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Waffles and Warblers!

We’re excited to announce this “Benefit for the Birds” coming up on October 7th. Follow this link to read more and to purchase your tickets for this fun morning activity: Waffles and Warblers Eventbrite Page

 

Visit us this fall! Be sure to check out our latest banding dates here : https://ibo.boisestate.edu/banding-dates/

Register for summer banding events

Believe it or not, summertime is right around the corner! Be sure to sign up to attend our Hummingbird Banding and Boise River Banding events this June and July. Space is limited so be sure to sign up now.

A Calliope Hummingbird takes flight. Photo by Liz Urban

For more information and to register (it’s free!) please check out the following links:

Boise River Songbird Banding Eventbrite Page

Hummingbird Banding Eventbrite Page

To stay up to date on all our bird banding events, follow us on Facebook and check our Banding Dates page regularly. We’ll be posting more songbird banding dates for later in the summer soon.

Tribute to Gary Robinson – IBO Super-volunteer

By Jay Carlisle

To read the tribute to Gary written by his family, follow this link.

On March 30th, the IBO family lost one of our greats – Gary Robinson, who has been one of the most valuable and dedicated volunteers in our history.  Gary passed after a battle with pancreatic cancer and we, along with his family and many friends, will miss him greatly.  It’s important to point out that he didn’t “lose” the battle to cancer – he was active, happy, and at his creative/mischievous best until his last few days!

Gary at Lucky Peak. Photo by Marissa Buschow

Gary showed up on Lucky Peak unannounced one day in August 2004 and told us he had banding experience and wanted to get involved if we’d have him.  At first glance, I wasn’t sure if this “old-timer” would be up for it but he quickly proved himself!  We went on a few net runs together and he demonstrated his ability to quickly extract birds from mist-nets and, though he huffed and puffed at times, he was always able to hike the trails to the nets.  It wasn’t long before he joined Carol and Dave Wike to form the “Three Amigos” – our team of ever-reliable volunteers that have been invaluable to IBO’s long-term banding studies for most of our 20+ year history.  They’ve been around for almost every MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship – a continent-wide breeding season protocol) banding day, lots of early-season days during our Lucky Peak fall migration project, and – more recently – became stalwarts of our hummingbird monitoring project.  Through all this effort, they’ve all been instrumental in helping us train scores of seasonal field assistants and the next generation of IBO volunteers while being invaluable members of the team themselves.

The Three Amigos! Dave and Carol Wike with Gary

Gary, in particular, was well-known for his “magic fingers” at the mist-nets.  Field assistants would often exclaim, “How did he just do that?!” after he’d removed a tangled-looking bird from the net in 10 seconds or less, sometimes with one hand!  Many field assistants fondly remember net runs with Gary as he effortlessly removed 75% or more of the birds in a given net in the same amount of time as they got the rest and, if they were lucky, he shared some of his secrets too!

Gary with a “small” load of birds he extracted at the Boise River site

Just as much, we’ve all enjoyed the many stories from Gary’s younger days – a sip of Lord Calvert in the evening often unlocked a story or 3 for the Lucky Peak crew :)  He was a veritable Swiss Army Knife of a man who tried and excelled at many professions during his career, starting as a Marine out of high school and, among other roles, enjoying spells as a biologist, police officer, zoo keeper, game warden, school teacher, and animal caretaker at a retirement home.  Similarly, he also carried everything you could think of, and more, in his jeep– so much so that if we ran out of something at Lucky Peak, we asked Gary as the first option.  He had a mischievous side as well, pulling pranks such as placing small sticks, pine cones, or even a lizard into bird bags and delivering them as if they were birds, usually with a straight face – and maybe a wink later.  We also heard several humorous stories about how he and the love of his life, Sandy, re-found each other after several decades – I’m so glad they did and, Sandy, thanks for sharing him with us!

Gary with just a few of the many Lucky Peak songbird banders he mentored over the years

Most of all, Gary was a loving friend to all of us and we will miss his big heart as much as his deft skills with the tiny birds we study.  As Sandy said to us as we gathered with her and Gary on his last day, “he’ll be with you when you go up to Lucky Peak” (certainly for hummingbirds and the river site too!) and I’m sure I’ll ask him for help the next time I’m struggling with a tangled bird.  We love you Gary and thanks for EVERYTHING!

 

At the request of his family, memorials, in lieu of flowers, may be directed to the Intermountain Bird Observatory. We’ve started a Gary Robinson memorial fund. Our mailing address is 1910 University Drive, Boise, ID 83725-1515. Please include a note letting us know if you are donating in Gary’s name.

