Two Alumni Partner to Harness Citizen Science for Owl Research Project

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

A little more than three years ago, two of our alumni, Stan Rullman (’12, Ph.D.) and Dave Oleyar (’11, Ph.D.)—both of whom worked with Professor John Marzluff—started new roles at two different organizations. Stan accepted a position as research director for the Earthwatch Institute in Boston, Mass., and Dave was hired as senior scientist for HawkWatch International, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey and their habitats. Working closely together while at SEFS, Stan and Dave always hoped they’d get a chance to collaborate professionally on a raptor project somewhere, and last year they found the perfect partnership for their two organizations: a research project in Utah and Arizona to study the ecology of small forest owls.

Dave Oleyar banding a nestling northern saw-whet owl. Before he came to SEFS, he completed a master’s at Boise State University studying how ski area development for the 2002 Winter Olympics affected the breeding ecology of flammulated owls in northern Utah.

“Despite owls being as culturally popular as they are at the moment,” says Dave, “there are still quite a few knowledge gaps on the breeding ecology and habitat relationships of many small owl species.”

So the project he’s leading aims to document and better understand how populations of small resident and migratory owl species are influenced by climate change and different forest types in western North America—specifically, in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona, and the Wasatch mountains in northern Utah. His study species include flammulated owls, northern saw-whet owls, northern pygmy owls and western screech-owls at both research sites, as well as southwestern-specialty elf owls and whiskered screech-owls in Arizona—all of which are usually only five to six inches tall. In all, the Arizona site hosts 12 of North America’s 19 native owl species, making it one of the richest owl hotspots in the world.

The other half of this research involves learning more about the tree cavities, or hollows, these owls depend on for roosting and nesting. “I’m excited about filling in some of those black holes or knowledge gaps about the ecology of these small owl species, and also the contribution of looking at tree cavities as a study ‘organism’ in and of themselves,” says Dave.

Yet surveying for small owls and tree cavities across two mountainous forest areas is intensive work, requiring a lot of time on the ground, eyes on the trees and ears in the night, and that’s how Stan and Earthwatch got involved.

Stan Rullman with a flammulated owl. In addition to being cavity nesters, flammulated owls are migratory and primarily insectivorous, characteristics that could render the species particularly sensitive to forest management and climate change impacts.

Founded in 1971, the Earthwatch Institute specializes in supporting “field research expeditions” that enable volunteers of all ages and backgrounds to work as citizen scientists on research projects around the world. They partner with scientists on important studies and then recruit volunteers to help with data collection in the field. Volunteers commit to one or two weeks at a time and pay their own way to participate, with the majority of fees going to cover the equipment costs in the field, accommodations and food (as Earthwatch is a nonprofit, those contributions to support the research are tax deductible). Right now, Earthwatch has about 60 active projects around the globe, with more than 1,000 volunteers participating in the field every year.

Partnering for the first field season of this owl project last summer, Earthwatch recruited a total of 56 volunteers—ranging in ages from 15 to 83—to take part in six expeditions at sites in Arizona and Utah. Two of the groups came from high schools in Los Angeles through a program called Ignite; other volunteers ranged from a retired NASA scientist to agency biologists, science teachers and even people who had never spent 10 minutes off a trail. “One thing a lot of these folks have in common is that they want a vacation where they’re immersed in something that isn’t just sitting on the beach or jet skiing,” says Dave. “They want an experience. They do this and feel like they’re contributing to important scientific research, and they are.”

Fledgling northern pygmy owl.

From May to July, these citizen scientists helped search for and map tree cavities; survey for, trap and band adult owls; monitor owl nests found in cavities; and measure vegetation around the cavities. They gathered more owl and cavity data than expected the first season, in fact, and spaces are already filling for eight expeditions this coming summer, along with eight more in 2018.

That continuity has Dave excited for the long-term potential of this study. On average, Earthwatch is able to support projects for around seven years, so Dave plans to conduct these surveys multiple times to get a strong estimate of productivity for each owl species and the different forest types they use, ranging from high-elevation sky islands to riparian canyon forests and old-growth aspen, among others. He’ll also start developing a clearer picture of how frequently the same owl individuals are encountered over the years, and how the timing of these events is shifting in response to climate change.

