Following Forest Owls and Traveling Teachers in Arizona

By Zachary Zimmerman, Student Travel Specialist

Zach with an Elf Owl in 2017.“Nothing helps catch owls like some birthday magic.”
“Third time’s the charm.”
“After those late nights, we better get one tonight!”

These are the meditations my new teacher friends and I recite as the sun goes down on our last night at the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Arizona; I’m still regaining my composure after these wonderful folks swapped out our owl call mp3s with a surprise DIY recording of “Happy Birthday” to celebrate my 28th trip around the sun.

I was here exactly one year ago, working as a facilitator on the expedition Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S., and we’re all feeling the pressure to top last year’s birthday record of five owls before bed—doubly so since the last few nights were no-shows. If we catch any, we’ll have more evidence of the impacts of climate change on owl habitats, some fun photos to share with friends and family, and most importantly, the just desserts for a week of hard work and insatiable curiosity.

As Earthwatch’s Student Travel Specialist, I spend most of my time at a desk, pairing high schools with Earthwatch scientists in order to expose their students to the rigors and rewards of careers in science through field research and travel. But for this, my favorite work week of the year, I journey to the mountains of Arizona to host eight high school science teachers—recipients of the competitive Project Kindle fellowship—and train them to organize their own student research expeditions from the ground up.

This is no easy feat for them. Teachers are some of the hardest working (and often least supported) professionals in the country, and few are required to pursue such ambitious programs. Yet, they take on this challenge and endeavor to learn everything from fundraising and curriculum design to winning support from principals and parents, all to foster scientific literacy and a love of nature in their students. Any day that I can contribute to this worthy goal is a day well spent.

But let’s back up. It’s day 1 of the expedition, and we’re approaching the Chiricahua Mountains, our home for the week. I love watching my teammates take in the majesty of these “sky islands” – mountains whose desert-induced isolation promotes rare and unique arrangements of plants and animals, much like islands at sea do. It’s no surprise that many of Portal’s 300 residents are retired scientists, incapable of abandoning the breathtaking landscape where they dedicated so many hours’ work. And the fellows are already picking up on that magic as we traverse the access roads, dodging deer and pointing out enticing rock faces along the way.


We settle in quickly, and after an afternoon of orientation, we head out for our first night of owl surveillance. The teachers’ eagerness to see an owl is palpable, and their enthusiasm proves contagious. Take Dr. Irene Moore, a long-time bench scientist who only recently became a teacher. She’s already started organizing a student trip to Costa Rica, and as Dave shares yet another fascinating detail about owl ecology, I sense the gears turning, “how do I get my students ready to absorb as much of their own experience as possible?”

Science GIF-source (1)

But this introspection is quickly flipped when someone yells “IN!” and we rush over to see what we caught – it’s a Whiskered screech owl! The teachers hover with bated breath as Dave and Felicia, his field assistant, study this Furby-looking bird, checking for sex, wingspan, weight, and other qualities that will help us better understand who’s living in these mountains and how, year over year, climate change is making their habitats less hospitable. When the data have been collected, we learn how to hold the owls and line up for photo ops.

For the next week, the routine is more or less the same: Early breakfast, pack up to survey tree cavities for possible nests, back for lunch and a teacher workshop, then dinner and another chance to catch owls. Some days we take longer drives to the tops of the mountains and are left speechless by azure vistas punctuated by the striking arrows of scorched aspens – victims of a wildfire nearly a decade ago.

The schedule is the only real constant, though, as each day brings with it not only a deeper understanding of the research, but more confidence, more camaraderie, and more self-awareness. In only a week, the rigors of fieldwork have given structure and rhythm to something equally important to our data collection: these teachers are building community, discovering their inner scientist, and preparing to carry these lessons back to their students, some of whom may go on to pursue careers in science themselves. As we part ways at the airport, each hug and “I’ll be in touch!” is harder than the last, but it’s understood that this is a beginning, not an end.

The team pauses on our descent from the study site atop the Chiricahua Mountains to soak up the breathtaking views (and the breath-giving clear air)!

To hear about Project Kindle from a teacher’s perspective, read our blog post “Earthwatch: Transformative, Validating, Full of Adventure.”