Saturday, July 14, 2012

All Great Things Must Come to an End

How can it be that my second field season studying the Northern Goshawk in the Sawtooth National Forest has come to an end? I have a flood of emotions as I consider this prospect. I am sad that my days among the birds has ended. I will miss the ear piercing alarm calls of the adults when I enter their territory. I will miss the sound of the air turbulence as they dive just over my head. I will miss the feel of the wind generated by their wings on the back of my neck! I will miss the suspense of searching for new nesting locations and the joy of discovery when one is found. I will miss the analysis of their subtle behaviors and the challenge of interpreting what their behaviors actually mean. I will even miss the day to day challenges of trudging through the brush counting prey items. I will even miss Badger Gulch!! (the steepest and most rugged of our territories to survey).

I am grateful that I had such an awesome project to work on. I am grateful for the excellent support that I received from the Forest Service, from other awards I have received (Mike Madder's Field Research Award and Michael W Butler Ecological Research Award), from the Boise State University Raptor Research Center, from the Idaho Bird Observatory, and from the BSU Department of Biological Sciences. I am grateful for the excellent members of my team (Lauren, Emmy, and Mike). I am grateful for the many, many volunteers who came to the South Hills to work on the project. Lastly, I am grateful for Karyn's support through all of this project's trials and tribulations.

At the same time, I am very excited for the next phase of this project - the data analysis, manuscript publication, and conference presentations. Yes, it is true, I enjoy this part as well. I have put together an aggressive plan for progress on this front and I can't wait to get started.

This final week of field work consisted of a series of climbs into nests to band the young and collect blood samples for the parasite study. Three nests remained in trees that were safe enough to climb. The climbing duties were once again mine. We also completed our last round of prey surveys and performed habitat surveys in all of the territories. It was a big week!

The climbs. Our first attempt to climb this week was postponed as a result of thunderstorms. This would mean we would need to do multiple climbs per day to complete the work. This was in addition to our full morning of prey surveys each day. On the second day, we finally completed the first climb. To my surprise upon reaching the nest, there were three nestlings instead of two! Bonus. Sometimes from the ground it is difficult to get an accurate count of the birds, even late in the nestling phase.

Mike providing climbing support while I go up the tree. Surprised to find 3 nestlings instead of 2!
Nestling checking out the new arrival - Me!
Got ya!
Goshawk burritos!
Left to right: Emmy taking blood samples, Alexis taking notes, Heidi banding nestlings.
Ahh, smelling the breath of a baby goshawk! Priceless...

The first climb was a success. As we moved toward climb number two for the day, the skies once again began to threaten. We had to cancel. Now I was contemplating cancelling one of the climbs all together as we were running out of time. As we sat in the rain contemplating our plan, a patch of blue sky appeared on the horizon. We scrambled to assemble the team to take advantage of this window of clear skies.

This nest tree is located near a popular campground. As we assembled gear, local campers stopped by to see what we were up to, and once they knew, asked if they could watch. Of course! One of our roles as biologists is to educate the public whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Me explaining my research, what we were doing, and what they should expect.
Nestling staring down at me as I climbed the tree.
Woah! What are you?!? Response as I reached the nest.
Adult female perched nearby watching the spectacle.

The adult female of this nest is banded (note the silver and color band in the above photo). This bird was banded as a nestling by other researchers at Boise State University back in July of 2004. Her identification helps us paint a picture of how far these birds disperse from their natal nests and the general health of the population. We hope that more observations like this will provide us with a more complete picture. This is our primary purpose for banding the young. We now have three high quality data points and with 29 new bands applied this year, hope for quite a few more data in coming years.

Crowd looks on as Mike bands the nestling. I am still hanging in the tree.

The last climb of the week was also a success. This last climb was special as the female was a sub-adult that I banded last year. Generally it is rare for sub-adults to breed, but it has happened on a number of occasions in the South Hills. Last year I had one sub-adult breeder, but the nest failed. Sub-adults often have much lower nest success. The nest with the sub-adult this year looks well poised for success. The single nestling has now reached the age of 30 days old.

More nests? The year has been a spectacular success for goshawks. As of Wednesday we had 17 occupied nests and all are on track to be successful (fledging at least one young). On Thursday, during my final prey survey of the project, I happened upon an 18th occupied nest. The randomly placed survey just happened to pass right by the nest. A single 38 day old nestling stared down at me. Spectacular luck. With the age of this nestling, it is possible there were others that had already left the nest, but I didn't see any. This just proves my point that there are probably a number of additional nests that we don't know about. Every time we look in a new area, we tend to find occupied nests or at least signs of previous nesting activity. Over the past two years, we have established five new territories that were not previously known. I have had detections in three additional areas, but we were unable to either repeat the detection or find evidence of an occupied nest. The goshawks are doing well in the unique forest structure of the South Hills, a location where you might not expect them to be.

Charlie! In previous posts I have told the story of Charlie, a nestling goshawk that we found on the ground and returned to the nest. I am happy to report that Charlie is still kicking and it appears as if he will fledge any day now. His three nest-mates have already left the nest, but he is still being protected and fed by his parents. Here is a video highlighting the departure of his last nest-mate and his first meal alone in the nest. We wish you well Charlie! (video presented in double time)

Next Steps. While the regular field operations are over, the project is far from complete. In a couple of weeks I will return to the South Hills to take down my nest cameras and check status in a few locations. Then comes watching three months of recorded video to quantify the prey consumption by the nestlings. Even with fast forward, that is going to take a while. More data analysis, manuscript generation, manuscript submission, presentation at conferences, etc all follow from there. It should be a fantastic, yet busy journey.


woodchuck said...

Yay for 2004! That was me! I love Badger Gulch... altho since we were doing telemetry, mostly we just drove around on the mountain tops there...up and down 'scary road.' Spectacular! Nice job Rob.

Allie Marie said...

Awesome pics Rob!

LisaZBrown said...

Great recap and fantastic pics as well.