Banded birds return! 2015 Field Season

In spite of the painful adjustment to getting up hours before sunrise, the past few days have been a fun introduction to the world of the lek. At this point in the season, one of our highest priorities is to get photographs of the males’ tails during display- we use these to help identify each male based on the spot pattern (we call them “buttprints”). We recognize these patterns from our distant overlook hills with a good spotting scope*, and it is possible to get pictures of these with a point and shoot camera or cell phone using the scope. However, we typically take the photos from much closer. It is easiest to do this from the edge of the lek, which means relatively close encounters with the birds. Even our technician who has worked with sage-grouse before hasn’t gotten to see the lek behavior up close, so watching the struts and fights, hearing the grunts, pops whistles, and swishes, is a real treat.

Male helpfully displaying his bands from atop an anthill

Sage-grouse, like most birds, molt their feathers at least once per year. What this means for us is that the buttprint patters we use are only valid for one season, and the next year when the male shows up on the lek, he will have an entirely new pattern. Fortunately, our increased attention to catching and banding the males means we are starting to be able to follow males across years as well. For example, we caught one male “Steve”** in his first year on Chugwater, watched him establish his territory and return for several years, all apparently without mating with a female. This year we’ve had a good number of returnees already from last year’s captures, including males on both Chugwater and Cottontail that yielded a lot of behavioral data last year.

Encounternet male leaving lek

Encounternet male leaving lek- note the antenna extending from his lower back.

While we have had good success finding banded males, our resighting of birds with radiotags seemed less encouraging at first. Several encounternet birds returned but did not seem to have tags, and we were worried that our Teflon harnesses might be prone to falling off sometime during the off season. Eventually we got close up photos during the process of taking pictures for buttprints, and started seeing the antennas sticking out. The good news is the harnesses are still on, and that the males survived and are behaving completely normally. If there’s a cause for concern, it is that after molt, the feathers on the back are going to impair the solar charging of the tag. New tags we put out this spring will work fine this spring, but maybe not as well for subsequent years on the bird unless we can capture the bird again and tuck some feathers under the harness.

Along with identifying the birds, we are moving forward with data collection. If buttprints are Step 1, then getting the grid of survey stakes is Step 2. As the weather warmed and the snow melted, it was easier to get to Chugwater Lek, so that was our first target. The key is not only to get the uniform 10m spacing of stakes, but also to make sure the stakes are arranged in a way that makes hill observation and data collection from the video as easy as possible. Once we get the first square as square as possible, then it is easy to build out from that by sighting along the rows of stakes, checking 10m spacings as we go. Chugwater always seems to be really muddy when we lay out the stakes. The road to Cottontail was pretty bad, and we didn’t make it down until yesterday. Cottontail Lek is much bigger, and we ended up with probably ~100 stakes in the grid there!

Cottontail, now with grid!

Finally, the crew is starting to get used to the spatial mapping of the birds. We all went up to the Chugwater overlook once the grid was up to practice. Our “base” data collection is therefore in place- pretty happy to have that done relatively early in the season. Next up will be setting up the microphone arrays, capturing some birds and getting the position and movement data from encounternet, and hopefully some early-season robot experiments to form the basis for understanding seasonal changes in effort.

Chugwater hill blind at dawn, waiting for the stakes and birds to become visible.

Chugwater Lek view from the overlook hill

* We have had very good luck with Alpen brand scopes. Very nice quality for the price.

** In the field, we name birds based on their tail feather patterns, or other silly names. This seems to make learning the birds much easier on the field technicians. When our undergraduates collect behavior data back in the lab, we only refer to them by their number, so there’s no chance of biasing our data collection based on the name the male was given. Also, we have not seen Steve yet this year.

First Days: 2015 Field Season

Welcome to Wyoming! Mwuahahaha

In spite of some snow and one of the coldest periods we can remember, things are getting going! Our crew, or at least most of them are here, and we’ve now been out to see the grouse two days in a row.

It took a couple of days, but four of our five technicians are here now. Arrival day coincided with the most recent winter storm, so one tech didn’t make it until a day later than the others (no big deal in the name of safety). The 5th technician? Well, that is another story. We’ve had people withdraw from the project before, sometimes for personal reasons, sometimes to pursue other career opportunities. It’s always a bummer when someone breaks their commitment to join us in Lander, but at least they’ve usually given us some advanced notice so we can find a replacement. Until now… Tech # 5, who was himself a replacement for someone else who withdrew back in January, let us know just a few days before the start of the season that he wasn’t going to make it!

When Gail and I stopped seeing red, we posted a quick request for a replacement on social media. We got a great response- strong applications from all over the country, and their references were similarly quick to get back to us or willing to spend a few minutes over the phone to discuss the candidates. Miraculously, three days after we sent out the request, we made an offer to our top candidate and that offer was accepted! We will be at full strength next week. I feel like modern-technology is a double-edged sword for us with regard to hiring and retaining our crew- it seems a lot easier now than it did even 6 years ago for people to continue to prospect for new jobs, but at the same time when we need to fill a vacancy ASAP, it sure is nice to be able to spread the word so quickly without having to formally post an advertisement and deal with the dozens of responses like we do in the fall. A big thank you again to all those who helped us get the word out.

