Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, 1998

Last update: September 11, 1998

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For the third summer in a row I visited my friends Gretchen Daily and Paul Ehrlich and their graduate students Jen Hughes and Taylor Ricketts at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic, Colorado. In addition, their group also included 3 Stanford freshmen (David, Jessica and Emily) on Bing scholarships who were spending the summer there, mostly helping Jen and Taylor with their projects.

Gothic is an ex-ghost town about 6 miles north of Crested Butte, Colorado, that now houses a group of biologists doing various sorts of research. The elevation is about 9500 feet, and it's surrounded by peaks of up to 14000 feet.

Most of the research sites are above (and some are well above) Gothic, so every year that I visit it's a challenge to find enough air to breathe, given that I come directly from sea level.

It's not too easy to get there -- for me the fastest route was to fly to Denver on a standard airplane, and then to take the "Vomit Comet" to Gunnison, Colorado. It earns its name arises from the fact that it's a little tiny plane that can be fairly severely buffeted by the winds flying over some of the most rugged mountains in the United States.

This trip wasn't too eventful, although it did feel like a pretty good roller-coaster ride as we descended into Gunnison. From there I rented a car, and made the 40 minute drive up to Crested Butte where I'd arranged to stay in a bed and breakfast called the Christiana Guest Haus. I got there by about 6 pm on Monday night, and I met Paul, Gretchen, and Jen for dinner later that evening.

Amateur Bugologist

The next morning I drove up to Gothic to go into the field with Jen, Jessica and David. Jen is studying a group of Lycanid butterflies -- fairly tiny insects that are also known as "coppers" and "blues". Of course some of the blues are copper-colored and vice-versa, but that just adds to the fun. I was at a big disadvantage because I considered myself lucky just to be able to tell the Lycanids from other sorts of butterflies; I hadn't a clue how to tell one species from the other.

Jen wanted to know more about what plants the butterflies lay their eggs on, so the drill was to find a suitable female butterfly and follow it around, waiting for it to start laying eggs. I had even less of a clue about how to tell males from females, so I'm sure I wasted about half my time following males, but I did manage to get a couple of eggs during the day. The ones I found were laid on a clover flower.

Since it was critical to know which species laid the egg and since I hadn't a clue about what I was looking at, when I did see a butterfly pumping its abdomen and apparently laying an egg, I'd put the butterfly net next to the plant so that the instant the butterfly left I could catch it and take it to one of the three experts for identification. I'd also go over the plant with a magnifying glass to try to find the egg, if any. The weirdest thing that happened was that I saw a butterfly apparently laying an egg and when I snagged the butterfly and inspected the plant I found an egg with an unusual shape which turned out to be the shell of an already hatched egg. I looked and looked, but never did find the fresh egg on that flower. Maybe the butterfly decided not to lay one after all.

There were quite a few flies to annoy us, but most of them weren't the biting kind, and there weren't many mosquitos, so once you learned to ignore the constant cloud of flies, it wasn't too bad. Jessica wore a head net sometimes to keep out the insects, but they didn't "bug" me too much. I learned from the kids that my choice of outfit wasn't optimal either -- I was wearing a T-shirt and dark pants. Those in the know know that light colored clothes don't attract as many flies, and long-sleeved shirts are de-rigeur.

The other problem with kneeling in the grass all day long is that all those grasses and wildflowers generate a great deal of pollen, and since it was the first day, I had no idea how critical it was to have a bunch of Benedryl tablets in your backpack.

I think the bugs were more annoying since there was a lot of waiting with your eyes glued to a butterfly and their presence could really get to you. On the project the next day with Taylor there were many more flies but I hardly noticed them because there was a lot more action.

In addition to the biologists, there are quite a few tourists in the area, trout fishing, looking at wildflowers, climbing mountains, or just hiking. Since we were carrying butterfly nets, a surprisingly large number of people assumed that we were fishing, and asked us where our rods were. I also heard from David and Jessica about their encounter with some guy from Texas who, when informed that the nets were for butterflies, told them, "Well then, you must be a certified bugologist!" The other common response to the nets was a complaint that we were catching butterflies instead of flies.

That evening I fended for myself for dinner in Crested Butte, and then returned to Gothic for an evening seminar on how one of the biologists there had converted his all-American lawn in Phoenix back into Sonoran desert habitat. He was an entertaing speaker, but you could probably have condensed all his main points down to about four sentences. Besides, I'm already an expert in converting landscaped backyards to a natural environment, having converted my own many years ago. Simply don't water anything and let natural selection solve the problem. The speaker went to a heck of a lot more expense than that.

After the seminar, we went up to Paul's cabin for hot chocolate, and I got to see his wife Anne who was leaving for New York the early the next morning for a meeting of the Sierra Club board of directors.

