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!

Oddball Science

As someone who studies a bizarre bird using high-tech methods (including robots), I sometimes get the question “Why?” In some cases people are interested in my research questions and why I am passionate about it, but sometimes “Why” can mean “Why should my tax dollars go to support this?” Government funding for scientific research is always under scrutiny, particularly now.

My friend and colleague Patricia (Patty) Brennan has faced questions about the rationale behind her research as much or more than any evolutionary biologist I know. Patty studies (among other things) the coevolution of male and female genitalia in ducks, and her work has been highlighted in the popular media both as exciting, valuable, cutting edge research as well as wasteful spending on frivolous questions. She responded with a fantastic defense of “oddball” science in Slate. She also made her case at a Science Cafe event in Massachusetts (click for video). If I can paraphrase the article and the lecture, we should fund basic science because

  1. Basic science is the foundation of applied advancement- almost nothing in our 21st century technology and medicine would exist without discoveries from basic science, but those links are often fortuitous and we need to cast a wide net (not that all research should be funded, but it is impossible to predict where the important discoveries will occur).
  2. Scientific research is currently funded at embarrassingly small levels compared to other countries- it is a cheap expenditure that pays dividends down the road.
  3. A necessary product of research is education and outreach by scientists (it is a required component of almost all basic science grants), which helps to increase scientific interest and literacy in the public and inspire the next generation of scientists. More funding would mean more of this – see point 2.
  4. It’s pretty neat to figure out how the world works.

2014 Field Season Recap

Getting muddy out there...

We survived the pack-up and clean-up, and are back in Davis. Once again, Wyoming made this somewhat challenging. There’s been a long-standing joke with our local contacts that runs something like “winter isn’t over until the California ‘Chicken’ crew leaves.” This originated in our first few years, when we always seemed to leave town with a winter storm on our heels. This year, the weather gods seemed to want to revisit this joke. Our pack up week saw 2 decent storms roll through Fremont County. Neither left insurmountable amounts of snow, but we ended up having to pack everything up in a cold muddy morass. Adding to the list of why field work is not always glamorous: scrubbing out dirty trashcans in 32 degree weather with a driving snow, and laying on ones back in a mud-puddle to secure a tarp around a lumber pile. The late season storm did provide some opportunities though, such as seeing the now-blooming paintbrush poke through the snow.

Paintbrush in the snow

We had a break in the weather on our final weekend, and traveled with Stan to Oregon Buttes, a scenic and historic area south of South Pass. Turning south of the highway between Farson and Lander, the first stop was a marker for the Oregon Trail, which comes through that (relatively) low and flat region of the Continental Divide. Onward and we come near the Oregon Buttes themselves, which we got to view through weather oscillating rapidly between snow, clouds, and sun.

Oregon Buttes

Finally we worked our way towards the badlands area of Honeycomb Buttes. The flatlands approaching the buttes held almost comically picturesque herds of wild horses.

Wild horses

The rockhounds among our group (everyone) collected beautiful pieces of petrified wood, fossilized algae, and agates. Finally onto the badlands, which were sprinkled with shards of fossilized turtle shell. It was a fantastic day to explore some different sage-grouse habitat and see a new part of the local scenery.

Honeycomb Buttes

The drive back was uneventful. We made it to Elko, NV as our halfway point, and bypassed the Cabela’s superstore in Reno in the interest of beating Sacramento rush-hour traffic.

Looking back on the 2014 field season, how did it go? It was a particularly exhausting season, with so many new things to figure out, and a large crew to manage. In some ways it felt like our first season when everything was new, although with the pressure and expectations that come with a lot of goals and the knowledge that we are mid-grant with limited time to accomplish our objectives.

Fembot "Salt" approaches the target area as males get excited.

