The summer field season of 2020, like so much else this year, was unprecedented. In the spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly turned the world upside down, we at IBP- like so many people- saw our summer plans fly out the window. We had just recruited dozens of seasonal biologists and volunteers when suddenly it seemed that all our projects might be canceled because of closures at the National Parks and other public lands where we work, or they would be logistically impossible while following necessary public health guidelines.
Sisters Emma and Rosa Cox are talented field biologists who have worked with IBP for multiple summers now as seasonal employees. They talked to us about returning to work with IBP during one of our most unusual field seasons yet.
“I love my work. I love working in the field. I have never found anything that compares to a day spent out in the open pine/fir forests of the Sierra Nevada. Even when I don’t encounter the birds or bird sign that I am looking for, I’m bound to witness something most people don’t get an opportunity to see these days.
Emma Cox surveying for Black-backed Woodpeckers in 2019.
I might flush a roosting Common Poorwill or get to watch a chipmunk carry pine needles to its nest in an old woodpecker cavity. I could run across a noisy sapsucker family, spook a bear and her young cubs, find a rare Phantom Orchid, stub my toe on a buried piece of historic mining equipment, or be forced to pick my way around a flood of dispersing toads on the trail. If I’m lucky, I might have my hat swept off my head by an angry brooding Cooper’s Hawk and watch coyotes hunt in the early morning fog. Every day I find bones chewed on by chipmunks, piles of feathers that were once songbirds, bobcat poop, owl pellets, deer sheds, and occasionally a horse’s hoof. It’s never dull.
When the shutdowns hit in March, I had to come to terms with the fact that I might have to find a different kind of work this year. I was disappointed. Field seasons regularly involve working and living closely with a large group of people from around the world. As a result, field technicians are largely finding themselves out of work these days.
When I got the call from IBP that they would try to employ as many people as safely possible, I was both relieved and grateful. I have worked with few organizations and people who are as committed to taking care of all of their staff—from crew leaders to volunteers—and I think it reflects the integrity of all the IBP staff.”
"As a seasonal biologist, I look forward to spring and summer work all winter. It’s my chance to be surrounded by the cacophony of singing birds, to watch nestlings fledge awkwardly, to explore new meadows and learn the names of flowers. Best of all, I get to contribute data to important monitoring projects that will inform conservation goals for years to come. Having conducted point counts for IBP for two summers before this, I was eager to return to the Sierra meadows that I’d fallen in love with last year.
Rosa Cox checking in with the Willow Flycatcher team after a morning of surveying in 2019. (Chandler Dolan on left)
When California first shut down due to COVID-19 in March, I was sure that summer field-work would be cancelled. My work for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bishop, CA had already been heavily curtailed and was at risk of getting suspended indefinitely. So when Helen Loffland called to tell me not to get my hopes up, but that it might be possible to progress with season planning... I immediately got my hopes up.
Field seasons often require living and working in close quarters with a large group of people. Last year we had between six and ten people based out of the bunkhouse, working on at least five different field projects in the Truckee area. This is one of my favorite aspects of seasonal biological work; getting to know a variety of people united by their enthusiasm for the natural world always provides opportunities for learning and inspiration. Obviously this year that wouldn’t be possible but, with some modifications, we were able to have our field season.
Throughout the season, I was able to work on a variety of projects that would normally be completed by larger crews. While a normal field season might have allowed me to focus on a single objective, getting to try my hand at these other projects was an unexpected perk of the pandemic.
Despite the challenges of managing a field season with unforeseen obstacles, Helen, IBP Executive Director Rodney Siegel, and the rest of IBP supported us throughout. When fires broke out in the study region in August, their primary concern was for our safety and health. I am infinitely grateful for the flexibility and understanding of the project coordinators at IBP during such a challenging year."