For 19 years, IBP has worked with the National Park Service (NPS) and the US Geological Survey to study the distribution and abundance of birds in the national parks of the Pacific Northwest. Each summer, our crews conduct backcountry surveys in many of the region's parks as part of the NPS's North Coast and Cascades Network Inventory and Monitoring Program. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit this spring, it looked like our 20th field season wasn't going to happen. We talked to project leader Mandy Holmgren about how–after much uncertainty and last-minute adjustments–it all came together in the end.
Initially it looked like your field season would be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How were you able to move forward?
Pretty early on in the pandemic, we had gotten word from the North Coast and Cascades Network Inventory and Monitoring Program that all field work was being suspended through the end of April at least, and at least one of the parks was not allowing any fieldwork to take place until the governor of Washington lifted the stay-at-home order, which wasn't until May 31.
Golden-crowned Kinglets are one of the many bird species monitored by our crews in the Pacific Northwest's National Parks. Photo by Tom Murray/Flickr.
Our season was scheduled to start later than usual this year anyway because we had an all-returning crew and didn't have to do as long of a training session as we typically do. But we were still planning to start May 8, which clearly wasn't going to happen.
In order for the season to move forward, IBP had to not only approve a plan internally, but we had to also get approval from the Chief of Natural Resources and Superintendent at each individual park (Mt. Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic), plus by the North Coast and Cascades Network Inventory and Monitoring Program which is the network we work under.
The park biologists and I put together a safety plan for the season, outlining all the adjustments we would be making to ensure crew safety, as well as proposing a more realistic start date. Many conversations and drafts of proposals later, we submitted our plan for approval at all the parks, and were approved.
We did decide to drop our surveys at San Juan Island National Historical Park. Traveling to an island via ferry just seemed like a bad idea for everyone: the crew, the residents of the island, and everyone else we would have inevitably come into contact with.
What logistical hurdles did you have to overcome to make the season happen?
Well, we lost all of our park housing, which was one of the main hurdles. But since we do so much backpacking for this project, not having housing was not a complete deal breaker. Fortunately, everyone on the crew except one person already lived in Washington, so they were able to be based in their own homes. We had some very flexible and understanding crew members, some of whom were swapped around at the last minute and didn't end up working at the park where they were intending to work, due to these housing constraints.
I got seriously lucky this year with a fantastic all-returning crew, so we didn't have to do our normal three-week training session, which I honestly think would have been a little impossible given the circumstances. Our training was five days in length - two over Zoom and three in person. Since no campgrounds were open at the time, we were able to camp on a friend's property (30 acres, so social distancing was easy!) and all traveled separately to the spots we were birding.
After our brief training session, we split up into teams of two, and had very little in-person interaction with anyone else during the entirety of the season. Because the crew was so experienced (and amazing), I did not have to supervise them as closely as I would have in other years, so being connected only by email and phone worked well.
How did it feel to finally get out in the field? Was it a relief to be in the backcountry and kind of check out of the human world for a bit?
It felt amazing! Finally, some normalcy in our lives after so much stress and uncertainty for months. And yes, none of us had ANY qualms about removing ourselves from the human world for a while! It was refreshing and grounding to be able to watch the same processes going on like nothing had changed. The birds were still migrating, nesting, defending territories, etc.
Did you notice anything different about the parks this year?
In the beginning, parks were either still closed to the public, or just starting to re-open, so they were very quiet. At some point though, a switch was flipped and we started seeing extremely high numbers of people, even in deep, remote corners of the parks where I don't typically see people.
It started taking a little more coordinating just to get away from what seemed like hordes of people in certain parts of the parks. At times we hiked late in the day in the twilight hours to avoid crowds, and of course we are always out early in the morning for our bird surveys. It definitely felt very, very busy, especially during the last two weeks of our season.
Crew member Keke Ray preps dinner in the backcountry. Photo by Mandy Holmgren.
In the end, how did the season go?
It was a weird season, no doubt about that. I feel very lucky that we were able to do any work at all, let alone most of our season. But because of our hard-working crew, we managed to visit and survey all of our sites in each of the three large wilderness parks this year. That definitely seemed very unlikely back in May.
One of the things I really appreciated is how seriously the crew took the safety issues. There were never any complaints about some of the inconveniences or adjustments we had to make this season. For instance, we didn't even know with certainty that our season was moving forward until about a week before it started! It would have been a much different season without such great people caring about, and being part of, the project.
"Thanks to crew members Kelsey Hamm, Mikaela Kropp, Fanter Lane, Quinn McMahon, and Keke Ray for their hard work and dedication this season!"