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Transmitter Down in the Pahsimeroi

by Jay Carlisle
Late last week I started to notice that something was amiss with Borah’s transmitter – in technical terms, the activity counter data was “stuck” which suggests the transmitter wasn’t moving. My heart sunk – in the 3 prior times this had happened, we found a dead curlew (one in which we strongly suspected foul play, 1 predator kill, and 1 unknown cause). Of course I care about all of these curlews but Borah had migrated to Mexico and back last winter and we’d just recently captured his mate (“Goldie”) so I feel a little extra for Borah and really didn’t want this to be the same result.

Borah, just before release in 2013, with his namesake Mt. Borah in the background. Photo by Heidi Ware

Borah, just before release in 2013, with his namesake Mt. Borah in the background. Photo by Heidi Ware

On Tuesday I made the 5+ hour drive from Boise to his breeding area on Big Creek Ranch, decidedly nervous about what I would find. I had texted with ranch co-owners, Molly & Tom Page, the night before and they were going to be there at the same time and generously offered to help me search – a relief for me b/c finding a small transmitter in a vast grassland can be tough even with the tracking gear! I thought I might have 4 helpers (Molly & Tom and their children, Lilia & Henry) but I ended up with 7 because Molly’s sister Ann Fuell was visiting with her 2 children, Kate & Ted, and they were excited for an outing. What a bonus!

Once we met up, they enthusiastically asked, “what do we do?” I suggested we walk straight towards their nesting territory because if Borah was alive and their nest was still active, he’d surely appear.

The family search party, heading out to find Borah's transmitter. Photo by Molly Page

Part of the family search party, heading out to find Borah’s transmitter.
Photo by Molly Page

As we neared the nest, I could see a female (longer bill) standing in the vicinity of where the nest was and as I looked closer I could see, but not read, the plastic leg band (“alpha flag”) and suspected it was Goldie. Not long afterwards a screaming curlew appeared – as it flew towards us I could see it was a male by bill shape/length and then I saw the leg band and was hopeful. There was no antenna from a satellite transmitter which could suggest Borah was alive and had shed his transmitter – I just needed to read the alpha flag with certainty. On his next fly-by I could clearly read the letters “AU” and I breathed a huge sigh of relief – this was Borah and he must have dropped the transmitter. Likewise, once the female flew towards us I could see her antenna and read her 2-letter code.

Borah: Alive! Showing off his back with no antenna, and about to swallow a food morsel. Photo by Jay

Borah, very much alive! Showing off his back with no antenna, and about to swallow a food morsel.
Photo by Jay

Adding to my excitement is that both Borah and Goldie were exhibiting the aggressive and defensive behavior that happens when they are protecting chicks! I was dive-bombed several times and I think Lilia & Henry were wondering if Goldie might actually hit one of us :-) Needless to say, I’m pretty sure these 2 curlews don’t share the same affection for me!
We then turned our attention to finding the transmitter. This consisted of waiting for once-a-minute messages from the receiver to deduce direction & distance. It took a while but we eventually got “warm” as we neared the headwaters of the creek (which flows into the Pahsimeroi River).

The creek. Photo by Jay

The creek. Photo by Jay

The family had previously agreed that extra s’mores would be the reward for whoever found the transmitter while I would just be happy to find it in one piece and try to figure out why it had fallen off. Before long, Kate said, “hey, what’s this?” and I was relieved once again – an intact transmitter on which the Teflon harness material had worn down so it fell off the bird.

Borah's transmitter with broken strap

Borah’s transmitter with broken strap

It was only a few feet from the creek so maybe Borah was bathing at the time? Lucky it hadn’t fallen in the stream because my understanding is that if the antenna is underwater, the unit won’t transmit and we wouldn’t have been able to find it at all!

Success! A much happier search party than we first envisioned. Thanks to the Page and Fuell families for helping to find the transmitter! Photo by Jay

Success! A much happier search result than we first envisioned. Kate (center) shows off her find. Thanks to the Page and Fuell families for helping to find the transmitter! Photo by Jay

The bad news is that we won’t be able to track both Borah and Goldie in the same migration but I’m thankful that Borah survives and will cross my fingers that they raise the chicks to fledging and that Goldie goes somewhere exciting this winter! Thanks a ton to the Pages and Fuells for assisting with the search and for helping make my trip that much more worthwhile.

Borah with AU flag

Borah with leg flag. Photo by Jay

To Kill a Mockingbird

Sometime soon Jay and I will post the full story from our time at MPG Ranch in Montana, but in the mean time we wanted to share this crazy story.

The second week of May we traveled to MPG Ranch to place 4 transmitters on curlews there. The plan had been to do 5, but one transmitter had been sent off to be refurbished and didn’t get back to us in time.

