Saturday, April 18, 2015

Woah, Seven Woodpecker Species on One Transect?

My second week of woodpecker surveys in the Boise National Forest has come to a close. I have a quick 22 hours at home before I head back out into the field for more. (The report from my first week can be found here: Into the Woods-The New Field Season Begins)

My first woodpecker project of the season is ultimately focused on two woodpecker species, the Pileated and White-headed Woodpeckers. We usually find Pileated on about half of our routes, but the White-headed Woodpecker, can be quite rare. It is currently listed by the Idaho Fish and Game as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” with a rank of “Imperiled” and is ranked as  “Sensitive” by the USDA Forest Service.

Last year, on 25 survey routes, we failed to detect any White-headed Woodpeckers. However, this year I am happy to report that I have recorded them on three of my seven surveys so far and had them in my camp at a fourth survey location. In three of those cases, both the male and female were present. I hope the trend continues.

Male White-headed Woodpecker.

This has also been the week of the Williamson’s Sapsucker. I have counted up to 12 (probably closer to 20 or 25 if I was less conservative about eliminating possible duplicates) on a single survey route! I had six drumming around me at a single survey point and detected Williamson’s at each of the ten survey points. eBird, a public online bird reporting system, keeps flagging my counts of Williamson’s Sapsuckers as too high. They will eventually learn that these birds are not that rare. For this past week, my counts of Williamson’s Sapsuckers have outnumbered all other woodpecker species combined. It really is spectacular to listen to all of these birds drumming at sunrise.

Male Williamson’s Sapsucker.

Female Williamson’s Sapsucker exploring a nest cavity.

Karyn joined me in the field the last two days. It was great to spend time with her enjoying the outdoors. Another friend, Jessie, joined us on Saturday for my favorite route – Rattlesnake Ridge.  This route climbs up a ridge north of Garden Valley, Idaho and has high habitat and species diversity. The top half burned back in 2007. On this route we observed seven woodpecker species on a single transect! Pileated, White-headed, Downy, Hairy, and Black-backed Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker. There are only ten species that regularly occur in Idaho, and one of those isn’t even back from migration yet. For the week, I have counted eight of the ten (no American Three-toed or Lewis’s Woodpeckers).

Karyn and Jessie on Rattlesnake Ridge.

Raptor Rob (me) at the first survey point of the morning on Lightning Ridge.

The official work on this project is all about the woodpeckers, but while in the field we have opportunities to observe many other aspects of nature including other birds, mammals, wildflowers, etc. Deer and elk are common, chipmunks, squirrels, and tons of birds. Probably the most common bird right now is the Red-breasted Nuthatch. These little guys are feisty and loud. Sometimes the nuthatches are so plentiful and loud at a survey point it is nearly impossible to hear any other birds. They appear to be everywhere and uniformly distributed on the forest landscape. They are fantastic creatures.

Red-breasted Nuthatch excavating a nest cavity.

Red-breasted Nuthatch excavating a nest cavity.

The grouse are out and about in good quantity right now. I usually detect a number of Ruffed Grouse most every day. I find Dusky Grouse on about half of my surveys. A couple days ago Karyn and I were standing in the middle of six Dusky Grouse males all displaying. They seemed completely undisturbed by our presence.

Male Dusky Grouse displaying.

Dusky Grouse.

I will soon be back at it, up before dawn, and out in the wilds! It reminds me of a favorite quote – “The mountains will always be there, the trick is for you to be there as well.” – Unknown.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Into the Woods–The New Field Season Begins

My 2015 field season kicked off in a spectacular way. The first project involves surveying for Pileated and White-headed Woodpeckers in the Boise National Forest. Both species are “Management Indicator Species” for the Boise National Forest. The Pileated is much more common of the two.  The White-headed Woodpecker is rare and is currently listed by the Idaho Fish and Game as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” with a rank of “Imperiled”. The White-headed Woodpecker is also listed as a “Sensitive” species by the USDA Forest Service.

I have 14 survey routes to complete over the next few weeks, which should keep me plenty busy. I am able to survey one route a day starting 30 minutes before local sunrise and finishing the route about 10am. I then have to hike back out and move camp to the next survey route. During last year’s surveys, we failed to detect White-headed Woodpeckers on any of the 25 survey routes, but had quite a few Pileated Woodpeckers present. The White-headed Woodpecker is rare in the forest, but we should find at least a few on survey.  We hoped our luck would change that this year.

