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Friday, February 14, 2014

Staff Interview: Dr. Phoebe Prather

Phoebe and her daughter, Kestrel at Convict Lake, Ca.
Staff Biologist, Dr. Phoebe Prather is a California girl through and through. Having grown up in the Owen's Valley, how could she not be? She has a fantastic knowledge of the biology of Tejon Ranch and just gave a presentation at the Western Section of The Wildlife Society meeting about all of the citizen science she has been spearheading out here. Nice work, Phoebe!

Where are you from? What’s your background?
I am from the town of Lone Pine, California.  It is a small town in the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.  I ventured to the coastal redwoods for my undergraduate degree to soak up some rain and fog.  I received my BA in Environmental Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2002.  I then spent 5 years moving around the country as a roving field technician.  In 2002 I worked for the Denali Institute operating a bird banding station in Denali National Park.  I then worked with Alaska Audubon’s Important Bird Area Program in Anchorage, Alaska.  In 2003 I worked as a Student Conservation Association (SCA) intern at Arches National Park in Utah monitoring raptor nests and conducting bird surveys in the pinyon-juniper habitat.  I then stayed on and completed another SCA internship with the Interpretation Department leading guided hikes.  In 2004 I drove across the country and worked for the Massachusetts Audubon Society as an endangered shorebird monitor.  In 2005 I worked as a field technician for the Delta Waterfowl Foundation in the pothole-prairie region of Manitoba, Canada trapping ducks.  I got to wear chest waders and hike around in mud all day!  It was one of my favorite jobs.  I then decided I didn’t want to move around so much anymore and ventured into the world of graduate school.  In 2010 I completed my PH.D. in Ecology from Utah State University in Logan, UT.  My research project involved habitat restoration for the Gunnison sage-grouse population in Monticello, UT.  And now I am the Conservation Biologist for the Tejon Ranch Conservancy.  I’ve lived in one place for three years, have health benefits, got married, and have a 10 month old baby.  Whew…….that was a whole lot of growing up in 3 years. 

Tejon Ranch is a big place. As the biologist responsible for documenting and monitoring its natural riches, what are your biggest priorities?
One of our biggest priorities as an organization is the San Joaquin Valley grasslands and riparian areas.  We hope to enact new grazing management practices in these habitats that include increased numbers in certain areas at specific times, rotation patterns, fencing, and providing more water away from streams.  As the biologist, I focus most of my efforts on these areas.  I conduct a wildlife camera study from September- January in the hopes of documenting the endangered San Joaquin kit fox.  We have what is thought to be a satellite population.  I have developed both driving and walking surveys targeting the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard.  The blunt-nosed leopard lizard surveys also allow me to survey for burrowing owls.  I have created riparian bird surveys along 5 creeks.  Over time, we hope to see responses from these species as our grazing trials and other management strategies progress.

Is there anything in particular on Tejon Ranch you have yet to see?
A mountain lion, dang it!!!!!  I’ve never seen one.  Although if I could document a ring-tailed cat that would be pretty spectacular.

Please describe one amazing nature moment you had in 2013.
There are two I have to describe and both were on Tejon Ranch. 
I finally saw a black bear on the Ranch.  It was a cold overcast fall day.  The Ranch had a feeling of being abandoned.  Leaves were changing color and I was driving the high country along Blue Ridge doing photo monitoring.  I drove around a curve in the road and a mama and two cubs were wrestling in a huge pile of oak leaves.  I stopped and watched them for quite a while before they sauntered off down a wash.  Those were the fuzziest little babes I’ve ever seen.
The other moment was during the Christmas Bird Count this December.  My team, consisting of my parents and myself, were driving through the grasslands of the area we call the Milky Way near the mouth of Tejon Canyon and Monte Field on the San Joaquin Valley side of the Ranch when we drove into quite the incredible bird situation.  First we saw a falcon perched on a fence post.  Turns out it was a Merlin, a lifer for me.  We watched it take off and start harassing the heck out of a northern harrier and three red-tailed hawks.  It was relentless.  Finally the harrier and hawks took to the ground and hunkered down hoping that crazy falcon would just leave them alone.  He was so aggressive and persistent.  I’m just glad he didn’t target us.  While watching this with stunned amazement we noticed large shorebirds walking in the grasslands.  Long-billed curlews!  And then we kept looking and looking and they were EVERYWHERE!  We counted about 250 of them.  It is quite the combination of avian events and an incredible way to end a great day of birding.
Phoebe, Kestrel, and Jason enjoy the Sequoias.