So we put on 4 transmitters and finished up at MPG. The next week we made a loop to the Pahsimeroi Valley in Idaho, the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, and The Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch near Island Park, putting on 3 other transmitters (more on that later too!).

MPG Ranch. Not a bad place to look for curlews! Photo by Jay

MPG Ranch. Not a bad place to look for curlews! Photo by Jay

While we were traveling, we continued to get location uploads from our 4 MPG transmitters, and updates from the MPG biologists…things weren’t looking good. The last female we transmittered, who we nicknamed “The Beast” (she was really huge, and super feisty!) had stopped transmitting. The MPG folks were still seeing a bird on the nest during the day when females usually incubate, so we deduced that her transmitter must be malfunctioning. We decided that we should capture her and take her transmitter off.

Jay and Heidi working on "The Beast"'s transmitter.

Jay and Heidi working on “The Beast”‘s transmitter. We used one of Jay’s arm warmers as a hood because she was so feisty! Photo by Debbie Leick

So Kate from MPG organized a trapping mission and headed out mid-day. They successfully trapped the incubating bird, but to their surprise it did not have a transmitter, band, or leg flag….they had caught the wrong bird! This was the MALE incubating during the day! (Male curlews are supposed to switch incubation with their mates in the evening and take the night shift). Things weren’t looking good for “The Beast”. If she was not on her nest during the day when she was supposed to be, it was very possible that she was dead (cause unknown but many predators in the area).

Curlew nesting habitat in Sheep Camp drainage, MPG Ranch

Curlew nesting habitat in Sheep Camp drainage, MPG Ranch

The MPG team watched the male over the next few days and never saw his mate. He diligently incubated the eggs during the day, only hopping off the nest for short stints to feed every few hours. With him doing double-duty we were worried that the nest wouldn’t make it. How could a male curlew raise the eggs on his own? Our only encouragement was that we knew the pair had started their nest about 3 weeks prior, so with an incubation period of about 28 days he didn’t have much longer to go….could he hold out another week until they hatched??

We were getting all this news during our travels and realizing we were going to have to change our plans. The 5th transmitter was shipped back to us and we had to make a decision…do we make the long run back up to MPG to put it on? We decided that with “Beast” likely dead, leaving only 3 transmitters remaining on MPG, we had to make a go for it. We left Island Park in the morning and made it up to MPG by dinner time. We tried in vain to find a new nest in order to transmitter a different bird.

Watching for curlews on the MPG ranch. Photo by William Blake

Watching for curlews on the MPG ranch. Photo by William Blake

This lone male was our last resort since we were hesitant to add an extra 40 minutes of stress to what was already probably a pretty stressful spring for him. In the end, we decided to go for it – we’d catch him, and if he seemed too thin to handle the transmitter we’d just band him and let him go. We figured that if he was successful it would be really good to have location data on him to learn more about this odd single-parent behavior. As it turned out, his muscle condition seemed right and he weighed a healthy 486 grams so we went for it.

We attached the transmitter, wished him luck, and left for Boise. On our drive home the next day we were brainstorming names and texting with Kate the biologist. We were trying to think of a good name, maybe of a heroic character or a famous single dad. The first character that popped into both our minds was Atticus Finch. So we decided that’s what we had to call him: “Atticus”, after the heroic single father from the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Atticus the curlew

Atticus the curlew

That was last week. And here’s where the story gets better. With a predicted hatch date any day (but possibly delayed if he wasn’t able to incubate as much as 2 parents could), we were anxiously awaiting news from the biologists at MPG. Finally, on Wednesday we heard the news we’d been waiting for. Debbie of MPG Ranch checked on Atticus and found that the eggs had hatched. He was now the proud parent of three fuzzy chicks!

a distant photo of one of Atticus's three chicks. Maybe this one is Scout? We didn't want to disturb them by getting too close. Photo by Debbie Leick

a distant photo of one of Atticus’s three chicks. Maybe this one is Scout?
We didn’t want to disturb them by getting too close. Photo by Debbie Leick

With the hard incubation work over, we hope that Atticus can successfully raise the chicks on his own. We’re sure he’s very happy to have mobile babies that can feed right alongside him, instead of fragile eggs to tend to. That said, let’s cross our fingers that the chicks find good cover and can survive to fledging … go Atticus!

Coyote vs. Curlew

We’re used to seeing curlews defend their nests from aerial predators while we’re out doing surveys, but yesterday Ben, one of our all-star curlew technicians, witnessed some behavior we’ve never seen before when a ground predator showed up:

A curlew mobs a raptor passing through his territory

A curlew mobs a raptor passing through his territory. Photo by Liz Urban

Story by Ben Wright

While out nest searching today, I watched a pair of curlews land next to each other in the distance.   At this point in the season we get excited anytime we find a female, because they are very hard to locate once the incubation period begins and they sit nearly invisible on the nest for virtually all the daylight hours.

