Hi! My name is Ms. LeSage, and I am a 4th grade teacher at the Marymount School of New York. Join me as I discover the wildlife trails of the American West!

Friday, April 30, 2010

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Farewell, Red Butte Canyon!

Today was officially my last day in the field on my Wildlife Trails of the American West expedition, and I can hardly believe it! I have learned more in the past week than I could have ever imagined, and I have truly enjoyed sharing my new knowledge with students, colleagues, family, and friends through this blog.

After yesterday's rigorous day, our scientists Eric and Bill thought we should take it easy today. We certainly didn't complain! Our team only visited the canyon for a couple of hours to take a few last minute measurements, and I spent the rest of the day in my warm hotel room inputting our data into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Tonight we are heading out for a special team dinner in Salt Lake City to culminate our week-long study, so this posting will not be as extensive as some of my others. I am creating a slideshow with over 75 pictures that I can't wait to show everyone back at school though.

Do you notice the Marymount bunny under the "No Hunting" sign? He was in my backpack for good luck every day!

Friday, January 29, 2010

My Most Challenging Day Yet!

Just when I thought I had mastered the art of tracking deer throughout Red Butte Canyon, I was put to the ultimate challenge! This morning our lead scientist Bill distributed data sheets to my team as usual. He then instructed my partner Leo and I to record the snow depths and the number of ungulate trails intersected at over 200 points throughout the southern side of the canyon. I had done this task once before on the northern side of the canyon, so I approached it with great confidence. What I had forgotten, however, was that the southern side of the canyon faces the north and receives little, if any, direct sunlight. Therefore, it’s colder and the snow depth is significantly greater. As a result, Bill didn’t expect us to encounter many ungulate trails, since he hypothesized that deer don’t typically travel through snow over 40cm. To provide proof, however, we had to take measurements and record the data.
After about 100 meters and 20 data recordings into my day, I noticed the snow was getting increasingly deeper. Still, my partner and I proceeded with optimism. Before we knew it, however, we found ourselves on a nearly vertical slope. In mathematics, that would be about a 90 degree angle; in skiing, it would be considered a double black diamond! The slope had small oak trees scattered throughout and was covered with over 2 feet of snow. As Leo and I began hiking up it, our noses were brushing the snow because the slope was so precipitous. We had to grip the oak trees for balance and stability, and dig our toes into the deep snow for support. By the time we reached the top, we had recorded 300 meters of snow depth measurements and not a single intersecting ungulate trail; at depths consistently exceeding 70cm, we were not surprised by this.

Before I let out a sigh of relief for finishing the rigorous climb safely, I glanced at the data sheet and looked up to where we were headed next. The slope was just as steep as the first one, only now the snow was nearly 3 feet in depth and the top portion consisted of nothing but large, vertical rocks. I consulted with my partner before attempting to hike it, and we both agreed that we had to in order for the project data to be entirely accurate and thorough. So, up we went again, this time with a bit less energy. We continued on with our ascent filled with determination, until we approached the rocks. This would be especially tricky, particularly for someone like myself with little rock climbing experience. Once again, I consulted with my partner Leo and learned that he was a well-trained and experienced rock climber. Lucky me! Leo volunteered to climb the first set of rocks so that he could demonstrate the proper way to do it. With a bit of a struggle and the help of a sturdy tree, I followed right in his footsteps and made my way up. The rocks became increasingly challenging, however, and we agreed that it would be best to play it safe and head to our next set of data.

It took us nearly an hour just to get to our next location, because the snow was up to our waists and the slopes continued to be very steep. By the time we finished all 200 data recordings, it had taken us more than double the time that it had taken us on the northern slope. When it was time to hand our data over to our lead scientist Bill, however, I felt the greatest sense of accomplishment that I had felt all week. Not only had I challenged myself to take risks that I had never taken before, but I had put trust in my Earthwatch team member and provided enough data for the scientists to complete their report on designing wildlife corridors.

On our way back to the vehicle, I couldn’t help but feel proud when my lead scientist stated,
“Out of all of the Earthwatch expeditions that I have done in this location throughout the past 7 years, this one has by far been the most challenging, because we have never received nearly this much snowfall at one given time!”

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Deer beds?

Before I share my most recent and fascinating discovery with you, I will reveal the awaited answers to yesterday’s posting about the animal tracks. For those of you who commented and made guesses, you may have already learned the correct answers in my response to you. For those of you who didn't comment, the correct answers are as follows: track #1 was a coyote, track #2 was a bobcat, and track #3 was a Mule Deer. The coyote track was definitely the most challenging to identify, as the claw marks are not visible in the photo. The oval shape, however, is a good indicator of a coyote. The bobcat print is very clear, but many thought it was a bear because it appeared large. Next time I won’t zoom in so much, because it was not nearly as large as a bear print! Bear prints also differ slightly in shape. As for the deer tracks, the great distance between the tracks provides the best evidence that it was a deer. Mule Deer are amazing jumpers!