I departed home in the late afternoon, heading to set up camp at my first survey route east of Idaho City, Idaho. My camp was right at the first point of the survey on a beautiful ridge. Red-tailed Hawks and Common Ravens soared overhead. It was great to be back in the woods. It was cool and breezy, but the clouds from the previous few days were beginning to clear.

That evening, I was arranging my gear when I heard what I was sure was a White-headed Woodpecker. I jumped up and grabbed my binoculars. I scanned the area where the call had come from and found two Hairy Woodpeckers. Their rattle calls are very similar, but I was sure I had heard a White-headed. I couldn’t believe I was wrong. I searched some more and all I found were the two Hairy Woodpeckers. My confidence was shaken… I went back to work on my gear, when, there it was, I heard it again! It had to be a White-headed Woodpecker.  I resumed my search and bingo, not only were there two Hairy Woodpeckers, but two White-headed Woodpeckers. Fantastic! I spent the evening watching and listening to both pairs. They alternated between forging independently, mixed with bouts of inter-species aggression.

In this interaction the female Hairy Woodpecker seemed to be a bit more aggressive and winning the stare-down with the male White-headed. She eventually pushed the White-headed down the branch until it left. She did not pursue.

Male White-headed Woodpecker staring up at female Hairy Woodpecker, Boise National Forest.

Male White-headed Woodpecker staring up at female Hairy Woodpecker, Boise National Forest.

Male White-headed Woodpecker, Boise National Forest.

Female White-headed Woodpecker, Boise National Forest.

On survey the next morning, I detected the male White-headed at the first point. The drought was over! At one of my later survey points I found a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers each foraging on a dead log, but I only got photos of the male.

Male Pileated Woodpecker, Boise National Forest.

Male Pileated Woodpecker, Boise National Forest.

When I arrived back at my camp after the survey, there was also a Pileated in my camp! What a great first day of surveys – White-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, and Red-naped Sapsucker among many other cool birds. The other big find was a Barred Owl hooting just before sunrise. This is a very rare breeding bird in this area. Lets see what the second day has in store!

Day 2: My surveys on the second day were along the Warm Springs Ridge, west of Idaho City. Unfortunately, my luck from day one didn’t carry over to day two. I found Hairy Woodpeckers and Red-naped Sapsuckers on survey. After the survey was over and I was hiking back to camp, I did observe Pileated Woodpeckers. I plan for a couple of days off and then launch on six days in a row next week.

Sunrise on Warm Springs Ridge, Boise National Forest.

And then … the worlds worst selfie! Maybe I should focus more on smiling than on taking the photo. Ha.Ha.

Raptor Rob’s poor attempt at a selfie!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Challenging Life of a Wild Raptor

The winter season finds me spending most of my time behind a computer screen. My fall migration field season ended October 31 and my full-time spring woodpecker monitoring season does not begin until April 1st. That makes for five months of florescent lighting, confined spaces, and LED screens.  However, every week or so I have the opportunity to spend a day in the field continuing the long-term monitoring of wintering birds in the Treasure Valley by banding local raptors. These days not only contribute to our long-term datasets, but also play a significant role of maintaining my sanity.

Last week I had the opportunity to band my first ever Prairie Falcon. These birds come through our fall migration station occasionally, but are difficult to trap. I have matched wits with a few over the years, but have never come out with a bird in my hand. This last week, we caught two on a single day! They are beautiful birds (aren’t they all?). I also learned a new hands-off weighing technique!

Juvenile male Prairie Falcon cooperating on the scale.

However, my excitement was dampened when we discovered the bird was injured (not by us…). This was the first of a number of observations I highlight in this post providing insight into the difficult life these birds face on a daily basis.

This first bird had an injury on the leading edge of its wing. This most likely occurred when the bird hit a fence or wire, possibly during the pursuit of prey. It looked to be healing well. The bird was in generally good health so there is a good chance it will make it through the winter.  

Juvenile male Prairie Falcon with wing injury.

The second Prairie Falcon of the day also had a wing injury, this one didn’t look nearly as good. Once again, the bird was in good physical shape other than the injury, so it has a chance to survive. We weren’t able to tell the cause of this injury, but it looked like a burn, possibly the result of electrocution.

Second Juvenile male Prairie Falcon with wing injury.

On Monday, I made it out into the field again. We were only successful at banding American Kestrels on this day, however, while in the field we did observe a few mortalities. Here is an apparent electrocution of a Red-tailed Hawk.

