In pursuit of Clark’s nutcracker No. 315
Ned Corkran checks for beeps indicating the location of Clark’s nutcracker No. 315 near Shadow Mountain on Sunday for a study on how the decline of whitebark pines is affecting the bird species. MOLLY ABSOLON / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Molly Absolon
February 15, 2012
I often feel a pang of regret when I hear about certain jobs, wishing I’d thought of them back when I decided to major in history in college. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy history, it just hasn’t turned into much of a career path. I could have made a wiser, more exciting choice. And I get curious when I hear what other people have done.
One of the jobs that have always sounded appealing is wildlife biologist. Who wouldn’t want to tramp around in the mountains studying the amazing things animals do? You get to be outdoors, and you get paid. What’s not to like about that kind of a job?
So this week I joined a friend of mine who is working on a Clark’s nutcracker study to see what it’s like to be wildlife biologist — at least for a day.
My friend, Ned Corkran, has patched together a career as a hired hand on various wildlife study projects. He trained to be an engineer but instead decided he wanted to be outside, so he has done lots of odd jobs over the years to support his habit.
Ned has followed moose, trying to observe them poop so researchers can gather the droppings confident they will be able to match them to the moose they belong to. He has stood for two hours in the forest at dawn waiting to hear a marbled murrelet calling to its mate as it returns from foraging.
He has checked remote cameras at bait stations hoping to capture wolverines on film (90 percent of the pictures were of pine martens), and he has looked for goshawks in forests near Island Park, Idaho. He has been on the nutcracker project for three weeks.
The scientist in charge of this particular study is Taza Schaming, a doctoral student at Cornell University. Schaming’s hypothesis is that Clark’s nutcrackers, which depend in large part on whitebark pine seeds for sustenance, will be adversely affected by declining seed crops as Greater Yellowstone’s whitebark pines disappear due to the dual threat of pine beetles and blister rust, which are decimating whitebark pine stands throughout the West.
Clark’s nutcrackers and whitebark pines experience a relationship known as “mutualism.” Mutualism occurs when two species depend upon and benefit from each other. In many cases, neither species can survive indefinitely under natural conditions without the presence of the other.
A mutual relationship
The mutualism between whitebarks and nutcrackers revolves around the whitebark’s seeds. Whitebarks produce fatty nuts that pack a powerful punch of energy and protein, but the seeds are wingless, with no natural method of dispersal. Hence the role of the nutcrackers. The birds pry open the whitebark cones, pick out the seeds and stash them in a pouch under their tongue, loading up until they have 50 to 80 tucked inside. The birds then fly off, digging trenches in the duff and burying three to four seeds at a time, storing them for later use, particularly in the spring when they are feeding their nestlings.
Nutcrackers have shown an uncanny ability to relocate these caches, which can be as many as eight to 12 kilometers apart and 3,000 feet up or down in elevation. One individual bird was documented depositing 35,000 seeds in 9,500 locations. The birds usually can’t use all the seeds they’ve gathered, and the ones left behind germinate, allowing for the dispersal of the whitebark pine.
The relationship works beautifully, as long as there are whiteback pines. In past years when whitebark pine nut crops failed, nutcrackers have been known to move hundreds of miles from their normal ranges in search of alternative food sources. But what happens if the trees disappear? The birds can’t just move if there’s nowhere to go.
Schaming hopes to answer that question. Ned and another employee are tasked with collecting the data that will help her figure it out. Our goal Sunday was to locate birds 304, 314 and 315. We went to one of three study sites in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, this one near Shadow Mountain. At the parking lot, Ned pulled out a radio telemetry receiver and antenna.
The antenna is shaped like an H, with the sides about two feet long and the cross piece 10 inches wide. It doesn’t weigh much, but it’s awkward to ski with. From the parking lot, we could hear a distance beep for birds 314 and 315. No. 304 was silent. Still, it seemed like an auspicious start.
Our tour took us past a bait site Schaming had set up to trap the birds. Here, she captures nutcrackers attracted to the suet bait, weighs them, puts identifying bands on their legs and adorns some of them with mini-backpacks carrying radio transmitters.
It all seemed pretty clever, and Ned and I closed in on 315 after a quick traverse north of the suet site. It was 10:26 a.m. Ned wrote that down, along with other details about the bird’s behavior. We were on a roll. Then 315 flew.
That was the last we saw of him or her. We tromped over hill and under dale for the next three hours. First 315 was south of us, its beep faint but consistent, so south we went. Then the signal seemed to be coming from the east.
We headed east. Nothing.
We contoured around the head of a drainage, seeking high ground for better reception. A signal came in faintly from the south again. We hurried up another hill. Ned was fast. I was sweaty and tired, my old telemark skis too heavy for this kind of touring.
When I caught Ned, he was slowly rotating the antenna over his head. Nothing. We brainstormed our options and decided to head back to our last signal to see if we’d gone off in the wrong direction.
No signal. Then a faint one, but far away, maybe as much as a mile. I looked at Ned. He looked at me. No. 315 had eluded us; we weren’t up for continuing the wild nutcracker chase.
I left Ned a bit before he finished. He planned to head back to an open high point to scan for some of the other radio-fitted birds and see if he could get more sightings before calling it quits. I headed home.
On my ski out, I realized I did not have the patience to be a wildlife biologist, so it was a good thing I never heard about it in college. I was rather amazed that after five or six hours, all we had was one legitimate location point to place in Schaming’s database.
No wonder these projects take so long. I also realized I had already jumped to a conclusion for their story. In my mind, I wove a tragic tale about the demise of these garrulous, seemingly abundant birds. I am a storyteller. I wanted an anthropomorphic tearjerker with some moral hidden in its fabric — who cares if it was true?
That statement is indicative of why I could never be a scientist. I care less about the facts and more about the telling. Maybe history wasn’t such a bad major for me after all.
If you ask Ned or his boss, they will hedge their bets. Schaming’s hypothesis is that the decline of the whitebark will lead to a decline in nutcracker populations, but they do not yet have the data to support that conclusion. That’s going to take many days tromping around the woods following the faint beep of a radio receiver, hoping the birds stay put long enough to get a firm sighting and a GPS point — something I learned is easier said than done.
Molly Absolon, a News&Guide copy editor, started backcountry skiing 20 years ago. Her column runs here every other week through March.