A curlew sitting tight on the nest. Photo by Jessica Pollock

A curlew sitting tight on the nest. Photo by Jessica Pollock

Right after the pair landed, a coyote ran toward them from the west. As the coyote came over the hill, the male curlew took off and flew across the draw to the east of him. The coyote stopped a few feet from the female but watched where the male flew to. The male landed near the bottom of the east side of the draw, seemingly trying to lure the predator away.

The rolling hills and draws of the ACEC. Photo by Liz Urban

The rolling hills and draws of the ACEC. Photo by Liz Urban

After landing he began making an unusual chirping call I had never heard before, but one that sounded very similar to the call curlews use when they are with their chicks. As soon as the male began to call, the coyote immediately ran in his direction. It seemed that the coyote knew that that noise should mean there would be some curlew chicks nearby!   The coyote disappeared in what seemed like a pursuit of some chicks and the male successfully distracted the predator from discovering the nest. Shortly after the coyote left, the female made her way over the hill to her nest, revealing its location to me. What really amazed me was to realize that the coyote had passed within meters of their nest!  This pair’s nest makes the 6th for the 2014 season so far so stay tuned for more curlew updates in the next few weeks!

Curlew nesting season is in full swing! Photo by Rob Miller

Curlew nesting season is in full swing! Photo by Rob Miller

 

The faint sound of drumming

By Rob Miller

This week is the official launch of the Intermountain Bird Observatory’s woodpecker survey projects. Of the three woodpecker survey projects we will complete this year, two kick off this week. It is an exciting time to get out in the woods, as many resident species are claiming their territories and the long distance migrants are inbound to compete as well. Most of our areas are still buried in snow, so it provides a great contrast to the summer heat that is soon to arrive.

Early spring field work means lots of snow!

Early spring field work means lots of snow!

The first project to launch is the Management Indicator Species project with the Boise National Forest. The forest service is required by their rules to identify management indicator species, or species whose status is tied to the health of the forest. The idea is if the indicator species is doing well, the forest is doing well, and vice versa. It is much more cost efficient to monitor a few indicator species, than to survey for all species. The challenge is to choose species which are truly representative of forest health. Each forest has the latitude to choose their own species based upon their management goals. The Boise National Forest has identified three species, all woodpeckers – Pileated Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, and the Black-backed Woodpecker. The Pileated and White-headed surveys are performed in April and May, whereas the Black-backed surveys will be launched in June.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

The surveys begin 30 minutes before sunrise. Each transect includes ten points, spaced 250 meter apart. We must finish all points by 10am. At each point we will perform a 10-minute point count. This is split between five minutes of silent listening and, new this year based upon our recommendations from last year, five minutes of White-headed Woodpecker call broadcasts. We added the calls this year to try and increase detection of this rare species. This project was designed by the forest service and they have responsibility to analyze the results. However, as noted, we have influenced the approach by adding the call broadcasts for White-headed Woodpeckers.

Rob at the start of a day of woodpecker surveys in 2013

Rob at the start of a day of woodpecker surveys in 2013

The second project kicking off this week is also a management indicator species project. The Caribou-Targhee National Forest has contracted with IBO to survey for eight woodpecker species across the northern section of the forest. IBO designed the project and will execute, analyze, and report the results. This complex project will involve surveying four points per morning, each separated by 500 meters. The points are located “off trail” so access and navigation will be more difficult. The presence of deep snow, rough terrain, and grizzly bears, further complicate the logistics. The surveys also begin 30 minutes before sunrise and must finish by 10am. At each point there will be a six minute silent listening period followed by broadcasts of each of the eight species. Yes, that is 22 minutes in total! This project will continue daily for six weeks.

In June we will kick off the Black-backed Woodpecker project for the Boise National Forest. This project was new last year and was designed, implemented, analyzed, and reported by IBO. We have made a few modifications this year to improve the project. The Black-backed Woodpecker is a fire specialist, so we are excited to see how their population and distribution have changed after two seasons with large fires.

The forest service does choose other management indicator species besides woodpeckers. The Sawtooth National Forest has chosen the Northern Goshawk. IBO will kick off our goshawk project in partnership with the Sawtooth National Forest in June.

Check back for updates on each of these projects!

The Northern Goshawk in Biogeographical Context

By Rob Miller

In 2014, I have the honor to lead a team for the 4th straight year to study the breeding ecology of the Northern Goshawk within the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest. This work continues IBO’s focus on this species and fits into a multiple-year research plan to assess the importance of this possibly isolated population of goshawks with respect to the broader biogeographical context of the species.

Not all of the Sawtooth National Forest is near the Sawtooth Mountains. The five sections of the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest in south-central Idaho/northern Utah, USA.

