By Anna Carmichael ‘18
As the end of a typical workday drew to a close for most students, it was just beginning for Ryan Rodriguez ’16. He spent his summer conducting research on California spotted owls in the San Bernardino National Forest, working in from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
“It was very cool and a completely different experience doing field work and walking through the dark forest at night,” he said.
The natural resources major worked with the U.S. Forest Service this summer, sponsored by the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program. This two-year intercollegiate program for graduate and undergraduate students helps place them in internships to gain research experience.
Rodriguez spent time on several projects, although his main responsibility was to conduct surveys of spotted owls. He explained that, in California, the owls are an at-risk species, so keeping track of their population numbers is important.
“This year’s data will be critical because the results will play a key role in whether the animal will be placed on the threatened species list,” he said. “The San Bernardino National Forest is a very high-use forest, so there are potential clearing projects for reducing the risk of forest fires--and possible development--so to decide which parts of the forest to clear, we need to see where owl habitats are less common.”
To conduct a presence/absence owl survey, Rodriguez traveled to different areas of the forest, pausing to do an owl call and listening for a response. If there was a response, he would release a mouse to the owl, which would either eat it there or take it away. If owl ate the mouse there, it was assumed to be alone, but if it flew away with the mouse, it likely had a partner or a nest nearby. From this data, Rodriguez was able to estimate the number and approximate location of nesting owls.
Rodriguez also worked on other projects, including monitoring the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher; trapping small mammals, from the San Bernardino Flying Squirrel to pocket mice to understand the rodent population’s species diversity, and habitat restoration. Beyond data, the research setting – mountains and forest – offered life lessons, too.
“Because I was in nature, I realized how important it is to adapt to different situations,” he said. “Situations out in the field can change a lot, whether it’s because weather, wildfires or with your research. You have to be flexible.”
Rodriguez is a California native and had always wanted to learn more about the geography of his home state, so this internship allowed him to combine his interest in birds of prey and southern California geography.
“In this internship I learned to make the most out of my opportunities, and I was encouraged to learn outside of my job,” Rodriguez said. “I loved that I wasn’t limited, and so in my spare time I got the chance to explore the area, learning about the wildlife and geography of the San Bernardino National Forest.”