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Tribute to Gary Robinson – IBO Super-volunteer

By Jay Carlisle

Read the tribute to Gary written by his family.

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


  • 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)


    Female Nicaraguan Grackle. 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


    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!

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: STEM Exploration

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

For information about our banding dates, check back on banding dates 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!

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.


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.


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.


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.



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:

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.


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.


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.


Wanted: Winter Hummingbird Sightings

We’re starting a new project, and need your help!

Have you seen a hummingbird in Idaho this winter? Please contact us with your sightings.

Learn more about this research project here:

Share the word with friends by downloading a PDF of our “Wanted Poster”

Share the word with friends by downloading a PDF of our “Wanted Poster”

The Ins and Outs of IBO’s Northern Goshawk Research Project

Written by Rob Miller

My fifth year as part of the Intermountain Bird Observatory (IBO) leading the research on Northern Goshawks within the Sawtooth National Forest has come to a close. By all measures it was a very successful year, but unfortunately my time trouncing through the woods has finished for this season.

Two goshawk nestlings in a newly discovered nest in Piñon Pine, an uncommon nesting substrate.

I thought it might be helpful to dive a bit deeper into the objectives of this program. As with many programs, our efforts are balanced among a number of objectives. Some of our objectives are mostly nested within the other objectives, so we can be efficient in addressing multiple objectives with the same effort.

Core objectives for the Northern Goshawk research and monitoring efforts:

  • Evaluate the population trend for this species within the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest.
  • Evaluate the genetic health of this species within the northern Great Basin region of the western United States, which encompasses the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest.
  • Evaluate threats to this species, with an emphasis on blood parasites, within the northern Great Basin of the western United States.
  • Provide educational and training opportunities for undergraduate students preparing for a career in wildlife biology.

Here’s more detail on each of these objectives.

Objective 1. Evaluate the population trend for this species within the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest.

The USDA Forest Service has a set of guidelines requiring each forest to identify Management Indicator Species (MIS) that align with their forest structural objectives. The basic concept is that instead of monitoring all species within the forest, which is not generally feasible, each forest should monitor a few key species whose population status is generally dependent and aligned with the type of forest structure they desire. There are generally a wide range of criteria for choosing good management indicator species (Caro and Girling 2010). Seddon and Leech (2008) suggested a focus on seven criteria for choosing appropriate species: they should have a well-known biology; large home range size; high probability of population persistence; co-occurrence of species of conservation interest; management needs that are beneficial to co-occurring species; sensitivity to human disturbance; and ease of monitoring. The Northern Goshawk meets most of these criteria, at least to some degree. While this approach has its critics, Sergio et al. (2006) has demonstrated a high correlation between Northern Goshawk presence and species diversity including the number of avian species (richness), the number of vulnerable avian species, the number of tree species, and overall avian species diversity (richness and evenness). It is not surprising that many forests, including most in Idaho, have chosen the Northern Goshawk as one of their Management Indicator Species.

Nestlings ready to fledge in the City of Rocks National Reserve.
36 – 38 days old (usually fledge 34-42 days old).

The Sawtooth National Forest is one forest that has specified the Northern Goshawk as an MIS species. They partner with the Intermountain Bird Observatory to accomplish their monitoring objectives as we deliver core biological science to the key questions within the forest. The work within the Sawtooth National Forest has been implemented in steps. IBO worked with the Sawtooth National Forest on goshawks in the late 1990 and early 2000’s. This work was renewed in 2011. My first two years, my thesis years (2011 and 2012), were focused on how the the goshawks utilize the local forest from both a forest structural perspective (Miller et al. 2013) and a prey perspective (Miller et al. 2014). These results had both scientific and management implications. The goshawks within the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest have had to adapt to the highly fragmented, island-like structure of the forest, and the absence of the primary food source they consume in most other regions of the world where they exist – tree squirrels.

They don’t all make it. ~20-day old nestling. I discovered this failed nest on the day it failed. Apparently predated by an aerial predator, likely an owl.  The nest was covered in feathers.
South Hills, Idaho.