That said, I think we kicked butt this year. We crossed off several major items in our 2014 field effort. First off- the robot experiments were a real success. Anna did a wonderful job in planning these out, and the birds and weather generally cooperated. We had two target areas on each lek, and were able to run at least 3 different trials at each one. On some days both Gail and I piloted robots at the different leks- a first for us (and the first time I’d gotten to drive during a real experiment). Anna was able to train James to be a second experiment director for these dual-experiment days. Hopefully our data will allow us to look both for seasonal trends in courtship effort as well as differences individual male persistence. We will only know the results once we analyze the video and audio data collected along with the experiment, but our impression was that everything worked pretty well this year.

Secondly, we accomplished a whole suite of interrelated objectives as part of the encounternet tag work. Step one of this was to actually capture birds and get tags on them. Frank and Julia got up to speed on this really quickly, and we ended up catching close to 30 birds. Not sure what our average was, but I’d guess close to two birds per night which is not bad with for the relatively small crew we had available to go catch birds on a given evening. Getting the harnesses on the birds had stymied us in the past, but this season we got the hang of it (the rump mounts are a little tricky to fit, and will fall off pretty much immediately if they aren’t attached properly).

With tags on birds, we were ready to tackle the encounternet system itself. With some trial and error and updated versions of the firmware supplied by John Burt, we managed to work on power management of the tag and positioning of the receiving basestations. We ended up with four males for which we could get hourly GPS fixes along with accelerometer activity samples coincident with those fixes. Much thanks to Sean and Sam for building some of the antenna mounts we used.

Finally, with the GPS data flowing in, we could start to crack the foraging ecology questions. Julia was instrumental setting getting an easy protocol for moving  the GPS data from our Google Earth plots onto our GPS. The tags seemed very reliable in pointing us to areas heavily used by the birds, and with Jen Forbey’s help, we became adept at taking samples of the sage and making quick assessments of the habitat at the activity site. We also did lek-based assessments to measure foraging quality at areas surrounding 6 of our leks.

These were the main goals, but we also tackled some auxiliary projects this year. In conjunction with the sage-sampling work, we looked took a series of photographs of various sage-grouse sign (browse marks and poop) to look at how it aged over a period of days. This will help assure us we can identify very recent grouse activity from older sign. Second, we tackled the buttprint aging project again- Sam got started on this early in the season and so this year we’ve managed to save multiple photos for a number of individuals. Combining last year’s data, hopefully we can answer whether it’s possible to reliably age second-year birds based on a distant picture of their tail, and whether this is easier to do early or late in the season.

We accomplished all of these research goals while developing a completely new workflow for our video data. This year we made the transition away from tape cameras and recorded all of our video in full digital format on SD cards.

All in all, a very productive year! Many thanks again to our crew for all their hard work this season!

2014 Fembot Experiments

Fembot "Salt" approaches the target area as males get excited.

Knock on wood, our behavioral tests with the robotic female grouse are going very well this year. With the robots already built, we were able to start right away. We’ve gotten (I think) 10 experiments in already, with hope for another 6 or so in the next few weeks. This has been fun for me, since this is the first time I’ve gotten to do real robot driving. Thus far I’ve driven in three experiments- two at Chugwater Lek and one at Cottontail Lek. A couple of times Gail and I have done simultaneous experiments on different leks- a first for us and a big advance in our ability to collect enough data to answer our questions.

A good experiment requires both opportunity and response. Opportunity comes in the form of males sticking around long enough in the morning to make it worth sending the female out on the lek. As with our previous experiments, we need to have a lek free of live females so we know who the males are courting and so our robot doesn’t need to compete with real females for attention. Some years these female-free windows are hard to come by, and males leave within minutes of the last female departure. Males need to be responsive as well- not too exhausted to care about courting one last female trundling on to the lek. Thus far we’ve done very well on both accounts.

So what are we actually doing this year? Our goals this year is to look at persistence in courtship. How long will a male engage in courtship, and how does this depend on factors such as seasonality and the female’s interest level. We are repeatedly testing males with trials that contain both interested and disinterested behavior, and getting measures (hopefully) early, mid, and late in the breeding season. We think differences in males behavior within each trial, as well as changes in his effort across the season, will reveal a lot about how he allocates his energy and his success on the lek.

