17 November 2015

How Grandad Taught Me Radio Tracking

Grandad O'Donnell giving me an early lesson in wildlife and fisheries management.

When I was young and we went to my grandparents' house for Thanksgiving or Christmas, my Grandad would play a game with us called "Hot or Cold."  He'd hide a few coins around the living room while we waited upstairs, then call us down.  As we slowly worked our way around the room he'd give us the play-by-play, to indicate how close we were to the coins and whether we were going in the right direction.  "You're very cold," "You're getting warmer," and when we almost found the coins, "You're burning up; you're almost on fire!"  Radio tracking an animal works exactly the same way.

This weekend, I got to help Tiffany Sprague, an Arizona State University graduate student, radio track Mexican Garter Snakes.  The Mexican Garter Snake is a federally protected species, listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  It once occurred along many still and slow-moving water bodies in central and southern Arizona and New Mexico, but it has declined dramatically because of competition and predation by introduced species and the development and draining of wetlands.  Tiffany is trying to help this species by studying its fine-scale habitat preferences.  Knowing exactly what kind of habitat is best for this species will help land managers bring it back to the areas where it has been lost, once the non-native predators and competitors like sport fish, crayfish, and bullfrogs are under control.

This fish hatchery specializes on raising native non-game fish and on making habitat for the endangered Mexican Garter Snake.
A selection of various radio transmitters that are used on the snakes, some for larger snakes (red), and some for smaller snakes to be implanted (silver antennae) or attached externally (black antennae).

Since May, Tiffany, Kellie, and a crew of volunteers have been catching Mexican Garter Snakes and having radio transmitters surgically implanted in them.  They then released the snakes where they found them, and have been returning each weekend to monitor what the snakes are doing and especially which habitats they are using.  They use a handheld antenna to listen for pings from each snake's radio, with each snake on a different frequency.  The antennae are directional, so by rotating them back and forth, they can find which direction is "hot" or "cold:" which direction they need to go to find their target snake.

Tyler and Kellie radio tracking a snake near the hatchery.  "You're getting warmer. . . ."

Scott and Tiffany try to pinpoint the exact underground location of a brumating Mexican Garter Snake.  "You're almost on fire!"

Once we tracked down a snake, whether it was underground or not, we measured a bunch of habitat variables in the area of the snake, including slope, aspect, ground cover, temperature, wind speed, and others.  Then we randomly selected a nearby point so that Tiffany could compare the habitats the snakes chose to the ones they didn't.

Tiffany starts measuring the habitat where a snake was seen earlier in the day (pink flag), while Scott tries to determine where it has moved to.
Kellie used this one meter diameter section of garden hose to delineate the area around a brumating snake where she would measure the microhabitat.
By about 4:00, few snakes had been seen on the surface and those that were on the surface had quickly escaped into nearby holes or blackberry brambles.  I hadn't seen a snake yet, so we went back to measure the habitat at a spot where Scott thought the snake might still be visible.  This was a unique microhabitat, where the snake was in a small undercut bank at the edge of a dry pond.  Although it was similar to a burrow, it didn't go deep enough that the snake could actually escape view.  It was here that I saw my first Mexican Garter Snake, or at least saw its side.  Because they are an endangered species and because Tiffany was studying their behavior, we wanted to be certain not to disturb the snake too much or change its activity.  Scott gently peeled the grass back just enough that I could see the snake in its hole, and then placed it back, leaving the snake just as we had found it.

Scott pulls back the grass to reveal my lifer Mexican Garter Snake under the cut edge of the bank in a dried pond.

A slightly closer look at the endangered Mexican Garter Snake.
Scott and Tiffany measure the habitat in a 5-meter diameter circle around the snake using these PVC poles to mark distances from the snake at half-meter intervals.
This south-facing rocky slope was a particularly popular place for the snakes to spend the winter.  Each pink flag (at least 10 visible here) marks the location a snake was detected underground.
As the sun set and the sky got dark, most of our tracking was done for the day.  However, Tiffany is only tracking the snakes once a week, and wanted to do a bit more intensive tracking of a few select snakes to be sure here weekly data were representative of shorter time scales as well.  So each weekend, two snakes get monitored every 3 hours, 24 hours a day.  It was nearly dark when Kellie and Scott set out to track the two target snakes, and they'd be waking up every three hours through the night to check on them.  I, on the other hand, shared a great dinner with the crew and then got to head home to my own bed!