It is probably worth pointing out that not all of the Sawtooth National Forest is near the Sawtooth Mountains. It is a common and understandable misconception. There are three ranger districts in central Idaho encompassing the Sawtooth Mountains (SNRA, Ketchum, and Fairfield), but there is one district south of the Snake River, spread across five “forest islands” (Fig. 1). This later district, known as the Minidoka district, is where our recent work was performed. This district includes four sections in Idaho and one in northern Utah.

The Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis; hereafter “goshawk”) is of interest to many resource management agencies. It is considered a “sensitive species” by the USDA Forest Service and a “regional/state imperiled species” by the BLM. The goshawk has twice been petitioned as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, but the petition was rejected on both occasions. The Sawtooth National Forest has identified the goshawk as a local Management Indicator Species. As such they must monitor the health of the population and make forest management decisions based upon the results. The species has received a lot of monitoring attention within the South Hills off and on over the past 20 years, but much less attention has been applied in the other sections.

The Minidoka Ranger District is located in the northern portion of the Great Basin. The Great Basin consists largely of shrub-steppe habitat with forested landscapes only at higher elevations. Even at these higher elevations the forest is still fragmented with most of the trees on northern facing slopes and in drainages. The result is an island-like landscape where the space between the “islands” consists largely of shrubland and native grassland. In the modern era, the matrix between fragments is also distinguished by agriculture, increasing development, and an increasing transformation to invasive grasslands. The size and isolation of these “islands” influences the species diversity which is able to survive within each fragment. The theory of Island Biogeography predicts that species diversity is related to the size of the island (larger islands have more species) and the distance to the next population (islands closer to mainlands have more species). In general, this theory applies to forest fragments as well, but the degree is determined by what occupies the matrix land between fragments and whether the matrix is easily traversed by dispersing individuals. Birds can easily fly to the next island, but mammalian dispersal is much more limited. The South Hills and nearby Albion Mountains present a unique prey assemblage for goshawks as their most common diet of tree squirrels are naturally absent, although tree squirrels do exist in the Sublett and Black Pines Mountains.

Tree Squirrels, a common part of most goshawks’ diets, are naturally absent from the South Hills.
American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)

The lack of tree squirrels has led to the rise of the South Hills Crossbill as a sub-species of the Red Crossbill, but that is a whole other story with many ecological lessons as well.

South Hills Crossbill, “South Hills”, Sawtooth National Forest.

During the 2011 and 2012 breeding seasons, the focus of our research, and my thesis, was on the diet of the goshawk in this unusual prey landscape (Miller et al. 2014), the habitat use of the goshawks in this landscape (Miller et al. 2013), and the influence of prey abundance on nest occupancy and productivity (Miller et al. In review). This effort was focused on the Cassia section of the forest, also known as, the South Hills.

One of the most significant results from this recent work in the South Hills was a habitat suitability model, or statistical model which predicts areas with appropriate characteristics for goshawk nesting. In 2012, the model helped us find a number of new territories. In 2013, we applied this model to the Black Pines and Sublett sections of the forest and then spent a few weeks surveying the highest priority areas, discovering a half dozen previously unknown goshawk territories.

In 2014, we will cross the border outside of Idaho into northern Utah and the Raft River range. This will be the first time the area has been formally surveyed. The model predicts some, but not a lot, of suitable habitat. We will also survey the Albion mountains where we expect to discover a number of new nesting structures, hopefully occupied by goshawks. To finish the survey effort, we plan to check all historical nesting structures in the other three sections of the forest to determine which are occupied this year. It may sound easy, but we have documented over 110 nesting structures across a broad geographic area which were likely built by goshawks!

In 2012, we also collected blood samples from nestling goshawks to analyze for parasite infection, which we found in large numbers (Jeffries et al. In review). This year we are excited to bring on an NSF-funded intern who will work with a visiting Fulbright Scholar to evaluate the genetic health and diversity of the goshawks using those existing blood samples. We will also be gathering additional samples in the field this year. Look forward to more publications from IBO in the future.

Emmy, Alexis, and Heidi with nestling goshawk, “South Hills”, Sawtooth National Forest.

We have a full agenda ahead to meet the forest service requirements for monitoring this species across the five sections. However, we are seeking additional funding from other sources to fund the work to help place the Great Basin population of birds into a broader geographical context. We know from past studies that some birds do disperse between islands within the Great Basin to breed (Independence Mountains in Nevada to the South Hills in Idaho). However, we don’t know to what degree the Great Basin individuals mix with birds in the more contiguous Rocky Mountains or even the Pacific coast populations. We have some great work ahead of us.

But in the short term, I can’t wait to get my feet back on the ground within the Sawtooth National Forest! It is a unique and fantastic place.

Female Northern Goshawk on nest, “South Hills”, Sawtooth National Forest.

