Friday, April 30, 2010


A couple of weeks ago I received an invitation to an event in New Orleans celebrating the partnership between TransCanada (a large pipeline company currently working on building a pipeline from the tar sands oil fields in Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast across eastern Montana) and Duck Unlimited.

Yesterday I received this via email.

I wonder why they may have decided that canceling a celebration between a large oil pipeline company and a conservation organization in New Orleans might be the thing to do right now......

Monday, April 26, 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cold Grasshoppers for Breakfast

No not me. But the Long-billed Curlew I watched the other morning was quite adept and flicking them off the ground with tip of their long bill and then catching them in their mouth.

In this photo there is a grasshopper in mid flick, 2/3 of the way toward the tip of the bill.

This photo show a different grasshopper just heading down the hatch.

The Chestnut-collared Longspurs are back and singing now too.

The Horned Larks have lost their exclusive prairie real estate in the last few days.

He's Back!

They hybrid Sharp-tailed Grouse x Greater Sage-Grouse is back again on the lek this spring. My Dad watched him earlier this month and told me he was holding his own with the larger sage-grouse this year, rather than getting run around as I noted last year.
Last weekend I was finally able to go see him for myself and it was quite a change from the previous year. He had his own section of the lek where he displayed and he was able to maintain his position even when challenged. He is at least 3 years old now and it will be interesting to see how many springs we continue to find him here.

He still sounds like a duck with a cold and dances funny.

As I noted last year, this bird has no colored cervical apteria (area without feathers on the neck). Neither the yellow patches in the front like a sage-grouse nor the purple apteria on the side of the neck like a Sharp-tailed Grouse. However, this year I noticed that there was a very slight purple tinge to the skin at the base of the feathers on the side of the neck where the purple apteria is located on a Sharp-tailed Grouse. You can barely see it in the photo above.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Change in Plans

This week I was supposed to be in Alaska teaching a course. Instead I am in Lewistown, MT taking a course on data management. I was supposed to leave last Thursday and spend the weekend in Homer prior to the teaching in Anchorage. I had planned to look for Rock Sandpipers, Steller's Eiders, Kittlitz's Murrelets and the Emperor Goose that has been hanging around the spit. On Tuesday morning I found out the the class had been canceled. My consolation is that the weather was pretty crappy in Homer last weekend and a local field trip on Kachemak Bay did not record a Steller's Eider or Kittlitz's Murrelet.

The good news was that the weather last weekend was great in Montana and I was able to spend another morning at a sage-grouse lek..

and also enjoy a hike with my family.

More photos from the lek to follow.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mountain Plover

Mountain Plovers have arrived, back again for another year.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Other Grouse

Sunday morning and another early start. The winds late last week were atrocious and although the weather forecast for Saturday suggested it would be calmer, a quick peak out the door early that morning suggested otherwise. Sunday the clouds were supposed to increase, but the wind was supposed to not be quite as strong so on Saturday evening, with no wind and clear skies, I set up my blind.

Sunday morning looked great when I left the house. I could see lots of stars and the flag was hanging limply from the flagpole. A few clouds were present on the eastern horizon as the eyelid of night slowly pulled back from the horizon. There was a fingerpaint smudge of an orange crescent moon on the horizon as I pulled off the highway to open the gate. By this time the wind was picking back up but not a lot. So far so good.

When I got into the blind there were no birds on the lek and the wind was blowing harder than I would have liked. By the time I could start to see features on the lek I could hear the birds start to arrive and display and as the light grew stronger the birds became apparent in front of the blind.

The clouds continued to build as the morning progressed but the sunrise managed to leak through gaps in the clouds early in the morning and once again I was privileged to have a front row seat at the best show in town (or in this case - out of town).

There weren't many hens on the lek this morning and I suspect that the peak attendance for females has come and gone so the males were a bit sluggish in displaying when they weren't around. It didn't stop them from scrapping a bit though.

The End.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More Greater Sage-Grouse

Last weekend I found myself once again up early and out the door to get some sage-grouse photos at a nearby lek.

