Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Double aarrgh and whoo whoo

ping Crane!

This morning one of the first emails I looked at when I arrived at work was from Beth Madden, wildlife biologist at Medicine Lake NWR. It was just one line that said:

"the crane is still here if you want to see it!"

That started to hurt. Then after I replied that I was half tempted to make the drive she wrote back to tell me that it indeed had been in the same field on Sunday and I had driven right past it. That did it. I called Dad and coerced him into going to Medicine Lake and taking me with him. I haven't chased a bird in a long time and it was fun heading out with Dad to see if we could make the two hour trip before the bird left.

We did. We stopped at the headquarters to get the latest info from Beth and found the crane had moved from the field to a small bay on the east side of the refuge and was hanging out about a quarter mile from the road with a bunch of Tundra Swans. We arrived where Beth said it would be and there it was. We got good looks at the bird as it moved around a bit. Then it tucked it's leg up and it's head under and joined the Tundra Swans for an afternoon siesta.

Click on the image to enlarge (you may need it on this one)

Although we were close enough to the bird to get good looks at it, it wasn't the best photography situation. It could have been worse if we had arrived a bit later though. Then I could have pointed out that the white sleeping bird in the center of the photo has longer legs than the other sleeping white blobs in the photo. There were no bands on this bird and I am not sure how many of the remaining Whooping Cranes are unbanded.

This all makes me wonder about my longspur hunt last weekend. If I was unable to notice a 6 foot white bird in a stubble field, it leads me to question my ability to find a very small rather nondescript bird in a stubble field. Not bad for a trained wildlife observer huh. More photos and stories of other birds from our trip tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I just got a report that a Whooping Crane was observed at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge ONE DAY AFTER I WAS THERE.
I kept checking the flocks of Sandhill Cranes I saw looking for the large white one but it was never there. My friend Doug Smith observed the bird, a single unbanded adult on Monday morning on his way to work and reported it to the refuge.
I guess I will have to head that direction again this fall to look for Smith's Longspurs and Whooping Cranes on their way back south.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Piping Plover update

I learned the identity of the banded Piping Plover I found on Friday. My friend Beth Madden at Medicine Lake NWR sent out my report to the Piping Plover folks and I immediately got a response from Dr. Cheri L. Gratto-Trevor, a shorebird research scientist with the Prairie and Northern Wildlife Research Centre in Saskatoon, SK. Cheri wrote:
"This is one of my black-flagged birds from Saskatchewan - band number 93753, marked originally as an adult female at Lake Diefenbaker, SK in 2004 (nest DN-04-03)[combination is black flag upper left, dark blue over yellow (faded) lower left, presumably metal upper rt, yellow (faded) lower rt]. In 2005, she nested in Alberta, and since then has only been reported from the wintering grounds in southern Texas, so was obviously nesting where no one was looking."

So the bird I saw is at least five years old and hangs out on the beaches in Texas during the winter. Anyone in Texas remember seeing this bird? If anyone in Canada finds this bird this summer I would love to hear from you too!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

No gold but lots of bronze

Despite many miles driving through stubble fields of wheat on Saturday and Sunday I was unable to locate any Smith's Longspurs. The consolation prize however was thousands of Lapland Longspurs in a couple of fields. I have seen Lapland Longspurs annually for as long as I can remember but only in the winter. These were all in breeding plumage so in a way it was a new bird for me.

It was amazing how many were gathered in the two fields and they were all singing on top of it so the sounds were also new. I did make a three longspur weekend out if it with observations of Chestnut-collared and McCown's all in breeding plumage as well.

I did see a few flocks of longspurs that looked like the photo above and I was unable to figure out what they were.

Northeastern Montana is incredible dry and most of the potholes I looked at were just salt pans with no water. It was also quite cold with a few snow drifts hanging around. Thankfully I brought along my Flatcoated Retriever heater to keep me warm in the back of the truck last night.

Friday, April 25, 2008

New Montana Bird

Birders keep lists and the role that lists play in the birding experience is greater for some more than others. The list I keep the most track of is my list of the birds I have observed in Montana. I have been birding in Montana for over 30 years (ouch that hurts) and a new bird for me in Montana is getting harder and harder to come by. The other part that doesn't help me add to my Montana list is the size of this state. This spring a Tufted Duck was located in Western Montana and it would have been nearly a 600 mile drive to get to where the bird was (with no guarantee it would still be there) which translates to a small fortune in gas money right now.

