ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team: Week 1 in Rocky Mountain National Park

We are graduate students from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University working this summer as E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation interns, as part of the ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team and Group Masters Project. Our work is supported by a partnership with Discover Life in AmericaRocky Mountain National Park, and the Turner Endangered Species Fund. This summer we will be identifying gaps in the current species database at Rocky Mountain National Park. From our experiences we ultimately hope to develop a story that inspires action to preserve biodiversity in our national parks and natural spaces.

ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team: Week 1 in Rocky Mountain National Park

After an exciting training week at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we were ready to begin our project in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). All four of us arrived at the park on Sunday, June 1 after various adventures during the previous week. Zhenzhen and Jianyu stayed in Boulder for a few days, Casey visited her sister in Denver, and Sahil flew in Sunday morning after a friend’s wedding. The first person we met was Isabel Ashton, the Director of the Continental Divide Research Center and she graciously drove us to our residences. Our workspace has a beautiful view, as can be seen in the picture below. We have seen many birds such as mallards and ducks, squirrels, a badger, and even two young moose in this area!

Image of a field with a pond.

The first week primarily consisted of training, acclimatizing to the altitude, and meeting the amazing staff that will be helping us with our project. On Monday, we met Ben Baldwin and Scott Esser, who will also be guiding us during our time here at RMNP. We also met Holly and other fellow interns who will be sharing the ranch, training with us, and perhaps will be involved with our project in some way. We explored the Park Headquarters and learned about all the different resources available to us, which included a National Park Jeep for our transportation! The pictures below show our team outside Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and the elk we spotted there on the first day!

An image of 4 women standing outside. An image of 3 elk in the wild.

Stephanie Mason is one of the researchers working with park and she is surveying butterflies as part of an ongoing 18-year project to develop baseline information about them. We were very lucky and had the chance to accompany Stephanie on Tuesday and Thursday as she surveyed transects at Fern Lake and at Shadow Mountain Dam on the west side of the park (we are staying at the east end of the park). We learned a lot about butterfly biology and taxonomy, the park itself, and about long-term research. The collage below shows a sample of the beautiful butterflies we saw during our time with Stephanie. We also made it into her field book as we spotted butterflies on the transect. The next few images show our team in action with our nets and binoculars, as well as images of our journey across the park, passing the Continental Divide on the famous Trail Ridge Road.

Several images of different butterflies.
Images of the ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT team hiking and exploring.

On Wednesday, we joined all the new and seasonal employees on a plant identification class. We learned about the major families that exist in the park and various characteristics that aid in their identification. After a morning in the classroom, we set out to learn how to identify plants near Lumpy Ridge. Scott was our group leader and guided us through the use of dichotomous keys as well as a very important discussion about situational awareness in the wilderness. The collage below is a small sample of the plants we saw!

Images of different flowers in a forest.

On Friday, we joined Ben, Scott, and Holly while they led middle and high school children on their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program. We joined the kids that were practicing bird counts and helped them hear and see the birds around them. There was also another group of kids who were working on filming a documentary. We were very surprised at their high tech equipment! Afternoon thunderstorms are an integral part of the summer routine in these mountains; after lunch, we had to quickly take shelter from the lightning. The photos below show our team and some of the birds we saw!

Images of the ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT team finding a yellow bird.

Throughout the week, our team had several discussions about our project amongst ourselves and with Ben Bobowski and Isabel Ashton. As they are our primary contacts at the park, we are making sure that our project can have management implications in addition to providing valuable information. We have been working on updating RMNP species lists on NPSpecies. This is basic data mining to see what research has been done in the park but has not been updated yet. Ben Bobowski has requested a final number of species that we have added to the database as well as an estimation of how many species should be found in the park. In the upcoming days, we will be identifying important gaps in the park’s understanding of biodiversity. We will then focus on a few of these to develop field surveys and road maps to close the gaps.

All in all, it has truly been an exciting week and we are looking forward to more weeks filled with adventure!

—Sahil Chaini, Zhenzhen Chen, Casey Johnson, and Jianyu Wu

Image of a survey card.

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