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.

“Swish” Paper out!

The paper on the sage-grouse mechanical sounds led by Rebecca Koch is now out in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances. Becca was one of our star undergrads, and the manuscript stemmed from her honors thesis in the lab. She is now a graduate student with Goeff Hill at Auburn University. The paper was published open access, meaning anyone can download the paper without needing a personal or institutional subscription to the journal. There’s also a nice editorial write-up by the journal.

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.

NSF grant in, NAOC poster done

A brief mid-summer update- it has been a busy few weeks after getting back from my Wyoming/Colorado trip at the beginning of July. Aside from the usual manuscript reviews and progress on our own manuscripts, a couple of noteworthy things to check off:

Gail, Anna, and I submitted our latest NSF grant that would fund another 3 years of work on the sage-grouse. We brought on another collaborator: Jennifer Forbey is a professor at Boise State University in Idaho, and is an expert in herbivore/plant dynamics, particularly the importance of nutritional content and plant-produced toxins. With Jennifer on board, we will have a much stronger foraging component to our examination of off-lek behaviors of the grouse (in other words, what they are doing the other 20 hours of the day when they are not courting and fighting on the lek ). I feel like I usually do after writing one of these: exhausted but excited.

I also just finished making a poster for the North American Ornithological Congress meeting next week in Vancouver. I’ll be presenting some new analyses on the lateralization in behavior. Last year I presented on a similar topic at the Animal Behavior meetings, but I didn’t have much time to put together something (I was originally going to present our mechanical sound (i.e. “swish” project), but Becca was able to present this work herself, so I switched to the lateral bias analysis at the moment. This year it was still a rush, but I think we ended up with analyses that better link the existing literature on lateral biases to our own data, and hopefully have results that are pretty close to what will end up in the eventual publications.

The second Summer Session started this week in Davis, so I’m meeting with a few new prospective undergraduate researchers. We’ve made a lot of progress so far this summer- we’ve almost finished measuring mating success from our 2012 Chugwater Lek tapes and have started the Monument Lek mating success tapes. Marty, our summer program intern, has even gotten into the 2012 robot experiment tapes. It’s never good practice to get too excited over preliminary results from partially-collected data, but it does look really encouraging so far (his data look at whether males treated the “coy/disinterested” and “interested” behaviors of the fembot differently). We are also almost done with a sample of display behavior measures from the 2011 season- this will add to our understanding of males who were tested in the “environmental responsiveness” playback experiment in 2011.

Sonation Station

A male sage-grouse "plucks" rows of specialized feathers to make sound

We care a lot about the sounds that sage-grouse make here in the Patricelli lab. Much of our effort has been in understanding how males make the bizarre collection of noises they use on the lek, what do those sounds mean for females, and how do human noise impacts affect wildlife. Among the sounds we’ve become increasingly interested in are the “swish” notes that introduce the rest of the display. These notes are made by the male rubbing his wings against specialized breast feathers, creating sounds that is reminiscent of walking in noisy corduroy pants. Looking at the spectrogram on the computer, the swishes are fairly broadband, but with surprisingly concentrated and variable frequency structure within the broadband noise. You can hear this noise in some of our videos (for example: here, here, and here).

Sage-grouse certainly are not the only kind of animal to make noises by rubbing two parts of their body together, nor it turns out, even the only one to vary the frequency of these mechanically produced sonations. Natasha Mhatre and colleagues recently reported that tree crickets can adjust the resonance frequency of their chirping stridulations.Their wings have multiple natural vibrational modes, and the crickets have the ability to shift the frequency at which the wings are vibrating. This ability to adjust must make for a much more complicated courtship process, since females may not be able to use the simple rule “lower frequency = bigger, better male”.

Many bird species also make sounds with their feathers. One of our collaborators on our sage-grouse work, Kim Bostwick, a curator at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, also works on manakin species that make sounds by rubbing or hitting their wings together. It is a really interesting system, since the relationships between these birds are known, and it is possible to see how these really specialized behaviors and structures have evolved. She recently published on some of the skeletal specializations that these birds have. She is also putting together a really beautiful website that explains her work on these birds. I hope you will check it out: