Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What About the Birds?

Karyn and I just returned from a week long vacation exploring the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. This is our second in a series of posts highlighting some of our observations (previous post - Three Dog, Two Bear Day). Our activities included lots of wildlife watching, meeting with our friends from visits past, and a daily hike.

Many people travel to Yellowstone in the hopes of seeing the large mammals, ourselves included. However, the birding there is also great. We had a great time enjoying the avifauna, some of which was up close and personal.

Many of our most interesting observations included the community of Common Ravens in the park. These intelligent birds are very cunning and quite entertaining. They are often found following bears and wolves. There is even a theory that ravens might actually lead predators to prey.

We had a mix of entertaining observations. In the Yellowstone picnic area a family turned away from the table and their bag of potato chips were gone in an instant. They didn’t even see the bag disappear! On another observation we watched a raven fend off the attacks of six Black-billed Magpies to eventually find their nest. After close to five minutes of attacks, it finally found the nest and flew off with at least one magpie nestling in it’s beak, maybe two.

Common Raven, Yellowstone Picnic Area, Yellowstone National Park.

Common Raven, Yellowstone Picnic Area, Yellowstone National Park.

Common Raven nest, near Gibbon Falls, Yellowstone National Park.

We have watched on previous trips as Common Ravens mobbed Bald Eagles. In my observations over time, it is a common occurrence. However, in the instance of this particular eagle, a group of six Common Ravens were perched behind the eagle. They appeared to be waiting for the eagle to make a kill, that they might then try to steal. When the eagle flew off, so did the ravens.

Bald Eagle and Common Raven, Floating Island Lake, Yellowstone National Park.

Bald Eagle, Floating Island Lake, Yellowstone National Park.

Sticking with Raptors, we once again observed the Peregrine Falcon nest that we found last year (near Tower Falls). We also observed them in Lamar Canyon which brings the total distinct locations we have observed Peregrine Falcons within the park to four. It is always great to observe these birds that just decades earlier were at the risk of going extinct.

Peregrine Falcon on a nest, Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park.

Of course, we observed lots of other birds as well. Here’s a collection of higher quality photos.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

House Wren, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Black-headed Grosbeak, Upper Mesa Falls, Idaho (just outside of park).

White-crowned Sparrow, Tower Junction, Yellowstone National Park.

Killdeer, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Gray Jay, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Specimen Ridge, Yellowstone National Park.

Western Meadowlark, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Brewer’s Blackbird, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Townsend’s Solitaire, Specimen Ridge, Yellowstone National Park.

Canada Goose family, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Cinnamon Teal, Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park.

Mountain Bluebird, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Three Dog, Two Bear Day

Karyn and I just returned from a week long vacation exploring the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. This is our first in a series of posts highlighting some of our observations. Our activities included lots of wildlife watching, meeting with our friends from visits past, and a daily hike.

We were lucky enough to observe wolves and grizzly bears every day of our visit. On one day, we accomplished the highly sought after “three dog day” – the trifecta of sighting wolves, coyotes, and red foxes on the same day. The red fox is actually the most difficult to find of the three. On the same day we saw the dogs, we also observed both bear species in the park – the duo of black bear and grizzly bear. This isn’t quite as big of an accomplishment if you know where to look. In all five cases, we had multiple observations of each species that day. Wow. That doesn’t happen very often. I came up short of calling it a “perfecta” as we did not observe wolverine, fisher, pine marten, mountain lion, Canadian lynx, bobcat, and any number of lesser mammalian carnivores. You have to dream big! Regardless, it was quite an exciting day.

The Dogs

There were three wolf packs in the northern range of Yellowstone that were regularly visible during our visit. We would observe just two of them as we were not willing to travel too far to observe the “Prospect Pack”. We did look for them, unsuccessfully, on the day we had to travel to Gardiner to resupply. We mainly limited our time to the Lamar Canyon Pack and the Junction Butte Pack.

Lamar Canyon wolf crossing Soda Butte Creek to return to den area.

One evening we listened to wolf howls in three different directions. This suggested that there was a very good chance that they would all come together. As we waited, the wolves snuck down close to us and crossed the footbridge just 50 meters from where we were parked. They were hidden by the river bank until they came up on the other side. By the time I grabbed the camera, they were 100 meters away and appeared to be on a mission.  Night would fall before we were able to observe them hunting.

