23 October 2015

Volunteering with the Long-term Ecological Research Network

Melanie Banville watches for birds at sunrise from one of the Long-term Ecological Research sites along the Salt River in Phoenix

Over the last week and a half, I've been volunteering to help with some bird point counts for the Long-term Ecological Research Network.  The LTER is well known among ecologists as a group of 27 sites and more than 2000 scientists spread from northern Alaska to Antarctica.  Back in the 1970s, scientists realized there was a bias in our ecological research: because so much ecological research is done by graduate students and academic faculty, the vast majority of ecological studies last less than five years, and at best perhaps the length of a career.  There was a shortage of truly long-term studies, and so our understanding of long-term ecological processes was limited.  In 1980 the National Science Foundation established the LTER network to start to remedy this shortcoming, providing the world with important ecological research over time spans of decades to, hopefully, centuries.

A dramatic and beautiful sunrise over the Salt River in Phoenix.  We were always in place to start counting the birds just as the sun rose.

Steam rising from Salt River at the confluence with the Gila River just after another sunrise.

Realizing the growing importance of studying human interactions with the environment, the NSF added two urban sites to the existing network of mostly remote locations in 1997.  These new urban LTER sites were in Baltimore and Phoenix.  A couple of months ago, at the Arizona Field Ornithologists meeting, I met one of the biologists on the Phoenix LTER and told her that if she ever needed any help, I'd be happy to join her in the field.  Last week, Melanie took me up on the offer, and I've been helping her with bird point counts since last Thursday.

Another sunrise over the Salt River, this time from Mesa.

Not all the sites were as scenic as the photos above; sometimes we had to work our way around discarded couches and rugs, or worse.

The bird counts we were working on focus specifically on urban sites along the Salt River, which flows (or trickles) through the greater Phoenix area.  As such, they weren't always the cleanest or safest birding sites I've been to!  But, on the other hand, my birding has brought me to many a landfill or sewage treatment plant, so they weren't that dirty in comparison, either.  We tried to stay aware of our surroundings and to keep safety in mind, and although we saw lots of trash, smelled some dead animals, and saw several abandoned homeless camps, we didn't really encounter any scary situations.

Melanie birding one of many wetlands along the Salt River.  Unlike most rivers through major cities, this one only flows rarely.  The rest of the year, it is more like a string of ponds and wetlands spread out along a gravelly wash.

Despite the condition of some of our locations, we had a great time, and saw some great birds.  The scenery was stunning in places, and we got to access a lot of areas that are usually off-limit to birders.  Probably the best part was that I got to both learn and teach a lot about birds.  It was really rewarding to spend so much time with an experienced local ornithologist - I taught her about identifying Pine Siskins in flight, and she taught me about all the different vocalizations that Verdins give.  I taught her how to identify cormorants at a distance, and she taught me how to tell Black-tailed and Blue-gray gnatcatchers apart by voice. It was a fun and educational give-and-take while enjoying beautiful mornings watching birds in some (mostly) beautiful locations!

These are Neotropic Cormorants, as are the majority of cormorants in the Phoenix area, but Double-crested Cormorants are not rare and it takes a bit of practice to pick them out as they fly by overhead.
This was one of two Lark Buntings we spotted, one of the rarer species we saw in a week of morning bird counts.  Although it can be found in the area from August to May, there are only about 10 previous October records for the greater Phoenix area (according to eBird, some records including multiple birds).  This was a lifer for Melanie.

No comments: