Monday, June 21, 2010

Orca Study 2010

Field site: Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands, Washington State
Research: Locate and collect fecal samples from the Southern Resident Community Killer Whales for the Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington.
Length of study: June through the end of September

First string = Tucker, Male, 6 years old, 3rd summer working in the San Juan Islands
Second string = Sadie May, Female, 8 years old, 1st summer in the San Juan Islands, back-up and possible    whale dog 


Week One:
Training, training and more training. It's my first study on the water handling Tuck-man. Needless to say it is very very different from working a dog on land. Basically he has no way of moving to the sample to find it for you. We have to read his behaviors and move to boat to where he wants us to go. Means there has to be two lines of communication; Tuck and myself and then myself and the boat driver.  I read Tucker's body movements and then communicate via hand signals to the driver.  She then maneuvers the boat.  The end result is a small floating sample! We have to be quick however since rough seas, boats and sometimes the whales themselves can sink a fecal sample.

It's been a great week.  The team has done really well being patient with me while I learn how to work on a boat and Jessica (the new graduate student in charge of the study) is doing awesome learning the quirks of the study.  We have even found 4 samples! Yea, team!!

Tucker and Sadie are loving the house we're in. There is a small yard where they play all the time and plenty of roads around for jogs.  All in all, we're looking forward to a fantastic summer!

We'll keep you posted!!

Liz, Sadie and Tucker!!

Friday, June 18, 2010

NSO 6/18/10 - We're like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson out here

As a dog handler working with a scent detection dog I feel we are like detectives. Many people ask "So, what do you do with the dog? Do you just hike and play ball with them?" The simple answer is yes, but it's a bit more complicated than that. There are many other elements that go into dog handling, and a lot of it has to do with bringing the dog into an area where he/she is most likely to sniff out a scat of the target species.

To find these areas requires knowledge of the target species: in this case knowledge of the Northern Spotted owl and it's ecology, it's habits and habitat.  What does a Spotted owl eat? Where does it's prey live?  As a dog handler I feel I am Dr. Watson to my dog, Sherlock Holmes. I help him solve the mystery of where the pellets are, but really, as Sherlock, he's doing all the work!

Clear cuts are NOT Spotted owl habitat! 

Spotteds need old growth forest.

For example, as a handler I am most concerned with getting to play with my dog, Max. If he gets his ball then he is motivated and happy to go that extra kilometer in the heat and up steep slopes. And if Max is happy, I am too. To get him his reward though, he needs to find a pellet. When I am out in the field I am scoping the layout of the terrain and looking at the trees and finding the drainage where an owl may sleep in the cool shade of an oak tree, avoiding the clear cuts, all the while paying attention to wind patterns and Max's energy level. It's all a very subtle dance.

And although my eyes are always on Max I also have to watch where I step so I don't fall (I am Watson, remember)! In these stolen moments I am scanning the forest floor for tell-tale signs that an owl may be there. Is that tiny splash of white paint on the ground white wash? Is that a feather from a molt? Does this oak seem like a roosting tree? What is under that yonder big doug fir? Maybe it's a nest tree!

This is a clue to a Spotted owl's roost tree: white wash!

Max's paw next to Spotted Owl white wash... we're getting closer.

Meanwhile Max's nose (actually, Sherlock's nose) is at work and he is sniffing the air currents for a whiff of something fairly tiny, grey, with hair and little bones in it-- in the vastness that is the forest (our "office"). Seems crazy, I know. And it is. But when Max does a 180, turning to work upslope, wagging his tail every so lightly my heart skips a beat and I can't wait to see what our teamwork sleuthing has found. Voila, a pellet! Another mystery solved!

Sherlock-Max waiting for his ball after he located an owl pellet.

