#FieldWorkFail

Wow does time fly! This post is much delayed for two main reasons – lack of internet during fieldwork and a crazy busy travel schedule. In the past two months, I’ve been all over Arizona doing fieldwork and then I traveled to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and South Carolina! Now I am in Peru. But more on all that later!

This post is a follow up on my earlier post on field work fails (Getting stuck in the mud without pants), but instead of a single story, I will present a series of photos documenting failures and mini stories explaining each one. I hope you enjoy!

#FieldWorkFail Number 1: Centipede in the sink
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Whenever you are doing fieldwork, you should expect to have many different encounters with wildlife, whether you want to or not. However, this was something I was not expecting. After washing my dishes at a field station in the Mohave desert of Southern California, this roughly 8-inch long centipede crawled out of the garbage disposal. It scared the s**t out of me! I did not kill it though; I managed to scoop it up in a dust bin and throw it outside. It was only afterwards that I learned this was a Scolopendra, which can have very painful bites that sometimes result in hospital visits. Luckily I was not bit.

#FieldWorkFail Number 2: Hugging a teddy bear cholla
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At the same field station, I had the unfortunate luck of running into a teddy bear cholla. In case you do not know what these are, here is a picture of some:

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These cacti have a very misleading name. Even though they do want to give you a hug, do not let them because they will hurt and make you bleed. And typically the only way to get the huge ball of spikes out of you is with pliers.

#FieldWorkFail Number 3: The bird who pooped all over my car
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When I was down in Southeast Arizona, I was fortunate enough to see many cool and rare birds. In this photo, you can see one of the interesting birds I saw – the hooded oriole. When I first saw it, I got very excited and took many pictures. Then I saw it attacking itself in my car’s rearview mirrors, and I thought it was amusing. However, the next day when I went to check on my car, I found poop all down the sides of my car where the bird had been attacking itself, which took forever to clean off. Lesson learned – when birds get mad, they poop everywhere and it is no longer amusing.

#FieldWorkFail Number 4: When I thought I lost a captive bird
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Keeping animals in captivity when in the field can always be a bit nerve racking. What if they get attacked by something? What if they escape? What if they get too hot or too cold? etc. These are some of the many questions that go through my mind when I have hummingbirds in captivity, despite having great success at doing so with many species. But when I saw this roadrunner with something dead in its beak run from the barn I had my captive hummingbirds housed in, I panicked. I raced to the barn only to find all my cages intact and my birds safe. I then zoomed in on the photo and realized it was a dead mouse in the roadrunner’s beak. Heart attack avoided!

Note – when I keep hummingbirds in captivity, they are inside individual cloth mesh cages that are hung inside a large screen tent for double protection. I also check on them regularly and keep them in safe places, such as a barn. And all of my captive work is approved by the US Fish and Wildlife Services, Arizona Game and Fish, Arizona Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and the field stations at which I work.

#FieldWorkFail Number 5: That time a male acted very odd
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When I first started working with hummingbirds, I tried many different things to get them to do their courtship displays. Some species have been known to court hummingbird mounts, and so I attempted to present a mounted hummingbird to a broad-tailed hummingbird male. I expected the male to either display to the mount or attack it, which are two very normal hummingbird behaviors both of which I have observed. Instead, this male flew up to my mount, and used its bill as a perch. And it just sat there, staring at me. This was entirely unexpected and very strange. After this incident, I decided to scrap that method and have never used it again, but at least I got some interesting photos from the situation.

#FieldWorkFail Number 6: I hate the wind
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When I am doing fieldwork, my number one mortal enemy is the wind, even above ants! And that is because of moments like the one captured in this photo. Here I was simply trying to trap a male hummingbird using a caged female and feeder as a lure, when it suddenly got really windy, blowing my cage around, and making the nets flap like crazy. All of this movement scared the male away, and I never caught him. I ended up having to stop work early that day too because it was just so windy. So yah, I hate the wind.

And those are some of my #FieldWorkFail captured on camera. I hope you enjoyed it, and I will blog again soon with travel updates and maybe some cool pictures from Peru!

