The Oregon State Bird Nerds Take to the Canopy

This article comes to us from Michael Brawner, member of the Oregon State University Bird Nerds. The Bird Nerds organize weekly or monthly birding trips to view bird species in the Pacific Northwest. Celestron was delighted to provide the Bird Nerds with Celestron sport optics to expand their outreach efforts. We look forward to reading more about their activities!

Joining the Bird Nerds was one of the best things I did my first quarter at Oregon State University.  As a zoology student interested in avian research, the club was a perfect fit for me.  My involvement in the club introduced me to the many opportunities available at the undergraduate level.  Through sponsorship from companies like Celestron, our club was able to get involved in many exciting research projects and other fun opportunities.  This past spring, the Bird Nerds were invited to attend a tree climbing workshop led by Dr. Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife department at Oregon State University.  Dr. Forsman has spent much of his career studying the Northern Spotted Owl, often from the tree tops.  He and a group of equally dedicated biologists and graduate students led us through the ups and downs of getting into a tree.  Climbing trees allows biologist to observe arboreal species in their natural habitat.  In doing so, they are able to start thinking about how our actions on the ground effect the species interactions playing out hundreds of feet above us.  It was a real thrill to get to spend the weekend with people who do this work for a living, and to learn the skills that they use to gain a bird’s eye view of the world. 

The two day workshop covered the basics of tree climbing with ropes.  The focus Saturday was on double rope techniques; Sunday we switched over to single rope methods.  To start, we learned the most basic method of reaching the canopy above with only a rope and a harness.  This, of course, was not the most efficient method, and took some mastering before you could hoist yourself up. The techniques progressively got more and more sophisticated - and slightly less exhausting - as we added more gear.  The beauty of the double rope system is in its simplicity:  a climber can ascend and descend without having to detach from the rope and transfer to another system. Although the names for the techniques used in single rope climbing - the Texas, the micro tree frog - and the double bungee, had an air of playfulness about them, Sunday’s lesson was decidedly more technical. Single rope climbing relies heavily on ascenders, mechanical devices that clamp down on the rope when tension is applied downward, but slide easily upward when the tension is released.  These devices make climbing much more efficient, however, it also requires the climber to switch over to a separate device in order to descend as they can only move up a rope and not down.  This is not particularly difficult, but does require close attention to make sure you are secured to a rope at all times, usually by at least two means.

Preparing for AscentThe Bird Nerds prepare to ascend a tree

Over the course of the weekend, there was plenty of time to practice ascending into the canopy.  I took this opportunity to observe the change in perspective one gains by climbing 50ft into a tree.  Birds were flying up towards me instead of downward from above.  A Western Scrub-Jay came in for a landing on a branch below me, diving down as if it meant to go under the branch, but then swooped quickly with wings and tail feathers spread wide to slow itself for a soft touch down.  Seeing this action from above was like seeing it anew.  Through my Celestron binoculars, I could see across the parking lot into a tree where a flock of evening grosbeaks had gathered.  Every spring, these birds flock in large numbers to the Oregon State campus to feast upon the abundant elm seeds.  If you’ve ever tried to locate one in a tree high above you, you know how menacingly difficult it can be to spot them through the leaves.  But at their level, I could see them hopping from branch to branch clearly.  The freedom and ease with which they command the tree tops is even more astounding when you’re sitting up there with them.  Only for a brief second, when the tension in the rope went slack while walking out on a limb, was I privy to such unencumbered freedom from gravity.   

The weekend culminated with a traverse between two trees about 80 feet apart.  A line was set between them stretching from trunk to trunk.  This essentially created a zip line.  One by one, instructors and students came crashing through the foliage of the launch tree and into the open air, slowing to a stop just short of and below the landing spot of the second tree.  Pulling yourself up the short way further, you were back in trees without every touching the ground.  It struck me as a sequence not too unlike that of the Western Scrub-Jay’s approach flight into the tree - although it was perhaps slightly less graceful. 

In the treetopsIn the treetops

-Michael Brawner
Undergraduate in Zoology,Oregon State University
Celestron Contributing Blogger