We at the Conservancy are pretty big audiophiles. Can you list 5 of your favorite albums?
I don’t think I fall into the category of an audiophile and I am all over the map when it comes to music.  I just sort stumble along through random songs or groups that catch my interest.  I am notoriously bad at knowing the names of songs and the groups that sing them or how certain groups influenced other groups.  But I do have some albums that have stuck with me throughout my life and also some pretty memorable moments involving music.
I have known all the words to every song on the albums “True Stories” by the Talking Heads and “Graceland” by Paul Simon since I was a little kid and still love to rock out to them, especially on long drives.  I’m a sucker for the acoustic guitar and banjo, which often leads me to bluegrass.  I love songs that involve whistling, such as “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and “Young Folk” by Peter, Bjorn, and John.  I love bagpipes, “Miss Rowan Davies” by Boys of the Lough is one my favorite songs and I walked down the aisle to it.  I love me some good yodeling in cowboy music.  Dave Stamey is my go to cowboy.  The song “Mr. Tough” by Yo La Tengo has some great trombone and trumpet.   “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay incorporates amazing string instruments.  “Say a prayer for a cowgirl” by Emmy Lou Harris is an incredible song in terms of vocals.  Go to groups that I have on my phone right now are Cataldo, Phoenix, and the XXX.  My husband recently suggested I look into the “The Milk Carton Kids.”  So I had better do that soon before I forget. 
I saw Neko Case in a small outdoor venue on a warm summer night in downtown Salt Lake City as part of their free summer concert series.  Her voice is just sick (in a good way J), as my husband says.  Sigur Ros was the most amazing concert I have ever experienced.  They performed at the Great Saltair, a former “beach resort” on the salt flats of the Great Salt Lake.  Air laden with the scent of brine wafted through the open doors, as the incredible sound of this Icelandic group filled the cavernous building and spread across the vast salt flats as a classic intermountain west sunset colored the sky.  Last year I saw Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes perform at a small outdoor venue in Ojai, CA.  There must have been 20 people in the band playing every sort of instrument you could possibly imagine.
However, when I spend days and days out on the Ranch by myself I mostly turn towards audiobooks, unless it is 4:00 in the morning and I am on my way to do a bird survey.  At those times I rely on something loud that I know all of the words to. 

We like to talk about how Tejon Ranch is at the confluence of 4 of CA’s major ecoregions (southwestern Ca, SJV, Sierra Nevada, Mojave Desert). Do you have a favorite one?
Well…..I don’t think I can pick just one.  I am most familiar with the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert so I tend to be drawn in that direction.  But as I become more familiar with the Southwestern California and San Joaquin Valley ecoregions they definitely have characteristics that are growing on me.  The California sycamore riparian systems in the San Joaquin Valley drainages are my favorite places on the Ranch.  I could just lie on the ground and stare up into those trees all day.  The wildflowers of the San Joaquin grasslands blow my mind.  The diversity of the chaparral system is astounding.  Isn’t this what is so amazing about our state, it is so stinkin’ diverse.  It’s hard to compare one area with another in terms of a favorite.  Every area offers something new and different.

Besides Tejon Ranch, can you list 5 California locations you love?
The Owens Valley in general and which contains many specific locations within it is probably my favorite area.  As is the entire length of the Eastern Sierra.  I think the drive from Lone Pine, CA to Reno, NV is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever done.  I love the Sierra Nevada, when entered from the east side, especially the Cottonwood Lakes Basin and other places out the Horseshoe Meadows area.   An easy drive up to 9,000 feet from the valley floor and just start hiking.  I don’t have the patience for grassy foothills on the west side of the Sierra.  I guess I’m an east side girl when it comes down to it.  However, I love the northern coast with its cold gloomy ocean, cliffs and nearby redwood forests.  Gloom and green make me happy.  I’m a tortured soul, caught between the stark Great Basin desert and the gloom of the coast.  A marsh on the edge of the Salton Sea on a spring day at dawn and sunset is the most spectacular birding moment I have ever had and I hope to get back again someday.  And there are parts of California that I have never been to!  Somehow I need to find the time to keep exploring…….isn’t that the story of life.

Proof positive that Phoebe's wingspan is bigger than a red-tailed hawk.