By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
Tim Brown spends his summers on top of the Golden State. While other Californians tan at the beach, hold BBQs, or relax at the pool, he makes a beeline for the high country. Striding across snowfields and rock scree atop eastern California’s highest ranges, this UC Santa Cruz graduate student seeks to understand why a sparrow-sized mountain bird is riding the “escalator to extinction.”
“As climate change accelerates, species are moving toward the poles or up in elevation. I’m interested in species already using habitats at the highest elevations; they have no place to go,” Brown says.
Of all North America’s birds, the gray-crowned rosy finch best epitomizes the escalator predicament. Sporting gray and black head plumage over a cinnamon body shot through with raspberry pink, this stocky finch breeds at higher elevations than any other North American bird. In California, the birds are found only along the spines of the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains. Already located at the southern edge of their range, these are the rosy’s most at risk of running out of habitat.
“People ask, can’t these birds fly to another mountain? But that’s not how it works. The Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains are really isolated,” Brown says.
In many ways, Brown’s path to studying finches is a prime example of the myriad ways the UC Natural Reserve System prepares enterprising young people to pursue the natural sciences. Having encountered the NRS first as a student and then as staff, Brown is now conducting his graduate research with both financial help from and field station accommodations in the reserve system. He now pays what he’s learned forward by serving as a mentor to his undergraduate field assistants, who are using what they’ve learned to launch their own careers in conservation.
“I got inspired to do ecology from the reserves,” Brown says.
Bitten by field research
Brown’s route to field research began as a student at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz County. In one of his first classes, he visited the NRS’s Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve.
“We were learning outside. I had not ever experienced anything like that,” Brown says.
He was so taken by the visit that, after transferring to UC Santa Cruz, Brown made sure half his classes consisted of field courses. These included Natural History Field Quarter and the Supercourse, both of which took him to even more NRS reserves. By graduation, he says, “I realized field science was what I wanted to do.”
Landing at Younger Lagoon Reserve
Brown landed a job as a part-time field technician at the NRS’s Younger Lagoon Reserve in Santa Cruz in 2012. That led to a six-year stint on staff, during which he was named reserve steward, then field manager overseeing habitat restoration.
“What reserves did for me was take this academic book knowledge I had and give me a way to apply it,” Brown says.
As field manager, Brown worked with students to return native vegetation to the reserve’s former brussels sprouts fields. He and reserve director Elizabeth Howard expanded the program to both hasten restoration and provide learning opportunities to more undergraduates, taking on up to 20 student interns per quarter. Brown oversaw intern duties, which ranged from collecting seeds from wild plants, growing starts in greenhouses, outplanting on reserve lands, and monitoring plant growth. In addition, he helped students conduct research on restoration methods and publish the results.
The bird banding station
By 2017, Brown was helping to develop and run a bird banding internship at Younger Lagoon. “I just wanted to do more. The reserve system was a platform where I was growing in ecology and wanting to do research,” he says.
Reserve director Howard and UCSC NRS Administrative Director Gage Dayton had wanted to expose students to bird banding, a critical ornithology skill. They turned to help from expert bird banders Breck Tyler, who still holds the master banding permit for the reserve, and Martha Brown. The two had initiated a banding program at the reserve in the 1970s. The pair agreed to train reserve staff, including field manager Tim Brown and the reserve’s interns. The program continues to equip students with skills that can help them qualify for field science jobs after graduation.
“A lot of students are interested in ornithology, but there are not a lot of opportunities in school to handle birds. And it’s hard to get jobs without experience,” Brown says.
The reserve’s bird banding station has continued to operate and train students under the direction of Howard and current restoration field manager Vaughan Williams.
An opportunity impossible to ignore
A year later, Brown encountered a prime opportunity to boost his ecology career to the next level. UC Santa Cruz Professor Erika Zavaleta announced she had funding for a student to research songbirds in the Sierra Nevada while mentoring undergraduates as field assistants. Zavaleta led two programs encouraging students from backgrounds underrepresented in the field sciences to enter careers in ecology and conservation: the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, and the Center to Advance Mentored, Inquiry-based Opportunities (CAMINO). Brown had gotten to know Zavaleta while working with students from both programs at Younger Lagoon.
The position in Zavaleta’s lab, Brown realized, couldn’t be more perfect for him if he’d written it himself.
“I had gotten permitted to band birds, and was already a climber interested in the mountains. I had also mentored hundreds of students at that point,” Brown said.
By the time Brown heard about the opportunity, he had a scant two weeks to assemble his graduate school application, including letters of recommendation. Here again, his years of work with the NRS came through. “Luckily I had established a relationship with faculty while with the reserves; people knew what I could do,” he says.
Rosy finch country
Brown began graduate school in summer of 2018. For his dissertation research, he opted to document the basic life history of eastern California’s rosy finches, Leucosticte tephrocotis dawsoni. Little is known about the habits and needs of this alpine specialist. Brown is figuring out whether birds hailing from the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains interbreed, why they nest only on mountaintops, and how a declining snowpack might affect their ability to survive in a warming world.
To gather the data he needs, Brown leads a team of undergraduate field assistants into the backcountry for 10 weeks from June to August. The group piles everything they will need, from sleeping bags to sunscreen, and food to field equipment, into a rented SUV, and drives to a mountain trailhead. Everyone then straps on a backpack laden with 50 pounds or more, and treks up to 20 miles to base camp at locations roughly two miles above sea level.
Research days are no less grueling. The team tromps over talus slopes, skirts alpine ridges and marches through snowfields to set out straight line transects and sample the vegetation, note the terrain, and generally characterize the finches’ environment. They spend hours squinting through binoculars to count the finches, observing their eating habits, and collecting samples of finch food.
