Sunday, April 26, 2009

Accipiter cooperii

Cooper's Hawk

Other photos from today - Photos

Friday, April 24, 2009

Three's Company

This is the first time I have been by to check on the Great Horned Owl chicks in Hull's Grove. Wow, they grew fast. We observed the adults mating on a few occasions in early to mid-February. They were probably born mid March. In the last five weeks they have grown to nearly full size.

Great Horned Owl Chicks.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Peregrine Falcon Co-opting Canada Geese?

I just returned from a walk to downtown Boise for a few errands. I planned my route to pass by the building housing the Peregrine Falcon Nest (webcam). A few blocks before I got there I saw one of the Peregrines flying overhead. I assume it to be the female due to its apparent larger size, but I could be wrong. I didn't have access to the web cam to see which one was still on the nest! Anyway, the falcon was causing quite a stir in the local bird community as you might expect from such an efficient predator.

In watching her behavior, I noticed a few significant points. First, she was clearly on a mission. This has always impressed me about adult predators. The deterministic focus that comes from having to catch your own food to survive. The second thing I noticed is that she was focused on a pair of Canada Geese, but did not appear to be making any move to take one of them. I would have been surprised if she had due to their much larger size. She did fly low over the pair while they were on the edge of a three story building. This caused them to squawk loudly and fly to the next building. She circled around and flew low over them again, causing them to move on to a third building. She repeated the process again, but never made any specific move toward the geese.

I have a few hypotheses regarding what she was up to. The first is that she could have just been testing them. This is common for predators to regularly test their prey. The second, and more likely in my mind, is that she was trying to co-opt the geese in her hunt. By forcing the geese to fly and squawk then they become the center of attention for other birds. If any other prey birds focus on the geese, the Peregrine could take advantage of the distraction to grab the prey. Just a theory, but it definitely seemed like that is what was happening to me.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Birds of Prey Field Trip

Yesterday our Ornithology class took a field trip out to the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. This area is believed to include the largest concentration of raptors in the world. It is a productive wintering ground for many species and holds a significant summer and year round population as well. An estimated 800 pairs of raptors nest in the area. Sixteen raptor species nest in the area, including the American Kestrel, Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, Osprey, Prairie Falcon, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Short-eared Owl, and the Western Screech Owl. An additional eight species winter in the area, including the Bald Eagle, Cooper's Hawk, Gyrfalcon, Merlin, Northern Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, Rough-legged Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. The large expanse of SouthWest Idaho desert, inside and outside of the conservation area, is teeming with ground squirrels, snakes, jack rabbits, and other rodents, providing an excellent food source for this community.

It was a good field trip, although it was a bit rushed. We had less then 4 hours from leaving school to be back at school with a close to an hour drive each way. Anyway, we did find some interesting birds. I was able to get a couple good photographs.

Prairie Falcon at Dedication Point.
Rock Wren at Dedication Point.
Red-tailed Hawk at Dedication Point.

In addition to these, we did see a number of Swainson's Hawks, mostly in their nest trees. We observed one couple mating. It didn't appear that any they were incubating eggs yet. We watched White-throated Swifts flying the Snake River Canyon, saw Golden Eagles on their nest, and heard Canyon Wrens sign their beautiful song. I was really hoping to see my first Burrowing Owl of the year, but we came up short. The other van did see one, but we missed it.

It was an interesting drive to and through the conservation area. With my new understanding and awareness of the Sage Steppe habitat, it was interesting to note that it is almost completely destroyed in this area. Replaced by the much less productive, from a biodiversity perspective, cheat grass. Cheatgrass burns regularly, which will prevent the Sage Steppe from recovering on its own. It is a difficult conservation problem. As a result, the Sage Grouse are gone from this area, the rabbit population is nearly gone, endemic plant species are on the edge of extinction. This has to have a significant impact on the raptors of the area as well. In addition, almost every nest tree available was in use by a pair of Swainson's Hawks. The number of trees available in the area is way down do to cheat grass fires. The result is that the number of Swainson's Hawks summering here is also down. In another area we passed a field that was used for agriculture for many years. It hasn't been used in at least five years. Still, there was not a single weed or blade of grass growing on it. What does it take to destroy a piece of land so thoroughly that in five years, nothing, not even cheat grass, will grow on it? This area is still a tremendous asset for the world and we are lucky to have it in our backyard. I just hope that the damage can be stopped and some restoration will be successful.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Nesting Season

With my busy school schedule and our out of town trip over spring break, it had been a month or two since we had hiked our local birding hotspot - Hull's Grove. With spring well upon us, Karyn and I hiked this morning. What a beautiful day with lots of action in the bird world. First up, in the lower pond was a pair of Pied-billed Grebes. There are my favorite Grebes so I was glad to see them back, although I think they might be responsible for running off the Belted Kingfishers which used to live near these ponds. We watched as a Red-winged Blackbird dove toward the grebe, but the grebe was undeterred.

