Thursday, October 15, 2009

Greater Sage-Grouse and Energy Development

A recent article in the online journal PlosONE outlines the projected impacts of oil and gas development in the U.S. Intermountain West. Mapping Oil and Gas Development Potential in the US Intermountain West and Estimating Impacts to Species outlines the projected declines in Greater Sage-Grouse based on modeling the distribution of future oil and gas wells based on the potential for oil and gas resources to be present. The authors project that there would be a 7% to 19% decline from the 2007 levels and impact 3.7 million acres of sagebrush and 1.1 million acres of grasslands and the species that live in those habitats if oil and gas development were to occur at the projected rates.

Figure 2. Oil and gas simulation results for the two scenarios.This map illustrates the location and extent of expected development in the two scenarios. Areas in orange depict growth for the anticipated scenario. Areas in red depict growth for the unrestrained scenario. Bar graphs show the quantity of development projected for each scenario. Core areas for sage-grouse are shown to highlight expected areas of future conflict. (Click on the image to enlarge).

They also provide solutions to avoid these projected impacts by a creative combination of approaches to enhance access in some areas in exchange for avoidance of others, or outright purchase of already leased land in important habitats by the federal government of other interested parties. They also note the species in grassland and sagebrush ecosystems are under stress from a number of stressors including wind, solar, coal, oil shale, and uranium and they suggest that this model could be used for these stressors as well and could account for cummulative impacts from all of them. These proactive measures could be used by regulatory agencies and land managers to avoid "business as usual" and avoid impact to areas crucial for species conservation.

Copeland HE, Doherty KE, Naugle DE, Pocewicz A, Kiesecker JM (2009) Mapping Oil and Gas Development Potential in the US Intermountain West and Estimating Impacts to Species. PLoS ONE 4(10): e7400. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007400

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Change in the Weather

We have gone from the height of summer to a typical winter day in less than a month. On Sept. 19 we reached a high of 96 degrees F. and by October 9th at 0700 in the morning the temperature was 16 degrees F. The trend from the above graph does not look good. Monday morning I intended to make a long trip to pick up some deck supplies, but when I woke up there was about 8 inches of snow on the ground and it was still coming down hard. I canceled my travel plans only to find out later in the day that the snow only extended for a few miles on either side of town. Messed up my whole week. I did get to do a bit of birding though so it wasn't all a loss.

There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 Common Loons gathered on the river and dredge cuts. The dredge cuts are lake-like bodies of water attached to the river formed when they dredged up material from the Missouri River floodplain to provide fill for the dam. I watched a group of about 40 foraging together through one of the dredge cuts. They appeared to be synchronously diving and foraging together and when they surfaced they would call back and forth to each other.

The Sandhill Cranes have been coming over on their way from the far north to points further south. I suspect that many of these birds that I see will spend their winter in southern Colorado or New Mexico.

My favorite blackbird, the Rusty Blackbird, makes its annual appearance this time of year (and again in the spring) and I have been lucky to see a number individuals of this declining species this fall.

An hour or two at the local sewage pond resulted in the Buffleheads getting used to me being there and I was able to get a few photos. The males were more cautious than the females but one decided that it was not that bad to get a bit closer than the others.

There were also four Bonaparte's Gulls feeding near me as well.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Another Little Jewel

On Sunday I had reached a point in my ongoing deck construction that required an additional trip to the hardware store. Since it was Sunday and the hardware store was 20 miles away, the deck was going to have to wait. I was hanging around the house trying to figure out what to do when I decided to do a little birding and take Addie for a walk. Actually, thinking back on it I believe that Laura actually kicked me out of the house. I am still not quite sure how she did it but she somehow got me to think it was my idea to go for the walk.

The end result was that Addie and I headed down to the river. As I was driving to the area we usually go for a walk I realized I couldn't remember the last time I had just gone birding. It was long overdue.

It was a good day to get back from my birding sabbatical. There were fall migrants all over the place including frantic flocks of American Robins everywhere I looked. There were also migrating sparrows including my first-of-the-fall Harris's Sparrow. These handsome birds are always a treat to see and I think they are even more striking in their non-breeding plumage.

Most of the migrant sparrows I saw were either White-throated Sparrows (like the one above) or White-crowned Sparrows.

