Monday, June 7, 2010

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!

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