2015 Field Recap part 3: Outreach

With the 7 days a week we spent catching/watching/following sage-grouse, it is amazing we had any time for anything else. We did manage a few outreach events. Here’s a quick recounting:

Gail participated in a press junket in Pinedale sponsored by Fish and Wildlife. This resulted in a lot of interviews and articles mentioning the fembot and our work, including this LiveScience piece. Another humorous bit of press: having our robot held up as Wyoming’s symbol of Earth Day in the Parade Magazine Sunday newspaper supplement. Never mind Yellowstone, Grand Teton, wolves, bison, grizzlies, or even a live sage-grouse, somehow a robot grouse made by a California lab best represents Earth Day in Wyoming! We had to laugh at that.

We also helped with a number of local events. Gail brought the robots down for a weekend Ag fair in Lander, and also a sort of project summary for the BLM biologists at the field office in Lander. I took part in a 4th grade Outdoor Education event in Sinks Canyon. This was a station dedicated to introducing bird ID and bird watching skills, sponsored by Red Desert Audubon Society.

Jazmyn McDonald points out a bird during one of the sessions at Sinks Canyon

Del displays specimens of local birds.

Practically on our way out of town back to California, I gave a popular talk sponsored by Red Desert Audubon. Even though it was Friday evening, we still got over 40 people there! It was really nice for us to finally get a chance to talk about what we’ve been doing in the Lander area for the past 10 years.  The Red Desert folks were thrilled as well– they are a smaller chapter and don’t often get to organize events like this. Hopefully not the last time we’ll be able to plan something with the local birding and conservation community.

Although it aired since we returned, we had some hand in The Sagebrush Sea outreach (as well as a little bit with the production). We helped find a venue for a local screening event, and Gail even filmed some Q&A for Wyoming Public Media. This film, which aired this week on PBS Nature, was produced by staff the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, including our collaborator (and first person ever to make a sage-grouse recording array), Marc Danztker. If you haven’t seen it yet, it is now available online from the PBS Nature website.


Another highlight of the season was getting to meet well-known photographer and conservationist Noppadol Paothong. Nop recently published the book “Save the Last Dance” on the plight and wonderment of North American prairie grouse (sage-grouse, prairie-chickens, etc). This book is a beautiful passion project and won and independent book award. Nop is now working on a new book focused entirely on sage-grouse, and wanted to check out our research. Who knows, maybe you’ll get to see one of the fembots in a book soon!?

I may think of some other highlights worth posting, but otherwise, stay tuned for summer updates. On tap for the next few months will be revisions, writing, analysis, and getting ready for a couple of presentations at the International Grouse Symposium in Iceland!

The Sagebrush Sea

We are back from our field season in Wyoming! I’ll recap our season soon, but first wanted to post an announcement for a great PBS Nature program airing this week. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology produced a beautiful film about the sagebrush ecosystem called The Sagebrush Sea. Much of it was filmed in west-central Wyoming near our field site (although I’m not sure any shots from the Hudson area made it in the final cut). One of the producers is Marc Danztker, a collaborator who got his PhD with long-time sage-grouse biologist and eminent behavioral ecologist Dr. Jack Bradbury. It was Marc who first set up a microphone array on a sage-grouse lek– he did so in order to measure the odd acoustic directionality of some parts of the sage-grouse display.

The crew of "The Sagebrush Sea" visit chicken camp (2014)

The program got a write-up on the Nature Conservancy’s blog Cool Green Science, written by none other than Lander biologist Holly Copeland. Holly has become a great friend to Chicken Camp. She and her husband both came out to help trap sage-grouse, and they’ve hosted our entire crew for a bbq for the past few years. Holly also does important work on land-use issues related to the sage-grouse and is currently on Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team tasked with revising sage-grouse protections using the best science available to help keep the birds’ populations as strong as possible and off of the endangered species list.


Mid-season Update

It’s March 31st, and as we trundle towards April, I realize how tardy I have been with general updates this year. Every season is a little different, and this one is throwing us some curves.

Nine Mile Hill shrouded in snow.

We saw our first copulation on our biggest lek, Cottontail Lek ten days ago (March 21st). This date is pretty normal. We’ve found one earlier (March 19th) in a couple of years, and later some other years. Usually once we see the first one, within a few days every lek is showing multiple copulations. Not this year! We got hit with a blast of really cold weather (lows around 10℉) as well as a few inches of snow.  The females seemed rethink their interest in the males, and it was several days later before we saw the next mating on any of the leks. So while the breeding season opened at a fairly average time, I think the season as a whole is going to be on the late side. On balance, I’m not sure if this will be good or bad for our work this year. The longer we have big groups of real females on the lek, the harder it will be to give our robotic females a private audience. On the other hand, the males may stay interested in courtship a little bit longer so we may not have the problem of the males just giving up at the end of the season the way they sometimes do. We’ll have to see what happens!