Curlew Naming 2017

We held a contest to name our pair of birds that live on the Orchard Combat Training Center south of Boise. Read more about HH and KA on the “OCTC pair” tab on our curlew profiles page.

This year we asked schools that participated in our “Curlews in the Classroom” program to come up with name ideas. Check out their creative ideas below.

After a Facebook vote, our winning names were Zeus and Athena! Way to go Middleton Middle School :)


Names for HH

HH the curlew

Ginger–from Gilligan’s Island! (Marsing Elementary Kindergarteners)

Hoppin’ Heather–because her leg flag is HH and Heather Hayes is the Curlews in the Classroom project leader and a member of the Curlew Crew field team. (Liberty Elementary)

Katherine–named after famous Idahoan Katherine Albertson (Liberty Elementary)

Athena–The Goddess of Wisdom, War, and Craftsmanship. (Middleton Middle School 7th graders)

Rose–Signifies beauty, elegance, favor, grace, and kindness. (Middleton Middle School 7th graders)

Denise–named after their teacher. (Trail Wind Elementary School)

Bella–after the Twilight movies (Shadow Butte Elementary 3rd grade)

Valentina–because it is a Mexican name and curlews spend most of their time in Mexico (Andrea, Andrea, JJ and Alex from the Parma Learning Center after school program)

Frost–Frost is a good female name because the females leave Idaho first before the frost.  When females are on the nest, they freeze when predators come close. (Homedale Middle School)

Star— The star garnet is the state gem of Idaho. (Homedale Middle School)

Fluffy–because 4th graders like cute names, and curlews have fluffy feathers! (Trail Wind Elementary 4th grade)

Elica–We’re not sure why? (Sage International Kindergarten)

Chopstick–because curlews have long beaks! (Sage International 6th grade)

Cherry–Because Emmett is known for their Cherry Festival (Kenneth J. Carberry Elementary School 4th graders)

Girlie-girl–because, Kindergarten :)  (Kenneth J. Carberry Elementary School Kindergarteners)


Names for KA

KA the curlew — photo by Kevin Warner

Professor–from Gilligan’s Island! (Marsing Elementary Kindergarteners)

Shorty–because he has the shortest beak ever measured of all the IBO curlews (Liberty Elementary)

Albert–after famous Idahoan Joe Albertson (plus KA are his wife’s initials). (Liberty Elementary)

Austin Powers–Both names together mean “very handsome”. Separately, Austin stands for “majestic dignity”, while Powers implies is a “force measured by how much work has been done”. (Middleton Middle School 7th graders)

Zeus–Highest of all the Gods Zeus was the “Ruler of the Heavens”. In the sky, Zeus wielded thunder and rain to protect humankind from the other Gods. (Middleton Middle School 7th graders)

Butterball–we’re not exactly sure why? (Trail Wind Elementary School)

Edward— after the Twilight movies (Shadow Butte Elementary 3rd grade)

Tapatio–because it is a tasty Mexican hotsauce and curlews spend most of their time in Mexico (Andrea, Andrea, JJ and Alex from the Parma Learning Center after school program)

Yoda–Yoda in the movies is like a male Curlew because when help is needed, he comes to assist.  The force is with him. (Homedale Middle School)

Disco–because male curlews do a fancy dance to attract a female. (Homedale Middle School)

Zoomer–because male curlews race back to their breeding grounds to get there first. (Trail Wind Elementary 4th grade)

Saber–perhaps because of their long bills? (Sage International Kindergarten)

Gandalf–because curlews are magical (like the wizard from Lord of the Rings). (Sage International 6th grade)

Zippy— curlews fly fast! (Kenneth J. Carberry Elementary School Kindergarteners)

Rocky–after the Rocky Mountains (Adams Elementary)

Phenomenal birding and other wildlife in Nicaragua, February 2017

By Jay Carlisle

Golden-hooded Tanager

Golden-hooded Tanager at El Jaguar

I’m lucky in that I am able to fulfill my passions for birding and international travel most years and it’s always fun to visit new places.  This started with a birding trip with friends to western Mexico almost 20 years ago, then Panama and Peru the next 2 winters, and I’ve been addicted since.  In recent years I’ve started co-leading 1 or 2 group trips each year, starting with trips to Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago in which I served as an “apprentice guide” assisting my friend Alvaro Jaramillo of Alvaro’s Adventures.  Alvaro taught me many key aspects of guiding and we’ve continued to collaborate since, which has included me running most of “my” trips through his company, sometimes piloting new itineraries and other times benefitting from trips he’s already planned.