Three Lamar Canyon wolves heading to a rendezvous.

On our last morning of our visit, the Lamar Canyon wolves decided to make a scene by standing, and then bedding, in the middle of the road. The park rangers chased them off the road and up a hill. There they entertained us with five to ten minutes of group howling. It was an awesome sight and sound that I will not soon forget!

Five Lamar Canyon wolves howling after being displaced from the roadway.

In addition to the howling, the wolves put on a show of wrestling to further strengthen the pack hierarchy. Note the grey wolf with its paws on top of the black wolf. The black wolf just had to take the humiliation, otherwise it would be likely settled with violence.

Lamar Canyon wolf establishing dominance .

The other pack in the area is the Junction Butte Pack. As you might guess, their usual range is centered near Junction Butte, however we usually observed them during their excursions into the Lamar Valley where we observed them travelling as far east as the buffalo ranch, just a couple of miles from the Lamar Canyon pack’s den.

Junction Butte wolves retreating toward “Little America” and Junction Butte.

Junction Butte wolves retreating toward “Little America” and Junction Butte.

Junction Butte wolves retreating toward “Little America” and Junction Butte, on a different day.

The wolf experts told us that there are a large number of young solo wolves roaming the park. These wolves could be loosely associated with one of the existing packs. This particular one had some fun chasing the sow grizzly bear and her three cubs (pictured below in the bear section), before crossing the ridge to our point of observation. I like the fact that there are wild wolves that we don’t know every detail about.

Unknown solo wolf in the Slough Creek area.

The easiest dog in the park to observe is the coyote. This particular coyote was observed while we were hiking to the upper Slough Creek meadow. It was harassing two Sandhill Cranes. We don’t think the coyote was successful in getting the nest, but we could not be sure.

Coyote searching for Sandhill Crane nest, upper Slough Creek.

The most difficult dog to find is the red fox. We were lucky and saw three individuals (one pair, one solo) on our three dog day. This clever fox was moving down Elk Creek where it picked up an egg without us even knowing it. It is a good sized egg.

Red Fox in Elk Creek.

Red Fox in Elk Creek with an egg.

The Bears

Many people travel to Yellowstone in the hopes of seeing grizzly bears. We are no exception. However, we prefer our observations to occur while we are near our vehicle and not on the trail. We did observe some grizzly bears on two of our hikes, but each were at least a mile away.

Grizzly bears are easy to observe in the park this time of year if you know where to look. They generally don’t move too far in a day, so can often be found on the same high meadows day after day. For the entire week we were in the park, a courting pair of grizzly was regularly visible on the “K meadow” high above the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek, and a female with two cubs-of-the-year were regularly visible on the “third-finger” of mount Norris. Yes, it does take a while to learn all the local geographic lingo!

Our grizzly highlight was observing “Scarface”, a 27-year-old bear about 100 meters away from us at the confluence. We spent all evening watching him before he crossed the river and headed north.

Grizzly bear “Scarface” getting a drink from the Lamar River.

Grizzly bear “Scarface” shaking off the water after crossing the Lamar River.

But the real bear highlight of the week, and the source of unbelievable traffic jams known as “bear jams”, was the female grizzly with three cubs-of-the-year that was visible in Slough Creek for three days. She has just 200 meters from the road. Thousands of people got an opportunity to see her. We watched for a short while and then generally tried to avoid the area and the crowds.

Female grizzly bear with three cubs-of-the-year, Slough Creek.

The Tower Falls area continued to be the go-to place for black bears. At least three family groups of bears were using the two mile stretch of road. On our first day in the park we observed the family group consisting of a female and two “second year” or “yearling” cubs, one of which was a cinnamon (i.e., a brown colored black bear).

Two “second-year” black bear cubs.

Adult female black bear with cinnamon cub.

More updates later…

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Eight, Wait… Nine Woodpeckers of the Targhee National Forest!

