Fieldwork is a wonderful thing! It allows me to get outside in beautiful places and study animals in their natural habitat. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences, but because very little is ever in your control – weather, animal’s behavior, animal’s presence etc. – many things can and often do go wrong. Sometimes they are entirely my fault, like when I was at Lake Tahoe and I drove to Reno to pick up my field assistant when she had actually flown into Sacramento (3 hours away….), but other times field work fails are not my fault at all. Today’s story, is a mix of both, but mostly not my fault.

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A view of the San Francisco Peaks from my field site near Flagstaff, AZ.

For my first hummingbird fieldwork trip, I spent the summer (2014) in Flagstaff, AZ working on broad-tailed hummingbirds. It was such an amazing trip, and I learned a lot about working on hummingbirds during that time. I also learned some of the difficulties of working in the American Southwest. One of my field sites was a pretty remote area, where I had to travel several miles on a not-so-great dirt road:

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And, as you might have seen in my previous blog posts (here and here), late summertime is monsoon season in Arizona, and that is when I was doing this work. Typically at this remote site, I had a commanding view of the surrounding land:

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which meant I could usually see when storms were coming from a distance, like so:

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This was a good thing, because monsoon storms can be very intense with lots of rain or even hail. Whenever it rains on the dirt roads I was on, they become mud roads and very difficult or dangerous to drive on:

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This photo does not even capture the worst parts of the run. Some parts of the road were completely underwater while others became more like a river. 

My story begins one day when I was at this remote field site. I was busy getting some work done, when suddenly I notice a storm coming over the mountains towards me. I quickly tried to pack up all my stuff, but I got caught in the initial downpour. I got completely drenched but managed to get everything in my car without damaging my equipment. Because I was completely soaked, I figured I would take my pants off while I drove to avoid getting my seat wet. In retrospect, not the brightest idea.

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The storm fast approaching my field site.

As I started to drive off, the road got really slick and muddy. I had some minor fish-tailing but was mostly getting out ok. However, when I was only a few miles from getting to the gravel road, my tires start spinning in the mud. Cursing, I got out of my car (without my pants on) to check out the situation. One of my tires was completely stuck. At this point, I only had a 2-wheel drive SUV, so this was not ideal. I tried to pry the mud out from between my tire and car, and then wedge things under my tire to get it going. I managed to get out of that mud slick, but also managed to get my legs covered in mud. Turns out getting on your hands and knees in the mud without pants on is a terrible idea… After epically failing to keep my car seat dry and clean, I drove a bit further down the road but got stuck again. This chain of events happened two more times before I finally was completely stuck and caked with so much mud. I actually broke a PVC pipe trying to dig the mud out from between my car and tire because it was so tightly packed in there. Oh and did I mention I was supposed to give a talk to an undergrad class that evening?

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A broad-tailed hummingbird, which was the species I was studying in Flagstaff.

Well there I was pantless, covered in mud, car completely stuck in the mud, and many miles away from the field station. And annoyingly, the rain had stopped, so I could not even clean my legs in the rain. I called the instructor of the course to tell him the situation (leaving out some details), and luckily he was very understanding and sent help. However, this help could not get to me because of the road conditions; they could only get to the edge of the gravel road, which was still two miles away. So, I got all my gear, which included a 2x2x2 ft. mesh cage, put my soaking wet pants back on – over my mud caked legs, and hiked out the two miles. I ended up with several inches of mud on my shoes, which was not really an issue since I was already covered in mud both on top of and under my pants. When I finally got to my rescue party, I must have looked completely ridiculous. I was able to go back the next day to retrieve my car, and then I spent the next several hours chipping mud from underneath it and from my tires. Afterwords, I was much more careful of monsoon storms and never took my pants off in the field again.

Morals of the story: 1) do not get caught in monsoon storms when on dirt roads, and 2) if you do, don’t ever take your pants off!

Hiking through the snow

Over Thanksgiving, I, with my fiancé Meghan, went and visited a former lab-mate (Brett Seymoure) in Fort Collins, CO. While we were there, we went and hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park. Now this park is mostly high elevation and mountains, so you can imagine that this late in the year the park was full of snow:

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A snow covered mountain side at Rocky Mountain National Park

I grew up in Houston, TX, went to college in San Antonio, TX, and now live in Phoenix, AZ. While I have skied in the past, snow is not something I have much experience with, and I have certainly never hiked in it before. It definitely took some getting used to – learning how to not slip, trying to find footing that would not put my foot in deep snow, and other things like that. Plus the cold – it was very cold, but when you hike you get hot quickly, and so there was definitely a balance I had to maintain between not being too hot or cold. Luckily, the snow was not frozen or too rough, so we did not need any special footgear, but we did have to use hiking poles to keep us from accidentally slipping.

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Friend and previous graduate student Scott Davies demonstrating the use of our hiking poles.

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A view of the trail covered in snow.

The hike ended up being very beautiful, though going uphill at high elevation in the snow was quite a workout. However, it was the day after Thanksgiving, so I will blame part of my slowness and struggle from eating too much the day before! The elevation definitely got to me, but it was totally worth it to see the amazing views.

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One of the breathtaking views from the top of our hike.

