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Neighbors in the Field

August 28, 2015

One of my favorite aspects of fieldwork happens to be the same component that makes ecological research so challenging: you are not working in a controlled environment. This means that you never know what--or whom you may run across on any given day.

Yesterday, my colleagues and I conducted a soil collection at a location designated for a new addition to our monitoring network. The purpose of this soil collection is to calibrate the instruments we will use in relation to the exact soil type at the site. Because soil type and texture influence how tightly water is held in the soil, readings by the same instruments can vary slightly depending on where in the ground the readings are taken. Calibrating the equipment to soil from your exact location helps to account for those differences when you later analyze the data. Once the calibration is complete, the soil is returned to its original hole. It is especially important to return the samples to the hole in the correct order if soil type varied by depth. At one location where we collected soil yesterday, soil became progressively more sandy as we dug down, and the difference between the dark, soft soil near the surface and the light, sandy soil at 20 inches (50 cm) was quite striking!

During our soil collection we did not see much wildlife, but evidence of one particular neighbor in the field was quite evident as we walked to and from our sites. Black bears (Usus americanus) are quite common in the Roaring Fork Valley, and we were not surprised that many of the aspens in the study area were marked with numerous scores from bears, some of whom had clearly been climbing the trees. What did give us pause, however, was how very new many of the markings were--so new in places, that the raised wood was still light in color and splintery. Additionally, we found multiple piles of fresh bear scat in a range of sizes. (It seems that service berries are good eating up there.) These clues that we may be working in an area favored by the large, furry locals offered an important reminder to remain alert at this, and other, sites.

We'll be back to these new site locations in a few weeks to install the climate and soil moisture stations, and we'll be sure to share any special signs or sightings of our neighbors.