Hiking, Song Birds, and Finding a Path to Environmentalism through Earthwatch


By Judith Santano, Ignite Fellow 2013 and Earthwatch Educator Program Intern

Judith Santano

Judith Santano

The first time I can remember falling in love with the earth was when I went to Wyoming to study songbirds for two weeks. I can remember being mesmerized by everything around me and was struggling to take it all in. I couldn’t believe that the world was so green and that the air was so clean. I was even having trouble breathing because the air was so smog free. Every day I woke up to the sound of countless birds and deer outside my cabin. That trip was full of many firsts for me. From hiking, seeing a bear, learning bird calls, and seeing the Milky Way, to just being away from home. Each day was a new adventure full of excitement, laughter, learning, intellectual and emotional growth, and pure, unadulterated happiness.

To this day, nothing has changed my life as radically as those two weeks did.

I had always been the nerdy kid who loved science, but being on this trip was like flipping a switch in terms of environmentalism. Being from L.A., I had no prior experience being immersed in nature like that. I never really knew what the environment entailed, or that it was at risk of being destroyed. After being in the middle of it, I realized how important and necessary it was to care for the environment. This trip opened my eyes to a whole new world and showed me that there was more than one way to love science. Although I didn’t completely know it when I was 15, Earthwatch would influence the path I would take in my studies, career, and life.


The scientific research I was able to participate in was not what I was expecting at all. Our days consisted of hiking across rivers and through visible clouds of pollen to find songbirds that most people wouldn’t usually slow down to appreciate. We banded songbirds and kept track of their nests in order to monitor changes in their populations. I remember I was in disbelief when our scientist told us that the data we were collecting was going into a national database that has existed for decades. It felt so cool to be a part of something so significant and bigger than just our team. Having to patiently observe these beautiful creatures that I had previously taken for granted was such an eye opening experience. It taught me to see the importance of everything around me, no matter how small it may seem.

I still find myself enchanted by the birds I see every day of my life. I always slow down to watch them fly and try to catch the subtle differences between their calls.

DSC_4424Now it’s been four years since my trip, and I still constantly talk about how I fell in love with the earth in Wyoming. I’m going into my junior year at Stanford University and I’m majoring in Earth Systems. I’ve chosen a track that allows me to study the impact humans have on the environment, but also gives me the opportunity to learn how to be an effective science communicator, as well as the importance of environmental education. Earthwatch has always been my role model in the process of figuring out that science, communication, and education are what I’m passionate about. For the past four years, I’ve dreamt of returning to work for Earthwatch and repaying them for leaving such a lasting impression on my life. And this summer, I finally got the opportunity as I traveled to Boston to intern with the organization. I cannot express how fortunate I feel to be interning with the Ignite program – a program that had such a profound impact on my life – and be a part of the organization that changes people’s lives.

Whenever someone asks me why I picked Earth Systems as my major, I respond with, “Because my heart yearns for the earth.”

And it all started with Earthwatch. They gave me the opportunity to fall in love with the earth. Those memories and those feelings of wanting to work for something bigger than myself are what I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Into the Peruvian Amazon – The Journey of an EY-Earthwatch Ambassador

The team of 2017 EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors in the Peruvian Amazon.

The team of 2017 EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors in the Peruvian Amazon.

By Tara Servais, EY-Earthwatch Ambassador 2017

As part of EY’s commitment to supporting entrepreneurs and minimizing our environmental footprint, I was selected – along with a team of nine other EY colleagues from across the Americas – to participate in the EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors Program. On Amazon Riverboat Exploration, our diverse team included members representing five countries, all of EY’s core competencies, and several different native languages. Each of us departed from our hometowns to arrive together in Peru where we began our journey deep into the Amazon with two main goals: 1) team together on a skills-based project to support a local scientist and entrepreneur connected to Amazon preservation in his business efforts and 2) support his research studying the impact of climate change on biodiverse communities.

Over the past several years, the Peruvian Amazon has been experiencing impacts of climate change ranging from great levels of flooding to droughts and drastic wildlife population changes. The basin of the Samiria River is now a flooded forest environment with largely diverse plants and animal inhabitants. The local communities that live in the Amazon rely heavily on the sustainability of the environment and wildlife for food, shelter and other basic human necessities. Dr. Richard Bodmer – Earthwatch lead scientist and founder of AmazonEco, a research expedition business – has dedicated the past 30 years of his life to Amazon preservation efforts by conducting research and using the data collected to influence government conservation policy.