“It takes a certain kind of person to be able to do what we’re doing all summer long,” Brown says drily.
Insects on ice
Brown’s finch observations appear to affirm the central role of snow in finch survival. The chilly white stuff, he says, “serves as a giant sticky trap for insects blowing up from lower elevations. They’re feeding directly off this nutrient source from a different location,” Brown says.
In addition to snow-stunned insects, rosy finches also eat seeds. In an environment with few plants, insects from the Owens Valley might be what helps the finches successfully reproduce. To this end, Brown is investigating how these birds may be shifting their diet as the snow melts and their chicks continue require nutrient-rich food. This information will help reveal how reliant the birds are on summer snow.
“It seems like snowpack is underlying all the questions I have,” Brown says. “Most of us in California are reliant on water in snowpack; it’s an attribute that is of direct importance to society.”
On other days, the researchers trap birds to gather body measurements, and obtain blood and feather samples. Brown will perform genetic analyses on some samples, to develop population information, and isotope analyses on others, which will show how much of the birds’ diet originates from lowland areas and is blown to high elevations versus foodstuffs from the mountains themselves.
Leading students to the mountains
Student assistants play a central role in Brown’s field campaigns. To recruit them, Brown makes presentations about his research to both the Doris Duke and CAMINO programs. Those interested can apply for one of Brown’s four summer positions.
Brown is careful to describe the demands and privations of finch research. These include learning a long list of bird calls to identify species by sound, the need to work as a team, and what it’s like to live for many days at a stretch in the wilderness.
“When I interview them I tell them to expect Type 1 fun and Type 2 fun,” Brown says. Type 1 is the usual kind: enjoying yourself in the moment. “Type 2 is when you’re not having fun when doing it, but you have a story to tell when you get back.”
Keeping everyone safe and coordinated is no mean feat in such challenging conditions. For this reason, Brown says, “the mentoring I did at Younger as a staff member has been invaluable. There’s much facilitating and work to set someone up for success with a meaningful outcome for both you and the student,” Brown says.
Keeping up with Brown
Even so, his undergraduate helpers aren’t always prepared for the intensity of the experience.
“He’s a mountain man,” says Juan Rebellon, a Doris Duke program participant who served as a field assistant for Brown in 2018. “He can run up mountains and would usually set the pace. Most of us are just used to sea level, so we would be suffering on most of the hikes up.”
Brown’s assistants have even established a document filled with advice for future assistants. Many comment that they wish they had been more fit before starting the summer.
Between multi-day stints in the field, everyone stays for a couple of days at NRS reserves. Staying at the NRS’s White Mountain Research Center, Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory, or Valentine Camp enables students to grab a hot shower, do laundry, and spend a little time in town. A 2019–20 Mildred E. Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant from the UC Natural Reserve System has helped Brown cover the cost of reserve accommodations for his team.
A watershed experience
In spite—or maybe because—of the tough conditions, Brown’s student helpers say the summer they spent with Brown has proved pivotal to their careers.
CAMINO student Sarah Albright met Brown while banding birds with him at Younger Lagoon. Even though she had taken multiple field courses as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, Albright credits her 2019 summer experience with Brown as forging her current professional path.
“Tim’s a great mentor in the outdoors,” Albright says. “He’s kind, and he’s a really good teacher, and he’ll cut you slack at the right time, but he pushes his interns in a really meaningful way. That helps them become better ecologists and better people to do work in the mountains.”
Brown himself notices students gradually growing more comfortable with the wilderness over the course of the summer. The transition is particularly striking because most of his interns did not grow up either camping or hiking. “At first they’re like oh, we’ll sleep inside the tent, with the fly on. They can’t imagine sleeping outside. As we move on in the summer, they take pride in becoming dirtbags. They’ll say, we’re good, we’ll just sleep on the ground.”
Brown even introduced her to her current employer, another rosy finch researcher working in Colorado. “I’m thankful every day because without that internship, it would have been hard to get jobs after school in field work,” Albright says. “I’m now on my fourth season, and it all comes back to the rosy finch research I worked on with Tim.”
Karim Hanna, a Doris Duke program alumnus who worked for Brown in 2018, has a similar tale to tell. “That summer experience I had with Tim was one of the biggest experiences I had in my undergraduate years. Tim helped shape the way I wanted to pursue a career,” says Hanna.
Since graduating from Stony Brook University, Hanna has led conservation crews in Utah, and is now monitoring seabirds in Hawaii.
“Yesterday it was raining on us and we had to hike probably a mile through mud. But after hiking up massive mountains with Tim, I know that I have the physical and mental capacities to perform hard physical tasks. That summer gave me a mentality of being able to maintain positivity in those harsh settings. That was the biggest thing: learning from him that the way you perceive the experience will change it for you.”
A springboard to an environmental career
Rebellon has just completed his first year of graduate school in coastal environmental management at Duke University. When the going gets tough, he says, “I still lean on that field experience to keep me going. Whenever I’m in finals, I say to myself, you know, this is easier than tracking down those finches in the Sierra.”
Hanna and Albright too plan to head to graduate school after gaining a little more field experience. “Not everybody can work unpaid internships while in school. But doing your bachelor’s isn’t enough anymore; people want that experience. So positions like Tim’s and programs like CAMINO play wonderful, wonderful roles in opening up opportunities for students and bridging gaps, because it allows students to get really awesome field experience that leads to jobs in a way that they can support themselves.”
Brown himself expects to finish graduate school in 2023. After that, he wants to apply his scientific skills to protect the environment. “I would like to have a career with a direct impact on students, and bring science to the public. I could see myself doing something with a similar type of mission as the NRS, to promote integrated research and teaching.”