Friday, January 27, 2012

Home is where the Habitat is:

WARNING: This post is full of unanswered questions.  So if you are the type to lose sleep over complex ideas, intertwining webs of confusion, or just simple curiosity then stop reading now.

The 'adventure' that currently consumes most of my life and causes occasional sleep loss is my research project on Mexican spotted owls.  I am currently on my 2nd year of research and gearing up both mentally and physically for a long field season to start in May.  This means I am chugging through historical data entry, preparing sampling methods, selecting sites to visit, and much more.  It is almost too overwhelming to think about everything I have to do.  So instead, I try to focus on the task at hand, otherwise I would surely have a nervous breakdown (which has happened due to uncontrollable circumstances that one hopes they never have to face)!

Why study Mexican spotted owls you ask?  There are plenty of reasons to study this great species.  Firstly, their babies are very cute, as you can see.

To top if off, the adults are a stunning owl with beautiful white spots on sienna colored feathers.  The reason I get paid to do this however, is because these owls are a federally listed threatened species.  Which means, we need to have a well defined and developed recovery plan in order to prevent their status from becoming 'endangered'.

There is one very special aspect about the owls that I study in Utah however.  This is habitat.  Typically Mexican spotted owls (MSOs) utilize forested habitats throughout the rest of their range, including Arizona, New Mexico and parts of eastern Colorado.  Owls nesting in New Mexico and Arizona are typically within stands of pine and use pre-constructed nests that are built by other raptor species (this is because they are smart...why build your own nest when you can use one that is already there?)  The owls in southern Utah however, are not in the forest, but are in canyons.  Furthermore, they do not use stick nests built by other raptors, but instead use caves or cavities within the canyon walls for nesting.  These are called scrape nests.  The female will simply lay eggs on a ledge within the cave or cavity structure and wait for her eggs to hatch.  If you think about it, in both cases the owls are being fairly 'lazy' (or smart in my opinion) by not constructing a stick nest.  What is not clear, is why do the owls in southern Utah inhabit canyons?  How did they get here? Why would they decide to move into these hot, harsh, desert environments when they likely evolved from a dense forested habitat?

Imagine....moving from a nice, shaded forest to a hot, dry canyon.  If you have ever been to Utah, then you may know that it is home to some of the greatest National Parks (or at least that is what I think).  Zion, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks are just some of the select parks that this owl calls home.  And of course, since I go where the owls go this is my summer 'office'.

Lost Canyon Overlook, Canyonlands NP photo by Leah R. Lewis
Big Springs, Canyonlands NP       photo by Leah R. Lewis

Capitol Reef NP,     photo by Leah R. Lewis
near Dugout Ranch, photo by Leah R. Lewis
The Needles, Canyonlands NP        photo by Leah R. Lewis

At first glimpse you may not think that you would find spotted owls in this type of environment.  Although hard to find (and trust me you likely would not find them if you tried) they do exist within the deep depths and narrow crevices of these canyonland areas.  My job is to hike to the places these owls reside and find out why they have chosen that select location for nesting habitat.  In other words, why would they be using that particular canyon and not the one next door?  Can I really answer this question just by taking some notes and a couple of measurements? Um...well, I am not really sure.  I will have to let the data speak for itself.  However, one argument that I consistently have with myself is how do we know the owl has selected the 'best' habitat available.  You see, by measuring the habitat surrounding the owls, I am making a very large assumption.  I am assuming that the owl has selected that habitat because it is likely better than the canyon next door.  But is this really true?  Can I really say, hey everyone, owls like these types of narrow canyons with only 10-15 trees and nothing more.  No....not really, because as I know already (since I have been to sites and seen it with my own eyes) these owls are in a wide variety of canyon types.  Meaning they are in wide-long canyons, short-narrow canyons, steep-deep canyons, and some are not in any 'canyon' at all!  Back to my argument, the main question I am continually asking myself is...Are there enough MSOs in southern Utah to occupy all of the best habitat?  My though it NO, definitely not.  Therefore, if I am measuring unoccupied habitat features and comparing those to occupied habitat features is it justified to say that a owl would not like the unoccupied habitat?  Maybe, but maybe not?  Maybe the owl chose the 'occupied' habitat because it was better, but there is also the chance the they chose it because that is what they found first.  Meaning that if they found the 'unoccupied' habitat first maybe that would then be 'occupied' meaning that would then be better then the 'occupied'!  Confused yet?  I know I am.

