A day in the life of a wildlife biologist

My alarm wakes me at 4:30am. Today the snooze button is not an option. Today is a bird survey day. I must be in position and ready to begin the survey within 15 minutes of the official sunrise.

I slide out of bed and begin my morning routine: get dressed, assemble lunch, eat breakfast, swallow medication. Then I’m out the door and on my way to work.

At the office I transfer a pile of gear from my desk to my work vehicle. Binoculars? Check. Rangefinder? Check? Clipboard and data sheets? Check and check. I toss my backpack onto the seat and now I’m ready to go.

Today’s survey area is a twenty-minute drive from the office. I’ll be spending the morning counting birds at a cattle ranch, and my findings will help the ranch manager make management decisions about his rangeland. The results will also help me make better recommendations to others who want to improve habitat quality on their land.

By using birds as indicators of land health I will be able to determine which habitat elements and ecosystem processes are present and which are absent. No woodpeckers? The ranch probably lacks snags. No Oak Titmouse? The ranch lacks cavity trees. And so on. If the habitat is there, the birds should be there. If not, there is an important element missing – something that affects not just birds but other wildlife, trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, plant succession, the nutrient cycle, etc.

I park the car near the beginning of my first transect. I put on all of my gear. First the snake gaiters, which will prevent a rattlesnake from sinking its fangs into my leg. The gaiters also keep poison oak from contaminating my pants, and they keep grass seeds/stickers out of my socks. Additionally, they will prevent ticks from crawling up under my pant legs.

Next I put on my binoculars, which I carry using a harness rather than a strap around my neck. Next comes my backpack, followed by my rangefinder and, finally, my clipboard. I look at my GPS unit, where the survey points are displayed, and strike out for my first point.

When I arrive at the point I stand quietly for a moment to allow any birds that may be disturbed by my presence to settle down. Then I set the timer on my watch and begin the survey.

There is an Orange-crowned Warbler trilling in one of the oaks in front of me. A Lazuli Bunting behind me. A California Quail calling somewhere in the distance. Mourning Dove, Blackheaded Grosbeak, Lesser Goldfinch. I collect their names on my data sheet and record the number of individuals seen and heard, along with an estimate of how far away each was from where I am standing. My watch beep beep beeps, and it’s time to move on to the next point.

I hike cross-country through a stream, through poison oak; up, down, and across slopes. Today I intended to survey 10 points, but when I finish the tenth point I discover there is still time to complete the next transect of five points. Completing these five extra points today will allow me to survey all of the points on this ranch in two days instead of three. I’m tired, but I still have some energy left. So I press on.

I finish the last point at 10:30. Perfect timing. As the morning wears on and the temperature warms birds will cease singing. Four hours after sunrise is generally the cutoff for point count surveys, and I’m very close to the mark.

I begin the long hike back to the car. Along the way my ears are alert for new species that I did not detect on my point counts. I hear a Bullock’s Oriole and a Pacific Slope Flycatcher. I record their names in my field notebook.

As I walk I enjoy the beautiful weather and the beautiful scenery. I take a few photos. I feel grateful that I’m getting paid to spend the morning hiking and listening to birds.

IMG_8080By the time I reach the car I have hiked 5.5 miles and detected 36 bird species.  Whew. This is the farthest I’ve hiked in one day in over a year. I’m exhausted, but I feel good. Today it’s obvious that my strength is returning. 

I eat lunch in my vehicle and then drive up to the shop to see if the ranch manager is around. He is, so I stop and chat with him for awhile. Then I get back in my car and drive back to the office. 
At the office I download the waypoints I collected on my GPS unit, primarily concerning the locations of gates and fences that I was not previously aware of. I organize my gear, check-in with my co-workers, and update the ranch map. 

By now I’ve already worked 9 hours and I’m fading fast. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for rain, so I can spend the day in the office entering today’s observation into a database, among other tasks. On Friday, if the storm is over, I will head out for another day of bird surveys. 

Field work is one of the highlights of my career as a wildlife biologist, but it is probably also the reason I have Lyme disease. I do not recall ever having a tick bite, but over the years I have certainly had ample opportunity to be bitten. Now I take extra precautions, like wearing gaiters and light colored clothing, and conducting a tick check after I come back from the field.

The threat of contracting Lyme and other tick borne diseases is always in the front of my mind, but I refuse to give up the pieces of my life that I treasure so much. I will continue to hike and backpack and conduct wildlife surveys for as long as I am able. 

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