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.
Matthew Podolsky documents the work of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
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!
Adult male Western Bluebird. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
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.
British Columbia Burrowing Owl. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
Matthew Podolsky giving a filmmaking tutorial to Burrowing Owl biologist Lauren Meads. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
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.
Vineyards dot the landscape of the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
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!
Adult male Western Bluebird in the hand. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
Adult male Western Bluebird wing. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
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!
Chiromantis hansenae female and her eggs. Photo by Adair McNear.
August 10th, 2012: We’ve been having a dry spell so the frogs’ activity has dropped, although the past few days have been wetter, so breeding should pick up again soon. In the meantime I thought I’d share how we’re collecting data on the frogs – and incidentally, collecting awesome video of the frogs’ behavior – because it’s a pretty cool method! When we locate a newly laid clutch of eggs, we set up a timelapse camera on a tripod that runs 24 hours a day (at night we switch on a low intensity light, just enough so we can see if the female is still present).
Time lapse camera "watching" a clutch of treefrog eggs. Photo by Adair McNear.
With this continuous surveillance, we end up with 4 or 5 days-worth of footage to then analyze. It takes about 5 days for the eggs to mature into tadpoles, which then drop into the water and hatch. The female is present and sitting on her clutch about 80% of this time, which understandably is mostly her remaining still, and not too fun to film in real time. However, with the timelapse footage, we’ve been seeing condensed views of the females attending to their clutches. These have included predation attempts from ants and carnivorous katydids, with one female managing to fight off a katydid twice her own size! Another female had to scare off a male Chiromantis hansanae who was fruitlessly attempting to mate with her (the females are not receptive when they are guarding their clutches). I’ve attached some photos of one of the timelapse cameras set up in the field, and a couple of cropped screenshots that it has captured. ~ Adair McNear
Chiromantis hansenae female leaping away from her eggs. Screenshot by Adair McNear.
Chiromantis hansenae stands guard over her eggs at night. Screenshot by Adair McNear.
** The following is the second in a series of blog posts by Wild Lens biologist Erin Strasser. Her work in Honduras will be depicted in a Webisode during the coming weeks. **
Fabiola, Brett, and I wait patiently amongst the coffee branches, hoping to catch a glimpse of cinnamon- brown, straining to identify sounds beyond the ear numbing chicharras, or cicadas. What we are so eager to find is the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), one of our focal neotropical migrants and a species of special concern due to population declines over the past several decades. At first glance the Wood Thrush or zorzal del bosque may not be the most charismatic species. However with their bold black chest spots, blank stare, bobbing motions as they forage in the leaf litter, and their agitated and bursting “pit pit pit pit pit” call they quickly piqued my interest.
Coffee plants dominate the understory in this shade-grown coffee finca. Mist-nets were often set up between rows of coffee, requiring meters of rope to tie back plants. Photo by Brett Bailey.
Sammy Manzanares, one of our Honduran guides assists with the setup of a mist-net. Photo by Brett Bailey.
The Wood Thrush spends its breeding season in deciduous forests of eastern North America. As a neotropical migrant (NMB), that is, a bird that breeds in North America and migrates south to Latin America for the winter, the destruction and fragmentation of both breeding and wintering habitat are suspected factors in this species’ decline. Shade grown coffee fincas (farms) may act as a winter refuge, mimicking natural habitat by providing cover from predators and dense leaf litter necessary for foraging. However, depending upon the size or quality of certain habitats, or the number of Wood Thrush defending winter territories in an area, birds may be forced to move into more disturbed or less favorable sites potentially lowering their chances of survival.
A Wood Thrush. Photo by Erin Strasser.
A major aim of this project was to gather information on Wood Thrush overwintering habitat requirements in Honduran shade-grown coffee fincas and adjacent forest fragments. What factors influence overwintering survival, movement patterns, and prepare birds for the long migratory journey back to the breeding grounds?