In April 2016, I met Liliana Chavaria-Duriaux (Lili) and Georges Duriaux, owners of the El Jaguar coffee farm and private forest preserve in Nicaragua, at a bird conservation meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico.  We quickly hit it off, especially while on a birding field trip, and we soon decided to collaborate on a birding trip for some of my Idaho birding friends to visit Nicaragua – a country I’ve long wanted to visit, especially after flying over the extensive forests on the Atlantic/Caribbean slope on return trips from Panama and Costa Rica.

El Jaguar Reserve

Georges and Lili worked with Alvaro and I to create a diverse and exciting itinerary to explore four key regions of Nicaragua: (1) the north-central highlands, (2) the shores of Lake Cocibolca (aka Lake Nicaragua), (3) the Caribbean lowland forests, and (4) the Pacific slope.

The lush tropical forest at Refugio Bartola was destroyed in some areas by Hurricane Otto

One twist worth noting is that Hurricane Otto made landfall in November 2016 and affected many forest areas in southeastern Nicaragua, including blowdown of canopy trees and this affected areas of Refugio Bartola and the nearby Reserva Biologica Indio Maiz.  Lili and Georges initially worried that we’d struggle with forest species there but patches of intact forest remain within relatively short walking distance of the lodge and we still found amazing diversity there.

Pale-billed Woodpecker

Pale-billed Woodpecker at Bartola

Though we didn’t see every bird we hoped for (does this ever happen? :-), the trip far exceeded my expectations in terms of bird diversity and was a great experience overall.  Lili and Georges were great to travel and bird with, we employed knowledgeable local guides, we stayed in comfortable lodges/hotels, we ate great food, and the group made for a fun and cohesive birding team!

Enjoying the view of Rio San Juan during breakfast at the remote Bartola lodge

Highlights:

  • We recorded 366 bird species during 10 birding days – of these, 14 species were “heard only” (i.e., owls, Great Tinamou, and a torturously distant Three-wattled Bellbird) and 15 were only seen by 1 or 2 observers but 337 were species that were seen by all or most of the group!

    The forests of El Jaguar support a rich bird community, including wintering Golden-winged Warblers!

  • Some of the most exciting/interesting species included:
      • The near-endemic Nicaraguan Grackle (San Miguelito)

    Untitled

    Female Nicaraguan Grackle. Click here to watch a video of their courtship display

      • Nicaraguan Seed-finch (distant views from moving boat; Rio San Juan)
      • Scarlet Macaw (Rio Bartola)
      • Green Ibis (Bartola)
      • Pacific Parakeets coming to roost near a waterfall in El Chocoyero

    Pacific Parakeets

    Paired-up Pacific Parakeets coming in to roost

      • a Golden-crowned Spadebill that visited our lunch table at Bartola!
      • Great and Northern Potoos (daytime views of both)

    Great Potoo

    Great Potoo at Bartola

    • 20 hummingbird species – all gorgeous but I was most excited about the Black-crested Coquette (El Jaguar), a too-brief view of a male Snowcap (Bartola), and the range-restricted Green-breasted Mountain-gem (El Jaguar)
    • Several antbird species including brief but exciting views of a small group of Ocellated Antbirds (Bartola)
  • Other highlights:
      • Unexpected (inland) sightings of a Magnificent Frigatebird over San Carlos, a Red Phalarope floating (well, spinning) downstream past Refugio Bartola, and 3 Brown Pelicans heading southeast over the forest in Bartola
      • 7 species of kite, including sightings of Swallow-tailed on the first 8 days of the trip!
      • Great views of 3 motmot and 5 kingfisher species

    Rufous Motmot

    Rufous Motmot at Bartola

    Turquoise-browed Motmot

    Turquoise-browed Motmot, the national bird of Nicaragua–Photo by Heidi Ware

      • 27 warbler species including Golden-winged and Golden-cheeked as well as a pair of Buff-rumped and singing Olive-crowned Yellowthroats
      • 5 Euphonia species plus the Blue-crowned Chlorophonia

    Olive-backed Euphonia

    Olive-backed Euphonia at El Jaguar

    • A close Long-billed Gnatwren (Montibelli) and good views of Green Shrike-vireo in a small flock (Bartola)
    • A mixed-species flock comprised entirely of medium-sized landbirds, including nunbirds, woodpeckers, woodcreepers, and mourners (Bartola)

    Cinnamon Woodpecker

    Cinnamon Woodpecker at Bartola

  • Non-avian highlights:
      • Jaguarundi (Montibelli)
      • 3 monkey species in 1 afternoon hike (Bartola)
      • False coral snake (El Jaguar)

    False Coral Snake

    False Coral Snake at El Jaguar

      • Sloths (El Jaguar & Rio San Juan)
      • Numerous bats, squirrels, and frogs/toads

    bats

    roosting bats (saccopteryx sp.)

