Friday, April 18, 2014

Snow and freezing temperatures can’t keep us away! The woodpeckers are calling!

It is hard to believe that two weeks have passed since we launched two of the three 2014 Intermountain Bird Observatory woodpecker projects. Since the launch we have completed surveys in three separate ranger districts within two national forests. We have snowshoed in the dark, hiked through the mud, fought off the first mosquitos and ticks of the season, and counted dozens of woodpeckers. We have so far encountered six of the ten woodpecker species which frequent the forests of Idaho, all in our quest to evaluate the status of these important “indicator” species.

The week of April 7th, I kicked off the project with the Boise National Forest surveying for Pileated and White-headed Woodpeckers. The team performing most of our surveys in eastern Idaho joined me in the Boise National Forest for some team building and general woodpecker survey training. The focus of the project is on Pileated and White-headed Woodpeckers, but the forest service is interested in all woodpecker species. We also note all other bird species in the area.

Woodpecker surveys begin 30 minutes before sunrise, so we usually camp as close as possible to the survey location. We traveled to the first survey and found 90 inches of snow with the parking area flooded in mud. We retreated back down the road to find an acceptable camping location. The next morning we strapped on our snowshoes and headed up the trail toward Sunset Peak (from Mores Creek Summit on highway 21). The air was clear, cold, calm, and beautiful. While we didn’t find Pileated or White-headed Woodpeckers, there were plenty of Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and a huge number of Williamson’s Sapsuckers. We also found one Black-backed Woodpecker hanging out in a non-burned area. They typically prefer burned habitat. It was a great start to the season!

View from our final point of the day on the side of Sunset Peak looking south, Boise National Forest.

The following days took us to the Placerville area for two surveys there. Still no Pileated or White-headed Woodpeckers, but we added Red-naped Sapsuckers to the list of woodpecker species detected. The valley was beautiful, ringing with the sound of newly returned Sandhill Cranes. We will continue surveying in the Boise National Forest in a couple of weeks.

Fieldwork often presents surprises such as same-day wolf prints. I love this part of the job!

The second week brought the launch of our new Targhee National Forest woodpecker project. We hired a dedicated team for eastern Idaho, Maddy and Michelle, but I traveled over to train them on the project and to get first hand experience with the new protocol that I designed. In the Targhee we are surveying for eight species of woodpeckers – Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Lewis’ Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker.

IBO’s Team Targhee – Maddy and Michelle previewing the route the day before the first survey.

We were welcomed to eastern Idaho by snow, and lots of it. Most of our higher elevation survey locations remain locked up by snow, but we were still able to get a full week of surveys in.

View from near our first survey point. Photo taken later in the day as it was still dark upon our arrival at 6:15am.

Mixed aspen and conifer, a great habitat for woodpeckers.

The protocol we are using in eastern Idaho is one that we at Intermountain Bird Observatory developed, leveraging from a number of other projects. It uses a grid design with four survey points spaced 500 meters apart. At each point we have a 22-minute protocol! – six minutes of silent listening followed by two minutes of call broadcast/listening for each of eight species. It is fairly intense as the team needs to track each bird’s response each minute for the entire survey period.  This can be particularly challenging when the birds move in response to the broadcasts. On our first day we had seven birds responding at one point and eight at another. It was valuable for me to be there and witness the complexity as it will help me as I later analyze and interpret the data.

Another great survey point – eight woodpeckers from four species at one point!

Our time in the Palisades area also presented other unique wildlife beyond woodpeckers – red fox, striped skunk, muskrat, deer, elk, American White Pelicans, Trumpeter Swans, Ruffed Grouse, etc. No bears. Yet…

After a couple of days as a team, I set off on my own to complete a survey. The team must work in pairs in grizzly bear habitat, but can work solo in non-grizzly habitat. While Maddy and Michelle stayed in the Palisades area, I traveled to the far west portion of the Targhee National Forest, northwest of Idaho Falls, to help the team make progress toward our goal of completing 35 surveys this season. This is an area without grizzly bears so I worked alone.

View from my beautiful survey location.

The forest here was much drier in general. It was beautiful, but I was not a big fan of the rock and scree fields I had to cross in the dark. Or the ticks! The forest diversity and the woodpecker diversity was a bit lower here with many Northern Flickers and a single Hairy Woodpecker making up the only detected woodpecker species. But it was a good survey.