Coffee plants grow in the highlands. Photo by Erin Strasser.
To monitor thrushes we trapped birds, marked them with individually numbered federal aluminum bands and a unique color band combination, and more often than not, fitted them with a small (< 1.5 gram) VHF radio transmitter. These transmitters were designed so that if we were unable to recapture birds and retrieve them, they would fall off after several weeks. After approximately 6 weeks the transmitter’s battery dies. In the case of a few of our birds, there was enough time in the season to replace the transmitter and continue tracking for several weeks.
Fabiola Rodriguez processes a Wood Thrush. Photo by Brett Bailey.
A Wood Thrush models its newly placed VHF backpack transmitter. Photo by Erin Strasser.
Although we captured most of our birds passively with strategically placed nets, we also used playback, a thrush decoy, and a concentrated net arrangement. During these episodes, we spent countless hours crouching under coffee, slipping down muddy hillsides, rushing birds towards the nets and dealing with misleading radio signals bouncing off of wet, shiny leaves and streams.
Our decoy "David Bowie" who unfortunately failed to succeed in landing us a thrush. Decoy and photo by Erin Strasser.
This season we were able to capture over two-dozen Wood Thrush, and place transmitters on about 20 individuals. One of our birds was aptly named “Boise” in reference to its Boise State University influenced orange and blue color bands. Birds such as “Boise” were tracked several times a week. Locations were pinpointed by visual observations and/or triangulation: the art of taking several GPS points and associated bearings quickly and from various angles. While “Boise” remained fairly loyal to its territory in a shady finca, other birds congregated at sites for only a few days before moving on, while others divided time between coffee fincas and adjacent forest.
A color banded Wood Thrush nicknamed "Boise". Photo by Fabiola Rodriguez.
Brett’s research will likely elucidate why and for how long certain birds utilize a particular area and whether this is related to age, sex, or body condition. At a larger scale, studies such as this will help biologists identify how to effectively integrate forest corridors, fragments, and shade to maintain or increase viable NMB habitat. In turn, this may increase the value of shade-grown coffee for local coffee cooperatives and their farmers while promoting fair-trade and sustainable coffee farming practices. If you are interested in supporting NMBs and fair-trade cooperatives, and purchasing shade grown coffee, visit Café Solar’s website. Also, visit Brett Bailey’s webpage for more info on his research.
Stay tuned for more on our research and adventures in Honduras. All I can say is we encountered a lot more than birds. – Erin Strasser
** The following is the first in a series of blog posts by Wild Lens biologist Erin Strasser. Her work in Honduras will be depicted in a Webisode during the coming weeks and months. **
This past January, I traveled to Honduras to assist Brett Bailey, a masters student at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst with his project exploring habitat requirements for neotropical migratory birds (NMBs) overwintering in shade-grown coffee farms and adjacent forest fragments. As NMBs have been experiencing long-term declines, much of the neotropics are being cleared for agriculture, and the demand for coffee has increased, this research aimed to not only quantify suitability of coffee habitat for NMBs and but also to inform more sustainable forms of coffee agriculture in the region. To do this, Brett, myself, and Fabiola Rodriguez, a graduate of Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras spent three months conducting point counts, banding migrants and radio tracking a species of special concern, the Wood Thrush.
Recently depulped coffee beans are initially sun dried on large, cement patios. Photo by Erin Strasser.
A Magnolia Warbler, one of our focal species. Notice the red dusting of pollen on its face. Photo by Fabiola Rodriguez.
The next several blog posts will highlight my many exciting, frustrating, dirty, entertaining, and educational experiences while taking part in this research. More importantly, I hope that after reading these posts you all will have second thoughts about buying sun, or traditionally grown coffee.
