Yellowstone National Park is a magical place. Back in the summer of 2006, Yellowstone was my introduction to the west. Just before my senior year of college, some friends and I packed our bags for a road trip to the nation’s first national park. This was the first time I had been further west than Tennessee, and what an introduction it was! Since then, Yellowstone has held a special place in my heart and I always wish I could visit more often.
This past weekend was my third trip to the park, this time with a lucky group of 5/6th graders from Boise who were awarded a grant to spend the weekend in the Lamar Valley. We had a great 4-days and while on a hike Sunday we flushed up a Dusky Grouse along a Douglas Fir/Sagebrush forest edge. While pointing out the bird to the kiddos I grabbed a few photos as the female Dusky tried to stay completely still in the middle branches of the Doug Fir. She was hoping I didn’t see her…
In order to tell the story of the complete nesting-cycle of bluebirds in Bluebird Man, one of the critical scenes we needed to capture was bluebird copulation. At this early stage in the breeding cycle, male and female bluebirds pair up together and occupy a territory that contains a nest box or natural cavity. It is here that they begin to build their nest, and that instinctual hormonal drive tells the male he needs to begin reproduction. Yesterday, we were able to capture this crucial life-history stage in the Mountain Bluebird.
The female we were observing was perched atop a stunted Juniper tree, and as the male made passes overhead, she began to shake her wings, presumably as an invitation for the male to proceed. This series of still images from our video documents what happened next. The male flew in and landed directly on female’s back, and in that split second copulated with her. It only takes songbirds a very short amount of time to do this.
But, if you look closely enough, it appears as if the male passes off a piece of food to the female while copulating with her! It is unclear if the male actually gives the piece of food to the female, or if he is just using this as a tactic to mate with her. In animal behavior circles, this is called a “nuptial gift” or “courtship feeding”, and occurs when a male passes along a piece of food or other ‘gift’ to the female just prior to, or during, copulation. Presumably, the gift entices the female to mate with the male, and also may provide the female with a measure of how fit and strong her male is.
The reason I say it is unclear if the male actually gives the female food while copulating is because just after the male hops off the female’s back, she takes a piece of food from his mouth. Did the male provide the female with two small pieces of food? Or did he bait the female into copulating first, and then gave her the food? It appeared to me as if the latter happened. Either way, it was extremely fun to capture, and we were excited to document this behavior for the film. Doesn’t it appear as if the male and female are “kissing” in the picture below?
Did you know that a group of Turkey Vultures is called a “venue” and that Turkey Vultures circling in the air are known as a “kettle”? A group of birds can have many different names, with my personal favorites being a “charm” of Hummingbirds and a “murder” of Crows. This venue of Turkey Vultures was circling at sunset in the Owyhee Mountains last week.
When I spent two years working with California Condors, I witnessed condors soaring in the evenings many times. There seemed to be no other reason for them to be flying than for the sheer joy and social-ness of the occasion. They would have already fed and eaten food that day, and could have easily not flown and just picked a roosting spot. But they always flew in great numbers right before it got dark, providing often brilliant scenes of 30-40 condors flying against the sunset sky. These Turkey Vultures seemed to be doing the same thing, flying around the same area for almost an hour when they could have easily bedded down for the night. Perhaps this is where some of their dominance hierarchy is established. They eventually flew until it was nearly too dark to see, and then disappeared over the horizon to a find roosting place for the night.
What is your favorite name for a group of birds??
Summertime is starting to creep into the remote Owyhee Mountains of southwest Idaho. At sunset, one might see a “venue” of Turkey Vultures soaring on the last air currents of the day before settling down to roost for the night. Mornings are still relatively bereft of birdsong, but if one listens closely enough, they might be able to pick out the song of an early Black-throated Gray Warbler or Vesper Sparrow. More difficult still is the quiet, unassuming song of the Mountain Bluebird, which sings vigorously well before sunrise, but only for a short period. Once daybreak comes though, the spectacular sight that is the male Mountain Bluebird shines through above all else. These birds are truly spectacular, and I for one don’t think Idaho could have chosen a better state bird!