Michelle and Maddy checked in from their first day without me. They took on a steep backpack into the mountains to complete a survey. One of the points was located on a steep avalanche danger slope, so they stopped short on the ridge. They definitely had the most scenic survey of the year so far! Here are some of their photos. Wow!

Michelle with a nice view from the ridge.

Maddy taking notes on observations.

More than just woodpeckers out there! I was jealous I missed this one!

Next week, I return to the Boise National Forest and our quest for Pileated and White-headed Woodpeckers. I look forward to the first detections of the year for both species. Maddy and Michelle will likely finish up in the Palisades area and move north to Driggs. It’s a great time of year to be in the forest!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Breaking up the Spring in Colorado!

In just over a week, my field season begins. I will spend most of my time between now and August camping in the forests around Idaho surveying for various types of birds. Before launching into that marathon, Karyn and I escaped to Colorado and Utah for some hiking, biking, bird watching, mammal watching, reptile watching, and petroglyph reading adventures.

Our primary destination was Fruita, Colorado. Fruita has a lot to offer and is much less crowded than Moab. In fact, spring break can be a lousy time to go to Moab as the annual jeep festival that takes place there sometimes overlaps spring break (as we discovered a few years ago). In contrast, Fruita, just up the Colorado River from Moab, has great if not better mountain biking, hiking in the nearby Colorado National Monument, and you don’t need reservations anywhere. We had a great time.

Mountain Biking

It’s hard to say what our “primary” activity was, but mountain biking was high on the list. Fruita has a few different areas for riding, but our favorite is 18 Road. This BLM land has numerous sculpted and well managed single-track trails which fit the mountain tandem quite nicely. Many of the trails have a recommended direction, which decreases conflict and in many cases, your chances of seeing anyone else.

The Prime-cut trail is the primary uphill route which connects to many of the diverse downhill trails. Prime-cut isn’t too technical, just enough to keep your attention in the game. The most popular downhill trails are Kessel, which is rated as easy, but is not short on fun. For 3 miles down it constantly dips in and out of a wash. There’s not a straight stretch on the trail. Nearby Joe’s ridge is the most well known trail with its steep roller-coaster undulations as you descend a knife-edge ridge. I highly recommend it.  PBR is a new trail with lots of banked corners and bumps. There are harder and more difficult trails as well, but these are a blast. Here is a profile from one of our days of riding. You can click on the image to explore the map, ride profile, and our “performance” against others.


The Colorado Nation Monument and nearby McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area offered lots of opportunities for hiking. Our favorite was the Monument Canyon hike. We also hiked No Thoroughfare Canyon, Devils Canyon, and spent time in three of the state parks. The landscape is spectacular and so were the birds.

Independence Rock (right) - Monument Canyon Hike

Each of the hikes provided lots of opportunities to see birds and other wildlife. We took over 500 photos.

Western Scrub-Jay – Monument Canyon Trail.

Rock Wren – Devil’s Canyon Trail

Rock Wren – Devil’s Canyon Trail

Dark-eyed Junco bathing – Devil’s Canyon.

Dark-eyed Junco – Devil’s Canyon.

Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed Subspecies?) – Devil’s Canyon.

Dark-eyed Junco – Devil’s Canyon.

White-crowned Sparrow – In our camp!

Gambel’s Quail – No Thoroughfare Trail. My only “lifer” of the trip.

Juniper Titmouse – No Thoroughfare Trail. One of my favorite birds of the trip.

Juniper Titmouse – No Thoroughfare Trail. One of my favorite birds of the trip.

Black-capped Chickadee – No Thoroughfare Trail.

Black-capped Chickadee – No Thoroughfare Trail.

But it is not all about birds. We had been searching for bighorn sheep on each of the hikes we had been on, but without luck. On the final hike of our trip, the No Thoroughfare hike, a herd of sheep descended upon the trail right in front of us!

Bighorn Sheep – No Thoroughfare Trail.

Bighorn Sheep – No Thoroughfare Trail.

Bighorn Sheep – No Thoroughfare Trail.

Bighorn Sheep – No Thoroughfare Trail. Sticking hier tongue out at me!

Collared Lizard – No Thoroughfare Trail.

Collared Lizard – No Thoroughfare Trail.


While driving to Colorado we listened to a book called Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. The novel is an mystery adventure book about a team of archaeologist visiting an ancient city.  It was a great book. The topic reminded me of a road I always wanted to take through Nine Mile Canyon in southern Utah.