The research expedition

Our team met in Iquitos, Peru for initial introductions and project briefing. The next day, we boarded a bus and voyaged two hours into the Amazon where we met our home for the next seven days: a historic riverboat built in the 1890s.

Over the course of the next week, our team spent early mornings and afternoons working with Dr. Bodmer and his team of biologists to study wildlife populations and record data. Our research included surveying population density on pink dolphins, various exotic bird species and terrestrial animals such as sloths, anteaters, and monkeys. We caught caiman and piranhas to measure their relative size and recorded the data for further comparison analysis to be conducted.



The skills-based project

For the skills-based project, we worked into the late evening hours examining AmazonEco’s business operations. The team reviewed the balance sheets, interviewed Dr. Bodmer on revenue streams, understood marketing and communication efforts, and analyzed where marginal profits could increase with low risk to the business.

At the conclusion of the week, our EY team presented the business recommendations to Dr. Bodmer. We found ways to streamline business processes and expand operational revenues summarized in three key areas: marketing, operational and financial optimization, and business development. We provided tangible advice with deliverables that could be implemented in real time as well as a future-looking state of business that would allow him to run AmazonEco’s business operations more soundly.

After a week of getting to know Dr. Bodmer, his research team, the habitats, and local communities that our research would help to conserve, it was difficult to say goodbye. After final parting words, we boarded a bus back to the Iquitos airport and continued the final leg of our journey to Lima.

EY-Lima visit

On our final day, our team arrived at the EY Lima office where we were greeted and escorted to a conference hall. We presented our EY-Earthwatch experience and findings to a group of EY associates who arrived to hear of our expedition. Following our presentation, our team had the opportunity to learn about the sectors most important to Peru’s economy and engage with the local Climate Change and Sustainability Services team. It was remarkable to be in another EY office so far from home, yet the feeling was so familiar to my own office environment. The vastness of EY’s global presence was apparent in that very moment.

The team spent time with a local community school, sharing research and watching special Mother's Day presentations.

The team spent time with a local community school, sharing research and watching special Mother’s Day presentations.

The conclusion, but not the end

Ten strangers came together and found commonality: the one EY culture that we share.

Not one of us experienced this journey the same way. I left with appreciation for the Amazon and a compelling desire to educate others on the importance of working to preserve our planet Earth. The skills based project helped me further develop leadership skills for effectively collaborating in a group setting. The project also gave me confidence in expressing my viewpoints and exercising personal business strengths among a diverse group of peers. I am thankful for this amazing opportunity EY has afforded me and will never forget the individuals, who I now call lifelong friends, that contributed to this incredible experience.

To learn more about the research being conducted on this expedition, visit our project page: Amazon Riverboat Exploration.


Citizen Science, Trees, and the Quest for Urban Resiliency

Cambridge, MA

By Kathryn Dunn, Earthwatch Multimedia Intern

Between 2012 and 2015, nearly 9,000 trees in Cambridge, Massachusetts were measured and monitored by both researchers and citizen scientists. Arborist for the City of Cambridge, David Lefcourt, and research director, Vanessa Boukili, Ph.D., led this effort with the extensive help of Earthwatch volunteers. The findings produced by this research are crucial to understanding the relationship between urban forests and urban resiliency.


Urban forests are the trees that live in an urban setting, such as those you would see planted along a busy sidewalk or in a city park. The resiliency of an urban environment is a city’s ability to adapt to stress-inducing factors, such as climate change, while continuing to survive and thrive. Resiliency is contingent on a variety of factors, but the proper maintenance and understanding of urban forests is more influential than you may think.

An Earthwatch volunteer measures a tree in Cambridge, MA.

An Earthwatch volunteer measures a tree in Cambridge, MA.

When properly maintained, urban trees provide numerous and somewhat unexpected benefits to cities. Beside their aesthetic value, urban trees can cleanse the air, conserve water from runoff, provide shade and cooling, take the edge off city life, and much more. Several studies demonstrate that healthy urban landscapes are positively correlated with lower prevalence of health conditions such as diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.

A better understanding of how to strategically plant and maintain these shady refuges to get the most out of them is critical to urban resiliency.