The North American Bluebird Society could not have chosen a better ambassador to represent the struggles of all secondary-cavity nesting birds. Fellow Bluebird Man producer Matthew Podolsky and myself spent last Wednesday night and Thursday filming in the Owyhee Mountains for the movie which we hope can inspire future generations of cavity-nesting-conservationists. We hope you don’t tire of seeing pictures of these sky-blue birds of the west. We know the subject of our film, Al Larson, hasn’t tired of it as he is entering his 36th year of bluebird nestbox monitoring!
This weeks post is a double-whammy! Not only is today Wednesday, when I post my weekly bird photograph, but it is also the first of May when I post the monthly highlight reel from April. We’ll start with this weeks photograph:
While in British Columbia filming Western Bluebirds for Bluebird Man we had the opportunity to see many other secondary cavity nesting birds. Secondary cavity nesting birds are birds that require another animal or bird to create a cavity for them to nest in; they cannot build their own nests. Most secondary cavity nesters use old woodpecker holes to nest in, but by providing bluebird boxes to these birds, we can increase the amount of nesting habitat available to them. Many other species will use and nest in bluebird boxes including Chickadees, Nuthatches, Swallows, Flycatchers, and Wrens. Of the swallows, we saw both Tree and Violet-Green Swallows in British Columbia. We wanted to capture both these species on film as representatives of other non-bluebird cavity nesters, and also get some photos as well. This female Tree Swallow was particular cooperative.
British Columbia was our best chance to see and film Western Bluebirds on a consistent basis, and we captured a lot of great footage of birds setting up their nest boxes and territories. This months highlight reel features some of the footage we captured of Western Bluebirds during our time up north. We wanted to capture both the males and female around nest boxes preparing for the mating season. As we’ve mentioned before, we also had the privilege of assisting PhD student Catherine Dale in trapping two male Western Bluebirds. Enjoy this preview of some of our bluebird footage from BC.
This past weekend Bluebird Man director Neil Paprocki and I drove out to the Owyhee Mountains with the Bluebird Man himself, Al Larson. This was our first day of shooting in the Owyhee’s, and it was Al’s first visit of the season to his bluebird trail. It was also my first time out in the field with Al, and I was very excited to see Al in his element.
The Owyhee’s are Idaho’s forgotten mountain range. They are not as tall as the Lost River Range and not as rugged as the Sawtooths, but they are even more remote and full of history. For Al, returning to the Owyhee’s each spring is like a return to paradise. Al spent much of his childhood in these mountains, and remarkably, they don’t seem to have changed all that much in the many years since the Great Depression.
The Snake River Valley is quite a different story however. Al has spent almost his entire life in Southwest Idaho, and has been witness to many changes in the landscape of the Snake River Plain. As we drove out towards the Owyhee’s on Sunday morning Al pointed out many of the changes that he has seen over the years, including new agricultural developments and a dramatic increase in roads and highways throughout the area. We chose a route heading southeast from Boise on I-84 to avoid the traffic that is encountered when driving through Meridian and Kuna. Once we got off the interstate we didn’t see many other cars, but each time we did Al would crack a joke about the weekend traffic.
Once we got off the paved road and started to climb up into the mountains Al had a story at every turn. He told us about performing breeding bird surveys with his wife Hilda, and shared which bird species he had seen nesting in the area during each of the previous five seasons. Once we got up onto the bluebird trail there was a story for every nest box. He could tell us which of the cavity-nesting species (aside from Mountain Bluebirds; House Wrens, Mountain Chickadees, Tree Swallows, Violet-green Swallows and Ash-throated Flycatchers have all nested in Al’s boxes) had used each box in previous years, and how many chicks they had successfully fledged. He also explained how he had selected the locations for each box, and why he had decided to change the position of certain boxes. Al doesn’t like to replace a nest box unless there is no possible way to repair it, and many of the boxes on his trail have been there for over 30 years.