Earlier in the week I was out counting birds at a few leks for work, but this time the lek viewing was for fun.

I am not sure that I will be able to get much lek counting in this year with other work commitments, but I have an excellent crew (Matt and Marisa) to ensure the leks assigned to us get counted. We cooperate with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and their great bunch of biologists and a recently retired biologist to ensure that all the known leks in Valley County get counted at least once and preferably three times during the next month or so.

Early in the season there are lots of fights as the males jockey for the best spots on the lek.

This is what it is all about for the males. About 12 females wandered into the lek and watched the males displaying. I am not sure how many times they visit the lek before copulating with the male of their choice but it must be more than once - I didn't observe any copulations during the course of the morning.

A couple of years ago I blogged about a sage-grouse study that I had initiated with Dr. Dave Naugle of the University of Montana (you can read that post here).

Jason Tack, the graduate student selected to conduct the research (photo above from the 2008 trapping effort) recently finished his thesis on that work. Below is a link for his full thesis (click on the title for the PDF) and the abstract of his findings.


Implementing conservation in the face of unprecedented landscape change requires an understanding of processes and scales that limit wildlife populations. We assessed landscape-level processes influencing sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), to a migratory population in the Milk River Basin (MRB), northeast Montana, USA, and south-central Saskatchewan, Canada. A regional analysis of leks (e.g., communal breeding sites) documented that populations impacted by the increasing extent of agricultural tillage, roads, and energy development out to spatial scales larger than previously known. Using bird abundance as a novel way to evaluate human impacts revealed relationships that would have been missed had we not incorporated lek size into analyses. For example, large leks are 4.5 times less likely to occur than small leks when agricultural tillage fragments 21% of land within 1.0km of breeding sites. Sage-grouse in the MRB met or exceeded demographic rates of stable or increasing populations, and thus, are not likely the cause for annual declines. Spring and summer survival of radio-marked females was higher in 2008 (0.91), than in 2007 (0.55), the year we documented an outbreak of West Nile virus. Nest sites in the MRB had lower shrub cover (15%) than range-wide estimates (15-56%), and overall shrub cover instead of sagebrush cover, was a better predictor of nest-site selection. Plains silver sagebrush (Artemesia cana cana) made up half of total shrub cover (7.1%) at nest sites, suggesting that other shrubs compensate for lower sagebrush densities in the MRB. We discovered the longest migratory event observed for sage-grouse, with females travelling 40km to120km from breeding to wintering areas in Wyoming big sagebrush (A. tridentata wyomingensis) habitats in Montana. Habitat may be sufficient to maintain a small population in the MRB, but its ability to persist through time and to buffer against stochasticity is depressed now that this once-large population has become small and isolated. For example, impacts of disease are compounded when acting on fewer individuals and working synergistically with fluctuations in growth rates. Consequently, conservation of sage-grouse in the MRB will depend on maintaining the current habitat base, and on restoring sagebrush-dominated grasslands currently occupied by agricultural tillage.
I hope that the results of Jason's work will lead to effective conservation efforts in both the U.S. and Canada to help ensure that this unique population of migratory (120 km or 75 miles!) birds continues to occupy this special part of the northern Great Plains.

Earlier this week I was able to participate in another capture effort on the same lek. This time we are using GPS tags on the birds that will collect the birds locations every 4 hours and then download the coordinates once a week to the university where a new graduate student will expand on Jason's work.

Orin and I remove a male from under the net.

This time only the two females we caught received the transmitters (note the well camouflaged transmitter on the bird's back - good job Rebecca!). There will also be a few tagged males this time around as well because the harnesses used this time will not interfere with breeding activities.

After the usual suite of samples and measurements were taken the birds were turned loose with their new hardware we hope will provide us with a more detailed description of the habitat use and movement patterns particularly during their migration and during winter.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Rites of Spring - Sage-Grouse

It's that time of the year again. Grouse on the leks and early mornings. More photos to come.