After 20 years in the field, Oregon biologist Cathy Nowak is beginning a new journey through the Texas Tech Department of Natural Resources Management.
It's a long drive from Oregon to Texas, leaving plenty of time to think.
This past spring, Blake Grisham, an associate professor of wildlife management in the Department of Natural Resources Management (NRM) at Texas Tech University, made this drive, as he has done every year for the last six years. It was his annual trip with students from NRM to the Pacific Northwest to help friend and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) biologist Cathy Nowak tag and track greater sandhill cranes around the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area.
This time, however, was different.
After 20 years with ODFW, Nowak had announced her retirement. She was going to continue the ongoing crane research as a volunteer, just because she was deeply involved and loved the work. But as the miles ticked by for Grisham, the thought kept creeping into his head – why not have Nowak formalize all her work into a doctoral degree?“
I called her and said, ‘If I could get some funding for you to do your doctorate at Texas Tech using these data you've collected since 2008, would you be interested?'” Grisham said. “I expected her to just laugh me off the face of the earth. She had a big trip to Ecuador and maybe Costa Rica planned. I'm like, ‘Who wants to work for a doctorate at 65 when you have all these awesome trips planned?' I've been told ‘no' a lot in my life; that's part of being a scientist.”
Turns out, she was interested.
“I was ready to retire from ODFW, but I felt there was much more to learn from the cranes,” Nowak said. “I was planning to continue capturing, tracking and learning about sandhill cranes as a volunteer after retirement. I wanted to do the research. Texas Tech offers many resources not available to me at ODFW in terms of expertise, mentorship and an academic environment. So, I decided to pursue a doctorate to finish the work I had started and to cap my wildlife career by having done something of value for sandhill crane management.”
So, at age 65, Cathy Nowak enrolled as a doctoral student in NRM within the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources. But it's not a normal path for a doctoral student by any means, and not just because of her age.
Distance learning at its finest
Nowak is performing her course work and research while still residing in Oregon, where the research is happening. In one aspect, Grisham said, the COVID-19 pandemic displayed the ability of this setup from through Texas Tech's robust distance learning practices, which have been implemented in Nowak's pursuit of a doctorate.
Grisham said some of the graduate classes Nowak will take will be done virtually, but those will be limited due to his belief that an NRM degree is best done with a hands-on approach. At the same time, Nowak has enough experience in the field that many of the classes in the degree program will contain information she already knows.
Still, Nowak is looking forward to the learning process.
“Education always enhances life,” Nowak said. “During this process, I hope to better understand the data and observations I compile and to make it available to the wider community of sandhill crane researchers. I also hope to share our understanding of cranes with the general public and open a window into the lives of cranes that few are privileged to see. I have no plans or vision for work beyond this project, but that is a few years in the future so, who knows?”
Pursuing a doctorate from a university halfway across the country is definitely unusual, Grisham said. He said the distance aspect is likely not new to Texas Tech, but having someone pursue a degree in retirement certainly is new in NRM.
“I'm not sure if either individual, either from my perspective or Cathy's perspective, would be willing to do this,” Grisham said. “But I think everything just fell in place with us, how well we get along and our shared visions and goals, both with research and student mentoring. I think one of the pros of being in NRM at Texas Tech is we emphasize working together in collaborative ways with different people. We sort of form these kind of family bonds. I think that's why it's rare and unique, especially in other disciplines where you don't have such a tight-knit connection.”
Nowak said the distance-learning aspect of pursuing her doctorate is not a concern for her, but getting back into an academic setting and community after 20 years away certainly is. But she is confident her love of learning and the support from Texas Tech will assuage any of those concerns.
“I wonder if I am up to the task,” Nowak said. “I wonder if my aging brain will retain coursework. I wonder if there will be new concepts and technologies that will leave me behind. I am both excited and terrified to begin this new chapter in my life, but life without challenges doesn't seem much fun.”
Nowak has accepted those challenges before.
Back to school
Family issues forced Nowak to leave high school after her junior year, but she eventually earned enough credits to achieve a community college diploma soon afterward.
That degree led her to the hospitality business, and she managed a Denny's restaurant for about 10 years. However, an illness forced her to seek another path in her 30s, and that led her back to community college. Eventually, she earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Central Washington University and a master's degree in natural resource sciences from Washington State University. She was 44.
“At that time, I ‘hung out my shingle' as a consulting wildlife biologist, doing a variety of surveys and assessments for private companies and government agencies,” Nowak said.
That work eventually put Nowak on her career path for the next 20 years. She worked as a consultant for ODFW at the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area, a wetland-focused wildlife area located in Northeast Oregon between the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests focused on migratory waterfowl needs. Moving from consultant to ODFW employee, this is where she spent the next 17 years of her life, guiding habitat work that benefits wildlife.
In her time at Ladd Marsh, she documented as many species within the area as possible. She checked hunting documents and bag limits, and helped form and serve as the liaison to the nonprofit Friends of Ladd Marsh. She also co-founded and led the Ladd Marsh Bird Festival for 15 years.
Over the next 17 years, Nowak identified 16 species of bumble bees, almost 80 species of butterflies and, with the help of colleagues, nearly 250 species of moths in the area. Her research projects focused on how species and groups of species used the area, including secretive marsh birds, the western painted turtle and greater sandhill cranes. As a result of her work, she was named the Biologist of the Year for her region in 2007.
