Trailcams are blowing my mind!

Sunset, another time when the grouse may be courting!

I LOVE that I can still be surprised by the sage-grouse even after 10 years out here. Sometimes it is just a matter of luck, as in having a particularly wet spring and seeing Cottontail lek disappear under the rising waters of the reservoir at the far end of the valley.

Sometimes the surprise comes from a change in our perspective– in the tools we use to observe the birds and the questions we are asking. For example, we just watch birds on the lek in the morning. We know the birds typically arrive just as the eastern sky is starting to brighten, and hang out on the lek for some length of time depending on weather, number of females, etc. Then they go foraging. Our assumption was that very occasionally the birds come in at dusk, and we know that typically around the full moon males will congregate on the lek at night and potentially be displaying for much of the night (they often leave earlier in the morning at that time as if they’ve been working hard under the light of the moon). That pretty much sums up our somewhat naive understanding of the timing of sage-grouse lekking activity.

Trailcams allow monitoring around the clock in all kinds of weather

Thanks to five trailcams on loan from Tim Vosburgh, a biologist with the BLM office in Lander, we are now getting a much more systematic view of when males are present on the lek. We will need some time to go through all the thousands of photos we are getting, but we’ve found a few surprising things already:

Two males at Monument Lek already in a territorial dispute at 6PM

1)   Evening lek attendance can begin a lot earlier than we thought. We thought based on a couple of encounters with birds at dusk that males would not come in until well after the sun went down. Not so! We’ve had some really cloudy afternoons and have had males on before 6PM.

Almost all leks had displaying males after 8PM

2)   Evening lek attendance is very common. I just looked through a sample from about a week of activity from three leks, and I think males were present in the PM pretty much every day on each lek.

3)   (Pending more data) Evening lek activity seems pretty synchronized across leks. My suspicion before was that it might be driven by random attendance of a few males that would then spur more males to join. I was expecting to find patterns where one lek would be active and another would be empty. Based on my quick scan through the photos, I think males on leks may be pretty consistent in how they respond to environmental cues such as precipitation, wind, and cloud cover.

This is a very limited sample of leks right now, and mostly around the full moon. Hopefully next year we can start monitoring more leks and start at the beginning of the season.

And for fun, a couple of other lek visitors:

Photo Milestone

Photo G. Patricelli & S. Harter

One of my main hobbies is photography. Almost all of the photos on this site are my own. I only put a handful of pretty and/or relevant images here on my blog– most of my best photos end up on Flickr. Spurred by a lot of views of some photos I took for a sustainable farming non-profit, my Flickr account just logged it’s 100,000th view! Obviously an arbitrary milestone, but I’m not going to lie- it’s fun to know people are out there occasionally looking at my photos.


My most viewed photo is still one of my favorites. This is a night-shot from our Wyoming field work. We were out on ATVs spotlighting to find and catch sage-grouse. I took a 3-hour time exposure to capture the star trails as well as the lights from our activity.

For me this is a hobby, not a business. This is particularly true for the images I capture in Wyoming. I get the privilege of living and working in one of the most beautiful places on earth working with a fascinating but threatened species. I’ve earned this privilege because various permitting agencies see the value in our research, not because they like my photos and want to see me make money on them. That’s why I make my photos available on Flickr as “non-commercial, creative commons.” Any media, education, non-profit use that helps inform the public about our research, sage-grouse biology, or aids in the conservation of grouse and their ecosystem are fulfilling for me personally (and fit squarely under the “broader impacts” mandate of our research as well).

Happily, a few of my photos have been picked up recently, including for couple of Associated Press articles [1,2] as well as a Yale Environment article and an NRDC piece. Sage-grouse will be in the news more and more, and it’s nice that I’ve been able to help put at face to the name, so to speak.

If you are interested in using photos, I’d definitely love to hear about it! Sage-grouse photos are in a couple of albums: either Sage-grouse or, for typically more research related, Wyoming Field Work.

2015 Field Recap Part 2: Research

As I mentioned in the last post, things seem to be looking up for the sage-grouse. So what about our research?