The next two years of the study have included utilizing the habitat models that I established with my thesis work and a lot of effort on the ground to locate previously unknown nesting territories. This activity has been very fruitful in doubling the number of known goshawk territories within the forest while also further refining our understanding of the habitat use.

While we have not located all of the nesting territories within the forest, we now have sufficient coverage to shift our primary attention toward population size, structure, and dynamics. Historical data within the northern Great Basin suggests that female turnover is much higher in the region than elsewhere (Bechard et al. 2006). It has been suggested that turnover rate may be a much more important measure of population health than population size as sink populations, those with a much higher immigration rate than emigration rate, can show stable population size even as the local population heads toward collapse. Turnover refers to the replacement of a breeding adult from one year to the next within a territory. Turnover can occur as the result of death or abandonment (one adult disperses to a new mate and territory). Turnover is primarily measured by mark-resight studies involving trapping and banding the adult birds with color bands which can be read from a distance without having to recapture the bird. In 2014 and 2015, we have deployed many color bands on adult birds in the area and our efforts have already been paying off.

Female Purple Z3 nesting for at least her second year in the Albion Mountains, Idaho. Purple color band Z3 clearly visible on her right leg (photo from 2014, but observed again in 2015). Originally banded as a nestling in the South Hills in 2012. With this single band we have established a natal dispersal distance for this individual and have identified that she has bred for two years in a row in the same territory, all without recapturing her.

These banding activities will enable us to monitor occupancy, productivity, turnover rates, and responses to management actions. Our preliminary results from 2015 suggest that the high turnover observed a decade ago is still occurring at similar rates.

I have two leading hypotheses regarding why the turnover rate may be higher within this forest as compared with other nearby forests.

  • My post-fledging mortality hypothesis (leading hypothesis)
    • Nest productivity is good by both common measures (young fledged per occupied nest and young fledged per successful nest). (CONFIRMED)
    • The breeding season diet within the area is predominantly ground squirrels.  (CONFIRMED – Miller et al. 2014)
    • Ground squirrels estivate mid-summer removing them from the available food supply for goshawks. (CONFIRMED)
    • Female goshawks generally abandon territory the year after a brood failure at a rate of 50% (CONFIRMED).
    • There is insufficient food to support the cohort of fledglings after ground squirrel estivation causing high fledgling mortality resulting in complete failure of some broods  (NOT confirmed)
    • Females abandon the territories in our study area due to these late season failures (NOT confirmed).
  • My disease hypothesis
    • Black flies within the family Simuliidae are pervasive in the area and carry/pass the Leucocytozoon blood parasite (CONFIRMED – Twin Falls County Pest Abatement District 2012)
    • Blood parasites are pervasive within the study area (CONFIRMED – Jeffries et al. 2015)
    • Females are more at risk than males due to the amount of time they spend immobile at the nest (Partially Confirmed).
    • Female survival is lower as a result of the parasite and the onslaught of black flies (blood loss; NOT confirmed).

We will be working through these research questions in the coming years, assuming we can get funding for the work.

Objective 2. Evaluate the genetic health of this species within the northern Great Basin region of the western United States, which encompasses the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest.

The northern Great Basin provides unique habitat for a wide variety of species. The area is home to unique genetic composition for a number of species – a sub-species of Red Crossbill, known as the South Hills Crossbill, that is endemic to the area; an endangered plant called Christ’s Paintbrush that is endemic to the area; a unique form of Lodgepole Pine tree; and a number of bird species that exist nowhere else in Idaho.

Bayard de Volo et al. (2013) investigated the inter-relationship of various North American goshawk populations. Among other things, they found that there were unique mitochondrial haplotypes located in the Rocky Mountains which appear not to have travelled back to the coastal mountain populations. Think of a haplotype as a genetic signature. Bayard de Volo and team believe that as the glaciers retreated in North America, the Rocky Mountains were populated with goshawks from the historical refuges within the coastal mountains and from Arizona. The birds developed new haplotypes in the Northern Rockies, but these haplotypes have not migrated back. Bayard de Volo and team did not investigate the northern Great Basin populations. That is where we at IBO come in.