Getting to participate in these experiments by actually controlling the robot has been a little stressful but also incredibly rewarding. It can be nerve wracking to drive the robot out and try to make her movements as life-like as possible. Not only do you have to keep the female upright and not tip over, but you have to maintain life-like movements throughout the trial. Don’t move too fast! Keep her head moving periodically! Don’t drive backwards! Aside from this, getting to interact with a wild animal in this way is just an indescribable experience. One recent experiment at Cottontail illustrates this. One male “Circle Butt” approached a little closer than we wanted for our protocol. I backed off a bit, and he also backed off somewhat and returned to his core territory. I moved back towards the intended target area, and “Circle Butt” came back closer. I backed off again, and again he retreated. It was such a thrill to be able to be an active part of this interaction.

A couple of previous posts on our robot experiments here and here. When I get a chance and more bandwidth I’ll add some video, but here’s a clip from 2012.

An exciting couple of days

Gail giving driving lessons to the Boise folks.

An early visit from our collaborator Jen Forbey and a few other members of her lab should have been exciting enough for early March at our camp. Jen has been looking at the interactions between grouse and sage- basically how sage nutrition and chemical defenses affect grouse physiology and foraging behavior. Her visit was for some mutual training possibilities. Her graduate student Marcella has a lot of trapping experience, and was able to show us a new spotlighting technique that we’ve now adopted. It’s an “on foot” method, where birds are first seen from a truck driving on an established road, then a pair of people walk out to the bird, one with the spotlight and a portable speaker blaring music, and the other close on their heels with a net. We trained Marcella on our video and buttprint protocols, and also got her going with a recording unit to get some recordings from her Idaho population. The Boise team also completed sage-sampling at three leks to look at forage quality surrounding these display grounds. Jen and her crew were fun even when we were squeezing 13 people in to the trailer for dinner!

Gyrfalcon & grouse

I mentioned some excitement. First was the once-a-decade (or more) visit of a large arctic falcon called a Gyrfalcon to Cottontail. Sean and James got some digiscope photos of a falcon that we initially assumed was Prairie Falcon, but further review of the images suggested it might be the larger Gyrfalcon. Not only did they see it, but they saw it make several passes over the lek before finally killing and eating a male sage-grouse! Sadly it was a male who was already a favorite- named Roundasaurus Leks due to his buttprint looking like the head of a T-Rex. We almost never see predation events on the lek, and to see one so early in the season, and by such an unexpected predator, was pretty mindblowing.

The gyrfalcon came back the next day and James and Sam were able to get some more diagnostic images from a zoomed in video. Unfortunately it hasn’t been back since then, and I haven’t gotten to see it yet. Maybe I shouldn’t say unfortunately, since this bird seems pretty capable of reducing our sample size in a rapid manner!

Jen and her technician Brecken dissected the unlucky male grouse to see what it had been eating (all sage, in spite of the presence of some forbs and insects during the warmer days). I’ll probably have more about that in a subsequent post.

Pygmy Rabbit tracks (top), and Cottontail (bottom). Photo Gail Patricelli

Second: another wildlife sighting. Jen and Gail were at Monument Lek and noticed the burrow and tracks of Pygmy Rabbit! This is another sage-specialist that Jen studies, so she knew what to look for. In some places this is a threatened species. I’m not aware of it’s status in our neck of the woods, but neither Stan nor Sue our agency contacts were aware this species resided in the Hudson area so we will count this as a cool discovery.

Last was something exciting but not quite as fun. I tried to take the crew and Jen’s crew down to the Monument Rocks for a quick but fun excursion. There was still some snow on the road, but not enough to be a problem. Or so we thought. Maybe a half-mile past the lek, the snow covered up what turned out a treacherous mudhole. Trying to power through it only succeeded in me getting astoundingly high-centered. Day 1 we tried using the ATV to help pull it out, but the truck didn’t budge at all in spite of an hour or two of digging. Next morning, we tried another pick-up, but still no budging. It wasn’t until we’d deployed two jacks and dug almost completely under it, and then used the truck, that we finally got it out of there. Definitely not how we wanted to spend two days.

It took quite some feats of engineering to get the truck out.