Monday, March 29, 2010

Idaho Chapter of The Wildlife Society

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to attend the Idaho Chapter of the Wildlife Society meetings to present my research on the weather effects on avian migration. Due to my courses, and the fact that I skipped a week of school a while back to attend a conference in San Diego, I was not able to attend the whole three day conference. I did attend the full day of scientific presentations.

The sessions were split for most of the day into an Avian track and a Mammalian track. There were interesting presentations in both, but I generally stuck with
the birds. Each presentation was limited to 20 minutes, making for a very busy day exploring many different topics. In the afternoon the sessions combined into one large session which is when my talk was scheduled. There was a good audience of 200-300 people, mostly representatives from the various government agencies - US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Idaho Fish and Game, etc. My presentation went very well, it was a slightly expanded version of the talk I delivered at the American Ornithologist Union conference. I received better questions and more feedback at this local conference and I have integrated much of that feedback into my manuscript which I hope will soon be submitted for publication.

The presentations throughout the day included a wide variety of topics. Some were formal research papers such as mine, and some were simply program presentations. It made for an interesting mix. The morning started with a presentation of spatial modeling as applied to Mountain Quail. This unique approach looks at modeling many of the environmental aspects of the habitats where mountain quail exist to determine where else they might exist or where they might do well if reintroduced. It may seem like a straight forward problem, but it gets very complicated when scaled across the west and with species which have very specific requirements. Next up was a focus on conservation agreements with private land owners to help preserve the Great Sage-Grouse. These agreements provide a promise to local land owners that if they agree to these terms now, they won't receive additional requirements if the Sage-grouse is eventually listed as an endangered species. It has been successful in a number of cases, but faces challenges when scaled up across the region - each landowner requires a separate contract.

A very fascinating presentation on climate change and the potential resilience of our national parks was probably the best talk of the day. This comprehensive study included over 700 species and 37 climate variables. Generally bad news. Each park is predicted to lose 10-50% of their biodiversity. A total of 10% of species now in our national parks will no longer exist in any national park in 100 years. On a happier note, the next speaker discussed the use of volunteers to restore riparian habitat. This has been a very successful program. A review of the Idaho Watershed Initiative looks promising, but a number of questions remain most notably a reliable funding source. For the data geeks, of which I consider myself, a review of the forest inventory data showed some very promising application in wide landscape analysis. I introduced myself to the author following the talk as it might be applicable to my masters thesis.

The next sessions included four presentations on grouse monitoring - Sharp-tailed, two on Greater-sage, and one on forest grouse. Each require their own techniques and indicate just how little we know about some of the populations. Sage-grouse are getting a great deal of attention, but Sharp-tailed Grouse are predicted to have a much lower population and have lost a predicted 95% of their population. One study looked into the impact of fence collisions on the population and discovered a number of significant effects. Idaho still allows hunting of all of these species although two are candidates for the endangered species list and the population of forest grouse is largely unknown.

On a completely different topic, a long term study of Golden Eagle nests looks to determine when a nest may no longer be used. Since Golden Eagle nests are protected, how long should they be protected if they haven't been used? Nests on average are used once every 4 years, although some have been vacant for 23 years, then reused. Each Eagle pair maintains 4-8 nests!

The only mammal talk I attended was studying habitat use by mountain lions after wolf reintroduction. The majority of the talk was focused on the methods and not the results. The primary results indicate that wolf reintroduction had little effect on male mountain lions, but the females generally avoid wolf territory during the summer. They coexist in the winter.

The late afternoon session highlighted my talk, then another Idaho Bird Observatory presentation by my research advisor on Long-billed Curlew monitoring. This is a relatively new program in its second year. A study of whether the American Dipper would make a good ecological indicator species determined that it would not. The white-headed woodpecker is in trouble for all of the usual reasons - loss of habitat and forest fragmentation.

The last talk of the afternoon presented a fairly compelling argument why Idaho Power should be allowed to put a high voltage power line through the Snake River Birds of Prey Area. Most notably, power lines attract Common Ravens, Ravens eat Greater Sage-Grouse eggs. The alternative route passes right through the best Sage-grouse habitat in Idaho.

