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!


Melody said...

That is my big sister, Kala. I am so proud of her! She really is doing exactly what she loves. She is a great inspiration and example for me. Great pictures and article!

John Carlson said...

Hi Melody,
You have a pretty good inspiration and example in your big sister. Glad you liked the photos and article.