Lots of sage-grouse watching again this year

A burrowing owl looks in on the sage-grouse lek

We stuck with the same two focal leks that we used last year, Chugwater and Cottontail. Basic monitoring went well, especially with the increasing number of banded birds making it a little easier to get ID’s on the lek, especially in windy weather. We came back with a great set of video and audio data. What is particularly nice is that we can now look at lekking behavior in an increasing population. We now have a lot of recordings from “bad” years in which the population was declining, so seeing how hard males work and what females do in a “good” year, a year with lots of young males on the lek and possibly better overwinter survival, could make a nice contrast when we start to examine the long-term trends in display and mate choice.

The first of our main goals was to continue with our robot experiments. This year, our goal was to try the “outside option” experiment again. We first tried this in 2013, but our additional robots “Salt” and “Pepa” were not constructed until fairly late in the season that year. We started a few trials, but the males were already winding down their display effort and were not responsive enough to warrant trying a new series. Turn to 2015, and we now have our robots ready! Credit to Anna Perry, who devised the first protocol, Ryane, who took the reins this year as experiment planner and main robot director, and of course Gail who put the robots together and has been working with robot birds for a long time.

So what was the experiment? Briefly, there’s a principal from the economic literature that while negotiations and haggling often occur in one-on-one situations, the broader market includes lots of different options and competitors for both buyers and sellers, and the presence of these “outside options” can make a big difference in the decisions that are made in the market. In particular, if a seller is engaging with one buyer who is not terribly eager to buy, the seller might benefit from switching to a new buyer, but only if the new buyer seems more profitable or eager than the original trading partner.

We wanted to test this with the sage-grouse, using two fembots as potential “buyers”, and treating the male sage-grouse as sellers. We were able to get trials on each lek where the outside option was either “interested” or “disinterested”. We also ran control trials throughout the season with only a single robot- these will help us correct for seasonal changes in how hard the males work (they seem to get tired towards the end of the season).

A successful night

Our second main goal was to gather a lot of movement and foraging data, so we can uncover the feedbacks between on-lek display behavior and off-lek foraging behavior of the males. This was moderately successful. The first step was catching males and putting on encounternet transmitters. These are small solar-powered devices that can log both where the male is and also capture data about how it is moving it’s body. We managed to get around 20 tags deployed, although we were hoping for more. The tall grass, while great for the birds in providing cover from predators, may have made it more difficult to see the eyeshine at night during our spotlighting forays. Additionally, the age ratio of the growing population meant there were more young males to be caught, and not all of those males set up territories on the lek.

Downloading encounternet data

All in all, we collected tracking data from 7 males, which when combined with the 4 males from last year, should give us a good picture of where males go off the lek and how they spend their time. For these 7 males, we used the positional GPS data to go out and find their foraging and roosting spots, and measure aspects of the habitat at these locations to learn more about how male sage-grouse use the landscape. We also took small clippings of the sagebrush to see how selective they might be in what they are eating.

One new pilot project this year, we collected some poop from the leks to check for the presence of a certain type of gut parasite called coccidia. If sage-grouse have a lot of it, it could be an important factor in explaining differences in behavior. There’s also the possibility that the toxins in the sage are strong enough to limit this type of parasite. Dr. Rich Buchholz at the University of Mississippi has agreed to look through our samples and give us an idea of what we are working with.

Many thanks to our crew this year Amber, John, Miles, McKinzie, and Kelly for their help this year! Also thanks for the help from the Boise State crew, in particular Chelsea and Marcella who stayed at Chicken Camp for several weeks helping catch birds and organize the vegetation sampling. Also thanks to Sue Oberlie (BLM) and Stan Harter (WyoG&F) for local institutional support and a number of people who stepped in once to help capture sage-grouse. We couldn’t have done it without you all!

The 2015 Crew

In the next post I’ll talk about outreach and other odds and ends of the season.

Encounternet Tags

Encounternet Tag Solar Power edition.

We are making some progress with the Encounternet tags. Getting the tags out on the birds has gone quite well actually. Ten or 11 of our 13 tags are deployed on male sage-grouse at the moment, and we kept those last two back to be able to carry out tests back at camp. Frank and Julia have excelled in the role of banding technicians. I’ve been out with them several times now, and many nights we’ll catch ~4 birds- a good haul and much better than our past attempts at spotlighting.


The harnesses seem to be holding up as well- none have fallen off yet, and the tagged birds are showing up on the lek and performing their full suite of fighting and display behaviors.

