By: Carrie Olson
My heart sank a little as I drove through Hotchkiss, Colorado for the first time. I had known that my summer internship through the Center for Collaborative Conservation and Colorado State University would take me out into rural country on the western slope, but I didn’t realize it would be this rural. As I passed first one worn storefront and then another, I couldn’t help noticing the complete lack of traffic lights and familiar chain restaurants. The eclectic assortment of shops lining the main street gave off that distinctive mom-and-pop vibe that only ultra-tiny towns have, and the few vehicles parked in front of them were mainly large trucks. I began to feel that my little Honda and I were out of place.
It was amazing that in just five hours of driving I had crossed into a completely different world than the one I knew. For much of the year, I am an undergraduate student in Colorado State University’s Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology program in Fort Collins, CO. Most of my time is spent with my nose buried in a book or glued to a computer screen. Artificial lights and quiet hallways define my workspace, while the sun is merely a vague entity I see in passing as I sit in traffic on my way to work or school.
Life in Hotchkiss, where our field station is located, is just the opposite. Wi-Fi is a rare and precious commodity, with many residents flocking to the local library like gazelles to a watering hole when they need to check their email. We go there too, but usually only briefly after we’ve finished work for the day. Like most of the town’s inhabitants, we work in the orchards; or rather, with them. They are one of the main industries in this area and every available acre is packed with rows and rows of apple trees, peach trees, cherry trees, and grape vines. Anna, the Grad Student who I am assisting, is collaborating with local fruit growers to study the behavior of birds that call the orchards home. Through mist-netting (the placing of nets on poles to catch birds), foraging observations, and transect surveys she is seeking to document their benefits and costs to organic fruit production. To do this, we rise with the sun each morning and stay out in it all day. It provides welcome warmth to us in the cold mornings but burns us to a crisp in the afternoons. I learned very quickly that sunscreen is your best friend out here.
The orchards make for an excellent office and contain a surprising variety of wildlife that amuses us while we work. Despite deer fences, raptor silhouette kites, and other animal deterrents, there is always something to be seen streaking through the shadows of trees or soaring through the upper branches. So far I’ve seen garter snakes, leopard frogs, toads, ground squirrels, marmots, deer, and nearly stepped on a skunk. Then of course there’s the bird. So many amazing birds! I’ve been an avid birdwatcher for about five years now, yet every day that I’m here I see something I’ve never even dreamed of. My favorite has to be the Lewis’s Woodpeckers. These glossy black-and-red birds have a colony tree where several orchards intersect, and every day we get to watch them glide and flutter back and forth with beaks full of cherries.
Unfortunately, we have yet to catch a Lewis’s in our mist-nets. We’ve caught some other fantastic birds though. A Yellow Warbler on our first day took my breath away, seeming more like a children’s toy than a living creature with his vibrant yellow feathers and round black eyes. I got to hold a bird for the first time that day too, which I will never forget. They are so soft and warm and incredibly light. I couldn’t stop smiling as I looked at the tiny creature in my hand. Shortly thereafter, however, I learned that Bullock’s Orioles don’t take too kindly to being captured and can deliver a nasty bite.
While this place may be a different world from the one I’m used to, I am also a different person for having been here. I am stronger, healthier, and have so many new experiences under my belt that I could write a book. I have seen firsthand how collaboration benefits research and aspire to head up collaboration projects of my own someday. Thanks Collaborative Conservation!