As the sky turned from blue to black, Kellie and Scott headed out to check on the movements of the two Mexican Garter Snakes that were the subject of fine-scale monitoring this weekend.

09 November 2015

Birding Mt. Ord

Last week, my friend Jason and I went birding on Mt. Ord.  Mt. Ord is one of those places that is well known to locals, but probably rarely heard of by most birders outside of the greater Phoenix area.  It is a locally popular birding spot because it is the most accessible high-elevation site in Maricopa County, and so it is an easy place to find several bird species that can be tough to find anywhere else in the county. (Brown's Peak, part of the Four Peaks, is about 500 feet higher in elevation, but it takes hours of driving down a very rough road to reach the trailhead, with more hiking and climbing after that to reach the summit.  Mt. Ord is an easy drive in a passenger car all the way to within 0.75 miles of the summit.)

View of Mt. Ord from the highway on the way up as the sun starts to brighten the sky.
Jason and I started from his apartment well before sunrise so that we could be on the mountain when the birds were most active at first light.  It was about an hour drive to the top of the mountain.  The sun had risen before we started birding at 7:00, but it was still cold and dark because we were on the west side of the peak.  We started on Forest Road 1688, which is a convenient spot for county listers not just because it traverses chaparral and Ponderosa Pine habitats, but also because its entire length is in Maricopa County, so you don't have to worry about whether the rare bird you found was on the right side of the county line.

Almost as soon as we got out of the car,we came into a mixed flock of birds, including Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Bushtits, White-breasted Nuthatches, and a Bewick's Wren.  One of the first few birds I saw was an Olive Warbler!  This is an uncommon species in Maricopa County because there is not much of its high elevation conifer habitat within the county borders, but it is even more rare this late in the year, after most of them have migrated south to Mexico.

My lifer Olive Warbler was one of the first birds of the morning.
We continued along FR1688 and saw a lot of other specialty species of this mountain habitat.  It was a treat to compare Juniper Titmouse and Bridled Titmouse side-by-side, accompanied by a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets.  An immature Golden Eagle soared by, showing the white patches in the wing as it glided overhead.  Brown Creepers called with their high-pitched notes from the conifers.  It was also fun to sort out the Dark-eyed Junco subspecies: we saw at least three types on this road (Oregon, Pink-sided, and Gray-headed).

This Juniper Titmouse was a bit out of place in a Ponderosa Pine, but we saw it in an Alligator Juniper, too.  This flock had a pair of titmice each of Juniper and Bridled flavors.

Although the sun was shining, it felt cold on the top of the mountain, especially with the wind blowing.  We were surprised to see not just one, but two tarantulas on the prowl.
FR1688 was fun and productive, but I also wanted to see the summit and bird the road a bit.  After a couple of hours, we headed up to the parking lot at the end of the road.  From there it was a 3/4 mile walk to the summit, with the first 1/4 mile mostly in Gila County and the last 1/2 mile in Maricopa County.  The birding was slow, but we did see our fourth Dark-eyed Junco subspecies of the day, a Red-backed Junco (a subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco that looks very similar to Gray-headed Junco and is rare in Maricopa County).  We also added Pine Siskin to the list for the day.  In total, I added 14 new species to my Maricopa County list, the biggest bump in my county list since my first month here.

This Red-backed subspecies Dark-eyed Junco is rare in Maricopa County.  It can be told from its look-alike relative, the Gray-headed Junco, by the whitish throat (contrasting more with the hood than the grayish throat of the Gray-headed Junco) and especially the dark upper mandible (pale pink on Gray-headed Junco).

The view from the top of Mt. Ord.  The Phoenix area is hard to see at this scale but is visible in the distance in the left part of this photo.

26 October 2015

My First BFF . . .