Pied-billed Grebe.

Further up the trail we checked in on the Great Horned Owl's nest. One adult was in the tree across the valley while we could see one adult and at least one chick inside the hole in the sand cliff. Great Horned Owls have successfully fledged at least 3 chicks per year from this site for the past 4 years, probably longer. It is likely that this is the same pair, reusing the same nest year to year. We saw them mate a few times back in February.

Near the upper pond we discovered a large nest we had not previously discovered. There was something in it, but we could not tell what. Then we saw a beautiful male Cooper's Hawk nearby.

Male Cooper's Hawk.

This hawk would later fly to the nest. The two adults took turns flying to a nearby pine tree to gather branches for the nest.

Cooper's Hawk on the nest.

Further down the trail we found the Red-tailed Hawks in their nest. They are using a nest about 50 meters from the nest that has been occupied the lat two years. We look forward to tracking the process of all three of these nests. Oh, did I forget to mention the Kestrel nests? We didn't see any action there, but there were plenty of Kestrel's around. One was chasing a Red-tailed Hawk at one point.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Ride

My spouse, knowing my geekish nature oh too well, bought me a Oregon Scientific handlebar/helmet cam for my birthday. After a few test runs to and from school last week, mainly filming the asphalt in front of the bike, it was time for a real test on the trails. Sunday morning, before attending family functions, Karyn and I hit the trails on our mountain tandem. This video includes three of the downhill section of a popular Boise foothills trail known as Corrals or the Satellite trail. The first is a short single track section near the start of the trail.

The second is the drop from the high point most of the way to eighth street.

The last is the drop from the place known as the motorcycle parking lot back down to Boise. Some of the flatter sections were edited out.

The video was taken with the camera mounted to the handlebars of the bike. The camera comes with an attachment for a helmet mount as well, but I still need some adjustment on that one. The last test produced video of the road in front of me. I will have to mount it further back.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Last night Karyn and I attended a spectacular event. Jane Goodall visited Boise for a fundraiser for the Boise Zoo. Not willing to pay the $500 for the zoo event, we instead attended her evening talk at the Qwest arena. It was a very special presentation.

I was quite surprised to see a near capacity event. When we arrived there was a long line of people buying tickets. Who knew that there were so many people in Boise interested in science and conservation!

After a brief introduction by the mayor, the director of Zoo Boise took the stage. He highlighted the results of a program which was invented in Boise. A $0.35 charge on all Boise Zoo admissions which goes directly into a conservation fund. A fund to protect animals and habitat in the wild which are represented in the zoo. The program has been replicated across the country by other zoos generating millions of dollars in conservation funds. What a great program.

It was then time for the main event. The near capacity crowd welcomed Jane to the stage with a long standing ovation. Having already read her book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, I was familiar with her life story and the impact she has had on science, our understanding of animal behavior, and our definition of the human species. It is still remarkable to hear her tell the story first hand. Her interest in science as a kid, her challenges to fulfill her dreams without any money, her challenges against the scientific establishment when she didn't have a degree and was a woman, and lastly her challenges against the long standing belief of the definition of man. Her impact on the world is truly remarkable. What an inspiration.

One of the areas that she discussed dealt with human nature or more appropriately animal nature. One of the important discoveries in the study of chimpanzees is their deep compassion balanced with their tendency for violence. If chimpanzees use violence in many of the same circumstances as humans, then it is likely our common ancestor behaved this way as well, or we evolved this ability through convergent evolution. If our common ancestor had it then violence is in our nature. But so is compassion and intellect. We have the ability to analyze ramifications and options, we have the ability to choose peace. What a message!

The later parts of the talk was focused on the challenges facing wildlife in the world. Things we generally know, but she has such an eloquent way of painting a picture for the audience. It was very moving. Lastly, she discussed her reasons for hope, why it may be too late for some species, but it is not too late for the planet. How our intellect made us the most dominant organism on the planet, but can also help save it. How the human spirit has brought us through difficult times. I highly recommend attending this event if her tour comes to your area and I strongly endorse her book.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Is there anybody out there?

Last night I joined a Boise State graduate student on one of the owl surveys for his research project. I can't imagine a more beautiful night to have chosen. The moon was high in the sky providing plenty of light, and there was no wind or clouds. It was fantastic.

