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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.


Three More Migrants

It’s been an exciting few weeks watching for updates on (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!


Hybrid Hummingbird in Idaho City!

Today was quite the exciting day at our hummingbird banding event in Idaho City!

It was starting to warm up and capture rate was slowing down when a volunteer brought a hummingbird over to the banding table and said that Gary (one of our skilled trappers) wanted us to take a look at it. Liz peered at the bird though the bag and we could hear the excitement in her voice. Soon everyone was gathered around to take a look at the adult male hummingbird buzzing around in the bag. What had Gary caught?

We first noticed the throat. It had somewhat pointed feathers like a Calliope but wasn’t streaked. The color was an unusual magenta, somewhere in between pink and purple. And unlike a Black-chinned it had iridescence covering most of the throat.

As we continued to look at the bird we noticed more and more unusual features. It had a mix of gray and buffy on the sides, its tail had some hints of rufous in it, and it’s wing feathers looked like a Black-chinned (for hummingbird nerds: it also had unequal primary widths like a Black-chin, and the central tail feathers were mostly rounded but with a hint of ‘spatulate’ shaping). It’s wing length was small like a Calliope, but it’s bill was long like a Black-chinned.

After lots of examination and measurements, we decided we must have a Hybrid Black-chinned x Calliope on our hands! Interestingly, after a quick google search it appears that a very similar bird was captured and photographed in Garden Valley, ID in 2008: Link here.

We were very lucky to have a bunch of photographers on hand to document this rarity! Check back on this post later as we will continue to add photos from other folks who were there.

The stunning hybrid BCHU x CAHU.  Photo by Dale Toweill

The stunning hybrid BCHU x CAHU.
Photo by Dale Toweill

A wing view of the hybrid BCHU x CAHU.  Photo by Dale Toweill

A wing view of the hybrid BCHU x CAHU.
Photo by Dale Toweill

A regular male Black-chinned, the hybrid, and an adult female Calliope.  Photo by Dale Toweill

A regular male Black-chinned, the hybrid, and an adult female Calliope.
Photo by Dale Toweill

hybrid BCHU x CAHU.  Photo by Dale Toweill

hybrid BCHU x CAHU.
Photo by Dale Toweill

Hummingbirds Return from Mexico

Since May 17th of this year we have been conducting our hummingbird monitoring project. We have had 32 hummingbirds return to the same feeders that we originally banded them at over a year ago! Last fall these tiny hummingbirds travelled all the way to western Mexico where they spent the winter and then this spring they made the long trip again from Mexico back to Idaho. Pretty impressive for a bird that weighs about the same as a dime! About two-thirds of these returning birds are females, many of them returning to the same areas to breed again. Some of them might move to areas further north to breed, and have remembered this site as a great place to stop and refuel.

For those that haven’t visited us at one of our hummingbird banding sessions, below is a picture of a band we put on their leg. Each band has one letter and five numbers on it – if you can believe it! See the picture below – you can just make out the letter L and a number 8 (upside down). There are another 4 numbers printed on the other side of the band. Each bird gets a unique ID – sort of like their own social security number. No other hummingbird will have a band with the same number combination.

Photo by Liz UrbanOne of our biggest rewards is watching people revel at such a natural wonder and the opportunity to hold a wild hummingbird in their hand – even if only for a few seconds before the bird takes flight again. It’s a treat each and every time to watch someone do this for the first time. If you want to join us to observe the hummingbird banding process our next dates with availability are July 29, August 10, and August 28. Please email to reserve a spot. Space is limited. This event is free and open to everyone.

Hummingbird Release by Chris Hinderliter

Some Curlew Discoveries

Over the past few weeks, we have been learning a lot about our Curlews and their behavior. Here are a few maps that show some interesting data about our birds:

Habitat differences

Here you can see maps from two of our birds, Borah and Ada.

Borah lives on Big Creek Ranch in the Pahsimeroi valley. You can see based on his map that he rarely leaves his nest area, and has traveled a maximum of 1 mile from his nest.

Borah pattern

Borah lives in high-quality habitat in the Pahsimeroi Valley

Ada, on the other hand is nesting in the Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) near Emmett Idaho. While incubating, she made long journeys between her nest and agricultural fields, where she fed in the evenings while not sitting on the nest. She made journeys of up to 4 miles one-way to feed! *note: this map only shows Ada’s movements before the chicks hatched.

Ada pattern

Ada lives in the ACEC near Emmet, Idaho

While we haven’t done actual assessments to compare their nesting habitats, we hypothesize that these movement differences are due to the fact that Borah has more food available to him close to his nest, whereas Ada had to travel much farther to find good foraging habitat. (Before he died, ‘Carl’ also did similar long-distance foraging trips from the ACEC to farm fields, so we don’t think these differences are related to the sex of the bird).

Parenting Differences

We have also observed some parenting differences between our pair Ada and Emmett. A few weeks ago, their chicks hatched, and Liz was lucky enough to observe them just a few hours out of the egg!