This weekend I am going to settle for a more modest expedition to environs north and east of Fort Peck. Specifically I am looking for a Smith's Longspur. There are very few records of this species for Montana but the migration path should take it across at least the very northeastern corner of the state so I am heading that direction to add to the ornithological knowledge of Montana. I am going to call it the Carlson Northeastern Montana Longspur Expedition in the tradition of the old ornithological expeditions of exploration and discovery.

One of the species I had hoped to find on the trip was an Eastern Phoebe, another bird that is common just to the east and north of here but rarely reported for MT. Last night I took the boys and Addie for a walk and found an Eastern Phoebe along the river! Looks like the trip is starting out well and I haven't even left yet!

Dueling Short-eared Owls

On my way home from Sage-Grouse surveys I was able to catch a very aggressive interaction between two Short-eared Owls. They locked talons and spiraled to the ground right in front of me. I have only observed this once before between two raptors and that was two Black-chested Buzzard Eagles in early spring near Torres Del Paine National Park in southern Chile (no camera ready that time though).

Banded Piping Plover

I found this guy this morning while coming back from my Sage-Grouse surveys. My first Piping Plover of the year and banded to boot.
I couldn't see a USFWS band on the bird. It looked like the band combination was:
Upper left - black flag
Lower left - blue over white
Lower right - white

Sunday, April 20, 2008

More Orchids

Here is a shot of my Oncidium Midnight Miracles Highlander that show the colors of the flowers much better than my previous post. Also, a couple of photos of the new Phalaenopsis hybrid Taisuco Kochdian we got last week.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Great Surprise

I (we) have been working on the Great Surprise for a while and it finally came to fruition last night.

A couple of weeks ago Laura talked to me about a big purchase she would like to make. Our friends were selling their dining room table, chairs, and hutch and Laura really wanted to buy them. Ours were ok but most certainly acquisitions made during a different period in our lives.

We got the table at the Salvation Army in Bozeman 15 years ago. It was ok but it was starting to show some age - it was probably at least 15 years old when we purchased it. The chairs were purchased at a garage sale about the same time. They were ok too but not that well made and the joints were really loosening up. We had already lost one during a dinner party in Bozeman. Steve Bodio was telling a story that required lots of hand gestures (pretty much any story for Steve!) and all of a sudden he disappeared from the end of the table - the chair had come apart underneath him! I was noticing I thought of that event pretty much every time I sat at the table these days. The hutch had no current match but Laura has wanted one for a long time.

So, shortly after Laura asked me about purchasing the set I called Tami and told her that we would like to purchase the set but also asked her if she would tell Laura that they decided not to sell it. Tami was a willing partner in crime but struggled with being able to tell Laura that they had decided not to sell it because she knew how disappointed Laura would be. She pulled it off quite convincingly though. My next conversation with Laura was her telling me that she wasn't going to get the dining room set after all. I knew that she was disappointed but she understood the reasoning that Tami had given her.

Fast forward to this Wednesday. I was in Lewistown for meetings and Laura was taking the boys to Billings, 4.5 hours away, to do some shopping and get out of town for a few days. I was meeting her there on Friday because I had another meeting and we were going to return on Friday evening. Tami, her husband Kelly, son Zach, and a crew of young men met my Mom (yes she was in on it too) at our house and they removed the old table and chairs and put the new set in the dining room. Laura just happened to call the house at that time to check messages and Mom answered the phone not expecting it to be Laura. She stumbled through a rather lame excuse as to why she was at the house while Tami headed out the door so she wouldn't accidentally be heard talking to the boys. Whatever excuse Mom used (she can't even remember now) worked and Laura still didn't suspect anything. Tami gave me a call and let me know that part of my plan was complete. She even added a nice touch while talking to Laura on Thursday and told here she was making a flower arrangement for a friend who had recently gotten some new furniture.

Friday afternoon we headed home from Billings. As we got close to Fort Peck I told Laura I really had to go to the bathroom so I needed to run in the house right away. I also asked her to bring the new orchid (yes another one) into the house and put it on the table right away so it was out of the way. I ran into the house, turned on all the lights, grabbed my video camera, and waited in the kitchen. Laura soon came in the house, around the corner, and my plan worked just like I had imagined it would. Complete surprise!

The set looks great in our house- including the flower arrangement from Tami - and of course Laura really likes it. We have finally graduated from the grad school furniture!

