Mid-April Update

I’ve now been at Chicken Camp for a few weeks. Ryane and Gail got the camp set up and the crew oriented, so I was stepping into a well-oiled machine when my 9-seater turbo-prop touched down in Riverton. There was a light snowfall just after I arrived, and that lead to some great photo opportunities on Chugwater. I shared my first morning on the lek with a birder/blogger/education graduate student named Christian who was visiting camp for the day. It was fun to share the grouse and our project with him, and to learn about his ambitious project to use a “big year” (seeing as many species as possible) as a way to connect with birders and learn about how they use technology and form communities. His website is worth a look: thebirdingproject.com


Female sage-grouse solicits a displaying male

Female sage-grouse wanders to the edge of the lek

Territorial male sage-grouse evicts a non-territorial male from the lek

After Christian left, we caught a HUGE winter storm, that over two days dumped at least a couple of feet of snow. I can only remember one storm that left this much– back in 2007, we had another 2+ feet that fell just after peak breeding and left a 3 day hole in our daily observations at Monument lek.


Sunrise from camp

Needless to say we were kept off the leks for a few days for a few days with this year’s storm as well. Chugwater lek is fairly accessible, so we were back there after 3 days. Cottontail took another couple of days, and required a tough effort to forge a path there.


Photo courtesy Brett Sandercock

We had another visitor, Brett Sandercock from Kansas State University, who came out to Chicken Camp for the weekend. I knew Brett from my Berkeley days when he was a post-doc and I was a wee grad student. We’ve since crossed paths as grouse-ologists– Brett has been working on Prairie Chickens in the Midwest for a number of years. It was fun getting to show him sage-grouse for the first time!



We also managed a quick afternoon trip to the Nature Conservancy area in Red Canyon.

Lower reaches of Red Canyon


The snow seemed to extend the peak in breeding this year, and we had a lot of females showing up in the first week or so after the big storm. From the few banded females we have, we know they were there before the snow and came back again after, suggesting they might have abandoned their first nesting attempt.


Two banded males courting a banded female

A very few females we can tell individually even with out bands. Ryane had sent me a digiscope of a white-feathered female that was seen a couple of times early in the season. It came back last week, and one day I was on the lek and able to get some shots.


Leucistic sage-grouse hen with white plumage

Losing a nest is generally a bad thing, but our Game and Fish contact said that we shouldn’t be concern. Any females that got caught by the storm were breeding early, and have plenty of time to try a second nest. Add to that the huge benefit that the big pulse of moisture will provide to the ecosystem. It looks to be a green spring out here, which should mean lots of new growth and insects for the chicks.


With fewer and fewer females showing up every day, we finally have a chance to start our experiments for the year. I’ll leave the topic of those for another post.

Undergraduate Research Conference Participants

A brief (and tardy) note of congratulations to two of the students in our lab – Tawny and Marty, who both presented at this year’s Undergraduate Research Conference. Tawny is working on a senior practicum,  and has been investigating lateral biases in aggressive behaviors in the sage-grouse. Marty came in last summer through a special research program (the FASTRAC program), and has been looking at male responses to robot females presenting either interested or disinterested behaviors.

You can check out an article about it here. Gail and Tawny were both interviewed for this article!

Two big updates from the fall

The big updates from last quarter are probably the following:

1)   I survived teaching my first class- the 175-student Intro to Evolution course here in the Department of Evolution and Ecology at UC Davis. It was definitely a scramble to get the lectures put together each week, and I can see areas for improvement both for the course content and my teaching style, but all in all I think it went pretty well. At least no pitchforks and torches outside of my office, and reasonably good student evaluations- very few marks below average in any of the categories. Although it really is amazing how much time it takes to outline a lecture and craft a set of powerpoint slides, I enjoyed scouring the web for interesting class examples and media, and I liked the time in front of the class (at least most of the time- 7:30 AM could be rough if I didn’t sleep well or was up late putting the finishing touches on the lecture.

While I’m on this topic, a big thank you to my TAs David Luecke and Sarah Signor, as well as my graders Matt Meisner and Dena Grossenbacher. They did a fantastic job in spite of my having to learn everything from scratch my first time through as a full instructor. I’ve thanked them several times already, but can’t hurt to do it once more.


