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.

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.

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.