Saturday, July 25, 2009

My New Office

As my recent blog posts have indicated, I am working for the summer banding birds at the Idaho Bird Observatory. This last week as I was walking across a ridgeline at dawn, I thought back to the days when I would be sitting in my cubicle. What a vastly different world this is. I spent nearly 21 years in an 8x8 cubicle. Now I can see for a 100 miles! It is truly a fantastic experience being up here that I relish every morning! I thought I would provide you a quick tour. The IBO is open to visitors, so you are welcome to come up and see us.
While we cannot see Boise from the banding station, a short walk of 100 meters down the trail opens to a great vista of the city of trees, 3000 feet below.
Boise, Idaho from Lucky Peak.
The sunrise is always a great experience.
Sunrise at IBO.
The Idaho Bird Observatory is an excellent place to band migrating songbirds. The mountain ranges of western Idaho funnel all of the birds to this point before they must cross the Southern Idaho desert. From this point there will be no food or cover for many songbirds for about 50 miles.
View South from IBO.
For songbird banding we operate 10 mist nets for 5 hours per day starting at sunrise. The nets are located in a variety of terrain, all a short walk from the central banding station. We check the nets every 30 minutes to extract birds and return them to the banding station. The crew consists of 4 or 5 people per day. At least 2 clearing nets and 2 processing birds. We trade off tasks a well. In this early part of the season we only have 5 people available, and try to have at least 4 on duty every day. A new volunteer arrives next week so that I can take a few days off.
Banding station - Heidi, Jay, & Jack.
Most days I commute to the mountain on my dual sport motorcycle. Some nights I stay over with the crew. The team takes turns cooking dinner for the group.
Banding station and camp (my tent on right).
I only have 4 weeks left until school starts. My school schedule won't allow me to stay on with the songbird banding team, although weekends are still available for me to fill in. Once school begins I will start hawkwatch at the IBO one day a week after I get out of school. Hawkwatch consists of identifying and counting migrating raptors that pass over the site. Both songbird banding and hawkwatch are related to my research.
Once again, if you are in the area you are welcome to come up to see us. We will give you a tour, explain the process, and show you some beautiful birds up close.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Avian Research Update

I continue to make progress on my research agenda. As noted in my research proposal, I am researching the coordinated migrational timing between avian predators and avian prey. The research is based upon fifteen years of migration data collected at the Idaho Bird Observatory.

While my research is based on historical data, I will be volunteering at the Idaho Bird Observatory in late summer and fall. This will enable me to better understand the data collection processes and gain my own perspectives. It will also help the observatory with their operations as they have been kind enough to provide me their data. From July 19th through the beginning of the school year, August 24th, I will be banding songbirds. After the beginning of school, I will be volunteering one day a week on the Hawkwatch, counting migrating raptors.

In preparation for my time at the Idaho Bird Observatory, I have been studying "Hawks from every Angle" by Jerry Liguori. This is a great book for true bird nerds. It describes in intricate detail the various species, their similarities and their differences.

I did get my hands on the historical hawkwatch data. It appears that the last three years worth is still in paper form. I believe I will be working a while on data entry. The glamorous side of research! Anyway, I will be able to use my computer skills to help the organization and future researchers.

I have continued to search and read background research which I will cite in my final paper. I have a list of approximately 15 sources so far with notes regarding their relevance.

One of the first analysis tasks I will focus on is replicating a study performed at Hawk Mountain Pennsylvannia regarding the timing of raptor migration as it relates to cold front passage. They used 60 years worth of data in their research. Amazing! Their analysis determined that the migration numbers of various raptor species are significantly effected by the passage of cold fronts by the monitoring site. For example, one of my study species the Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) has a significantly higher likelihood of reaching peak migration numbers the day after the cold front passes than any other day. They then decrease each day afterwards. Similar patterns are followed by my other study species the Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). My intent is to determine if their findings apply to Idaho. So far, I have followed their procedure for collecting the historical cold front passage data from the government. The good news is that the data is all online. This is performed by looking at the daily weather maps for each of the seasons. That's over 1400 daily weather maps! I have completed this step. One interesting finding is that Idaho on average has half the number of cold fronts passing as does Hawk Mountain. I expect this will cause the correlation with cold front passage to be less significant, but we will have to see what the statistics tells us.

Following a few other research papers, one from the Eastern US and one from Western, I will determine if our data support their conclusions about specific species, age and sex migration. The two studies found that the general order for each accipiter species during migration season is juvenile females, juvenile males, adult females, and then adult males. On average Cooper's Hawks migrate through before Sharp-shinned Hawks. The challenge here is that we do not have nearly as much data on age and sex. I might have to use capture data for that which greatly reduces my data points. Something to be investigated.