During her regular monitoring of cranes at Ladd Marsh, she learned quite a bit about greater sandhill cranes that occupied the nesting territories in the area. She observed that it seemed the same pairs of cranes returned to the same territories each year, but she had no way to know for sure.
A colleague suggested tagging and color marking the cranes. This would not only verify her hypothesis but also help confirm the hypothesis that the cranes spent the winter months in California.
“The more I watched cranes on Ladd Marsh, the more they interested me,” Nowak said. “I paid attention to territorial boundaries and watched interactions between pairs at those borders. I recorded arrival dates for birds in each territory, nest initiation dates, hatching dates, colt survival and fledging success. Each time I thought I understood an activity or behavior, or thought I knew who in the meadows was who, the cranes taught me something new. I think this answers why I want to keep studying cranes: after 15 years, I still don't know these birds. I keep studying them in the hope that, someday, I will understand them.”
Making the connection
In 2013, Grisham began as a faculty member at Texas Tech in NRM, and shortly afterward was introduced to Dan Collins with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque. Collins was a former student of NRM Bricker Endowed Chair Warren Conway and was interested in beginning research on sandhill cranes in Arizona and California.
This led to the tagging and tracking of about 20 individual cranes, and because sandhill cranes are very family-oriented and mate for life, tagging 20 cranes provides information, Grisham said, on about 60-70 cranes. Later, Grisham and Collins would collaborate again with the Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge to study the mid-continent population of sandhill cranes, which winters on the Texas High Plains and migrates north.
During this project, Grisham was contacted by NRM alumni Laura Navarrete, who was working in Oregon for the Fish and Wildlife Service as a district biologist and was friends with Nowak. Navarrete told Grisham Nowak was studying sandhill cranes and had the banding permits and GPS units to tag and track the birds, but did not possess the rocket nets used to capture them. Operating these rocket nets requires a federal explosives license and training.
So, Grisham traveled to Oregon to help Nowak capture cranes using his rocket nets, and the two quickly hit it off. From 2015 to 2018, Grisham made the trek to Oregon to help Nowak and her ODFW co-workers capture and tag cranes and beginning in 2018, he started taking graduate students up there with him to help. The research really took off from there.
“Collaborating with Blake made a huge difference in our capture success and really made the GPS project possible,” Nowak said. “At first, he added expertise in rocket netting cranes. Then, when he started bringing students, we were able to spread our efforts out and increase capture probabilities. This has enabled a larger sample size for this research than would have been likely without his help.”\
Results from the tagging and tracking have shown tremendous intermixing of sandhill crane populations, which allows for states to apply for numerous sources of federal dollars to ensure their survival and prosperity. They also noted that, even though cranes can fly extremely long distances at one time, when they migrate from their winter grounds north toward Canada and the Arctic Circle, they stop up to 20 times, not only to fuel up but to form pair bonds and choose a mate.
“They solidify those bonds as they move north,” Grisham said. “Then, when they reach their breeding grounds, they have a better understanding of their mate, and hopefully that helps. What's amazing about that discovery is most of those areas where they are stopping are either publicly owned wetlands, or privately owned agriculture areas.”
Although cranes in other studies may migrate much farther north, the greater sandhill cranes captured on Ladd Marsh tend to be individuals which nest in northeastern Oregon.
Finishing the work
Even though Nowak has retired from ODFW, the research on sandhill cranes continues, and she wants to remain a part of it. It is a love of outdoors and nature that started as a child.
“It might have started with being read to, and later reading myself, the Burgess Nature Stories by Thornton Burgess,” Nowak said. “These stories held just enough real animal behavior to plant a love for, and an interest in, wildlife. I also camped with my father during my early years. We hiked the forest and talked about wildlife and nature, nurturing a natural love of the outdoors. As I got older, I dreamed of a career involving wildlife. When I started college, that was my one and only goal.”
And, now, she's back at it again. Grisham will continue to take students to Oregon to capture and tag cranes for at least the next three years while helping Nowak in her pursuit of a doctoral degree.
“I told her that as part of her dissertation, I want her to do one chapter that is dissertation worthy,” Grisham said. “What I mean by that is, in the world of information, if all the information about sandhill cranes is a big circle, I want her to leave a blip in that circle that expands our knowledge. I don't want her to do anything that corroborates or supports other findings. I want her to do something unique with sandhill cranes that has not been done yet. That way, when individuals read her dissertation, they can say that is Cathy Nowak's genuine contribution to our knowledge on this animal and how to protect it.
I think her getting her doctorate at Texas Tech is going to be nothing but beneficial for the university, the college, the department and for her, and I'm really excited to start formalizing this proposal and ultimately dissertation down the road.”
After years of welcoming students to help in her research, Nowak is looking forward to, now, being one of those students.
“Dr. Grisham has been a part of the project for six years, and the research is where it is because of his help and encouragement,” Nowak said. “Blake knows me and knows where I am in life. His expectations and guidance will follow from that familiarity. I also have seen, through the students that come with him to capture cranes each spring, the quality of wildlife education and experience he gives his students. I respect that and look forward to enjoying that experience myself.”