Sunday, April 29, 2007

Home again.

Fort Peck, MT - It is amazing how much things change when you are away for a week in the spring. When I left on Monday last week the lawn was just greening up and the leaves had just popped out of buds on the trees. Now there are flowers on the plum tree and the lilacs have flower buds. The lawn needs to be mowed too.

Yesterday we found an unexpected source of maggots. I am not going to go into where they came from but it should suffice to say that the story surrounding the appearance of these larvae will probably be in Laura's yet-to-be-published Top 10 List of Reasons not to Marry a Biologist. I figured I could at least feed the birds with them so I put the maggots in a small planter bottom and placed it on our picnic table in the backyard yesterday evening. This morning they were all still there so I put the little container next to the pond in the backyard. About noon today a White-crowned Sparrow became curious about what was in the container and slowly danced around the rim until he gained enough nerve to perch on the lip and peer into the bottom. He must have liked what he found and soon he had picked out and ate about three. A male American Robin was watching the whole thing and soon was throwing them down one right after the other. The way he was going I assumed that they were completely gone but a short while later a Dark-eyed Junco was picking out the last of the little buggers.

Yesterday Benton and I took a short walk down near the Missouri River. We found a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, a pair of Caspian Terns foraging in a small creek near the river, and a Marsh Wren chattering like a broken sewing machine in last years cattails along the creek.

Colorado National Monument

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Grand Junction, CO - It was not looking good. It was 7:30 pm and the sun was disappearing over the juniper hills across from the Ute Canyon View and I had still not observed a Juniper Titmouse.
Earlier that evening I convinced five other workshop participants that we needed to go for a drive in the Colorado National Monument. They were all for it after spending the day in a hotel conference room and we headed out at the conclusion of our days work. The evening was gorgeous and we made numerous stops along Rimrock Drive to look over the wonderful canyon views (and look for birds for me). I really enjoyed watching the White-throated Swifts (one of my favorites) zooming over the red canyon rocks and the Ravens working their way along the rims. I even managed to pish in a dapper Black-throated Gray Warbler and got good looks at a pair of crayon blue Pinyon Jays. Of course I had put my small lens on the camera at that stop to take some scenic photos when they appeared so I missed what could have been a good warbler shot with my longer lens.
Still no Juniper Titmouse when we made our last stop of the evening at the Ute Canyon View. I wandered to the edge of the canyon, pished a few times, and I had a Chipping Sparrow respond and then I noticed the whirlwinds of White-throated Swifts above the canyon, swirling down to race along the red canyon wall. I tried to get some photos of the birds against that canyon and was concentrating on following the little speedsters with the camera when I heard a different "chip" from the small bush behind me. I turned around and there it was right behind me. A plain grayish brown bird with a nice little crest - a Juniper Titmouse. I really thought it was going to elude me again but there it was at the last stop in the fading light. Just one bird, but I got good looks and poor photos. I also had a pair of Ravens fly right over me and "cronk" at me then whirl up into the air over the canyon.
It was a great evening.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Search for the Juniper Titmouse

Grand Junction, CO - I am in Grand Junction for a planning workshop. Sounds pretty boring I know, but I find these workshops quite exciting. I get to work some wonderful talented and dedicated people who are working on the future of our public lands management.
As part of this workshop we had a field trip this morning to Glade Park just south and west of Grand Junction to look at a few habitat treatments that the BLM and partners have implemented for Gunnison Sage-grouse. I found the discussion and ability to view these areas very interesting but I have to confess I was also trying to get a fair amount of birding in since I was going to be spending much of the next 3 days in a conference room. In particular I was looking for the Juniper Titmouse – a species that was recently spit from the Plain Titmouse along with the Oak Titmouse. As you might imagine the Oak Titmouse is very similar but occupies oak habitats rather than juniper habitats. I have observed the Oak Titmouse (back when it was still the Plain Titmouse) in California but I had no notes that I had ever observed a Plain Titmouse in the portion of it’s range where it is now called the Juniper Titmouse. It should be a fairly easy bird to pick up but I just managed to always not be in the right habitat or have enough time to look in the right habitat when I traveled to places within it’s range. Grand Junction is in the heart of Pinyon/Juniper country and I figured this would be my opportunity to find one and this field trip would be my best chance this week.