Songbirds. A big task on the agenda is to get my hands on the songbird data and see what kind of shape it is in. I may be doing some data entry here as well.

An area that I am currently investigating is whether I should use total songbird numbers, or if I should separate out specific species which are most likely to constitute prey for my target predators.

Lots to do, but its great stuff.

Talons versus Tilley

To fully understand the title of this story, you must know that I wear a Tilley hat.
While camping in Stanley Idaho last week we enjoyed watching an Osprey nest with two chicks in it from our camp. The chicks were about 3/4 size, demanding a great deal of food. One of the parents was out hunting constantly. Occasionally the other parent would also join in the hunt. It was great to see them consume their fresh sushi! One meal appeared to be much tougher to rip apart leading us to believe that it wasn't fish. Ospreys are known to eat mostly fish, but occasionally rodents and other raptor food.
On our final day in Stanley I got this great idea to climb the hill behind the nest and photograph the chicks from there. Since the hillside was further from the power pole their nest was on than the highway, I did not believe there would be any disturbance. Cattle graze this hillside, further convincing me that the Osprey would not mind. I couldn't have been more wrong.
I approached the nest from a location which was concealed from their view. Gaining the elevation that I wanted, I moved around the hillside to view the nest. The female Osprey screeched in protest as her chicks hunkered down in the stick nest out of site. The faithful mom flew straight toward me screeching away.
Female Osprey.
She circled around me and into the sun. I could tell she was getting closer, but I could not tell how close.
Female Osprey.
I felt very vulnerable and began my retreat.
Female Osprey.
My retreat was not sufficient. She continued to circle in closer and closer, using the sun to her advantage. She continued to shreek in protest.
Female Osprey attacking.
I expected to lose my hat at any moment. She never got quite that close. Once I retreated a significant distance away, she returned to the nest. Needless to say, I didn't get the casual photo of the chicks I was hoping for.
On the morning we left, Karyn and I returned to one of our favorite wetlands. No salamanders, but we did find a frog.
Northern Spotted Leopard Frog.
Karyn then points out a black bird swimming in the water. What is it? My mind raced through all of the black birds that I knew. Nothing. Then I noticed it had black downy feathers, not adult feathers. It was clearly a chick of some sort. Probably a Rail or Sora.
Juvenile Virginia Rail.
We then spotted the parent and it was clear that this was a family of Virginia Rail with 4 chicks! This is a life bird for me and here were 5 of them! Very cool.
Adult Virginia Rail.
That concluded our excellent week of vacation. We returned to Boise so that I could report to the Idaho Bird Observatory for 6 weeks of songbird banding, my next summer adventure.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Anniversary Date

On July 14th, fifteen years ago, Karyn and I were married on a mountain bike trail in central Idaho. Each year we return to the area to play until we can't take any more. This is that week.
Our anniversary day began with breakfast at the Stanley Baking Company. Yes, roughing it in the wilds! Blackberry scones, oatmeal pancakes, a side of sausage, and great coffee. Mmmm! This being our fifth day of riding, we have to fuel up! From there we headed out to the Fisher Creek mountain bike trail. I featured this trail in a previous post. We had to let our breakfast settle, so we spent some time bird and flower watching at the trailhead.
Sawtooth Mountains.
Karyn took this great photo of me at the trailhead. Don't I look like a fertility statue?
Fertility Geek.
On to the ride. The trail climbs gently for a number of miles before hitting a very steep climb. We cleared the hill without dabbing. At the top of the climb we stopped to recover. I thought I had glimpsed a Black-backed Woodpecker here the last time we rode it. I decided to pick up a rock and tap out my best Black-backed drumming impression.
Black-backed Woodpecker Impression.
No luck on a Black-backed Woodpecker, but I did raise the ire of a Hairy Woodpecker. He scolded me from the hill above and then flew closer to defend his honor and his territory. Closer and closer he moved. I had not repeated the drumming, be he seemed to know the exact tree the sound had come from. He moved to within 15 feet, looking for the intruder. We left him in peace, still puzzled about our identity.
After the first tight and twisty downhill section we arrived at the meadow where we were married. Karyn and I stopped to look for frogs and salamanders. No, that's not slang, we really were looking for frogs and salamanders. Get your mind out of the gutter! None here. We have had a hard time finding frogs this year. Not sure why.
In the meadow where we were married.
I tried my woodpecker magic again at the meadow. A lone Northern Flicker responded from across the meadow, but did not come to investigate. At the top of the next hill, I tried again. A Flicker responded with calls from one direction and an unidentified woodpecker drummed from another. This really is a leisurely day. Last week we hammered out this trail in 1:45. This week it took 3 hours!
The big downhill was great fun, although a recent storm had blown down a number of trees. We managed to stop before hitting any of them. It was a fun and interesting ride as we explored along the way. It could have been called the tour of the woodpeckers. In addition to the Hairy Woodpecker and Northern Flicker, we also saw both Williamson's and Red-naped Sapsuckers.
The afternoon was spent enjoying more wildlife as we continued our search for birds, frogs, and salamanders. We have found a few frogs, but we really want to find a Blotched Tiger Salamander. We read about them a few months ago while in Yellowstone. Karyn remembers seeing one a few years ago. Have been searching since to try and find one. No luck so far.
We concluded the day with dinner at the Redfish Lake Lodge overlooking the Sawtooth Mountains.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nesting season at higher elevations

