17 April 2016

Saying Goodbye to Ron, with Citizen Science

Dr. Ron J. Ryel, 1955-2015, was one of Utah's top birders and a mentor to myself and other birders in my community. (Photo via Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University)
Late last year, I learned of the passing of one of my birding mentors, Dr. Ron Ryel, after a long battle with cancer.  When I first moved to Utah in 2006, my interest in birding was increasing rapidly.  Ron was a local expert who shared his knowledge with me.  He took myself and another new local, my friend Craig Fosdick, birding several times between about 2008 and 2010, and taught us much from his extensive knowledge of local bird distribution and global bird identification.  In addition to being a productive member of the Utah State University faculty, he was a well-known and well-respected birder, having contributed several new species to the Utah state list, and served many years as a member of the Utah Bird Records Committee.

Ron Ryel (background) taught me and Craig Fosdick (foreground) much about birding in Cache County, Utah.  Here, we watch one of the only Greater Sage-Grouse leks known in the county.

It wasn't long after I got to know Ron that he became too ill to do much birding.  I regret that I didn't feel close enough to him to stay in touch through his illness, and when he died last year, it had been several years since we last talked.  Still, he left a lasting impression on me as both a source for much of my birding knowledge, and a model for how to mentor others as their birding interest and skill grows.

Ron looking for Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings on a Christmas Bird Count in Logan.  Ron had the coveted position of "roamer," a role that might be exclusive to the Logan CBC.  Ron's assigned job for the CBC was to cover the entire count circle in search of the rare and hard-to-identify species that might be missed by other less-experienced birders.  I inherited Ron's role when he was no longer able to contribute to the Logan CBC.
Ron valued citizen science, and was a dedicated participant in Christmas Bird Counts each year.  I first brought up eBird with him in late 2008 or early 2009.  I was just getting into this citizen science project, now the largest of any such project in the world, and it was still growing in capacity and format.  Ron was interested in the idea, but unconvinced of the value of entering his own data.  He had extensive field notes, but preferred to spend his time birding rather than entering his sightings in a database that he saw as ephemeral.  He had seen other such systems come and go, and was afraid eBird would face the same fate.

Now, seven years later, eBird has secured its place as the most comprehensive and reliable citizen science project ever.  Its global coverage includes hundreds of thousands of observers, documenting millions of sightings of almost every species on earth.  It has the backing of a well-reputed university and its own associated archival library.  I think Ron would be as impressed as I am by how far eBird has come.

When Ron passed, my friend Andrew Durso and I contacted his widow, Melanie, with an idea.  To help ensure Ron's birding could contribute to ornithology and conservation biology long after his passing, we offered to enter Ron's data in eBird.  Melanie, in her own words, was "astonished and delighted" that we would make such an offer.  To us, it seemed a fitting tribute to someone who gave so much to birds and birding in Utah, and also a way for us to contribute very valuable data to a project that we both believe in very strongly.  

A cardboard box of 17 pounds of Ron's field notes, life lists, and other birding records, destined to be permanently archived in eBird.

Andrew and I are both in the process of entering data into an account we created on Ron's behalf.  Each checklist includes detailed notes about the nature of the observations.  

07 December 2015

Pelagic birding from a cruise ship, part 2: Yachats, Oregon to Ocean Shores, Washington

On the second full day of this cruise (2 December 2015), we started about 40 miles off the coast near Yachats, Oregon.  (See Part 1 here.)  Today, the weather was much worse, which was better.  We had gotten into some rainy, stormy weather, which meant that the long swells had broken up into short rough waves.  Although the ocean looked much more turbulent, the ride was much smoother.  On top of that, the wind had shifted around behind us, so although it was blowing 20-40 knots, since we were moving over 20 knots it felt like the wind was rather calm.  The conditions were perfect for spotting seabirds!

I started my day by checking the boat for birds that might have landed on it at night.  In migration, it's not uncommon for birds to be attracted to the boat's lights, become disoriented, and rest on the ship.  Although we were well past the peak of migration, there was still a chance we could catch a late or wandering bird.  More intriguingly, a Brown Booby was checking out the boat at dusk the night before, so I thought it might have spent the night riding on our boat into Oregon waters.  However, a thorough check of all the railings, antennae, and decorative shrubs revealed no stowaways.