Although most of the nest boxes that we checked were still in the nest building stage, we did encounter a few boxes with full clutches of eggs, and one box that had three freshly hatched chicks! These were the first bluebird chicks that Al has seen this season, and we were all excited (and a bit surprised) to see chicks hatching this early.
Al has over 130 nest boxes in the Owyhee’s, and although we didn’t have time to check all of them, we made it through well over half and were satisfied with our effort. When 4 o’clock rolled around we decided to start the drive back to Boise and all three of us were exhausted by the time we made it back. Al bands his bluebird chicks when they are between 8 and 14 days old, which gives him a two week window to return to the Owyhee’s to band those first chicks. We agreed to head back out in two weeks time and parted ways after a satisfying and successful first trip.
Production for Bluebird Man has started out with a bang! The Wild Lens team returned from British Columbia yesterday evening after a successful 4-day shoot with our neighbors in Canada. We captured some amazing footage of Western Bluebirds, documented the North American Bluebird Society’s perspective on bluebird conservation, spent a day in the field with a PhD student studying Western Bluebirds, and also a day with the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia. Overall we had a busy and productive trip.
We spent Monday and Tuesday with North American Bluebird Society (NABS) president Sherry Linn who resides near the Okanagan Valley of south-central British Columbia. Sherry provided us some fantastic perspective regarding the history, mission, and goals of NABS and bluebird conservation. We were also able to capture great Western Bluebird scenes along Sherry’s own bluebird trail (she has over 10 boxes on the property). Providing NABS and other groups with a tool to excite and inspire the next generation of bluebird conservationists is one of our top priorities, and gaining their perspective was vital to our film. We thank them for their continued cooperation: what a fantastic organization they have been to work with thus far!
Wednesday we took a brief break from bluebirds and spent a day in the field with Lauren Meads of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia. Lauren has been filming for Wild Lens since 2012 and graciously allowed us to bunk at her house during our trip (thanks Lauren!). A Burrowing Owl re-introduction and captive breeding program was initiated in British Columbia after being extirpated (or locally extinct) in the 1980s. Populations in BC are slowly growing, however Burrowing Owls are still an endangered species and Lauren works to raise captive birds to be re-introduced to the wild. Wild Lens has been assisting Lauren in creating a video the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC can use to help inform and educate people about the plight of Burrowing Owls in Canada. By spending a day in the field with Lauren, we were able to capture some additional footage we can use for this piece, as well as give Lauren some useful filmmaking tips.
Thursday found us back on the bluebird trail as we accompanied Queens University PhD student Catherine Dale for a day of bluebird research. Catherine is studying the Western Bluebirds of the Okanagan Valley. This population of bluebirds is unique in Canada in that a proportion of the population remains in the valley year-round, surviving the cold winter eating mainly berries from Russian Olive trees. Catherine is trying to determine why some birds stay for the winter, and what reproductive advantages they may gain from surviving the cold BC winters. During the breeding season, many of Catherine’s bluebird boxes are along the edges of vineyards as the Okanagan Valley has over 200 wineries, and this is where we spent most of our time. What a beautiful landscape to be able to conduct bluebird research in, we were certainly in awe.
Catherine was attempting to trap male bluebirds to determine if they were individuals that had wintered in the area, or migrated south for the winter. She was also collecting samples for some Isotope work, which can help determine where a bird has spent the winter by analyzing the chemistry of the nutrients they store in their body from the food they eat. We spent several hours with Catherine attempting to call in male bluebirds to boxes with a Western Bluebird decoy and song playback. Placed in front of the box was a mist-net that will ensnare a bird that flies into it. After several unsuccessful attempts, we managed to trap two adult male bluebirds. A pretty good day all-in-all!
With production of Bluebird Man underway, we look forward to filming in Idaho, where our main story will take place. Sunday we will spend our first day of the season with Al Larson, the inspirational subject of our film. Tomorrow we will be traveling out to the Owyhee Mountains, and we look forward to capturing the energy and enthusiasm of his first visit to the remote mountain region where he grew up. This will mark the beginning of his 36th season of bluebird monitoring. Astounding!