View from the owls' front door       photo by Leah Lewis
  Inside a nest cave        photo by Leah Lewis

I certainly struggle with whether I should only measure and collect data for habitat the owls are actually using or if I should also look at habitat the owls are 'not' using.  In my opinion, I am not so sure that I should waste my time and energy looking at things owls don't use, but should instead focus on what they do use.   This is where I think my advisor may beg to differ (he says measure everything).  I say...why???

In reality, my project will likely only provide a small insight into the world of these canyon dwelling owls. There are still so many unanswered questions.  I think that many of these questions remain unanswered due to the technical difficulties and supernatural abilities that are sometimes necessary to find and reach these owls.  We can't even say if Utah's population of MSOs are stable, declining, or increasing.  We only have a vague idea of what they are eating within the canyons.  We do not know what they do or if they go anywhere in the winter.  Do they use different canyons in the winter?  Do they move down canyon?  We just don't know.  Why did they come here?  Why did they stay?  Will they evolve into a separate sub-species...or have they already?  Will they continue to persist?

Three juveniles is a 'rare' occurrence.                                                                                            photo by Leah Lewis

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Reclaimed yarn

If you know me then you are well aware that I am a thrifty person.  I am addicted to thrift stores and trying to find a great bargain.  Nearly 90% of my wardrobe is acquired from second hand stores.  So when I read about deconstructing old sweaters for yarn, I couldn't resist giving it a try!  I can't remember how I came across the idea, but I found great instructions for how to get started here.  I figure someone should love those old, and sometimes very ugly sweaters.  And I know that I can knit them up into something great.

I started knitting a year ago after taking a beginning knitting class in January 2011.  I had a great teacher and was addicted instantly.  The idea of creating something from a simple skein of yarn was thrilling.  The possibilities are nearly endless and I have been knitting ever since.  Of course, my new addiction can empty my wallet (and my husbands) quickly.  All of the gorgeous yarns made from premium wools, rabbits , and goats can become quite costly.  So with my tight budget and still being in school I decided to try and reclaim a sweater.  Of course I will continue purchase all of those beautifully dyed, luscious yarns too, but this might help me add to my stash in the meantime.

The first step of this process is to find some great sweaters at the thrift store.  In one day at my local thrift store I purchased 4 different sweaters, costing less than $4 each.  I scored 100% cotton sweater, 100% cashmere, 100% italian merino wool, and finally a sweater with a blend of nylon, wool, and angora.

Italian merino wool (purple), cashmere (maroon), nylon/wool/angora (red).

100% Cotton sweater (Gap brand)

The next step was to create a niddy noddy to wind up my deconstructed sweater on.  Being the cheapskate that I am, I decided to build my own using these great instructions.  With my niddy noddy complete and ready to go in 10 minutes, I began to deconstruct my sweater.  I decided to start with the cotton sweater first in case I made a mistake.  Below is what my sweater looked like after ripping the seams out.  It only took me about 15 minutes to get the sweater into these pieces.  Now I was ready to begin unraveling!

It took me about 1 hour to unravel the sweater into skeins on the niddy noddy.  I found it rather relaxing to wind up my yarn while watching a movie. Each of the arms gave me a small skein and then I had the two large pieces that each produced 2 larger skeins.

One of the skeins from the Niddy Noddy.

Yarn all wound up on the Niddy Noddy.

Now I was left with several crinkled skeins of yarn (850 yards total!), so I let them soak in some soapy water for about 30 minutes.  Once they were done soaking I gave them a quick rinse and wrung out the water (I could do this since they were cotton, but for the wool I will have to be extra gentle).

I hung each skein on a hanger in my bathroom to dry.  I placed cans at the bottom to weigh the yarn down as the directions indicated.  However, I would not recommend using canned food, because not only do you risk the label ink rubbing off onto your yarn, but also any sort of rust on the can could leak onto your yarn (which of course is exactly what happened to mine on two of the skeins).  So instead I switched to some shampoo bottles, but you could likely also use hand weights, or whatever you can scrounge up around the house.

Since I found the white somewhat boring, I decided to take this project to the next level and dye it!  But why pay for expensive dyes and dying equipment?  Instead I decided to keep with the thrifty theme and dye my yarn using natural ingredients.  I headed to the store and purchased some turmeric and a head of red cabbage.  I wasn't so sure if the cabbage would work as I had read mixed reviews, but I thought I would give it a shot.  I boiled up some water and turmeric in an old pot and then the chopped red cabbage in another.                                                                                                                                 
The turmeric made a very nice deep yellow/orange color.  The red cabbage made as expected a deep indigo color.  I steeped the yarn in the turmeric dye first.  I let it sit on low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.  Once the yarn had fully soaked in the 'dye', I removed it and thoroughly rinsed it in cold water.