I owe a big thanks to my partners in crime who helped me pull this off - Tami and Kelly Burke, Zach and his friends, plus my Mom.

The new stuff.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Not Happy

Why is that owls always look unhappy sitting on the nest. Maybe it's not the nest, come to think of it, they just always look rather dour.

This one is sitting on a former Swainson's Hawk nest north of Glasgow. One of my other usual spot to find a Swainson's Hawk nest in the spring is also not available this year. It was a rather small Willow tree at a reservoir in the south part of Valley County. I drove past the spot the other day when I was coming home from a grouse count and something was missing. The whole tree was gone. I couldn't remember it being that old of a tree that it might have just fallen down so it was a bit of a puzzle until I got near where the tree used to be to find a well chewed stump.

It was a beaver that did it. The funny part was the tree wasn't that big and it was only one of two trees on the reservoir and the other, now gone as well, was even smaller. I don't know how the beaver managed to survive getting to this reservoir either as it is at least four miles to the nearest tree and there is no year round water flowing from the reservoir - it only traps water from snow and rain events and after that is over the downstream portion of the drainage dries out. The remains of both trees were very well chewed and there was not a speck of bark left on the stumps that remained. I suspect that the beaver did not make it through the winter on that meager diet.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Another Grouse Morning

Friday morning and I was up and out the door again bright and early (well, not so bright but definitely early!). Another couple of Greater Sage-Grouse leks to count and collect feathers on. We had a pretty good thunderstorm move through to the north on Thursday night but I really wanted to get out so I figured if the roads were bad I would turn around and head back to the office. The roads were actually pretty good and I wound up getting to both leks I had hoped to survey.

One was my favorite lek I have been surveying for last few years. It has been down by about half this year as have a number of other leks but there are others that are right about where they were last year. We are not sure what the cause of this is but West Nile Virus is certainly a potential cause.

The other lek is one of the most difficult ones to survey because of the need to drive a good distance on a pretty poor road (well two track trail would be a more apt description). But it is worth the drive because it is the largest lek in the area with 52 males displaying this week. That number should go up a bit in the next week or so as the young males start to attend the lek.

This is a portion of the large lek. There are about 21 males displaying in this photo.

I also stopped by another lek on my way back to town. There were no birds on the lek or in the area and although it was a bit late in the morning, there should have been some birds lingering in the area since this is pretty close to the peak breeding time (there were more females than males on the first lek I surveyed). I headed out to the lek to collect some feathers and there was plenty of sage-grouse "sign" at the spot.
Although they are hard to find in this large landscape without having the birds present, when you do stumble on a lek it is pretty unmistakable - there is grouse poop all over the place like light green Cheetos littered on the ground, with occasional dark patches where it looks like someone spilled tar. The tar patches are another type of fecal matter that expels the toxins ingested from the sage plants the birds eat exclusively in the winter. The ground is also trampled down in the center of the lek and there are usually a number of feathers scattered around - a byproduct of occasional fights between the displaying males.
After I gathered the feathers I could find I headed back towards the road and then I found this a short distance from the lek and I knew why there were no birds there this morning.

This is a pile of Greater Sage-Grouse feathers. If you click on the photo to make it larger you can make out the head lower left of center in the photo. Look for the yellow combs above the eye.

The most likely culprit, a Golden Eagle, based on evidence at the scene of the crime. Very little of the grouse was left. Only a piece of the pelvis, the head and lower mandible, and feathers remained. There was one large mute (eagle poop) streaked through the middle of the feathers.

Leks can be a dangerous place for these birds. Much like I know to go to these traditional areas to count grouse, predators also learn to return to the leks looking for a meal. Although this may seem like a very high cost to showing up on a lek or even evolving a mating system that exposes individuals to such a high cost, the benefit is related to the nature of these birds and the landscapes they live in. In such large open areas, a female may never find a male to mate with if there was no place where they could reliably be found and even then she would have no way of assessing mate quality. The lek centered breeding system enables these birds to find each other regularly and also the females can assess mate quality by the location of the males on the lek, with presumably better quality males occupying the central areas of the lek. Predation risk can also be mediated by the number of animals looking for predators on the leks although the vigilance is presumably greater in the females since the males usually concentrating on beating each other or gaining a mating opportunity. Sounds about right.
I also found a small Sharp-tailed Grouse lek on my way home. I hope to find another lek closer to home to get some more photos of this prairie grouse species. They are much more active dancers than the sage-grouse and much more pugnacious too.

