10 November 2009

Himalayan Snowcock expedition

Last weekend I joined 11 friends in Wendover for a night of gambling to celebrate my friend Ian's birthday. While I was there, I thought it would be a good chance to look for Himalayan Snowcocks. The Himalayan Snowcock is a large grouse that is native to the alpine habitat of the Himalayas. In the 1960s, the Nevada Department of Wildlife decided that it did not have enough species for its citizens to hunt in the high mountains. Arrangements were made to acquire several individuals of this species from Pakistan, and after several introductions and much captive breeding, a total of about 2,000 birds were successfully introduced into the Ruby Mountains of NE Nevada and the nearby East Humbolt Range. The Himalayan Snowcock is a dream bird both for hunters and birders. It's preference for steep alpine cliffs and its wary nature make it very difficult to find, and it is considered the most difficult bird to hunt in the U.S. Birders do not have much more luck, and many hire helicopters to take them into the steep terrain where this bird lives.

On Saturday morning four of us left Wendover for the two hour drive to the Ruby Mountains. We parked at the trailhead at the top of Lamoille Canyon and hiked two miles up to Island Lake, at an elevation of just under 10,000 feet. As soon as we arrived, I set up the spotting scope and started scanning the hillside. I started at the bottom of the slope and scanned up towards the rocky ridgeline. I got very lucky and spotted one bird walking along a ledge almost at the top of the ridge. The views were very distant, but the bird was moving slowly and eventually we were able to find two others with it. Everyone in the group got a look (photo below, bird is the blob at center), and it was a lifer for all of us! This exciting and rare bird almost made me forget my gambling losses from the night before.

02 July 2009

Much-needed Update on Field Work

It's been a long time since my last post, and I can't promise that future updates will be any more regular. The field work is going slowly. I don't have much time for computer work, like updating the blog, and when I do have time to work on the computer I'm spending it entering data, catching up on email, trying to finish a couple of papers in the works, and editing my photos from the trip. If you are on Facebook, I have been posting my photos there much more regularly, although without much commentary.

A big lesson I'm learning in the field this year is that Northern Leopard Frogs are declining throughout their range, and generally their range is contracting from the edges in. Previously I had read that the species was declining in the west and apparently stable in the east, but I do not believe that is the case. Each regional field guide I read, and each local biologist I talk to, mentions that the species is declining locally, but it seems no one has put that together range-wide yet. They are declining locally, range-wide!

That makes the work hard for me, because I'm specifically sampling edge populations for my project. However, the edge now is, in most cases, not where it used to be. In West Virginia, the species only persists at one of the many historical localities. I spent two days there searching for leopard frogs, and found only one. Right now I'm in Rhode Island: I've spent two days searching in the area around Tiverton where there are several museum records from the 1980s and some sight records from the last few years. But this morning I talked to the state herpetologist (I finally got through to him - I've been leaving messages and emails for weeks) and he told me that the population here is probably extirpated, and that they only persist in one or two populations on the islands of the state. The story has been similar in many of the other places I've tried to sample lately.

While I can't say the frog sampling has been going well (I'd estimate I'm about three weeks behind schedule at this point), I am happy and healthy and safe. I've seen some great things, including many species of amphibians, reptiles, and birds I've never seen before. And I'm learning as much about the northern leopard frog as I expected to, even if most of that information is where it used to be.

My first Marbled Salamander, in Pennsylvania.

In Kentucky the young leopard frogs were metamorphosing. I found it easiest to catch them at night as they were crossing the wet road.

My first Mink Frog, in Minnesota.

Looking for Northern Leopard Frogs in Minnesota. (Photo by Becky Alsop.)

25 May 2009

Making Up Time

Southeast Nebraska was much easier than I thought. It took a few false starts at areas that apparently only have Plains Leopard Frogs, but after only a day I found a population of Northern Leopard Frogs that was heavenly. There were frogs everywhere, more than I've ever seen at one place. This will be an interesting population genetically, because Plains Leopard Frogs were also present and hybridization has been reported in the past based on morphology. No one really knows whether these hybrids are fertile, but my genetic work should be able to tell us whether they are.

I saw something here that I'd only read about: I saw a bullfrog catch and eat a leopard frog! It all happened so fast. I scared a leopard frog that took two quick hops. As it landed the second hop, a large bullfrog that was waiting nearby lunged forward and grabbed the easy meal. Whoops! Bullfrogs have been so widely introduced that we don't really know whether they are native or introduced in some parts of their range. This is one of those parts. I felt bad for the leopard frog, of course, but this was fascinating to see. I got a distant photo, below, of the bullfrog with leopard frog legs hanging out of its mouth. You should be able to enlarge the photo by clicking on it.