. . . That's Black-footed Ferret, of course!  Last night I joined the Arizona Game and Fish Department on a spotlighting survey for Black-footed Ferrets.  This is the only ferret native to the Americas, and although it was once widespread in the inland western United States, it declined dramatically following US government efforts in the early 1900s to eradicate prairie dogs, its main food source.  In 1979 the Black-footed Ferret was declared extinct, but in 1981 a small population was found in Wyoming.  That population, too, declined rapidly and so by 1985 the entire remaining population, only 18 ferrets, was captured and brought into a captive breeding facility.

The recovery has been slow but steady, thanks to a successful captive breeding program, and there are now ferrets in the wild in 24 locations, totaling about 300 individuals.  Only a few of these populations are considered self-sustaining, including the population near Seligman, Arizona (although numbers have been dropping here in recent years, too).  The total population in Arizona is probably less than a few dozen now.  To help determine the health of the population, and the causes for decline, AZGFD recruits volunteers for four five-night trapping efforts a year.  I was able to join last night, excited to help such a cool endangered species, but also selfishly excited at the chance to see this rare and hard-to-find species in the wild.

Holly and Jennifer plan the night's surveys in the ferret processing trailer.
Before we even got all our gear ready for the night of sampling, one of the volunteers was returning to the ferret processing trailer with a Black-footed Ferret in a trap!  Of course, we stuck around for a few minutes to see and photograph it, in case we didn't come across any more that night.  When new ferrets are captured, they are immunized against several diseases, their health is assessed, and they are given a PIT tag so that they can be individually recognized in the future.  When the PIT tag of this individual was read, they determined it had been caught just one or two nights before, so it didn't need any further processing and was promptly released back at its point of capture.

Jennifer shows a Black-footed Ferret in one of the long live traps that the Arizona Game and Fish Department uses to catch the species.

Black-footed Ferret in a trap.

The plan for the night was to slowly drive up and down a network of rough dirt roads through known Gunnison's Prairie Dog colonies, each of us shining a spotlight on our side of the truck, looking for the glowing green eyes of a ferret.  Black-footed Ferrets have a distinctive bright emerald green eye shine that helps distinguish them at a great distance in the dark from other small mammals of the area like cottontails and jackrabbits.

Holly shines a spotlight into the prairie dog colony, looking for the bright green eyeshine that indicates a Black-footed Ferret.

We drove up and down one area for several hours, until about 2:00 AM, when we figured we had covered the area well enough and moved on to another area where a ferret had been seen but not caught the night before.  We were seeing lots of cool wildlife, like kangaroo rats, Common Poorwills, many Desert Cottontails and Black-tailed Jackrabbits, and even one American Badger.  But, by around 3:00 AM it started to feel like we were dragging, starting to get a little frustrated with having seen no ferrets other than the one someone else had caught.  Then, we spotted a Great Horned Owl on the ground near the road, kind of flopping around.  From a distance it seemed to me like the left wing was tucked in, and the right wing was outstretched and trying to flap.  It was near a barbed wire fence, so I was afraid it had hit the fence in flight and broken a wing.  But, as we got closer, we spotted a long furry tan tail with a black tip flipping about vigorously from under the bird.  The owl wasn't injured, it was trying to kill a Black-footed Ferret!  Holly opened the truck door and ran at the pair, yelling "No you don't, you f***er!  That's an endangered species!"  The owl dropped its prey and flew off into a nearby snag, and the ferret ran into a nearby burrow.  It seemed healthy when it ran, and it even popped its head out of the burrow a few times as we grabbed a trap and approached the burrow.  The best way to catch a Black-footed Ferret is to watch it until it goes in a burrow, and then place a live trap over the burrow entrance, temporarily plugging all the other holes.  So, we set a trap at the burrow and continued looking for other ferrets.

Holly secures burlap around the trap before positioning it at the entrance of the burrow.  This gives the illusion that the trap is just an extension of the burrow, and helps entice the ferret to enter.

Once the trap is in place, it is important to double-check that the opening is accessible from inside the burrow and that the trigger mechanism is properly set.

I was a bit too slow to get any photos of the dramatic ferret vs. owl fight, but the owl stuck around until after we set the ferret trap, scowling at us from this snag.