Male "Tiny Dancer" wears a tag on his rump. He continued to mate with females after his tag was put on.

As a reminder, our goal with these tags is to collect positional data on the males, and to know something about their behavior at these positions. In particular, we want to know where the males are foraging so we can visit these sites and determine the nutritional and chemical quality of the sagebrush they are eating.

We are learning that getting these data off of the tags is a non-trivial task. One issue has been the relatively weak signal strength from the tags themselves. Traditional radiotelemetry uses lower frequency pulses that transmit long distances. The higher-frequency data transmissions from our encounternet tags do not travel well when transmitted close to the ground, and unfortunately sage-grouse spend virtually all their lives within a few inches of the ground. We’ve had to put our receivers higher up and a little closer to the birds. The grouse don’t seem to care about the pvc poles that are popping up on the leks. We included perch deterrents on our permanently placed receivers to ensure that raptors don’t start to use them.

We’ve also had to do some optimizing on settings and firmware to actually get usable data, and now are starting to get some nice positional data on at least a couple of our correctly configured tags. I’ve figured out how to get the data into Google Earth to display. Here you can see movements from “Steve”, a Chugwater grouse who was first captured as a young bird in 2010 and has been a reliable lek male for the past few years. The points are roughly every hour, and the tracks show him moving a little less than a kilometer from the lek each day. Each day he seems to use a different area.

GPS points from male "Steve". It is so exciting for us to learn more about what these males are doing off the lek.

Next up, in addition to getting the remaining tags properly configured, is to determine which points to visit for vegetation sampling. These decisions will be based on a combination of GPS accuracy and likely activity, hopefully eventually with the accelerometer behavior data as well.

Mid-Season Update (2014)

March has almost literally blown by out here in Windy Wyoming. It’s been a pretty good month so far, in spite of some cycles of mild snowfall and mud that have made our field work difficult at times.

The breeding season started in earnest with a Cottontail Lek copulation on March 19th. This was tied for our earliest one on record. My impression is that the peak in breeding is fairly spread out this year, with female attendance and numbers of copulations not necessarily following the quick increase and decrease that marks some years. Maybe bad weather early in the season tends to synchronize the females more as the earliest hens delay breeding, but the lack of severe early storms or deep snow cover has spread things out this year? Just speculation.

Although it’s early in the season (and these data are only field observations  and still pending new events collected from our video records), reproduction seems particularly skewed this year. The top guy on Cottontail seems especially strong. I’ll have a quick post about him soon. He’s now got our single-day record for copulations, and really dominates the lek in ways we’ve not seen in the past.

Jess digs a cable trench.

Study-wise, we’ve got pretty much everything going now. Microphone arrays have been deployed at our two leks (Cottontail and Chugwater), and we’ve collected two mornings of recordings on each lek. We’re getting used to the new cameras as well. There are good points and bad points (mostly good points I’d say). It’s really nice to be able to view the videos so quickly, and in our initial data collection from the tapes we realized you could even zoom in on certain areas of the screen! That is a pretty nice feature.

We did not put in a microphone array at Monument Lek, nor have we been monitoring it on a daily basis. Bird numbers there are about what they were last year, so we’re not going to invest as much in it since the males seem to have shifted their territories to places we can’t easily observe them. Sad to take a break from this lek- but hopefully it will rebound next year and we will be able to record behaviors and conduct experiment there again in the future.

Speaking of experiments, we actually got a complete set of early season fembot experiments in. More about this in a future post.


Frank watches while John tests the range of the receivers.

Our collaborator John Burt just left. John has been building the advanced telemetry tags we are deploying this year. We got a couple on last spring– these new ones have solar to help deal with the power needed to run both a GPS chip and an on-board accelerometer. We’ve got 13 tags in hand, and are looking forward to collecting data on where these males are getting their meals (and how that impacts their ability to put on a good show). We’ve already caught a dozen males, so hopefully it won’t take long to catch a few more and get all of these devices out on birds and collecting data.

Encounternet Tag Solar Power edition.

We also enjoyed having Yale student Sam visit the camp for a few days. Sam is interested in the relationship between female preferences and male aggression, and thinks the sage-grouse might be an interesting system to look at this issue.