Despite the clear benefits of urban forests, the trees that produce these desired affects face numerous threats. Climate change tops Lefcourt’s worry list, he says, noting that Cambridge’s trees leafed out much more slowly this year because of last year’s drought and irregular spring weather. These trees also deal with pressure from pollution, disease, lack of adequate exposure to sunlight, and lack of sufficient water.

Additionally, researchers who study these trees face obstacles in their quest to enhance urban resiliency. As expressed by Boukili, “One of the primary challenges we face is collecting data from large numbers of trees. Because there are a lot of different factors that influence tree survival and growth, we need data from many thousands of trees to figure out which factors are most important.”




Between 2012 and 2015, Boukili, Lefcourt, and other Earthwatch staff trained nearly 550 volunteers to act as “citizen scientists” capable of collecting data and monitoring about 25 percent of the urban trees in Cambridge. The data collected was used in a study to test three new models of tree growth and to supply information with which to estimate ecosystem services on an individual tree and city-wide scale.

The Cambridge study produced data that indicated higher survival rates, lower growth rates, and lower levels of carbon intake than were predicted by other models.

The findings will impact what city planners need to take into consideration when planting trees, and also have the potential to improve the function of current models used to evaluate urban forests.


Earthwatch continues to contribute to the fight to enhance the resiliency of cities through our one-day projects in the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency Program. Here, volunteers identify and measure trees – producing an amount of data that would be nearly impossible for researchers to collect on their own. The information collected also provides the necessary means to answer the larger questions about our urban spaces. The effective utilization and understanding of green space in the growing urban environment is reliant upon this type of data collection.

As our communities are faced with change, we recognize the significance of resiliency and we will continue to work to extend this type of research to other cities.

“We know we’ve got work to do to ensure that our urban ecosystems are resilient in the face of climate change. There’s no better way to do that than to involve citizens directly in the research itself so they become true ambassadors of our shared environment.” – Scott Kania, Earthwatch CEO

Sea Turtles and Malibu Rum in the Bahamas – The Beginnings of a Beautiful Partnership

Earthwatch Lead Scientist Annabelle Brooks with a team of researchers and Malibu influencers.

By Heather Wilcox, Earthwatch’s Director of Annual Giving

As a fundraiser for Earthwatch, I spend most of my time reaching out to potential donors, tens of thousands of times each year. Most will go unanswered. Thankfully, I don’t take it personally. But every now and again, a potential donor searches you out. This rare turn of events is exactly what happened in early March when a mysterious woman with a Swedish accent called me from a bustling airport to discuss a new corporate partnership opportunity. Through the boarding call announcements, I learned that she represented Malibu Rum, which is produced in Barbados, and was in search of a nonprofit partner to support sea turtle conservation in the Caribbean. Their goal was to send a film crew to record our work and then promote it through social media, including an Instagram fundraising challenge where they hoped to raise $100,000. Malibu had shortlisted Earthwatch as one of a few potential charities.

“$100,000 U.S. dollars?” I remember asking, still in disbelief that such a huge opportunity was now at our fingertips. “Yes, U.S. dollars” she laughed. “Does this sound like something Earthwatch would be interested in?”

“Absolutely!” I replied, still waiting for the catch. “Wonderful” she said. “Because of staff scheduling we are working with a pretty tight window right now… we will need to have filming wrapped by the end of the month.”

Ahh… there it is, I thought. There was no way a small and stretched nonprofit like Earthwatch could orchestrate the myriad of details that would need to go into this in just a few weeks… could we? As it turned out, in a wonderful aligning of the stars – we could! Our Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas expedition wouldn’t have teams in the field at that time; lead scientist Annabelle Brooks was available and willing to go on camera; the research lent itself well to accommodating a small film crew; and, most importantly, I work with an amazingly talented, motivated, and passionate team that was willing to unilaterally prioritize this effort to make it happen. About a week later, Malibu let us know that Earthwatch was their clear top choice for partnership, and so began my first whirlwind adventure as part of a location video shoot.

One of the beautiful beaches of Eleuthera.

One of the beautiful beaches of Eleuthera.

Being sent to the Bahamas for work may sound glamorous, but my daydreams of leisurely meals at beachside cafés quickly vanished when I saw the production schedule: one day to scout, one and a half days to film, four locations, 10-14 hour days with little room for error. Any lack of cooperation by the weather or our flippered friends would cost us the shot. The pressure was on.

