Friday, March 1, 2013

My Big...BIG Year

This year I am taking on two very big feats: (1) finish my Master’s degree and (2) bird Cache Valley like a maniac. That’s right! I am going for the ultimate BIG year. I figure that finishing a Master’s is stressful enough, so what better way to distract myself from the chaos, hours of statistical analysis, and late night writing sessions than birding.

It is scary to think that it’s already March 1st. It doesn’t seem like enough time to finish all of the work that I have left on my Master’s. Just thinking about the list of tasks that I need to conquer nearly gives me a full on panic attack. In fact the overall stress and hardship this degree has caused me so far has made me question my future motives (on multiple occasions). It’s true, I have considered quitting, getting a job, and moving on with my life. However, the amount of work and sometimes torturous hours in the field that I have put into this project keeps me from quitting (no matter how bad the circumstances...and trust me they have been unbearably bad at times). Ultimately, I think that this year when I stand up to defend I will feel like I truly earned my degree, because I managed to work through very difficult scenarios (including 3 advisors), overcome a strong desire to quit, and finished what I started.

Lately, I have tried to think back to all the times I wanted to quit something, such as when I was on a baseball team as a kid, or part of the band in middle school, or doing math homework in high school. Of course I didn’t quit, because my parents aren’t quitters (thanks Mom & Dad) and it’s a good thing too because it turns out I actually needed math! I tried to remember all of the benefits that came from not quitting and how great if felt to actually finish. From these experiences I learned to overcome stinky, twit boys (on the baseball team), I learned to play an instrument and hold my ground against bully's (band class), and I even used cosine the other day to transform my data! However, I think that everyone reaches that breaking point at least once in their life (maybe even multiple times...depending on how dramatic you are). You feel that the easy way out is to quit and move on. I have felt like this many times while working on my degree, but then I stop and contemplate if I can truly live with myself as a ‘quitter’.

If only quitting felt this good? I suppose sometimes it can...

Of course I absolutely cannot, that would drive me crazy for the rest of my life (good thing my parents taught me right and Matt is so supportive)! Therefore, I have decided that the key to not quitting (unless we are talking about bad habits, then you can reverse this sentence) is to ‘distract’ myself with something that I love.... BIRDS!

I haven’t been an avid birder for very long and I have certainly neglected birding over the course of the last 2 years. So this year I am going all in. I am dedicating my ‘spare’ time to doing a big year in Cache Valley. It is unclear whether I will stay in Cache Valley for the entire year, but I am still going to bird ‘til my heart’s content. So far, I am off to a really good start. It is not entirely clear what has prompted so many rarities to turn up in Cache Valley this year, but the winter bounty might be partly due to the very frigid weather we have experienced. This year I have already had multiple lifers in Cache Valley thanks to several rare visitors:

Common Redpoll: An arctic tundra visitor that . They have been overwhelmingly abundant and a fist at my feeders.

Common Redpoll: My Yard, Cache Valley, UT

Greater White-fronted Goose: Tundra goose species that has one of the largest ranges of any geese worldwide.

Greater White-fronted Goose: Cache Valley, UT

Snowy Owl: By far the best visitor ever (at least in my opinion)! Snowy Owls also breed in the arctic and are the largest owl in North America. Certainly one of the most exciting sightings for me.

Snowy Owl: Cache County, UT

As of today, I am already at 104 species and trust me there are some good ones! My goal is over 200 for the year, so I am well on my way. Seeing that March is already here I am giddy thinking about what spring will bring!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Capitol Reef...The Final Frontier

I have spent part of my last 2 summers in Capitol Reef searching for Mexican spotted owls and studying their habitat characteristics. This past summer I spent an entire month hiking the backcounty to past and present spotted owl sites in order to measure vegetation associated with breeding habitat. My time in Capitol Reef (as with all of the other parks I hiked) was full of challenges, adventure, new experiences, fun, hate, and natural wonders....
Dry hike turned wet and muddy in Upper Spring Canyon.
Lower Muley Twist

Secret Canyon
Climbing out of a slick mud pit at night

Out of the three National Parks (Zion, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef) that I have worked in, Capitol Reef is above all my favorite and will always hold special memories for me. Unlike many other National Parks in Utah, Capitol Reef still offers solitude and true adventure.

Five Mile Canyon (view from the top)


HOLY CRAP! It has been a year since I have done anything with this blog. I blame it on a crazy life, lack of motivation, and rough times with my research project (which yes...I am still working on). I have set a new goal to keep up with this blog in order to have a future record of what I spend my time doing (or not doing). Here is a very quick re-cap of last year:

April: Earned my Black Belt in Kyu Shin Ryu (and yes...I am damn proud of myself)
May: Started my last field season for my research on Mexican spotted owls
June: Hiked Capitol Reef National Park
July: Hiked Zion National Park
August: Hiked Canyonlands National Park
September: Took a long and much needed break from hiking!
October: Established a new advisor (3rd time’s a charm!)
November: Freaked out about what I am supposed to be doing with my project.
December: Realized my data was not ‘working’ and dealing with vegetation really sucks...then freaked out some more!
January: Pulled my life back together and prepared a plan of attack with the help of an ‘un-official’ advisor.