An hour later we came back to check on the trap, and the ferret was still not in it.  We were really hoping to catch it, not just for the regular processing that is essential for conserving the species, but especially because it was just in a wrestling match with a deadly predator, and might need some first aid or more thorough medical care.  We checked again an hour later, and the trap was still empty.  Again an hour after that, the trap was still empty, but this time it was starting to get light and we had to pack up the traps and head back to the headquarters to submit our data sheets for the night.  We were both a bit disappointed to not catch the ferret, and were left worrying whether it had sustained fatal wounds, but still were thrilled to be able to witness such a rare and dramatic moment!

23 October 2015

Volunteering with the Long-term Ecological Research Network

Melanie Banville watches for birds at sunrise from one of the Long-term Ecological Research sites along the Salt River in Phoenix

Over the last week and a half, I've been volunteering to help with some bird point counts for the Long-term Ecological Research Network.  The LTER is well known among ecologists as a group of 27 sites and more than 2000 scientists spread from northern Alaska to Antarctica.  Back in the 1970s, scientists realized there was a bias in our ecological research: because so much ecological research is done by graduate students and academic faculty, the vast majority of ecological studies last less than five years, and at best perhaps the length of a career.  There was a shortage of truly long-term studies, and so our understanding of long-term ecological processes was limited.  In 1980 the National Science Foundation established the LTER network to start to remedy this shortcoming, providing the world with important ecological research over time spans of decades to, hopefully, centuries.

A dramatic and beautiful sunrise over the Salt River in Phoenix.  We were always in place to start counting the birds just as the sun rose.

Steam rising from Salt River at the confluence with the Gila River just after another sunrise.

Realizing the growing importance of studying human interactions with the environment, the NSF added two urban sites to the existing network of mostly remote locations in 1997.  These new urban LTER sites were in Baltimore and Phoenix.  A couple of months ago, at the Arizona Field Ornithologists meeting, I met one of the biologists on the Phoenix LTER and told her that if she ever needed any help, I'd be happy to join her in the field.  Last week, Melanie took me up on the offer, and I've been helping her with bird point counts since last Thursday.

Another sunrise over the Salt River, this time from Mesa.

Not all the sites were as scenic as the photos above; sometimes we had to work our way around discarded couches and rugs, or worse.

The bird counts we were working on focus specifically on urban sites along the Salt River, which flows (or trickles) through the greater Phoenix area.  As such, they weren't always the cleanest or safest birding sites I've been to!  But, on the other hand, my birding has brought me to many a landfill or sewage treatment plant, so they weren't that dirty in comparison, either.  We tried to stay aware of our surroundings and to keep safety in mind, and although we saw lots of trash, smelled some dead animals, and saw several abandoned homeless camps, we didn't really encounter any scary situations.

Melanie birding one of many wetlands along the Salt River.  Unlike most rivers through major cities, this one only flows rarely.  The rest of the year, it is more like a string of ponds and wetlands spread out along a gravelly wash.

Despite the condition of some of our locations, we had a great time, and saw some great birds.  The scenery was stunning in places, and we got to access a lot of areas that are usually off-limit to birders.  Probably the best part was that I got to both learn and teach a lot about birds.  It was really rewarding to spend so much time with an experienced local ornithologist - I taught her about identifying Pine Siskins in flight, and she taught me about all the different vocalizations that Verdins give.  I taught her how to identify cormorants at a distance, and she taught me how to tell Black-tailed and Blue-gray gnatcatchers apart by voice. It was a fun and educational give-and-take while enjoying beautiful mornings watching birds in some (mostly) beautiful locations!

These are Neotropic Cormorants, as are the majority of cormorants in the Phoenix area, but Double-crested Cormorants are not rare and it takes a bit of practice to pick them out as they fly by overhead.
This was one of two Lark Buntings we spotted, one of the rarer species we saw in a week of morning bird counts.  Although it can be found in the area from August to May, there are only about 10 previous October records for the greater Phoenix area (according to eBird, some records including multiple birds).  This was a lifer for Melanie.

