AAA on my membership. We waited for the tow truck for two hours at the end of a very long, cold day!

Our last day of sampling was pretty easy – I had a couple of points inside of a horse pasture, and luckily none inside of this enclosure. We were warned that the ostrich would rip our guts out if we got too close – note the sign that says “DANGER – do not enter”.