January 3rd, 2012: Brett, Fabiola, our guide Sammy M, and I arrived in Subirana, a small pueblo situated in the northwestern highlands of the Department of Yoro, Honduras in the heart of coffee country. Our first stop was to visit a local coffee cooperative, Cooperativa Mixta Subirana Yoro Limitada (COMISUYL). Aided by The Mesoamerican Development Institute (MDI) (mesoamerican.org), COMISUYL has recently established a solar/ biomass coffee drier, lowering production costs and increasing the coop’s sustainability by utilizing 80% less electricity than conventional driers and eliminating wood fuel.
COMISUYL’s new and sustainable coffee secadora. Photo by Erin Strasser.
Typical traffic encountered in Subirana, Honduras. Photo by Erin Strasser.
After meeting many of the hardworking Hondurenos involved with the coop and enjoying my first cup of organic, shade grown, local coffee we headed out for the 45-minute drive to the farm where we’d be living for the next 3 months. We winded and bumped through country dotted with small coffee fincas (farms, or plantations), cleared areas for cattle grazing, pine woodlands, and secondary growth forests. Arriving at Finca Santa Fe, we were greeted by Allan and Cindy Manzanares and their 2 ½ year old daughter, Aubrey. The Manzanares family, like many of the people of the region, farm coffee and aim to do so in a sustainable way. In areas where sustainable farming practices such as using organic fertilizers, integrated open canopy (IOC), and shade grown coffee are employed, water sources are preserved, erosion is reduced, soil is enriched, and in Honduras alone, provides overwintering habitat for over 58 species of migratory songbirds.
Finca Santa Fe nestled in the highlands of Honduras. Photo by Erin Strasser.
The next morning we woke to the haunting CAOOWW call of the Collared Forest Falcon, interrupted by the constant cockle-doodle-doing of the farm’s two roosters. After pulling on our rubber boots and grabbing our trekking poles, we departed for a tour of the finca. Almost immediately we encountered a mixed species flock. Wilson’s Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Black-throated Green and Black-and-White Warblers, flitted around in the canopy above the coffee gleaning insects from leaves and branches. Later that day, we set out to locate suitable locations for mist-nets. Our goal was to trap and color band our seven focal NMB species (Wilson’s, Black-throated Green, Black-and-White, Magnolia, Tennessee, Golden-winged, and Chestnut-sided Warblers), as well as place radio transmitters on several Wood Thrush.
A male Golden-winged Warbler, a declining neotropical migrant of Eastern North America. Photo by Erin Strasser.
Over the course of several days of trapping in both coffee and an adjacent forest fragment we captured many resident and migratory birds. Each morning after downing a hearty (and greasy) breakfast of fried plantains, handmade corn tortillas, eggs, beans, and of course, fresh coffee we’d open our 10 nets and set up our banding station in the flattest possible location. Every 30 minutes from sunup to late afternoon we did the rounds, anticipating the new species we’d encounter wrapped in our nets. Migrants were fitted with individually numbered, aluminum, federal bands issued by the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory (http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/), a unique combination of color bands and we took a series of morphometric measurements and indices of condition before being released. This allowed us to identify birds as they flitted through the canopy in mixed flocks and determine if a particular type of habitat supported birds in better condition or specific age or sex cohorts.
A recently color banded Black-and-White Warbler. Photo by Erin Strasser.
Fabiola Rodriguez holds a resident species, a Blue-crowned Motmot. Photo by Erin Strasser.
One of our most exciting captures was a tiny White-Breasted Hawk, a relatively unstudied forest accipiter which is closely related to and resembles the Sharp-shinned Hawk, a common raptor of much of North America. As I found this particular bird on my birthday, we dubbed him my “birthday bird”.
The birthday bird, a White-breasted Hawk. Photo by Erin Strasser.