No such luck. We wound up going to places where they had gotten rid of the Pinyon/Juniper to enhance the distribution and extent of sage habitats so we weren’t in the right habitat again. We did drive through some very nice Juniper habitats and I had tantalizing glimpses of birds that looked like they might be a Juniper Titmouse but when you are traveling with a bunch of non-birders on a schedule it is difficult to hold up the whole group of to tromp through the bushes to find a bird. I did see some wonderful birds this morning though – White-throated Swifts, a Golden Eagle, lots of Vesper Sparrows, Ravens, Mountain Bluebirds, Gamble’s Quail, Western Meadowlarks, and American Kestrels. Plus all the usual city associated birds – House Sparrows, Rock Pigeon, Starling etc.
I do have one last chance to get out and find a Juniper Titmouse. Tomorrow we get done about 4:00 and I have already convinced one of the participants with a vehicle to take me back out into some Juniper areas. Hopefully…

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Future Studio/Library?

Billings MT - As I mentioned in a previous post, an old one-room school in Eastern Montana has captured my attention as a possible studio/library. On my way to Billings yesterday I took this photo of the old school with Western Meadowlarks and newly arrived Vesper Sparrows singing in the background (there is even a meadowlark sitting on the old flagpole). I also have a phone number of the landowner. Now to see if they are interested in getting rid of the building.

Birds have started moving in after being stalled by cold and rainy conditions. New birds for the year included my first White-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln Sparrow, and Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle). The Lincoln's Sparrow arrived about the right time according to my 4 years of records at our house but the White-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warbler were a few days later than "usual". They all must have gotten stalled together somewhere south of Fort Peck by the weather.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Greater Sage-grouse photos

Some photos of our morning at the sage-grouse lek courtesy of my Dad, Charles Carlson.

Friday, April 20, 2007

More lek surveys

I haven't posted much lately because my early morning schedule has left little time for the rest of my duties with work and family. Recent heavy rains have put a damper on my dirt road travels until they dry out so I am finally catching up on other things. One of them being my blog. Anyway, I continued my lek surveys this past week and managed to get a 1/2 ton diesel Ford pickup very well stuck Wednesday morning in creek crossing that didn't appear THAT boggy at 6:30 am but really was THAT boggy. I did hear my first Boreal Chorus Frogs in the creek that morning (nothing boreal about this scene though).

It is amazing where you can get cell phone coverage these days - I hadn't seen a single person in the 3 days I had been doing these surveys, but was able to call the office with no problem and then had to wait the two hours for my boss to make it out to where I was. Saved me a pretty good walk. If the nearest neighbor hadn't been home and the cell phone hadn't worked it would have been a long walk to the nearest help. The good news was that I wasn't that far away from the lek and was able to get the survey done and feathers collected after the birds had left.

Although getting out of bed so early in the morning has been a bit of a chore, I really like being out in the field during that time of day. Watching the eastern skyline start to glow and witnessing the soft morning light creeping across the landscape and bathing the buttes and sage in the soft rosy glow while still waiting in the morning earth shadow of the lower ground is quite calming and makes the rest of the day special no matter what happens (like getting stuck). I am also able to see a number of animals that I would otherwise miss later in the day.

Although watching the sage-grouse display with the morning light behind me is good for watching bird behavior and taking photos, having the birds in between me and the rising sun is visually much more pleasing. From a distance the lek glitters with dancing birds. When you look closer you can see where the flashes of light originate. As a bird shuffles into a turn facing directly towards me or away from me, it rises up and pulls the bend of it's wings to the base of it's neck.

Their stiletto fan tail is blocked by the rising body of the bird, but as the wings brush down their sides, the birds lean forward revealing a corona of glowing silver spikes. The flash of back lit tails can be seen for miles.