As I was walking through the brush this migrant flew over from the nearby Missouri River. Common Loons look so ungainly when they fly but they are really pretty powerful fliers.

Shortly after the loon passed by this Peregrine Falcon came at me from the same direction. I managed to get this shot as he headed back towards the river after passing nearly directly over me. Judging from the very full crop, it looks like he had just finished a meal.

The bushes were also crawling with warblers. Most of them were Yellow-rumped Warblers of the Myrtle variety.

There were a few Orange-crowned Warblers in the mix as well.

Then this guy popped out of the wild rose. Certainly not anything I was suspecting but I immediately knew what it was despite having never seen one before (too many hours looking at my field guides over the years I guess).

I pished a couple of times and the bird came a bit closer. Pishing is a birder term for making noises that sound just like repeatedly whispering the word really loudly and drawing out the "sh" part, not a misspelling of what might happen to a person when they get excited; although given the rarity of this species in Montana you might be forgiven for thinking I did the latter.

Then this young male Golden-winged Warbler perched right out in the open for me for a few shots.

How could you mistake this bird for anything else?

This is the fourth recorded observation of this species for Montana. Dad has one of the other three observations from his backyard last spring so Dad and I have half the records of this species in MT. It certainly makes me wonder what other species recently moved through the area unobserved, particularly given my observation of the Black-throated Blue Warbler earlier. That bird also showed up in my parents yard and they had another Black-throated Blue that appeared to be a different individual later in the week in their yard.

Dad was in the vicinity but by the time he got there we couldn't relocate the bird. Then a Sharp-shinned Hawk chased a screaming Northern Flicker through the trees and most of the birds scattered. It was a great little walk and a wonderful way to get back into the swing of things. Another life bird and another bird I hadn't observed in MT before. Thanks for kicking me out of the house Laura.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Albatross Cam

The latest in techno wildlife research includes a number of images taken by a lipstick sized camera mounted on the back of a Black-browed Albatross. This article in the online journal PLoS ONE describes the images obtained from the birds at sea.

A: a ‘featureless’ sea, B: an iceberg encountered, C: a killer whale breaking the ocean surface, apparent from its dorsal fin (white arrow) and three black-browed albatrosses attracted to the whale, D: two albatrosses flying in association with the camera-mounted bird, E: a fisheries vessel in the distance (white arrow) with an aggregation of birds, F: a bright light source during the night, possibly a vessel or the moon.
Image and caption from PLoS ONE.

Photo C is really interesting. The bird appears to be following an Orca that just surfaced in front of it an a couple other albatross. The subsequent photos were all blocked by feathers but the associated temperature recorder on the bird suggested that the albatross landed on the surface shortly after this photo was taken. HT to Birders World for this one.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Lots of Screaming and Yelling

A couple of weeks ago I was able to participate in a University of Montana Wildlife Biology class field trip to the western end of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding landscape in southern Phillips County. I was one of the speakers to the class along with other long time friends and colleagues (there aren't many people in Eastern Montana and even fewer working with wildlife so many of us have know each other for many years). It was great to see people representing so many different interests in this area all talk about one commonality - how important this landscape and its outstanding wildlife values are to all of us. I was also able to bring my two outstanding interns and new fellow biologist along with me to learn more about how others look at and manage this land.


One of the stops on Friday night was an area closed to hunting near where Highway 191 crosses the Missouri River. This time of year the elk are well into the rut and there were many large bulls bugling (not really bugling though - more like a whistled screaming grunt) right next to the road in the Missouri River bottom.

There were a few hundred elk in the area and they were very active. Many of the bulls were located right next to the road and were vigorously defending their small groups of cow elk from the other bulls.

It was getting quite dark and I had to really push the ISO on my camera to capture anything.

The other challenge in getting photos was figuring out how to avoid the mass of people lined up along the road. Prior to getting to the viewing area the class was learning about management on the CMR further up the road and we watched car after car head down the gravel road towards the elk. I have never seen that many cars heading down that road in such a short period of time. When we finally arrived at the viewing area the road was lined with cars and people and on a small bluff above the road there were between 15 and 20 campers parked with their awnings rolled out and tables set up watching the show. Although it would have been nice to have the place to ourselves, it have to admit I was impressed with the number of people that had gathered to merely watch wildlife - something that doesn't happen that much out here.