Our first week was a success with many migrants and few ticks. Next time I’ll talk more about our adventures luring in and trapping the enigmatic Wood Thrush. – Erin Strasser
Amphibians may be the worlds most threatened taxonomic group with an estimated 30% of worldwide populations being threatened, and over 40% experiencing population declines. These numbers, coupled with an extinction rate over 200 times the normal-background extinction rate, are leaving researchers all over the world grasping for answers to the causes of these mass declines and extinctions. Some proposed causes include habitat loss, disease, pesticide use, pollution, and increased ultraviolet radiation.
Chiromantis hansenae mating. Photo by Adair McNear.
Wild Lens biologist-filmmaker Adair McNear is currently working with University of Singapore PhD student Sinlan Poo at Thailand’s Sakaerat Research Station studying the reproductive ecology of an endemic treefrog, Chiromantis hansenae. This treefrog’s reproductive cycle is closely tied with the start of the monsoon season, and one of Sinlan’s research goals is to gain a better understanding of how global climate fluctuations may impact this little-studied species in the face of worldwide population declines. The following is a brief report from Adair on how the start of breeding season is progressing.
Chiromantis hansenae female laying eggs. Photo by Adair McNear.
“The wet season is a little slow in coming, so while the frogs are indeed breeding (rains are intermittent, so it’s not a drought situation), its not the peak of breeding season yet, and chances to film the frogs in the study site are still pretty unpredictable. However things should pick up a lot once we start getting more storms, so for the time being I’ve been trying to get some general monsoon/predator “b-roll” and will work on getting the interview footage with Sheila in the next couple of weeks. There is also a good amount of frogs in aquariums for a controlled subset of Sheila’s research; these frogs will be a lot easier to film but may not have that “natural” look. ~ Adair McNear”
Chiromantis hansenae. Photo by Adair McNear.
Stay tuned for more detailed updates from Adair as she continues to monitor the breeding progression of these frogs!
Having finally gone through all of my photos from my recent trip to Alaska studying Ptarmigan, I thought I would share some highlights with everyone. This trip was the first real opportunity I had to put my new camera to the test. While still being a novice photographer, I feel like I learned a lot during my short time in Alaska, and certainly got plenty of practice with the new camera! Below are some of the bird photographic highlights from the trip (and a few of my personal favorites). We’ll start early on where I was able to get fairly close to a pair of Long-billed Dowitchers on the shore of a small pond along the North Slope.
Long-billed Dowitcher. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
During my last morning on the North Slope, the skies cleared and I was able to get some nice shots of a Red-necked Phalarope foraging in a small pool along the Sag River that was smooth as glass.
Red-necked Phalarope. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
This post would be remiss without my favorite Ptarmigan photo, as these birds were the reason I travelled to Alaska. It turned out to actually be a photo of a female Willow Ptarmigan looking sleek and attractive walking through some shrubs.
Female Willow Ptarmigan. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Coming off the slope, I travelled along the Denali Highway, and my second day out spent almost an hour with a pair of American Dippers who were nesting beneath a bridge near a fish hatchery.
American Dipper. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
That same morning I spent a lot of time downriver of the fish hatchery where several species of gulls, and LOTS of Arctic Terns were enjoying the bounty of the river.
Arctic Tern. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
The following day along the Denali Highway may have been my best, photographically, of the entire trip. These two photos of a Fox Sparrow and Wilson’s Warbler, respectively, were highlights of the day. The Wilson’s Warbler shot may be my best songbird capture of the trip.
Fox Sparrow. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Wilson's Warbler. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Finally, my personal favorite photograph of the trip were actually several shots I obtained of a male Blackpoll Warbler along the Denali Highway. I have a soft spot for this species as they were the focus of my first ornithological job ever in the White Mountains of New Hampshire back in the summer of 2007. I spent several hours following this one male in particular and was finally rewarded with some nice looks.
I have just returned to Fairbanks after spending two weeks in the field surveying Ptarmigan as part of Katie Christie’s PhD research at the University of Alaska. What an amazing experience! The sheer number and diversity of wildlife on Alaska’s North Slope is astounding, and I recommend a visit to this area in May and/or June when birds are beginning to breed. Any lack of geographical features (except of course for the Brooks Mountain Range), is far and away made up for in sheer wildlife diversity.
