Seasons are built to move fast. Drag yourself through the early mornings for months, but one day wake to realize you’ve missed beating the sunrises, standing in still, frosty mornings, trunks towering, grass glistening. Nothing envelops being like the quiet of a morning chorus with humanity pulled into the forgotten depths by nature.
The Northern Sierras came and went for me. The flash and chortle of a half recognized woodpecker, gone before I could acknowledge or even take the time to appreciate it. Some of us drift off to another adventure, perpetuating our desire to never step off the path. The foolhardiest drift back to flip-side of their duality, almost immediately longing for the woods. To the sweat. To the bugs. To the endless summer.
There are plenty of unfortunate aspects of being a field biologist. Few jobs have benefits or pay a reliable, constant, livable wage. Most involve exertion at indecent hours of the day in unpleasant conditions. Those of us who love being outdoors can easily forget all of this when something momentous happens. Three years ago I came upon a Coyote and her den; two pups eying me with the thinly veiled curiosity of domestic puppies. Everything I could ever dream up to complain about became irrevocably inconsequential for weeks.
So, it was a good season, it was a bad season. The weather was shit for a month, we battled late snow, worried about endless salvage logging, washed out roads, and illegal pot farms. Getting home, I can easily forgive and forget. This was a good job, benign, well paying. Unlike the multitude of projects out there that never make a dent despite the funds they wield, we collected data that actually contributes to the guidance of forest management. Without sounding too sentimental or jingoistic, the Western forests are one of America’s best renewable resources. Being a part of something like this is plain sensible, as opposed to helping a graduate student study something that might soon become a forgotten paper or deemed superfluous by a body of their peers or superiors. (A myriad of valuable studies exists and I’m lucky to know some fine young scientists driving them, but that said, there’s a lot of crap too. Sorry, it’s true).
Eight species of woodpeckers were focal to our work in these burnt Sierra peaks and valleys. Two more were occasionally noted. This is astounding when you recognize there are only twenty-one (extant) woodpeckers in the entire United States and Canada. Seen regularly in appropriate habitats, one begins to maneuver alongside their behaviors. Taciturn parents on eggs, wildly frenetic when feeding young. Some birds you never figure out or before you’ve realized it, they give you the slip.
The two Red-breasted Sapsuckers quarreling in stubborn willows, cut by a derelict skid road, seemingly with nothing better to do besides play chicken on narrow branches and gape absurdly at one another for thirty minutes. The White-headed Woodpeckers that carried food away but always avoided my careful observations. As soon as I learned something I was humbled by how little I’d gathered.
I wasn’t the best out there. One of our goals was to find cavity use, more data points are better. I found the least nests in use this year. During a second time around most self-respecting individuals look to improve. This wasn’t all for lack of effort (don’t believe a damned word they tell you), maybe I’m just not good at finding nests. Yet, I understand fires, the Northern Sierras, woodpeckers, and forest management better than ever.
Seasons run their course and at the end you half wish they’d continue. I probably won’t go back and live in Meadow Valley, California despite my admiration for this sleepy town. Before the season began, I crouched in the murky depths of springtime in the Pacific Northwest and plotted all the things I would do. Half of those things never happened, surprise events irrupting instead, one’s that I’ll cherish. Look at me, I’m so bloody sentimental that I’m thinking about going back in ten years to see what the burns all look like.
A seasonal study terminates when you can no longer collect good data on the focus of your study. In our case, once the male birds have provided their paternal input, via a cuckolding copulation or a devoted pair bond, they have no need for those heavy gonads and they dissapate. No hormones flowing and cock AMRO (American Robin) ceases the demented singing in the inky hours before other sensible diurnal animals believe in consciousness. What I’m saying in so many words, is that most birds cannot afford to sing year round. In temperate climes most don’t need to continue to hold a territory because they are snowbirding in the tropics, the land of plenty. The few that stick around are generally a reasonable lot and don’t bother. The MacGillivray’s Warblers I saw in desperate struggle for their adjoining territories stop caring once they’ve cemented their parental deals with a cloacal kiss, squirted out some nestlings of dubious patrilineage, and fattened up to fly to Guatemala.
Eventually we can’t find any active nests. We don’t know what birds are about because half of them aren’t making a peep. If we waited too long, the ones around might not be resident birds anyway, but ones in post breeding dispersal leaving the breeding grounds. Outliers exist and some birds keep singing even when we’ve stopped listening, but the real silence sets by the mid August. I returned home to Seattle only to the resident Bewick’s Wrens and Steller’s Jays hacking up over their lilac bush dynasties, their post forest slums, keeping them perpetually intact.
To finish up we banded those dispersing birds for a week. Verdant high meadows usher the birds of Western lands on their way to maturity and to the off season. Gathered with some of our nomadic ilk on the way to our off season, we touched some birds, gave them jewelery, and sent them on their way. Ring em and fling em.
Don’t believe what a satisfied field technician spouts about enjoying being a scientist or practicing method. That’s all a big hog’s wallow of nonsense. Sure we may be competent, some may even become visionaries for the future of their fields. The best of the best still are just curious, relishing the smell of sun baked Ponderosa while they spy on a Pileated Woodpecker grubbing away rectangular scars in a great decaying snag. Don’t be fooled. We’re all just a bunch of kids that couldn’t wait for our parents to kick us outside. No, no, they couldn’t find us because we’d already stole off to the bushes, watching the world turn.