Saturday, December 26, 2009

What a year!

It was almost a year ago that I submitted my resignation from Hewlett-Packard after a successful 21 year career. The past year has been spectacular. I can honestly say that it was one of the best moves that I have made.

It was a very stressful and difficult decision to make. Should I leave a good, high paying job and plunge into the unknown. Should I leave the security of pay and benefits for the promise of neither. In the end, I decided it was. At least so far, I was right!

The past year has been dominated by my schooling and my research into avian migration. These activities have kept me busier than when I worked.

Schooling has gone well. I have just completed my third straight semester with a 4.0 GPA. In the most recent semester I received straight A+'s in all of my classes. If it wasn't for a single A- a year ago, I would have a perfect record. The maturity and experience of a career environment has definitely improved my focus and skills for school. It is interesting that I have applied for two scholarships and received both of them. With this track record I probably should have applied for more!

I recently made the decision to pull my graduation up to May of 2010. This makes my spring semester a busy one with 20 credits. I have also applied to graduate school for a Masters degree in Raptor Biology, hopefully starting in August 2010.

My most significant activities for the past year has been my research into the weather impacts on avian migration. The research started as a predator-prey study, but I had to piece out the weather impacts first. After diving into weather impacts, I discovered some new and unexpected results. This shifted my focus onto weather exclusively for the past 6 months. This project has many challenges. Getting the right data, using appropriate statistical measures etc. While there is a great deal of freely available weather data on the web, getting the right data in a consistent format is definitely a challenge. Much has changed over the last 13 years, the time period for the focus of my study. On the statistical side, I originally used methods present in publications dating about 15 years ago. Apparently the statistical expectations have evolved a great deal since then and thus a new approach is required. I have learned a great deal in this area. My manuscript is in its third revision for internal review. We hope to submit for publication early in the new year. I have submitted the abstract to two conferences for presentation and have been accepted by both. I will be in San Diego in February presenting at the joint American Ornithologists' Union/Cooper Ornithological Society conference then presenting in March at the Idaho chapter of the Wildlife Society.

The most interesting aspect of the research was my field work with migrating songbirds and raptors. This was an amazing experience. The remarkable beauty and strength of these seemingly frail creatures continues to fascinate me. Its hard to pick out a favorite bird after inspecting such diversity up close. Is it the striking beauty of a Wilson's Warbler, the tenacity of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, the rarity of the Hermit Warbler, or the simple non-conspicuous nature of the Dusky Flycatcher.

Male Wilson's Warbler.

I've seen birds so fat they can barely fly. I've seen birds so thin that they probably aren't alive today. I've been crapped on by more Dusky Flycatchers than I could count. I've returned a baby bird to its mother to be fed. I've been loved by a kinglet! And I have seen death at the hands of nature and at the hands of humans. The fact that these little creatures, many barely 5 grams, can fly for thousands of miles per year to return to the exact same spot is unbelievable.

The raptor side is equally as fascinating. Watching a group of 23 Broad-winged Hawks (very rare here) fly overhead is impressive. Watching a Prairie Falcon stoop after a Cooper's Hawk was even more impressive. But the most amazing of all was the Peregrine Falcon stooping over my head. This bird, once on the brink of extinction, is the fastest animal on the planet. When it pulls out of a stoop just above your head the roar of the wind turbulence is unbelievable.

Here I am with a Juvenile Peregrine Falcon.

In between all of my bird nerd work, Karyn and I did get out to put quite a few miles on our bike. We explored Fruita Colorado with close friends for spring break, visited Yellowstone to watch wildlife, spent our Anniversary in Stanley, and picked Idaho huckleberries with friends among other activities.

I don't know what all the new year will have in store, but it should start off with a bang as Karyn and I head to Kenya for a few weeks to study East African Raptors and Vultures. Then presenting research at two conferences, finishing my biology degree, starting graduate school, starting new research, and of course playing on the skis and on the bike. It looks to be another great year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Counting birds for Christmas

For 110 years citizen scientists have joined the National Audubon Society to brave the December and January cold to perform surveys of wintering birds in an event called the Christmas Bird Count. Each participating location chooses a date between December 15 and January 4th to hold their event. Yesterday was the Boise Christmas Bird Count and I was out there counting.