Rob (me) climbing tree to access the nestlings for banding and genetic sampling.

Team Goshawk intern Kenny and forest biologist Scott banding and sampling the first goshawk nestling of the season. Sublett Mountains, Idaho.

The forest structure and prey composition within the northern Great Basin presents unique challenges for goshawks (Miller et al. 2013, 2014). It is conceivable that the goshawk populations in these areas have undergone evolutionary changes which enable them to better adapt to these environmental options. Therefore, we postulate that we may find unique genetic haplotypes in the area which have not migrated to the core of the Rocky Mountains or back to the coastal populations. Furthermore, if connectivity does exist to these larger contiguous populations to the east and west, to which are the northern Great Basin birds integrated?

Mitochondrial DNA sequences from Northern Goshawks within the South Hills
of the Sawtooth National Forest collected in 2012. Each row represents a different bird. In this case all samples shown represent the same haplotype.

A separate analysis process (microsatellites) allows us to look for signs of inbreeding depression. This process is a bit more complicated and takes more time. The mitochondrial haplotype process described earlier looks further back (i.e., thousands of year), whereas the microsatellite process allows us to look more into the past 100 years – post-modern human settlement.

We collect genetic samples by taking blood, removing a feather from a bird, or even collecting a molted feather from the ground beneath the nest.  The adult female often molts feathers while incubating eggs on the nest. Some of these molted feathers contain sufficient DNA for extraction. We prefer the least intrusive method (molted feather from ground), but if we need blood for the parasite study (discussed below), then we use it for the DNA as well as blood provides the highest quality sample.

For two years now I have had National Science Foundation funded undergraduate students, Steph in 2014 and Kenny in 2015, working on the genetic analysis. Each have worked with me in the field for a period of four weeks surveying for birds and collecting samples before reporting into the laboratory for the delicate work of genetic analysis.

We are still processing samples, but so far we have not discovered any unique haplotype signatures for the northern Great Basin. This is both good news and bad. Good as that decreases the chance of genetic bottlenecks in the population, bad because it would be really cool to discover that goshawks have evolved specifically to this dry forest island environment. Additionally, our early results indicate that at least the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest is well integrated with the Rocky Mountains to the east. We have processed fewer samples using the deeper analysis, but so far we have discovered no signs of inbreeding depress. That is great news from a conservation perspective.

We have collected samples from the Owyhee Mountains in southwestern Idaho (still in analysis)  and are partnering with forest biologists across Idaho and in Oregon to expand the geographic scope of our work.

Objective 3. Evaluate threats to this species, with an emphasis on blood parasites, within the northern Great Basin of the western United States.

When I began my work with the goshawks back in 2011, I was informed that most of the birds in the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest probably die of a blood parasite that was believed to be in the area. This occurred after I had already designed my thesis work focusing on prey and habitat or I probably would have just focused on the parasite. Regardless, I was able to recruit a volunteer undergraduate student, Michelle, to work on collecting and analyzing blood samples searching for a blood parasite related to Malaria known as Leucocytozoon.

The vector for the disease are flies of the family Simuliidae. These flies are pervasive in the area and pose a double threat. The first threat is from blood loss. At first I didn’t believe that a small fly could have such an impact, but even livestock are at risk of blood loss with these flies. The flies are relentless, targeting the neck and eyes of the nestlings and adult females. I have even donated my blood to one or two of them! The second threat of course is the blood parasite disease.

Goshawk nestlings covered in flies from the family Simuliidae, sucking blood and known vectors of the blood parasite Leucocytozoon. South Hills, Idaho, 2011.

Skin lesions around the neck of an adult female goshawk, likely caused by Black Flies. South Hills, Idaho, 2012.

The adult male birds we handle rarely show the effects of the Black Flies. We believe that these birds have the parasite (confirmed in some), but they are more mobile during the breeding season, better able to avoid the flies. In goshawks the female performs 100% of the incubation and brooding, putting her at constant risk at the nest.

