Thursday, June 25, 2009

Raptor Party - June 2008

They migrated from grasslands, forests, shrublands, and deserts. They crossed mountains and rivers on their way to Boise. Some flew and others arrived overland.

They headed south from the Mountain big sagebrush of the Boise Front, through tall Basin big sagebrush and into shorter Wyoming big sagebrush as they approached the Snake River.

Some stopped to remember as they crossed the sagebrush plains. They watched plump ground squirrels dart across the road, the tail end of the spring’s party. The ground squirrels were too busy eating before they returned underground for their eight month-long nap to notice the travelers.

Jackrabbits watched them from the shade of the small shrubs and flopped their ears. Unlike the ground squirrels, they were active all year and never safe from Golden Eagles overhead.

As the travelers neared the canyon the sagebrush gasped, sputtered and gave out. Low grey winter fat took its place at the lower elevations near the river. The travelers followed the winter fat until it dropped off the cliff and into the canyon. Switchbacks led them to the irrigated oasis at the water’s edge where they gathered.

The flocks of raptor biologists laid out food, set up lawn chairs, and opened beers. Previous students arrived with their fledging broods or sent messages from their field research sites.

The biologists described the life cycle of the ground squirrels to nonbioloigst family members and identified the birds of prey circling overhead as turkey vultures or “TVs”. They told stories of science and of the natural world. They told stories of Mike and Karen.

Mike had arrived at the Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, where ground squirrels sleep away much of the year and feed raptors the rest, in the early 1970’s. Karen had arrived in the canyon a few years later, to expand the research efforts.

Mike understood the raptors, the squirrels, and the sagebrush, but had more trouble remembering the difference between left and right, up river and down river, and where, exactly camp was. Karen imposed order: on Mike, on field crews, on data, publications, work schedules, and hapless office equipment that offended her.

It was a successful pairing. The pair uncovered the stories of the Prairie Falcons and the Golden Eagles and shared them with the world: where they travel, what they eat, and how they raise their families.

On the cusp of retirement Karen and Mike looked back at the high points of their careers. Their assembled friends and coworkers reminded them of some of the low points. The gathering shared stories of scientists and of science, of vehicles lost over the canyon’s edge and of discovering the summer range of a species.

The thrill of science may be the discovery, but the satisfaction of science is the telling of the stories.

Karen Steenhof and Mike Kochert were Research Wildlife Biologists at the Birds of Prey National Wildlife Conservation Area near Boise, ID. They were first based at the Bureau of Land Management then later at the US Geological Survey after researchers in the Dept. of Interior were moved into that agency.

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