Park Center Pond just after sunrise.

The event includes trying to count every bird in a 24km (15 mile) diameter circle. This includes splitting up into teams. We had about 40 volunteers split up into 13 teams. Each team was assigned and area and headed out before sunrise to begin the count. I joined up with my good friends Jay and Heidi to begin our count. We would be responsible for SE Boise between the river and the freeway.

Adult Bald Eagle on Boise River.

The Boise River is a great place any time of year, but is especially nice in the winter. Bald Eagles fly right through town. This is one of four we would count.

Adult Bald Eagle.

Most of the day would be overcast, although not too cold and little wind. The sun did peak out just enough to provide me some great lighting for this magnificent bird. Another great sighting along the river was finding 4 species in a single tree - Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Black-capped Chickadee.

Adult Bald Eagle.

Unfortunately we were limited on time, so we had to move on. Canvasing the territory we would find at least 3 large groups of Cedar Waxwings including 100-150 birds each. In each one Jay could hear at least one Bohemian Waxwing, but we couldn't quite pick it out in the flock due to the lighting.

Cedar Waxwings with at least 1 Bohemian Waxwing

This particular flock was raiding a berry tree in someone's yard. It was also closely watched by a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Cooper's Hawk! Later in the day we would return to this tree to see that all of the Cedar Waxwings had flown off leaving two Bohemians sitting in the top of the tree.

Downy Woodpecker.

By noon we had count 50 species within our group, including lots of raptors as we moved out across the desert southeast of Boise. Hiking out on the old Oregon Trail overlooking the Boise River we picked up a couple of species not always seen around here - the Canyon Wren and two American Dippers.

Canyon Wren.

Unfortunately due to other commitments I had to leave the count at 4pm. Karyn came out to pick me up and we counted two additional spots along our route home. At the first spot we found a few of my favorite waterfowl, the Hooded Merganser. There were two males and two females. The males were displaying. It was an impressive sight.

Male Hooded Mergansers displaying.

After a few minutes they realized that the females had lost interest and swam off. They ended the displays and swam in pursuit.

Hooded Mergansers.

My un-official tally for our group was 57 species by the time I had to leave, with bird counts in the many thousands. Its great to be able to contribute to such an important tradition and important survey. It was also a great day to spend outside with friends with lots of great sightings.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Winter Birds

I read an article recently on a way to better control the auto focus on a camera. Its called back-button auto focusing. It works on most digital SLR camera like our Canon Digital Rebel XTi. The concept is that the camera focuses while a button is pressed on the back of the camera. Release the button and auto focus stops. This promises to be a great help when photographing birds or anything in motion. I regularly have the problem when panning that the focus will get lost and I lose the shot.

Wanting to get some experience with this mode before leaving for Africa, I went out on Sunday to try it out. There was a report from Friday of a very cold, lost, rare bird for Idaho, a Tricolored Heron. It was seen and photographed along the Boise River on Friday. While no one could find it on Saturday, I thought I would give it a shot.

No luck. I did find many great birds including three Great Blue Herons.

Great Blue Heron. Boise River.
Great Blue Heron. Boise River.

The lighting wasn't great, but I did get some good experience with the camera mode. Not a bad day for birding either. Other birds - Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Belted Kingfisher, American Crow, Common Merganser, American Wigeon, Mallard, Pied-billed Grebe, Barrow's Goldeneye, Northern Flicker, Dark-eyed Junco, and Black-billed Magpie.