The ships lights sometimes attract confused birds at night, but I didn't find any birds on board as the sky lightened off the Oregon coast.
A persistent theme of our second day would be late-staying Buller's Shearwaters, and this distinctive shearwater was among our first birds of the day.  This is one of my favorite birds, subtle in tone but boldly patterned in all white below and grays and blacks on top.  Most of them have left U.S. waters to head back to New Zealand by December, but there were plenty still around on this trip, maybe due to the usually warm water temperature.  By the end of the day our tally was in the dozens.

Buller's Shearwater off the coast of Oregon.

It was neat to see the change in species between the two days, now that we were in more northern and cooler waters.  We noted increases in Herring Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels.  Conversely, Red Phalaropes and Black-vented Shearwaters were absent or nearly so.  One rare species from the day before made a "return" appearance (certainly a different individual): we had another Flesh-footed Shearwater about 53 miles off the coast of Lincoln County, Oregon.  I was excited to see this species again, but unfortunately our views were no better than they were the day before, and I had to be satisfied with an identification based mostly on flight style and body shape rather than really enjoying all the fine details of the bird.

There was a brief change in scenery a little after 10:00 when several of us spotted a flock of "something different" deep in the fog on the starboard side and heading in our direction.  After a few seconds they resolved enough to see that they were a flock of Brant.  It felt odd to see geese fifty miles from land, but this species is relatively pelagic and they make long ocean crossings as part of their regular migration.

Some barely-identifiable Brant flying south through the fog about 50 miles from the Oregon coast.

One of the mammal highlights of the day, for me at least, was a pod of Dall's Porpoises that approached the boat.  These tiny black-and-white whales are active, boldly patterned, and leave a distinctive "rooster tail" when they breathe.  I had seen them before, but it was a treat to see them again.

Two Dall's Porpoises throw rooster tails as they head out of sight down the starboard side of the boat off the coast of Oregon.

Mottled Petrel was one of the main targets of the trip, and would be a lifer for many in the group.  This is a boldly-patterned species that flies in dramatic arcs in high winds and is found rarely but regularly in U.S. waters, usually only far off shore and in the winter.  I had seen a couple of days of impressive flights from shore on St. Paul Island, Alaska, so the bird would not be a lifer for me.  I wasn't as bummed as many would have been when I returned from lunch to hear I had missed one, but it still felt like I patched a little hole in my list when I was able to see the second one of the trip just after we crossed into Washington State waters at about 1:00 PM.  By the end of the day we would have an impressive total of seven, of which I saw five.

I missed the first Mottled Petrel while I was eating lunch, and the second one was too far for a decent photo, but this one performed well for us, cutting back and forth in front of the bow for a little while before darting off into the fog.

Around 2:00 I took a quick bathroom break, rushing back to the bow as soon as I could so I wouldn't miss any exciting birds.  Just as I came out of the door onto the side deck, I spotted two alcids flushing from close on the side of the boat.  One immediately struck me as being different so I snapped a few photos before I even tried to think about what the bird was.  It was a Common Murre (with a Rhinoceros Auklet), and would end up being the only one of the trip.  This is a common species, including near the coast, so I'm sure no one lamented missing this bird.

In the evening a lot of us, including myself, stayed on the bow much later than the night before because many of us had missed that late fly-by Brown Booby.  However, the waning light was uneventful, and when it was truly too dark to bird we headed back to our cabins with no last-minute reward.  It was a great day, and I celebrated with some of the other Arizona birders that were on the boat with a fancier dinner than the buffet I went to the first two nights.  We had a great evening chatting about our sightings and telling jokes.  In the morning, we would wake up already docked in Vancouver, British Columbia, with Surf Scoters and Northwestern(ish) Crows all around, ready to scatter to our various landlocked homes.

Several of us stayed on the bow as long as possible in hopes of not missing another rare last-minute sighting like the previous night's Brown Booby.

Celebrating a great cruise with a fancy dinner.  Birding field conditions at their best!