Eleuthera, a gorgeous 100-mile long island in the Bahamas, is a fabulous place for leisurely vacations when you have no place to be, but can be challenging when you actually have four places you need to be before losing the light. Marine shoots, I learned, are driven by the angle of the sun and the direction of the tides, since both will impact shot quality due to shadows, turbidity, and glare. Eleuthera’s roads are narrow and rough, internet/cell coverage is spotty, and our “small” crew – with Annabelle and her researchers, multiple camera operators, an underwater dive specialist, sound technician, producers, account managers, talent, assistants and yours truly – numbered close to 30. We literally needed a bigger boat for Day 2. (Thank you to Cape Eleuthera Institute for so graciously providing one in a pinch!)

Fortunately, both the weather and the sea turtles were amenable, and we were able to capture 8 juvenile green turtles for monitoring. I got the chance to participate in this process and let me tell you, it’s not easy to catch a turtle! The process requires a half dozen or more people wading out to waist deep water with a very long, easily snagged or tangled, and quickly-filled-with-seaweed-and-getting-heavier-by-the-minute seine net. You need to move quickly but quietly into a D-shape, and once everyone is in place, you begin walking towards the middle, splashing as much as you can along the way, in order to drive the turtles to the center and close off the net behind them.

Then the real fun begins – trying to grab the turtles as they effortlessly zip through the water and turn on a dime. Let me tell you – turtles are FAST. The best move to catch them when they go by resembles a belly flop that I am sure is highly amusing to watch from the beach. Turtles are also incredibly STRONG, even on their backs. I struggled to hold one especially feisty turtle still after bringing him to shore. Turns out he was a newbie who hadn’t been tagged before and was not going to go quietly: he got in several good slaps and tossed a flipper-full of sand into my face before settling down.

After wrapping the first day, I learned that it takes about four hours of footage to produce a 90-second video. I was amazed at how much time and how many people went into making something so seemingly simple happen. It reminded me of Earthwatch, actually. Starting with our Boston office of about 40 staff, plus the researchers and staff on the ground, and then all our volunteers, you’re looking at one hundred people or more per year and thousands of man hours in the field per expedition to capture the data we need to make a difference. Some projects will run for several years before enough data is collected to be able to inform scientific papers or policy recommendations. And some projects, like our Costa Rican Sea Turtles expedition, will run for decades and we’re still learning. Two years ago, two leatherback turtles who were tagged in our first year of monitoring in Costa Rica – in 1993 – returned to Playa Grande to nest.

This heartwarming story gives us hope of recovery for the critically endangered Eastern Pacific leatherback, and indicates that the protective measures Earthwatch helped implement over 20 years ago are working. It also underscores the powerful role that Earthwatch’s long-term research projects play in conservation. Sometimes decades, careers, even lifetimes are needed to ensure measurable progress. There are no “quick fixes” in conservation, and Earthwatch’s time-tested model enables us to go this distance, no matter how far.

I’m happy to say that the rest of the shoot went according to plan (mostly), and the next morning, our international team scattered back across the globe, departing as abruptly as we had descended on sleepy Eleuthera. Everything happened so fast that I barely snapped any pictures.

Heather (center) with the team of Malibu influencers.

Heather (center) with the team of Malibu influencers.

In true Earthwatch form, I returned home with a wildlife experience I could not have gotten anywhere else, new friendships, and treasured memories that will last a lifetime.

Malibu’s fundraising campaign in support of Earthwatch launches June 16 – World Sea Turtle Day. To get involved, or to learn more about Earthwatch’s 45-year history of sea turtle conservation, visit our website, and follow us on Instagram and Facebook to get the latest updates.

Drought, Meadows, and Climate Change in California’s Sierra Nevada

Hutchinson - credit Tera Dornfield (84)

By Betsy Harbert

Betsy Harbert is a field team leader on the Earthwatch expedition Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and river science project manager at the South Yuba River Citizens League. Despite California’s influx of rain this year, drought is still a real threat. Betsy explains how the research being conducted on this project is critical to understanding potential threats meadow ecosystems face due to climate change.

