Skip to Main Content
Mobile Menu

IBO Home

cover pic

The Curlew of Thunder, Spit Swabs, and Bendy Beaks…an update on our Long-billed Curlew Project

Our curlew trapping season has begun! We have 19 transmitters that we will be putting out this spring on Long-billed Curlews at various locations. Here’s an update on the season so far.

The Transmittered Birds

We have transmitters on 3 ACEC birds so far, and plan to do a fourth in the next few days. Because we are working with schools and community groups in the valley to get the word out about curlews (and especially about not shooting them!) we thought we would ask some local schools to help us name the ACEC birds.

Our first two birds have already been named, based on votes and suggestions from 300 biology and ecology students at Middleton High School. Thanks for Mr. Love and Mr. Wiley for letting us visit your classes!

So, without further ado, allow us to introduce our first two named birds of the 2015 season!

Meet: Thor and Valkyrie!

Meet Thor, the curlew god of thunder! Named by Middleton High School students. Photo by Jay Carlisle

Meet Thor, the curlew of thunder! Named by Middleton High School students. Photo by Jay Carlisle

Meet Valkyrie, named by Middleton High School students after an angel of Norse mythology. Photo by Heidi Ware

Meet Valkyrie, named by Middleton High School students after an angel of Norse mythology. She may hold the record for our longest bill yet! Photo by Heidi Ware

These two birds are a mated pair living on an area of the ACEC we have called “mountain view” because of the beautiful mountains visible on the horizon at this site.

The view from Thor and Valkyrie's nest

The view from Thor and Valkyrie’s nest

Appropriately, this couple is named after characters in Norse Mythology, since the mascot for Middleton schools is the Viking.

Two of our birds will be named with a naming contest based on a combination of submissions from area schools.

We have a female, CP who has yet to be named, and hope to catch our fourth bird soon.


The season so far and what’s ahead…

We have 7 study sites throughout the Intermountain West where we will be trapping birds this year, but for now we are focusing our transmitting efforts in the Treasure Valley. With its lower elevation and warmer climate, the ACEC (our study site near Emmett and Middleton, ID) is the first location to have nesting birds. So, we are working to catch curlews there before moving on to our other study sites. Stay tuned for updates from the field as we begin attaching transmitters elsewhere.

Over the past 5 days, we have managed to catch 6 curlews total. Although we usually make it sound easy, this season has been particularly taxing on the trapping team. So far the score is 4-6 curlews vs trappers. This is our highest ‘miss’ rate so far! For some reason this year, we have had more birds than usual flush before we can get near them with the net…maybe their friends who are already sporting some of our ‘jewelry’ have warned them about us!

Ben and Stephanie get the net lined up for a trapping attempt. Photo by Heidi Ware

Ben and Stephanie get the net lined up for a trapping attempt. Photo by Heidi Ware

One particular instance, we were gearing up to trap a female incubating on her nest. Just as we were lining up the net to make a go for her, Jay flushed a female curlew from the ground from just a few feet away! Apparently this female had been sitting on her nest, quietly incubating her eggs while we were setting up the net just yards away from her. She squawked once as she left the nest and the jig was up! The female on the nest we planned to trap saw the entire interaction and wasn’t about to let us get anywhere near her. We had to give up on that area and move on.

We place a covering over the curlews heads to keep them calm.... it makes them look a bit like a sock puppet, but it gets the job done

We place a covering over the curlews’ heads to keep them calm…. it makes them look a bit like a sock puppet, but it gets the job done.

Spit Swabs

This year we have BSU grad student, Stephanie Coates, working on the project with our research director, Jay Carlisle, as her advisor. As part of her study, she’ll be investigating the genetics of our 7 curlew populations. We’re hoping this will help us piece together a better picture of curlew population connectivity. Because of this, we are catching some curlews to attach transmitters and take DNA samples, and others we are simply banding and taking DNA without attaching a transmitter.

So far we have trapped 3 curlews for DNA samples and 3 curlews for DNA+Transmitters.