Literature Cited:

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 3:109–115.

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):In Press.

Miller, R. A., J. D. Carlisle, and M. J. Bechard. In Review. Prey abundance and forest structural influences on occupancy and productivity of Northern Goshawks within a mixed forest and shrub community in the Great Basin, USA.

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

To the Salton Sea

Back in December I was presented with an opportunity to attend a January conference in San Diego and I was really torn.  I knew I would have lots of deadlines this month and, while I very much enjoy the traveling, meeting new people, and seeing old friends that goes along with conferences, it’s become a bigger part of my work life and sometimes it’s nice to just stay home!  But then I thought, “San Diego isn’t that far from the Salton Sea and ‘Borah’ (a curlew that breeds in the Pahsimeroi Valley of east-central Idaho) has been there for almost 2 months – if he stays and I could go look for him, that’d be worthwhile” and my decision was made.  I could attend the conference – very worthwhile, by the way (the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust’s Partners in Science program) – and then take advantage of the long weekend afterwards to go on a bit of a road trip.  Of course, maybe I could fit in a little birding too :-).

The paths of our four curlews since we attached their transmitters this summer.

The paths of our four curlews since we attached
their transmitters during summer 2013.

Before leaving Boise last week I called the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge  and reached a very friendly Mark Stewart, an education specialist, who told me how many curlews he’d seen lately (A LOT!) and gave me contact information for the biologists.  Fortunately for me, Katie Montgomery was willing to spend part of her day off on Sunday afternoon touring me around the refuge and nearby agricultural habitats.

Katie Montgomery of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge smiling after we’d just found hundreds of White-faced Ibis along with many Ring-billed Gulls and ~20 Long-billed Curlews in a recently-irrigated agricultural field.  Borah’s satellite transmitter had sent a signal from this field earlier that morning but we couldn’t find him!

Katie Montgomery of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge smiling after we’d just found hundreds of White-faced Ibis along with many Ring-billed Gulls and ~20 Long-billed Curlews in a recently-irrigated agricultural field. Borah’s transmitter had sent a signal from this field earlier that morning!

I didn’t drive directly from San Diego to the Salton Sea, however. I noticed on eBird that 2 of the many Blue-footed Boobies that ventured north and inland last fall were still lingering at a place I’d never been called Lake Skinner County Park, roughly between San Diego and Riverside. So, I got up too early on Sunday and drove to the park and it was well worth it – the boobies were easy to find so I spent a little time exploring the park and found LOADS of birds (maybe the long-running drought is concentrating even more birds at this oasis?), including some wintering migrants like Lark & White-crowned Sparrows and Townsend’s, Orange-crowned, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I was most excited to see a few species I rarely get a chance to, such as California Gnatcatcher, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, and Oak Titmouse. I literally had to force myself to leave but I had some miles to cover across some beautiful southern California foothills to get to the Salton Sea.

Two Blue-footed Boobies with cormorants, gulls, and a Brown Pelican at Lake Skinner County Park.

Two Blue-footed Boobies with cormorants, gulls, and a Brown Pelican at Lake Skinner County Park.

I arrived at our meeting spot (the Circle K in Westmorland) a little early so I used my phone to check the latest transmission locations from Borah’s satellite transmitter – a bay with mudflats on the refuge and a couple locations from nearby farm fields.  We started by heading out to the refuge and I was amazed at the bird numbers – a cloud of Snow & Ross’s Geese, many raptors, sparrows fleeing from the road edges, and then tremendous waterbird numbers once we arrived at ‘the sea’.

Swarms of waterbirds, especially including Long-billed Curlews, American Avocets, and Northern Shovelers, at the Salton Sea NWR. (picture taken through my scope at 50x)

Swarms of waterbirds, especially including Long-billed Curlews, American Avocets, and Northern Shovelers, at the Salton Sea NWR. (picture taken through my scope at 50x)

The birds were very distant and many of the curlews (I estimated about 180 in view) were either behind ducks or roosting with their bill tucked and one leg pulled up into their belly feathers.  Thus, it would have been hard to see Borah’s color band or the antenna from his transmitter but I still gave it a shot!  Katie, probably thinking ‘this guy is crazy if he thinks he’s going to see a color band from this distance’, was very patient with me and we enjoyed the birding in general, including a Sora that called once from the nearby marsh.  Once I’d had my fill, we moved on to a few farm fields where recent transmissions had come from.  A couple places with taller crops were likely areas where the bird had been flying over but we finally found a recently-irrigated field with loads of ibis and gulls and Katie said, “this is the type of situation I usually see curlews in when they’re in agriculture”.

Hundreds of White-faced Ibis were in this field when we arrived.

Hundreds of White-faced Ibis were in this field when we arrived.