There's a pellet in this picture- can you find it? Max did!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

PPM 6/15/10- A Mighty Mouse

A Mighty Mouse: The Pacific Pocket Mouse
(Perognathus longimembris pacificus)

While surveying on Camp Pendleton, we sometimes run into people who want to know what we are researching. When we tell people that our dogs are trained to find the Pacific pocket mouse, we often get the same response: 
“A mouse?!? I’ve got a few of those in my garage that I would like to get rid of.”
In truth, these mice are not just any old rodent. The Pacific pocket mouse is special because of its rarity and its unique role in the environment.
The Pacific pocket mouse (PPM) is one of 18 subspecies of the little pocket mouse of the Heteromyidae rodent family. Not only one of the smallest mammals, the Pacific pocket mouse is also one of the most endangered species in the United States. Thought to be extinct for over twenty years, a small population of less than fifty mice was discovered in California coast in 1994. Today, there are only four known populations to exist in southern California; three of them reside on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. Tiny in size, an adult PPM only weighs that of a silver quarter and is only a couple of inches in length. This mouse is named not for its size, but for external cheek pouches that allows temporary storage of seed while foraging.

Small but mighty, pocket mice are considered a keystone species because they influence environmental characteristics in the desert, shrub, and grassland ecosystems in which they live. Specifically, pocket mice disperse native grass seeds, create healthy soil disturbance and serve as a food source for native predators.
As shown in the photos below, these avid burrowers can change the landscape of southern California’s coastal sage scrub environment. Sandy patches mark the habitat of the PPM. This soil disturbance acts as a natural soil tiller, ensuring that the sandy terrain is a fertile, healthy environment for the next generation of native plants and animals.
Expert burrowers and seed gatherers, PPM are an important member of the coastal community.  So next time you see a mouse, don’t assume it’s just any old mouse…it just may be a mighty mouse.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hootin' and Makin' History

Hola CK9 followers,

So today, I made history.  That's right, history.  We all know about George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jane Goodall.  Now, I feel like one of them.

Let me start from the beginning.  So we were out one night hooting, honestly, not really expecting a response- we'd never had a response in this area before, and this wasn't our first visit.  Then, out of nowhere, a contact call!  The high pitched NEEEEP was both exciting and a little odd.  Exciting in the fact that there was an owl here, odd in the sense that it sounded like it was coming from about 50 feet in front of me on the road.  I took a bearing, drove around the corner of the ridge a little, and took another bearing.  We were set for our follow up the next day.  Score!  Plus, we got to delete most of the other call points in the cell for the evening.  Double score!

Well, we go the next afternoon for our follow up.  We show up, barely get off a single hoot from the hootinator (I dubbed it 'Silverback' due to the mad gorilla noise it makes for an agitated NSO call) and then, NEEEP!  Once again, she was at the same bearing, and she sounded like she was right on the road- odd.  We hike up about 100 feet, maybe... and boom! another contact call, AND an owl.  I'd have to say, this was the best followup ever.

Well, when we find an owl, we have to offer it mice in the hope that it will take the food to its mate or its nest, and we can see if if has babies or not.  For this owl, I got to feed it.  That's how I made history.  I put a mouse on a branch, and the owl swooped down, grabbed the mouse, and I didn't even feel the branch move.  Score x3!!  Three mice in all met their fate, me at the helm... The owl was in a rather italian mood for the first mouse, turned it into spaghetti, and slurped it up.  The second was eaten in more of a mongolian style- chunks of meat with the occasional pause.  The last mouse was cached, saved for later to be made into whatever type of cuisine the owl desired.

This was a particularly dainty owl.  She preened and cleaned like there was no tomorrow- and yes, she remembered to get behind her ears (even though owls don't really have ears, she found hers!)  Her nails were all nice, and her feathers done just right.  If you didn't know that she'd just grabbed and devoured mice, you would have no idea.

So, that's how I made history.  I fed an owl.  Okay, maybe not al that historical when compared to other people, but historical for me, and that's all that matters.

Adios from the Owl Crewhouse, don't worry, there're more stories where that came from, and if you're lucky, I might just share!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fun Times and Fundraisers in Hayfork!

