My first assignment of the summer has drawn to a close. Interspersed with working on research manuscripts and teaching classes, I have spent nine days during the past three weeks surveying for woodpeckers. This is the first of seven different projects I have going on between now and this fall. I will be a busy man.
This particular project involved surveying for White-headed Woodpeckers and Pileated Woodpeckers in the Emmett Ranger District of the Boise National Forest. These two species are Management Indicator Species for the forest. The idea of a Management Indicator Species is to allow the forest service to monitor fewer species, but to choose species which represent the overall health of the forest. The forest has a long-term monitoring plan in place to survey these same routes each year. We would find many Pileated Woodpeckers, but no White-headed Woodpeckers during the surveys. I did have one White-headed Woodpecker in my camp the night before a survey, so that one may count.
The monitoring plan specifies 10 survey transects in each of the five ranger districts. The Idaho Bird Observatory (my employer) only has the contract for one of the districts, thus we had ten total surveys, of which I performed nine. Each transect is set up along a seldom used forest road or trail. It consists of ten separate survey points each separated by at least 300 meters. The survey begins 30 minutes before sunrise at the first point and must finish by 10am. At each point the surveyor logs every bird they see or hear, the direction, and the distance, for a period of ten minutes. Then its on to the next point. Some surveys require a 20-30 minute hike to get to the first point, so it can definitely be an early morning.
The job presents some unique challenges. For the most part the hiking is easy as most of it is along roads or trails, although one in particular had a very large number of downed trees to navigate. Snow fields were occasionally an issue as well, but fairly manageable. The 15 degree morning was a bit of a shocker, but once I got going all was good.
One of my favorite morning past-times is to scan for peering eyes while I eat my breakfast. My headlamp illuminates the animal's eyes but not their body. I had three sets staring at my one morning and one set on another morning. I assume that they were all deer, but I don't know for sure. People always ask if I am afraid of animals in the area, usually wolves. Generally I am not afraid of anything except mountain lions. I enjoy watching for sign.
The biggest challenge is to identify every bird by sight or sound. I am very comfortable and confident on the ten woodpecker species which are the priority, but not across the entire avian world. There are over 300 possible species in Idaho. I must occasionally use that feared code UNBI - Unidentified Bird.
Ticks. I hate Ticks. Enough Said...
Of the nine surveys I performed, my favorite was Rattlesnake Ridge, north of Crouch, Idaho. This was the most difficult, had the most downed trees to climb over, the most snow, and the second largest number of ticks. The birds and the views made it outstanding. I would see seven of the ten woodpecker species in Idaho during this one survey (Pileated, Downy, Hairy, Black-backed, Red-naped Sapsucker, Williamson's Sapsucker, and Northern Flicker). Unfortunately, that list did not include the White-headed Woodpecker. At one survey point a Black-backed Woodpecker flew to a tree about 10 meters away and started drumming. A Hairy Woodpecker and a Red-naped Sapsucker flew over in protest, perching on trees about ten meters away as well. All three were drumming away and I was standing in the middle. A Williamson's Sapsucker joined in about 50 meters away It was woodpecker mayhem! Apparently the Black-backed is the enemy as they all seemed to tolerate each other up until that point. Maybe it was just one too many birds for the area. This area is an old burn and many of these species like burns. At the top of the ridge I observed a Merlin diving on a group of Mountain Bluebirds (unsuccessfully). I saw my first Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch on the mountain. There were Western Bluebirds, Townsend's Solitaires, Cassin's Finches, a Cooper's Hawk, and all of the other usual suspects. And the views... Being above 7000 feet at the first of May is remarkable.
As with my other fieldwork, this project was an awesome experience. It took my places I would not have otherwise gone, I saw things I would not otherwise have seen, and it taught me things I would not otherwise have learned. I can't wait for the next project.
What's next on the agenda? Some vacation in Yellowstone, some database work another project (American Kestrels), beginning a manuscript on sagebrush songbirds, and then returning to the Sawtooth National Forest to pursue the Northern Goshawk in June. I follow that with another woodpecker project, some Black Swift surveys, and then will travel to Spain to collaborate on migration research with Fundacion Migres out of Tarifa. Then its back to trapping migrating raptors this fall. It will be a fun filled summer for sure!