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.