It only took two days to catch the frogs I needed from this location. Even when they're abundant, they're not easy for me to catch! So, now I'm in Iowa, back on schedule. The weather has turned rainy for a day or two and I still have a couple of reports I need to finish, so now I'm working in a coffee shop. It's nice to just sit inside for a while after spending so much time chasing after frogs.

19 May 2009

A Slow Start to the Field Season

This blog has been quiet for a while, but it's only because I had nothing good to say. (Oh, and it’s hard to find time to be online while I’m looking for frogs.) My field season started three weeks ago in northeast Nebraska, where I need three more populations to finish off the project I was doing last year. I was afraid I was getting too late a start, hitting the road on April 26th, but in fact I think it was the opposite. The northern leopard frogs just weren’t active yet. At first I thought I might just be looking in the wrong spots, but I think it kind of hit home on May 1st, after I had been looking for almost a week, when I woke up to snow.

I gradually worked my way south as I hoped for better weather. About mid-way through my second week, I heard frogs calling at night. What a relief – I had found them! I spent three more days looking for them at that spot, day and night, but I never saw a single frog there. I know they spend their winters underwater, and I wonder if they were still spending their days at the bottom of the ponds and only coming up at night to mate. The odd thing is that I never found any egg masses or tadpoles, either. I still haven’t. This is the big mystery of the year so far. Even when I know frogs are breeding, I can’t find their egg masses. This is a big disappointment, too, because it is much easier to catch an egg mass than a frog!

After a few days at that location, I tried Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This was a nice change of pace because the refuge manager kindly allowed me to stay in their researcher housing – a bed and a shower for free! Again I spent several nights hearing northern leopard frogs, and several days not finding them. I decided I needed a positive control to figure out what was happening, so I went back to a place where I had found frogs to be abundant last year. They were still abundant. It was a nice change to finally be catching frogs again! But I still didn’t know why I couldn’t find them elsewhere. A few things I noticed were that it was warmer here than the other places I had been looking, and warmer on that day than on any day so far on my trip. Also, although I could hear frogs calling at night here, I couldn’t find them in the lake where they were calling, and conversely I never heard any calling from the ditch where I was finding frogs. So, I think they’re just too hard to find when they’re breeding, and just then, in the first week of May, they were finishing their breeding and heading to their summer hunting grounds.

I decided to travel further southeast in search of frogs that were already active. (In spring in Nebraska, it is usually warmest in the southeast and coldest in the northwest.) What I found were lots of leopard frogs. Of the wrong species! It was exciting to find my first plains leopard frogs, Rana blairi (photo below), but the excitement soon turned into frustration when I couldn’t find any northern leopard frogs, Rana pipiens.

I gradually worked my way north again until I found a good population of northern leopard frogs. Once I found the right place, I was able to collect all 24 that I need in three days, but now I was two and a half weeks behind schedule. I cruised back west toward Crescent Lake NWR, and found another population of leopard frogs on the way. I was able to collect all I need there in three days, putting me only one week behind schedule instead of two and a half. Now I’m on my way to southeast Nebraska for my last stop in the state. This might be tricky because I need this to be an edge population, and in this part of the state northern leopard frogs and plains leopard frogs occur together. They are very similar, so I usually need to catch them to tell them apart. So, instead of just catching 24 frogs, I might need to catch 50 or so and throw half of them back! Wish me luck. . . .

02 April 2009

Planning a Frog Collecting Expedition

This spring and summer, I'll be travelling widely around North America in search of northern leopard frogs like the one shown above. My dissertation research is on the genetics of this species, so I need to collect genetic tissue from 24 frogs at each of 23 populations.

As I travel, looking for frogs, I'll mostly be camping. I did this last year in a more limited area, and it seemed to work well. I can usually find a small plot of land to put a tent on overnight.

Camping is great, but I'm travelling alone and I don't have a lot of money, so I'll be looking forward to every chance to visit with friends or to crash on a couch or take a shower. So, if you're reading this blog and you know me, please take a look at the map below. Blue dots are places I plan on sampling this year (except for the dots in Arizona, Washington, and South Dakota, where I already have samples or I think I can get them from other people). I'll generally be travelling across the southern part of the range (roughly along the red line), then up into eastern Canada, and then back west across Canada. If you live near any of these dots and would like to hang out for a few hours, provide a place to crash, and/or help me catch some frogs (it's not easy, but it's fun!), then send me an email and let me know. I'll be looking forward to seeing you soon!

