Trait Variability review now available online early

Some papers bloom quickly from concept to publication, while others resemble periodic cicadas, spending years growing in the shadows before finally emerging into the light of day many years later. An example of the former is the technical review that our collaborator Jen Forbey is leading. This paper is the outcome of our workshop at the International Grouse Symposium in Iceland last summer, and our revisions are nearing completion.

As an example of the latter, take the review on within-individual trait variability that is now available online early in Advances in the Study of Behavior. Gail first conceived of this paper as a postdoctoral scholar at Cornell, and the paper became a framework for some of our early grant proposals with the sage-grouse. At that point we turned our attention to empirical work with the grouse, and developing a more specific framework for interactions on the lek that became it’s own review. Now, with the help of Gail’s former graduate student (and before that, grouse intern), Conor Taff, we’ve finally finished!

International Grouse Symposium: Workshop

Photo: Lucas Spaete

This will be the first of three updates focusing on my recent trip to Iceland for the 13th International Grouse Symposium. I definitely want to thank my collaborator Jen Forbey (Boise State) for this wonderful opportunity. She provided the inspiration (and a whole lot of administration) to put together a workshop on the day before the conference. The theme was how new technology can help us meet management challenges for grouse. In essence, we were able to show off a lot of tools that many biologists have not gotten to see in action.

Jen Forbey (Left) and Marcella Fremgen (Right) discuss technology with workshop participants

We arrived in Reykjavik a couple of days before the workshop so we could prepare. We had five groups presenting at the workshop, including aerial mapping using a helicopter drone, terrestrial laser scanning, an “e-nose” chemical sensing device, and a field spectrophotometer for measuring plant characteristcs. Gail and I had a dual station- she shipped the robot and I brought the Encounternet system. Some of the stations went through dry runs at the venue, a small zoo/park in downtown Reykjavik, while the rest of us polished our presentations.

Just like real field work, our careful planning lasted until it didn’t. On the day of the workshop we had periods of intense rain and wind. After our initial introductory comments, Gail and I, as well as Donna the drone expert, remained in the tent area. Groups of workshop attendees rotated through the various stations. I think we were a popular one in part because we were inside and next to the coffee!

Donna Delparte takes advantage of a break in the rain to provide a demonstration of the aerial mapping using a copter drone.

We were certainly popular with this uninvited guest.

All in all it was an interesting workshop for everyone- I certainly learned a lot about some of the great new tools coming on-line now.

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.

Sage sampling

Jen explains the protocol.

Our collaborator Jen Forbey came back for a second visit this year to get us oriented to measuring the habitat and sagebrush characteristics at sites used by our encounternet-tagged males.The process starts by downloading a male sage-grouse’s previous day’s gps locations. We throw the points onto Google Earth and look for areas the males were spending a lot of time (in other words, where several points are in within a few meters or 10′s of meters). During they day, presumably these points represent a patch where the male was foraging, and at night, likely a roost site. We load these points onto a hand-held GPS unit, then navigate to the site.

Daubenmire Frame for estimating ground cover.

Once we are at the high-use area, we look around for sign of grouse (and always find something indicating a bird’s presence the previous day, usually some poop or a cecal cast). Once we know where a bird was actually standing, we look at nearby plants for bite marks indicating the grouse was browsing on the plant. We measure browsing intensity and dimensions of the plant themselves. We also use a couple of methods to measure ground cover- a Daubenmire frame where we measure rough abundance of grass and forbs in a small area, and also take a photo of a larger patch of ground from a camera suspended a set distance above the ground. Finally, we clip a few small branches from the sage-plant so Jen and her team can measure nutrients and toxins in the browsed and unbrowsed plants in the area.

When sage-grouse browse, they often leave parts of leaves. You can see the fresh browse marks (cut leaves with green centers) on the left and right of this photo.

Even more than we anticipated, this sage-sampling has been both illuminating and fun. There’s just something really neat about being able to walk a mile (or at least a kilometer) in the shoes of our birds, and see where they are spending time on the landscape. I feel like we are finally studying a complete bird, and not just the fraction of one that displays and fights on the lek. The process of the sampling itself has been enjoyable (at least in the relatively nice weather we’ve been having); it’s nice to be able to work outside with a team of people and to be able to talk without fear of scaring the birds.