Burrowing into Owl City

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Nan holds a burrowing owl chick.

Nan holds a burrowing owl chick.

Being a native San Diegan, the world-famous San Diego Zoo and Safari Park had an immense impact on my interest in the natural world during my early adolescent years. One thinks of the word excellence when it comes to the Zoo and Safari Park being able to showcase rare and endangered plants and animals from all over the globe. Yearly visits to the Zoo and Park instilled many valuable lessons. The most valuable lesson of all: to be able to personally experience biodiversity at such an intimate level was, and still is, an extreme privilege.

Naturally, these types of experiences eventually led me to pursue bachelors of science degrees in biology/ecology and environmental sciences at San Diego State University. Realizing that the activities of humans had a direct impact on vulnerable species and ecosystems around the world, and having an innate desire to make a positive difference in the field of conservation, I made a commitment to myself to become a conservation scientist. I was then extremely excited to find out that I had been selected to conduct research as the Sefton Summer Research Fellow within the Applied Animal Ecology (AAE) Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

A burrowing owl family peers at the researcher studying them.

A wild burrowing owl family peers at the researcher studying them.

This summer, my research project focused on a very charismatic species of concern in our very own backyard: the western burrowing owl. Once thought to be thriving in San Diego County, burrowing owls are now a rare sight, due to habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation due to human activity. With the help from my super team of AAE mentors—Dr. Lisa Nordstrom, Colleen Wisinski, and Susanne Marczak—we are currently seeking how to answer such questions as: how do burrowing owls select their nesting habitat from different spatial scales? Do burrowing owls reproduce more successfully when nesting in artificial burrows or when nesting in natural burrows excavated and engineered by California ground squirrels?

To help gain valuable information about burrowing owls and their habitat, I had to learn how to conduct habitat assessment surveys, extract soil cores for soil texture analysis, identify many different types of exotic and native grassland and coastal sage scrub vegetation, and use state-of-the-art computer software such as geographic information systems to tease apart the environmental factors that may potentially affect owl site selection at different spatial scales. To obtain these types of data, many long, grueling, yet very fun and fulfilling hours were spent outside in the field and inside the Ellen Browning Scripps Spatial Ecology Lab.

Nan feds a rhino during a Caravan Safari at the Safari Park.

Not all work and no play! Nan feds a rhino during a Caravan Safari at the Safari Park.

I’ve also had a number of various experiences this summer that complemented my internship, which included releasing translocated California ground squirrels to new study sites, releasing critically endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs into their native creek habitat in the San Gabriel Mountains, and getting up close and personal with the giraffes and rhinos on a spectacular Caravan Safari at the Safari Park.

My goal for this summer was to have a better understanding of what it took to become a scientist in applied animal conservation, and I feel that I have definitely met those expectations from working closely with a wonderful and intelligent team who truly cares about effectively protecting the planet’s threatened wildlife with well-thought-out science. Though I am only in the infant stages of my scientific conservation career, the experiences this summer at the Institute for Conservation Research have definitely provided me with unique insights, valuable learning experiences, and a solid foundation on what it takes to become a conservation ecologist.

Nan Nourn is the 2013 Sefton Summer Research Fellow for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.