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Another breathtaking view in the park.

We ended up hiking up to about 11,000 feet and got some pretty breathtaking views of the park and Rockies. Also, like with many National Parks, once you get 1-2 miles on a trail, you run into much fewer people, and so we had a peaceful, quite hike in the snow.

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Looking over the dense pine forest we hiked through, which, even though it does not look it, was full of snow!

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Another view of the trail through the forest.

This was not my first time in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had been there several years ago, but in the summer. The park looked very different then as it did now, which was pretty awesome to compare.

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Summer (2012) in the park.

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Unfrozen water and lots of elk from summer 2012

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Late fall (2016) causing this lake to freeze over.

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Another view of the snowy mountains from this trip.

In the end, we had a great hike and got to see some amazing views. Not much wildlife was out unfortunately, but that is what you get in high elevation places in the winter. I cannot wait until the next time I can get to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is such a beautiful place, and I have much more to explore!

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Our group at the top of our hike with a beautiful Rocky Mountain landscape behind us. From left to right: Scott Davies, me, Meghan Duell, and Brett Seymoure.

Wow does time fly!

Wow, I cannot believe it is already halfway through December! Time really does fly when you are super busy. Sorry to everyone for the lack of posts of late; November and December got away from me work wise. Between research and teaching, I ended up having a pretty full schedule, but I was able to accomplish quite a bit! I managed to go to New York City to meet up with my former lab mate, Rusty Ligon, and photograph a bunch of different hummingbirds for a comparative study. I also took a for fun trip to Fort Collins, CO, to visit another former lab mate, Brett Seymoure. And I graded a lot, and I mean a lot a lot. But the good news is, I am done teaching for the next few weeks. Now its time to catch up on some research stuff and more importantly, blog more! I have quite a bit of backlog for blog post ideas, so here are a few things I will write about over the next few months (in no particular order):
– Hummingbirds at the American Museum of Natural History
– Field work stories (and fails!)
– Advice on how to write grants
– Hiking in the snow of Rocky Mountain National Park
– Birding around Phoenix
– Advice on how to balance work and play as a graduate student.

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An American avocet and black-necked stilt at the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch.

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A blue-tufted starthroat specimen from the American Museum of Natural History.

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Snow covered mountains at Rocky Mountain National Park.

I plan to have the first one out by the end of the weekend and then one a week from there. I look forward to getting back into this, and I hope you all enjoy!

Fall Colors in Arizona

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Looking up at the beautiful aspen trees in Flagstaff, AZ.

I have never really grown up somewhere with four seasons. In Houston and San Antonio, there were really only two seasons: hot + humid and less hot + humid. Now in Phoenix, we have seasons, but it is more of a wet/dry seasonality, with two monsoon seasons a year (summer, winter). And it does actually get consistently cold in Phoenix, unlike what I remember about growing up in Texas, where one week would be in the 40s and the next in the 90s.

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The only “snow day” we had while I was at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. Look at all that snow…..

This is not to say I have never experienced seasons though. Summer I have nailed down quite well at this point…. Spring I have seen too, as every place I have lived does have a spring-like season, in that flowers bloom, animals start becoming active and breeding, and it starts to “warm up” (aka. go from warm to hot). Winter is tricky. Like I said, it does get cold and stay cold in Phoenix (cold for us at least!), but I’ve never had a true snowy winter. There were the occasional bouts of snow in Houston or San Antonio (see picture above), but it would only snow 1/4 inch and be gone the next day. Whenever I went skiing, I saw snow of course, and I have been to Flagstaff, AZ in the winter where I saw plenty of snow, but I have never lived in it. So I have some experiences but much.

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My favorite picture of the San Francisco peaks with snow, near Flagstaff, AZ.

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Mormon Lake frozen over with snow, near Flagstaff, AZ

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Spring in the high elevation meadows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near Lake Tahoe.

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Palo Verde trees turn yellow in the spring, but not because of their leaves – they have yellow flowers.

However, Fall is the season I probably have the least amount of experience with. I’ve lived in places with the occasional tree that would change color, but mostly leaves went brown and did not look pretty. Here in Phoenix, there are not many deciduous trees, so nothing really changes color, but luckily there are plenty of places in Arizona where you can go to see fall colors! It may not be as colorful as New England, but it is still pretty amazing.

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More aspen trees with their beautiful yellow leaves, Flagstaff, AZ.

When Fall approaches, the first places to visit are the high elevation mountains of Arizona. Either Flagstaff or the White Mountains (especially around Greer) are particularly beautiful! You will only see one tree change color, the aspen tree, but it can range from a orangish-yellow to a neon yellow. Aspens are my favorite tree, because regardless of the color of their leaves, their leaves contrast so strikingly against their white bark, which I think is very beautiful. They also grow in strands, so you will get huge bursts of color dotting the landscape. Sometimes when you are hiking in the pine forests, you will find singular trees, which seem like torches lighting up the place. All if it is beautiful, but my favorite is when aspen strands take over large swaths of land and the bright yellow is everywhere.

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Torches amongst the pine trees!

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The color variation in the aspen trees – orangish to neon yellow.

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More beautiful aspens found in the White Mountains of Arizona.