Adult male goshawk with little sign of Black Fly lesions.

Leucocytozoon blood parasite (center) amongst goshawk red blood cells from a sample of blood from a South Hills nestling goshawk taken in 2012. Note: avian blood cells are nucleated, unlike mammalian blood cells.

Our results from 2012 have shown that 28 nestlings from 12 separate nests were all infected with the Leucocytozoon blood parasite. Since samples were taken at a nestling age of approximately 24-28 days old, and the disease takes two weeks to show up in the blood, they were all infected within the first 10 days of their life. This speaks to the pervasiveness of the disease. It is believed that the flies do not themselves have the disease intrinsically, but pick it up as the bite the adult female in the nest and then pass it along as they bite the nestlings. This is referred to as vertical transmission within the nest.

Michelle has submitted a research manuscript for publication in the Journal of Raptor Research, which is due out in the September issue! Woo Hoo!

Jeffries, M. I., R. A. Miller, M. D. Laskowski, and J. D. Carlisle. 2015. High prevalence of Leucocytozoon parasites in nestling Northern Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) in the northern Great Basin USA. Journal of Raptor Research 49 (3): In Press.

Our next steps are to use genetic techniques to analyze the blood samples for other blood parasites such as avian malaria and Hemaproteus. These diseases are transmitted by mosquitos so we expect less pervasiveness as there are fewer mosquitos in the area. We are working to acquire funding and organize this effort at this time.

4. Provide educational and training opportunities for undergraduate students preparing for a career in wildlife biology.

In my five years of work on goshawks, I have directly employed six undergraduate students on these projects. Four are working as wildlife biologists or in related fields (Lauren, Emmy, Mike, and Steph), one is in graduate school leading her own research (Michelle), and one is still an undergraduate (Kenny). I hope that I have provided an excellent opportunity for them to learn and grow and have provided sufficient guidance to help them be more successful in their careers. Michelle’s publication due out next month is a tremendous accomplishment. I feel more honored to have mentored her in the process than to have my own publication. I expect this to be the first in a number of mentored publications in which I get to participate (I am still working on my own as well).

In addition to the direct engagement of students on the project, for the last two years I have hosted a two day goshawk workshop for the group of undergraduate raptor research students participating in the National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at Boise State University. This program hires eight or nine undergraduates each year from across the country. It is highly competitive with over 250 applicants each year. I have hosted one student each of the past two years – Steph in 2014 and Kenny in 2015, focusing on genetics. However, for one weekend each year, we bring all eight or nine students to the study area to focus on goshawks. For most students this is the first time they have seen a goshawk in the wild. They are trained on identification, surveying, tree climbing, genetic sampling, etc. What a great opportunity!

It is hard to boil down five years of work into a single blog post! Hopefully you found it worthwhile.

An old friend. Banded adult female goshawk nesting where I would expect her – Band: Purple N4.

Literature Cited:

Bayard De Volo, Shelley, Richard T. Reynolds, Sarah A. Sonsthagen, Sandra L. Talbot, and Michael F. Antolin. 2013. “Phylogeography, Postglacial Gene Flow, and Population History of North American Northern Goshawks (Accipiter Gentilis).” The Auk 130 (2): 342–354.

Bechard, M. J., G. D. Fairhurst, and G. S. Kaltenecker. 2006. “Occupancy, Productivity, Turnover and Dispersal of Northern Goshawks in Portions of the Northeastern Great Basin.” Studies in Avian Biology 31: 100–108.

Caro, Timothy M, and Sheila Girling. 2010. Conservation by Proxy Indicator, Umbrella, Keystone, Flagship, and Other Surrogate Species. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Jeffries, M. I., R. A. Miller, M. D. Laskowski, and J. D. Carlisle. 2015. High prevalence of Leucocytozoon parasites in nestling Northern Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) in the northern Great Basin USA. Journal of Raptor Research. In Press.

Miller, R. A., J. D. Carlisle, M. J. Bechard, and D. Santini. 2013. “Predicting Nesting Habitat of Northern Goshawks in Mixed Aspen-Lodgepole Pine Forests in a High-Elevation Shrub-Steppe Dominated Landscape.” Open Journal of Ecology 3 (2): 109–115.