This last week I spent eight days in eastern Idaho launching my second major field project of the year which involves surveying for eight woodpecker species within the Targhee portion of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. This is the second year of this program and one in which I participate in all aspects - survey design, recruiting, hiring, execution, data analysis, and reporting. It was great to get back in the forest and experience the fantastic beauty it has to offer.

The project is primarily implemented by a two person team that I hired and spent the week training. I then completed a few survey routes by myself on my way home, increasing our overall sample size.

My solo survey, Western portion of Targhee National Forest near Lone Pine, Idaho.

My crew consists of two students, one from BYU-Idaho and one from Weber State. They will work for eight weeks within the forest surveying for the eight woodpecker species that regularly occur in the area – Red-naped Sapsucker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker.

Travis and Stephen on their first day of surveys near Alpine Wyoming,
Caribou-Targhee National Forest

Early morning moon, Western portion of Targhee National Forest near Lone Pine, Idaho.

Most of our woodpecker surveys consist of detecting woodpeckers by sounds. Probably 90% of the birds we detect are never seen. However, we do often get dramatic responses to our calls. Our protocol requires silent listening for six minutes at each point and then transitions to call-broadcast. These call broadcasts essentially double our chances of detecting a woodpecker that is present at the point. It often results in the birds calling back, but occasionally the birds fly in to investigate the source of the call. As I told my team, playing the call is equivalent to walking into a strangers house and yelling out that you now own the place. It is not a polite thing to do. It is for this reason that I only endorse this method when justified by specific study protocols.

In one instance we had two pairs of Red-naped Sapsuckers converge on us from two directions. Apparently we were right on the border between their territories. Both pairs landed in the same tree and then began screaming at each other. They completely ignored our presence.

Red-naped Sapsucker near Alpine, Wyoming, Caribou-Targhee National Forest.

The highlight of the week occurred at one of the most unexpected of times. After a tough day of surveys, my crew was napping in camp. I was sitting in the cab of my field truck reading a book. Earlier, I had taken a photo of a Red-naped Sapsucker on a tree about 30 feet in front of me. At a chapter break in my book, I glanced up and saw an unknown woodpecker in the same location. It had an all black back and red from the back of its neck to the top of its head. As I was in the area to study the eight common woodpecker species, I immediately realized it was NOT one of those! It was also not one of the other two species occurring in Idaho. Woah! Wow! It turned its head and I saw that it was an Acorn Woodpecker! I had seen Acorn Woodpeckers in Belize, but nowhere near Idaho. It flew off before I had a chance for a photo. Dang!

I looked up the range maps and the map of all historical sightings. Nowhere near eastern Idaho! This was going to be a tough sell given that I had no photo evidence.

eBird map of all historical reports of Acorn Woodpeckers.

Well, as luck would have it, a number of Idaho Birders were intrigued enough by my report to make the journey. The next day after completing my day of work in the field, I returned to the area to find four carloads of birders in the area, two of which arrived early enough to find and photograph the bird.  The others were too late as has been everyone else that has searched the area over the past week. Thus the bird has only been observed by four people.

My friend Jake (second person to find the bird) was kind enough to provide a copy of one of his photos for official Idaho Bird Record Committee report and for this blog. Thanks Jake!

Acorn Woodpecker near Swan Valley, Idaho, the first ever reported in Idaho.
(Copyright Jake Briggs)

This was definitely the highlight of the trip and the highlight of my birding experience. It is the rarest bird I have ever had the opportunity to find and report.

As with all of my field work, just being outside provides opportunities to observe great things in nature. I particularly liked these cacti occurring on dry rocky slopes at 8000 feet above sea level. This area would have been covered in snow as little as three weeks earlier, but is now very dry and appropriate for the hardy plants. None had yet bloomed.

Who doesn’t love Mountain Bluebirds? This male/female pair appear to “not be talking to each other!” Ha.

I also love Ruffed Grouse. They have a tendency to freeze in the middle of the road when surprised. They then move in slow motion to the side. It is a great spectacle to watch.

My crew is now trained and working on their own. I have returned to Boise for some office work and to be trained in Hummingbird banding. The Intermountain Bird Observatory has established an annual banding project in Idaho City. This year I will be trained as one of our banders. The next big field project will be my Northern Goshawk work within the Sawtooth National Forest which kicks off in June.