Molly Morrison pulls off her hiking boots Tuesday and reaches into her Trader Joe's bag for a pair of flowery rubber boots that any botanist worth her weight in Draba verna would have for a foray into a giant puddle atop Upper Table Rock.
Morrison grabs a little mesh net and steps gingerly into a large, ephemeral vernal pool. She's after a 22-legged, backstroke-swimming fairy shrimp, quite literally a little bugger that looks like something out of a SpongeBob SquarePants episode.
Morrison dips down and trawls up a collage of muck, water and bugs.
"Copapods," she says. "Bummer."
Morrison is a licensed fairy-shrimp wrangler with the license to prove it. She even went to fairy shrimp school, which allows her — not you — to step into these vernal pools atop the Table Rocks and capture one of these federally listed threatened species for educational purposes then release it back into its protected habitat.
She'll take her talents to the top of Upper Table Rock again Saturday, Feb. 25, to kick off the second annual winter series of three guided hikes offered by The Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management.
Morrison, The Nature Conservancy's local stewardship coordinator, will be joined by biologist and fairy shrimp discoverer Michael Parker from Southern Oregon University on the 9 a.m. hike, which will explore these pools for unique invertebrates and rare plants that call these seasonal wetlands home.
Morrison will try to scare up a fairy shrimp or two to create jpeg moments for the camera-toting public lucky enough to preregister for the free hike. She can even deputize hikers in her supervision so they can legally dip shrimp, as well.
These winter hikes are preludes to the popular spring series of hikes, which begin their 31st year in April.
The Nature Conservancy and BLM opted to add the winter series last year because the flowers, critters and overall experience can be vastly different when the vernal pools are in all their glory.
"There are things you can't see later in the summer, like fairy shrimp," Morrison says.
But still, there were no fairy shrimp Tuesday in Morrison's net to see.
"That's part of the adventure, right?" says Molly Allen, a BLM environmental education specialist who joins Morrison and others in coordinating the hikes. "The thrill of the hunt."
Allen didn't bring flowery rubber boots and isn't a legal shrimp wrangler, so she hugs the pool's edge, peering intently for signs of shrimp.
At their biggest, they're less than an inch long with 11 pairs of legs they use to swim upside down in the pool. Males can turn into females during the end of their life cycle, and all lay eggs before the pond dries up in the spring.
The eggs can live for years before hatching into adults for all of 40 days or for less than a week before they lay eggs and die. The eggs can last for centuries in dirt. They've been exposed to space in one study and can survive the digestive systems of ducks and thrive should the bird poop in the right pond.
Vernal pool fairy shrimp need to spend time in the dried-up bed of a pool — and even be exposed to freezing temperatures — before the pool reconstitutes. Some will wait it out another year.
"Something that small, and to be that resistant and live in such a harsh environment, is amazing," Allen says.
Morrison abandons this pool and sets off to the other side before briefly stopping at the edge to admire a single white-flowered Draba verna, aka vernal witlow grass, poking through the mud.
She sloshes back in, and several dips of her net lead to frog eggs and other invertebrates, but no shrimp.
"You can search a whole pool but only find them in one corner," Morrison says.
"It's a pretty tricky place to live if you're an invertebrate or a plant," Morrison says. "Part of the year you're under water, and part of the year you're in the desert."
Morrison calls off the search, pulls off her flowery rubber boots and puts them back into the Trader Joe's bag for the trek back down the trail to reality.
The final tally: Pacific tree frog eggs, copapods, water fleas, seed shrimp, predatory beetle larvae and caddis fly nymphs.
No fairy shrimp.
"Remember, it is a vernal pool hike, not a fairy shrimp hike," Morrison says.
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.