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This is what it looks like when aspen trees take over a landscape – this photos is actually from a mountain range in Utah. Photo credit – Meghan Duell.

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This aspen strand took over a mountain side in the White Mountains of Arizona.

Another excellent place to visit is the riparian areas of the sky islands in Southeast Arizona. I visited Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains one Fall, and there I saw a great diversity of trees change color. My favorite was the Arizona sycamore, which would turn a bright orange that also contrasts beautifully against its white bark.

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A bouquet of colorful trees in Ramsey Canyon (including the Arizona sycamore).

Later into Fall, the lower elevation riparian areas start changing as well. One of my favorite places to go is Oak Creek Canyon, however it is a lot of people’s favorite place, so it will be crowded. Sometimes it is enough to just drive through that canyon during fall, because you really get to see such a diversity of colors as you go from roughly 4000 ft to 7000 ft. You get the Arizona sycamores again, but also many other trees and many other colors. This might be the most color-diverse place I’ve been into Arizona so far.

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The many different riparian trees changing color along Oak Creek.

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Another view of Oak Creek fall colors.

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Some of the color variation found within Oak Creek Canyon.

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A view looking out of Oak Creek Canyon with the red rocks adding to the color variation.

 

I have heard of other places to visit to see fall colors, but I have yet to go there. Prescott is supposed to be a great place to see colors, and I still need to visit the Chiricahua Mountains and Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. The North Rim of the Grant Canyon is supposed to have some beautiful strands of aspen trees as well. If you know of any other good places to visit in Arizona to see Fall colors, please let me know!

It is amazing how time can fly in grad school. It did not seem that long since I last blogged, but here we are a month later. I mostly blame writing an NSF DDIG (a really big graduate student grant), but I also do not always have the best memory….. Anyways, I actually have not gone on many adventures in the past few weeks, but through writing my NSF DDIG, I have  reflected a lot on my path from starting graduate school to where I am now, and so this post is going to be on how I initially became interested in hummingbirds (a weird accident) and how I ended up with my current dissertation work.

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The brilliantly colored Costa’s hummingbird.

For starters, when I arrived at ASU, hummingbirds and iridescent coloration were no where on my radar for potential dissertation topics. I have always been interested in the diversity in animal coloration and questions about why animals use multiple traits to communicate (e.g. song and colorful plumage are both used for communication in many bird species), so my project now definitely still falls in that broad interest. But, I was going to Dr. Kevin McGraw’s lab, a world expert on bird pigment coloration, specifically carotenoid coloration (responsible for many of the reds, yellows, and oranges, such as in house finches or yellow warblers), so I was looking into species that either hard multiple different carotenoid colors, such as the western tanager:

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A western tanager with its red head and yellow body near Lake Tahoe in California.

Or species like the northern cardinal, which use different types of pigments to color themselves (the red is carotenoids while the black face mask is due to melanins).

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A northern cardinal at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, AZ

I had originally given thought to non-pigmented colors to some degree, such as the blue coloration in the painted bunting or varied bunting, which is due to specific arrangements of the nanostructure of their feathers. Overall, it seemed that I was focused on why certain birds/animals have multiple colors. But then everything changed when ASU teamed up with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and offered semester-long fellowships to potentially start up dissertations in the tropics. This was an amazing opportunity, which I immediately jumped on.

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Me in Panama – photo credit: Alex Tran

At first, I wanted to keep the multiple color patches idea and study some of the extremely colorful tropical birds, but I was told that many of the birds I was thinking of studying, such as the golden-hooded tanager (below), were not very common and/or lived in the canopy, which would make things very difficult. So I ended up shifting my question from multiple color patches to multiple signals and studied song and color in an understory bird – the red-throated ant-tanager.

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A golden-hooded tanager in central Panama.

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Red-throated ant-tanager in central Panama

My work in Panama went fairly well for a first field season, but difficulties during that fieldwork were not why I switched to hummingbirds. My switch to hummingbirds came from a combination of watching the many species of hummingbirds feeding and fighting at our hummingbird feeders in Panama and reading a specific paper – Iridescence: a functional perspective – which has come to be one of the most influential papers I have read to date.

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White-necked jacobins and a violet-crowned woodnymph at a feeder in central Panama (don’t mind their creepy eyes, it is from the flash).

And so, I began many thought experiments and discussions with fellow researches to come up with a project involving iridescent coloration using hummingbirds as my model. For a while I was thinking about looking at how hummingbirds might use their coloration to communicate with other species as they fought at feeders, but my idea switched to wanting to study the use of coloration within species and how that might have evolved. And so I returned to the United States with this idea in mind and began working it into a dissertation project with Kevin. Like a good advisor, he challenged me to continue to craft my idea and find gaps in the field to make a novel and exciting dissertation. And around the same time, he introduced me to Dr. Christopher Clark, a new professor at UC Riverside, who studies hummingbird courtship and acoustics. Eventually we visited him at one of his field sites and saw the hummingbirds in action.

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Boyd Deep Canyon – a UC Davis field station near Palm Desert, CA. This is where Chris took Kevin and I to see hummingbirds in action, and where I ended up studying Costa’s hummingbirds with great success.