Miller, R. A., J. D. Carlisle, and M. J. Bechard. 2014. “Effects of Prey Abundance on Breeding Season Diet of Northern Goshawks (Accipiter Gentilis) within an Unusual Prey Landscape.” Journal of Raptor Research 48 (1): 1–12.

Seddon, Philip J., and Tara Leech. 2008. “Conservation Short Cut, or Long and Winding Road? A Critique of Umbrella Species Criteria.” Oryx 42 (02): 240–45.

Sergio, F., I. Newton, L. Marchesi, and P. Pedrini. 2006. “Ecologically Justified Charisma: Preservation of Top Predators Delivers Biodiversity Conservation.” Journal of Applied Ecology 43 (6): 1049–1055.

Twin Falls County Pest Abatement District. 2012. Why all the Black Flies. Twin Falls, Idaho.

Wiens, J. D., and F. T. Reynolds. 2005. “Is Fledging Success a Reliable Index of Fitness in Northern Goshawks?” Journal of Raptor Research 39 (3): 210–221.

Cactus spines & the various shades of curlew poop

Cactus spines & the various shades of curlew poop: a 3-week journey across Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to capture and track Long-billed Curlews

By Jay Carlisle

I’m happy to be coordinating a huge study of Long-billed Curlews this spring across 3 states. Since early April I’ve been working with a dedicated graduate student, 9 field technicians, and countless supporting/collaborating partners in each of 7 study areas. During the first 10 days of May, our local team worked hard to capture and band 10 adult curlews in our study area west of Boise (the Long-billed Curlew Habitat Area of Critical Environmental Concern), including deploying satellite transmitters on 4 new birds. A few days later it was time for me to begin a fieldwork-oriented road trip in order to capture adults and deploy additional transmitters at our other 6 sites. I left on May 13 and returned to Boise on June 3, having visited many beautiful places and worked with many great people along the way!

1st stop, Big Creek Ranch, Pahsimeroi Valley, Idaho:

From the evening of May 13 through late afternoon of May 14, 4 of our dedicated curlew technicians (Ben, Erica, Hattie, & Sarah) assisted me in capturing 5 adult curlews and we deployed a transmitter on a new adult female. Ben had already found ~10 nests in the area by the time we arrived but on the morning of the 14th we located 3 new nests before resuming trapping – a great morning! Our newly transmittered bird, CT, joined the ranks of the other Pahsimeroi birds, Goldie and Borah.

Ben handing a recently trapped curlew to Hattie for release, Pahsimeroi Valley, Idaho

Ben handing a recently trapped curlew to Hattie for release, Pahsimeroi Valley, Idaho. Photo by Jay Carlisle

MPG Ranch, Montana:

We had initiated work at MPG during May 2014 but had disappointing/inconsistent results from the hand-me-down transmitters we deployed. In 2015 we were hoping to recapture the birds from 2014 to deploy new, more reliable transmitters. BUT, we found fewer curlews in 2015 and were only able to find 1 of the 2014 curlews (a female named “Parking Lot Dave” :-). Fortunately Sarah had been able to find her nest so, once we arrived from the Pahsimeroi, we quickly captured her and outfitted her with a shiny new transmitter! We had less luck with her mate as a storm prevented us from an early evening attempt and when we tried early the next morning, he flushed at the last second (“noooooooo!”). I had to shift focus to a point count survey training for the next 5 days (great fun in the beautiful Swan Valley of Montana) and I returned on Friday late afternoon hoping for a 2nd attempt at Dave’s mate. When we arrived to the vantage point we saw what I was afraid of (no 2nd chance to catch him) but what was also REALLY COOL to see: 2 chicks had just barely hatched and the other 2 would hatch by the next morning. So, we were treated to an across-valley view of the pair tending their newly hatched chicks! Our elation at this event was soon ruined as Sarah saw a lot of coyote activity in the nest area a couple days later and then never saw chicks again – proof that raising young curlews is a tough gig in today’s world!