We left Boise at about 6:30pm in the hopes to find a crepuscular Northern Pygmy Owl near Idaho city which he had previously spotted. This owl was not officially part of his research, he had simply arrived at his research point early one day and happened upon it. It would not cooperate this evening. We did hike up onto a ridge and observe the forest. We found an owl pellet which could have been from a pygmy owl, but that was it. We did see a red fox, a Turkey Vulture land in a tree, a Red-tailed Hawk being harassed by Common Ravens, and could hear the simultaneous drumming of a Hairy Woodpecker and a Northern Flicker. Not bad.

We moved on to the official starting point of the survey. We would be surveying three separate points on a high mountain ridge. We were hiking in snowshoes over fairly steep terrain. The snow had become a little crusty from the sunny days we have had late in the week. In the shade of the trees it would turn to deep soft powder. We were surveying fixed points with a 20 minute procedure at each point. The 20 minutes starts with 3 minutes of silence listening for unsolicited owl calls. Then a series of various owl calls are played, each followed by silence to listen for solicited responses. We were hoping to record responses from any number of forest owls including a Flammulated Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Boreal Owl, Barred Owl, or Great-horned Owl. There were be no responses at the first survey site.

We hiked further up the ridge to the second survey site. At this site we didn't log any owls, but some Mallards migrated over followed by some American Wigeons. I had no idea that either of these were nocturnal migrants. It was close to midnight.

The third site on the ridge was also lacking in owl responses. This is where I discovered that I had broken my snowshoe. More than 2 miles from the car in deep snow with a broken snowshoe! Some quick trail repair with a piece of cord and we were mobile again. A short while later, I broke the other side. It must be time for an upgrade! I was able to hobble out to the car by carefully placing each foot step.

From here we moved to a second location which had two survey points on it. This was at lower elevation so we could hike without snowshoes, speeding up our progress. It was still covered in snow, but had been driven over and packed down to ice. Once again, the first survey point produced a null result. He hiked further up to the last point of the night. Before we arrived we could hear a Great-horned Owl calling near the point location. Finally. Unfortunately, this one was not within the survey protocol. Executing the protocol at the survey point, he would not reply. Neither would anyone else. Shortly after the survey completed, we heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl calling from down the valley. Two owls for the night. We headed back to Boise.

It was a scary drive. At 4am in the morning after being up for 22 hours, there were deer scattered all along the road. It was a slow and stressful drive hoping that none of the deer would jump out in front of us. We made it home safely.

Wildlife research is an interesting process, one of the reasons that I am pursuing my encore career. It is always unpredictable. If we knew what to expect then there would be no reason to perform the research. Being out on a high mountain ridge in the snow, surrounded by the moon and the star was spectacular. The trip was even more rewarding as I quizzed Micah for hours on various research topic, approaches, etc. It was very educational and he was very patient in dealing with my questions. I feel much more prepared in formulating my own research. I meet with a research adviser next week to begin the process.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

More photos from Fruita

Our time in Fruita Colorado came to an end as I had to head back to school. I finally collected some of the photos and videos of our riding there. Here is a compilation of the remaining items.

Our last few days in Fruita went very fast. On Thursday there was a large snowstorm that came through, leaving a little snow on the ground (12-18 inches in Denver!). We opted for a hike instead of riding the muddy trails. Doug and Lanette arrived that afternoon and joined us. By Friday, the trails were once again dry, so we took Doug and Lanette out to 18 Road to ride PrimeCut/Kessel, Prime Cut/Joe's and the Western Zip trail. A good three and a half hours of riding. Here's a video of Karyn and I on Joe's Ridge.

Here is Doug and Lanette on the Kessel Trail:

On Saturday the friends we met in Fruita with a Mountain tandem joined us for ride out Mary's Loop, Steve's Loop, and Horsethief Loop. Another 3.5 hour ride. It was great to follow a local tandem that knew the trails. They inspired us to try some technical moves that we would have otherwise walked. Here's Karyn and I riding Mary's Loop with the Colorado River in the background.

Rob & Karyn on Mary's Loop

Here's all three tandems above Steve's Loop.

Chris, Heather, Karyn, Rob, Doug, Lanette.

Here is Chris and Heather on the Horsethief Loop.

Chris & Heather on Horsethief Loop.

There were a few technical spot which were too difficult to ride.

Chris, Heather, and Rob on Mary's Loop.

In all we had a great time in Fruita and would highly recommend it. We had a great time riding and met some great people. Unlike Moab, we saw very few people on the trails. We hope to return for more play. As for my legs, they are still recovering...