Getting stuck in the mud without pants

Fieldwork is a wonderful thing! It allows me to get outside in beautiful places and study animals in their natural habitat. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences, but because very little is ever in your control – weather, animal’s behavior, animal’s presence etc. – many things can and often do go wrong. Sometimes they are entirely my fault, like when I was at Lake Tahoe and I drove to Reno to pick up my field assistant when she had actually flown into Sacramento (3 hours away….), but other times field work fails are not my fault at all. Today’s story, is a mix of both, but mostly not my fault.

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A view of the San Francisco Peaks from my field site near Flagstaff, AZ.

For my first hummingbird fieldwork trip, I spent the summer (2014) in Flagstaff, AZ working on broad-tailed hummingbirds. It was such an amazing trip, and I learned a lot about working on hummingbirds during that time. I also learned some of the difficulties of working in the American Southwest. One of my field sites was a pretty remote area, where I had to travel several miles on a not-so-great dirt road:

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And, as you might have seen in my previous blog posts (here and here), late summertime is monsoon season in Arizona, and that is when I was doing this work. Typically at this remote site, I had a commanding view of the surrounding land:

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which meant I could usually see when storms were coming from a distance, like so:

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This was a good thing, because monsoon storms can be very intense with lots of rain or even hail. Whenever it rains on the dirt roads I was on, they become mud roads and very difficult or dangerous to drive on:

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This photo does not even capture the worst parts of the run. Some parts of the road were completely underwater while others became more like a river. 

My story begins one day when I was at this remote field site. I was busy getting some work done, when suddenly I notice a storm coming over the mountains towards me. I quickly tried to pack up all my stuff, but I got caught in the initial downpour. I got completely drenched but managed to get everything in my car without damaging my equipment. Because I was completely soaked, I figured I would take my pants off while I drove to avoid getting my seat wet. In retrospect, not the brightest idea.

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The storm fast approaching my field site.

As I started to drive off, the road got really slick and muddy. I had some minor fish-tailing but was mostly getting out ok. However, when I was only a few miles from getting to the gravel road, my tires start spinning in the mud. Cursing, I got out of my car (without my pants on) to check out the situation. One of my tires was completely stuck. At this point, I only had a 2-wheel drive SUV, so this was not ideal. I tried to pry the mud out from between my tire and car, and then wedge things under my tire to get it going. I managed to get out of that mud slick, but also managed to get my legs covered in mud. Turns out getting on your hands and knees in the mud without pants on is a terrible idea… After epically failing to keep my car seat dry and clean, I drove a bit further down the road but got stuck again. This chain of events happened two more times before I finally was completely stuck and caked with so much mud. I actually broke a PVC pipe trying to dig the mud out from between my car and tire because it was so tightly packed in there. Oh and did I mention I was supposed to give a talk to an undergrad class that evening?

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A broad-tailed hummingbird, which was the species I was studying in Flagstaff.

Well there I was pantless, covered in mud, car completely stuck in the mud, and many miles away from the field station. And annoyingly, the rain had stopped, so I could not even clean my legs in the rain. I called the instructor of the course to tell him the situation (leaving out some details), and luckily he was very understanding and sent help. However, this help could not get to me because of the road conditions; they could only get to the edge of the gravel road, which was still two miles away. So, I got all my gear, which included a 2x2x2 ft. mesh cage, put my soaking wet pants back on – over my mud caked legs, and hiked out the two miles. I ended up with several inches of mud on my shoes, which was not really an issue since I was already covered in mud both on top of and under my pants. When I finally got to my rescue party, I must have looked completely ridiculous. I was able to go back the next day to retrieve my car, and then I spent the next several hours chipping mud from underneath it and from my tires. Afterwords, I was much more careful of monsoon storms and never took my pants off in the field again.

Morals of the story: 1) do not get caught in monsoon storms when on dirt roads, and 2) if you do, don’t ever take your pants off!