Anaerobic Training

The next day, Wednesday, I got to the lab early to join Taylor and Emily on Taylor's project. He is studying the migration habits of butterflies, and was monitoring 14 meadows, 7 on each side of the stream, to see how many butterflies migrate from one to another. The barriers to the butterflies consist of spruce forest and willow. Do they pass more often through spruce or willow? Do different species behave vastly differently? How far do they move?

So to do his project, Taylor visits 7 meadows each day, alternating sides of the stream from day to day, and catches as many butterflies of any type he can in each meadow, recording what he catches, and then marking a number on the wing of each butterfly captured.

On this particular day we were working the "other" side of the stream so the travel involved a couple of stream crossings and a fair amount of bushwhacking, since the trail that most people use is on the wrong side of the stream.

Although the hiking was at about 10,000 feet, I was able to keep up pretty well until we got to the first meadow. Taylor wanted to collect for an hour in each meadow so with three of us that meant we were to collect for 20 minutes.

Taylor chasing butterfly Here are shots of Taylor and Emily chasing butterflies. Emily chasing butterfly

When the clock starts, what you do is wander around the meadow, and as soon as you see a butterfly, you do a full-blown wind-sprint after it, even if it's all the way across the meadow. It's not like wind sprints on a track either -- you're wearing boots, carrying a butterfly net, and the meadows aren't even close to level, are covered with rocks, fallen branches, and gopher holes. You have to track all the obstacles in some zen-like subconscious way as you're tearing across the field with your eyes glued on your prey, trying to decide when to swing with the net. Of course you miss a lot, but you can't stop -- you've got to whirl around, lock on the prey again, and start a new sprint in a new direction.

For some reason, it seems that the butterflies always seem to know to head uphill, or through the worst snags of fallen logs, or through swamps.

It was glorious fun, and miraculously I was able to stay on my feet most of the time, but wind-sprints at 10,000 feet were pretty unpleasant for me and after each chase, successful or not, I'd have to stand there gasping for breath for a few seconds. After you catch a butterfly, you take it out of the net, slip it into a small glassine envelope, and put that into a band-aid box.

I wasn't terrible at catching the butterflies because I'd done the same thing in Ecuador earlier in the year but in Ecuador running was usually out of the question because of all the mud, so we had depended more on stalking. But over just a few days I improved my catch from about 4 butterflies per 20 minutes to an average of about 10 or so. Taylor and Emily were, of course, quite a bit better, so whenever I seemed to be losing a butterfly I'd try, at least, to get it going in the direction of Taylor or Emily.

Since we were relatively close to South Park, Colorado, after which a popular and highly controversial television show is named (in fact I'm pretty sure that the Vomit Comet flew over South Park on its way from Denver to Gunnison), it seemed natural to quote some of the more famous South Park lines. In one episode where Jimbo and Ned take the second-graders hunting, they give the kids all sorts of useful advice, ranging from "Be careful, you almost spilled beer in your chamber" when the kids are threatening each other with semi-automatic weapons, to how to yell "It's coming right at you!" just before you shoot an animal. Apparently the liberals and Democrats have passed a law forbidding you from shooting certain endangered species unless they're an immediate threat to your life, so before they shot anything, including bunny-rabbits, they yelled "It's coming right at us!" before blowing it away, to be sure to stay on the right side of the law.

So whenever we spotted a butterfly close to and behind one of the others, we'd yell, "It's coming right at you!"

Emily with butterfly Taylor and Emily Here's a shot of Emily with a butterfly, and a shot of both Taylor and Emily getting ready to process the ones we caught. I think they're both a bit winded after 20 minutes of chasing the little beasts around.

After the hour was up, we'd pile all our envelopes into a cooler, Taylor would take them out one at a time, identify them and mark them, while another person would write everything down on data sheets. I usually did the writing, and Emily, the "huntress", would go ahead to the next meadow and start catching the butterflies. When we'd catch up with her, Taylor would ask how long she'd been there, and we'd subtract that from 60, divide by 3, and would hunt for that long. Usually it took us about 9 minutes to process the catch, so I'd only have to sprint for about 17 minutes in each meadow instead of 20.

At the end of the day, Jen, Taylor, and the Bing scholars took me out for pizza in Crested Butte and we had a great time. I can't even remember what the joke was, but we got Emily laughing so hard that she started drooling!

We did come up with a script for an entry in the annual RMBL "No Talent" contest, however. The scene opens with a young researcher out on the first day wearing nothing but a tank-top, shorts, and tennis-shoes, saying, "What a wonderful place to work in the glorious Rocky Mountains, and so close to nature." Then she'd spot a butterfly, and speak into her walkie-talkie something like, "P. napi at B14."