This is Karyn and I's anniversary week. We are spending it in the mountains where we were married fifteen years ago this month. Mountain biking, hiking, bird watching, and generally relaxing.
Not surprisingly, we have noticed that bird nesting season at this elevation (6500-7500 feet above sea level) is a little bit behind what we see in the city (2900 feet above sea level). The Owls, Hawks, and Robins have mostly fledged in town. Some Goose goslings even look full grown. Up here it looks as if we have stepped back in time a couple of months. At this elevation, most birds are still in their prime nesting activity.
From our campsite next to the Salmon River we can watch two separate nests. High on the hill above the camp, in an old snag, is a Red-tailed Hawk nest. Down river is an active Osprey nest! The Red-tails have two chicks which are nearly full size. This couple is unique. The assumed to be male is a dark morph Red-tail. The assumed to be female is fairly dark, but her chest and abdomen are colored red, almost to match her tail. She is a beautiful bird. I keep hoping for a closer encounter so I can get a photo. The Ospreys are also raising two chicks. We can watch them eating sushi regularly.
On a tandem ride on the Knapp Creek-Valley Creek loop, Karyn found a woodpecker nest. We could hear the chicks inside the tree chirping. I walked up to the tree to listen. The tree was in the sunshine so I reached up to shade the nest hole with my hand. The chicks went crazy soliciting for food! Not wanting to disturb them further, we retreated a distance away to watch. The female returned to the nest. It was an American Three-toed Woodpecker! Very cool! This is a life bird for me! We are located right on the edge of their usual range. The female brought food to the chicks, then extracted a poop sack and flew away with it. Very cool. Early nestlings excrete into a membranous sack so that it can be easily taken away to keep the nest clean. Built in diapers! I am sure we could find many other nests if we spent time looking.
The Great Owls. We pulled a Great Owl double! It started by revisiting the Great Gray Owl family that we located a few weeks ago. Once again, we could only find a single adult, but that was pretty amazing in itself. That evening we were seranaded to sleep by a pair of Great Horned Owls. That's pretty cool.
Day of the mammal. Not to give all of the attention to the birds, we have seen a number of cool mammals as well! Our camp was visited by a small Mink and a cute little Kangaroo Rat, along with the ever present Columbian Ground Squirrels. We are supposed to be outside of the range for the Kangaroo Rat, but he seemed to be making himself at home. Uinta Ground Squirrels and Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels have been present with along with chipmunks on our bike rides. We found a family of Muskrats in a favorite marsh where we look for birds. At least 4 little fuzzy babies swimming about while the adults are busy working! Pikas! Always a favorite. We have seen Elk on a few occasions. We found a herd and also spooked up bull while out on a ride. So much for the rumor that the wolves killed them all. We did find fresh wolf tracks in the mud, but have yet to see a live one on this trip. Deer have been out and about as well. The bucks have antlers, but they are still in velvet. We have searched a few times for a Badger with no luck. It hasn't all gone to the birds!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The greatest mountain bike trail on earth

Fifteen years ago this month, Karyn and I were married. The wedding was a bit out of the ordinary as we were married on our tandem mountain bike. Our witnesses, Doug and Peggy, were escorting us on their tandem mountain bike. My brother and Karyn's sister rode single mountain bikes so they could take pictures. The minister hiked in to perform the ceremony. The location was in the middle of our favorite mountain bike trail, Fisher Creek in central Idaho. The custom bike jerseys were sewn by my mom.
Fisher Creek Trailhead 1994.
This last weekend Karyn and I were in the Stanley area as I performed my Nightjar survey. We had an opportunity to ride the trail on our much newer Ventana full suspension mountain tandem (anniversary present two years ago!). I took along the handlebar camera to let you see what it is like. Remember, Karyn cannot actually see the trail in front. Its all about trust. After 15 years, she still rides with me, so I must have earned some along the way, or at least not lost too much!
The trail has a big climb and then three downhill sections separated by shorter climbs. This is a rare trail in that it seems like more downhill than up. This first section is pretty tight, thus the speed is fairly slow. On some of the switchback corners we must come to almost a complete stop before leaning to get the bike around. The end of this first video shows us arriving in the meadow where the actual wedding ceremony was held.
Wow. That was fun. There is a medium climb before the next section. This next section is the longest downhill on the trail. I had to trim the video a bit on the front and end to keep it under 10 minutes (Youtube limit). You will note that we come up behind a motorcycle who pulls off to let us by. It looks like we scared him off the trail! This is also a very fast section of trail.
After another short climb, it is all speed, except for the downed tree, to the end of the trail. It is a great 17 mile trail and my overall favorite on the planet! Well, I could be a bit biased on that one for sentimental reasons. Anyway, it is a great trail rivaling any in the popular mountain bike destinations.
We will be riding the trail again next week as we return to actually celebrate our anniversary.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Another Null Survey