Remember those nasty tongue depressors at the doctors office when you were a kid? This is probably the curlew's least favorite part of the banding process. These "buccal swabs" are used to collect saliva for DNA analysis. Photo by Heidi Ware

Remember those nasty tongue depressors at the doctors office when you were a kid? This is probably the curlew’s least favorite part of the banding process. These “buccal swabs” are used to collect saliva for DNA analysis. Photo by Heidi Ware

We are excited to see what discoveries the DNA will reveal!

While taking a spit swab, we also got to experience a strange phenomenon that none of us were expecting! We’ve always noticed the grooves on the tips of curlews beaks and wondered what they were for, but had no idea they were actually flex lines! That’s right, curlews can actually bend the tips of their beaks!

While chatting at a barbecue with our bird-nerd friend Bryce (because what else would you talk about at a barbecue?) we learned that this is actually a known phenomenon in other bird species as well, known as Rhynchokinesis.

Check out this whacky video of the phenomenon in action, taken by Ben Wright.

(Obviously the curlews don’t enjoy this process, but it is a relatively efficient and very safe technique for collecting DNA from them).

Well, that’s all for now!
If you haven’t already, be sure to follow us on Social Media. You can follow our main IBO pages, and we also have some curlew-specific pages with more frequent updates for those of you who are curlew super-fans :)

IBO Facebook

IBO Twitter

IBO Instagram

The Curlew Crew website–run by Grad Student, Stephanie

The Curlew Crew Facebook

The Curlew Crew Youtube Channel

Frank was here

Jay and Heidi recently attended the Partners in Science National Conference in San Diego, CA. We were invited to attend because of IBO’s work mentoring a Boise teacher. As part of a fellowship from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, local teacher Lindsey Lockwood from Sage International School has been working with IBO to conduct scientific research. During the conference, Lindsey presented her research on songbird population trends at Lucky Peak to an audience of fellow teachers. She hopes to integrate what she has learned through this fellowship into her lessons in the classroom. Aside from watching Lindsey present (she rocked it!) we also got to network with a variety of researchers and teachers from across the US.

After the conference ended, we decided to head out into the desert toward the Salton Sea, where “Frank” one of our Long-billed Curlews has been spending the winter. With GPS coordinates in hand, we headed for the field where Frank’s most recent signal came from. frank was here

As we arrived, we saw a few curlew heads poking out of the alfalfa! We scanned the field for any signs of an antenna poking out of the vegetation, but didn’t see any birds with transmitters.

frank was here field

Some of Frank’s SoCal friends


It’s possible Frank was in the field hiding, but he may have already taken off for the morning to other foraging grounds. It was fun to imagine that the curlews watching us from the field had spent the night roosting with Frank, and to think about where these birds may have come from. Were any of them also from the ACEC?

Moving on toward the Salton Sea (where Heidi’s lifer Yellow-footed Gull awaited) we ran into many fields with foraging curlews. Here’s just a sample video of what one of these fields looks like.

Video of Curlews in field

Even though we didn’t get to see Frank himself, it was amazing to see such large numbers of curlews spending time in these fields and observe some of their wintering behavior. As we left the Salton Sea area we wished them well…soon they will begin their migration north toward their breeding grounds!


Silver Lining

A few of you may have noticed that we haven’t had any updates on Venus, one of our ACEC curlews, in quite some time. Unfortunately, Venus died on the Long-billed Curlew Area of Critical Environmental Concern  (ACEC) study area during the last week of May. We launched an official investigation of her death with the Idaho Fish and Game’s Wildlife Health Laboratory, and so haven’t been able to share the news until now. Read on for the rest of the story, and the conclusions of her autopsy.


We are saddened to lose Venus (and the monetary/time investment that went into attaching her transmitter) but we hope that her story will help bring attention to the plight of her fellow Long-billed Curlews on the ACEC. We are also sad to share this news with the Community Cub Scout Pack (#255) of Middleton, who visited her home this spring and chose her name.

Her story

Toward the end of May, we began to get a signal that Venus’s transmitter had not moved. As always we were concerned, but we were out of town attaching transmitters on other curlews and so were not able to go check on her right away. We became even more worried when realizing that the crew had last seen her with recently hatched chicks but hadn’t found her on the last couple visits to her territory. In 2013 we strongly suspected that one of our curlews was shot, and he was killed just days after his chicks hatched – when curlews are the most defensive of their territory, most visible, and most likely to loudly approach humans that are near their chicks. With her risk of being shot elevated, we feared the worst. This was not just a transmitter glitch.