We couldn’t see any curlews at first but we figured it was worth bringing out our scopes since Borah had been here just hours before … While first scanning through the ibis horde, I briefly thought I saw something brown but then it vanished and I wondered if I just really wanted to see a curlew so badly after coming this far!  But, I scanned further left and found some curlews (about 18) – and there were also about 10 Black-bellied Plovers here (we’d seen over 100 of these back at ‘the sea’).

“There have to be some curlews out there!” … Katie Montgomery of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge plying the agricultural horizons for curlews.

“There have to be some curlews out there!”
Katie Montgomery of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR plying the agricultural horizons for curlews.


A few of the Long-billed Curlews in this recently-irrigated field.

A few of the Long-billed Curlews in this recently-irrigated field.

I tried in vain to find Borah but to no avail.  I have to imagine he’d either been in view but hard to distinguish, flying over, or at least within a mile of us during our search.  I knew it was a longshot to actually find one curlew among all these birds and at day’s end I was happy to have seen a few of the places where this curlew, whom I’d first seen and captured in late May near the historic settlement of Goldburg, Idaho, had been in the days and hours before our search.  And, after studying White-faced Ibis for the first time in the summer of 2012, I really enjoyed getting to see similar concentrations using flood-irrigated agriculture on the wintering grounds as well.

Curlews flying back towards the Salton Sea at the end of the day.

Curlews flying back towards the Salton Sea at the end of the day.

Thanks to Borah for willingly carrying the lightweight burden of the satellite transmitter, teaching us about the rest of your life outside of Idaho, and for inspiring a fun road trip!  Likewise, thanks to Katie Montgomery for giving up her off-day to show me some of the places that Borah has called home recently.  Here’s to hoping I’ll see Borah back in the Pahsimeroi this May!

Curlews on the move! (in November?!)

Since all our transmittered curlews left Idaho, I’ve watched their movements with excitement as it seems that every week or two something unexpected happens.  It’s already been an eventful non-breeding season in terms of challenges faced by our curlews:

  • Ada met her end soon after arriving to the Merced area of California in late July (story here)
  • Curley, the first curlew to migrate (early June) then passed away in late September (her remains were found in an alfalfa field and we were unable to determine cause of death).  She had spent her first 1.5 months in California (mid-June to late July) bouncing around agricultural lands between Fresno and Bakersfield before jumping to an area south of Bakersfield in late July (see below).

    Curley defending her chicks on the day they hatched. Photo by Liz Urban

    Curley defending her chicks on the day they hatched. Photo by Liz Urban

Curley’s non-breeding season locations – mid June to late September

Curley’s non-breeding season locations – mid June to late September

Thus, since late September we’ve been following the two remaining birds, Borah and Emmett, both males, and hoping they’d survive and keep teaching us.  Watching Borah hadn’t been too exciting because he was staying put in a big way – in 4 months he hardly moved 500 meters since arriving at the mouth of the Colorado River in the Gulf of California.  Specifically, he was spending time on Isla Montague, a rich delta environment that, according to a few Mexican colleagues I’ve been able to communicate with, supports HUGE numbers of shorebirds.

Borah had been spending most of his time in an estuary near the Gulf of California

Borah had been spending most of his time in an estuary near the Gulf of California

Meanwhile, Emmett had been exhibiting a little more wanderlust  – spending a lot of time south of Fresno before moving up to the Los Banos area and undergoing more short-distance movements in each area (see below)

Then, almost simultaneously, both males made relatively long flights to the northwest:

Emmett Nov update

Emmett moved over 200km north in early November. His newest locations are shown in blue.

On November 6th, Emmett started with a short hop and then gradually made his way to an area west of Sacramento – over 200km from where he’d been.

Borah returned to US soil after a 150km journey to the Salton Sea

Borah returned to US soil after a 150km journey to the Salton Sea. His new locations are shown in purple

On November 8th, Borah started moving northwest and has seemingly settled at the southern end of the Salton Sea – about 175km from where he’d been.

So, why did both birds suddenly shift wintering areas in early November?  We don’t expect them back in Idaho until mid-March at the earliest.  Did something change in terms of food availability simultaneously in both areas (seems unlikely given that Borah’s been in an estuarine environment and Emmett in grasslands and agriculture) or is there some internal clock that causes both birds, and presumably the flocks they are wintering with, to move around the same time?  Only time will tell … and hopefully more transmitters attached next breeding season will help us learn more.  In the meantime, I’ll keep crossing my fingers that our transmittered males can survive the winter and return to breed in 2014!

–Jay

The results are in!

For the past two years, IBO and Boise State University’s Sensory Ecology Lab have collaborated on a large-scale research project to discover what effects road noise might have on the birds that use Lucky Peak as a migration stop over site.