Yesterday we received 3 inches of snow. I watched in fascination as the Dark-eyed Juncos learned about snow in my backyard. They flew from the feeder to land on the railing of my deck. They would disappear in the soft powder. They flew out and tied to land on the ground. Once again sinking out of sight in the snow. In a cloud of flakes they flew up looking for a solid place to land. The finally settled in the tree and on the fence where they could remain above the snow. What a different world they woke up in today.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dip, Dip, Dipping

Finished another 3 days of cross country skiing. I am definitely dragging butt today. That brings the total for the season to five days on the snow. Not a bad year so far. The forecast isn't quite so promising though.
On Saturday morning, as we were waiting the arrival of our friends, Karyn and I took some time out to search for wildlife. Unfortunately the wolf hunting season has decimated the Phantom wolf pack which normally inhabit the area where we were. We searched for wolves, foxes, and other mammals to no avail. (we would later find a fox and a few coyotes).
We did however find a number of my favorite winter birds - American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus). We stopped in 4 different places and found dippers in 3 of them. A pair of dippers in one location. Pretty cool.
American Dipper. Photo: Karyn deKramer.
Its amazing in temperatures in the single digits, that these birds jump in and out of the water.
American Dipper. Photo: Karyn deKramer.
The dipper has water proof feathers so it doesn't get wet. The water temperature is also well above the air temperature, so they lose little additional heat while under water.
American Dipper. Photo: Karyn deKramer.

Dipper flying.
Each day as we would pass a particular section of river we would find an adult Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and a male Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon). They were each keeping their eyes on the river.
Adult Bald Eagle. Photo: Karyn deKramer.
To finish out the weekend, on the way home we saw a number of another one of my favorite winter birds, the Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus).
Rough-legged Hawk. Photo: Karyn deKramer.
There were other birds present as well such as Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), Black-billed Magpies (Pica pica), and the ever present European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Into the Wind

While many Boiseans were enjoying Boise State's crushing defeat over the University of Idaho, a few of us bird nerds were out exploring the avian species near Bruneau Idaho.
Heidi, Jay, and I were planning to get an early start to the day, then link up with the Audubon field trip heading out to the same general area. As it would end up, we didn't actually find the field trip group until after 4pm. Not to worry, we did see plenty of avian wildlife including 5 new life birds for me!
The real issue of the day was the wind blowing at 30 - 45mph! This put a damper on the movement of the birds as well as our resolve to stand in one place an observe them. We did find some great vantage points with at least a reasonable amount of protection. Jay provided a good lesson in gull identification at a few of the stops, increasing my life list by a few birds - Bonaparte's Gull and Herring Gull. A particularly large group of grebes provided a nice side by side comparison of Western Grebes and Clark's Grebes, the Clark's being a new lifer!.
Being the very gracious tour guide that he is, Jay enlightened us by introducing us to a new birding hot spot - the feedlot. Not one, but two different feedlots! We were all quite impressed. To his credit, the first feedlot did reveal a Merlin, likely hunting the European Starlings, Red-winged, Yellow-headed, and Brewer's Blackbirds, and the occasional Cowbird.
When we needed a break from the wind, we hiked through a dense Russian Olive stand in search for a Barn Owl. My guides once again delivered with a brief view of one Barn Owl - another lifer! The search continued for a Long-eared Owl, but that would remain elusive.
Near the end of the day we arrived at Bruneau Dunes State Park. We were searching for Loons and Scoters, but none to be found. There was plenty of bird life around, the winding being a little lighter here.
Western Bluebirds and a Cedar Waxwing.
The Western Bluebirds were a bit of a surprise. Not sure if they over winter here or not. The lakes were covered in ducks of many varieties. Swarms would take flight, circle around and then descend again onto the lake.
Ducks over Bruneau Dunes.
On our way toward home, we finally found the last group of birders from the Audubon field trip some 6 hours after we had planned to link up with them!
The 5th lifer was a Marsh Wren observed early in the day at a stop near the reservoir. It was an impressive day, especially given the conditions.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Migratory Bird Research Abstract

There hasn't been a lot of activity on this blog as of late. My summer activities have ended so I don't have any new photos popping up. I have also been working on a number of other documents as of late. Multiple essays for scholarship applications, the first draft of my research manuscript, an abstract for an upcoming conference, and an extended abstract package for a travel grant to the conference have all sapped my writing energies.

The first phase of my research is proceeding nicely. My proposal, status update, and another status update have been posted on my blog. We decided to focus the first phase of the research on the weather aspects alone as the statistics of the predator prey relationships are a bit more complicated. We later discovered that so were the weather aspects, but that's a different story. We have worked through most of these issues.