When we finally made it to the ACEC in June, we found what we had expected: Venus was dead. There was no sign of her mate or chicks anywhere in the area. Since chicks of a young age are not very mobile, we assume that her chicks died and her mate fled (he did not have a transmitter, so we will never know but it’s possible that the male continued to care for the chicks).

Not much was left of Venus by the time we found her

Not much was left of Venus by the time we found her

Because of the hot summer weather, there wasn’t much left of her, but thankfully we were able to recover Venus’s transmitter unharmed. After some debate, we decided it would be worth it to collect what was left of her body to investigate the cause of death, though we were not hopeful that any evidence remained so long after her death. We contacted Mark Drew from the IDFG Wildlife Health Laboratory and he kindly offered to do an autopsy for us.

Mark begins the investigation with an x-ray of the evidence

Mark begins the investigation with an x-ray of the evidence

This month, after rigorous testing, x-rays, and a careful necropsy report, we have the results. Venus was killed by a gunshot wound to her upper chest.

The conclusions from Venus's necropsy report

The conclusions from Venus’s necropsy report

Venus's s-ray, showing a large concentration of dense metal fragments (white) in her chest

Venus’s s-ray, showing a large concentration of dense metal fragments (white) in her chest, indicative of a gun shot wound

The silver lining

While we never wish for any of the curlews we study to die, we are thankful for a few reasons:

  • In the past, we have seen several shot curlews on the ACEC and several others where we suspected foul play. By having a transmitter on Venus, we were able to find her body relatively quickly and retrieve the necessary evidence to show that she had been shot.

A HUGE thank you goes to the IDFG Wildlife Health Lab team for conducting this investigation for us

A HUGE thank you goes to the IDFG Wildlife Health Lab team for conducting this investigation for us

  • We hope that, because of her ‘fame’ as a part of our study, that her death will bring this issue to the attention of the public, so that something can be done to prevent these deaths in the future
  • Her death highlights a gap in community awareness that needs to be filled. While shooting of ground squirrels and some other species is legal on the ACEC, Long-billed Curlews (along with many other bird species on the ACEC) are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This means the person who shot Venus committed a federal crime.

    Many who use the ACEC do not realize that it is an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or that it is illegal to shoot curlews or other birds that live there. We hope that we at IBO, along with your help, can develop a partnership to change this through education and outreach – to the recreationists who visit this area and to the communities surrounding the ACEC as well as in other places in Idaho where illegal shooting of wildlife occurs.



You saw what?!

Photos and story by Jay Carlisle

After a couple of weeks of fund-raising and other office work, I happily jumped at a chance to get out for a couple days of woodpecker surveys on the Boise National Forest. I needed to stretch my legs, I hadn’t heard or seen a Black-backed Woodpecker in about a year, and – this is important – there were no World Cup games on the schedule for 2 straight days so I had a perfect window in which to get out!

I waited until after the US-Belgium game ended on Tuesday afternoon so I got a late start heading out and arrived to camp around 11pm. I was awake a little after 5am the next AM to start a steep hike along the Riordan Lake trail to reach my first survey point around sunrise. Surveying for birds in a new area is always exciting for me and of course there’s always the hope of seeing other wildlife on the trail. The partly burned forest surrounding the creek and Hennessey Meadow made for a great backdrop and the meadow itself supported a diverse riparian bird community, including Fox, Lincoln’s, and Song Sparrows; Dusky and Willow Flycatchers; and more.


Hennessey Meadow: riparian habitat surrounded by partially burned conifer forest

Hennessey Meadow: riparian habitat surrounded by partially burned conifer forest

A Willow Flycatcher overlooking its territory in Hennessey Meadow

A Willow Flycatcher overlooking its territory in Hennessey Meadow

On my 5th survey point I had an almost immediate response from a Black-backed Woodpecker and soon there were 2 individuals – a good start! I ended up detecting one more Black-backed and also observed four other woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, Northern Flicker, and Red-naped Sapsucker) and other fun birds like Olive-sided Flycatchers.

