Further Adventures from Laketown

I’m sitting in our main trailer listening to the rain patter down. It is a rainy Sunday, and we are probably ½ of the way done with packing and clean up. Grouse season is over for us. Andre and Jessica have left for their next adventures, and we’ve literally pulled up stakes and folded our tents.


It was a fun and productive last week. We got a few days’ respite from precipitation and were able to squeeze in some last experiments for Ryane’s project. The crew also finished their last vegetation sampling day- against all odds they actually completed samples at all eight of our target leks. Gail and Holly Copeland continued their Sisyphean struggle to get useful noise regulations for sage-grouse habitat in place, and spent a day with some Red Desert Audubon folks teaching 4th graders about birds and what it’s like being a sage-grouse biologist.

Castle Garden Eaglet

On the fun side, we watched the sun set from the 360 panoramic view at Nine Mile Hill, made the annual pilgrimage to the petroglyph area at Castle Gardens in the Gas Hills, and watched The Sagebrush Sea on Stan’s giant TV while eating moose burgers and ice cream. It was an epic week for eating, as we also worked in a salmon chowder from Jessica’s cache of Alaskan salmon, dinner at Cowfish thanks to Ryane’s mother Patti (thanks Patti!), and the end-of-season ‘thank you’ dinner from Gail at Svilar’s in Hudson. And one last pan of my famous buttermilk biscuits too!

Cool folks in a cool room on a hot day


Cottontail remained an adventure until the end. Experiments on the left (west) side of the lek remained impossible due to the high water level. Even if we could rig Salt and Peppa to be amphibious, the birds in those areas were all forced from their territories. Many of them simply moved away from the water, and we found them squabbling for new territories above the water line. Others disappeared, and one banded male even showed up on the upper lek.

Sage-grouse contemplating his flooded territory

We got GPS points for the stakes we could get to, and even retrieving the stakes was a bit of an adventure!

Ryane wading out into the mucky water to retrieve our grid stakes and signs


The high water did lead to some interesting photo opportunities though!

Trailcams are blowing my mind!

Sunset, another time when the grouse may be courting!

I LOVE that I can still be surprised by the sage-grouse even after 10 years out here. Sometimes it is just a matter of luck, as in having a particularly wet spring and seeing Cottontail lek disappear under the rising waters of the reservoir at the far end of the valley.

Sometimes the surprise comes from a change in our perspective– in the tools we use to observe the birds and the questions we are asking. For example, we just watch birds on the lek in the morning. We know the birds typically arrive just as the eastern sky is starting to brighten, and hang out on the lek for some length of time depending on weather, number of females, etc. Then they go foraging. Our assumption was that very occasionally the birds come in at dusk, and we know that typically around the full moon males will congregate on the lek at night and potentially be displaying for much of the night (they often leave earlier in the morning at that time as if they’ve been working hard under the light of the moon). That pretty much sums up our somewhat naive understanding of the timing of sage-grouse lekking activity.

Trailcams allow monitoring around the clock in all kinds of weather

Thanks to five trailcams on loan from Tim Vosburgh, a biologist with the BLM office in Lander, we are now getting a much more systematic view of when males are present on the lek. We will need some time to go through all the thousands of photos we are getting, but we’ve found a few surprising things already:

Two males at Monument Lek already in a territorial dispute at 6PM

1)   Evening lek attendance can begin a lot earlier than we thought. We thought based on a couple of encounters with birds at dusk that males would not come in until well after the sun went down. Not so! We’ve had some really cloudy afternoons and have had males on before 6PM.

Almost all leks had displaying males after 8PM

2)   Evening lek attendance is very common. I just looked through a sample from about a week of activity from three leks, and I think males were present in the PM pretty much every day on each lek.

3)   (Pending more data) Evening lek activity seems pretty synchronized across leks. My suspicion before was that it might be driven by random attendance of a few males that would then spur more males to join. I was expecting to find patterns where one lek would be active and another would be empty. Based on my quick scan through the photos, I think males on leks may be pretty consistent in how they respond to environmental cues such as precipitation, wind, and cloud cover.

This is a very limited sample of leks right now, and mostly around the full moon. Hopefully next year we can start monitoring more leks and start at the beginning of the season.

And for fun, a couple of other lek visitors:

Wet, muddy April. Cottontail disappears!

Ryane dressed for mud

As long-time readers will know, weather is often one of the biggest challenges we face when conducting field studies of the sage-grouse. While a warm, sunny April is more pleasant for us to be watching the birds, it can be tough on the grouse and they tend to get tired and not as responsive. Moderate precip is good for the birds (especially survival and growth of the chicks), but our fembots can’t drive well in the mud and sometimes it limits our ability to even get out to the leks.


This April has been schizophrenic, bouncing between 70’s and snow practically every week. It can go from green

to white again in just a day or two.

This week we moved well past “moderate” on the precip scale. A few days with significant rain events, followed by 2 days of snow, have left Government Draw a green mucky mess. Nowhere was this more apparent than Cottontail lek. Set aside that the two-track in was practically a stream. Kira and Jessica showed us photos and videos depicting a lek half-under water. The land on the far left of the observation grid had been claimed by rising water levels. Ryane and I went down in the afternoon to set up a playback experiment for the next day under the assumption that the lake level would have receded somewhat by then. Oh no. Like the old Johnny Cash song, “three feet high and rising”. Some stakes at the front edge of the grid were completely under water, and it looked like dry land extended only a few meters from the sage!


There's a lek under there somewhere!

We had been warned about the possibility the entire lower lek might flood, and maybe Gail had even seen this in the 2000’s before Cottontail became a focal lek, but this far exceeds any water level we had seen since 2012.

It is fascinating to see Cottontail this way. Cottontail has a secondary lek center up on a hillside. It appears that extreme weather events push birds up there, and in drier weather with enough grouse they colonize the flat area we consider the “main lek”. These cycles of changing population numbers and disappearing territory must keep both lek areas active.

To add to the surprise, there were 30+ males fully fighting and displaying at a little after 6PM! (it was a gloomy afternoon, and there were hens on in the morning).

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>