After learning about two local charities in need, NSO Team 2010 took action—organizing a charity event in Hayfork this past Friday. Handler Jodi (of Team Shrek) graciously volunteered to become “Hayfork’s Newest Bachelorette” for our knock-off of ABC’s The Bachelorette, a hit reality show. 17 eligible bachelors lined up for a chance to win a dinner date with Jodi. Bachelors won carnations (much cheaper than roses!) by participating in a question-and-answer session, carnation toss, and a round of mini-dates. Overall, we raised $141 for Hayfork’s Save the Pool Fund and the Berkeley Animal Shelter. To learn more about these charities or to donate yourself, see additional information below.

The Hayfork Community Pool has been a staple in downtown Hayfork for years. Located in the park, the pool serves as a safe place for local kids to gather and play during the summer. In addition, they offer free water safety courses and swimming lessons to the community. Due to county budget cuts, the pool may be forced to cut back on operating hours and/or staff this summer. If you’d like to donate to the Hayfork Pool, contact Mary Lane at (530) 628-5000.
Tragically, the Berkeley Animal Shelter burnt down in late May, killing over a dozen cats and destroying the laundry room, offices, and cat area. The damage is estimated at over $500,000! As huge animal lovers, we couldn’t pass up the chance to help this deserving organization. If you’d like to contribute, please visit their website at (accepting online donations).

PPM 6/7/10 - A day in the life

The past week has been a blast getting to see some new areas of the camp, with a few fox tail scares, and a rattle here and there. The weather’s been on our side, and the temps have remained low keeping the dogs in good health.

So I thought it would be fun this week to give everyone an idea of what a normal day is for us on the pocket mouse study.

3:45 AM: The dogs get let out first thing for a potty break. Luckily for us the USGS got us a fenced yard so we don’t have to walk the dogs at 4 in the morning like on the majority of our studies. Then it’s time for breakfast! Our dogs are ravenous when it comes to food and to alleviate the concern of one choking on their food we looked into slow feed dog bowls with a raised center that keep the dog from digging in too quick. Well these bowls run about $20 bucks so I took a look at our normal bowls we already had and realized if we simply turned them upside down they did the same thing. I love saving money ;). To make it even a little tougher we add a bit of water to the food as well, which all so helps soften the food a bit and aid with digestion, since our dog’s don’t actually chew the food. While the dogs finish breakfast we double check we’ve got everything charged and ready to go for the day, plenty of water (5+ liters) and a few balls for reward.

5:00 AM: Cheryl and Laura, our amazing USGS colleagues, arrive and I’m always shocked that they arrive exactly on time. This probably comes from hanging out with Julie so much and never being on time, but they are impressively punctual and always in bright spirits. We go over maps for the day, divide up the gear, load the dogs and hit the road. We get to our field sites just as the sun’s peaking over the Santa Ana mtn range.

5:30 AM - We spend the next 5 – 6 hours busting through chaparral, strolling through avena, tiptoeing around the cholla stands, and wandering the ridge tops looking for new pockets of pocket mice. When we the dogs pick up the odor they get a little spring in the step and you can see their tail start to wag a little faster (as long as the have a tail that is). We keep a distance and let them work till we see them sit, and then we walk over to see what they’ve found. Once we confirm they’ve found pocket mouse we pull out their most favorite thing in the world, a little red ball, and play fetch. The dog’s love to run and chase the ball, but here we’ve got to be a little more careful. It’s super easy to throw the ball to close to a cactus and whined up with a dog that looks more like a pin cushion.