In February there is a joint conference in San Diego of the American Ornithologists' Union, the Cooper Ornithological Society, and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists. I have submitted the abstract below to the conference hoping to be invited to present my research. I am also hoping to receive a travel grant from the conference to offset the costs of getting there. In the coming weeks I should find out if my abstract is accepted and if any additional support will be provided.

The writing was difficult as I have a lot to say, but the abstracts are limited to less than 180 words. The extended abstract for the travel grant was limited to three double spaced pages with graphs and references. This was also very tight. There wasn't any room to talk about the results of weather on the individual species. This is where some of the most fascinating results have been found. I guess its good to filter down now as my presentation would be limited to a 12 minute presentation followed by three minutes of questions. My first draft manuscript is pushing 25 pages with only limited graphics! I always thought it would be more difficult to write long manuscripts. I'm having the opposite problem!


The effect of weather on avian migration across diverse geographic regions remains to be determined. We evaluated the impact of regional cold fronts and localized weather phenomenon on the autumn migratory timing of multiple landbird and raptor species. The analysis focused on total landbirds plus the top ten individual species by volume along with total raptors plus the top five individual species. Using 11 years of data from the Idaho Bird Observatory (1997-2007), we determined significant migratory timing patterns which differ from the established literature with regards to the effect of regional cold fronts on autumn migration. Our data show a depression of migratory volumes of most species on the days immediately before, during, and after the passage of a cold front, with peak flights for most species occurring several days later. Multiple hypotheses may explain the unique impact of weather phenomenon on avian migration in the western United States; most notably that most avian species choose to migrate during calm winds and high pressure when the opportunity presents itself.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Migratory Bird Research Update

Wow, it's been a month since I have posted here. A lot has happened since then. School has kept me busy, I continue to hawkwatch on the mountain once a week, I took a week off to fully experience the swine flu! etc. In fact, I am still recovering from that last one... I have also made progress on my research. My proposal and previous updates are on my blog.

The first major development is that I have decided to split my research into two portions, the first focused on weather, and the second on the predator prey aspects. The goal for this semester is to complete the manuscript for the weather impact, while continuing to make progress on the predator-prey. The avian predator-avian prey study requires that the weather details be well understood as they are definitely complicating factors. In the study of the weather impacts on migration, it was discovered that the weather impacts are different in the intermountain west than is documented in the scientific literature. This is a very exciting result. This increases the chances of publication and definitely illustrates a meaningful contribution to our knowledge of the ecology of avian migration.

Adult female Cooper's Hawk.

Statistics, statistics... A lot of my time recently has been focused on the statistical analysis. I am fairly comfortable with the casual use of statistics, but this paper must be rock solid. This has required me to do a significant amount of background studying, learn a new computing environment (R statistical), and to take on a statistical adviser. It's all good. My initial findings have continued to hold up during the process.


Abstracts. In February is a joint meeting of the American Ornithologist's Union, the Coopers Ornithological Society, and the Canadian Ornithological Society. I am looking to submit an abstract to the conference in the hopes to present my research findings there. Abstracts are due in early November. I also hope that they will provide me a travel grant as well! Downtown San Diego is not the cheapest place to stay.

My favorite, the Peregrine Falcon!

Writing. I have completed a very rough draft of the first research manuscript and the abstract for submission. It still needs a lot of work, but getting the first draft is always the hardest for me. The result is that I am much more optimistic about the next couple of months and meeting all of my deadlines, while keeping my grades up in all of my classes.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

