Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who We Are, and Why We Work

Several of us were talking last month about why we do what we do – what started us down this path, and why we keep on it.  We thought we’d share those thoughts with you in 2017, in a series of interviews.  In this preamble to the series, I’ll talk a little bit about Great Basin Bird Observatory, what it is and why it’s here, and then move on to introduce myself - since in the successive installments, I’ll be transitioning to the role of Interviewer!

GBBO is a non-profit science organization dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in the Great Basin and adjoining regions, through research, partnerships, and education.  We are not an advocacy organization: our agenda is to collect the best bird (and other wildlife) information that we can, and to share that information with land managers, biologists, and the public (and not necessarily in that order!).  We were established in 1997 – incredibly, this year is our 20th Anniversary!  We will be celebrating that with the 2017 Great Basin Bird Conference, from May 17th to the 21st, and you can find more information about it here.

Our origin story:

Nevada Bird Count Transects
Back in the late ‘90s, biologists, managers, and other sundry bird enthusiasts began to gather information on the birds of Nevada for a Partners-in-Flight [1] bird conservation plan for the state.  In the process, it became clear that there were a lot of holes in the knowledge available about Nevada’s birds and their status within the state.  GBBO was formed in 1997 to try and meet that need, and the Breeding Bird Atlas project was born.  While the atlas field work started up in 1997, it really picked up steam in 1998, and continued through 2000.  Ted Floyd was the Director of GBBO at the time, but he eventually moved on to new projects (including his current work at the American Birding Association), and Elisabeth Ammon was brought in as the new Director in 2002. 

Elisabeth started up the Nevada Bird Count program in 2002, a statewide monitoring program that consists primarily of point count transects.  We now have 15 years of data collected across almost 1000 transects located across Nevada and into adjacent states.  Not all transects are surveyed each year – some transects have only been surveyed once, while others have been surveyed year after year.  In some cases, where transects were established prior to the GBBO’s NBC program and were pulled into the NBC framework – such as those established by Elisabeth in the late ‘90s along the Truckee River - we now have close to 20 years of data!

LCR project area, courtesy BOR
As the decade wore on, the number of biological staff began to increase, taking a big leap up in 2008 when (among other things), we began our work on the Lower Colorado River (LCR) program.  For the LCR program, surveyors conduct area searches in riverside habitats, mapping birds’ locations – and where possible, their territories.  Overall, more than 1000 plots have been surveyed using their rapid area search method, and approximately 150 plots have been surveyed using their intensive survey method!  It forms an enormous database of location-specific information.

While these have been our largest, and most overarching programs, we do a wide array of research and monitoring - everything from lagomorph surveys (rabbits and hares) and small mammal community studies, to Golden Eagles to Pinyon Jays to Elf Owls.

My origin story:

As for me, I’m the daughter of a forester/former farm kid and a zoologist, and most of my earliest memories are of field sites, camping trips, and backpacking adventures (evidently in those earliest adventures, I was the one in the backpack).  My parents hunted, dad was a keen wildlife watcher, and mom gardened, embraced her inner geologist, and watched birds – plus she was always bringing bug larvae into the house “to see what they grew up to be.”  With that upbringing, it’s probably not surprising that for as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a wildlife biologist.  It’s also become evident over the years how helpful it was to be able to – without realizing it – absorb how they dealt with the many and interesting situations that crop up whenever you spend a lot of time in the outdoors, hiking in different terrains, and driving crazy roads!

After several years of school and working on everything from bats to plants to birds, I ended up as a biologist at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, in southeastern Oregon.  It was there that I was introduced to GBBO, when Ted Floyd was looking for atlas volunteers – so my field tech and I worked some atlas blocks into our survey schedule on Hart’s sister refuge, Sheldon NWR, in northwestern Nevada.  Later, when Elisabeth came on board, I helped out with some of the point count transects in the Sheldon area.  By 2005, I’d moved on from Hart Mountain & Sheldon, and was working in a much more office-bound position, daydreaming about field work on my lunchtime bird walks.  Serendipitously, a position as the monitoring coordinator opened up here at GBBO.  You can probably picture me in that moment – chained to a computer in a beige cubicle under fluorescent lights, with little thought bubbles arising from my head:  Birds!  Field work!  Nevada!  GBBO!   (Very) long story short - I applied for the job, and started up here in 2006.

The things that drew me to apply are the things that have caused me to stay.  I love that work draws me outside, and that that work occurs at different scales.  For some projects, I am exploring new areas; for others, I am digging into well-known locales and communities.  Plus, the different protocols give me greater insight into the natural world – for example, our point count transects extend across 2 miles of habitat (not including the hike into them, of whatever length), which allows me the opportunity to see the changes in habitats across the landscape, and how birds, other wildlife, and plants respond to the different conditions.  Our intensive area searches, on the other hand, allow me the chance to closely observe the same plot of ground over and over again – sometimes for years – and really dig into the seasonal and annual variations.  And that’s not including our mammal surveys or our species-specific surveys for birds like Golden Eagles or Snowy Plovers!  I’m not a lister by nature [2]; while I enjoy finding vagrants and all of the natural history that is involved in that, my driving interest is in why birds (and other species) call a particular location home – for a year, a season, or even a temporary rest stop on a migratory byway!    Our primary field season occurs in April through July, though there is work scattered throughout the year.  When I’m not in the field, I’m in my “chained to my laptop” mode.  Some of that is more necessary than fun – the payment made for enjoying the rest of the job.  But some of it is also a core joy – having the opportunity to dig into the data that were collected during the field season, and turning up new connections I didn’t know existed, confirming some thoughts about relationships, and complicating or even upending others!  Lastly, this job has given me the opportunity to work with and mentor some fantastic, outdoorsy, bird/mammal/herp/bug/plant-loving people.  The staff here are a close-knit, supportive bunch, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow.  Plus, we’ve had some brilliant folks come through the Nevada Bird Count, who continue to go on to do amazing work.  I have so enjoyed getting to know them, have learned from them and been inspired by them – and I hope they can say the same of me!

All the best in 2017!

[1] Partners-in-Flight is a collaborative partnership and network dedicated to bird conservation throughout the Americas, and includes government agencies (federal, state, county, and local), non-profit organizations, researchers, and individuals throughout the Western Hemisphere.  Their website is here: , and you can download their recently-completed (2016) landbird conservation plan for the US and Canada from the site.

[2] I do keep lists, though – one of my favorite listing “games” is not a presence/absence species list for the counties within Nevada, but a list of species by county with their breeding status – e.g., confirmed, probable, possible, and observed – and trying to get as high a breeding status for all of the species in all of the counties that I can.

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