In Loney Meadow, a 40-acre wet meadow in the northern Sierra Nevada of California, the snow is melting and the water is flowing. New plant growth peaks through the flowing waters, birds awaken and share their song with the quiet landscape. This year, California experienced record precipitation. The water coursing through Loney Meadow offers a respite from the extreme drought stress the meadow has been put through over the previous five years. But the future of this meadow remains in doubt, extreme weather events are expected to continue because of climate change. The potential for the meadow to be resilient to these extreme events, or the meadow’s ability to perpetuate through time, is entwined with the extent of disturbance this meadow has experienced over the last century.

Plants and animals, including humans, rely on the meadow for a multitude of functions including habitat, food, water filtration and storage, flood attenuation, and carbon storage. These functions have been directly and indirectly degraded by disturbances such as grazing, mining, and logging. The creation and maintenance of a meadow ecosystem is directly tied to its hydrologic regime, defined as the timing and amount of water flow and retention within the meadow. High water tables during the spring and early summer exclude trees and encourage herbaceous plant and woody shrubs adapted to water logged conditions. Soils are often highly productive, resulting in communities of dense sedges, rushes, grasses, and wildflowers. Leaves and litter left behind at the end of the growing season are incorporated as organic matter into the soil which helps sequester carbon and perpetuates the retention of water in the meadow by holding on to water. Thus, the meadow acts like a ‘sponge,’ holding water late into the summer when the surrounding forests are dry. In this way, the meadow is self-sustaining.

Disturbances that disrupt the hydrologic regime of a meadow are often a result of bare soil being exposed. This can happen through historic overgrazing, roads created to access logging or mining sites, or undersized culverts that concentrate water flows through meadows. Once bare soil is exposed, it sets into motion a cycle of erosion that amplifies over time. Erosion increases the capacity of streams so that water courses quickly through the meadow rather than flooding and infiltrating into the meadow to resupply groundwater. This lowers the water table and degrades the ability of the soil to retain water by accelerated decomposition of organic material.

This matters in times of drought and flooding and everything in between for a degraded meadow. It means that the ground water levels needed to maintain the meadow occur less frequently and for a shorter amount of time. When a degraded meadow floods in extreme years, the erosional force of water only compounds the degradation. The work we do to restore Loney Meadow’s important functions, in collaboration with Earthwatch, is pivotal in creating meadow resiliency in the face of climate change.

But it is your duty as an inquisitive and thoughtful resident of earth to not take our word for it. This story line means nothing unless we can actually measure the functions we claim these meadows provide.

In addition, we must demonstrate that our restoration truly leads to improved function and supports a more diverse and dynamic ecosystem. This is where the collaboration with Earthwatch has been critical.

Since 2014, Earthwatch volunteers have helped to collect pre-restoration data at Loney Meadow that characterizes the timing and amount of water moving through, the flora and fauna that live in, and amount of carbon being stored and released. We will measure these same variables post restoration to verify if our hypothesis of increased function as a result of restoration is correct.

Earthwatch volunteers in the Sierra Nevada meadowsIf you are interested in joining us on this important mission, consider signing up for one of our Earthwatch trips this year or next. We are expecting to implement the restoration at Loney Meadow in the fall of 2017 and we continue to collect pre-restoration data on a number of meadows set to be restored in the coming years.

As we restore more meadows, we increase our impact to broader spatial scales and increase the potential for meadows to provide the important ecosystem functions that we all rely on.

Discover more by visiting the expedition site at: Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

For questions or comments about this post, please contact us at communications@earthwatch.org.

From Passion to Action: A Teen’s Experience in Little Cayman

By Jake Schenthal

In July 2016, 17-year-old Jake Schenthal joined the Earthwatch teen expedition: Helping Endangered Corals in the Cayman Islands. Jake has always had a passion for oceans and marine wildlife, but as he began to learn more about the devastating effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, he knew he was ready to make a difference.

Jake blog

For millions of years, coral reefs have flourished within our oceans – almost every animal, in some form, has a connection to coral reefs. Humans especially rely on reefs for food, medicine, tourism, biodiversity, and much more. However, reefs today are under threat from overfishing, unprecedented tourism, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and climate change. Coral bleaching is a phenomenon that occurs when the seawater gets too warm, or the conditions are not favorable, so the zooxanthellae, algae essential to the coral, disperse from the coral until the conditions return to normal. Without these algae, corals lose their vivid colors and eventually die. Today, climate change is a prime cause of this phenomenon.