Male Willow Ptarmigan. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
The weather conditions we experienced during our two weeks in the arctic spanned the extremes you can expect in late spring. Our first week of field work was about a good as it gets in the high arctic: abundant sunshine almost 24 hours a day, temperatures in the 50s and 60s, low winds, and no bugs! Then things took a turn for the next week as we experienced just about the dreariest weather the arctic can offer this time of year: clouds, ice fog, snow, rain, wind, you name it (but still no bugs!). Our last day was capped off with brilliant sunshine and a return to clear weather. The Ptarmigan and other birds seemed to endure this extreme weather without the slightest thought. And why not? Ptarmigan regularly endure -40 degree Fahrenheit temperatures in the winter: so what is a little ice fog and sideways snow at a balmy 30 degrees to them? It must feel like a heat wave!
Alaska, or Feltleaf, Willow (Salix alaxensis) male catkin opening. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
After conducting earlier Ptarmigan surveys, we spent the majority of our two weeks performing shrub surveys. Ptarmigan are a shrub specialist, with a majority of their diet consisting of various willow species. Willows are a common shrub in the arctic, and are often the only vegetation sticking out above the snow during the long winter months. Ptarmigan form flocks in the winter and spring (sometimes of more than 200 individuals) to move across the landscape and find these shrub patches sticking out from under the snow. Our mission was to document how they have been ‘browsing’ these willows since last year. I must say, these birds can sure wreak havoc on a stand of willows! They consume mostly the buds on the new willow shoots from the past years growth, as this provides them with the most nutritional value. You realize the extent to which Ptarmigan browse these shrubs when it is hard to find a single plant that hasn’t had buds removed from Ptarmigan beaks. Katie’s work at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is documenting this browsing of shrubs by Ptarmigan, trying to understand how these birds affect willow growth and development, and what this could mean for the arctic shrub expansion expected (and already seen) due to Climate Change.
Female Willow Ptarmigan. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
I spent much of my free time in the field taking photos and video of Ptarmigan for a future Webisode(s) on Katie’s research, which we hope to produce in the near future to share with everyone! Needless to say I took an astounding number of photographs and video of other birds and wildlife as well, getting a feel for the new camera I purchased before this trip. The coolest songbird I documented, however, was undoubtably the Bluethroat.
Male Bluethroat. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Bluethroat’s are a relatively common thrush in Europe and Asia, but regularly breed throughout a small range in northern Alaska. Very little is known about the biology and range of this songbird outside of Europe and Alaska, a prime candidate for future research! Needless to say we heard this bird before we even saw it as its long songs, often given in flight, mimic many sounds from other birds. What an incredible looking bird once we finally did spot it! Relatively few temperate songbirds incorporate blue into their plumages, and it is always striking to see this portrayed so prominently. The bluethroat of the Bluethroat (!) really comes alive against the otherwise drab, brown plumage of the bird. Normally very difficult to see, we had no trouble as several males displayed for us prominently via complex and elaborate flight displays. I was only able to get a few snap-shots of the bird in flight, as it’s small size and erratic flight path made it difficult to focus on.
Male Bluethroat performing display flight. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Upon my return to the Lower 48 later this week, I will continue to sort through all of the footage and photographs I have obtained while in Alaska. These will be used for future blog posts (although I will already warn birders that I did not see any Arctic Warblers this early in the season!) and Webisodes, so say tuned!
I am currently in my last night of stay at the Toolik Field Station in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range, Alaska. I am here volunteering and filming for Katie Christie’s PhD project studying Ptarmigan for the next two weeks. Toolik Field Station, I must say, is much fancier than I expected for a remote northern outpost well above the Arctic Circle. Here researchers have the luxury (for a price of course) of being served three square meals per day by a full time cooking staff, access to hot showers (limit two per week), a bed to sleep in, and even a sauna! We have had the pleasure of staying here two nights, but will be leaving tomorrow to return to the simple life of camping for the next 10 days or so. I think I am actually looking forward to this detour back to the wilderness.