If you’ve visited Lucky Peak recently, you may have heard about the “Phantom Road” project, or asked questions about the strange fuzzy wind-screens hanging in the shrubs.

These windscreens (nicknamed "russian hats" by the crew) housed an mp3 player, used to record noise at the songbird nets

These camouflaged windscreens (nicknamed “russian hats” by the crew for obvious reasons) housed an mp3 player; used to record background noise at the songbird nets.

IBO Outreach Specialist and Boise State Graduate Student Heidi Ware, worked with her adviser–Boise State professor, Dr. Jesse Barber –and post-doctoral researcher–Dr. Chris McClure –to set up 15 sets of speakers in  trees along the ridgeline. This allowed them to play back recorded road noise, replicating the sound of a 500 yard long stretch of busy highway. They turned the road noise on and off over 4 day blocks throughout fall migration, and also compared our data from the ridge to IBO’s data from Lucky Peak, so they could contrast migrant birds exposed to noise vs those that were not.

Now, after two years of field work and crunching a lot of numbers, the Sensory Ecology research team finally has some results to share with you!

We strapped speakers onto 15 trees spanning the ridge to replicate the sound of a highway. We created a "road without the road".

We strapped speakers onto 15 trees spanning the ridge to replicate the sound of a highway. We essentially created a “road without the road”.

This week we published the first paper about the project, sharing the results of our songbird point count surveys. (Get the full text of our article, “An experimental investigation into the effects of traffic noise on distributions of birds: avoiding the phantom road”, here).

We counted birds near the “road” and birds near Lucky Peak and found some important differences between loud and quiet sites. We documented more than a one-quarter decline in overall bird numbers.

Even the most common species were impacted negatively by the road noise. Yellow Warblers and Cedar Waxwings almost completely avoided the Phantom Road site when the noise was turned on.

A young Cedar Waxwing banded at Lucky Peak. Photo by Callie Gesmundo

A young Cedar Waxwing banded at Lucky Peak. Photo by Callie Gesmundo

Why is this research so important?

This research is the first to show that road noise alone can have negative impacts on birds. This is important because until now studies have only shown that roads are bad for birds. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to tear out a road to protect migrants. However, if we can show that noise is one of the main factors causing the negative impact of roads, we can take measures to make roads quieter without eliminating them all together. (Ex: changing the road substrate, creating barriers to buffer sound, changing speed limits, or even limiting daily traffic through areas such as National Parks).

Right now, 83% of the continental US is within hearing distance (1km) of a road, so you can see why research on this topic is necessary!

The conservation community has been waiting for research like this, which might help protect habitat in roaded areas. Within a day of our paper being published, reporters all over the world began sharing our research findings. From NPR, to UK’s ‘The Telegraph‘, to conservation and science news sites, the word is spreading quickly.

This is the first paper to come out of our research on the “phantom road” project, but stay tuned for more updates when Heidi shares results from her thesis work!

Another Curlew Loss

We’ve learned a lot about our transmittered Curlews so far as we tracked their movements on the breeding grounds in Idaho and then followed their migration south for the winter. Part of the reason we wanted to follow these Idaho Curlews was to help us learn why their populations are declining. Unfortunately Curlews lead dangerous lives, and yet another one of our birds has met their demise.

The transmitters attached to the birds allow us to monitor their location, but also give off a signal indicating whether the transmitter has moved recently. This gives a good indication whether the bird is still alive. As we watched our birds, we noticed that while Ada’s transmitter was still sending a strong GPS signal from near Merced, CA, her transmitter had not moved.

Photo by Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman

Jessica releases ‘Ada’ the Curlew on May 9th. Photo by Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman

As we began to investigate further, Jay suspected that Ada was no longer living. Jay began to contact biologists in the area to see if we could find out exactly where Ada’s transmitter was.  Jay had earlier alerted Greg Gerstenberg, a biologist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife who works in that area, and colleagues that a couple of “our” curlews had migrated to their region.  Upon learning of our next mystery, Greg immediately expressed a willingness to help us recover the transmitter and Greg helped Jay track down the key landowners in the area: University of California-Merced and the Flying M Ranch, both of whom were very willing to allow us permission to search on their land.

Lucky for us, Jay had already scheduled a flight to California for a pelagic trip with Alvaro’s Adventures and had 3/4 of a day “free”. He brought the tracking unit that allows us to find transmitters on the ground and delivered it to Greg.  Greg and his family invited Jay into their home to visit for a while and they had a great time swapping biology stories and exchanging info about curlews. Upon leaving, Greg’s daughter Kendra presented Jay with a neat drawing of a curlew and baby (see below) as a “thank-you” for coming to visit and sharing information!  Jay was pleasantly surprised as he was feeling very thankful to Greg and his family and didn’t feel that he was the one to be thanked but it was a touching and much appreciated gift.