Dad and I are going to try to get out to a lek to take some photos on Sunday morning. Hopefully the roads will be dried out by then. I will post photos later that day if we make it out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Workplace Dream

Fort Peck, MT - In a previous post I mentioned a bit about my idea for a place of my own and I would like to expand on that a bit.
I have always been fascinated by artist’s studios and writer’s libraries. I am not sure why but it must have something to do with being surrounded by inspiration. I think of western and wildlife artist studios that have detritus of their work and passion scattered throughout. Old hackamores and saddles, ropes and branding irons. A skull of a Cape buffalo and clay models of a flying pipit. Feathers and bones. Tools and trinkets. Markers of places and their inhabitants.

As I noted in my earlier post, I have this vision of moving an old one room school that sits along the highway on my way to Billings to my backyard and converting into my own studio library. I like the idea of old wood and recycling a building that is on it’s way to decay and uselessness; particularly one that had been so useful in its heyday. Noble buildings, those old one room schools. In my space I would like an open area with a large window and good workbench to begin working on sculptures. Something I have wanted to do for a long time. An easel for the paintings currently occupying a corner of my mind sits opposite the workbench. The windows would look upon the backyard and the pond I have already built and would be low enough that I could take photos or make field sketches (even better) of the birds out the window. One end would have a small kitchen: sink, stove top, small fridge, some counter space. Above it would be a small loft. Sort of a guest room or oh-my-god-look-what-time-it-is place to crash. Another section would be bookshelves. Nice bookshelves. Even a few lawyers’ bookshelves with the glass fronts. All filled with my books with many of the shelves pulling double duty and holding animal skulls or bar coasters or gifts from traveling friends. What remained of the wall space would be filled with artwork. Some of it mine, both photos and drawings. Also a rotating selection of framed antique lithographs from old British journals and bird books.
I envision a nice leather chair to sink into to read and research with a nice antique lamp (I am working on getting the wiring of this piece replaced so I have one of the items already!). Oh yeah, and the plants. I would like to have a few orchids (see here) as well as a number of other plants scattered around the place. I guess it a way of bringing the living outdoors in, which I find particularly enjoyable during prairie Januarys.
What brought this on? Laura is expanding her grant writing work and needs a full time office so the office that we shared is becoming hers alone. It really didn’t function well for me anyway. I needed some space where I could be alone to work and since it is her workspace, asker her to leave so I could have some alone time just wasn’t an option for me. I am moving to a corner of the basement between the kids play area and the laundry area but it is dark and there are no walls to keep prying little boys away. But it will have to do for now.
I was also inspired a bit by a contest I saw in the paper a couple of weeks ago. If I win I get a large garden shed to turn into my own place in the backyard and a bit of cash to outfit it. It got me dreaming and I just couldn’t limit myself to thinking of a gardens shed. Especially with that school house sitting there on the side of the road in my mind.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dog question

For Peck, MT - I have a question concerning my Flatcoated Retriever. She has this annoying and potentially fatal habit of eating socks (and an even more annoying but less lethal habit of barfing them back up in the living room). Any thoughts on how to cure her of this? We have been working hard at limiting her access to socks but in our house with 2 young boys, the socks seem to wind up all over the place. She seems to particularly like the boys sock but it may be just a matter of size. Thanks.
This is the sock-eater. Pretty darn good dog otherwise.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A day in the Field

Fort Peck, MT - Yesterday I spent the day looking for Greater Sage-grouse feathers. I am collecting feathers for DNA work being done by a colleague in Alberta. On the way to my first lek I flushed a young Golden Eagle perched on a rock along the dirt road I was traveling on. It had a hard time getting off the ground and it's distended crop suggested that it had been eating something nearby. I stepped out of the truck and found the remains of a Cottontail Rabbit that the bird had eaten. It must have been pretty hungry - there was nothing left of the rabbit except hair, the backbone, leg bones and feet. Even the skull was picked clean with only the jaws and teeth left.