Photo by Liz Urban

Ada and Emmett’s chicks

Once their chicks hatched, their movements changed. Emmett is the dedicated dad, never leaving the chicks and staying near the nesting area. Ada stayed with the family at first, but made a few trips out to feed in agriculture fields during the week. Her most recent movements show that she has moved to a completely different area of the ACEC and has left Emmett with the parenting duties. This matches up well with what we know about Curlews, since females usually stay with the chicks for 1-3 weeks before leaving the males to continue raising them. Emmett will guard them from predators and guide them to good feeding areas until the chicks eventually fledge and go off on their own at the end of the summer.

Here is a map of their locations since the chicks hatched, showing Emmett’s movements in green, and Ada’s in purple. The yellow circle shows Ada’s most recent locations over the last few days.

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

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

We are excited to see what else we can learn about these birds on their breeding grounds, before they take off on their exciting migration journeys!

Have you checked out our new Curlew info page yet? Click here, or click on the curlew “featured project” picture on the left to read all about the project.

We created a “profile page” for each of the birds, with some info about them and some fun facts. This page will give you the inside scoop on all our Curlews’ names, and how they got them.


Bad news for one of our Curlews

We have some bad news to share.  Last week Jay became suspicious that something might be wrong with one of our transmitters since it was not transmitting/displaying normally. On Sunday a team led by Liz went out and was able to recover the transmitter but our fears were confirmed – unfortunately, the male Curlew of our pair, CA, is dead.

Although CA didn't make it, we are thankful we were able to recover his transmitter!

Although CA didn’t make it, we are thankful we were able to recover his transmitter! Photo by Rob Miller

A photo we took of CA while attaching his transmitter.

A photo we took of CA while attaching his transmitter in early May.Photo by Jay Carlisle

Because of the delay in finding his remains, we did not find an intact body, and cannot determine how he died. Based on our experience in recent years, our biggest cause for concern with this project was that a transmittered bird would be shot. After all, we see people out shooting – mostly ground squirrels or targets – every day at the study site and the day we trapped this male there was a recently-killed Swainson’s Hawk 150m from the curlew nest. And, we have certain evidence of curlews being shot and killed in 3 of the past 4 seasons (dead curlews with obvious bullet wounds) and we suspect it happens more than we are aware of. On her most recent visit to check the status of the birds over the Memorial Day weekend, Liz had seen numerous people shooting within 150m of where the pair was nesting and had recently hatched their chicks.  Curlews become very vocal and defensive, thus easily visible, when they are trying to protect their chicks.

We certainly cannot say that CA was shot, but whether shooting was at issue in this particular case, it remains a real risk for these curlews.

A shot Swainson's Hawk found on the ACEC near AX and CA's nest.

A shot Swainson’s Hawk found on the ACEC near AX and CA’s nest.Photo by Heidi Ware

Fortunately, the news is not all bad!  CA’s mate, AX has moved to the SE of her nest site by a few kilometers.  Though it’s hard to imagine she is still tending chicks (recently-hatched chicks usually don’t move more than 300m in first 5 days), we hope she’s found a safe place. Our second female (alpha flag code “AN”) was still incubating Monday and her eggs are due to hatch today.

On Monday evening, we were able to capture AN’s mate (alpha flag code “AE”) and attach the still-functioning transmitter and we already have signals from him in the nest area.

Our new male, 'AN', who received CA's old transmitter. Photo by Rob Miller

Our new male, ‘AE’, who received CA’s old transmitter. Photo by Rob Miller

Lastly, ‘Borah’, who we trapped 12 days ago in the Pahsimeroi Valley seems to be remaining close to his nest site and transmitting normally.  Thus, we hope this will just be a bump in the road for our new study and we’ll cross our fingers that all four birds survive and migrate successfully!

Curlew Satellite Update

During the week of May 6th we were able to attach 3 satellite transmitters to Long-billed Curlews breeding in the Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) southwest of Emmett, ID.

Here are some photos of the trapping and ‘transmittering’ process:

Transmitter, by H.Ware

Female “AX” shows off her brand new solar transmitter, aluminum USGS band, and green ‘flag’.

LBCU female bill measurements by Liz Urban

This female’s bill was too long for our calipers!

ready to release by H. Ware

Liz and Jay prepare to release our 2nd bird after attaching her transmitter. She made a beeline for her mate who was patiently guarding their nest.

To see some more photos of the capture process, check out the Idaho Statesman’s article and photo album.

After a week of waiting, we got our first batch of data points from the satellite! Here are two examples of the results we are seeing so far (Points displayed are those with 250m accuracy or more). These maps show the movement of two birds in our study area. These two happen to be a pair, thus the cluster of points in a similar area (around their nest).

We were interested to see that both birds seem to travel long distances to forage in agricultural lands near the ACEC. Also interesting is that many of the places they travel to forage are similar, although they are not likely to be traveling together since one bird must stay to incubate and protect the nest at all times.
It’s also interesting to note that bird “CA” is the male of the pair and is much more mobile than the female. This makes sense since the female is busy incubating during most of the day.

Right now we are calling birds after their green flag letters, but stay tuned for naming updates!

Bird CA first upload

Bird “CA”

Bird AX first upload

Bird “AX”

Look for more updates on bird movement soon!

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

Upcoming Community Events

kids with binocularsIBO will be doing a number of banding demonstrations at upcoming community events this spring.

Check out the list below, and be sure to put them on your calendars. We hope to see you there!

[google-calendar-events id=”1″ type=”list-grouped” title=”Upcoming Events” max=”3″]