It was then, when I learned what I could and could not do with these birds and was able to finally craft my dissertation project. I was going to (and am now) studying how hummingbird plumage coloration and courtship displays co-evolved and interact to produce the colors females see as males display!

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A broad-tailed hummingbird at Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, AZ

Another huge influence on my idea developments came from my interactions and amazing discussions with my two former lab mates Dr. Russell (Rusty) Ligon and Dr. Brett Seymoure, who were both studying color communication and sensory ecology. It was a great time for developing my ideas as Rusty was in his 4th year when I started and Brett in his 3rd, so I had a good deal of overlap with them.

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Sadly this is the only picture I could find of the three of us (Rusty, myself, Brett). Sorry for the tiny photo and poor quality! Photo from mcgraw.lab.asu.edu

Now, both Rusty and Brett have graduated, and the lab has changed quite a bit. Most of Kevin’s students are very mechanistically focused (meaning they are interested in studying the physiological or biochemical underpinnings behind behavior and coloration), such as my lab mate Pierce Hutton, who is studying anthropogenic effects on house finch coloration and behavior. This has been great, because it is forcing me to think more like that (I typically think about the functions and evolutionary history of behavior and coloration). I am currently working to integrate mechanistic studies into my current hummingbird work, and this is something I am building with my DDIG proposal (more on that if I get it!).

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Pierce and I up near Payson, AZ, photo credit: Meghan Duell.

So that is now I transitioned from starting grad school to studying the evolution of hummingbird coloration and courtship displays. I hope you enjoyed my story!

 

Well, it is still hot in Tempe…. surprise surprise. So to cool off, I fled the mountains of Arizona and California over the past two weekends. First I went car camping in the White Mountains in Eastern Arizona, and got hailed on again. BUT, I was in my car the whole time so it was fine! The second trip was cabining near Big Bear Lake, CA with my long time friend Steve and his girlfriend Stacey. Both were great trips, where I was able to get nice and cool (especially while camping!) and enjoy some beautiful hikes and breath-taking views!

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A view across the Blue Range Primitive Area in the White Mountains

For those who are new to this blog, I adore the White Mountains in Arizona. The White Mountains are a large range along in central-eastern Arizona, full of high-elevation mixed coniferous forests and aspen trees. They also seem to get quite a bit more water than other high-elevation places in the state, like Flagstaff, because there is a lot of moss and lichen all around. The forests here have actually be called similar to those found in Washington and Oregon. And of course, since it was monsoon season, it was still raining quite a bit in the mountains, and I actually lost half a day of hiking because of  a storm (so I napped in my car). Another thing I like about the White Mountains is that they are so remote – a 4 to 5 hour drive from Phoenix – so that there are few people in the area. Yes, I am a slightly anti-social camper, mostly because whenever I seem to camp around other people they are loud or blaring music. #getoffmylawn

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One of my camping spots during the trip; it was in the middle of no where with no one around = quite and peaceful

I spent my first day near the town of Greer in the northern part of the mountains. I hiked a local trail called Squirrel Spring Trail, which was nice forest hike. Then I camped at an established campground called Winn Campground, which is where I had stayed before. It is a fairly large campground on top of a forested hill that I have never seen close to full. Unfortunately I did not get to spend much time there the next day, because it started raining at 7:00 AM. I had luckily just finished packing up, so I left and headed south on Highway 191, which is just a gorgeous drive through the mountains. I ended up picking a random side road at some point in a gap of rain to cook breakfast, since I did not have time to eat before the rain. After a nice breakfast I then drove to a trailhead near the Blue Range Primitive area, where I napped until the rain and hail stopped. Then I started along the trail, but was immediately disappointed. This trail had been completely burned from the 2011 fire that ravaged this area, and the nice forested hike I read about was no longer there:

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The landscape around Greer, AZ.

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A hike through the forests around Greer, AZ.

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The recovering burned area in the Blue Range Primitive Area.

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An example of how extensive the 2011 Wallow Fire burned areas are in the White Mountains.

After 45 minutes of hiking along this trail, I turned around and decided to find another trail. Luckily, just down the road was another trial that had been mostly spared, so I got another lovely forested hike, but with a different tree make-up from the Squirrel Spring Trail. Then after hiking along that trail for a while – not as long as I wanted as my phone kept changing time zones because I was close to the New Mexico border – I found a random forest road and camped alongside of it. Here are my photos from the hike:

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The lush, green understory of the forests in the White Mountains

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Another view of the forest, showing some trees with mosses and lichen on them.

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A small strand of aspen trees through the forest.

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This was one of the burned areas, and hiking through this patch of thistles on the trail was definitely not fun.

Before I made the sad, long drive back to Phoenix, I explored the lower(ish) elevation part of the Blue Range Primitive Area, and was totally taken aback by what I found. As I was driving, I realized that I was actually descending the Mogollon Rim (very prominent geological feature that cuts across Arizona), and the area reminded me a lot of the Sedona/Oak Creek Canyon area, which was awesome. At the bottom of the road, I was met by Blue River and a lush mid-elevation riparian area with giant cotton woods. I always love going through the transition from this habitat to the high-elevation coniferous forests, and this forest road was a great example of that.