My newest office

With my return to school, my duties at the Idaho Bird Observatory have changed a bit. The songbird banding continues, but my morning classes don't allow me to participate to the same degree. The result is that I will be reducing my hours and shifting to hawkwatch instead of songbirds banding. Hawkwatch consists of counting each raptor that migrates over the watch site, which is regularly over 100 per day.
A couple of months ago I posted about My New Office at the IBO. I figured it was time to introduce you to my newest office on hawkwatch! While it can be very hot or very cold up there, it is an amazing place to work! The team generally watches from 10am-6pm daily, I will only be there on Mondays and when I fill in for others.
360 degree view from Lucky Peak (click to enlarge, then magnify)
Lucky Peak is a great place for a watch site. Migrating raptors tend to follow ridgelines or "leading lines" while on migration. Lucky Peak is the Southern most peak in the west Idaho mountains. The raptors are naturally led to this point by the ridge lines, then they fly over the Southern Idaho desert and in to Nevada. When setting up the IBO 15 years ago, the team tested a number of peaks, Lucky Peak was the luckiest with the greatest number of migrants visible.
The mountain just right of center in the photo is Bogus Basin Ski Area. Most of the raptors we count come toward us from this direction, especially the soaring raptors like Red-tailed Hawks. We also have to look lower as the Accipiter hawks (Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, Northern Goshawks) tend to be hunting through the trees as they make their way toward us. The various raptors shift to different sides of the ridge based on the weather. On one day all of the soaring raptors were on the right, while the accipiters were on the left. On last Monday most everything thing was coming right over the top.
The crew consists of a minimum of two watchers, with three being preferred. When we have four or more available we utilize a different protocol where we split in to teams. The primary observers act as a normal team announcing everything they see. The secondary team is silent and logging raptors that they see that the primaries missed. The data generated from this protocol is being used in a research study to evaluate appropriate staffing levels and determine a statistical estimate of missed raptors so that we can more accurately judge the true migrating population. The primaries and secondaries switch off every hour.
Another advantage of hawkwatch is that the hawk banding station is located down in front of us. If they trap an interesting bird, we get to take a closer look. Last week, they caught a Merlin which is a small falcon. We only count about one per week migrating over, so this was a great catch. This was a after hatch year female, meaning that it is at least one year old. She is a beautiful bird, these photos don't do her justice. She had a slatey flat black color which was highlighted by her mocha colored spots.
Posing with the Merlin.


Look at that double tooth for tearing flesh!
I'll finish this post with a few left over photos from songbird banding. The first are of my favorite warblers - Wilson's, Townsends, and Macgillivray's.
Male Wilson's Warbler.

Female Townsend's Warbler.

Male Macgillivray's Warbler.
Lastly, one of the funnest birds I processed this year was a Hairy Woodpecker. She was tenacious and tried to peck me constantly. She even used her rapid fire pecking motion to get my hand pretty good. Here are some photos taken by Stephanie, one of other other banders.
Female Hairy Woodpecker.

Female Hairy Woodpecker pecking me!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Raptors - Upclose and Personal!

After working on dinky birds for the past two months, on Saturday I spent some time with the larger migrants through the Idaho Bird Observatory! This last week, hawk watch and hawk trapping began. Hawkwatch, which is where I will be every Monday afternoon for the remainder of the fall migratory season, consists of counting each migrating raptor and vulture that passes within sight of the observatory. Hawk trapping consist of netting and banding raptors attracted to lures.
On Saturday, the research director was in the hawk blind trapping. After a local boy scout troop left, Karyn and I joined him in the blind. While the scouts were in the blind, they captured two Cooper's Hawks and a Redtailed Hawk. I didn't get to participate in the banding, but did get a look at the birds just prior to release. The Cooper's Hawk is one of my research species, along with its close relative the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Check out how the eye color change with age.
Male Juvenile Cooper's Hawk.
Female Adult Cooper's Hawk.
The juvenile Red-tailed Hawk would be my first experience in holding a raptor. It was very cool!
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk!
I was more than a little nervous holding the bird. While I didn't lose any flesh to the bird, it did try to show me who was boss!
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk.
When I did make it into the blind, we had a busy day banding 7 more birds. Heidi trained me on the raptor banding process. My first band went to a juvenile male American Kestrel, teh smallest falcon in North America.
Juvenile American Kestrel.
At one point Heidi and I were out retrieving a Sharp-shinned Hawk from a net. Jay, our research director, yelled for us to freeze! A Peregrine Falcon was approaching the blind. We stood as motionless as possible as the Peregrine gained altitude and went into a stoop straight toward us. A stoop is a falcon's high speed dive in which they have been recorded at speeds well over 200 miles per hour. Unfortunately we were frozen in a position that we didn't see it. But we did hear and feel it! As the Peregrine pulled out of the stoop and leveled out just meters above our heads it sounded like a jet plane. I couldn't believe that bird flying through the air could make that much noise. The noise was all caused by the air turbulence  as he pulled out of the dive. It was an unbelievably amazing experience. Karyn was still in the blind so she got to watch all the action. As the Peregrine turned we ran back to the blind. We worked the lures to get him in. Just as he was coming into the lure he clipped one of the control lines with the tip of his wing. He flew off without being caught. He was a very dark male juvenile of a sub-species not common in our area. We were disappointed not to get a better look at the bird.
There were more Kestrels out and about. Right before close a group of 4 came across the ridge. We caught one juvenile male and almost had two others.
Juvenile Male American Kestrel.
The hope to participate in owl banding Saturday night fell through as a thunderstorm hit our mountain. I did get some good sleep before spending Sunday morning banding songbirds. It's back to school in the morning, then I head up to count raptors at Hawkwatch on Monday afternoon.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The evasive Green-tailed Towhee