“Parking Lot Dave” with her brand new transmitter, MPG Ranch, Montana. Photo by Sarah Norton

“Parking Lot Dave” with her brand new transmitter, MPG Ranch, Montana. Photo by Sarah Norton

Cody/Powell, Wyoming:

After striking out on a 2nd visit to MPG, I decided it was time to head to the most distant study site – one of our new sites for 2015, situated near Cody & Powell, Wyoming.

View across curlew breeding habitat to Heart Mountain, Wyoming

View across curlew breeding habitat to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Photo by Jay Carlisle

I had been here in mid-April when delivering Eric & Jeremy to the site and meeting local contacts, Brian & Carrie Peters with The Nature Conservancy’s Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve and Destin Harrell with BLM. It’s a gorgeous area that also holds some different habitat relative to our other study sites – a mix of bunchgrasses, low sage, and some cactus. These habitat features, especially the sage and tall bunchgrass, meant that this was a more difficult place in which to find nests.

In my career as an ornithologist, I have found curlews to be the most challenging species I have studied in terms of the effort/skill it takes to find their nests. They nest in the open on the ground and are thus quite wary when human observers are close (especially within ~200 yards) so we’ve learned to watch from a distance at key times of day. But this habitat increased the challenge as the bunchgrass (taller than usual because of a wetter 2014 growing season) and sage combined with the subtly rolling terrain made it really difficult to observe curlews from far away. Thus, even though Eric & Jeremy were finding moderate densities of curlews in a couple areas (Heart Mountain Ranch and the Polecat Bench area), including numerous pairs, finding nests was proving difficult. Fortunately they had found one at Polecat just a couple days before I arrived so on Monday we headed out to capture the female. This ended up being my most shocking capture experience of the season as when I knelt down to corral the female after she jumped into the net, my knee and both wrists went right into clumps of prickly pear cactus – ouch! Fortunately adrenaline didn’t let me feel the pain until after I had a solid grip on the female but I was pulling out the broken tips of spines from my knee weeks later :-) We were rewarded with some excitement when we came back a couple days later to catch and band the male – 2 of the eggs were starting to hatch and we could actually hear them chirping! Needless to say, we hurried to band and process the male as quickly as we could so he could get back to his nest ASAP.

pipping curlew eggs, Polecat

Pipping eggs at Polecat Bench, Wyoming

We ended up being able to find 2 other nests on the slopes of Heart Mountain and thus were able to deploy the 2 transmitters we hoped to in this study area and caught 2 other adults to band and collect genetics samples. During my time in the Cody/Powell area, we had a couple other notable observations:

  • Eric and Jeremy had recently noticed a large gathering area for curlews near where they were staying on the Heart Mountain Ranch – a field with a tall mix of alfalfa and grasses. We continued to see this each evening and morning and realized that many of the females nesting on the slopes of Heart Mountain were coming here for the evening/night, presumably for food and cover, and then heading back to nesting areas in the early morning.
  • Another fun thing we noticed was variability in poop color :-). Previously I’d mostly seen some variation from greenish to grayish but across the 4 birds we captured in this area, we saw a wide variation – including 1 bird with mostly reddish poop. Dr. Eric Atkinson, a local colleague/collaborator teaching at Northwest College in Powell, suggested maybe it was from eating some of the numerous grasshoppers in the area and this seemed the best explanation.

Henry’s Lake area, Idaho:

With the help of TNC, in 2014 we had been able to deploy a transmitter on a female curlew at the Flat Ranch Preserve that TNC supporters voted to name Henrietta. We were excited to be able to get more details about curlews in this area in 2015 – including extensive abundance surveys throughout the Henry’s Lake basin and Shotgun Valley, nesting success information, and adding 2 more transmitters. Erica and Hattie had started the nest-searching season with a bang and one of the really cool things they documented was that 2 nests they found each had 5 eggs – something we hadn’t yet seen. One of these was Henrietta’s nest and catching her mate was a high priority once I arrived here.