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A view across the Blue Range Primitive Area from the road that descended into it.

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The road from along the Blue River after descending the Mogollon Rim.

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The lush riparian areas around Blue River.

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A view from the road as I ascended back up the Mogollon Rim.

This past weekend – Labor Day weekend – I again escaped the heat and joined my friends in the San Bernardino Mountains near Los Angels. We went to this area/town called Big Bear Lake, which was around 6,500-7,000 ft. Instead of camping, we got a place in town for the weekend and explored the area by car and by hiking. The town was very nice, full of interesting shops and restaurants, and the surrounding area was very beautiful. There are so many activities in the area, much like Lake Tahoe, but smaller, and it seems like a four-season place. While we were visiting, we hiked several trails in the surrounding area, namely Castle Rock and Cougar Crest Trails, giving us great views of the lake. We also explored the many small shops, where we saw some pretty awesome looking woodcrafts. We also explored several of the local restaurants and breweries, so we ate very well!

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Myself, Stacey, and Steve a top Castle Rock.

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A view of Big Bear Lake from Castle Rock.

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A view of the San Bernardino Mountains from Castle Rock.

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The forst and ephemeral stream bed along the Cougar Crest Trail.

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Another view of Big Bear Lake, but from the Cougar Crest Trail, which is on the opposite side of the lake from Castle Rock.

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An example of the beautiful woodwork found in the town.

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Another example of some of the woodwork from Big Bear Lake.

Overall, both of these trips were excellent escapes from the heat and very fun times. I cannot wait to continue escaping the heat when I can and also visiting these two places again in the future to further explore them!

It is monsoon season in Arizona right now, which means frequent afternoon storms across a large portion of the state. Many parts of AZ get most of their annual rainfall from the annual summer monsoon season. However, sometimes this rain comes in the form of crazy and powerful storms. Some of you might remember what happened to me last year during monsoon, when a giant tree fell over just missing our house!

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For more information on this event, check out my post from last year!

While Phoenix and the surrounding valley may get the occasionally intense storm, monsoon for us is mostly sandstorms, also called haboobs, followed by a thunderstorm. If you are in the many mountainous places across Arizona, you might have a very different monsoon experience. High elevation places, such as Flagstaff, seem to get afternoon storms pretty much every day, which I have experienced. These storms sometimes involve a lot of lightning and/or hail. The temperature can also drop 20+ degrees very quickly, which is a nice way to avoid the summer heat…. sometimes. These rainstorms definitely shift people’s activity though. When I was doing fieldwork in Flagstaff this summer before my trip to England, I would have to make sure to finish everything by the afternoon or I would risk getting rained on – with near certainty.

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A distant storm from one of my field sites in Flagstaff.

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The aftermath of an intense hailstorm in Flagstaff.

 

You might be asking why I am randomly talking about monsoon storms. Well, being a mountain-lover and trying to avoid the heat of the desert, I typically try to hike in the mountains whenever I can, but monsoon adds certain complications to this. Last week, I went hiking in the Mazatzal Mountains, north-east of Phoenix, on a trail called Barnhardt trail. This is a very popular trail that climbs along a beautiful valley before getting into the heart of the Mazatzals. My problem was that I started my hike late – sometime after 12 PM. I knew that a storm was inevitable, so I figured I would only get to hike a short while before I had to turn around to avoid the storm. Well, I might have miscalculated my timing. When I started, storms were starting to close in all around me:

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This if a photo from the Barnhardt trailhead.

But the specific area I was in still have sunny clear skies overhead, so I started hiking. I eventually lost myself to the beauty of the hike, as you can hopefully see form these pictures:

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However, one I stopped to take a rest, I realized that the clouds had closed in much faster than I predicted:

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I immediately turned around and started hiking back at a fast past. It got dark very fast, but I was still hopeful that I could escape the storms. I looked out past the valley, across to the mountains on the other side of Highway 87, and saw this:

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With these fear-inspiring images, I managed to keep a good pace, and as the trail leveled out, I knew I was within half a mile or so to my car. Unfortunately, that is when the first few raindrops started to fall. At first I thought, well I have rain gear, so I can probably avoid getting too wet and will just have a less fun trek in the rain. That was true for a while, but things got worse. The sound of falling rain gradually got much louder, and I started seeing things bouncing on the ground. It was starting to hail!

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Hail on the ground; from my iPhone to avoid damaging my camera.

I knew I was very close to my car at this point, but once it started hailing hard, I could not have been close enough. The hail was not too big – around dime size – but it definitely still hurt has it fell on my head.

I finally found my car and quickly got in, started it, and tried to get the hell out of there. It was hailing and raining very hard at this point, and with a slight feeling of panic, I quickly drove a way – probably faster than I should have. I was afraid of the road flooding before I could get out, which would leave me stranded for a while, so I pushed my driving skills to the limit, hoping that the pounding hail would not break my windshield and that I would not fishtail off the road.

After what seemed like an eternity driving through hail and rain, I dropped quite a bit in elevation as I reached highway 87, and eventually the hail/rain turned into just rain, and then nothing. Along the highway, there was no rain at all. I looked back and could not even see the mountains I had just been hiking in.