Then I decided to give the cabbage a try.  I took half of the skeins and let them steep in the red cabbage 'dye'.  I only let the yarn steep in the cabbage for about 2 hours.  By the way, if you add baking soda to red cabbage it will turn green, and if you add lemon juice it will turn pinkish.  Once I removed it I gave it a good rinse.  The yarn looked really good, it was a nice mustard yellow with tinges of green.  However, the cabbage did not prove to be very color fast.  I threw the bundled skeins into the wash in order to remove some of the remaining dyes and all of the cabbage dye washed out.  I am not entirely sure why this happened. I added both alum and cream of tartar to the cabbage dye in order to help the dye hold, but it just didn't work.  If I were to try this again I would likely let the yarn soak over night in a cold dye bath.

Now for the finished product......

I had read that reclaiming yarn was somewhat time intensive, but I didn't really think it was that hard or too time intensive.  I personally think it is well worth the little bit of extra effort.  I gained 850 yards of cotton, in a nice mustard color, for about $5.  I suspect that the cashmere and wool sweaters will yield even more since they are a fingering weight.  And if you buy yarn, then you know that for 1,000+ yards of cashmere or wool, that is a steal and will surely make a nice shawl. 
  There were a couple of drawbacks to the natural dying process.  Your house will not smell exactly pleasant, unless you like the smell of steamed cabbage and turmeric in the air.  Also, even after washing the yarn 2 times and running it through the wash there is still some remnant dye and spice that sneaks out.  Plus the yarn still smells a little 'spicy'.  I think that once it is knitted up and washed again, however it will make for a great finished product.  Next time I will likely wash it an extra time and let it soak in a nice cold bath to help release the grainy spice from the yarns.  But hey, how many people can say they are wearing a turmeric (or red cabbage) sweater?
I already have my eye on this free Miette cardigan pattern to knit up with my recycled, turmeric yarn!


Friday, January 20, 2012

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught." - - Oscar Wilde

I have decided to start this blog in order to keep myself sane while in grad school.  I have been involved in academia ever since I can remember.  It is are constantly learning new things, expanding your horizons, increasing job opportunities (or at least I hope) and you basically make your own work schedule.  However, I have never really had a real 'break' from the academic culture.  After finishing my second (yes, second) bachelors degree I had some difficulty finding a job.  Some crazy thought sparked in my head that maybe I needed more education.  Well, I told myself if something happened to fall in my lap and it was free then I would take it (like that would ever happen).  Unbeknownst to me all of the planets lined up and destiny took its course.  One thing lead to another and a research project basically fell into my lap (well, I still had to take the GRE, but surprisingly despite my 'artsy' test scores, I still made it).  Not only was the project on one of my favorite species, owls (Mexican spotted owls to be exact), but it also was going to pay for my Master's and provide me a monthly stipend.

They sure are can you resist. Photo by Leah Lewis
While I am certainly grateful and love my work (I do get to hike Zion, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks, so who could ask for more).  graduate school has taken a toll on my stress levels.  I think the fact that I have been in school for what feels like FOREVER is not helping either.  I have yet to know what it feels like to come home and not have 'homework' looming over my head. Yeah, yeah...real jobs have work related pressures too and 'assignments' that are nearly similar to homework, but I have been doing homework for nearly 23 years! I am sick of it already!  Therefore, I try to do other things in my spare time to take my mind off 'homework' (or at this point in my life...research, data entry, and statistical analysis).

 That is exactly why I am starting a blog...because I need more creative 'homework'. 

This is one reason I can't exactly complain about my 'homework' least not all the time. Moki family and Six Shooters. Photo by Leah Lewis

I have always loved being creative.  In my early high school days I wanted to be a fashion designer, until I was introduced to video production.  I fell in love with creating videos on whatever subject or thing I wanted.  I particularly loved the editing process.  I made my first 'real' animation in high school and didn't look back to fashion ever again (I think my Dad was just a little bit happy with my new choice).  I headed to film school and loved every minute of it (ok, well almost every minute of it.  I surely never complained about doing my 'homework'!).  I found particular joy in creating animation shorts.  I think I love animation so much because my creativity has no bounds.  I could do anything and of course, anything can happen in a cartoon without question.  No one ever asked me why Hercules would date a box of 'Good 'n Plenty' just works (trust me, it is funny).


I have done sand, crayon, pencil, clay, stop-motion, computer, and my favorite, paper cutouts.   
Paper cutout
Computer Animation
Paper cutout
I think that in time, I will return to my film (or animation) roots and combine them with some truly fascinating science or wildlife, but in the meantime I find other crafty (or not so crafty) adventures to keep me busy and allow my creative juices to flow.