Last year I made a multiple year commitment to survey for NightJars one night a year. NightJars are a family of crepuscular/nocturnal birds which in our area consist of the Common Nighthawk (not really a hawk!) and the Common Poorwill. Neither are really that common! Last year resulted in a good time, but a Null Survey. This year unfortunately produced similar results. It was however a great weekend regardless.
The survey is part of a nationwide effort led by the US NightJar Survey Network, part of the center for Conservation Biology of the College of William and Mary. They have mapped routes across the country and have asked volunteers to sign up for surveying a route, preferably for multiple years. It is believed that Nightjars are in a dramatic decline. This multiple year survey is intended to provide a basis for determining their population.
The surveys have to occur within a certain time frame (2 weeks in Idaho), on a clear night, with the moon visible. I chose early in the two week schedule as the moon rises later each day. Early in the cycle the survey can begin at 10pm. Late in the cycle it cannot begin until 2am!
We recently heard reports of a Great Gray Owl family in the area. Karyn and I headed up soon after my classes were out for the week to get a good campsite and to search for the Great Gray Owl. We did not find the family, but we did find one of the adults!
Great Gray Owl adult.
This adult was calling by vocalizing a single low call note. The call was answered by another Great Gray which was further back in the trees, probably 100-200 feet. We didn't see the others, as we didn't want to stick around too long and potentially disturb a new family. It is somewhat rare for them to be nesting in the area. I hope they are successful in raising their young and return to nest in future years.
While the day was beautiful the clouds poured in that evening. We would have to delay the nightjar survey for at least a day. We did go out wildlife watching where this Bald Eagle made its appearance.
Bald Eagle (Karyn's photo).
Friday morning we hiked down the Marsh Creek trail. Lots of birds - Western Tanagers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Yellow Warblers, Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, Warbling Vireos, Swainson's Thrushes, etc. We saw one hummingbird which might have been a Rufous, but as they often do, it wouldn't hold still. For the non-avian fans, there were lots of Pikas, relatives to rabbits. We passed 5 scree fields, each supporting at least one or two.
Pika collecting grass.
That afternoon, the clouds rolled in. We might have to cancel our survey again! If not tonight, then next weekend at 2am! nasty! We ran into some friends who were also camping. They invited us to dinner. Excellent dutch oven prime rib. About 9pm, the sky began to clear. Woo hoo! We decided to go start preparing to conduct the survey. At 9:30pm it looked better still, we were on! We drove to start the survey.
We started the survey at 10:02pm. The survey consists of a 6 minute listening period performed at each of ten sites, each separated by one mile. Since we had surveyed this route last year, all of the points were established and loaded into my GPS unit. Thus, the whole survey would take just under 2 hours. In each six minute period, we note how many of each species of Nightjar that is heard. Simple enough. Except, there were no Nightjars to be heard. Bummer. However, it was a beautiful night with no wind and a nearly full moon. Numerous Wilson's Snipes were winnowing in the distance. This is a sound that their tail feathers make as they perform aerial flight displays. Six or seven of the points had snipes that could be heard in the distance. We heard one coyote howl.
The null survey is still a very valuable result, equal at least in value to a survey where birds are found. A single survey with no birds doesn't mean that there aren't any there. Two surveys with no birds still doesn't prove their absence, but it does decrease the chance. This particular area is prime habitat for NightJars. Why aren't they there?
Today before we headed home we had a great Mountain Tandem ride on the Fisher Creek Trail. The trail we were married on 15 years ago, on a mountain tandem! Videos from that will be posted later.
On the way out of Stanley we spied a Sandhill Crane chick!
Sandhill Crane family (Karyn's photo).
This is the first chick we have seen this year. It was running back and forth between the parents whenever they would grab some food. In all, it was a great weekend.