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Looking back, from my iPhone.

Thankfully I had escaped the storm with no issues, but I think I got lucky. I knew monsoon storms were typically intense at high elevations, but this was the first time I had gotten caught in a hail storm. My advice to those who wish to hike in the mountains in the near future – keep a close eye on the clouds and play it ultra-safe!

I hope you enjoyed this post – it was a bit different than my typical travelogs, but this is also my 50th post, so I wanted to make it special! Thank you to everyone who has kept up with and supported this blog, and I hope you continue to follow me as I pave my way to the next milestone – 100 posts!

After a long summer of fieldwork, I traveled across the pond to present my research at the International Society for Behavioral Ecology (ISBE) biannual meeting. The meeting was held in Exeter, England, and then I traveled to a post-conference symposium on anti-predator coloration in Penryn, England. Both of these events were held on University of Exeter campuses, which were quite pretty campuses. This post will be part travel-blog but also a shout out to the many people I met at the conference with links to their personal websites (or twitters if they do not have their own website), because they were all awesome and you should check them out!

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A view from one of the high points on the University of Exeter campus, overlooking the university and town.

This ISBE conference, plus the symposium, was the most productive conference I have been to in my grad career. I teamed up with my former lab mate, Brett Seymoure, to do some major networking, which was super helpful for our academic careers, but also a ton of fun! Brett and I are both very interested in animal communication and sensory ecology, specifically visual ecology. Europe and especially England has a very rich community of visual ecologists that work on a variety of systems and questions. Because of the post-conference symposium, most of those people were at the meeting, and we were able to meet many of them. One of the key labs we interacted with, and the lab which put on the symposium, was Martin Steven’s lab. Martin is a well known visual ecologist who has developed, with his current post doc Jolyon Troscianko, several useful techniques for measuring coloration and pattern using photographs. I am using one of their recommended setups for my dissertation, and while I was at the conference, I was able to sit down with Jolyon and get some great feedback and ask many questions, which was super helpful! Martin has also created a great network of students either currently in his lab, or that did a masters in his lab and are now elsewhere, and Brett and I were able to meet many of them. His group studies a large variety of animals from color changing crabs (Sara Mynott), to very colorful moths (Emmanuelle Briolat) and ladybirds (Sarah Paul), to incredibly cryptic nightjars. Martin has also had many people visit his lab, including my former lab mate Russell Ligon, who sadly was not at the conference, and Elisa Badas , who studies bird and egg coloration.

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Brett and I out in the town of Exeter.

During the conference, I was also able to reconnect with several people I had either worked with or previously met. My undergrad advisor, Troy Murphy, who was a major influence on where I am today, was at the meeting, and it was great to catch up with him. I worked with Troy both on his goldfinch bill coloration research and my undergrad thesis on wood warbler coloration, and he introduced me to my first bout of fieldwork on animal coloration in Canada (and he also introduced me to my current Ph.D. advisor). I was able to meet up with a friend I made at a different conference in Japan, Jared Wilson-Aggarwal, who I toured Tokyo with for a few days. He previously worked with Martin on the nightjar project, but now studies dog social behavior and how that relates to disease transmission in Africa. I also reconnected with Trevor Price , from the University of Chicago, who recently gave a talk at ASU and also gave a plenary lecture at ISBE. Trevor has done some very interesting work on birds in the Himalayas, and has now developed a keen interest in color vision and has many cool ideas. Trevor also helped me meet Gavan Thomas and his post-doc Chris Cooney, who are undertaking an awesome project to photograph every bird species via museum skins and study avian color evolution across all birds with great detail.

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Brett and I with Trevor Price. ISBE created a bingo card with different things to do while at the conference, and one was take a selfie with a plenty speaker – check!

Speaking of plenary lectures, there were many great ones at ISBE, given by huge names in our field. We had speakers such as Tim Clutton-Brock and Malte Andersson (who wrote the famous book Sexual Selection), but my favorite talk came from Rosemary Grant. Rosemary and her husband Peter, famously followed up on Darwin’s work in the Galapagos on Darwin’s finches, and published much groundbreaking and influential work. It was a real treat to see her present, especially since I have received a grant with her namesake from the Society of the Study of Evolution.

While at ISBE, we went on a mid-conference tour, which took us to the beautiful Dartmoor National Park, where we was able to see the amazing Wistman’s Wood, which is a stunted oak forest covered in moss and lichen. Also in the park were many tors (hills topped with outcrops of bedrock), which dotted the landscape. While  on the tour, we met two students from Emily DuVal’s lab, Jess and Karla, who study brown-headed nuthatches and lance-tailed manakins respectively. Me and all my lab mates (Pierce, Melinda, and Brett) also had lunch with Jenny Ouyang, who studies the effect of light pollution on bird physiology and hormones.

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Dartmoor National Park, with Wistman’s Wood in the distance.

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Under the canopy of Wistman’s Wood.

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A view of the diversity of mosses and lichen found in Wistman’s Wood.

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Another view from inside Wistman’s Wood.

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Our tour guide showing us an inscription where a previous king had cut down a tree here.

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A wider view of the forest.

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A close up of the mosses, lichens, and ferns growing all over the branches and trunks.