Dead Red-tailed Hawk, apparent electrocution.

Dead Red-tailed Hawk, apparent electrocution.

I contacted my friends at Idaho Power who sent a crew out to retrieve the bird and retrofit the pole with any additional safety measures to try and prevent future mortality. This particular pole was already fairly well protected. Most of the lines were already wrapped with insulation.

Some injuries heal, but they can still have lasting effects. This male American Kestrel was missing two talons from its right leg. No indication of what the original injury was, and its feet were otherwise functional.  This bird was in good shape and had an apparent mate nearby. The injury probably has little effect on its overall success.

Male American Kestrel missing two talons.

The last discovery of the day was a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk that had apparently been hit by a car. We are not sure if it happened while in pursuit of prey or just a simple mis-judgment of some sort. Studies have shown that birds adapt their flushing distance based on the speed limit of the road. This is a clever adaptation, however, it puts them at risk to the few cars which exceed the average speed on the road. Of course, birds like humans are affected by disease which can slow their reaction times when they aren’t feeling well. This can lead to increased risk of collision. In this case, we will never know the events that led to this bird’s demise.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, dead. Apparent collision with car.

The result of two days in the field, is that we found three injured birds and two dead birds. Raptors are such magnificent creatures, but their life history make them vulnerable to injury, especially by man-made influences. I speak with many people who naturally have sympathy for prey species, but the business of predation is very dangerous indeed. For most predators, the highest risk of injury and death comes during the act of chasing and killing their prey. Human influences are generally additive on top of these natural risks.

The true reward of banding birds is receiving information of a birds long-term survival. On Monday we trapped an American Kestrel that was originally banded as a nestling by another team at Boise State University back in 2009.  This bird is now six years old. She was in great condition and was hanging around a male (most likely her mate). She likely breeds in the area where we found her, which was 30 miles from where she was hatched six years earlier. The average lifespan of American Kestrels is under five years, with the oldest recorded in the wild being 11 years. At six years she is doing well. All indications are that she still has productive years ahead of her.

Six-year-old female American Kestrel

I am always honored to be able to work with these birds. I have had the opportunity to band thousands of birds on two different continents. Every time I release a bird, I wish it well. Often out loud. I usually say “Happy Hunting!”, or sometimes “Live long and prosper!”, or even “Don’t get caught again!”.

They are marvelous creatures. I am still in awe of their power and resiliency.

Release of American Kestrel after banding.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Adiós España

My nine-week long foreign assignment studying bird migration in southern Spain has come to an end. I look forward to returning home to Idaho, but I will miss the hectic routine of long days in the field studying birds, the fantastic group of friends I made in Spain, and the Spanish food and culture. It was a fantastic experience leaving me wanting more.  However, for now I will have to be content with my very busy schedule awaiting me in the United States, which luckily includes more work in the field.

Algorrobo Count Site with a few extra guests, near Pelayo, Spain.

Boise State University has created a new promotional video based on our work in Spain. They did a great job piecing together some of the projects we have been working on while living at the Strait of Gibraltar.

Raptor Counts

As I have discussed in previous posts, my primary job here in Spain is to count migrating raptors and storks as they pass overhead crossing the 14 km Strait of Gibraltar to northern Africa. The count team is made up of four full time Fundación Migres employees and Emmy and I from Boise State. There are two count sites. On each day, two of us are assigned to each observatory. The schedule rotates to ensure that everyone ends up working with everyone else and we each spend time at each observatory or count site. As is evident from the photo above, many tourists and bird groups also spend time at the observatory. In fact, a couple friends of mine have been living at the Algarrobo count site for a few weeks now!

In addition to seeing many great birds in large volumes, we occasionally see some very unique birds. These include rarities or marked birds. The day after I left, the count team even saw a Bonelli’s Eagle take a Black Stork in flight!

Rüppell’s Griffon Vultures are always exciting to see. In recent weeks there have been near daily observations at each count site. The Rüppell’s Griffon is not known to breed in Europe. These juvenile birds are expected to have migrated north from Africa.

Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture, Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

We sometimes see birds which are marked with wing tags. Whenever someone see a wing tag, they yell “wing tag” and everyone grabs a camera to get a photo. Many of the tags are unreadable through binoculars, but can be revealed through a digital image later. I successfully photographed one of these birds out of the half dozen I observed.