Here is a complete list of species and numbers that I saw during the day, including birds in Oregon and Washington.  (No single birder will ever see every bird on a pelagic trip, so the trip total including all observers would be higher for most species.)
Brant: 16
Pacific Loon: 2
Laysan Albatross: 2
Black-footed Albatross: 4
Northern Fulmar: 61
Mottled Petrel: 5
Pink-footed Shearwater: 7
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 1
Buller's Shearwater: 25
Sooty Shearwater: 36
Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater: 9
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel: 7
Pomarine Jaeger: 10
Common Murre: 1
Cassin's Auklet: 10
Rhinoceros Auklet: 29
Cassin's/Rhinoceros Auklet: 2
Black-legged Kittiwake: 32
California Gull: 35
Herring Gull: 23
Thayer's Gull: 5
Glaucous-winged Gull: 1
Unidentified gull (Larus sp.): 21

05 December 2015

Pelagic birding from a cruise ship, part 1: Los Angeles to Fort Bragg, California

You may call it the Promenade, but I call it the Birding Deck.  (Photo of the Ruby Princess cruise ship by Chris Favero, Creative Commons via Flickr.)

Earlier this week I went on my first cruise, but my experience was very different from that of most people on the boat.  This was a "repositioning cruise," a discounted (often shorter) trip that cruise companies offer when they need to get a boat from one place to another and don't want to lose money doing it.  For less than $200, I had three nights of lodging and three days of meals, plus access to lots of entertainment options like a casino, live shows, movies from a hot tub, etc.  But I took advantage of none of those entertainment options: I was there for the birds.

Repositioning cruises have become increasingly popular among dedicated birders in recent years.  Unlike most traditional pelagic birding trips, cruises spend most of their time in the really deep waters at or beyond the continental shelf.  Out there is the realm of a whole different suite of birds, especially the Pterodroma petrels.  These dynamic, acrobatic flyers are famous for zipping around in almost unbelievable arcs as they forage comfortably in turbulent winds.

I had been invited to join the cruise a couple of months earlier by my friends David and Lauren, and separately by Jason.  There was an informal group of birders forming around this cruise, because it would traverse the Pacific coast of the contiguous U.S. in a time of year when it was very hard to get out on the ocean, and when little was known about the birds present, but rarities were almost certain.  On top of that, this was a strong El Niño year, which further increases the chances for a rare seabird to wander to our coast in search of food.

Paul Lehman gives an introduction to the birders on the boat while we were still in the harbor in Los Angeles.

My cruise on the Ruby Princess started from Los Angeles on 30 November 2015.  Paul Lehman was with us, and he has led many birding trips on cruises for Wings so he offered to give a little introduction to the group about where we would be, where the nearest facilities were, when and where to eat to get the most birding time, and lots of other helpful tips.  I was hoping to get a bit of pelagic birding in on the first night, but the sun sets so early this time of year.  We were able to bird through the harbor on the way out as the sun set, and it was still light enough to bird as we passed the breakwater and headed into the ocean.  Several large flocks of Pacific Loons passed overhead against the sunlight.  Finally, when it was almost too dark to see, I spotted my first tubenose of the trip, a Black-vented Shearwater (a very common species in these inshore habitats).  We retired for the night when we couldn't squeeze any more birds out of the daylight.

Jason scans for birds as the sun sets behind Santa Catalina Island.

Passing the breakwater and heading out for two full days and three nights on the open ocean.

These Pacific Loons were part of several large flocks flying south as the sky got dark.

The first night was pretty rough.  I had heard that motion sickness was not an issue on cruise ships, and that's probably true most of the time.  But this night, we had long-period swells that rocked the boat quite a bit.  My cabin was as far towards the bow as you can get, and almost as high as you can get, so it moved more than most.  There were a few times at night where I felt I like I was lifting up off the bed to crash back down with the impact between our bow and the water reverberating all the way up the boat to my back.  The hangers in my closet woke me up a few times as they banged against the closet wall.  It was not a great night of sleep, but I was so excited for the birding in the morning that I felt ready to go when the alarm went off well before sunrise (1 December 2015).  After a solid breakfast ("a full stomach will not betray you," they say), I went down to Deck 7, the Promenade, where one has the best views of the water.  Because of the high swell, the bow section (which is actually on Deck 8, but a continuation of the Promenade) was closed, so we birded from the side instead.

