Friday, May 29, 2009

Owls, Woodpeckers, and other ilk

This week, in my down time between spring semester and the upcoming summer semester, I volunteered to help a graduate student friend of mine with his research. His research is focused on Woodpeckers presence as a predictor for Owl presence within the Boise National Forest. A couple months back I volunteered on the Owl survey portion of the research. This week is the woodpecker portion.
One detail that I wasn't fully up to speed on was that I would be doing fully species surveys and not just woodpecker surveys. Ouch. I had been studying the songs and calls of woodpeckers, but the whole list of species? The day before my departure I spent a good deal of time studying. While my study time was very helpful, it was inadequate for the task of identifying every species.
The work consisted of getting up very early on three mornings and trying to survey as many spots as possible before 11am. The first morning we left from home, but camped the other two evenings close to early survey points.
We surveyed the first two locations together to get a feel for the process. I didn't do too bad with only a few unidentified species. Apparently it was good enough, so I was sent out on my own. The real need is to get the woodpeckers correct and to get the general species richness from the area. That is fairly easy to do, even if you cannot identify every bird. It is always a very educational experience to spend time in the field with a knowledgeable birder and scientist. This trip was no exception. One afternoon we also performed vegetation analysis of one of the points. This was a fairly detailed process taking over 4 hours. Hmm. 90 points, 4 hours each... Micah will be one busy fellow. We also fit in a mountain bike ride! woo hoo! I wasn't a very good guide as I took a wrong turn so we descended a gravel road instead of a cool trail. Anyway, it was fun.
There were a number of special sights in the field:
  • Mating Sandpipers. At my first solo survey location two Spotted Sandpipers mated on a log during my survey.
  • Mating Western Bluebirds. At lunch two Western Bluebirds (life bird for me), landed on a nearby post and mated. Another pair mated next to our camp that evening!
  • Calliope Hummingbird "J" Dance. Our vegetation analysis was disturbed by a male Calliope Hummingbird courting a female. She was perched on a nearby tree. He would fly high in the air, dive down at fully speed and pull up just before hitting the ground. While doing so he would make a snapping sound with his wings at the bottom. This was less that 10 yards away. He repeated the display three or four times. He then hovered in one place, turning 90 degrees every 10 seconds or so. She must not have been impressed as we saw him later perched looking around for her. We would see another "J" dance that evening in camp and another at one of my survey points.
  • Woodpeckers. While none of my survey spots had woodpeckers on the first day, three of my ten spots did on day 2, and three of my nine spots on day 3. Three spots had Hairy Woodpeckers, responding aggressively to played recordings we use during the survey, and one spot had Red-naped Sapsuckers. The other two locations had Northern Flickers. I joined Micah for his last location of day 2. This site produced Red-naped Sapsuckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers. Cool.
  • Drumming Grouse. As I mounted my mountain bike at 5:40am on day 3 for the ride to my survey point, I noticed a Ruffed Grouse drumming nearby.
  • Life birds. Spending time with experts always seems to produce more life birds. Mine for this trip - Western Bluebird, White-Breasted Nuthatch, and Cassin's Vireo.
During my summer term I hope to spend a little time volunteering with another friend performing research on American Kestrels. Then there is my own migration research. My field work for that begins July 15th.

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