According to wikipedia, this canyon is promoted as “the world’s longest art gallery”. Everything I had read indicated that the road was pretty rough, but the number and quality of petroglyphs was outstanding. Since it was a last minute idea, I had not researched it much. We searched for information on my phone while in Fruita. There were hints online that portions of the road had been paved.

We decided to give it a try, so we headed back from Colorado a day early to have time to explore this area. It was truly spectacular. In the core portion of the canyon, you could stop anywhere and easily find petroglyphs. I took pictures of more than 50 panels, passing many of lower quality along the way. BTW, the road is entirely paved except for about 4 miles.

Six fingers and a WILD hairdo!

One of my favorites with an owl like head-dress.

The Great Hunt! One of the few full scene petroglyphs.

One more bird! Mountain Bluebird.

The vacation is now over. I will spend this week planning, packing, and finishing other outstanding work. I still have a research manuscript to submit this week. Then on Monday April 7th, I head out to survey for Pileated and White-headed Woodpeckers in the Boise National Forest.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

I Love Kingfishers! … But Who Doesn’t?

It was a somewhat gray day out today, but that didn’t stop the local birds from putting on a show. One of my favorite local birds is the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). I like all kingfishers, at least all ten species I have seen, but the belted is the only species that makes it into Idaho. Our local hiking trail, Hull’s Gulch Reserve, has two ponds and there is a good chance of seeing kingfishers at least at one of them. For the past few years, they have nested near the upper pond. It appears as if they plan to do so again this year.

Female Belted Kingfisher justifying her name!

The pair were constantly vocalizing to each other. It appeared as if the male was in a bit more of an amorous mood as he kept his attention on the female, twice moving her off her perch. I can only assume the intent was to mate.

Female kingfisher leaving her perch as the male arrives

Female kingfisher escapes the approaching male.

She finds a new perch.

For those not familiar with Belted Kingfishers, the female has the rufous chest band whereas the male does not. It is rare among bird species for the female to be more colorful, but it is more common within the family of kingfisher species. Of the other two species of Kingfisher in North America, the female is more colorful in the Ringed Kingfisher, but not in the Green Kingfisher.

The male twice entered a local nest hole and called from within. This is not the nest hole that they used last year.

Male Belted Kingfisher approaching the nest hole.

Male Belted Kingfisher.

Male Belted Kingfisher.

He then turns his attention back to the female, but she was still not interested.

Female kingfisher once again evades the male.

It will be fun to continue watching this pair through the spring and summer.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Northern Goshawk in Biogeographical Context

Here’s a story I wrote for the Idaho Bird Observatory blog, where I work. I am cross-posting it here for those who don’t follow the IBO (even though you should!).

In 2014, I have the honor to lead a team for the 4th straight year to study the breeding ecology of the Northern Goshawk within the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest. This work continues IBO’s focus on this species and fits into a multiple-year research plan to assess the importance of this possibly isolated population of goshawks with respect to the broader biogeographical context of the species.

Not all of the Sawtooth National Forest is near the Sawtooth Mountains. The five sections of the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest in south-central Idaho/northern Utah, USA.

It is probably worth pointing out that not all of the Sawtooth National Forest is near the Sawtooth Mountains. It is a common and understandable misconception. There are three ranger districts in central Idaho encompassing the Sawtooth Mountains (SNRA, Ketchum, and Fairfield), but there is one district south of the Snake River, spread across five “forest islands” (Fig. 1). This later district, known as the Minidoka district, is where our recent work was performed. This district includes four sections in Idaho and one in northern Utah.

The Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis; hereafter “goshawk”) is of interest to many resource management agencies. It is considered a “sensitive species” by the USDA Forest Service and a “regional/state imperiled species” by the BLM. It has twice been petitioned as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, but the petition was rejected on both occasions. The Sawtooth National Forest has identified the goshawk as a local Management Indicator Species. As such they must monitor the health of the population and make forest management decisions based upon the results. The species has received a lot of monitoring attention within the South Hills off and on over the past 20 years, but much less attention has been applied in the other sections.