Aguila Calzada (Booted Eagle) with a wing tag (A over B), Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

We even captured a Milano Negro (Black Kite) with a German wing tag. A little Facebook work and I was linked up with the original bander. There is a formal agency process for getting this information, but that route can take months (we will still submit it formally). I made personal contact within a few days.

Milano Negro (Black Kite) with German Wing Tag, Tarifa, Spain.

The original bander send me a message about this bird:

"I marked the bird „D18“ as a nest-young bird with one sibling near a little village called Oppitz on 2014-06-20. Your observation is the first of this bird. "

This data is not only interesting but, as it has in my Goshawk project, can provide important information about breeding success, migration timing, and fledgling survival rates.

It is not just about the rare species and tags. People come to the count sites to see birds, even common ones.

Culebrera Europea (Short-toed Snake-eagle), Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

Culebrera Europea (Short-toed Snake-eagle), Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

Cigueña Negro (Black Stork), Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

A favorite sight of many including me is the migration of the European Bee-eater. They migrate by each day by the thousands. They are usually in flocks of 30 to 100. We often hear them before we can see them.

Abejaruco (European Bee-eaters) in migration, Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

During the last few weeks the swift migration has shifted from predominantly Common Swifts to predominantly Alpine Swifts. I would also observe Pallid Swift, White-rumped Swifts, and Little Swifts. We do count migrating songbirds at the sites, but raptors and storks are the priority.

Alpine Swift, in migration, Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

To be fair I should probably point out a few things I don’t like about counting birds during migration. First, neck strain can be a serious issue. Most of the birds are high overhead. In fact, during periods of high pressure, the birds can be many thousands of feet above, near the limit of binocular viewing distance. We use reclining lawn chairs to minimize the neck strain, however, after three days of rest, my neck is still recovering. The second issue is eye strain. Spending all day looking through binoculars into a bright sky can take its toll. Eye drops are a very good idea!

Songbird Banding

As I have done every week since arriving in Spain, we banded migrating songbirds in Laguna de la Janda. My final week included early morning banding on Wednesday and late night banding on Thursday. There were a number of new highlights during this final week including processing my first Barn Owl and banding two new life birds – a Bluethroat and a Greater Whitethrout.

Alejandro and a Barn Owl, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Rob (me) processing Barn Owl, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Barn Owl, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Bluethroat, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Greater Whitethroat, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Great Tit, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Sunrise in Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

More Prehistoric Art

To follow up on a previous adventure (Cueva de los antepasada de Nieves), we linked up with our friend Nieves to explore more prehistoric art. This site was an easier hike and featured many panels of prehistoric art. Most were very well preserved.

Prehistoric Art, southern Spain.

Prehistoric Art, southern Spain.

Nieves and Rob (me) with Prehistoric Art, southern Spain.

Nieves also showed us many medieval tombs. There are about a dozen in the area.  I like the idea that bodies were placed in the tombs to be eaten and carried away by vultures, but Nieves said that it is believed that there were lids. Dang!

Rob (me) and Nieves fitting our medieval tombs! Mine is too small!

Sevilla (a.k.a. Seville)

On our final weekend before heading back to the United States, Karyn and I spent two days in Sevilla (a.k.a. Seville). Sevilla is a fabulous city backed with a rich history and tradition. We both agree that it is probably our favorite city of all we have visited – the art, the architecture, and the overall beauty, was unsurpassed. Our days were packed with seeing the sites, taking hundreds of photos. Here is but a small sample.

Cathedral of Sevilla, Spain.

Inside the cathedral of Sevilla, Spain.

Sevilla played a critical role in the founding of the new world (well, at least the founding we all learn about in our history classes; the Native Americans naturally have a different view). Columbus’ voyage was approved and launched in Sevilla. Sevilla was also granted a monopoly for all trade with the new world by the Spanish. It is only natural that the world archives of the founding and early trade with the new world be located there in the original trade house that was built to manage that trade. We devoted some time to learning more about this history from the exhibits within the archive.

Archive of the Indies, Sevilla, Spain.

The Museum of Fine Art was an excellent stop. Arriving early we viewed the art of many local artists in the park in front of the Museum. The inside offered a wide range of artists and styles, some of which we recognized from our art history books (yes, I took art history in college as well as Karyn). One of our favorites by Francisco de Barrera called Verano (1638). This painting was one in a series of paintings depicting various food. I assume it is an accurate depiction of what people ate (at least those with great means). The songbirds and the swifts were a bit of a surprise.

Verano (Francisco de Barrera, 1638). Museum of Fine Art, Sevilla, Spain.

