Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Team Goshawk 2015 – a new year, a new team, and we are off to a great start!

June has once again brought me into the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest to study the Northern Goshawk. This year I am joined by a new intern from University of Wyoming who will assist in all field activities and be leading his own research into the genetics of the birds.  Kenny is investigating the bio-geographic distribution of certain haplotypes within the mitochondrial DNA of the birds. This work builds upon work that my 2014 intern Steph performed last year and of other prominent goshawk researchers (Bayard De Volo et al. 2013). We will also be working alongside the Forest Service wildlife biologist and other volunteers.

We have just returned from the first week and a half in the field. We have had great success in finding new territories, new nests, and new birds. Most of the occupied nests we have discovered have had three nestlings, leading me to believe that productivity might be slightly higher this year than in years past (usually averages around 2.4 nestlings per nest). We will have to wait for all of the results to know for sure.

Sunrise on Team Goshawk, Albion Mountains, Idaho.

Our survey work operates in stages. The first stage consists of checking the status of all known historical nest structures. For many historical territories, we find the birds occupying one of these nests. If not, we survey the area within one mile of these structures by broadcasting the call of the goshawk in an attempt to solicit a response, what we call a detection. These call points are spaced 300 meters apart in suitable habitat. This can result in up to 40 call points per territory which can require days of effort to complete. With 45 historical territories, this can be a great deal of work. However, once we get a response, we stop the survey of the area and move to the next step.

Adult female Northern Goshawk, note white brood feathers around the waist.

Once we have a detection of a local bird, we begin searching for the nest. This too can take some time and requires properly interpreting the response of the bird to the call. Is the bird defensive of the area, indicating a nest may be nearby, or did we simply surprise the bird while it was out hunting, in which case it usually flies off. Did it approach silently, most often male, or did it call remotely, most often female. Does it get more aggressive when you move in a certain direction versus others.

Northern Goshawk nestlings in Piñon Pine tree, approximately 30-32 days old.

In the end, we hope to find an occupied nest. However, the bird could be a territorial bird without a mate, a territorial bird with a mate but did not breed, a territorial bird whose nesting attempt had failed before we got there. As you can see there many challenges and many opportunities for false interpretation. Five years of experience definitely helps, but does not completely eliminate false conclusions.

Northern Goshawk nestlings in Aspen tree, approximately 38-40 days old, ready to fledge!

Upon finding the nest, we approach quietly to minimize disturbance, try to ensure that it is occupied, identify the number and age of the nestlings, and to look for molted feathers on the ground for DNA analysis. We are often successful in collecting samples in this minimally intrusive way.

If we have not sampled the nest previously, if we fail to find a molted feather on the ground, or if banding of the nestlings is justified, then we must climb the tree. In some cases the tree is not safely climbable, but many are. Kenny and I have each climbed one tree so far this year.

Rob (me) in a Northern Goshawk nest n a Douglas Fir tree.

If we are only banding the young, that is often performed in the nest. However, for genetic sampling, we often lower the bird to the ground to be processed. It is safer for all involved. We fit a sleeve over the bird to protect the wings and lower one at a time to the ground in a bag.

Kenny (left; Team Goshawk intern) and Scott (right; Forest Service Biologist) banding male goshawk nestling.

Rob (me) rappelling out of the tree.

I should note that this process and level of disturbance requires proper training, a federal permit, a state permit, and an Institutional Animal Care and Use permit, all of which require justification that the research is worth the impact on the individual birds. The goshawk is considered a sensitive species by the USDA Forest Service and a local Management indicator Species (MIS) for the Sawtooth National Forest. This is why we study them and why we must be conservative with our level of impact. We work hard to minimize the disturbance. The goal is to limit total disturbance to less than a hour.

Interesting tree to climb.

Kenny ascending the rope to the nest.

Kenny approaching the nest to band and collect a feather sample for DNA.

Kenny rappelling out of the nest. Success.

Sometimes when we play the call of the goshawk, other species respond. For large birds, resident Red-tailed Hawks, Common Ravens, and Great Horned Owls often respond. Of the smaller birds, Mountain Chickadees, American Robins, and many woodpeckers can also respond. If there are tree squirrels in the area, they too join in.

Red-tailed Hawk unhappy about our presence.

While in the woods we get to observe many unexpected things, both positive and negative. From this recent trip, the most disturbing and outraging observation was to find more dead birds in a water storage tank that I reported last year. Last year we saved an adult male goshawk from death in this tank (story here). Apparently my report got passed around to the responsible party and they made a half-assed attempt to resolve this issue by placing a mesh picnic table vertically on the side of the tank. I can confidently say that their counter-measure was completely useless. I was once again shaking with rage upon making the discovery. I have alerted the authorities and pressed them for a more thorough resolution to the matter.

