What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
As a rain forest biologist, I've spent years working in Borneo and other parts of the tropics. Climbing trees using ropes and working in the canopy have been among my specialties, so I was especially excited to visit northern California's coastal redwood forests, a place I'd never seen before.
The highlight was climbing into the canopy of several of these giant trees with Humboldt State University researcher Steve Sillett and his team. They specialize in studying all aspects of life in the redwood canopy, from salamanders to epiphytes to tree physiology. I used to think the trees I climbed regularly in Borneo were big, typically 165 to 200 feet (50 to 60 meters) tall. But we didn't encounter the first branch on these redwoods until 200 feet (60 meters) up. It was pretty humbling hanging that high up on a thin rope next to the trunk of such an enormous tree. The feeling of reaching the upper crown at more than 330 feet (100 meters) high was out of this world. Then there was the rappel down, with a 200-foot (60-meter) free-hanging drop below the lowest branch. Hang on a minute. Maybe this should be under the "worst" category.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
Even though California has a great system of parks and protected areas, the extent of the human footprint on the landscape is pretty upsetting. I saw from the air how the fragile desert-coastal sage scrub habitat around San Diego is simply bulldozed to put in new-home lots by the hundreds. Agriculture has taken over the Central Valley to a huge extent. And development is swamping the wetlands of the San Francisco Bay area. Only small percentages of original habitats remain in these areas. Just try to imagine what a wildlife paradise the rich plains and rivers of the Central Valley and the bay wetlands must have been just a couple hundred years ago. We will never see those days again, but at least we can work to preserve what is left.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
The craft of wildlife photography has a lot in common with hunting. We borrow all sorts of equipment from hunters, such as blinds, camouflage clothing, and even terminology like "shooting." So it shouldn't have come as a surprise when I found myself staying at a motel that catered to the hunting crowd near northern California's Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge. But the sign on the inside of my room door did surprise me and make me laugh. In all my travels, it was a first. In big bold letters, it read: "Please Do Not Use Towels to Clean Your Gun."