12 October 2015

Tarahumara Frog Reintroduction

Tarahumara Frog recently reintroduced into a canyon in Santa Cruz County, Arizona.
Since I moved to Arizona a couple of months ago, I've shifted my job search strategy significantly.  Now that I'm limited to a certain area (which I love!), I'm focusing most of my effort on making local connections such as meeting local biologists, and getting myself and my expertise known through first-hand interactions.  A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with Tom Jones of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and he put me in touch with Abi King, who runs the state's Tarahumara Frog program.  Abi was going to be releasing some captive frogs to the wild, and needed some help hiking them into a remote canyon.  I was excited at the chance to help this very unique species (and to meet some fellow biologists and frog lovers).

The Tarahumara Frog is a mostly Mexican species whose range barely enters the U.S.  It was once rather common in several of the southernmost canyons of Arizona.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the populations declined dramatically.  The cause for the decline is not well understood, but diseases, introduced species, and pollution have all been blamed.  About 350 were recently released into another canyon in southern Arizona, and about 500 or so were in captive breeding programs in the states.  That means that the 100 or so released by us constituted a little more than ten percent of the total U.S. population.

Beautiful landscapes of oak savannah on the way into the reintroduction site.
We started with a drive up a long, rough dirt road, through a couple of gates, and near the edge of a Wilderness boundary where we'd begin our hike.  The scenery was beautiful, and on the drive in I could tell we'd be surrounded by dramatic views for the rest of the day.  We eventually parked when the road was almost hard to see, and loaded the frogs into large frame packs.  The frogs had been treated for chytridiomycosis and placed in large tupperware containers with about 2-5 frogs in each container along with water and a paper towel.  We each loaded five or six containers into our packs, inside a pillow case to keep them shaded and cool.  (As the water splashed out through the holes in the tupperware, it wet the pillow cases, and the evaporation from the pillow cases kept the frogs from overheating.)  Then, we piled our personal gear on top of the sturdy frog boxes and strapped everything in for the hike.

Loading our packs with Tarahumara Frogs and our personal gear for the day.
The hike wasn't very long, maybe two miles, but it was pretty steep and mostly off trail.  There were lots of ankle-rolling rocks hiding in the dense grass, so it was a bit slow-going.  We took extra care on the way in because a fall that might only skin our knee or bruise our elbow could be lethal for our precious cargo.  There was plenty to look at as we worked our way across the side of one hill, and over and down the next into the canyon.

Hiking the frogs in through a beautiful landscape.

When we reached the canyon about an hour and a half later, I was thinking that even aside from the cool frogs in our packs, it was special to be in one of the last known sites for this species in the U.S.  The last known Tarahumara Frog in the United States had been found dead in this same stretch of canyon in 1983, only a decade after biologists estimated there were 500-700 of them here.  We had another short introduction to the protocol, and headed upstream a little further to start releasing frogs.

Heading upstream after a short introduction, ready to find some good frog pools.
We then spread the frogs out throughout a section of the stream that was maybe a quarter mile in length.  We placed the tupperware containers partially submerged in the stream, with a bit of stream water that we let flow in through the air holes, and usually with a rock on top to keep the container in place.  The containers had to sit for 20-30 minutes so that the frogs could acclimate to the change in temperature and water chemistry.  Then, container by container, we released the frogs into their new homes, taking lots of pictures along the way.

A container of Tarahumara Frogs acclimating to the thermal and chemical conditions of the stream.

Tarahumara Frog in its new habitat
With all the acclimation time and the difficult canyon walls to maneuver around, it took us until well after lunch to release all the frogs.  It was interesting to me to see how few of them we could find on the way back down the same stretch of canyon: although we released about 100, I think I only saw 10-15 on my return hike.  However, I was also in the middle of the group, so a bunch of the frogs had probably been visible but dove to the bottoms of their pools as the first couple of hikers passed by.

This was one of relatively few Tarahumara Frogs still easily visible at the edge of a pool on our return trip back down the canyon.
The hike out was, of course, tougher than the hike in: despite releasing all our frogs (and so carrying less weight), the frogs didn't weigh much in the first place and the return hike was all uphill.  There was a bit less pressure to get there quickly, though, since there was no risk of overheating the frogs on our backs.  So we took our time, periodically catching our breath from the steep climb, and checking out the other cool critters in the area.  We returned to the trucks in plenty of time to drive back to Tucson for a delicious dinner to celebrate an important job well done.

