Posted by: pointreyesscience | June 23, 2010

Intern Trip To Pinnacles

The three network science communications interns based out of Golden Gate National Recreation Area took a trip down to Pinnacles National Monument to participate in surveys and learn more about SFAN’s southernmost park unit.

Condor Monitoring

Upon reaching the saddle of the High Peaks trail we were greeted by a hopeful intern with the American Conservation Experience named Carmel de Bertau, but no actual condors. We decided to break for lunch and lay back on the rocks before helping with the survey – just for a few minutes rest after a long hike under the warm sun.

A California Condor soars overhead the High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles National Monument. Photo Credit: Mason Cummings, PRNSA

Eager to see my first condor, I arose to scan the expansive view from atop the High Peaks ridgeline – still nothing. Carmel assured me that our chances of a condor sighting were good, and pointed out a former nest site in one of the adjacent cliffs. Still, I was skeptical. One of the condor chicks from that particular site had recently been relocated to the Los Angeles Zoo after researchers discovered toxic levels of lead in his blood.  As scavengers, condors often feed on the remains of carcasses shot with lead bullets; it’s an all-too-common theme that has nearly driven the entire species to extinction.

“Well, this was a nice hike even in the absence of condors,” I began to tell myself. But at that moment something came soaring out from behind the rock pillars. “Is that a giant turkey vulture?” I thought, “or could it possibly be…”

“There’s one!” confirmed Carmel as the bird effortlessly cruised in circles above our heads. I began to relish in my very first condor sighting, and then four more suddenly appeared – all looping around directly overhead.  As we began to make out the ID tags we realized that some of the birds were from Ventana, and some from Pinnacles. “There’s got to be a carcass somewhere close.”

That’s when I noticed that my fellow intern was still resting from the hike, looking eerily like a carcass lain peacefully atop one of the rocks, and I couldn’t help but wonder…

-Mason Cummings

Bat Monitoring

Being able to walk through Bear Gulch Cave at this time of year is a rare treat. A few years back, a grad student researching bats discovered a bat population taking hold in the cave. Unfortunately, because of the cave’s unique, open nature and high visitation, growth of the bat population was hindered prompting the park superintended to close the cave for several years.  Although the park now opens the cave to visitors for part of the year, when we went we were able to get a unique, private view during bat season thanks to park biologist Paul Johnson.

Talus Caves such as this provide ideal habitat for many species of bats. Photo Credit: Mason Cummings, PRNSA

The cave is different than the more commonly known solution caves. Bear Gulch Cave is the result of massive boulders falling down onto each other and creating a series of enclosed rooms. As we ventured deeper into this random assortment of boulders it became time to turn on our headlamps and open our ears for the high-pitched screeches of the bats. Making our way up the stairs, we could not see an bats but it was very clear from sticky guano on the railings that the flying mammals had been in the area; it seems the deeper we went, the deeper the guano.

As the photographers on the team set up their equipment and waited for their long exposure times, I got the chance to crawl into a hidden room, off the trail, looking for bats with Paul. The space was tight, requiring me to get on my belly and inch across. The guano here was the thickest and we were not surprised to see a bat fly overhead. However, the colony was still to be found, so it was off into the deeper reaches of the cave. At one point we came across the creek again, this time it dropping off in a beautiful channeled waterfall. Although the fall as refreshing, inspiring, and relaxing, it reduced our ability to listen out for bats so we headed out further. It was in the next room that, while just wandering around, I found the bat colony. They were out of sight, but they could certainly be heard as they screeched and clicked from behind their hidden roost. The room was too tight to fit both us and the bats, so after a quick check of the monitoring devices, it was back out of the cave and into the openness of Pinnacles National Monument.

-T.J. Utset-Ward

Raptor Monitoring

At 7:00 AM the next day we set out behind Gavin Emmons onto the trails of Pinnacles National Monument.  Our mission was to monitor breeding raptors in the park, an effort that Gavin has lead for the past seven years.  The raptors’ success is an important indicator of the well-being of Pinnacles’ unique ecosystem, and knowing where they are during breeding season helps the park determine where and when to close trails and cliffs to hikers and climbers that might disturb them.

Juvenile prairie falcon. Photo Credit: Gavin Emmons, NPS

Soon we headed off the trails towards some chalky cliffs in the distance to check in on our first raptors of the day, four young prairie falcons. We easily spotted one with its dark brown plumage clearly visible against the lighter shades of the cliff, and then another not far from the first. As we scanned the cliff-face, one of the adults swooped in with a hunk of meat for one of the fledglings. We could hear other fledglings’ excited vocalizations, and continued hiking to get a different vantage point.  Sure enough, two smaller fledglings, probably males, came into view.  Having confirmed that all four of the nestlings had fledged, we headed to our next destination, a red-shouldered hawk nest.  Two large fledglings were present and accounted for high in a gray pine. Moving on, we came to a sharp-shinned hawk nest, where the female was still incubating her eggs and trying hard to be invisible. Finally, we headed towards a great horned owl nest site known to have a single chick nearly fledged. As we approached, there was nothing to be seen but the remains of a rabbit. We approached further, and were startled by a startled young owl as it took off from a nearby perch, impressed us with its wingspan, and flew clumsily out of view. Another fledgling confirmed, and our work for the day done. Gavin will continue monitoring until breeding success can be confirmed at many more nest sites for as many as a dozen different raptor species around the park.  Hopefully he will find the raptor population in Pinnacles as blissfully stable today as it has been since monitoring began more than 20 years ago.

-Jessica Weinberg

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