Area of my first Black-backed Woodpecker detections in forest above the meadow

Area of my first Black-backed Woodpecker detections in forest above the meadow

a female Black-backed Woodpecker

Female Black-backed Woodpecker

After my long hike down, I drove back towards Warm Lake in order to get lunch and find some WiFi access so I could finish work on submitting a proposal before heading back out to my next site. As I got alongside the lake, I saw an adult Red-necked Grebe carrying a chick on its back – how cool!

The Red-necked Grebe and chick

The Red-necked Grebe and chick

Thus, I was already fully content with my trip sightings before heading to my second site. My drive that evening took me through miles of burnt trees and it was daunting to think about how large of a fire this was … but also how much habitat this had created for species like Black-backed Woodpeckers, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Mountain Bluebirds, and even American Robins – all of which reach higher densities in burns.

Olive-sided Flycatcher in the burn

Olive-sided Flycatcher in the burn

As I drove up the final road, the wind picked up because of a nearby thunderstorm and I hoped no trees would blow down to block my passage in or out! Fortunately, the storm and wind soon subsided. I arrived around 830pm and was more than a little dismayed to find a large and hungry greeting party of mosquitoes! After psyching myself up, I started walking around in search of a good flat place to set up my tent and was swatting mosquitoes constantly – not thinking about birds at all and not carrying binoculars. Then I looked up and saw a bird-like shape on the side of a snag – my heart jumped a bit because of the apparent shape but then I reasoned it had to be one of those thousands of pieces of loose bark hanging off the trees in the area. Then I saw its head turn and I said to myself, “No way!” before stumbling/sprinting my way back to my car to get binoculars, scope, and camera/phone attachment for the scope. A Northern Hawk Owl! I’d been so preoccupied with biting insects that I hadn’t really noticed that the habitat had a boreal nature to it and was similar to other places where I’d seen Hawk Owls … it’s just that I was 250+ miles from the nearest known breeding area. I hurried to snap a few documentation pictures before the sun disappeared. While I was observing the bird, I noticed that it was hanging around the same area and even gave a couple of quiet vocalizations. It made me curious about how long this bird had been here and was it possibly occupying a territory? But, the mosquitoes soon drove me to set up my tent and seek refuge.

Adult male Northern Hawk Owl on the Boise National Forest

Adult male Northern Hawk Owl on the Boise National Forest

Thus, I hurriedly set up my tent and crawled inside – and basked in the excitement of an unexpected sighting of such a charismatic bird! I’d only just started to relax when I heard a high-pitched screeching – I knew I’d heard this sound before and it was when I’d seen fledgling Northern Hawk Owls in Glacier National Park (closest known breeding area) a few summers ago! I knew I wouldn’t have much time to look in the morning as I had woodpecker survey duties so I raced out of my tent. I soon saw an adult in a different area and it flew over me towards the main activity area – this bird was noticeably bigger than the other adult so I must have originally been seeing the male and this was the female! I soon confirmed a view of at least a single fledgling and thought I heard another – but I didn’t want to intrude any closer to pursue the other bird. I had just confirmed breeding Northern Hawk Owls well over 250 miles from where they’ve been documented to breed previously!

Northern Hawk Owl fledgling – still with many downy feathers and still growing flight feathers

Northern Hawk Owl fledgling – still with many downy feathers and still growing flight feathers

I was too excited to sleep for a while so it was another short night and I was awake again before sunrise for woodpecker surveys. After my first point, I took 15 minutes to try for a few more pictures before I continued on my woodpecker transect. I was quickly rewarded with seeing the male capture, kill, then cache a songbird (I’m pretty sure it was a Yellow-rumped Warbler but hard to tell in the low light)! I heard a juvenile beg once but apparently dad didn’t think junior was hungry enough :-) The lighting was still terrible but I tried for a few more pics before moving on and was lucky enough to get this video of a juvenile playing with a branch (!) and a couple other pictures.