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One of the many tors in the area.

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Another tor, with the grassland/peatbog landscape all around.

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A jackjaw we found at the pub in the national park.

My poster presentation went very well, and despite being placed in the back corner of the room, I had continuous traffic and nearly lost my voice by the end from talking so much. I presented some preliminary results from my first chapter, which was great to finally get out. This poster allowed me to establish my name in the field and get on many people’s radars, which is great for future post-doc positions! At the anti-predator coloration symposium, I presented a project that I am helping Brett with on Gila monster coloration. Gila monster coloration seems to change with age, and so we explored if this was true, and found evidence that young Gila monsters might be more conspicuous than adults, which leads to some very interesting ideas about a potential switch in anti-predator strategies from aposematism to crypsis. The talk went over very well, mostly because people really loved the fact that monsters are real!

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Me and my poster!

While at the anti-predator coloration symposium, I was able to continue to hang out with many of the visual ecology students I met at ISBE, including Sara, Sarah, and Emmanuelle (from above) plus Sam Smithers (studies polarized vision), Jenny Easley (studies avian taste perception), and Diana Umeton (studies flicker fusion vision). I also met many more visual ecologists at the symposium, where everyone present gave a 5 minute talk with built in time in-between talks for plenty of discussion. The symposium, while exhausting, was incredible, because we were all unified with an interest in coloration and visual ecology, and I was able to meet big names in the field such as Tom Cronin (studies many aspects of vision) and Innes Cuthill (studies many aspects of anti-predator coloration). I also reconnected with Hannah Rowland, who I met in Japan as well, and heard more about her interesting work on avian taste perception & learning and anti-predator defense. I learned a great deal more about mammalian anti-predator defense from Ted Stankowich, which was very fascinating and has been under studied. And finally, I met and hung out with several other graduate students/post-docs, including Amanda Franklin (studies mantis shrimp communication), Emily Burdfield-Steel (studies variation in tiger moth chemical defense), Sandra Winters (studies primate coloration and diversity), and Jenna Proctor and Alice Rosen who both just started in Martin Steven’s lab to study crab and amphibian coloration, respectively.

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The main restaurant/bar street in Falmouth, which is the town next to Penryn and where all of the social activities occurred during the post-conference symposium.

After meeting so many great people and hearing about so much interesting work, I returned to the states exhausted, but also inspired to get back to work and try to live up to the high caliber of research already existing in the fields of animal coloration and visual ecology. I want to thank everyone I met for taking time to share their research with me and provide feedback on my own work.

For those who study any aspect of behavior or color that have never been to ISBE, I HIGHLY recommend going to the next meeting in 2018! Also when it comes to meetings, networking is so important. It helps you get your research out there, both to get feedback and also to get people interested in you or form new collaborations. For me it is definitely easier to network and meet new people if I’m with someone, like I was with Brett this conference. But I’ve also gotten a lot of help from my Ph.D. advisor, Kevin McGraw, who has introduced me to many important people and instrumental collaborators. So my advice is to both find a networking buddy and talk to your advisor about meeting specific people (i.e. do some homework before the meeting), and that will hopefully help open you up to new research opportunities or future job possibilities!

On my way back from Sagehen Creek Field Station to Tempe, AZ, I took two side trips for fun. The first was the afternoon before I left, where I hiked up to the local high point, named Carpenter Ridge. Then on the drive home, I went to Yosemite National Park for several hours and explored the eastern side of the park. Both experiences were excellent, and Yosemite was definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

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The high country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Yosemite National Park.

Starting with my trip to Carpenter Ridge, I had to drive along several forest roads, during which I happened upon a mother black bear with two cubs. Unfortunately they were way to fast, and I did not get any pictures. I decided that chasing a mother bear and her cubs to get a photo was probably way to dangerous. Eventually I had to stop driving – because of a huge pile of snow in the middle of the road (in July!) – and walk to the base of Carpenter Ridge. From there, I hiked up a steep slope, rising bout 800 feet in elevation over a short distance, to get to the peak (just under 9,000 ft.). Once I summited the peak, I was met with wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, including Independence Lake, and distant views of many mountain peaks around Lake Tahoe. The plant life was also very interesting, because many of the bushes and small trees were stunted due to the winds. There were many colorful flowers blooming as well. I even saw hummingbirds near the peak! Below are some of the pictures I took during this trek.

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The road leading to the base of Carpenter Ridge (the peak in the background).

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A view of Independence Lake from Carpenter Ridge.

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Looking towards Lake Tahoe (not seen) from the peak.

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Some of the interesting and stunted plant life on top of the peak.

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A view of several high peaks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near lake Tahoe.

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Some of the flowers and shorter plants growing at the peak.

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These pretty purple/blue flowers were often visited by hummingbirds.

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The trees around the ridge were covered in moss and lichen, which made the forest look very green and alive.

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These pink flowers had the most interesting leaves.