Male Willow Ptarmigan in breeding plumage. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Ptarmigan surveys are progressing well, and we have been seeing quite a lot of Rock and Willow Ptarmigan. Both species are breaking off from their larger winter/spring flocks, and are pairing up. Most birds we have seen have been male/female pairs, or solo males. We have also witnessed the male Willow Ptarmigan courtship display, which looks rather like the male has a broken wing he is trying to flaunt to the female. Quite a show! Below are a few photographs I have been able to upload from the last few days.
Male Rock Ptarmigan in breeding plumage. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Female Willow Ptarmigan. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Male Willow Ptarmigan in breeding plumage. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
The arctic is now teeming with wildlife as the snow melts rapidly off the long frozen tundra. Temperatures the past few days have been in the 50s with abundant sunshine welcoming the newly arriving migrants to their breeding grounds. Huge flocks of Snow, Canada, and White-Fronted Geese dot the landscape. Greater Scaup, Green-Winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, and Pintails arriving from the lower 48, greet us at every turn. Small groups of shorebirds flutter along small ephemeral pools of snow melt and include American Golden Plovers, Whimbrels, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Red-Necked Phalaropes, and Long-Billed Dowitchers, among many others. Present among all of these birds is the often-overlooked Ptarmigan, who we will be observing intently these next few weeks…
I arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska on Friday, May 11th just in time to see the sun setting around 11pm local time. My flight had left Seattle about three and a half hours prior, at which point I had also been watching the sun setting! Ah the great northern summer! I have come north to volunteer for a project focusing on Ptarmigan and Willow interactions along the North Slope of Alaska. Here, University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) PhD candidate Katie Christie has been studying how Ptarmigan and Willows compete with each other. Ptarmigan are grouse-like, arctic ground dwelling birds that feed almost exclusively on willow buds in the late winter and early spring. Over the next 2+ weeks, I will be assisting Katie on her project conducting aerial surveys for Ptarmigan and ground surveys for Willows.
Katie Christie's Study Area.
We will be leaving tomorrow to drive to Coldfoot (see map for details on survey area), north of Fairbanks along the Dalton Highway. The Dalton Highway was constructed to provide access from Fairbanks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, and to allow maintenance workers access to the Trans Alaskan Pipeline. Incidentally, it also allows biologists great access to study sites far north. At Coldfoot, we will be staying with a pilot who will take us on daily flights far north over the Brooks Mountain Range to survey for Ptarmigan. These aerial surveys, over the course of two days on the North Slope, will involve flying established routes about 100 meters above the ground to look for both Rock and Willow Ptarmigan. Flocks of birds should be pretty easy to spot this time of year against the snow, as most are starting to transition into their summer plumage, which includes more brown than white feathers.
Male Ptarmigan. Photo taken from the Birds of North America Online.
Once these harrowing flights have concluded, we will continue north along the Dalton Highway to the Toolik Field Station. Here, arctic researchers congregate to study various facets of the arctic ecosystem. Katie and I will be focusing our attention on how willow shrubs are being ‘grazed’ by Ptarmigan from Toolik Lake north along the Sagavanirktok River. Our northern most shrub sites will take us close to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields! One of Katie’s main research interests is looking at how possible shrub expansion due to climate change may impact Ptarmigan/Willow interactions.
Mount McKinely, or Denali to those from Alaska. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Throughout all of this, I will be documenting our experiences for a future Webisode series on Katie’s research. I will also try to keep everyone informed on our progress up north in the coming weeks as Internet access allows. Until then, here are a few bird pictures from the past week spent exploring the greater-Fairbanks area!