2)   Gail and I were awarded our second full National Science Foundation research grant on the sage-grouse system this fall! This proposal will fund another 3 years of field studies in Wyoming. The focus of this grant will be to learn more about the foraging ecology of the grouse, and how variation in energy acquisition and off-lek behavior relate to the courtship tactics available to a male while wooing females on the lek. It will extend our use of robots and sound recording by giving us a lot more information on what males are doing in the remaining 21 hours of the day when they aren’t fighting and strutting on the lek.

This project will also include both old and new collaborations. We are welcoming back John Burt (University of Washington) who was a key developer for most of our sound analysis scripts. In the past few years he has turned his attention to creating next-generation telemetry tags for use in animal behavior studies. These Encounternet tags can do amazing things like share interaction histories so when either of two animals gets near a receiving station, it will receive the data from both animals. The tags John is creating for us should have both gps logging capability as well as accelerometers to measure movements (this technology has already been used in other animal systems, such as the mountain lion study out of UC Santa Cruz). Our second collaborator is Jennifer Forbey from Boise State University. Jennifer studies the interactions between sage-grouse and their main food item- sage brush. She will be helping us study foraging success in the grouse, in particular by measuring the suite of secondary chemicals that sage plants produce.

Sage-grouse Cort Paper Out!

Jessica Blickley’s Conservation Biology paper on the impact of chronic anthropogenic noise on sage-grouse took over 18 months to go through review. Thankfully our more recent paper proceeded much more quickly, in fact, it just came out. May I present: Experimental Chronic Noise Is Related to Elevated Fecal Corticosteroid Metabolites in Lekking Male Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). This is in the journal PLoS One (PLoS = Public Library of Science, one of the first Open Access journals that charge a bit more for publishing but make the content freely available to everyone). The paper asks whether we can detect differences in traces of stress hormones in the poop of grouse that were on leks exposed to chronic noise versus control leks without the extra noise. The answer is yes, but like many things in science, the answer becomes a bit more complicated when you look at the details, or try to figure out what the results you find actually mean. There was a difference in the average level of corticosterone metabolites, but this wasn’t diagnostic. Additionally, it didn’t matter how close to the speakers the poop (and presumably the males) was, so the differences were shared across the entire lek. Still, further evidence that noise impacts are serious business for birds like sage-grouse, and are something management plans may want to take into account.

Jessica has another paper that just came out- this as the product of a seminar she took a couple of years ago. She and her colleagues put together a survey of job ads and questionnaires of people in charge of hiring conservation professionals- both to try to decode what skills ads are really asking for, and also to identify skills that graduate students might not get in the course of a “normal” PhD (whatever that is). It should be a really useful paper, and I’ll be sure to add it to one of the resources pages here next time I update those. So check out: Graduate Student’s Guide to Necessary Skills for Nonacademic Conservation Careers in Conservation Biology.

We’ve made some progress on several other fronts as well. We’ve gotten several other papers submitted, including a detailed look at fighting dynamics in male sage-grouse that I believe is our first paper making use of the high-speed video of male behavior. Another project we’ve gotten off of our desks is a characterization of the mechanical sounds in the sage-grouse, lead-authored by former undergrad and technician Becca Koch (now in a PhD program at Auburn). Gail and I also contributed to a paper on the negative effects of necklace-style transmitters in male-sage-grouse that included the acoustic analysis of one collared male with odd sounding displays. We have a few other manuscripts perched like baby birds at the nest hole, waiting to take that brave leap into the wide world of academic publishing. We should have at least one more paper make that leap before the end of the year. Big thanks to Gail for using much of her sabbatical to contend with some of this.

In other news, teaching is still the big focus, although I can’t believe how quickly it has gone. Only 4 more lectures in the quarter! I’m done with my other lectures for the time being (my City College of San Francisco seminar was on the previous Friday), but I’ve got several lectures, seminars, and meetings lined up for early in the new year including.

Scrub jay cacaphonous aggregation paper out

A quick announcement that Patricelli lab member Teresa Iglesias’ first dissertation paper is now out in Animal Behavior. I think her project is a nice model for how a lot of science still needs to come from basic behavior and natural history observation, and also how one can do cool local, low cost field experiments (although Teresa ended up including more high-tech neurobiological component to her research as well). Teresa set out to understand why western scrub jays call loudly and recruit other jays to the site of a dead conspecific. She set up feeding stations throughout Davis, which helped get her research out to the local public, and also involved numerous undergraduates in facilitating the experiments.  Anyway, a link to the paper. Congrats Teresa.

Teresa is currently working at Woods Hole on cuttlefish behavior, which gives me an excuse to post this link.