The first two leks I visited were easy to find. I had surveyed both of them earlier and they were fairly close to the road so even with the birds gone I was able to find the lek pretty easily. The last lek I had surveyed earlier too but it was nearly a half mile away from my vantage point and in the middle of a large flat area. I spent about a half an hour wandering around playing the hotter/colder game with the density of green worms of grouse poop and grouse tracks in the mud. I finally made my way to the main area of the lek and gathered my last pile of feathers.

The weather has finally gotten back to April normal here. It happened about 5:00 Thursday evening. Today was the best so far and the boys and I spent the better part of this morning wandering around the yard doing spring chores. The birds in the backyard haven't changed much lately. Red-winged Blackbirds, House Sparrows, House Finches, Robins, and Blue Jays are about it. One of the Blue Jays coming into the yard is a bird that I banded here last fall. I do still have about 5 or 6 Common Redpolls at the thistle feeder and there were even about 20 here on Wednesday when it was fairly cold here.
I haven't had a chance to go to a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek in many years but I recently found this web site that has some great photos of Sharp-tails dancing. Makes me want to get out to a Sharp-tail lek this spring!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Funny Story of the Day

This evening I was visiting with my folks and Mom was telling me that both she and my Dad had been hearing an ad on the radio advertising a "Ladies Clinic" at the local fire hall on Saturday. They heard it a couple of times and Mom was getting a bit annoyed that no one had told her that there was a "Ladies Clinic" in town (we live in a very small town and Mom usually knows of these sort of things). Not to mention that she wasn't really sure what kind of clinic would be held at the Fire Hall. So she called the town office and talked to Bobbie the town clerk to find out about the clinic. Turns out it was a "Rabies" clinic.
We will still be bringing our two ladies to the clinic but Mom probably will not be going.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Unidentified Flying Bird

Any guesses on this one? (I do know what it is). Click on the picture to enlarge it.
Added on 4-13 - I should have told you where this was taken. I don't like the random photo bird guess without knowing where it was taken since that really limits your ID tools. This picture was taken in Montana in April.

Wednesday Afternoon Birding

I had finally had enough sitting at my computer this week and used a couple hours of comp time to get out and go birding. We have had a fair amount of rain and snow over the last few days and with the soils around here I am unable to get anywhere close to a sage-grouse lek without tearing up the roads pretty bad (if I could get there at all). Not a neighborly thing to do. Being stuck in the office isn't so bad when it is 2o below and the wind is blowing but when field season comes around and I am really looking forward to getting out and this happens it makes it even worse to sit at my desk.
I took some back roads to get home from work and about half way home found my Dad coming down the same road so I pulled over and waited for him to catch up. As we visited a bit I noticed a Short-eared Owl foraging over a nearby CRP field. We sat and watched him for a while and pretty soon noticed that there were at least 4 more individuals in the area and possibly 6 more. We watched them foraging over the field with their necks stuck out and faces pointing down when things looked interesting below them. There were also a number of aggressive interactions between the owls and we watched one wing clap display. Dad and I had a good visit sitting there in the middle of the road watching the birds flying back and forth. There were a number of Red-tailed Hawks of all morphs stacked up in the area waiting to head north along with large flocks of American Robins. It is a bit depressing hearing of the migrants to the east and west of us - White-throated Swift this week and a few species of swallows west of us and Yellow-rumped Warblers in North Dakota. Nothing that eats insects here yet, which is probably good considering what has happened to a number of insect eating birds in the mid-west with the arrival of this blast of cold weather. See here.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Mongolian Birding Blog

I found this blog today via It is an interesting blog on the birds and birding in Mongolia by Axel Bräunlich. I have added it to my blogroll. Axel is a friend of a friend and it was nice to find his blog.