Kendra's Drawing

A new California-Idaho connection was built thanks to Ada.

The next day our suspicions were confirmed. Greg and his son, Jack, journeyed to the field where Ada’s last transmission had come from. He found the transmitter, intact and still working. He also found a plucked pile of feathers and scavenged remains of Ada’s body. Based on his inspection of the area (which includes a nearby powerline), Greg’s best guess is that Ada was most likely depredated by an avian predator.

Only feathers remain at the site where Ada was caught by a predator

Only feathers remain at the site where Ada died. Photo by Greg Gerstenberg

He found a large pile of plucked-out feathers, typical of a raptor kill, as well as some other evidence of scavenging. There are many Prairie Falcons that spend the non-breeding season in the area, so it’s possible that one of these speedy predators captured Ada.

We have to admit that we think Prairie Falcons are pretty cool, so we are glad that if she was going to die at least she was able to help nourish a raptor, and that it doesn’t appear her death was human-caused.

prfa bryce

Prairie Falcons are speedy and efficient aerial predators

While we are sad to lose another bird, she gave us a lot of good information about curlew migration and breeding behavior before she died. By tracking both her and her mate, Emmett, we learned more about how curlew pairs cooperate to raise their young. Ada also became a local celebrity in the Idaho Statesman, and helped us educate the community about Curlews and their conservation needs.

Ada (purple) and Emmett's (green) movements since June 6th.

Ada (purple) and Emmett’s (green) breeding-season movements


Photo by Liz Urban

Ada and Emmett’s Chicks

Thanks to Greg, we were able to recover Ada’s transmitter intact, so we will be able to get it re-furbished and use it next year on another curlew!

Check back soon for winter updates on our other three Curlews.

 

Read previous posts about our Curlew project by clicking the links below:

[catlist name=Curlews orderby=date order=desc numberposts=10 date=yes]

Three More Migrants

It’s been an exciting few weeks watching for updates on seaturtle.org (the website that hosts our satellite telemetry data) – armchair biology at its best!!  One of our transmittered curlews had already left for California (via Nevada) in early June and we wondered when the next bird would go … Turns out, all three left between July 4th and July 6th.   I couldn’t be more excited about the data that these birds are helping us gather!

Both females have migrated at times when their transmitters are in recharge mode (the transmitters are set to transmit for 5 hours and then recharge for 24 hours) so we’ve been able to get stopover locations but not actual in-flight locations.

In contrast, we’ve been able to gather in-flight locations for both males and I’m glad we’ve been able to get some of each!

This map shows tracks for all four transmittered curlews that have left Idaho

This map shows tracks for all four transmittered curlews that have left Idaho

“Curley” – left on June 8, 1-day stopover in Nevada, and arrived in CA on June 10.  She made a lot of local movements (10-40 km) in her first 2 weeks there and then she settled into an area near Kettleman City in the southern portion of California’s Central Valley for about 10 days and recently started exploring again.

“Ada” – looks to have taken off during the fireworks on July 4th and stopped over near Yerington, NV.  The next day she arrived to an area about 8 miles NE of Merced, California and she has remained in that vicinity since.

“Borah” – also took off the night of July 4th and flew S towards the Great Salt Lake before veering SW into NV.  24 hours later we got some in-flight locations as it passed just E of Las Vegas.  His next locations came from from agricultural land near the Salton Sea and the next day he had crossed over into Mexico.  He has since settled into an area near the mouth of the Colorado River, just N of where it flows into the Gulf of California.

Was this Ada and Borah's view during their first night of migration? photo courtesy bayasaa

Was this Ada and Borah’s view during their first night of migration? photo courtesy bayasaa

“Emmett” – took off the night of July 6th and flew SW past Steens Mountain in Oregon.  His next locations were as he crossed the Sierras S of Reno, NV and arrived to the Central Valley S of San Joaquin, CA by July 9 and then moved a bit further S to an area between Kettleman City and Stratford.

Emmett flew approximately 30mph, based on transmitter locations sent mid-flight on July 8th!

Emmett flew approximately 30mph, based on transmitter locations sent mid-flight on July 8th!

Though they are currently within 20 miles of each other, it’s pretty interesting that “Emmett” and “Curley”, whose breeding territories in Idaho were about 3 miles apart, have used areas within a mile of each other in California! Pretty fascinating stuff, huh?!

Emmett and Curley's locations in California

Emmett and Curley’s locations in California

Now that each bird has been relatively stationary for a while, the next question is whether the birds will stay put for the winter or if they might exhibit some other movements.  Please join me in crossing your fingers and toes that these 4 intrepid curlews will survive the rest of the non-breeding season and come back to Idaho in March!

-Jay

Read previous posts about our Curlew project by clicking the links below:

[catlist name=Curlews orderby=date order=desc numberposts=10 date=yes]