Dead Cassin’s Finch (I think) in “Dead Bird Spring”.

Other downers from the woods are the beer cans, balloons, and other garbage which is now pervasive across the landscape. It is difficult to walk a 1/2 mile through the woods without finding garbage. We as a society must do better.

Turning to the positive, wildlife! More time in the woods means more opportunities to view awesomeness. While not as awesome as a goshawk, a Short-tailed Weasel (a.k.a. Ermine) is pretty darn close. BTW, I have video evidence that goshawks do eat these guys…

Short-tailed Weasel, Sublett Mountains, Idaho.

Moose, Albion Mountains, Idaho.

We have seen numerous deer fawns, elk, and moose. Kenny even found a recent Mountain Lion killed deer fawn, half buried. He said that he chose not to stick around!

We have a few days off before we are back to the long, hard, and wonderful days in the woods. My friend and mentor from Spain, Alejandro, arrived last night and will be joining us for the next round of work (Tengo que practicar mi español!). I can’t wait to get back out there!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What About the Birds?

Karyn and I just returned from a week long vacation exploring the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. This is our second in a series of posts highlighting some of our observations (previous post - Three Dog, Two Bear Day). Our activities included lots of wildlife watching, meeting with our friends from visits past, and a daily hike.

Many people travel to Yellowstone in the hopes of seeing the large mammals, ourselves included. However, the birding there is also great. We had a great time enjoying the avifauna, some of which was up close and personal.

Many of our most interesting observations included the community of Common Ravens in the park. These intelligent birds are very cunning and quite entertaining. They are often found following bears and wolves. There is even a theory that ravens might actually lead predators to prey.

We had a mix of entertaining observations. In the Yellowstone picnic area a family turned away from the table and their bag of potato chips were gone in an instant. They didn’t even see the bag disappear! On another observation we watched a raven fend off the attacks of six Black-billed Magpies to eventually find their nest. After close to five minutes of attacks, it finally found the nest and flew off with at least one magpie nestling in it’s beak, maybe two.

Common Raven, Yellowstone Picnic Area, Yellowstone National Park.

Common Raven, Yellowstone Picnic Area, Yellowstone National Park.

Common Raven nest, near Gibbon Falls, Yellowstone National Park.

We have watched on previous trips as Common Ravens mobbed Bald Eagles. In my observations over time, it is a common occurrence. However, in the instance of this particular eagle, a group of six Common Ravens were perched behind the eagle. They appeared to be waiting for the eagle to make a kill, that they might then try to steal. When the eagle flew off, so did the ravens.

Bald Eagle and Common Raven, Floating Island Lake, Yellowstone National Park.

Bald Eagle, Floating Island Lake, Yellowstone National Park.

Sticking with Raptors, we once again observed the Peregrine Falcon nest that we found last year (near Tower Falls). We also observed them in Lamar Canyon which brings the total distinct locations we have observed Peregrine Falcons within the park to four. It is always great to observe these birds that just decades earlier were at the risk of going extinct.

Peregrine Falcon on a nest, Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park.

Of course, we observed lots of other birds as well. Here’s a collection of higher quality photos.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

House Wren, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Black-headed Grosbeak, Upper Mesa Falls, Idaho (just outside of park).

White-crowned Sparrow, Tower Junction, Yellowstone National Park.

Killdeer, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Gray Jay, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Specimen Ridge, Yellowstone National Park.

Western Meadowlark, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Brewer’s Blackbird, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Townsend’s Solitaire, Specimen Ridge, Yellowstone National Park.

Canada Goose family, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Cinnamon Teal, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Mountain Bluebird, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Three Dog, Two Bear Day

Karyn and I just returned from a week long vacation exploring the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. This is our first in a series of posts highlighting some of our observations. Our activities included lots of wildlife watching, meeting with our friends from visits past, and a daily hike.

We were lucky enough to observe wolves and grizzly bears every day of our visit. On one day, we accomplished the highly sought after “three dog day” – the trifecta of sighting wolves, coyotes, and red foxes on the same day. The red fox is actually the most difficult to find of the three. On the same day we saw the dogs, we also observed both bear species in the park – the duo of black bear and grizzly bear. This isn’t quite as big of an accomplishment if you know where to look. In all five cases, we had multiple observations of each species that day. Wow. That doesn’t happen very often. I came up short of calling it a “perfecta” as we did not observe wolverine, fisher, pine marten, mountain lion, Canadian lynx, bobcat, and any number of lesser mammalian carnivores. You have to dream big! Regardless, it was quite an exciting day.