“Knowing the importance of reefs and that these values were under threat, I wanted to make a difference.”

I first encountered Earthwatch last year while I was searching for volunteer programs to do over the summer. As a volunteer at a local aquarium, I’ve always been interested in the oceans and the animals within them. While I was deciding between a couple Earthwatch expeditions, Helping Endangered Coral Reefs in the Cayman Islands really stood out to me, not only because it captured my interest in coral reefs, but it would allow me to make a difference in addressing a global crisis: climate change.

Foto 7-15-16 7 54 34 PM

This stunning image taken on Little Cayman was also the 3rd place winner of the 2016 Earthwatch photo contest. Credit: Jake Schenthal

Little Cayman is an island with a permanent population of less than 100. This island is also home to the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI), one of the most remote and yet most renowned, scientific research stations in the Caribbean. Little Cayman is the smallest of the three Cayman Islands, and because of its limited tourism and infrastructure, the coral reefs are among the most intact of any Caribbean island.

Every day proved to be a different experience. At times, conditions in the field were vigorous, with large swells and undercurrents, but that just added to the sense of adventure. The location was absolutely breathtaking. Snorkeling among the reefs helped to widen my understanding of the oceans, and at the same time, make me feel minuscule. For the first couple days of this incredible experience, we spent time at CCMI learning about the different types of coral that exist in the Caribbean as well as the ways in which they interact. After various workshops and presentations, it was time to do field research.

While challenging at times, the field research was arguably the most enlightening part of the trip. We did two research excursions per day, each to a different part of the island. For much of the research, we used a tape measure, clipboard, writing materials, and a color chart, which depicted healthy and unhealthy colors for coral. When in the water, we would lay a “transect” of the tape measure, and record the colors of any corals that were within that transect. This ensures that the data consistently measures all the corals in the area, not just the bleached ones.

“For years I had heard about the devastating effects of climate change, specifically coral bleaching. Supporting efforts to combat this firsthand was incredible.”

The second part of the research consisted of sponge surveying. Sponges, a natural part of coral reefs, can sometimes be competitive to corals and take over important coral territory. While there is nothing specifically that can be done, especially since it happens naturally, it is important to document the distribution of them, and to see if climate change is increasing their range.

While I could say the crystalline turquoise waters, or the deserted beaches, or the Caribbean vibes were my favorite aspects of the expedition, being able to work together with like-minded individuals easily tops the list. This combined with the research and beauty of the island created a beyond memorable trip. In the end, I’m glad to know that my time and research will help to combat coral bleaching, one of the devastating effects of climate change.

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Jake and his team in Little Cayman.

Guardians of the Forest

By Alix Morris and Dr. Stan Rullman

As darkness settles on the forest, a fleet of tiny owls emerges from the shadows – their soft-edged wings silent as they stalk their prey. Their faces are satellite discs, detecting the faintest rustle – a mouse scurrying amidst the leaf litter, the flutter of a moth’s wings. Little is known about the lives of small forest owls, but scientists are working to change that. From deep within aspen groves in northern Utah to the riparian canyon and coniferous forests in southeastern Arizona, Earthwatch teams are filling in knowledge gaps and testing strategies to protect these owl species from the effects of a changing climate as part of the expedition Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S.


Adult Northern Saw-whet Owl in Arizona

Of a Feather

The forest sage in our beloved children’s books, the reliable messenger for the wizards at Hogwarts, the sacred bird and symbol of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and the only species that can truly understand how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop – owls have long served as a source of fascination for humans. Yet despite their cultural popularity, we have a limited understanding of the ecology and conservation status of many of these species, including some of the smallest owls in North America.

oleyar-credit-unknown-3In Southeast Arizona and Northern Utah, Earthwatch volunteers – led by biologist Dr. Dave Oleyar – are studying these unique birds as part of the expedition Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S. Teams of citizen scientists are helping to conserve these compact hunters of the night and their disappearing habitat – an effort that has become more urgent in the face of a changing climate.

Home, Sweet Nest Box

Scientists predict that within this century, aspen forests may all but disappear in many areas, including Northern Utah, where aspen groves provide a unique and essential habitat for small owl species such as Flammulated Owls, as well as other wildlife including songbirds, flying squirrels, and even moose.

Most owls seek out tree cavities, hollow openings such as those carved by woodpeckers, to shelter and nest in. But as these forests disappear, natural tree cavities may disappear along with them. What does that mean for the owls?