31 March 2009

Red Crossbills Move In - From the Treetops or the North?

This winter has been a great one for seeing crossbills in Utah, and around the United States. There was a big influx of White-winged Crossbills from the north, presumably in response to a failing spruce crop this year. But just recently, the Red Crossbills (like the one above) have shown up in big numbers down to the seed feeders. What is most surprising to me is how synchronous this arrival seemed. Around Cache County and even further south around Salt Lake City, people started reporting Red Crossbills at their feeders last weekend. Within days they were at the feeders of everyone I know who keeps a feeder. What caused this big change at the feeders? Did the local cone crop suddenly run out? Has a second big influx of crossbills, this time Red Crossbills, pushed down from the north? My guess is that it is both happening at the same time. One thing I've noticed is that at the same time Red Crossbills started showing up at feeders, I started hearing different call notes from them.

Red Crossbills have as many as nine subspecies around the continent that some people think should be considered full species. Each subspecies specializes on a different kind of conifer, has a different-sounding call note, and has a different shape to the bill that is adapted for the conifer on which they feed. Our local population has a very liquid "kip" or "quip" call that is relatively soft. In the last week, I've also heard a very dry, sharply-upturned "whit" or "swit" call from a crossbill type that is normally found feeding on Douglas-firs in the Pacific Northwest. I've also recently heard another call type that I cannot identify, but it has the same upslurred "quip" as our locals but calls more loudly and harshly, with less time between notes. So, although our cone crop may be getting low, I think we also have some new Red Crossbill visitors in town.

22 March 2009

Brewer's Duck

I found a very interesting duck in Logan today, a "Brewer's Duck". The famous ornithologist John James Audubon described this species in 1840 on the basis of a specimen he collected in Louisiana. He mentioned that he had been unable to procure a second specimen, and that he thought this species was probably closely related to both Mallards and Gadwall. He was more right than he knew. We now know that this "species" is in fact not a species at all: it is a hybrid between a Mallard and a Gadwall.

I wasn't able to photograph the bird I saw, unfortunately. I got distant looks at it through my spotting scope, but as I moved closer to take some photos, it flew away to the south and out of sight. But, a very similar bird was found by Carl Ingwell and Jeff Bilsky less than an hour's drive from here on the Great Salt Lake exactly one week ago. (Photos of that bird are here. Edit - removed broken link; those photos are gone.) Could this be the same bird? We will probably never know, but I think it's likely given how relatively close the other sighting was in both time and space. I'll keep looking for the bird in the hopes that I can get a photograph, which might help us determine whether it's the same bird.

This hybrid combination is rare, as are all hybrid combinations. It's the rarity of hybrids that keep species discrete from one another. However, ducks are famous (or notorious) for the amount of hybridization between species, relative to other taxa. For example, see this blog post for a series of beautiful duck hybrids, including the Brewer's Duck. My favorites are the Mallard x Red-crested Pochard, and the Mallard x Wood Duck. Keep an eye out for unexpected hybrid combinations at a pond near you. You never know what beautiful combinations might turn up!

26 February 2009

White-winged Crossbill Irruption

White-winged Crossbills breed in Utah, but only in very small numbers. This fall, I found my first White-winged Crossbill ever up Logan Canyon. Now, they seem to be turning up all over the place, thanks to a large influx of crossbills from the north. Stephanie and I found a flock of them in Clarkston during the Great Backyard Bird Count a couple of weekends ago (photo above), and earlier this week I saw and heard a large flock of them at the Logan Cemetery. Today Stephanie and I went back to the cemetery to try to photograph them. We heard them fly overhead several times, but never got a good look or any photos. With all the spruces there, it is likely they'll hang around. Maybe I'll try again tomorrow. This year, instead of trying to see as many species as I can in the county, I'm trying to get better at bird photography. And White-winged Crossbills are a species I'd really like to photograph better.

Update: Thanks to a call from my friend Jason, who notified me when he relocated the USU White-wingeds feeding closer to the ground, I got a few better shots. Here are a few of them (below).