Grassland Birds Part 1

I am going to ease into these theme of grassland bird posts with a little homework for you. I received an email today from Trevor Herriot in Regina, Saskatchewan informing me that a radio show that he produced with Stuart Houston on grassland birds called "Pastures Unsung" is going to air again on CBC radio. The two part series originally aired last June on the show "Ideas" and will air again on CBC Radio 1 on April 11th and 12th at 9:00 at night (check your local listings - I am not sure what time that translates to with changes in daylight savings time or no daylight savings time in Saskatchewan). If you are too far away from a CBC station you can listen online.
I really enjoyed this broadcast last year but then again I am a bit biased as I was one of the people Trevor interviewed for this project. CBC has a website for the show here. Trevor does a good job of explaining the current status of grassland birds and the threats facing these birds.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Steve and Libby and 10 Books to Take to Antarctica

Recently Steve Bodio posted a photo of his desk. Also, Dr. Hypercube, a fellow blogger, has posted a photo of one wall of Steve's library here, which led me to this post by Odious of Odious and Peculiar concerning Steve's library here.

One of the quotes from Odious is "Following Mr. Bodio in his obsession means following him in his literary wanderings, too--any reader can easily come away with a list of twenty books or so that they now must read."

All of these posts, and in particular the quote from Peculiar above, reminded me of the following blog post I have had stashed away in my mind.

A number of years ago just before I was to return to Antarctica for my first 6 month stint of research, I asked Steve for a list of the 10 books I should take to read. Steve not only provided me with a list of those books, he bought copies of all ten for me! That generosity, both in the time Steve took to compose a very thoughtful list and the purchase of those books, has stuck with me. All were wonderful reads.
The list, as best I can remember and in no particular order is:

1. Patrick Leigh Fermor – Between the Woods and the Water
2. Thomas McGuane – Nobody’s Angle
3. T.H. White- Once and Future King
4. Patrick O’Brian – The Far Side of the World (I think this was the title. I liked them so much I have bought at least one or two of the next in the series every time I have returned to Antarctica)
5. Eric Hansen – Motoring with Mohammed (This is one I no longer have. Probably gave it to someone in Antarctica to read).
6. A.S. Byatt – Possession
7. Lois de Berneires - Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
8. Cormac McCarthy – The Crossing
9. Peter Hoeg – Smilla’s Sense of Snow
10. Actually this one is in order. I can not remember what other book I received from Steve. I think that it may have been George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings but I am not sure. I know that Steve recommended this one but I am unsure if it was on this list or not. Steve?

Although it has been many years since I saw Steve's currently library, I certainly remember spending many hours visiting with Steve in the Bozeman version. To me it was much more grand than a Merlin's cave. In my mind it was a cross between a Victorian naturalists lair and Charlie Russell's studio; a place to wander away from the drudgery and pain of a dysfunctional graduate program with real conversation and mental stimulation. Not to mention my first exposure to good red wine, cooking excellent and different food at home, Steve's wonderful friends and family, and his menagerie. I learned about falconry and pigeons and literature and guns get the picture. I particularly miss our conversations on art and artists as well as being able to join in conversations when Steve's artist friends visited.

Steve's library is the model of the library I hope to have some day. I have these plans of moving this old one-room school I know of, left in the middle of the prairie by the departure of the homesteaders, into my backyard and restoring it into a studio for sculpting and painting and a library. With a big leather chair to read in surrounded by my books, collected artwork, my art, and the artifacts found by a traveling biologist...but that is probably a whole other post.

I spent a lot of time with Steve, Libby and Jackson at their Bozeman house and the place changed a lot when they left. I really miss being close to them and would love to be able to spend a few days hanging out in Magdalena in the library with Steve as well as in the garden with Libby. They gave a lot to me, as they do to all their friends, and I can never repay them for what they gave. A heartfelt thanks and this post will have to do for now.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Dancing in the Moonlight

Another early morning of lek surveys. We received a little less than an inch of snow last night and everything was white this morning. Better yet, the 3/4 moon was just setting as the sun came up. This lek had 34 males with about 10 females wandering through the lek. The stock ponds were pretty much frozen this morning and what patches were open had an assortment of waterfowl on them. At one small pond near the lek there was also a pair of Killdeer huddled in the snow at the ice edge looking very cold.