We used to use tennis balls, we’d get tons of them from tennis courts that people no longer wanted, and then we learned that tennis balls are actually bad for dogs. The fuzz on the balls is abrasive and over time wears down a dog’s teeth. While this may not be a concern for you average dog owner, our dogs play with a ball 365 days a year for a living so we take this concerns seriously. It also became a little bit ridiculous to carry tennis balls, our dogs chew through runner toys in a heart beat, a tennis ball is short work, and dangerous if the dog decides to eat it. Now a day we use a couple different varieties, a Kong solid red ball, a Kong serrated ball that cleans their teeth while they chew, and a West Paw Design Huck that floats.

While we play fetch with the dog, the orienteer (Cheryl and Laura) collects relevant data on a HP IPAQ, a small handheld computer. The IPAQ stores our geographical location, keeps a track log of where we’ve been, and has a nifty form that pops up and allows us to fill in various characteristics about the area and the dog’s response. Along with the IPAQ each dog also wears a Visiontac 900 data logger that collects a GPS point every second that we later download to show exactly where the dog searched. The orienteer also collects any scats we find in the area. It’s truly amazing to watch the dogs running across the landscape, have a “change of behavior”, whip around and sit at this random spot in the middle of nowhere, walk over look down, ask “show me” and have the dog put it’s nose on a scat smaller than a grain of rice. Amazing!

We try to finish up the day before the San Diego “June Gloom” breaks up around 11 and the temperatures start to rise. The heat is our biggest enemy and can drain the dog’s energy quickly. We’ve been lucky enough so far to have fairly mild temperatures, but I’m sure the warmer weather is on the way.

12:00 PM - We get home a little after lunch time and a nap is sounding better and better, but before we doze off we’ve got to brush the dogs for cactus spines, fox tails and ticks. You might imagine a cactus spine being fairly easy to see and the big ones are, but for each big one there is a bunch of tiny little one’s that are just as painful but super hard to see. The fox tails are every where and it doesn’t take long for them to get under the skin and running the risk of getting infected. Last comes the ticks, just the other day we pulled over 50 off Sampson alone. We start brushing the dogs with a stiff scrub brush that pulls most of the loose fox tails out and relaxes the dog. This is followed by a brushing with the Furminator, the most amazing dog brush in the world. If you have a dog and don’t have a Furminator I highly recommend getting one, it’s just like they show in the commercials. You can often find these on sale at Amazon for about $14. We then go over the dogs inch by inch with a flea comb examining them for cuts, infections and ticks. By this point the dogs are in pure bliss and we finish up with a bit of lotion on the paws to keep them from cracking in the arid dryness of the desert.

1:30 PM - Now it’s time to download the day’s data and import it into our mapping software to see exactly where we went and where we found PPM. Since we have GPS’s on ourselves and the dogs we can see how much the dog is ranging around us while searching for scat. Generally the dogs travel between 3 and 4 times the distance that we do, so when we cover 12km their covering up to 48 km.

3:00 PM – After the dogs have caught their breath and we’ve got the data all downloaded we like to reinforce the pocket mouse odor in case the dog’s got a little confused in the field. This helps us recalibrate the dogs and reinforce this is the odor we are interested in finding. We use the nifty screen device that Julie and Michelle worked up last year and get to play a little ball in the back yard, with Casey and Gator glued to the window (every once in awhile we’ll let C & G come out give it a shot just for fun).

4:00 – 7:00 PM – Time to catch up on office work (blogs, emails, budgets, proposals, etc) and if we’re lucky nap time.

7:00 PM – To treat Casey and Gator, who patiently tolerate the long days while we are at work, they get an evening jaunt up and down the coast. One of the many benefits of our new digs is its super location 2 blocks from the beach. While the beach is off limits to dogs during the day, at 6PM it’s open for all and we take full advantage of the open horizon and cooling surf for evening jogs.

It is great running here because there are so many dog fans, while Casey get’s most of the attention, amazingly there’s been quite a few Cattle Dog fans too!

8:30 PM – After Casey and Gator catch their breath it’s time for Dinner! Dinner’s finished off with a potty break and then it’s off to bed and up again at 3:45.

And that’s our day!

Heath, Julie & the gang!