For Stan, the broader scientific impact of these expeditions is hugely important. Earthwatch volunteers have contributed data to more than 2,000 peer-reviewed publications, and the projects often directly influence management plans at all scales, from local park or species up to national and international-level policy decisions. “As a scientist,” he says, “I’m passionate about being able to use this model at Earthwatch to support scientific research that is rigorous, relevant and impactful. With more than 45 years of supporting researchers through this model, we’ve got an amazing track record of scientific and policy impacts in very diverse areas of science.”

Volunteers checking a tree cavity with a camera on a pole.

Stan also loves seeing the changes in volunteers after an expedition. “The experience they have in the field when they’re with someone like Dave, lifting a camera and poking it in a hole 20 feet up in a tree, and suddenly they can see a little face looking back at them—I bet they never look at tree cavities the same way,” he says. “The transformation of that experience gets them better connected to the world around them, and hopefully gets them better connected to those policies, decision makers and other stakeholders who are influencing that species and landscape.”

The same feeling drives Dave, as well. “I know I’ve done my job when multiple people yell out that we have to stop to take a look at a hole in a tree as we’re driving down the road—and it happens each trip. They’ve been reprogrammed to think about tree cavities as an important habitat feature, and they’re leaving with a little bit better picture of forest systems and the different owls that live in them. Conservation is 30 to 40 percent science, and the rest is a conversation you have with people to get them to buy into the science and why it matters. That’s just as important as the data we’re collecting.”

Want to Get Involved?
Earthwatch expeditions are open to people of all interests and backgrounds (ages 15 and up), and they can be terrific opportunities for undergraduate students, for instance, to gain valuable field research experience. If you’d like to learn more about upcoming owl research opportunities with Dave and his team—or other projects around the country—feel free to contact Stan anytime, and also check out either the HawkWatch International or Earthwatch website. Similarly, scientists interested in partnering with Earthwatch can be added to the annual RFP announcement list by sending an email to

Photos © Stan Rullman and Dave Oleyar.

Professor John Marzluff (left) and his lab several years ago, including Stan (second from left) and Dave (second from right). “I thinks it’s wonderful that Stan and Dave are working together,” says John. “Their collaboration shows how important connections made during grad school are to our future professional endeavors, and in this particular case they highlight the attainment of our program’s goal to promote joint problem solving. Learning to work together as grad students kindled a love of collaborative research that both Stan and Dave are now in position to capitalize on. I couldn’t be prouder.”



Alumni (and Staff) Spotlight: Wendy Gibble

While volunteering with the Falcon Research Group in the San Juan Islands a number of years ago, Wendy Gibble remembers repelling down a cliff to reach a peregrine falcon nest. She’d been taking part in a raptor study for several years, and her job was to put bands on the young birds. With each subsequent season visiting a nest, Gibble says the adult falcons grew less tolerant of the intruders—and also far less timid. At first, they would swoop nervously yet stay about 10 feet above the researchers’ heads. After a few years, though, some of them would actually make contact. “You’re hanging on a rope, banding a young falcon, and all the sudden you get this “thwack” on your helmet,” she says.

Wendy Gibble

Before returning to graduate school after 13 years in environmental consulting, Gibble volunteered on a wide range of conservation projects, including several raptor studies.

Armored with that helmet and a sturdy jacket, Gibble didn’t feel in danger, and in fact she loved the excitement of working hands-on with wildlife research and conservation. So much that she regularly sought out similar volunteer projects with several organizations, including Hawkwatch International, and ended up participating in raptor studies at far-flung sites around the world, from Cape May, N.J., to Chile and the Falkland Islands.

She managed all of that, incredibly, on top of her full-time career as an engineer. But her side passions were increasingly elbowing for more room and attention.

Gibble had grown up in Chatham Township, N.J., about 30 miles west of Manhattan, and later studied civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University in New York. She briefly returned to New Jersey after graduation before heeding the call of the Pacific Northwest and its many natural offerings.

“I came for the mountains,” she says, and ended up working in environmental consulting for 13 years, splitting time between a couple firms, including Herrera Environmental Consultants. Some of her work involved construction management for water resource projects, such as drinking water supplies, fish rearing and passage projects. Gibble did some flood modeling and work on landfills, as well as projects on the Columbia and Snake river systems designing hatcheries and fish screens (to prevent fish from getting sucked out with irrigation withdrawal). She also spent time designing water treatment plants, pipeline transmissions, pump stations and other infrastructure related to our drinking water system.