04 February 2009

The Mystery of the Cackling Geese

In 2004 the American Ornithologists Union made a major change to birding in North America by announcing the split of what was formerly known as Canada Geese into two species. The larger of the two was to remain known as Canada Geese, and the smallest four of the eleven or so subspecies in the Canada Goose group would be known as Cackling Geese. This decision was based on genetic evidence that showed little to no interbreeding between these groups. This move was not unexpected by those who had been paying close attention to Canada Geese. The subspecies of Canada Gees were discernible in the field, and various subspecies or groups of subspecies had been elevated to species status in the past. However, it was a big surprise for most of the birding community, because, to be honest, most of us hadn't paid much attention to Canada Geese before.

In Utah, and probably throughout many parts of the U.S., this caused a stir. What was once one of the most common and familiar species in the state was now a pair of strangers. The safe thing to do in this situation was to assume that all previous records of Canada Geese applied to what was still known as Canada Geese, because the most common species here, the Great Basin Canada Goose, was still considered a Canada Goose. However, some records already existed of Cackling Geese in Utah, namely museum specimens. But the Utah Bird Records Committee decided to put the Cackling Goose on the state review list so that any records of this species in the state would be reviewed by a panel of experts.

Now that more people are looking for Cackling Geese, more people are finding them. In the four or five years since the species became a species, there have been over 20 records of Cackling Geese in Utah. However, I think the Records Committee must remain unconvinced, because few records have been submitted to the committee and even fewer have been accepted. Part of the problem, I think, is that the details of Cackling Goose identification were not well worked out. There were conflicting opinions on various websites about the traits that distinguish the largest subspecies of Cackling Goose (Like Taverner's Cackling Goose, seated at right in the photo above, and Richardson's Cackling Goose, in the back of the photo below) from the smallest subspecies of Canada Goose (like the Lesser Canada Goose, in the foreground of the photo below). Thankfully, I think that confusion will soon come to an end. A brilliant article published in the latest issue of North American Birds outlines in thorough detail how to tell the subspecies of Cackling Goose from one another, and from the smallest Canada Geese. I'm hoping that this article will be just the thing to help our knowledge of Cackling Geese advance in Utah and elsewhere. In the meantime, I intend to continue to submit records to the Utah Bird Records Committee until a pattern of occurrence has been established. Based on one year of actively birding in Utah, I think we will soon solve the mystery of the Cackling Geese and realize that this species, although rare, occurs annually in winter in Utah.

13 January 2009

Reinita Ceilo Azul Reserve, Colombia

After El Paujil Reserve, we went to the Reinita Cielo Azul Reserve, about a day's drive to the northeast. "Reinita Cielo Azul" is spanish for Cerulean Warbler, a species that breeds in North America but has been declining because of loss of its wintering habitat in South America. Just like we missed el Paujil in El Paujil Reserve, we also didn't see any Cerulean Warblers at Reinita Ceilo Azul Reserve. But also like before, we saw many cool birds here. The biggest highlight for me here was the hummingbirds. I saw four species here, including the rare endemic Black Inca (first photo below), the bizarre Booted Racket-tail, the endemic Indigo-capped Hummingbird (second photo below), and the Andean Emerald. Another highlight was a breeding pair of Vermillion Flycatchers, feeding a baby in the nest right in front of our cabin (third photo below).
We had only one full day in this reserve, so the overall diversity of species we saw was not as high as at El Paujil. For example, we saw only one kind of frog and no mammals. But there were more habitat types here, and so the bird list made up for the shortage of other species.

07 January 2009

El Paujil Reserve, Colombia

While I was in Colombia I had the fantastic opportunity to join Stephanie, her dad Peter, her brother John (above right, photo by Stephanie), and her cousin Esteban (above middle) on a trip to two ProAves reserves in the lowlands along the west slope of the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes. The first reserve we went to was El Paujil, designated to protect the endangered Blue-billed Curassow. The Blue-billed Curassow must be in serious trouble, because even at the reserve named in its honor it has never been photographed, and a maximum of two individuals are currently thought to live on the reserve. One of the biologists doing surveys for the species there told me that they had never seen one.
We didn't see the Curassow, but we did see many cool birds here, including my first parrots and my first toucans ever. However, the birding was slower than I expected. I should have anticipated this, because being in a rainforest meant that the vast majority of birds were heard and not seen. I don't know any of the tropical birds by sound, and neither did our guides, so I was only able to identify the occassional bird that gave me a good look. Still, we found some very neat birds, such as the Plumbeous Kite and White-fronted Nunbird shown below. The herps were also cool, although I found it frustrating to not have a book to identify them with. The frog below is a treefrog in the family Hylidae, but I'm still trying to figure out which species. . . .