Custom Engraved Moleskine

I really liked this site. I have one Moleskine I use for my Antarctic trips and another I use for daily notes etc. At this site you can have a Moleskine cover laser engraved with an image you provide or one of the images they have. You can even have the spine engraved with a title for image.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sage-Grouse trapping

Monday morning the radio woke me up at 0300 and I stumbled out of bed, through the house, and out the door with most of the stuff I wanted to bring along. Most importantly, I had my coffee. A quick trip to the office then I headed north of Glasgow to meet Jason Tack, a graduate student of Dr. Dave Naugle at the University of Montana. Jason is working on a Greater Sage-Grouse study that spans the US/Canada border in Valley County, MT and the East Block of Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan. Jason and his crews have been trapping grouse and fitting them with radio collars for the past three years. I had tried to participate in a trapping effort a couple of years ago but the grouse didn't cooperate that morning. Monday morning found me waiting at a road junction just south of Opheim, MT under an impossible number of stars (for those of you unable to see a night sky without much light pollution, it really is amazing the number of bright points layered in the dark sky).

Jason and his crew showed up shortly after I arrived and we headed down the road in the pre-dawn hours towards the lek where they had placed the rocket net the night before.

Kala Minkley, Jason Tack, and Brian Shockley (not pictured is Brad Detmore who was tending some traps in Canada).

We arrived at the lek about an hour later and I parked a ways from the lek where Jason flashed his brake lights for me to stop. They proceeded on towards a blind placed next to the lek where Kala got out of the truck and hid in the blind. Jason and Brian drove a bit farther and parked. Then we waited for the light to leak over the eastern horizon enough to discern if there were enough females in the zone the net would cover. I rolled down my window and let the cold morning are leak in the cab of the truck so I could hear that sound. The squeaky punch of displaying sage-grouse. The horned larks were singing above me in the dark, already laying claim to patches of prairie grass. The two-way radio provided me with brief conversations on the status of birds in relation to the net.

Jason and one of the males we captured.

"are those two males displaying on the net?"

"yes, but they just moved off about a meter."

"How many females are in the zone"

"Looks like about 5"

Jason had previously surmised that we would blast the net at about 0620 so I was waiting to see how this would work as the birds moved around. About 0550 I heard something on the radio that was not real clear but I did hear something about the net. I was wondering if he had told Kala he wanted her to blow the net when there was a loud boom, a flash of light, lots of flying dust and birds. I had my answer.

Removing birds from under the net. Notice the net on the ground and the blind in the background.

I hurried over to the net to find all three of them rapidly placing blankets over the birds trapped under the net. We were only putting collars on females. Collars don't work well on male sage-grouse. They do all right most of the year but when they try to display the following spring the necklace type collar doesn't allow them to display properly. Also, most of the population data of importance comes from following the females and determining how many chicks they raise and where they do that. We started to remove all the trapped males and turning them loose to fly off in the increasing light.

We wound up with 3 females to process. One more had escaped from the edge of the net just as they arrived.

Tools of the trade: banding pliers, bands and radio collar

Kala holding a bird. You can see the grouse peering above the blanket much like Kala is peering from behind her facemask.

One new bracelet.

Quick head length measurement.

Weigh in.

Brian getting ready to turn a female loose.

Kala letting a bird go.

Female heading off.

You may have noticed the new photo of me on the side of this blog. That was from this morning and shows me holding one of the male grouse. Please remember I got up at 0300 that morning!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Bloomin' Orchid - Odm Midnight Miracles "Highland"

A couple of weeks ago when I was in Phoenix I saw the most beautiful orchid at a local store near where we were working. I knew that it would never survive airport security and two airplane rides home but the sight of that plant pushed me over the edge. I have wanted to grow orchids for quite a while and when I arrived in Billings I went to the local big chain hardware store to get an orchid because I just had to have one then (I know, I will be more selective in my choice of suppliers next time. This one came with extras though - all the aphids I could clean off the buds). The plant I picked was not blooming but had lots of buds and we have been not-so-patiently waiting for the flowers. I wasn't even sure what the flowers would look like when I bought it but I did find a photo of this type of orchid on the internet so I had an idea after I got home. Last night it started blooming. I now have two buds that are open with more to come soon I hope.

Odm Midnight Miracles "Highland" (I need to get a few more photos of the flowers because these makes the long petals look the same color as the lower part of the flower and the lower part is really much more pinkish red and the upper petals more brownish red than these photos depict - I also need to start learning some orchid terminology!).