There you have it...a short re-cap of what I have been up to. From this point on I will cover a random assortment of my daily (and past) adventures. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gyaku Zuki 逆突き, Karate Chop!

This is the year.  I have been working towards this goal for 5 years now.  My palms are already sweating at the thought of it.  This is the year I will test to receive a black belt from my Sensei.

My current rank of Ikkyu (brown belt).

Karate is the first sport that I have ever really dedicated myself to and have actually accomplished something in the process.  It is truly one of my greatest adventures and a life changing experience.  I study Kyu Shin Ryu and am currently the rank of Ikkyu (brown belt).  Hopefully if all goes well I will earn my Shodan ranking on April 28th.

Kyu Shin Ryu kin on my gi (uniform).

To be perfectly honest, I am literally terrified of my test that will take place at the end of April.  The pressures of school work, studying, and training for black belt are overwhelming and could send any reasonable person into a panic attack.  I am trying to focus on just one aspect of my test at a time, but I do not think that my nerves will ever be fully prepared, no matter how much I practice.

Bo staff kata, strike to the nose.

The test...the very, very big test.  The belt test takes nearly 6 hours.  I will be first in line to test, meaning that a command in Japanese will be relayed and I will have to remember how to perform the given technique (yikes).  Next, I will have to perform Kata.  I will have to perform a total of 5 different Kata, one of which has four parts.  Kata is almost like a dance with karate techniques.  They can be considered short skits where you are fighting an imaginary opponent.  However, if ever faced with a real opponent then Kata can truly improve your fighting techniques.  One of these Kata will also include a bo staff.  I was super excited when I first started learning the bo staff Kata.  I just hope that my palms aren't too sweaty, causing my bo to slip away whilst spinning it.  The Kata makes me the most nervous of all, because I will have to stand in front of everyone, while my Sensei watches my every move.  One small misstep of a foot or strike of a punch would be my worst nightmare.  I want to make sure I am perfect and hope that my nerves don't get the best of me.

Sokoto Geri (side kick).
After Kata, I will have to do 2 Embu.  Normally, I only do one, but black belts have an additional Do No Embu added.  The Embu is a mock fight with a partner (luckily my partner is Sensei's wife and she is great).  We get up in front of the class and demonstrate 10 different techniques on each other.  The techniques include kicks, punches, throws, twists, and more.  For the Do No Embu, we put on body shields to cover our chests.  This is considered a 'hard' Embu, meaning you are supposed to kick and punch your partner hard, as if you were in a real fight.  All of the kicks and punches are to the padding, but you will still feel the force of a full kick to the stomach.  If you are doing the Embu correctly then they will most likely hurt...but that is a good thing I suppose.

Bo staff kata...not the best dojo to practice in ;)

Lastly, I will be required to Spar.  I will likely have to fight at least twice.  Besides the fact that I will likely be mentally and physically drained, I don't think I will be too nervous.  It would be nice to be able to score at least one point against my opponent, or bock a really good kick.  The good thing about sparring compared to the other portions of the test is that when I step into the circle I will no longer have to think.  My mind will become clear, my worries will be gone, and my body will flow (hopefully in the right direction ;)

My hope is to practice diligently, with every spare moment that I have for the next 2 months.  I am using practice to cure my nerves.  Although the butterflies will still be fluttering in my stomach, they will be no match to my muscle memory.  Let the countdown begin...

Gyaku Zuki...kiai!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

So long To Do's ....Hello To Done's

Do you ever get that feeling that nothing is getting done?  Or ask yourself, "what did I even do today...did I accomplish anything?"  Unfortunately, I am asking myself these things all the time.  I am tired of feeling as if I have accomplished nothing, especially when I know I spent my time doing something!  So, to resolve this issue I am making 'To Done' lists in the place of my 'To Do' lists.

As my family knows, I am notorious for making To Do lists.  Even as a young child (before I could even write ;) I have been creating To Do lists.  I am the queen of formulating lists, the master of creating tasks, and the samurai of organizing duties.  It is true, however, a To Do list can keep you well organized, on track, and prevent you from forgetting those pressing obligations.....but, they are not always good.  They may also lead to stress, anxiety, frustration, and yes even the P-word (procrastination). 

 For me, my To Do lists are taking over my life.  They are hanging over my head like a bad omen.  To make things worse, I am being instructed by my advisor to make the ultimate To Do list.  Do you have any idea how overwhelming it is to actually write a To Do list for everything (and I mean everything) that needs to be done for a Masters project?  The thought of this list may give me a heart attack.  I am nearly hyperventilating just looking at it!  Focusing on the hundreds of tasks that need to get done is stressful, which can ultimately lead to procrastination.  Why procrastinate?  I know that I am guilty of this because I am not ready for the next item on the list, or I have become discouraged and need to pull my mind away from the task at hand. 

I am not sure if I only found this funny because I was procrastinating or not, but I certainly laughed.