    • 1 small army ant swarm (Bartola)

Places we stayed/birded:

    • Managua airport area (1st night after evening arrivals)

Blue-winged Teal

We encountered a lagoon with over 10,000 Blue-winged teal!

  • El Jaguar Natural Reserve (4 nights)
  • Hotel San Francisco in San Miguelito (1 night)
    • Afternoon boat trip along the lake shore and morning birding on the malecón
  • Refugio Bartola (3 nights, 2 full days)
    • Trails at Bartola plus 2 boat trips up smaller rivers flowing into the Rio San Juan (in the Reserva Biologica Indio Maiz)

      It’s not often you get to bird from the middle of a river! Birding in Rio Bartola

  • Montibelli Private Reserve (2 nights, 1 full day)

The itinerary required relatively extensive travel, including a couple of long travel days moving between regions, but we timed it to be able to bird at least the morning and/or late afternoon of the travel days – and the boat trips on the Rio San Juan (to/from Bartola) provided many good sightings.  And, we tried to balance the travel with multiple night stays at several places.  Importantly, we continued to find multiple new species on each day of the trip and the group stayed excited/engaged throughout.

All in all, I highly recommend Nicaragua for birding exploration!  It hosts an impressive diversity of habitats and birds, including a great mix of Neotropical migrants and species characteristic of both further north and south in Central America, and some great birding destinations.  Ask Alvaro if you’d be interested in going to Nicaragua :)

Boise State Engineering and Science Festival

IBO will have a table at the upcoming Boise State Engineering and Science Festival!

This is an excellent free event for the whole family. Be sure to stop by and visit us to learn all about the research we do. Kids will meet IBO ornithologists and learn all about what it’s like to be a scientist. IBO’s “touch table” will have all kinds of interesting bird artifacts from skulls & feathers to bird banding equipment & satellite tracking maps.

Visit us on Saturday, February 4th 2017 from 9am to 4pm

More information at: http://coen.boisestate.edu/STEMExploration/

If you visited us at the event and need a digital brochure, click here.

For information about our banding dates, check back on this page in March.

prfa bryce

That’s why they call it Lucky Peak!

Here’s the story of the MM14 fire:

Updated 9/13/16

Most Important info:

  • Lucky Peak is safe and was not burned!
  • Highland Valley Road (the only driving access to the peak) has been closed until at least Spring 2017. Here’s a map of the trail closure.
  • Lucky Peak is closed to visitors for 2016. Please check out our Boise River banding dates for 2016. We look forward to seeing you on the peak in 2017!
  • Please do not hike to or otherwise enter any of the burn areas. We need to stay off and let habitat rehabilitation begin. Sign up to help with restoration here:
  • Our hawk trapping and owl gear burned in a storage shed off of Highway 21.  Thanks to your generosity, we were able to restore our projects after the fire!  ponyup.boisestate.edu/ibofire

Tuesday–the fire starts

On Tuesday, July 19th, the Milemarker 14 fire started along Highway 21. Shortly after the smoke appeared our crew evacuated our Lucky Peak station, taking only the songbird banding data sheets with us. Our last crew member made it out just in time before the fire engulfed Highland Valley Road.

Watching from town we worried as the pillar of smoke got closer and closer to the peak.

Capture

We saw firefighting planes dropping retardant close to our camp…through a scope we could even see that retardant had painted our outhouse and gate bright red. We called the Boise River WMA Manager, Krista Muller, and learned that she and her crews were safe. However, they left the WMA offices along Highway 21 at the last minute, chased out by flames that were approaching the headquarters. Krista said that as she was leaving she watched our storage shed, containing all our Raptor and Owl trapping gear, go up in flames.

20160719_190526

Fire retardant covers the ridge line along Highland Valley road in this scope view from town. Our outhouse can be seen (tinged red) to the left of the trees.

After dark we returned to Municipal Park in Boise check on the peak again…it calmed our nerves that we could not see any flames or vehicles lights. We hoped the fire was dying down and moving away from our station. We watched the news and social media all evening, waiting for word about the peak. Going to bed that night, we feared the worst…we had heard from a few sources that the peak was expected to be engulfed overnight.

Wednesday–0% contained

As soon as daybreak came on Wednesday we rushed to a view point to see whether the habitat around the peak was still intact. We were relieved to see that all appeared well…there were still trees visible and the smoke had moved farther away.