Out-running Monsoon Storms, and Getting Hailed on…

It is monsoon season in Arizona right now, which means frequent afternoon storms across a large portion of the state. Many parts of AZ get most of their annual rainfall from the annual summer monsoon season. However, sometimes this rain comes in the form of crazy and powerful storms. Some of you might remember what happened to me last year during monsoon, when a giant tree fell over just missing our house!

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For more information on this event, check out my post from last year!

While Phoenix and the surrounding valley may get the occasionally intense storm, monsoon for us is mostly sandstorms, also called haboobs, followed by a thunderstorm. If you are in the many mountainous places across Arizona, you might have a very different monsoon experience. High elevation places, such as Flagstaff, seem to get afternoon storms pretty much every day, which I have experienced. These storms sometimes involve a lot of lightning and/or hail. The temperature can also drop 20+ degrees very quickly, which is a nice way to avoid the summer heat…. sometimes. These rainstorms definitely shift people’s activity though. When I was doing fieldwork in Flagstaff this summer before my trip to England, I would have to make sure to finish everything by the afternoon or I would risk getting rained on – with near certainty.

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A distant storm from one of my field sites in Flagstaff.
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The aftermath of an intense hailstorm in Flagstaff.

 

You might be asking why I am randomly talking about monsoon storms. Well, being a mountain-lover and trying to avoid the heat of the desert, I typically try to hike in the mountains whenever I can, but monsoon adds certain complications to this. Last week, I went hiking in the Mazatzal Mountains, north-east of Phoenix, on a trail called Barnhardt trail. This is a very popular trail that climbs along a beautiful valley before getting into the heart of the Mazatzals. My problem was that I started my hike late – sometime after 12 PM. I knew that a storm was inevitable, so I figured I would only get to hike a short while before I had to turn around to avoid the storm. Well, I might have miscalculated my timing. When I started, storms were starting to close in all around me:

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This if a photo from the Barnhardt trailhead.

But the specific area I was in still have sunny clear skies overhead, so I started hiking. I eventually lost myself to the beauty of the hike, as you can hopefully see form these pictures:

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However, one I stopped to take a rest, I realized that the clouds had closed in much faster than I predicted:

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I immediately turned around and started hiking back at a fast past. It got dark very fast, but I was still hopeful that I could escape the storms. I looked out past the valley, across to the mountains on the other side of Highway 87, and saw this:

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With these fear-inspiring images, I managed to keep a good pace, and as the trail leveled out, I knew I was within half a mile or so to my car. Unfortunately, that is when the first few raindrops started to fall. At first I thought, well I have rain gear, so I can probably avoid getting too wet and will just have a less fun trek in the rain. That was true for a while, but things got worse. The sound of falling rain gradually got much louder, and I started seeing things bouncing on the ground. It was starting to hail!

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Hail on the ground; from my iPhone to avoid damaging my camera.

I knew I was very close to my car at this point, but once it started hailing hard, I could not have been close enough. The hail was not too big – around dime size – but it definitely still hurt has it fell on my head.

I finally found my car and quickly got in, started it, and tried to get the hell out of there. It was hailing and raining very hard at this point, and with a slight feeling of panic, I quickly drove a way – probably faster than I should have. I was afraid of the road flooding before I could get out, which would leave me stranded for a while, so I pushed my driving skills to the limit, hoping that the pounding hail would not break my windshield and that I would not fishtail off the road.

After what seemed like an eternity driving through hail and rain, I dropped quite a bit in elevation as I reached highway 87, and eventually the hail/rain turned into just rain, and then nothing. Along the highway, there was no rain at all. I looked back and could not even see the mountains I had just been hiking in.

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Looking back, from my iPhone.

Thankfully I had escaped the storm with no issues, but I think I got lucky. I knew monsoon storms were typically intense at high elevations, but this was the first time I had gotten caught in a hail storm. My advice to those who wish to hike in the mountains in the near future – keep a close eye on the clouds and play it ultra-safe!

I hope you enjoyed this post – it was a bit different than my typical travelogs, but this is also my 50th post, so I wanted to make it special! Thank you to everyone who has kept up with and supported this blog, and I hope you continue to follow me as I pave my way to the next milestone – 100 posts!