Hawk Owl fledgling with stick

Hawk Owl fledgling with branch

The following evening, Larry & Missy Arnold “chased” these birds and confirmed 2 fledglings; thus, 2 adults and at least 2 fledglings! The story gets even better … on the way back home, they stopped to move a fallen tree out of the way and Missy looked up to see another Hawk Owl miles away and a little exploration turned up a total of 2 adults and 3 fledglings. I was excited at seeing one bird and blown away to have documented nesting … but 2 nesting pairs a few miles from each other is mind boggling! It’s such a remote area with relatively few biologists and birders so it’s hard to know what to make of this. Have they been there in prior years, just unnoticed? Or is this a relatively recent colonization event? One Hawk Owl came to Moscow, ID this past winter and we wondered then if that was an isolated event or if others had possibly arrived to more remote areas of Idaho. I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure but future study of this phenomenon might be worthwhile going forward.

Adult male Northern Hawk Owl with recently killed songbird …

Adult male Northern Hawk Owl with recently killed songbird …

… and caching it behind some bark!

… and caching it behind some bark!


Northern Hawk Owl territory on the Boise National Forest – might that split-topped snag be where the nest was? The male spent a lot of time near it.

Northern Hawk Owl territory on the Boise National Forest – might that split-topped snag be where the nest was? The male spent a lot of time near it.

*Because of the rarity of the species (especially rare is evidence of breeding in the state – I know of only one other breeding record in Idaho), their confiding nature, and the potential for foul play, I’m reluctant to post the exact location or directions on a public forum. I trust all birders but just don’t want to inadvertently mess up a good thing by letting the info get into the wrong hands. I don’t know all details but >10 years ago there was a pair w/ fledglings in N Idaho and some birders worried they ended up shot & I don’t want the same result.

Surveys, Nests, Nestlings, and Adults–All Things Goshawk!

Wow! Two more weeks in the field studying the Northern Goshawk with fantastic friends, findings and results. Here’s a follow up to my previous posts (My Project of the Year – The Northern Goshawk and The Northern Goshawk in Biogeographical Context), with new updates, photos and stories.

Old Acquaintances

I have stated in previous posts that one of the objectives the Intermountain Bird Observatory’s 2014 goshawk season is to establish the degree of linkage between the more “island-like” forests of the northern Great Basin and the more contiguous forests of the Rocky Mountains. We expect to do that using genetic techniques. Our area of focus for this first year of genetic work is the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest. However, our past work of banding and color banding individuals continues to pay off as we relocate these birds.

While surveying for goshawk territories in the Albion mountains, I came upon this female bird with the familiar purple color band. Our team is the only group assigned to use purple color bands on goshawks, so I knew that it was a “friend” of ours. Upon closer inspection, I could read the two digit color band code and identify the bird. This female (Purple Z3) was hatched in the South Hills in 2012 and banded by our team as part of that effort. She now has offspring of her own, likely her first, although some females do breed as sub-adults.

Female Purple Z3 nesting in the Albion Mountains, Idaho.

Purple color band Z3 clearly visible on her right leg. This is a “Type 1” band with two digit code oriented vertically.

Female Purple Z3 as nestling in 2012 in the South Hills, Idaho.

Female Purple Z3’s 2014 nest with a single nestling, approximately 15 days old, Albion Mountains, Idaho.

Learning the Basics

This year my field partner is an undergraduate student from Oberlin College in Ohio, Steph Szarmach. She is in the NSF-funded Research for Undergraduates (REU) program at Boise State University. She has now completed her four weeks in the field and will transition into the lab for the remainder of her time in Boise to work on the genetic analysis of the Northern Goshawk. She plans to measure the genetic diversity of the goshawk within the Minidoka Ranger District and to relate these genetics to the biogeography of other populations. In more simple terms, how related are the northern Great Basin goshawks to the Rocky Mountain populations?

As part of Steph’s field experience, she learned to survey, find nests, age young, trap birds, climb trees, band birds, and draw blood samples from birds, not to mention all of the new laboratory and analysis techniques. Wow, what an experience. Some activities took quite a bit of practice. During our first practice, it took Steph and I nearly two hours to “shoot a line” through a high Aspen tree.

Steph practicing with the throwline used to pull a rope into the tree.

Other activities came more easily. After only 4 practice climbs, Steph successfully climbed into her first raptor nest. This one was into a 40’ Douglas Fir tree in the Sublett Mountains. She would complete two more flawless climbs before our fieldwork was complete.

Steph’s first climb into a real goshawk nest, Sublett Mountains, Idaho.