The most entertaining presentation of the day was the key speaker at the banquet. Tom Smith presented his work on Polar Bear monitoring. Using very high tech equipment he is able to view a polar bear inside a den from a half kilometer away. The videos were outstanding. Most of the discussion focused on the changing environment in the arctic. The most compelling was a 15 years compressed loop of NASA imaging showing the receding polar ice. If there are any warming doubters left in the world, they should see the video. I was completely astounded. It doesn't bode well for these magnificent species.

All in all it was another very educational and worthwhile day. If it seems like a whirlwind while reading it, that's because it is. When the whole day is divided into 20 minute segments, its hard to look deeply at anything.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Horned Lark

While mountain biking on Friday in the Boise foothills, we discovered what we believed to be fox dens far from the trail. Maybe they are coyote dens? We have seen fewer foxes this year than usual. Maybe wolves have displaced coyotes which have displaced foxes. If so, this would be the natural order for the canids. Wolves tend to keep the others in check. This morning we decided to take the photography blind and do some off trail hiking to get a better look to see what we could discover.
It was a beautiful cool morning with little wind. The ground was still frozen and there were remnants of yesterday's snow. What a great day for a hike. We circled around the lower part of the ravine to approach with the sun at our backs in case a good photographic opportunity presented itself. A short distance from the holes we planted ourselves on the ground to observe. There was no action readily visible. While we sat and waited groups of American Robins started flying over 10, 50, 100 ... They were everywhere. Western Meadowlarks were singing all around us as well. But the highlight was the Horned Lark which was singing fairly close. I was able to get a few photos.
We eventually gave up on the mammals and just focused on the birds. The dug holes appeared to be exploratory dens most likely for Red Fox with no animals present. We'll keep an eye out for activity later on. It was a great time to be out exploring a ravine where there aren't any trails.
Horned Lark. Boise foothills.

Horned Lark. Boise foothills.

Horned Lark. Boise foothills.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The next stage

In my experiences, life choices are sometimes very stressful endeavors. We search for certainty and determinism in the future, while we occasionally hope the decisions will be made for us. We often search out stability, when instability has provided us the greatest opportunities of our lives. In hindsight on my life, nearly every life decisions has worked out well. Here's to hoping the track record continues.
I had stressed over my departure from Hewlett-Packard for more than a year before making the final decision to leave. As I have said before, it was an excellent decision. I have completed one of the best years of my life. Coming up in May, I will graduate from Boise State University with a second Bachelors degree, this one in Biology with an emphasis in Ecology. I have been on the Dean List with Highest Honors for each semester here. I have made some great friends and have thrived in the academic community.
What does an upcoming graduate do when they love academics and research and are facing a dismal job market? Apply to go to graduate school! This also helps avoid actually having a job! My last November and December were partially consumed by this process.
This week I received notice of my acceptance into Boise State's Master's Program in Raptor Biology. Along with the acceptance came an offer of a teaching assistantship! There are a few conditions on the offer. Most notably, I have to actually graduate in May and the University budget has not yet been finalized. I am reasonably confident in my ability to accomplish the former, but the later concerns me greatly as the legislature just delivered a 7.5% decrease in funds for public schools. I probably won't know for sure until late April. Anyway, I have accepted their conditional offer.
Summer: Before jumping into graduate school I will spend the early part of the summer surveying for Flammulated Owls across Southern Idaho. This will be a challenge as I have always been a morning person! Anyway, I am tremendously excited about this job. Hiking through the wilderness at night is something I have always enjoyed, but never done enough of. My teammate for owls will be Jack, a guy I worked with at the Idaho Bird Observatory last summer. It should be a great 8 weeks. Mid-July I will return to the Idaho Bird Observatory for songbird banding. I will have to switch from the night shift back to the morning shift as we band songbird for the first 5 hours after sunrise. Mid-August I report to school a week early to begin lab assignments and training for my teaching assistantship (hopefully). Then I have new research to perform.
We are currently discussing three possible thesis projects for my master program. They each involve predator prey relationships. I hope over the next 2 months to filter this down to a primary focus area. To do that I must perform some literature searches to determine which of these areas has been studied in the past.
The journey continues. People always ask me what I will do when I am finished. I actually don't know. This is more of a journey than a destination. At this time I hope to continue performing research to help the conservation of wildlife and wild places. We will see where the journey takes me.