Next up was the Real Alcazar. This is the oldest palace still in use in Europe. It was a fascinating place with its mixture of gothic, moorish, and renaissance architecture. The tilework was beautiful. The site included a whole museum on the history of the tile styles and designs.

Example of interior design of Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain

Courtyard within Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain

Other stops included the Flamenco Museum and the Parasol, with some great food mixed in. It was a quick trip but definitely worth it.

The People - mis amigos españoles

Our experience in Spain was enabled, augmented, and made outstanding by the tremendous people with which we spent our time. Words, expressions, and gestures can never represent the honor I feel by having spent time with such great people.

The Spanish culture, at least in southern Spain, is very open and generous. The people are very friendly and always willing to help you out. Maybe it is just the people with which we interacted, but the overall impression that I took away was more friendly than similar places in the United States.

There are many people worthy of mention for contributing to our experience, including my friends at the count sites (Maximo, Julio, Chris, Javi, Yeray, Alex, Pablo, and Nerea (sp?)), the students who joined us for a month in the field (Jon, Isabel, Juan-fran, Miguel, Eva), the Barn Swallow researcher (Ana), the visiting collaborators (Manuel, Raquel, Tamara, Thomas, Marta), the staff at Huerta Grande, and others (I hope I didn’t forget anyone). I thank them all for their patience with me in teaching me the birds, my poor Spanish, and dealing with my acute timeliness (mainly the students…).

Eddie the Eagle was a friend I met last year. He is a retired Brit with a deep interest in birds. He is a fixture at the count sites and joined us for drinks or dinner on a number of occasions. Eddie brought food and drinks to the count site, introducing us to local favorites. It was always great to have him around.

I must thank Emmy, Karyn and my roommate for our time in Spain. Emmy worked on my goshawk project a few years back, so I had a little idea of what we were in for. She was very considerate roommate and we generally got along well. She entertained us with her personality and even dealt well with my early schedule.

I had met our dear friend Nieves last year while here in Spain. Nieves was incredibly generous with her time taking Karyn and I on three separate adventures (all highlighted on this blog). Nieves enjoyed showing us her homeland and we absorbed as much of its beauty as possible. I hope to return the favor for her some day in the United States.

Judit, a visiting ornithologist, spent a fair amount of time with us during our past few weeks in Spain. She was involved in all of the extra activities such as morning songbird banding, evening songbird banding, Black Kite banding, and at the observatories. She was an awesome teammate, providing great humor and un-quavering commitment to the task at hand. I would be happy to hire her on any project that I had.

The team at Fundación Migres together represent a deep pool of talent and commitment to their projects. They balance a large set of diverse active projects which stretch their staff to the limits. They regularly work six and seven days a week to get the work done. Many of those days involve up to 16 hours of work per day. I am not aware of a harder working team anywhere. Beatriz worked to arrange all aspects of our trip and made sure the office support was in place. I didn’t get to spend much time with her, but her work behind the scenes was critical for the success of our trip. I am also collaborating with her on the research manuscript. Miguel, Carlos, and Andres were all patient with my limited knowledge of European raptors and taught me very well. They helped with identification, counting techniques, local food and customs, speaking Spanish and provided a sounding board for my ideas regarding my research manuscript. I thank them all.

But I must save my biggest thank you and admiration for Alejandro. I spent a great deal of time with Alejandro. I was paired with him multiple times at the count sites, participated in Flamingo banding, toured the Tarifa area, banded Black Kites multiple times, banded many songbirds in Laguna de la Janda many times, and went whale watching. Alejandro is a co-author of my research here, providing critical perspective than can only be gained by spending a lot of time in the field. He was patient, invested a huge amount of his personal time to ensure that we were included and provided opportunities for growth and learning. I consider him my mentor and my close friend. I will be indebted to him for the rest of my life!


And for my southern Andalusian amigos, “taluego”!


For more background on our two months of studying birds at the Strait of Gibraltar in partnership with the Fundación Migres and Boise State University’s Intermountain Bird Observatory, refer to my last nine posts.

Post 1: Our First Days Back in España

Post 2: Mucho Flamencos!

Post 3: Birds, Birds, More Birds, and Whales!?!

Post 4: In and Around Our Temporary Home in Pelayo, Spain (Accidently deleted)

Post 5: More Andalusia Adventures

Post 6: Sleep Not For The Birds

Post 7: The Rock!

Post 8: Plato Mixto – (Mixed Plate)

Post 9: Mucho Viento!