20160719_191005

A scope view of the Peak from Boise…We were relieved to see that all appeared well

Although our camp on the peak remained unburned, we received reports throughout the day confirming what Krista had said about the damage done to the Boise River WMA offices. Dramatic photos appeared on social media of flames engulfing the offices and our equipment. Sadly, we also learned that a woman lost structures on her property as well, although firefighters were able to save her home.

ktvb

Thursday–progress

Thursday the 21st we were still watching the fire with caution. Hot weather and wind moving in to the area are not good for fire suppression efforts but we knew the firefighters were working hard to keep fire away from our station. By the end of the day we were impressed to see they had the fire 80% contained!

News updates continued, including our first aerial view of the fire’s extent. We realized just how lucky we were that our site was saved from the fire! In this image you can see Lucky Peak and our station in the top right, with only about 1km of land separating our camp and the burn.

Friday–almost out

Today, Friday the 22nd, firefighters continue to work to reach 100% containment. We watched from town, catching glints of firefighting vehicles traveling up and down Highland Valley Road, searching for hotspots and putting out any still-smouldering patches. By the end of the day Friday we hope to see 100% containment.

Saturday–surveying the damage

Saturday was a big day for us. Along with an escort, our crew returned to Lucky Peak for a brief visit to get our gear and assess any damage done by the fire retardant that was responsible for saving our camp.  We saw a lot of burn damage along Highland Valley Road. Firefighters used the road to stop the fire from spreading farther west. Our crew is being given special access to the road but please remember that the road is closed to allow for restoration work, and to protect the fragile burn area.

Although fire is a natural part of Idaho ecosystems, rejuvenates forested habitats, and creates a rich habitat mosaic for many bird species, we are saddened by this fire for a few reasons:

  • Climate change has brought hot, dry weather and unnaturally increased the likelihood and frequency of burns throughout the west. Our ecosystems are not able to adapt quickly enough to handle the effects of climate change.
  • Irresponsible and preventable human actions are often the cause of these fires, rather than natural triggers.
  • Sagebrush ecosystems evolved with infrequent, low intensity fires. These more frequent (human caused) hotter, and larger (cheatgrass-fueled) fires are not a part of natural, healthy Sagebrush Steppe communities.
  • Because of Cheatgrass and other human-introduced species, this area will require careful rehabilitation by humans (sign up to help here!) to restore healthy ecosystem function. Invasives prevent the natural regrowth of shrubs like Sagebrush and Bitterbrush that historically returned on their own after burns.
  • The riparian and steppe habitat lost will have impacts on breeding and migrating birds.
  • The loss of 4,300 acres of winter feed for ungulate populations will have repercussions for generations.

Moving forward

We worked with the great folks at Boise State University to start up an emergency PonyUp campaign, and were completely overwhelmed by the amazing support from all of you! After meeting our initial goal of $5,000 in the first day, we extended our goal and ended up raising over $19,000!

The funds raised in this campaign will go toward meeting our insurance deductible, recovering lost donations we would have received from visitors if Lucky Peak was open to the public

We are so thankful to all of you for your continuous support, concern for our safety, and immediate offers to help! As we continue to assess the damage we will share new updates with everyone about our needs.

Helicopter habitat restoration seeding

Restoration of the WMA has begun. In early September, helicopters were used to seed the burned area and cover it with straw to help reduce erosion.

Please consider signing up as a volunteer to help with habitat restoration! Click here:

Visit us soon!

Believe it or not, by mid July many birds are done breeding and already making their way south toward their wintering grounds! That’s why our Lucky Peak project starts so early.

Flammulated Owl by Zach Michelson

Flammulated Owl at Lucky Peak by Zach Michelson

Be sure you come visit us this fall at one of our projects.

  • Hummingbird banding runs through the end of August
  • Songbird banding at Lucky Peak and the Boise River is going strong
  • Hawks and Owls will start at the end of August and really pick up in September at Lucky Peak

Find out when you can visit by checking out this link, and be sure to share with your friends: http://ibo.boisestate.edu/banding-dates/

What happens in Vegas…

After a busy season of curlew and other work, we’ve finally had some time to sit down and write some more stories from the curlew project. This blog post shares the story of two adventures, from the viewpoints of our Research Director, Jay Carlisle, and curlew crew technician, Ben Wright.

All-star curlew technician, Ben Wright. Photo by Leith Edgar.

All-star curlew technician, Ben Wright. Photo by Leith Edgar.

By Jay:

We’ve had such enormous success with our Long-billed Curlew satellite telemetry study since 2013 that it’s hard to find reason to complain or wish for more. And, as the curlews we are tracking started leaving breeding areas in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming from the second week of June through early July, the map got more and more exciting and interesting by the day. BUT, during early July, a time when I was just barely catching my breath from an intense 3 months of non-stop fieldwork and travel, I started looking into the details of the satellite transmitter data and soon noticed that two (of a total of 21) transmitters were not moving anymore. Because both of these transmitters were attached in May, it seemed unlikely that the harnesses had fallen off so I became concerned right away.