I owe Julie Zickfoose a big thanks for answering my questions and providing me with a very good list of resources. Julie has some wonderful orchids that she occasionally posts about. I got a good reminder about how beginning birders must feel with my beginning orchid questions and Julie was great and helped me keep this plant going. Now for more plants!
Here are a couple of my favorite orchids growing wild in Torres Del Paine National Park.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Crossing the Medicine Line

Last week I spend three days in Elkwater, a small resort town on the north side of the Cypress Hills Inter-provincial Park near Medicine Hat, Alberta. I was attending the second forum of the Crossing the Medicine Line Network. The CMLN is a loose organization of individuals, agencies and non-governmental organizations concerned with conservation of the Northern Great Plains.

The name of our group comes from the term applied to the US/Canadian border in this area by the Native Americans of the Northern Great Plains during the late 19th century. It described a boundary where the policies of governments changed for the Native Americans (or First Nations people in Canada). For the Native Americans fleeing the U.S. Army, the land north of the 49th parallel meant refuge. Sitting Bull and his band of Sioux made it across the line after the Battle of the Little Bighorn but Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were decimated just south of the line. A fascinating article about the history of the Medicine Line can be found here. Although the border politics have changed since then it is still very present and a still a barrier in many ways.

One of the objectives of the CMLN is to promote communication about ecology and conservation between the political entities in the region, primarily between the US and Canadian people but also between Alberta and Saskatchewan. Often our understanding and maps of our shared species of interest end at these borders but the animals themselves are not confined by political boundaries. We are working towards having information be seamless across these borders to match the realities of the ecology and species we work with and thus provide better context for each individual project at the state or provincial level.

This image from our website shows some of the species for which we have common concerns; Swift Fox, Greater Sage Grouse, Loggerhead Shrike, and Burrowing Owl. It also includes a map of the core area of interest, the Milk River basin. Other species of interest include: Baird's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, McCown's Longspur, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Long-billed Curlew, and Pronghorn Antelope to name a few.

The image below is a product of one of the projects I have been involved in and was produced by Bryce Maxell and his crew at the Montana Natural Heritage Program. It is a probability of occurrence map for the Baird's Sparrow and it demonstrates one of the issues we are dealing with. Each of the dots on the map is a bird count location from the database (not all counts but we are working on getting there). The black dots represent a count where at least one Baird's Sparrow was found, the gray dots a count where no Baird's Sparrows were found. Notice the big white areas around Montana. There are a lot of bird counts going on there too and one of the goals of our group is to find a way to make these sorts of predictive models for species occurrence relative to the entire breeding range of many of the species we are concerned with on both sides of the borders and across state and provincial boundaries.

I couldn't help but put in the following map too. It shows a predicted occurrence map for 12 grassland bird species in Montana. You can see how important the area in Valley, Phillips, and Blaine Counties is for these species. It isn't much ground when you consider the extent of the Great Plains and the former breeding range for many of these species. If we were able to extend this picture further north it would certainly extend into southern Saskatchewan and Alberta, but not too far, which is why many of the species we are dealing with are considered Endangered just across the border in Canada - Greater Sage-Grouse, Swift Fox, Burrowing Owl and Sprague's Pipit to name a few.

In addition to the grassland bird data we discussed Greater Sage-Grouse populations dynamics along the border including some fascinating genetics work conducted by Krissy Busch. I will tell you more about that later but it involves the results of the analysis conducted on feathers gathered from the leks across the region, a truly trans-boundary project. Energy production, primarily shallow gas but also wind energy, and it's impacts on wildlife populations were also discussed. This is one of the primary threats to populations of wildlife in the area - right after the continued threat of loss of native prairie to conversion to cropland.

It was a great three days and on top of the excellent talks and discussion I was able to visit with good friends I haven't seen for a while. There is a really good group of people involved in this effort.

I was also able to look around the small community of Elkwater a bit. My friend Beth Madden, Wildlife Biologist at Medicine Lake NWR found a pair of Merlins apparently nesting right across the street from the motel we were staying at and I got a few photos of the male. The female was often in the neighborhood screaming at something.

There were very many Black-capped Chickadees. More than I had observed in one spot in a long time. West Nile Virus must not have made it to the Cypress Hills yet.

Wild Turkeys had been introduced in the area and were quite common around town.

I just couldn't resist ending this post with another "mammal with an attitude" photo.