The second scene is three weeks later, but this time, the young researcher is wearing heavy boots, long pants with the cuffs stuffed into the socks to keep out the mites and ticks, a long-sleeved shirt, wrap-around sun glasses, an air filter over the nose and mouth to keep out the pollen, a bandana wrapped around the back of the neck to keep off the sun, a big, floppy hat, and over it all, a head net to keep the flies and mosquitos away from the head. The whole outfit is topped off with pink rubber gloves and giant green knee-pads. The student is talking into the walkie-talkie, saying, "P. napi at B14."

The third scene, six weeks into the summer, finds the student again dressed in the tank-top, shorts, and tennies, but this time she's in a bar in Crested Butte, hoisting a beer, and saying, "P. napi at B14." into her walkie-talkie.

After dinner, we drove back up to Gothic for a couple of seminars given by graduate students that were fairly interesting, and needless to say, after I drove back to Crested Butte, I didn't have much trouble going to sleep.


So I thought that Wednesday's work would be about as hard as it got, but I was wrong. On Thursday, Gretchen and Paul wanted to do a survey similar to Taylor's, but of butterflies living in a tundra meadow. We started up the trail toward Avery peak which was pretty darned steep, and followed the trail for about an hour. Then we jumped across a little brook and headed cross-country straight up a very steep hill covered with scrub and grass.

I was doing great, keeping up, and even telling some jokes, when we hit about 11,000 feet, and it suddenly felt like somebody had turned off my oxygen tank. I found that I could only go about ten steps at a time without having to stop and catch my breath. It also seemed like Gretchen must have taken amphetamines at that point because she kept up the old pace. Paul and I were staying about even, and he's about 17 years older than I am.

Finally, about halfway up to the meadow (Paul had assured us that there were about 2 flat hectares of meadow just below the final rock ridge to the summit of Avery), I found an inviting flat rock and sat down on it. I closed my eyes and gasped for breath for about 40 seconds. Then when I stood up, I was suddenly disoriented, and all I knew is that I had to keep going, but I'd forgotten that I was on a steep slope, and even where I was. But since I knew I had to go, I took a step in a random direction that, unfortunately, wasn't up. As I started to fall, I was instantly aware of where I was and what I was doing. I only skidded down about 5 feet, but I decided that the next time I sat down, I'd get up much more slowly.

The high point of the climb occurred when we looked up and saw a golden eagle soaring high above Avery peak. Being hypoxic, I never would have trusted my own identification, but but Paul still had all his faculties and assured me that it was, in fact, a golden eagle. It was sure huge, and didn't look anything like a turkey vulture. This year I was too busy helping out to do much birding, so the eagle was the only "good" bird I saw. Although they look impressive and you certainly don't see them near my house in California, it was made clear to me that the magpies we saw were not "good" birds.

After what seemed like an eternity, Paul and I joined Gretchen on the "flat 2 hectares". I don't think there was a single flat square foot, but I guess it wasn't as steep as the stuff we had to climb to get there.

But now the drill was to begin the wind-sprints again, and for that, I was completely worthless. I did some half-hearted jogs, but I think I would have done almost as well to hold my net out to the side and hope that butterflies would fly into it. We chased them for 40 minutes, and I only managed to get two. I think Paul and Gretchen got about a dozen each. I lunched on a delicious sandwich that Gretchen made for me that tasted better than the wonderful meals we had in Crested Butte. Of course considering how tired and hungry I was, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would probably also have ranked up there with my best meals ever.

Paul and Gretchen Here's a shot of Paul and Gretchen examining the butterflies that they caught. It could be one that I caught, but the probability of that is .0001.

When we were done, Paul said that if I wanted, I could go ahead to the top of Avery, which would take about 45 minutes, but I'd had enough and went back down with them. I spent the afternoon reading and napping, and then Paul, Gretchen, and Paul's daughter Lisa and her husband Tim took me to dinner in Crested Butte. I'd known Lisa pretty well when I was in graduate school, but I hadn't seen her in perhaps 10 years, so it was a lot of fun.

On my final day, I went out with Taylor and Emily again and did the wind-sprints in the meadows, and I did a lot better at catching butterflies. In addition, I spent about 10 minutes as official photographer trying to get shots of butterfly catching in action. In my first series with Emily she threw caution to the winds on a mad chase after a butterfly, and the instant after I tripped the shutter, she tripped herself and flew headlong into the bushes. When I confessed that I'd missed the photo of her flying fall, she proved what a trooper she was and offered to do it again.

At the end of the day on the hike back we had an interesting discussion that began with the observation that although she was from Georgia, Emily seemed to have no Georgia accent. Then the converstation eventually twisted it's way to an analysis of southern grammar. Emily assured us that "y'all" is the plural form that corresponds to the Spanish "vosotros", and that you don't have to say "all y'all" when referring to more than one person (with the obvious possessive form "all y'all's").

We finished by 4 pm, and after a shower at Gretchen's cabin, I drove to Gunnison, took the "Vomit Comet" back to Denver, flew to San Jose, and got home before midnight.

I didn't have any trouble sleeping that night, either!

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