A few weeks back, while working at the Idaho Bird Observatory, I had the opportunity to band a Green-tailed Towhee. This was only the 5th GTTO ever caught at the bird observatory in 13 years. It was also the first time I had ever seen one (lifer!).
The events occurring around the capture and banding are worth reliving. I was not the person to extract the bird from the net. At the banding shack, I picked the bag with the bird inside. Based on size I expected a Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, or Spotted Towhee. When I pulled the bird from the bag, I had no idea what it was. I then remembered there was a rare Green-tailed something, but couldn't quite pick it out. I noted the towhee eyes, but even that didn't ring any bells in my overloaded bird-brain. The group then told me it was a Green-tailed Towhee. Everyone was excited to have caught this rare bird. I banded and processed the bird as we normally would. We identified the bird as a juvenile "hatch year" bird, meaning it was hatched this summer and was on its first migration. I had completed all processing but weighing the bird. At that point our guests and some employees had their cameras all ready to take pictures. It was suggested that I let them take some pictures before weighing as birds are occasionally "flubbed", accidently released, in the weighing process. As I was shifting the bird to the photographers grip - I flubbed it. You could hear the collective moan of the group. I was very bummed myself. But this isn't the end of the story.
The very next day we recaptured the same bird. This time they handed it to the the second most experienced bander at the IBO. As she pulled the bird from the bag, she flubbed it! Unbelievable! I hadn't seen her flub a single bird to this point. The Green-tailed Towhee had once again defeated us.
Today, we once again recaptured the same bird. This time it was left for the the research director to handle. Some of us were secretly hoping he would flub it too, but it was not to be. The bird was processed and photographed. Unfortunately since the last capture, the bird has begun molting many feathers making it look much more ragged than a few weeks back. Anyway, it still has my utmost respect and appreciation. The fact that more than a week has passed between captures indicates that this bird is not likely migrating yet, just foraging locally.

Molting Green-tailed Towhee. Copyright Karyn deKramer.

Molting Green-tailed Towhee. Copyright Karyn deKramer.

Green-tailed Towhee (left); Spotted Towhee (right). Copyright Karyn deKramer.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Nighthawks and Burrowing Owls

About once a week the Idaho Bird Observatory crew heads out in the afternoon for some shore birding. This time of year is starting to bring in many shore bird migrants heading South. On a recent trip to Indian Creek Reservoir, we were successful in finding many species of shorebirds including White-faced Ibis, Long-billed Curlew, Killdeer, American Avocet,Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe, Wilson's Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, and these Log-billed Dowitchers.
Long-billed Dowitchers.
I found myself constantly distracted by the Common Nighthawk (not always so common) foraging for insects.
Common Nighthawk.

Common Nighthawk.

Common Nighthawk.

Common Nighthawk.
On the way back we spotted these Burrowing Owl chicks. I was fascinated by the middle chick. He/she looks equally fascinated with us.

Burrowing Owls.

Burrowing Owls.

Burrowing Owls.