We’ve previously been able to find five downed transmitters and, in four of the five cases, the news was bad: two had been shot in their breeding area, one had most likely been killed by a raptor soon after arrival in California, and one had died of unknown causes in an agricultural field in California. (The fifth was a happy ending) In all of these cases we were ultimately able to re-deploy the recovered transmitter – and since these transmitters cost over $3,000 each and refurbishing them, if needed, can cost as little as $250, recovering a transmitter can be a real cost savings while allowing us to collect data from another migrating curlew. Thus, it was a no-brainer for me to send Ben Wright, our experienced and all-star curlew nest finder, on a rescue mission or two.

Henrietta’s lost mate

First stop was the Flat Ranch – a Nature Conservancy preserve near Henry’s Lake, to the west of Yellowstone. We had previously tracked a breeding female curlew (“Henrietta”) from Flat Ranch in 2014 and we returned this year to deploy an additional transmitter and study the reproductive success of curlews nesting at the ranch. Erica and Hattie, the two curlew crew field technicians who worked this site this year, had found Henrietta’s nest (with an almost unheard of five eggs!) so we were able to catch her mate and deploy a transmitter on him in late May.

Their nest hatched in June and both parents were seen tending/defending their chicks soon thereafter. Unfortunately, it was his transmitter that showed no movement by early July – and the battery soon died which was going to make the search MUCH harder.

Henrietta and Henry's nest with a record 5 eggs!

Henrietta and Henry’s nest with a record 5 eggs!

Nonetheless, Stephanie and I created maps showing the latest high-quality locations and sent them to Matthew Ward (great colleague and the Preserve Manager for TNC’s Flat Ranch). He and some high school-aged volunteers spent parts of a couple days traversing the most likely area. When they had no luck, I sent Ben with a rented metal detector to see if he could have any more luck. He thoroughly searched a full 2.5 days, including crawling through a culvert under Highway 20/26 to see if a predator/scavenger might have taken a carcass in there! His search produced not even a curlew feather so we had to be content scratching our heads about this one (& I was wishing I’d discovered the issue sooner!).

Henry in happier days, enjoying the beauty of summer on the Flat Ranch. Photo by Erica Gaeta.

Henry in happier days, enjoying the beauty of summer on the Flat Ranch. Photo by Erica Gaeta.

We continued to hope the transmitter would turn on again, but had to shift our attention to another transmitter problem and put this one on the back burner.

Heading to Vegas

Meanwhile, a female we had trapped from the nearby Shotgun Valley, just west of Island Park, had begun her migration in late June and her trajectory took her towards the southwest – seeming likely she was heading to where many of our other birds are, either in the Imperial Valley agricultural lands near the Salton Sea or along the northern part of the Gulf of California. I noticed that her last transmission was from a mountain in very southern Nevada and at first I assumed this was an in-flight location while she was migrating past. When the signal didn’t move for a couple days, I got suspicious as the terrain (steep and rocky desert with some vertical cliffs) didn’t look like curlew habitat.

A google earth view of the transmitter locations...not very curlew-friendly!

A google earth view of the transmitter locations…not very curlew-friendly!

I started contacting local biologists, including Joe Barnes of the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) and Melanie Cota of BLM, to see about the land ownership and if a search mission would be feasible. Joe kindly offered to take a quick hike to the spot (~an hour’s steep hike from the nearest road) and came back with news that didn’t surprise me – he saw and heard both juvenile and adult Peregrine Falcons using the cliff areas, adding some circumstantial evidence that a falcon might have been the reason this curlew & transmitter had ended up on a steep mountain. But, he didn’t find any carcasses or transmitters so I still had to decide if it was worth sending one of us on a recovery mission. I couldn’t go because our set up for our annual Lucky Peak songbird migration study was set to start the next day so it’d have to be someone else – and maybe ideally with some climbing experience just in case. As I was weighing up expenses and our chance of finding the transmitter, I gave Ben a choice: more data entry, or a bit of an adventure? It was a no-brainer for him. J

My decision was made easier by the fact that our friend Julie Baughman, who had attended a raptor workshop that Jessica taught last fall, is a pilot for Southwest Airlines and – because she put in some serious hours of volunteering after the workshop – she had been able to donate a couple of passes on Southwest for IBO to use. Thanks Julie & Southwest! Then it was just a matter of hotel, rental car, gas, food, etc. – all costs that would be minor if we could find the transmitter. So I looked at the transmission schedule of the transmitter (picking a couple straight days on which the transmitter would be “talking” during daylight hours), booked Ben a seat on a flight, and sent him to Las Vegas!