Two male sage-grouse battle in the fresh snow on Chugwater Lek.

Other challenges we’ve had to contend with are the incredible shrinking leks. Our initial impression from the first couple of weeks of the season seems to be correct– male attendance is down considerably from last year in our area. This may be due to the drought the Lander area is experiencing, at least there’s not an obvious other candidate for the decline. Our sage-grouse manager contacts have mentioned that the rough demographic analysis from hunting data suggested low recruitment (not many yearling birds taken compared to the number of adults).

To give you a sense of the change in abundance since we started the project here: Monument Lek, our main focal lek since 2006 when it had over 100 males, has dropped to under 10 birds and males are not staying as reliably on their territories. Anna has still gotten some playback experiments done, but Monument is right on the edge of being useful or not as one of our experimental leks.  We just showed the PBS Nature episode featuring our research (“What Females Want…”) as part of another outreach event down at the Lander Public Library. The footage was shot in 2007 when the male counts were an order of magnitude higher. The difference definitely makes us a little sad, and we are hoping this lek rebounds quickly as it has done in the past. Sue at the BLM told us that in the 80’s it was down to 4 birds, and later climbed back to over 100, so we hope this is another one of those cycles.

Shallow trenches prepared for laying microphone cables at Monument Lek. This lets us put microphones all over the lek, while keeping the cables underground. The speakers are for the playback experiment.

Otherwise we are in pretty good shape with most of our “normal” tasks. We have microphone arrays deployed on all three focal leks now, and have gotten several days of sound recording in.  We’ve also gotten at least one round of counts at our non-focal leks, to help the local sage-grouse managers monitor the grouse population in the district. The only things we are missing are the new robots (Gail is working on taxidermy aspects now, so those should be ready soon), and the encounternet telemetry tags. I say “only”, although those are definitely two very important pieces for our research goals this year and in the next couple of years!

Meeting Joe

One downside of an extended field season is missing many of the great visiting speakers that come through UC Davis. This week, the animal behavior graduate group welcomes Bernd Heinrich, a brilliant scientist and prolific author. I’ve read a couple of Bernd’s books on ravens, including Raven in Winter and Mind of the Raven, and was sad to have missed hearing more about his life and research.

However, this week I did get to meet another biologist that I have admired for a long time- Joe Hutto. Joe conducted an imprinting study of wild turkeys that I read early in my graduate career. I mentioned the book and movie adaptation in an earlier post. I recently learned that he lives in Lander, and was excited to meet up with him this spring.

As part of their month-long series of films for Earth Day, the Lander Public Library showed “My Life as a Turkey” on Thursday. After the showing, Joe got up and talked a little about the production of the film, and answered questions from the audience. I got to speak with him a little bit before and after the presentation. Joe was just as warm and thoughtful in person as he comes across in the books and movies. What a treat to finally get to meet him! We didn’t get to talk turkey very much, but I’ll be heading over to his place on Monday for a visit.

I also talked to a few people there about our sage-grouse work. The organizers of the film series were interested in having “What Females Want” (the PBS Nature show featuring our research) for next April.

Wild Turkeys on PBS Nature

My Life As a Turkey

PBS Nature: My Life As A Turkey

I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that PBS Nature was going to air a show on wild turkeys this month. I was absolutely blown over when I learned the program was to be an adaptation of a fantastic book: Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto.
This book is not a scientific book. It details the more than a year that the author spent imprinting and raising some wild turkeys. By raising, I don’t mean keeping in a pen- Mr. Hutto became a turkey mother to these chicks, and spent his days with them exploring the natural areas around his house. While he is not experimentally driven in the tradition of Lorenz or Heinrich, he is, if anything more detailed in his insights into young turkey social behavior and development. The book is beautifully written (and at least in my older edition, filled with great little sketches as well), and quite emotionally charged.
In many ways, the book was everything that my dissertation research was not. The first year of turkey social life is still a black box- we know that male display teams form very early on in life, potentially in the first few days after hatching, but we still have no direct observation of what goes on at this stage. This book’s focus on development in “natural” wild turkeys is the closest we’ve come to uncovering these mysteries.

The PBS Nature show is called My Life as a Turkey, and looks to be a well done re-enactment of things that happened in the book. I don’t know a lot of details, but it looks like they basically repeated the whole context, with an actor instead of the author, who imprints a new batch of turkeys. Check your local listings!