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
This past week allowed some time for Matthew and myself to head down to Nevada to assist one of our videographers in the filming of Greater Sage Grouse. Tatiana Gettelman is a wildlife biologist working with Sage Grouse in northeastern Nevada as part of a monitoring project for the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
The Greater Sage Grouse is a species of concern throughout the Great Basin and Intermountain West, and has been given a “warranted but precluded” listing by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. This means the species is warranted for listing as an endangered species, but that it is precluded for now by other species with greater conservation needs. The US Fish & Wildlife service will have to make a decision about officially listing the Great Sage Grouse as an endangered species in 2014. This decision will have major ramifications throughout the west as Sage Grouse are a wide-ranging species, and listing under the Endangered Species Act would affect everything from cattle ranching, to wind power, to human development. Due to this upcoming decision, biologists are studying Sage Grouse more than ever throughout their range, and this is leading to a better understanding of their overall ecology and population status. Wild Lens feels it is crucial to provide more information about this species’ conservation status to the general public, and so we have paired up with Tatiana and USGS to help document Sage Grouse on this particular project site.
Matthew Podolsky and Tatiana Gettelman inspecting some Sage Grouse pellets. Photo by Neil Paprocki
Tatiana had already been collecting amazing footage of Sage Grouse throughout the first few months of the project, but we thought it beneficial for Wild Lens to come out into the field for a few days to get some additional footage, as well as some audio recordings of male Sage Grouse at lekking sites.
Female Sage Grouse on her nest. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
We started our trip by visiting a known grouse nest, north of Wells, Nevada. As we approached the nest on foot from the truck, Tatiana instructed us on how to best proceed without flushing the female off the nest. Due to high predation rates from aerial predators such as Ravens, we did not want to flush her off the nest, thus leaving her eggs unprotected. We were able to get within 30 feet or so of the nest, and got great looks of the well-camouflaged female sitting on her eggs!
Matthew Podolsky filming a Sage Grouse nest. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
The next morning found us waking up at 3:30 AM to head out to a lekking site. Sage Grouse are unique in that during the breeding season males congregate at display sites (called leks) in the mornings and wait for females to arrive. When a prospective female arrives, all of the males at the lek compete for her attention, and she ultimate chooses the male she feels will provide the best genetic information for her offspring. We arrived at the lek just before sunrise to see about 35 male grouse all around us performing their truly bizarre and amazing display! View the video below to see a male grouse in action.
That afternoon we tracked two female grouse outfitted with radio collars under an astonishingly huge Great Basin sky. We wanted to check in on their nesting sites to make sure all was well with incubation. As we approached the first nest, we noticed a cattle rancher on horseback, and Tatiana stopped him to chat. Ranchers such as these will be crucial to the success of any conservation plan implemented around Sage Grouse, as they are the ones out on the range everyday. These ranchers are sometimes given a bad rep as being against anything conservation oriented that will impact their cattle business, but I think all of us biologists have had countless positive interactions with these folks, and most seem very willing to help where they can to save this species. The rancher accompanied us to the nest, and we were able to get great looks at the females on both nests. Both were incubating large clutches of eggs!
Biologist Tatiana Gettelman (right) discussing Sage Grouse with a rancher. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
With our return to Boise, Idaho the following day, Matt and I reflected on our visit to Nevada. We both came away with more knowledge about the specific conservation issues facing this species. We also felt we obtained great footage and photographs of Tatiana on her project, and are very excited about the possibilities surrounding the future of this project. Tatiana is getting great footage of grouse, and she is also very passionate about the birds she is studying. Over the next few years, Greater Sage Grouse conservation and science may become the most important, and controversial, wildlife issue facing the Intermountain West. The need to educate the public surrounding this issue will be huge, and Wild Lens hopes our collaboration with Tatiana and USGS will help do just that!
Male Greater Sage Grouse performing his lekking display for the camera. Photo by Neil Paprocki.