By Ben:

We started the downed transmitter search looking at a map Stephanie had created. Her map had the most accurate locations that the transmitter had sent out. There was a cluster of six points near the top of a ridge. We decided that at the cluster would be the best place to first search for a signal coming from the transmitter.

Stephanie plotted Ben's best approach on Google Earth

Stephanie plotted Ben’s best approach on Google Earth

In the afternoon on July 14th I flew down to Las Vegas from Boise. I rented a car at the airport and drove out to Primm, Nevada (a small Casino town on the California, Nevada border, southeast of Las Vegas). The transmitted points we’d received from the transmitter indicated that it had gone down in the mountains, about five miles northwest of Primm. I arrived at my hotel in Primm around 10:30pm. It was difficult to sleep with anticipation of the following day. By five forty-five the next morning, I was wide-awake.

I packed up my stuff and checked out of the hotel. A few days earlier I’d studied a map and found what appeared to be the best way to access the area with a vehicle. My route wound through a large gravel pit on the northern edge of Primm. It continued out into the desert where it turned into a very washed-out two-track that went along an underground gas pipeline. There were a couple of places along the two-track where I wasn’t sure whether or not my vehicle was going to make it. About a quarter mile south of the point that I’d picked on the map for parking, a barbed wire fence crossed the two-track. The fence had been cut and closed back up in the past but I’d left my fencing tools behind when I boarded the airplane in Boise. The fence was only about half a mile south of the original spot I’d picked for starting on foot.

I was feeling pretty good about my early start until, while loading my pack I realized that I’d lost an essential piece of equipment. At some point between the IBO office in Boise and where I had just parked, I had somehow misplaced the cord that connects to the receiver to its antenna. The rest of the equipment I had would be of almost no use without it. I quickly searched through my gear multiple times without finding it. I drove back to Primm as quickly as I safely could on the rough, washed-out two-track. I tried to re-trace my steps as I ran back into the Casino hotel, where I’d stayed. A nice lady at the counter gave me a key to the room and I was extremely relieved to find the cord coiled on the counter next to the TV and microwave cords.

By the time I got back to my start point, the outside temperature seemed to be quickly increasing. Shortly after leaving the car I was starting to worry about the amount of water I was carrying. With the heat, the steep terrain and my hurried pace (trying to make it to the start point before the transmitter began its four-hour transmission cycle), I was drinking a lot of water.

The view down from the steep, rocky terrain. Photo by Ben Wright

The view down to where the car was parked from the steep, rocky terrain. Photo by Ben Wright

The terrain was much steeper than I’d thought it would be after viewing the satellite images of the area. A few hundred meters from the car a snake rattled out of my path. He served as a good reminder of the things I needed to watch out for. The rock that made up a large part of the steep ridges turned out to be very coarse and easy to grip while I was climbing up. With the ease of climbing, I was able to reach the top of the ridge more than an hour before the transmitter was estimated to turn on.

The first thing I did when I arrived on top of the ridge was find shade in one of the many shallow caves that are formed in the rocks.   From my sheltered lookout at the top of the ridge I could hear, every once and a while, what sounded to me like a young raptor begging for food. I’d heard from the biologist who’d come out to look for the transmitter before me that there were a fledgling and adult Peregrine Falcon in the area.

A rock crevice provided some shade. Photo by Ben Wright

A rock crevice provided some shade, and perfect Peregrine nesting habitat. Photo by Ben Wright

After I’d begun searching, it took me a while to locate the signal coming from the transmitter. While holding the antenna out in front of me, I would work my way out to the ends of the jagged rocks that stuck out off of the main ridge. I went back and forth a couple of times, from one side of the ridge to the other, in an effort to determine which side it was on. The points on our map had indicated that it was most likely located somewhere on the south side of the ridge. I searched for about an hour, without finding a signal.

I was sitting at the top of the ridge, near the start point, trying to decide what my next step should be since I hadn’t heard any signal. It was then that I finally picked up the signal. I was very excited when I heard the first signal strength readout. The transmitter appeared to be located where I’d thought it would most likely be after I’d seen the map. It was also much closer than I’d thought it would be when I first picked up its signal.

