Volunteering in Arizona
Corina J. Rahmig
By Corina J. Rahmig ‘98
Science Department Chair
April 9, 2019
We’re standing in a circle, all facing out. Our headlights are off, and the only light comes from the millions of stars overhead. One student gasps as a shooting star streaks across the sky. Our timer says “go,” and we all listen intently for the faint sounds of a hooting owl.
“I think I hear one,” a student whispers.
“That’s just the creek,” Dave, the lead HawkWatch scientist of our study, informs her, the first of several false alarms.
We wait three long minutes, hearing nothing besides rushing water and an occasional shuffle of feet.
“Play the Whiskered Screech-owl,” directs Dave.
A student pushes play on the phone, and we hear the repetitive call of the tiny owl projecting from a hand-held speaker. Within 30 seconds, a student points toward the tree-lined hill to her left.
“Over there – about 50 meters away,” whispers the student excitedly. We all turn and hear the faint call of an owl in the distance calling back to the recording. As we stand patiently, listening to the owl call back to the recording, someone sees a dark shadow fly overhead. We hold our breaths and soon hear the owl calling from a tree only meters away from the group.
“Let’s get the nets set up,” says Jesse, another scientist from HawkWatch. We all turn on our headlights and get to work. I grab a pole, while students divide up the remaining jobs of holding the second pole, unraveling the net, supporting the net, and playing the callback. Within minutes, we have a nearly invisible net set up above our heads, our lights are off, and we’re all looking up at the net, waiting for movement.
Just as my fingers start to go numb, I feel a tug on the net.
“Owl!” a student shouts. Sure enough, I look just past the center of the net and spot a small gray ball of feathers suspended about 10 feet off the ground. I lower the poll, and Jesse runs over and extracts the owl from the net. This was the moment we’d been waiting for.
This exhilarating scene depicts just one of many that librarian Sarah Ellison, six high school students, and I had on our spring break trip to the Southwestern Research Station in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona. As volunteers with Earthwatch Institute, we worked with three scientists from HawkWatch International to study several species of small forest owls, about which little is known. Our days were filled with vegetation surveys, tree identification, and nest cavity mapping, and nights were spent locating owl territories and attempting to catch, measure, and attach unique identifying bracelet-like bands to the owls’ legs.
Throughout the week, we learned to identify a dozen different species of trees, name birds by both sight and sound, measure the amount of tree canopy cover and tree density in a half acre, maneuver cameras on long poles to check the contents of tree cavities, use GPS units to pinpoint locations, set up mist-nets, and lure in owls using recorded calls. We worked 14- to 16-hour days, which left little time for sleep, but the laughter from new friendships, and the wonder of seeing nature’s beauty made the time fly by. When asked if there was anything they would change about the trip, one student replied, “I love everything about the trip and wish it could be longer,” while another student wrote (in all caps), “STAYING LONGER.”
The data we collected are helping scientists understand the natural history of these unique birds, such as how many eggs they lay, whether they come back to the same nesting site each year, and how big their territories are. These data are also being used to determine the effects that climate change is having both on the availability of nesting sites and on the length of the breeding season for these resident and migrating birds.
While we could have spent our spring break catching up on sleep, binge-watching our favorite Netflix series, and reading the latest young adult thriller, I think I speak for everyone when I say that this experience was, without a doubt, completely worth giving all of that up. Will we be a little tired this week? Yes. Will we annoy our friends by insisting we check out dark spots on trees that might be nest cavities? Probably. Will we talk our families’ ears off with our memories of holding wild owls? Absolutely.
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