The Minidoka Ranger District is located in the northern portion of the Great Basin. The Great Basin consists largely of shrub-steppe habitat with forested landscapes only at higher elevations. Even at these higher elevations the forest is still fragmented with most of the trees on northern facing slopes and in drainages. The result is an island-like landscape where the space between the “islands” consists largely of shrubland and native grassland. In the modern era, the matrix between fragments is also distinguished by agriculture, increasing development, and an increasing transformation to invasive grasslands. The size and isolation of these “islands” influences the species diversity which is able to survive within each fragment. The theory of Island Biogeography predicts that species diversity is related to the size of the island (larger islands have more species) and the distance to the next population (islands closer to mainlands have more species). In general, this theory applies to forest fragments as well, but the degree is determined by what occupies the matrix land between fragments and whether the matrix is easily traversed by dispersing individuals. Birds can easily fly to the next island, but mammalian dispersal is much more limited. The South Hills and nearby Albion Mountains present a unique prey assemblage for goshawks as their most common diet of tree squirrels are naturally absent, although tree squirrels do exist in the Sublett and Black Pines Mountains.

Tree Squirrels, a common part of most goshawks’ diets, are naturally absent from the South Hills. American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).

The lack of tree squirrels has led to the rise of the South Hills Crossbill as a sub-species of the Red Crossbill, but that is a whole other story with many ecological lessons as well.

South Hills Crossbill, “South Hills”, Sawtooth National Forest.

During the 2011 and 2012 breeding seasons, the focus of our research, and my thesis, was on the diet of the goshawk in this unusual prey landscape (Miller et al. 2014), the habitat use of the goshawks in this landscape (Miller et al. 2013), and the influence of prey abundance on nest occupancy and productivity (Miller et al. In review). This effort was focused on the Cassia section of the forest, also known as, the South Hills.

One of the most significant results from this recent work in the South Hills was a habitat suitability model, or statistical model which predicts areas with appropriate characteristics for goshawk nesting. In 2012, the model helped us find a number of new territories. In 2013, we applied this model to the Black Pines and Sublett sections of the forest and then spent a few weeks surveying the highest priority areas, discovering a half dozen previously unknown goshawk territories.

In 2014, we will cross the border outside of Idaho into northern Utah and the Raft River range. This will be the first time the area has been formally surveyed. The model predicts some, but not a lot, of suitable habitat. We will also survey the Albion mountains where we expect to discover a number of new nesting structures, hopefully occupied by goshawks. To finish the survey effort, we plan to check all historical nesting structures in the other three sections of the forest to determine which are occupied this year. It may sound easy, but we have documented over 110 nesting structures across a broad geographic area which were likely built by goshawks!

In 2012, we also collected blood samples from nestling goshawks to analyze for parasite infection, which we found in large numbers (Jeffries et al. In review). This year we are excited to bring on an NSF-funded intern who will work with a visiting Fulbright Scholar to evaluate the genetic health and diversity of the goshawks using those existing blood samples. We will also be gathering additional samples in the field this year. Look forward to more publications from IBO in the future. 

Emmy, Alexis, and Heidi with nestling goshawk, “South Hills”, Sawtooth National Forest.

We have a full agenda ahead to meet the forest service requirements for monitoring this species across the five sections. However, we are seeking additional funding from other sources to fund the work to help place the Great Basin population of birds into a broader geographical context. We know from past studies that some birds do disperse between islands within the Great Basin to breed (Independence Mountains in Nevada to the South Hills in Idaho). However, we don’t know to what degree the Great Basin individuals mix with birds in the more contiguous Rocky Mountains or even the Pacific coast populations. We have some great work ahead of us.

But in the short term, I can’t wait to get my feet back on the ground within the Sawtooth National Forest! It is a unique and fantastic place.

Female Northern Goshawk on nest, “South Hills”, Sawtooth National Forest.

Literature Cited:

Miller, R. A., J. D. Carlisle, M. J. Bechard, and D. Santini. 2013. Predicting nesting habitat of Northern Goshawks in mixed aspen-lodgepole pine forests in a high-elevation shrub-steppe dominated landscape. Open Journal of Ecology 3:109–115.

Miller, R. A., J. D. Carlisle, and M. J. Bechard. 2014. Effects of prey abundance on breeding season diet of Northern Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) within an unusual prey landscape. Journal of Raptor Research 48 (1):In Press.

Miller, R. A., J. D. Carlisle, and M. J. Bechard. In Review. Prey abundance and forest structural influences on occupancy and productivity of Northern Goshawks within a mixed forest and shrub community in the Great Basin, USA.

Jeffries, M. I., R. A. Miller, M. D. Laskowski, and J. D. Carlisle. In Review. High prevalence of Leucocytozoon parasites in nestling Northern Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) in the northern Great Basin USA.