Henrietta’s five-egg nest, Flat Ranch Preserve, Idaho. Photo by Erica

Henrietta’s five-egg nest, Flat Ranch Preserve, Idaho. Photo by Erica Gaeta

Fortunately their nest was relatively close and catching her mate proved to be pretty straightforward – thus, it was great to arrive in the afternoon and have deployed a key transmitter by nightfall!

Henrietta’s mate sporting a new transmitter (stay tuned for a TNC naming contest). Photo by Jay Carlisle

Henrietta’s mate sporting a new transmitter (stay tuned for a TNC naming contest). Photo by Jay Carlisle

We spent the next couple of days searching for nests in the Shotgun Valley where, like over in the Cody/Powell area, sagebrush made long distance visibility difficult. Our efforts paid off and we were able to trap a female on the Trude Ranch and set her up with a transmitter. During the rest of my time here we were foiled by several rain squalls but we still ended up able to catch the birds we needed to. As with all other sites, local partnerships have been crucial to our success and enjoyment on this project – TNC, IDFG, BLM, and the local Master Naturalist chapter all played important roles in our work in the Henry’s Lake area.

Jackson, Wyoming:

In 2014 we had deployed a transmitter on a single female on the National Elk Refuge, named AJ, and she had the most unique migration of any of the curlews in our study to date – long stopovers during both fall and spring migrations and she traveled much further south in Mexico than our other tracked birds. I was excited to have funding from the Meg & Bert Raynes Wildlife Fund and the Wyoming Governor’s Association Big Game License Coalition to deploy 2 more transmitters in the Jackson area: 1 more on the National Elk Refuge and 1 on Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). I really hoped to be able to find AJ’s nest and deploy a transmitter on her mate so I was excited when Erica (who had agreed to volunteer her weekend helping me in Jackson so she could see the Tetons) found her nest! But, a combination of thunderstorms and bad luck led to a day and a half of the worst trapping success I’ve ever experienced – and had me scratching my head and pleading for luck to return! First we had a female flush very early from a nest in GTNP, likely because of some raven and raptor disturbance we saw while getting ready. Then a storm foiled our attempt to catch AJ’s mate that evening. We tried for him early the next morning and he flushed at the last second (another silent “noooooo!”). We decided to shift back over to GTNP and actually had some good luck for a spell in which we located 3 new nests (making for 4 nests plus at least one other pair from 1 vantage point – an impressive density of nesting curlews!) over the course of a few hours but then continued our bad luck in capture by failing on our first 2 attempts. Finally, on our most distant nest, we succeeded in catching a large, and fortunately cooperative, female!

Grand Teton National Park female dubbed “HY” (with volunteer Mary Lohuis).

Grand Teton National Park female dubbed “HY” (with volunteer Mary Lohuis) Photo by Jay Carlisle

We still needed to deploy a transmitter on the National Elk Refuge and, so far, we’d only been able to find a single nest – AJ’s. Her mate was the curlew I most wanted to catch but would we be able to catch him with a 2nd attempt or would he flush early? I was stressed and unsure how best to go about it but, with council from my main partner in Wyoming – Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Susan Patla – decided that it’d be worth an evening attempt since maybe he’d be more likely to stick on the nest when settling in for his nocturnal incubation duties (he’d flushed in the morning when he knew AJ was around and getting ready to spell him). So I was able to quickly pull together an all-volunteer team and give it a try. Figuring I had much less than a 50/50 chance, we went for it and my heart was pounding as we approached his nest. We had the net right over the nest area but couldn’t see him so we hesitated in lowering the net … Suddenly he flushed at an angle but barely flew into the last panel of the net. “YEEEESSSSSSS!” I even did a little skip on my way in to corral him in the net as I was so relieved to have captured this guy :-). It was fun to celebrate with the dedicated volunteers that had helped, including Jennifer & husband Mike, Mark and his daughter Emmie, and Mary – all of whom had witnessed multiple failed capture attempts and were very deserving of some excitement!