First sage-grouse of the season! Right where they are supposed to be on Chugwater Lek.

Back to Chicken Camp. The crew’s first morning here was well down the minus side of the Fahrenheit scale. Chances of sage-grouse doing much interesting was pretty low, and chance of misery on our part was pretty high, so we delayed our first visit to the leks until yesterday. We drove out towards Chugwater and were rewarded with 6 males visible. We parked along the road and checked them out in the scopes for a while, then headed past the lek and visited a neat badlands area. The crenulated landscape was particularly beautiful with the few inches of snow.  All in all a nice morning.

Today we got into some proper grousing. Ryane and Amber set up a blind on Chugwater Lek while I took the rest of the crew up to our overlook hill. It was quite a bit warmer than yesterday, and really one of the most stunning combinations sunrise and moon-set that one could ever see. (Regular readers will remember that I get really excited over the full moon here). We saw 10 male grouse on or near the lek. They all hunkered at some point, implicating a nearby predator of some kind, but it wasn’t until about 6:30 that a Golden Eagle flew high over the lek and scared the birds away. We waited to see if the birds would return, and for the moon to finish setting, but were out of there pretty early by sage-grouse standards. An entirely beautiful and pleasant morning!

We’ve even managed to have a crew birthday already! I think the blue frosting was even bluer in person.

Landing in Lander again: 2015 Field Season

Red Canyon, near Lander Wyoming

We are at it again folks. We’ve left California’s balmy winter weather and are once again freezing our tail feathers off in Wyoming. For Gail this is now year 10 for sage-grouse work in the area. For Ryane, Gail’s Ph.D student, it is her first time at Chicken Camp.

So what brings us out this year? The answer is some of the same questions that brought us out last year. I’ll have more details on our research questions as the field season progresses, but the short of it is we want to study the links between what a male sage-grouse eats and how he forages off the lek, and how that relates to the kind of show he can put on and the decisions he makes on the lek. This will involve putting Fitbit like devices on the birds to figure out where they go and when they are actually eating, then going out and collecting some of the plants they were eating to figure out how their diet compares to other males. We can then measure their courtship chops on the lek by watching them interact with real females or with one of our “fembot” robotic females.

If you want a refresher about sage-grouse and their fascinating breeding system, check out a previous post describing what a lek is all about.

On with the adventure…

Right now we are still in the set-up stage.  With the help of several other Patricelli lab members (thank you Dustin, Mary, and Alli), we packed our vehicles with research gear and drove out from Davis. As trips go it was pretty uneventful– blue skies and clear roads for the whole trip. As we pulled into Lander, we came across a large herd of elk near the top of Red Canyon.

Chaining up.

Getting four trailers (two travel trailers, an equipment trailer, and a leased office trailer) out to our field site always seems simple in principle. Yet somehow it is always a much longer process than one would think. Our first full day in Lander ended with just the main travel trailer up the hill to Chicken Camp- between unloading some gear from the trailer, hitching up, driving it to an RV park to flush out the antifreeze, unhitching, hitching up again, chaining up for the somewhat snowy road, and then finally getting it in place and leveling, it is quite a process! This is one of the dirty little secrets that nature programs don’t tell you– the logistics of doing field work are a story to themselves.

Gail's new digs...

Gail’s new trailer joined the Trailbag yesterday, and today we got the office trailer delivered from Casper on the first try. Often there are high winds that prevent delivery, sometimes for several days. It seems like when we give ourselves a few extra days in case there is a delay we don’t end up needing the buffer, but when we cut it too close then we get the stretch of bad weather as we did last year.



The main thing we have been battling this time around is the bitter cold. Temperatures have been in the teens so far so it’s made all the loading and unloading pretty unpleasant.  On day 2 I was smart enough to put on rain pants after having my soaked jeans freeze solid on day 1. The cold has affected our trailer too. The water pump isn’t working right now. I guess of the amenities we have, losing water faucets is not a big deal as long as we have heat and electricity. We have two or three days to get that sorted out, and also to unpack, before our crew arrives.

For the next update, hopefully we will have some news from the leks!

New Section: Popular Science

I’ve added a new section under the Resources tab: Popular Science. I get questions about the kinds of things I look at, or just generally where to turn for popular science information. I’ll start to collect links on this page. Right now the breakdown will be:

  • Magazines
  • Blogs and Websites
  • Video
  • Radio/Podcast
  • Humor and Other

This is still a work in progress, so I will periodically add more content. Check back from time to time, and if there’s something missing or you want to provide an endorsement let me know!

2015 Field Positions: Filled

A quick announcement that as of this morning we have filled all of our available technician spots for the 2015 sage-grouse season. Thank you to all the applicants (approximately 60 in all, and one of the most competitive fields we have had), and to all the references who provided valuable input during the hiring process.

If all goes well, we will be doing it again next year, so look for our ad again in November for the 2016 season.