Hiking out at the end of a successful Tarhumara Frog release.

10 September 2015

Painted Redstart at Gilbert Water Ranch

Since I moved to Arizona a few weeks ago, there is one spot I've birded more than any other: Gilbert Water Ranch.  This park, about the size of a large city block, became famous in the U.S. birding scene a few winters ago when a Baikal Teal was found there.  But in general it's just a very birdy spot--an oasis in the city for a variety of species, from shorebirds, to waterfowl, to warblers.  This time of year, in fall migration, a solid birding effort by an experienced birder can result in over 80 species in a few hours.

The Gilbert Water Ranch, in Gilbert (near Phoenix) Arizona, hosts dozens of migrating bird species each spring and fall in addition to its dozens of resident species.

Part of the reason I've birded this spot so much lately, in addition to its abundance of birds and proximity to my home, is that two of my new birding friends, Sean and Tyler, bird here a lot.  They've graciously included me in their birding activities, which has been a big help to me in getting to know the birds of the area.  While I don't struggle with identification issues very often any more, I still have a lot to learn here about status and distribution, and birding with them has taught me a lot about which birds are expected and when in this area.

Yesterday I visited the Gilbert Water Ranch on my own, after missing a great morning with Sean and Tyler the day before.  I took the chance, since I was by myself, to "calibrate" my estimates of species counts by counting every individual of every species as I went.  It's a tedious process, but it results in very accurate data for eBird, and I think it also forces one to improve their birding skill by critically identifying each bird, not just the groups that are likely to have something rare in them.  This practice paid off yesterday, in the form of a locally rare warbler.

I was scanning the back side of a pond for rarities among the Long-billed Dowitchers, and just as I wrapped up and turned around I noticed a warbler flitting about in a tree right behind me.  It was such a distinctive species that even with poor views I would have identified it instantly: it was a Painted Redstart!  This species is a specialty of mountain canyons and riparian zones of the southwest, and seeing it at a lowland location like this is pretty rare.  I got several nice photos of the bird, a memorable addition to my patch list and a nice way to get a new county bird!

The Painted Redstart is a rare species at low elevations like the Gilbert Water Ranch.  This was only the third record from this heavily-birded location, and the first in four years.

Distinctive, brightly patterned, and obliging - it doesn't get much better than that!

02 September 2015

First Month as an Arizonan

Last weekend marked the end of my first month living in Arizona, and it's been a great month!  Stephanie and I have spent a lot of our free time exploring our surroundings and getting to know the local flora and fauna.  We've also been fortunate to have several different visitors in my first month here, so we've had some great partners in our wanderings.

First, Stephanie's parents came to visit.  We took them camping one weekend to the Whetstone Mountains, an under-explored part of southern Arizona's Sky Islands.  We found my first Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, along with a healthy population of chiggers!

We also took a half a day to explore South Mountain, the largest municipal park in the US.  It is also home to an endemic form of the Chuckwalla, but we didn't see any on this trip.  We did see some cool old mines, several more rattlesnakes, and some great views of the city.

Before Stephanie's parents even left, we had another visitor in the area.  Andrew came down to Arizona to help teach a herp course, so I took a few days off with him at the end of it to do some birding and herping of our own.  We explored the Santa Rita Mountains, the Tumacacori Highlands, and other remote locations near the border with Mexico.  We each found several lifers, including this Black-capped Gnatcatcher (new for both of us) and this Long-nosed Snake (new for me).

I've also been trying to get to know the local naturalists and biologists of the area, including going birding at popular hotspots with new local friends.  It has been a blast getting to know the local species well, and searching for rare vagrants.  I chased this Sabine's Gull, a locally rare species, with my friend Jason.  Even when there are no rare birds to be found, you never know when you'll get to experience a really cool moment, like this Coyote desperately hunting some ducks at the Gilbert Water Ranch.

In total so far I've already found several lifer birds and lifer herps, and I've learned a lot about local insects, plants, and other natural history.  Watch this space for more as I continue to explore Arizona!