Then on my drive home, I decided to stop by Yosemite National Park, because I had never been there before. I entered through the eastern entrance, which is around a 2.5 hour drive from the famous Yosemite Valley. Because of that long drive and the fact that the valley would be packed with people, I decided to save that place for another trip. Instead I explored three other famous locations in the high country of Yosemite National Park. I say high country, because for the most part, I was hiking between 8,000 and 11,000 feet. The first place I visited was Olmsted Point, which provides great views of the eastern part of Yosemite Valley and both the Cloud’s Rest and Half Dome peaks.

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A view down Yosemite Valley from Olmsted Point, with Cloud’s Rest and Half Dome peaks in the background.

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Another view from Olmsted point, in the opposite direction from Yosemite Valley.

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Looking towards Tenaya Lake from Olmsted Point.

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Another great view from Olmsted Point – there were many great views!

There is also a short (1.5 mile) trail that goes between Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake, a beautiful high elevation lake at around 8,200 ft. I was able to get some great photos of the lake with the mountains being reflected on its surface. The hike between the two points also took me through several meadows, where I was able to see some pretty flowers and wildlife.

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Tenaya Lake beautifully reflecting the nearby scenery.

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One of the many meadows on the trail between Tenaya Lake and Olmsted Point.

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A very wet and marshy meadow along the trail.

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A male deer with his antlers covered in velvet.

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A wash near the lake.

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Another view of Tenaya Lake with the mountains being reflected by the water.

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A zoomed in view of the mountains behind Tenaya Lake.

From there, I drove through the Tuolumne Meadows and did a hike up to the Gaylor Lakes. This trail not only provided me excellent views of the meadows, but once I crossed over the ridge towards the Gaylor Lakes, I was able to see many of the higher elevation peaks in Yosemite. There were two main lakes along this trail, a lower and upper lake. They both seem to be fed mostly by snow melt, and there was actually a huge snowbank by the upper lake continuously feeding it while I was there. I also saw several bird species, such as the Clark’s nutcracker, and several high elevation mammals, like the California ground squirrel and yellow-bellied marmot. I heard many of the ground squirrel alarm calls, which was a fun reminder of what I learned in my animal behavior classes – these squirrels tend to live in colonies and always have a few individuals on the lookout for predators, who then give alarm calls when they see a predator to alert everyone else in the colony. Here are my photos of my hike up to the Gaylor Lakes (I took a lot).

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The mountains near Tuolumne Meadows.

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A part of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks.

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A pair of Clark’s Nutcrackers

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A view of the lower Gaylor Lake from a ridge nearby.

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A view of the lower Gaylor Lake from its shoreline.

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Part of the Gaylor Lakes Trail.

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Part of the upper Gaylor Lake.

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Another view of the rocky area around the lake.

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A yellow-bellied marmot.

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The same marmot but on alert.

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A California ground squirrel.

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A snowbank melting straight into the Gaylor Lakes!

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A view of the Sierra Nevada/Yosemite high country from the Gaylor Lakes.

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The wind creating ripples and waves across the upper Gaylor Lake.

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A view of the trail passing by the upper Gaylor Lake.

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Two smaller lakes in the area around the Gaylor Lakes.

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Another view of the high country.

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The trail and stream going from the upper lake to the lower lake.

Yosemite was an incredible place to visit. Almost everywhere I looked there were breath-taking views. And while I was only able to explore a small portion of the park, I was completely captivated by its beauty, and cannot wait to go back and visit. I did not realize just how large Yosemite National Park was, and would definitely love to backpack all throughout the park, especially along the legendary John Muir trail!

While I was doing fieldwork near Lake Tahoe I took a couple days off to explore the surrounding areas. Of course the first trip I took was to visit Lake Tahoe itself, and it was an amazing trip!

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The beautiful blue water of Lake Tahoe

My adventure occurred at D.L. Bliss State Park near Emerald Bay in southern Lake Tahoe. This park has a trail that essentially goes around the entire perimeter of Emerald Bay, which is one of the most famous and pretty areas along Lake Tahoe. The trail was called the Rubicon trail and I hike it for around 13 miles total (to the end and back). Along the trail I was able to do some great birding and see some spectacular views of the lake. This is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Below are several pictures of Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay from a variety of viewpoints.

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Where Emerald Bay gets its name.

One of the most striking elements of this hike (aside from the lake) was the trees. There were many massive trees, and the forest community kept changing as I moved along the bay. Some areas were dominated by Jeffery pines, while others were very mixed and full of giant cedar trees.

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A stream that flowed through a forest from the mountains into the lake, full of pretty waterfalls.

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One of the giant cedar trees.

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More of the very tall trees found at various points along the lake.

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A view of the forest along Emerald Bay.

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A view of the forest along the lake.

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A very pretty orchid I found near the shore.

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A funny surprise I found along the trail.

I was also able to do some great birding here and picked up a few lifers, including a Townsend’s solitaire and white-headed woodpecker. Many of the birds were high up in the tall trees, so I did not get too many good pictures, but here are a few.

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There were many osprey nesting around the lake.

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A female common merganser cleaning herself in the sun.

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Two Canada geese hanging out near the shore.

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A great close-up of a Stellar’s jay.

If you ever visit Lake Tahoe, I highly recommend this hike. While there were some places along the trail where there were a larger number of people (near campsites), I mostly had the trail to myself. This was a great trail to get some amazing views of the Lake and see the diversity of forests around it.