Now to get back to my exciting discovery- deer have beds to sleep in just like humans! They may not be soft, fluffy mattresses, but they are beds nonetheless.  I have stumbled upon three deer bedding areas since I've been hiking Red Butte Canyon, and I couldn’t resist jumping in one for a picture today! I even got deer fur on my coat!

As you can see clearly in the picture above on the right, deer create beds in the winter by making oval-shaped depressions in the snow. Although I'm concealing a great deal of the first deer bed, it is evident that both are not in open areas. Deer make their beds in sheltered places for protection from the weather and predators. In the three areas I discovered deer bedding, there were several beds spread out within a cluster of trees. Each deer had its own bed, as they prefer to have their own space when sleeping! The beds were also located on the mid-slope of the mountain, providing further protection from predators who typically hang out along the streams at the bottom.

Based on what you've learned so far about ungulates, do you think that deer sleep more in the winter or in the summer? Please feel free to comment on this blog with your answer, and I will respond with the correct answer and an explanation tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Halfway there!

I think my body is really starting to adjust to this extensive hiking through deep snow, as today seemed to fly right by! Our lead scientist was confident that all of the team members could navigate the mountain effectively using a GPS, so he paired us up, gave us several data sheets to complete, and sent us off! I felt like a true explorer!

I was not lucky enough to see any new wildlife during today’s adventures, but I did hear a coyote gathering and it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I also discovered some fresh tracks that provided evidence of mammals nearby. Rather than tell you what those tracks were, I thought it would be fun to let you try and guess them. You may comment on this post with your guesses, and I will reveal the correct answers in my blog tomorrow. Good luck!

Track #1

  Track #2     

Track #3

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Snow, snow, and more snow!

Today we measured the snow depth across the entire study area of Red Butte! You may be wondering why on earth anyone would choose to do such a thing, so I'm going to tell you now.

For the past seven years, scientists have been studying the movement of ungulates or "hoofed animals" through Red Butte Canyon in an effort to design more effective wildlife corridors. A wildlife corridor is basically a fancy name scientists came up with to describe routes or paths that animals must take in order to get from one protected place to another. While there are many national parks and reservations throughout the US, many are simply not large enough to accommodate the ranges necessary for large mammals to survive. Because of the constant development surrounding protected areas in our ever-growing country, it's becoming increasingly difficult for large mammals to find enough space to live in. That's where wildlife corridors come in to play. Ungulates happen to be the easiest mammals to study, as they create very obvious paths in their travels, and Red Butte Canyon has an abundance of moose, elk, and deer (all of which are ungulates). That's why scientists chose this location as a study site.

Since ungulates flee from humans, the best way to study their movement patterns is by marking their tracks and studying the factors that contribute to the places they choose to go. Snow depth is one of the most critical factors, as deer don't travel through snow deeper than 40cm and elk don't travel through snow deeper than 60cm. This can present a huge challenge if snow at depths exceeding these numbers stands between ungulates and their food source. That's why we had to measure the snow depths of areas both with tracks and without tracks today. And guess what? All of the deer tracks were found in depths under 40cm!

Monday, January 25, 2010

My First Day!

This was definitely the highlight of my first day out in the field!

After two hours of hiking up Red Butte Canyon through
snow ranging in depth from 6 inches to 3 feet and
discovering only coyote tracks, our lead scientist decided
it was time to take our team off course. The steep and
extremely deep terrain we then had to follow him up
turned out to be well worth it, as we came across this
family of Mule Deer. Mule Deer are very different from
the White-Tailed deer you may see out east, as they are
much larger and their big ears stick straight up (kind of
like my dog, Marley)! I was amazed at how beautiful
they were, and I couldn't believe they spotted us from so
far away on the top of a peak peering down on them
(this picture is zoomed in quite a bit). They literally
froze and just stared at us for at least a minute before
finally prancing off. I have a full video of it to show you
when I return.

Tomorrow I will fill you in on how we use GPS systems
to mark the locations of wildlife trails. I learned today
that deer do not always take the most convenient paths
to travel! Do you see all that brush in the picture? They
weaved right through it, and I had to go trace all of
their tracks right after! I think the deer moved through
the brush maze a bit more gracefully than I did, but it
was certainly an adventure to say the least!