The Dogs

There were three wolf packs in the northern range of Yellowstone that were regularly visible during our visit. We would observe just two of them as we were not willing to travel too far to observe the “Prospect Pack”. We did look for them, unsuccessfully, on the day we had to travel to Gardiner to resupply. We mainly limited our time to the Lamar Canyon Pack and the Junction Butte Pack.

Lamar Canyon wolf crossing Soda Butte Creek to return to den area.

One evening we listened to wolf howls in three different directions. This suggested that there was a very good chance that they would all come together. As we waited, the wolves snuck down close to us and crossed the footbridge just 50 meters from where we were parked. They were hidden by the river bank until they came up on the other side. By the time I grabbed the camera, they were 100 meters away and appeared to be on a mission.  Night would fall before we were able to observe them hunting.

Three Lamar Canyon wolves heading to a rendezvous.

On our last morning of our visit, the Lamar Canyon wolves decided to make a scene by standing, and then bedding, in the middle of the road. The park rangers chased them off the road and up a hill. There they entertained us with five to ten minutes of group howling. It was an awesome sight and sound that I will not soon forget!

Five Lamar Canyon wolves howling after being displaced from the roadway.

In addition to the howling, the wolves put on a show of wrestling to further strengthen the pack hierarchy. Note the grey wolf with its paws on top of the black wolf. The black wolf just had to take the humiliation, otherwise it would be likely settled with violence.

Lamar Canyon wolf establishing dominance .

The other pack in the area is the Junction Butte Pack. As you might guess, their usual range is centered near Junction Butte, however we usually observed them during their excursions into the Lamar Valley where we observed them travelling as far east as the buffalo ranch, just a couple of miles from the Lamar Canyon pack’s den.

Junction Butte wolves retreating toward “Little America” and Junction Butte.

Junction Butte wolves retreating toward “Little America” and Junction Butte.

Junction Butte wolves retreating toward “Little America” and Junction Butte, on a different day.

The wolf experts told us that there are a large number of young solo wolves roaming the park. These wolves could be loosely associated with one of the existing packs. This particular one had some fun chasing the sow grizzly bear and her three cubs (pictured below in the bear section), before crossing the ridge to our point of observation. I like the fact that there are wild wolves that we don’t know every detail about.

Unknown solo wolf in the Slough Creek area.

The easiest dog in the park to observe is the coyote. This particular coyote was observed while we were hiking to the upper Slough Creek meadow. It was harassing two Sandhill Cranes. We don’t think the coyote was successful in getting the nest, but we could not be sure.

Coyote searching for Sandhill Crane nest, upper Slough Creek.

The most difficult dog to find is the red fox. We were lucky and saw three individuals (one pair, one solo) on our three dog day. This clever fox was moving down Elk Creek where it picked up an egg without us even knowing it. It is a good sized egg.

Red Fox in Elk Creek.

Red Fox in Elk Creek with an egg.

The Bears

Many people travel to Yellowstone in the hopes of seeing grizzly bears. We are no exception. However, we prefer our observations to occur while we are near our vehicle and not on the trail. We did observe some grizzly bears on two of our hikes, but each were at least a mile away.

Grizzly bears are easy to observe in the park this time of year if you know where to look. They generally don’t move too far in a day, so can often be found on the same high meadows day after day. For the entire week we were in the park, a courting pair of grizzly was regularly visible on the “K meadow” high above the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek, and a female with two cubs-of-the-year were regularly visible on the “third-finger” of mount Norris. Yes, it does take a while to learn all the local geographic lingo!

Our grizzly highlight was observing “Scarface”, a 27-year-old bear about 100 meters away from us at the confluence. We spent all evening watching him before he crossed the river and headed north.

Grizzly bear “Scarface” getting a drink from the Lamar River.

Grizzly bear “Scarface” shaking off the water after crossing the Lamar River.

But the real bear highlight of the week, and the source of unbelievable traffic jams known as “bear jams”, was the female grizzly with three cubs-of-the-year that was visible in Slough Creek for three days. She has just 200 meters from the road. Thousands of people got an opportunity to see her. We watched for a short while and then generally tried to avoid the area and the crowds.

Female grizzly bear with three cubs-of-the-year, Slough Creek.

The Tower Falls area continued to be the go-to place for black bears. At least three family groups of bears were using the two mile stretch of road. On our first day in the park we observed the family group consisting of a female and two “second year” or “yearling” cubs, one of which was a cinnamon (i.e., a brown colored black bear).

Two “second-year” black bear cubs.

Adult female black bear with cinnamon cub.

More updates later…