Steph retrieving nestlings from nest for banding and genetic sampling, Sublett Mountains, Idaho.

In other nest stands Steph learned to band both adult and nestling birds, measure and record morphometric attributes and complete the collection of genetic samples.

Steph checking the band size of an adult goshawk, South Hills, Idaho.

Steph applying USGS band to adult goshawk, South Hills, Idaho.

Steph measuring the Hallux of an adult goshawk, South Hills, Idaho.

Steph now transitions into lab to continue processing the 26 blood samples that team goshawk collected in 2012 along with the 24 new samples we collected this past week. Additional samples are being sent in from forest service teams across the state. Steph will process the samples, analyze the results and then present those results at an undergraduate research conference at the end of July. Her and I have also received a joint NSF grant to travel to the Raptor Research Foundation annual conference in Corpus Christi, Texas in Late September. Steph will present her results to an international audience of raptor researchers at that conference. Very exciting stuff!

Unique Adults

Whenever we handle individual birds, we often witness unique aspects which differentiate individuals within the population. Our field guides like to suggest that there is one reference model individual with all others being similar, but variation is very high, just as it is in humans. We had a female bird whose legs were so big, the “standard” band would barely fit. On the final individual we processed, an adult male from the Albion Mountains, Greg noticed that the tail lacked the barring which is common on goshawks.

Rob (me) and Greg with adult male goshawk with all grey tail, Albion Mountains, Idaho.

Rob (me) with adult male goshawk with all grey tail, Albion Mountains, Idaho.

Unfortunately, not everything we find is as exciting. Most of the adult female birds we processed showed signs of Leucocytozoon infection. Leucocytozoons  are blood parasites related to malaria (Apicomplexans). The IBO team (Michelle Jeffries, Michelle Laskowski, Jay Carlisle, and myself) have a research manuscript in review on this matter. We know the disease pervasive in the area, but these skin lesions suggest that the impact on individuals is far from minimal.

Skin lesions on adult female goshawk indicative of Leucocytozoon infection, South Hills, Idaho.

The Birds

You just can’t have too many goshawk photos!

Steph and Rob (me) with an adult specimen of one of the greatest birds on the planet, the Northern Goshawk, South Hills, Idaho.

Two recent goshawk fledglings, approximately 40-42 days old in the Sublett Mountains, Idaho.

Adult goshawk, Sublett Mountains, Idaho.

Northern Goshawk weapons of flesh destruction, South Hills, Idaho.

Adult Goshawk, South Hills, Idaho. Dark red eyes suggestive of an older bird.

Adult Goshawk, Albion Mountains, Idaho. Orange eyes suggestive of a younger bird, but at least two years old (adult plumage instead of juvenile plumage).

Rob (me) with the final bird banded in the 2014 season, an adult male, Albion Mountains, Idaho.

Team Goshawk 2014

Here I am, the fearless leader of Team Goshawk, ready for action! South Hills, Idaho.

Steph Szarmach, Field Technician and Genetic Analyst displaying a hole in her climbing jacket resulting from an adult goshawk attack! Yes, the bird penetrated her skin as well! Sublett Mountains, Idaho.

Greg Kaltenecker, IBO Executive Director applying a hood to an adult goshawk, South Hills, Idaho.

Dusty Perkins, volunteer, genetics mentor, and tree climbing mentor preparing to climb, Sublett Mountains, Idaho.

Austin Young, volunteer, with Northern Goshawk nestling, Sublett Mountains, Idaho.

Michelle Jeffries, volunteer and fellow goshawk researcher with adult female goshawk, South Hills, Idaho.

Michelle Jeffries with four other visiting Boise State REU students – Patrick (studies Northern Harriers), Rachel (studies Harpy Eagles), Sara (studies Burrowing Owls), and Jarod (studies Burrowing Owls).

Skyler, another visiting Boise State REU student (studies Burrowing Owls).

Leroy, raptor expert, one of my mentors and project volunteer, along with Steph and Greg, Albion Mountains, Idaho.

It’s not a bird, but come on, that’s cute!

Steph and I would each see more than 10 Moose!

Moose calf, Albion Mountains, Idaho.

Cow and calf Moose, Albion Mountains, Idaho.

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.