Jay handing AJ’s mate (“CL”) to Emmie Gocke; National Elk Refuge, Wyoming.  Photo by Mark Gocke

Jay handing AJ’s mate (“CL”) to Emmie Gocke; National Elk Refuge, Wyoming.
Photo by Mark Gocke

Emmie Gocke releasing “CL”; National Elk Refuge, Wyoming Photo by Mark Gocke

Emmie Gocke releasing “CL”; National Elk Refuge, Wyoming
Photo by Mark Gocke

Daniel, Wyoming: This was the last stop on my 3+ week journey and I was looking forward to seeing the curlew activity in this new-to-us study area. The flood irrigated pastures in the Daniel area support the largest known curlew population in Wyoming. This population was first studied in the early 1980s as part of a master’s thesis and our 2015 field season was an opportunity to revisit this historic study as well as deploy transmitters in a new area. I had 3 transmitters to deploy and hoped to be as efficient as possible; thus, I was none too happy when yet another thunderstorm put an end to trapping plans on my first evening in the area (June 1). I needed to get back to Boise by the 3rd so this meant the 2nd was going to be a busy day! We started around 6am for some nest searching on a ranch where the crew, Kevin & Mikki, had just recently been granted permission to search and monitor. It was a happening first couple hours as we found 4 new nests, including 1 that was hatching that morning! We didn’t finish work until almost 9pm, after capturing 5 adult curlews and deploying transmitters on 2 females and a male – possibly the most productive day on this curlew study for me with 4 new nests and 5 birds captured. It was an epic day during which I appreciated the hard work of my field technicians and my colleagues with Wyoming Game & Fish as well as the interest and enthusiasm of several private landowners I was able to meet.

Susan Patla, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, with our first curlew of the day in Daniel.  Photo by Jay Carlisle

Susan Patla, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, with our first curlew of the day in Daniel.
Photo by Jay Carlisle

Landowner Sue Briggs Stanfill holding “ET”, our second transmittered bird of the day, near Cora, WY.  Photo by Jay Carlisle

Landowner Sue Briggs Stanfill holding “ET”, our second transmittered bird of the day, near Cora, WY.
Photo by Jay Carlisle

Here I am with more curlew poop and the last curlew of the 2015 season, “JC”; Daniel, WY

Here I am with more curlew poop and the last curlew of the 2015 season, “JC”; Daniel, WY

Now we get to sit back and do “armchair biology” by watching where these birds go:

Help us name our ACEC curlews!

The time has come to choose names for our other two curlews that live on The Long-billed Curlew Area of Critical Environmental Concern near Emmett and Middleton!  We’ve already named our pair, Thor and Valkyrie, thanks to Middleton High School.

Now we have a male and a female, EP and CP who still need names. These two are not paired together, but both have nests on the Long-billed Curlew ACEC area.

"EP" shows off his transmitter. What will his new name be?

“EP” shows off his transmitter. What will his new name be?

CP shows off her leg flag. Photo by Stephanie Coates

CP shows off her leg flag. Photo by Stephanie Coates

Students from some Idaho schools have come up with name options for these birds. Let us know your favorite name!

  • Emmett High Schoolers chose the names Gem (female) and Canyon (male), named after Gem and Canyon counties
  • Trail Wind Elementary students chose the names Sherlock Holmes (male) and Juliet (female–after Romeo and Juliet)
  • Students from Borah High School chose the couples names Ben and Jeri or Jack and Jill
  • Liberty Elementary 4th-6th graders chose James Bond (for a male–because curlews are sneaky and hard to find like James Bond around their nests) or Sage (for a female since curlews live in sagebrush and there is a lot of sage in Idaho)
  • A Sage International School student chose the name Nez (for the female) and Perce (for the male) after the Nez Perce tribe
  • 5th grade students from Perrine Elementary voted for the names Colton and Caterina the curlews.
  • And 2nd graders from the Barbara Morgan STEM Academy chose Buster (male) and Lemon (female)

Polls are closed! The winning name for CP was Gem. Congrats Emmett High School!

The winning name for EP was Canyon. Congrats Emmett High School!