“Despite all of the incredible adaptations owls have to get by in a dark world, they’re now in a tough spot because they rely on this one thing – tree cavities. But we don’t know how that one thing will respond to climate change.” – Dr. Dave Oleyar

To address this challenge, researchers have begun to introduce nest boxes that could replace natural tree cavities and help to keep the populations afloat. While this strategy has been effective in Utah, where Flammulated Owls and Saw-whet Owls use the nest boxes regularly, in other regions, the boxes remain empty.

Why does this strategy work in one location for a species, but not in others? Perhaps it has to do with the availability of natural cavities in the region or even the way the boxes themselves are placed.

One thing is clear: Earthwatch needs your help to better understand natural cavity dynamics and why nest box usage in Utah has been more common than in other locations. This knowledge will help managers to protect and promote suitable habitat for small forest owls across their ranges.

Islands in the Sky

Rising up out of the arid Sonoran Desert in Southeast Arizona is an ecologically fascinating archipelago of mountains – the location of Earthwatch’s second research site. These “sky islands” are home to a unique combination of species of plants and animals from both the north and south. This stunning visual landscape is exceeded only by the rich and diverse acoustical soundscape, and is one of Earthwatch Research Director Dr. Stan Rullman’s favorite ways to capture and understand the amazing diversity of life living within these mountains. This transition zone harbors one of the richest bird communities in North America, with around 375 species recorded in the Chiricahua Range alone.


Earthwatch research site in Southeast Arizona

As an owl researcher himself, Stan celebrates this place as one of the best places in North America to study an entire community of owls, from the three smallest species on the continent (Elf, Flammulated, and Northern Pygmy Owls) to the heaviest owl on the continent – the female Great Horned Owl.

Distinguishing the hoots from the toots is where Stan and Dave’s ears kick into high gear, always scanning the ambient soundscapes for the often subtle but sometimes jarring calls of some of the rarest birds on U.S. soil.


Elf Owl in a Tree Cavity

In this unique landscape, Earthwatch teams are mapping tree cavities, surveying owl species, and assessing the need to augment the landscape with  the same nest boxes that have been so effective in Utah. The question is: will they work? But perhaps the bigger question is: are they needed? During the first year of research, volunteers found the canyons of the Chiricahua Mountains to have an abundance of tree cavities, primarily in the sycamores that line the canyon streams. And in many of those cavities were nesting Elf Owls and Whiskered Screech-Owls. Whiskered Screeches are so abundant in the lower canyons, in fact, that they may be pushing the Flammulated Owls higher up the mountain slopes, prompting new questions about how a changing climate might affect both of these players in this “find-the-cavity” survival game.

Dave’s Motivating Force: Earthwatch Volunteers

Growing up in eastern Texas, Dave knew every single tree cavity in his childhood neighborhood that harbored nesting Eastern Screech-Owls. Dave’s Masters research focused on how Flammulated Owls adapt to changing land use patterns – specifically the rapid buildup of infrastructure in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Snow Basin, Utah.


Dr. Dave Oleyar

After completing his PhD, Dave joined HawkWatch International as Senior Scientist. In partnering with Earthwatch, Dave is able to extend his long-term monitoring of Flammulated Owls in Snow Basin with colleague and Earthwatch Field Team Leader Dr. Markus Mika of the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, and expand his research to Southeast Arizona, where the drivers of potential changes are very different than northern Utah. Engaging members of the public in his work is critical to the success of his research.

“I’ve done a lot of different research projects and you work a whole lot and you spin your wheels and if you’re lucky you put out a paper or two about it. And if you’re lucky, those papers are read by maybe 50 scientists, or cited and used. And that’s impactful and I wouldn’t diminish the importance of that at all. But to have 56 people who came and spent time with us this summer who now appreciate climate change, small owls, and cavity nesters – and how these cavity nesters rely on cavities and what’s involved there – that is impact on a very different level.

To know that these folks now consider these processes when they engage with the natural world, and that they’re going to share that message with their families and social circles – that’s the biggest impact this project is going to have. No matter how many papers we churn out. – Dr. Dave Oleyar

To learn more about this research in Arizona and Utah, visit our website: Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S.

Please contact us at communications@earthwatch.org with any questions or comments about this post.