Through she generally enjoyed all of those projects, Gibble felt a growing desire to spend her days working more directly with habitat management and conservation. She’d experienced that world firsthand through her volunteering, but only for a few weeks a year. The tease was too much to keep ignoring.

Wendy Gibble

Getting to do field research across the state, including recently in the Wenatchee Mountains (above), is one of Gibble’s favorite parts of her job with Rare Care.

“I had that moment of, ‘What am I doing?’” she says. “I was running into people all over South America who were doing really cool research projects and wildlife studies, and I just thought it was time for a career change.”

Since she didn’t want to leave the West Coast, Gibble started researching potential graduate programs in California and Washington. She says she had a really good feeling about coming to the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) and ended up pursuing a master’s with Professor Kristiina Vogt as her advisor. Within her overall emphasis on plant ecology, Gibble studied plant invasion in the Puget Sound prairies for her thesis (her other committee members included Professors Charles Halpern and Peter Dunwiddie). She got to be in the field. She got to organize her own research program. She’d found a shared outlet for her personal and professional aptitudes.

As it happened, a few months before Gibble had even earned her M.S. in March 2006, the program manager position opened up with the Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation Program, or Rare Care, with the UW Botanic Gardens. Gibble had taken a seminar with Professor Sarah Reichard, the director of UWBG, and knew a little bit about the Rare Care program. The timing was hard to beat, and Gibble knew positions like this one didn’t pop up every day in this field, so she jumped at the opportunity and started working while she wrapped up her thesis.

The Rare Care program, housed at the Center for Urban Horticulture, is dedicated to conserving Washington’s rare native plants. It has four main areas of emphasis: researching rare native plants and engaging graduate students in those studies; organizing statewide citizen science monitoring of rare plants (including more than 200 volunteers who do around 5,000 hours of work each year); managing the Miller Seed Vault, a seed banking effort that preserves the seeds of rare plant species; and conducting other outreach projects.

Wendy Gibble

Gibble, center, at the 2014 SEFS Alumni Spring Gathering, held April 27 at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

A big part of what Gibble loves about her role as program manager is that she gets to have a hand in all of these activities, and a couple years ago she took on the additional responsibility of managing the education programs and a seven-person staff. She especially enjoys working closely with students, and getting to spend a lot of time traveling to field sites around the state. “I really like going new places,” she says, “and that’s one of the things I really love about my job. I’ve gone to places I probably never would have seen.”

Some of those excursions include gathering collections for the seed vault, or leading a range of research and monitoring projects. Gibble recently spent a week in the Lake Quinault area working with the Forest Service to map populations of the rare Quinault fawn lily. She’s also been collecting seeds with the Bureau of Land Management out in Washington’s shrub steppe regions, and monitoring Whited milk-vetch south of Wenatchee. “It’s all very cool,” she says.

Of course, even the most satisfying work week still leaves plenty of spare hours, and Gibble isn’t one to wear out a couch. “If I’m in the wilderness, I’m a happy person,” she says, and that means hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, bird watching, gardening, skiing, canoeing, kayaking, you name it—including rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Wendy Gibble

Gibble on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.

Two summers ago, she added salmon fishing. Gibble and some friends chartered a boat on the west side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where she hooked her first Chinook salmon. She doesn’t remember how long she fought the 28-pounder—it was a bit of blur—but she definitely recalls the thrill of the catch, and then the four or so months it took to work her way through all the meat. “It was a ton of fun,” she says.

Not to limit herself to terrestrial and marine adventures, Gibble used to have a pilot’s license, as well. “It was a bucket list kind of thing,” she says, and she flew herself to a number of local destinations, including to Portland, Ore., and out to the San Juan Islands. Yet since flying requires a lot of time and money to stay current and safe, Gibble didn’t keep her license up to date. Plus, as fun as it was to cruise through the sky, she says most of her outdoor passions involve closer contact to nature. “In the end,” she says, “I just want to be on the ground.”

For all the ground she’s covered so far—New Jersey to Washington, Cape May to Chile, engineering to ecology, and countless trips along the way—Gibble knows there’s plenty yet for her to do and explore in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. Best of all, she no longer has to wait for vacations and volunteer projects to get there. With Rare Care and the broader SEFS community, she gets to travel regularly and work at the leading edge of environmental research and education every day.

And that, says Gibble, is a rare find indeed.

Photos © Wendy Gibble.

Wendy Gibble