Thursday, December 16, 2010

Air It out

By Erick Carlson, CNHP Wetland Ecologist and Mapper

As ecologists, we are always searching for a new perspective, an angle that sheds light on the complexities of ecosystems. Sometimes that involves nose to the ground rummaging, tree climbing, spelunking, or in my case, flying. A wholly unnatural pursuit (especially for me), flying really emphasizes the connectedness of landscapes, mosaics of vegetation patterns, and the undeniable effect human use has had on the surface of the land.

I was in the thick of assessing the accuracy of remote wetland classification and map production on two projects along the Front Range. It’s a big area with less public access than I needed to really get a grip on all the wetland types in the area. While I had visited some areas on the ground, I needed a more efficient method to visit many types of wetlands, without trespassing. So - I got to go FLYING! This was made possible through the LightHawk organization that coordinates flight time with pilots willing to donate their skills and planes to groups that would benefit from a little aerial perspective. Our wonderful pilot David gave myself, Joanna Lemly (Wetland Ecologist at CNHP), and a member of the Save the Poudre Coalition Board a tour of the Poudre and South Platte River corridors east of the Foothills. 

Here we are loading into the plane, a squish-ably comfy 4 seater. 

Lift off! This little plane is the ”jeep” of aircraft, taking off and landing in something like 200 ft. of runway, or if there is no runway, anything flattish. Below are some nice man-made “wetlands” at a golf course as we climbed to our cruising altitude of 500-1000 ft.

We headed east scouring the land below us as our pilot kept the plane steady and slightly tilted to the right so I could examine the wetland features while Joanna snapped hundreds of pictures like these from the back seat. 

The ride was smoother than expected, but the further east we traveled the more the Colorado wind decided it wanted to join the party. While it was not overly turbulent, it was enough to impair my ability to concentrate. We made an unscheduled stop in Brush, CO for a pit stop and to get our “land legs” back under us. While this was a nice break, I soon realized I was past the point of no return. Ten minutes back in the air and..…well..…let's just say I revisited previous meals. The next hour and a half flight back was less fun than the hour out, but David pulled us up to 1000+ feet which smoothed out the ride a bit. 

So why were we flying over the plains in December to look at wetlands? The timing just worked out that way, but actually yielded a few unforeseen benefits and a few surprises. First, although I use aerial photographs to map the wetlands in the first place, these are all taken looking straight down. By flying around we were able to get the 3D version of the landscape and use the oblique (slightly from the side) perspective to really get some good information about scale and topography. Secondly, without leaves on the trees (cottonwoods mostly) the understory becomes visible.

 This is important for deciding how wet an area is by how vigorous the vegetation growth is. The biggest surprise was, while December is a pretty low water time for river systems in Colorado, there was some extensive flooding in certain fields. It seemed like an odd time to be irrigating, so we are wondering what is happening here. 

While the flight time of three hours round trip was nothing extraordinary, I needed the full day and night to recover. I guess people get used to it, but I was having some difficulty. But the trip was a huge success as I was able to narrate about the wetlands to the passengers, discuss with Joanna (while in the air) troublesome patterns and specific features, and utilize the 386 pictures taken to further the accuracy of the areas I had been mapping. Joanna was gracious enough to not take a picture of me after the ride, lest viewers think I was a dancer in Michael Jackson’s Thriller. 

A big thank you goes out to our pilot David for his time, effort, and supply of ziplock bags, Lighthawk for their organization and what they do for the sciences, Joanna for her tolerance and strong stomach, and our STPC board member Greg for his company and questions.

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