So, to combat this I am doing away with To Do lists and moving on to To Done lists!  This is going to make my memory 10 times better, because instead of writing down everything I need to do, I am going to focus on remember it.  I think this will also help my brain to auto-prioritize.  Meaning, if there is something very crucial that needs doing, my brain will 'tell me' and I will never need to look at a list again!  Each time I complete one of these tasks (that my brain has wired to my hands) I am writing it down on my To Done list.  That way, at the end of each day I can look at my To Done list and feel proud!  I can say to myself, "Damn, I am good...look at everything I have accomplished today!"

How is this different from a To Do list you might ask?  Well, on To Do lists you are always crossing tasks off a long list.  This may feel good for about 5 seconds, until you realize there are at least 7 other items still on that damn list.  Why not feel instant gratification by writing your accomplishments down instead?  Here is my To Done list for today, and I still have time to add more.  I feel better already!

PS. If you are observant, than you know that I am slightly guilty of recently making a To Do list on this blog (yes, I am closet list maker), however I would like to rename that list to 'Monthly Goals'.  I hope this won't be held against me, because I promise I am done with To Do lists!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

One Delightful Day!

What better way to start off the month than with an extra day.  Yes, it is true one full extra day! This year is a leap year, meaning we will have 366 days rather than the typical 365.  For me, this is a well needed extra day.  I have projects, upon to do lists, upon assignments, upon more projects building up.  What better way to catch up on my life than adding a full 'empty' day to my agenda.  Some people may not think much of the added day in the year, or may not even notice, but I am going out of my way to make sure my extra day counts!

One of the first pellets I found last season (2011).
I am making February the month to 'leap' ahead on my busy schedule.  I will be diligently working on starting new projects and finishing up old ones.  Yes...I am setting the goal high, because if I don't it will never happen!  I am going to make this leap year count and by February 29th I hope to have accomplished the following:

1) Begin work on structuring, digitizing, and rendering various GIS layers for ArcMap.  My project is having a specially designed tool created in order to use within canyon landscapes.  This tool will allow me to easily take measurements from canyon terrain using various GIS data layers.  The tool is in the works and I should be too.  I need to prepare a number of layers that can be applied to the tool as soon as it is done.

Error Analysis on a derived slope layer.

2) Finish knitting my owl sweater.  Why is this important? Because I want to wear this thing before it is too warm!  Since I love owls and knitting I figured this sweater would be the perfect combination for my next knitting project.  Plus I would really love to wear this thing when I leave for Moab in March to present my research (hopefully it isn't too hot by then).

3) Commence dissection.  I have nearly 80 spotted owl pellets that I need to dissect.  Considering I have never really done owl pellet dissection under dire circumstances such as mine, I need to do a lot of prep work.  I need to find resources, if any, on how to identify leg bones of small mammals, hair (I am thinking not), and body to mass ratios.  Not to mention learn how to identify (correctly) small mammal skulls.  My goal is to design data sheets for this task and at least started filling them out with some number (even if it is only 1) of dissected owl pellets.

4) Write my methods! Yes, you heard right and despite the exclamation point, I am not excited about this.  I have to completely re-write my methods for my project.  Why? I am too frustrated to even talk about it, so I am just going to get it done.  And I will have it done by the 29th!

      A cartoon I drew of me doing a geologic survey.  Surprisingly, my advisor did not particularly like the figure (maybe it was the pink dress?)
 5) Select my owl sites.  I have to organize and compile all historic data, create occupancy records, and classify these locations as low, medium, or high occupancy.  Part of this process I have automated by designing and creating my very own Access database.  I should be done with this task by now, but the main problem is I have to rely on other people (who seem to be very flaky) to provide me with their data.  Therefore, I am stuck in a black hole until I receive their data.  So I am hoping that they will at least get me their data by the 29th.  After all they have a whole extra day to do it...right?

6) Submit my IAR reports.  These are reports that were due to the National Park Service at least a month ago.  Why didn't I submit them? Well, I did not have the proper login information because my advisors lost it.  So the lesson here is never let your advisors apply for a permit in their name (if at all possible).  This year I am taking care of my own business and have applied for all my own permits.  Surprisingly, they were done way faster, things went way smoother, and I already have my permits in hand! Plus, my IAR reports will be turned in well before the deadline next year.

7)  Select sites to deploy my iButtons.  iButtons are a small device, about the size of a sweet tart, that records temperature and humidity.  I am placing these at select owls sites this summer to determine if owls prefer cool, moist canyons.  The problem is, I am not quite sure where to put them yet, or how to even decide.  I have a couple of ideas, but I need a definitive decision by the end of this month.  And this is a very important decision that can't be made hastily.

iButton next to a penny.

8) Bird more.  I have been slacking on my birding for quite sometime.  It is mainly due to the amount of time my project demands of me.  It literally sucks the life right out of me.  So, my goal is to work less and bird more.  However, I will have to manage my time wisely in order to keep up on all of the above project goals.

Birding with the magnificent Wellsvilles as a backdrop.

There you have 'leap' ahead goals all laid out.  I will be documenting my progress on each of these goals throughout the month.  So, what are you waiting for?  Stop wasting your leap year and start planning that extra day!

Celebrating my very last hike of the field season (2011).  I hope to be feeling this great by the end of February!

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