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!

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.


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.

There Will Be Mud

Wyoming weather is still keeping us on our toes. After bouncing from lows around 10 to warm nights in the 40’s and 50’s at the end of March, we thought we might be back on track for another warm year like last year. Not so fast! A small winter storm became a big one, and we ended up with more than a foot of snow earlier this week. I’m not sure we’ve kept records, but this was probably the second or third biggest snowfall I’ve seen since I’ve been out here.

The biggest was in 2007, I think a day or two after the Pangolin Pictures/PBS crew wrapped up filming, when we got closer to 3 feet of snow. That hit right in the peak of breeding, and we were shut out of Monument Lek for at least 3 days. For our 2013 storm, the peak in breeding had pretty well wound down, so a day or two absent from the lek didn’t feel like the end of the world for us. It did lead to one of those stunningly beautiful mornings we get out here. I think a snowy dawn is a close second to a Wind River moonset as my favorite events out here.

The storm started on Monday, and on Tuesday, we headed into town early due to frozen pipes. The same weather forecast that underestimated our snow by about 80% also failed to inform us that it was going to be single digits at night. Ah, the joys of trailer living. Tuesday and Wednesday were snow days. It took a lot of shoveling by the crew just to get the vehicles out, not to mention clearing a path for the ATVs to get out (and Huff Sanitation to get in). Thursday we finally got out to two of our three study leks. Kate headed out on snowshoes to get a count of birds on Monument Lek, while Christa, Elena, and Max tackled Chugwater Lek, with Elena and Christa trying to get close up video of female behavior for Anna’s projects.

Chugwater Lek proved to be an exciting place. There were at least nine matings, suggesting that the weather had caused some nest failures, and some of the females were looking to re-mate and try to nest again (or alternatively, the snow kept the females away, causing a build-up of receptive females that we happened to catch on our first day back). Second, the guy doing almost all of the matings turned out to be the guy we captured and banded the morning before the snowstorm. Male number 335 (also called ‘Mufasa’), with green and white bands, left our care in very good shape- all his tail feathers, etc. When Elena didn’t see his distinctive tail feather pattern (‘buttprint’) on the morning after capture, we were hopeful that we had gotten the top guy on the lek. In previous years we’ve done a lot of our capture at the end of the season when males were about to pack it in for the year anyway, and often haven’t seen them come back to the lek until the next year. It’s nice to see a released bird not only return, but obviously still be top dog even after a day or two away from the game.

By Friday the crew was back at all three leks. Unfortunately there’s another storm on the horizon for Monday. It’s only supposed to dump 3 inches or so, but that’s pretty much what they said last time. In the mean time, all that snow is melting, and we’re going to be dealing with some of the worst mud we’ve seen all season. Keep your fingers crossed!

<Note- I’ll throw a few more photos up next time I’m in town- the photo uploader hasn’t been working well this morning>