8:30 p.m. - My first shift to look and listen for coyotes begins. We operate in shifts so that we all get a chance to sleep at some point in the night. Our trap sites must be constantly monitored for coyote presence. They are a wily species and take any opportunity to try and pry one of our precious rats out of its trap for a snack. Can’t they find a species that’s NOT endangered to eat for dinner?!
Researchers collect data on a trapped Stephens’ kangaroo rat.
The coyotes themselves move silently across the grassland, so we vigilantly listen for their shrill yips or the rattling of a trap being disturbed by wild paws. The clouds have moved in, so the night feels even darker and colder than usual. If the temperature drops below 50º Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), we will need to cease our trapping effort for the safety of the animals. I am hoping it stays well above that for the sake of us humans as well! I walk around the site and turn on my flood lamp; the beam of white light shines across our site. I scan all around us. No yellow eyeshine from coyotes, only the silver of our traps and the bright pink from our flags labeling the locations of kangaroo rat burrows.
11:27 p.m. – I feel a nudge on my arm. “Come on,” a voice says, “it’s time to check the traps.” I had taken full liberty to nap while someone else was on coyote watch duty. The cold air on my face is a brutal contrast to the warmth of my sleeping bag. To close my eyes again for just a few more minutes would be heavenly, but it’s time to check our traps and see what we got. Luckily, sleeping upright in a car is never too comfortable, so I welcome the opportunity to stretch my legs, even if it means being out in the cold for a while.
Working in the dark, researchers check to see if any kangaroo rats have been trapped.
11:35 p.m. - Our first Stephen’s kangaroo rat of the night! It’s #2364, as indicated by the two small metal tags in its ears. After noting the capture on our data sheet, we let him go. Kangaroo rats are a super-docile species, and I can’t help but giggle a bit when, upon their release, they jump around our feet for a minute before scurrying back into their burrows.
12:41 a.m. - Finished our first trap check. Ready for another nap before our next and final check at 3:45 a.m.
1:48 a.m. – I’m awakened by a gust of cold wind hitting my face. My makeshift sleeping bag fort built precisely to prevent this from happening has failed me! Granted, it was propped up only by the brim of the baseball hat I am wearing, so it was bound to happen eventually. I reconstruct my makeshift fort the best I can and try to get some more sleep.
A Stephens’ kangaroo rat has a metal ear tag for identification.
2:15 a.m. - Second coyote-watching shift of the night! Luckily for us, no coyotes tonight.
3:43 a.m. - That terrible nudge again indicating it’s time for our final trap check. I didn’t think anything would be more difficult than getting up the first time, but I was wrong. It’s only gotten colder, and my hands turn numb as I begin picking up the cold traps and closing them for the night. They’ll be open and set again tomorrow evening for another round of trapping. We check and double-check that all the traps are closed. I’m freezing, even with my two long-sleeved shirts, down vest, and two fleeces on. How do these tiny mammals manage to stay warm in the night? Imagining them in their cozy little burrows underground makes me a bit jealous as I dream of a bed with a big duvet to curl under.
6:33 a.m. – All the traps have been checked and closed, and we begin the drive back to our hotel.
6:58 a.m. – Like a bunch of sleep-deprived zombies, we all shuffle into the hotel lobby. The smell of hot coffee and fresh waffles fills the air as guests enjoy their breakfasts. They must be thinking we are a group of vagrants hoping to score a free continental breakfast as we haul in with our warm clothes on and sleeping bags in our hands. Right now, all I want is some proper sleep—the kind one has in a bed, not the front seat of a truck! I need to rest up, because we still have one final night of trapping ahead of us. It is a grueling schedule, but we are all happy to work it so as to help conserve this amazing grassland species.
Susanne Marczak is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Banding Burrowing Owls.