Before leaving Boise, Stephanie had warned me about an issue that can arise while operating this kind of equipment in steep terrain. She’d said that the signal could deflect off of cliffs before being picked up by the receiver. This effect could trick the person operating the receiver into thinking that the transmitter was closer or in a different direction than it actually was. Just a few minutes after picking up the transmitter’s signal, the receiver’s proximity read-out was indicating that I was within fifteen meters of the transmitter. It seemed unlikely to me that I could already be that close. Due to how near I was to steep terrain, I assumed that the signal from the transmitter must be bouncing off of the rock in the area.   I decided to walk a ways further south. When that didn’t work I tried moving to the east of where receiver had first taken me after picking up the signal.

Each time I walked in a different direction, the antenna indicated that I needed to move back in the direction of where the receiver had given me the highest proximity readout. After about forty-five minutes of walking around, I gave in and started searching the smaller area where the signal was strongest. The only clue that I’d come across up to that point was what appeared to be a body feather. The feather was small and slate-gray in color—obviously not from a curlew.

After a frustrating fifteen minutes of hiking up, down, back and forth across the steep slope, trying to find where the signal was best, I saw what I’d been looking for. Sticking up from among some brown, sun dried grass was a Curlew’s wing.   It appeared to me that the bird’s skeleton had been picked clean by a raptor. Even the pad that lies under the transmitter to protect the bird on the bottom had been chewed by whatever predator had eaten the Curlew. Bones and feathers were mostly all that was left of the bird.

After hiking up, down, back and forth across the steep slope...I saw what I’d been looking for. Sticking up from among some brown, sun dried grass was a Curlew’s wing.

After hiking up, down, back and forth across the steep slope…I saw what I’d been looking for. Sticking up from among some brown, sun dried grass was a Curlew’s wing.

The transmitter sat about a foot from the bird’s remains. It was sitting upright on a rock with its solar panels sparkling in the afternoon sun.   Because of my assumption that the equipment had been encountering interference, I had ended up searching at least another forty-five minutes longer than would have been required. Before leaving, I took several pictures of the bird’s remains and transmitter then collected the transmitter, metal leg band and plastic flag that was placed on the bird’s leg for identifying her at a distance. While I was picking up the equipment, I found another small feather, the same gray color as the first. This seemed to be good evidence that it was probably a Peregrine Falcon that had eaten our curlew.

The curlew carcass. Bones picked clean by a bird of prey, and transmitter laying just above the body, undamaged.

The curlew carcass. Bones picked clean by a bird of prey, and transmitter laying just above the body, undamaged. Photo by Ben Wright

I then quickly made my way back down the mountain to make the five-thirty flight out of Las Vegas. As I worked my way down towards the car, the heat rapidly grew more and more intense.

A few hours later, as I was preparing to go through security at the airport, I worried that the luggage scanner might damage the valuable transmitter. When I explained my situation and what the device was to one of the TSA agents I was assured that the transmitter was definitely going to have to go through the scanner, regardless of any damage that might occur. I was relieved the next day when Jay texted to inform me that the transmitter was still transmitting.

The curlew carcass in the foreground and Peregrine lair just behind.

The curlew carcass in the foreground and Peregrine lair just behind. Photo by Ben Wright

A Return to Flat Ranch

I had spent three days in Island Park looking for the transmitter that went down at Flat Ranch, but since it wasn’t transmitting I couldn’t find anything. Then, soon after I returned from Vegas, the transmitter unexpectedly started transmitting again around August third. A few people from the Flat Ranch Preserve went out and where unable to find it, so Jay sent me out with the transmitter-locating equipment to try. This was only my second time using the equipment.

This time seemed to me like it would be much easier. The search area was, for the most part flat and right next the highway, instead of being on steep cliffs like the bird from Primm. The only vegetation over most of the area is very thin grass that stands about a foot tall. As soon as I turned on the equipment it started receiving a signal.

While I was following the signal and nearing the transmitter the preserve manager’s dog walked over and started sniffing at something that turned out to be the Curlews wings. The rest of the bird’s carcass, the bands and the transmitter were there as well. From the time I turned on the receiver it had only taken us about an hour and a half to find the transmitter.

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The bird appeared to have been hit by a car traveling on the highway. The highway is about a hundred and fifty meters to the west of where we found the remains of the bird. The skeleton was very broken up and even the plastic flag that had been placed on the bird’s leg for identifying him at a distance was broken. Based on what we observed, we concluded that the two small solar panels on the transmitter must have been covered by the bird’s carcass during the time that it wasn’t transmitting.  When we found it, the transmitter was about a meter from the carcass. A Raven or some other predator may have pulled the transmitter away from the carcass to where sunlight was able to reach it.

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In closing, though we are very sad to have lost two curlews, we have gained important information about mortality risks to curlews and we’re fortunate to have been able to recover both transmitters for use in 2016.