When the bow was closed due to the high swell, we were confined to bird from the side of the boat.  This position is just under the orange life boats in the top photo.  Note that although the ocean looks relatively smooth, the waves crashing out from under us belie the long-period swell that made the ride feel rather rough.
In the first hour of birding, I got my first lifer of the trip, a Laysan Albatross.  This is a very distinctive bird, with excessively long black wings on a white body, and was easy to identify even given its distance.  It was my most likely lifer of the trip, and we did end up seeing several more by the end of the day.  We also saw a small group of about four beaked whales from the genus Mesoplodon, a group which is described as the most poorly known mammals in the world.  Several species were only recently described, and some are known only from specimens.  Unfortunately, we'll probably never know which species we saw because they can only be identified from careful study of the teeth.

An unidentified beaked whale of the genus Mesoplodon.

A little after 8:00, we were able to move up to the bow of the boat, where the view is a little higher but your odds of spotting birds are better because you can see both sides.  The birding was a bit slow, but there was a nearly steady trickle of common species including Red Phalaropes, Northern Fulmars, Cassin's Auklets, and gulls, with an occasional Laysan Albatross, Pomarine Jaeger, or other bird of interest.  The ride was a bit rougher up on the bow, so after another hour or so I moved back down to the side again.  I was feeling a bit sick from all the motion - not enough to be at risk of puking, but enough to be uncomfortable.  Also, it was cold on the bow: a bit of a head wind combined with the boat's 22 miles per hour made for significant wind chill.  I didn't spend long on the side before I decided my time would best be spent with a quick nap and some more food, to warm up and to rest from the motion.

I was relieved to hear when I returned to the bow at about 1:30 that despite being gone for almost three hours, I hadn't missed any really exciting birds.  I got there just in time, though, because about 20 minutes later my favorite bird of the trip was spotted, a Flesh-footed Shearwater!  This was another of the more likely lifers on this trip, but it's an ABA Code 3 bird (rare at the continental level) and one I had been looking forward to for a long time.  It is a southern hemisphere bird but is spotted in U.S. waters every year in small numbers.

Not much later, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon, an uncommon sight this far from land (about 40 miles out).  It was being chased by a gull, which seemed uncharacteristically brazen, but then we noticed what the gull was after.  The falcon had apparently plucked a Red Phalarope from the water, and was feeding on it while it flew!

We had a continuing trickle of birds, mostly the same common species as before, although we were already noticing some subtle shifts in the abundances (more California Gulls and fewer Red Phalaropes, for example).  We nearly ran over a Laysan Albatross that was very attached to a fish carcass it had found.  We lost sight of the bird under us on the bow, but others reported that the bird was seen flying around the stern shortly afterwards.  One of the rarer sightings came next when a group of three Black-vented Shearwaters were seen.  They are rare this far north, but even more surprising was that they were roughly 40 miles off shore, given that this species is usually only found in the shallower waters near shore.

This Laysan Albatross really wanted to stick with its dead fish, while the gulls and fulmars were smart enough to fly out of the way of the cruise ship before it got too close.
Before 5:00, it started getting dark.  I knew that rare birds can come any time, so I waited about as long as I thought was reasonable before abandoning my post at the bow.  When it was almost too dark for birds, and when I was among the last 10 or so of up to 40 birders left, I packed up my tripod and went in to get ready for dinner.  Of course, at dinner I heard that I had left just before the only Brown Booby of the trip flew right past the bow!  I didn't mind too much, since I had seen Brown Boobies in California before and I got my two most wanted (reasonable) birds of the trip already.  Plus, I had a whole day of birding ahead of me tomorrow. . . . .

View from the Promenade, Deck 8.  The ground is usually stable enough to use spotting scopes on tripods, and the wall and roof protect you from the wind and rain.  Although it can still get chilly, it's pretty comfortable as far as birding spots go.
Here is a complete list of species and numbers that I saw during the first full day (not counting the evening trip out of the harbor the night before).  No single birder will ever see every bird on a pelagic trip, so the trip total including all observers would be higher for most species.
Pacific Loon: 1
Laysan Albatross: 5
Black-footed Albatross: 2
Northern Fulmar: 75
Pink-footed Shearwater: 1
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 1
Sooty Shearwater: 5
Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater: 1
Black-vented Shearwater: 4
Red Phalarope: 381
Pomarine Jaeger: 17
Unidentified jaeger: 4
Cassin's Auklet: 19
Unidentified alcid: 17
Bonaparte's Gull: 2
Western Gull: 1
California Gull: 139
Herring Gull: 6
Unidentified gull: 60
Peregrine Falcon: 2

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.