The number of males on the leks we are surveying appear to be up slightly from last year. We have been recovering from a heavy winter 3 years ago that appeared to be pretty hard on our Greater Sage-grouse populations and the number of males on the leks has been increasing since then.
The avifauna in the sagebrush grasslands hasn't increased in species diversity much yet this spring. I looked for McCown's Longspurs as they should be showing up any day as well as Mountain Plovers but it was pretty much Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks this morning. Also one flock of Sandhill Cranes in the distance heading north.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Neruda birds

One thing that I have tried to do during the last two trips I led in Chile is read Pablo Neruda poems to my guests from this great illustrated book of Neruda bird poems from Lynx Edicions. I have tried to read poems that are pertinent to the birds we see on our trip but I haven't been very good about getting many poems in. One that I always manage to read is one that I have pretty much memorized, not only because it is short but because it is so evocative of the bird he writes about.


Sobre la nieve natatoria
una larga pregunta negra


Above the swimming snow
a long black question

Thanks to David Ringer at Search and Serendipity for prompting this post with the short Neruda quote in his blog header. This quote is from another of my favorite Neruda bird poems titled "The poet says good-bye to the birds"
The last stanza reads in full:

A people's poet
provincial and birder,
I've wandered the world in search of life:
bird by bird I've come to know the earth:
discovered where the fire flames aloft:
the expenditure of energy
and my disinterestedness were rewarded,
even though no one paid me for it,
because I received those wings in my soul
and immobility never held me down.

Sage-grouse lek viewing

So if you happen to be anywhere near Glasgow, Montana at 0515 this coming Saturday, April 7th you can join us for our second somewhat annual lek viewing trip.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Bureau of Land Management in Glasgow will be coordinating a trip to a local lek for interested people. We did this two years ago and had a pretty good turnout. Looks like the weather might even come around for us this year.
We will be leaving from the FWP office by 0515.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Flying Flatcoat and other tidbits

On Saturday I took Addie, our Flatcoated Retriever, to the river for a little dummy training. I love watching this dog go into the water.

This morning we surveyed 4 leks before the snow started to fly. All had increases in the number of displaying males from the last couple of years. This is one of the last best places for Greater Sage-grouse in the world and we are busy doing lek surveys for much of April.
For those of you who happened to watch 60 Minutes on Sunday night and caught the segment on the affects of global warming in Antarctica, you saw one of my favorite places in Antarctica. I worked for one field season at the location where Wayne and Sue Trivelpiece were interviewed and Wayne was my graduate advisor. It was really nice to see images of my "home" for a few wonderful months one year. Despite being back to Antarctica a number of times since working at Copacabana on King George Island, I haven't had the pleasure of going back. I would really like to visit again one of these days just to see how things have changed. If you missed the show you can visit the website here


Up early again this morning for another morning of lek surveys. I was able to get out on Friday morning to look for the reported new Greater Sage-grouse lek. The new lek wound up being an known lek and it had 17 male sage-grouse and about 7 hens on it. It was a rare morning with no wind and I was able to hear the birds displaying from about a mile away. I sat and watched them for a while as the sun slowly emerged and then was swallowed by clouds. Then back to the office for a day of meetings.
Sunday morning Benton and I went to check out the lek closest to town on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This lek is small I was wouldn't have been surprised if I found no birds this year but instead it had one more displaying male then last year's five. Unfortunately, this lek is quite a ways from the road and required a spotting scope to count. I had forgotten how difficult looking through a scope can be when you are first learning and Benton was unable to figure the deal out. He either had both eyes closed and couldn't see anything of course or with both eyes open, was unable to focus on the image in the eyepiece. We'll keep practicing. We both got to see Mule Deer, Pronghorn, Western Meadowlarks, and a nesting Great Horned Owl. The best part was that Benton told me he had a good time and would do it again despite getting up at 5:30 in the morning.
This morning my intern Susan Hult and I are heading out again for another round of lek surveys. I will try to post some photos from the last few days along with a post on our surveys later this evening.