I figured since we are in British Columbia shooting for our new film Bluebird Man, that this weeks photo should reflect our experiences. We spent most of the last two days with North American Bluebird Society president Sherry Linn, who has a small bluebird trail on her property. While we were mostly filming, I still wanted to capture a few photos for this weeks blog post. Here is a beautiful male Western Bluebird nesting on Sherry’s property.
Obtaining the NABS perspective on bluebird conservation was very important to us, and Sherry is truly a great ambassador for the organization. We were able to follow Sherry around on her bluebird trail near the Okanagan Valley of south-central British Columbia on Monday. Tuesday morning was also spent on Sherry’s property following around her bluebirds. We got great footage of male and female Western Bluebirds going in-and-out of nest boxes with nesting material, and Sherry even had one pair of bluebirds already incubating 6 eggs!
Wednesday we will take a break from bluebirds (only briefly!) to spend the day with Lauren Meads filming Burrowing Owls. Lauren works for the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia, whose mission is to re-establish a self-sustaining population of Burrowing Owls to BC. We will be getting a tour of the captive breeding facility, as well as visiting one of the release sites for these endangered grassland owls. We’ll have a full wrap up of our time in BC once we return state-side on Friday. Until then enjoy a few more photos from the last few days of production.
Wild Lens is excited and proud to be partnering with the North American Bluebird Society on the production of Bluebird Man, our new half hour documentary about Al Larson and bluebird conservation. The North American Bluebird Society (NABS) was founded in 1978 in response to declining bluebird populations, especially those of the Eastern Bluebird. Thanks to the efforts of NABS founder Dr. Lawrence Zeleny and other bluebird conservationists, nest box trails across the country have aided in the recovery of bluebird populations. Wild Lens is thrilled to be collaborating with NABS, and we’re excited that this organization’s rich history of bluebird conservation will be a part of our film.
To capture the unique perspective of the North American Bluebird Society, we will be heading across the border to Canada in just a few days! For the better part of a week, we will call the Okanagan Valley of southeastern British Columbia home. This is where NABS president Sherry Linn resides on a small piece of property with her very own bluebird trail. Wild Lens will be interviewing Sherry and getting a tour of her bluebird trail. This will be an important interview for the film as we hope to gain valuable information from NABS about the history and continued success of conservation efforts for the bluebird and other cavity nesting species. This will also be our best chance to film Western Bluebirds, as Al’s bluebird trails in Idaho being occupied mainly by Mountain Bluebirds. We hope to update everyone while we are shooting in beautiful British Columbia, and will have a full report on the trip once we return after April 26th.
This trip also marks the official start of production for Bluebird Man, and we are excited and hopeful that this film project will be a successful one from start to finish. Wish us luck, and we will keep everyone updated with photos, videos, and blog posts throughout the entire production process. We will see you across the border!
I stopped by Ann Morrison Park in Boise last week to practice getting some in flight shots of gulls. There were more than a few people feeding the gulls, ducks, and geese at the park, which always makes me cringe. While feeding animals and birds allows you to get close to them, it also makes those animals reliant on humans for food. If they become totally reliant on people for food, and then we stop feeding them, they may end up starving and dying. So while we think we’re providing the animals a service, it can actually harm them in the long-term to be fed by people. It also decreases the animals’ fear of people, which is never a good thing. All animal and bird species should retain a healthy level of human fear. One species that did not seem to be taking the bait were several American Widgeons floating around in the water. While the Mallards readily took food directly out of peoples hands, the Widgeons maintained a healthy distance from people. Why this difference between species? Another question for my fellow birders and biologists: It sure looks like this female American Widgeon is calling doesn’t it? Actually, she wasn’t making any noise at all, she just kept opening and closing her mouth. Any thoughts from other birds folks about why she might have been doing that?