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Conservation at its best!

So this is going to be a quick one! This morning was exciting because I got to go out and do an aerial survey for sage-grouse! Conser...

Monday, July 14, 2014

A visit to Heart Mountain

Greater-Sage Grouse feather stuck to some sagebrush on a lek
with Heart Mountain in the background.
Photo credit Amy Pocewicz

One part of my research that is really neat is talking to and working with lots of different stakeholders in sage-grouse management. On any given day I might be working with or talking to development companies, biologists from consulting firms, wildlife biologists for the state and federal government, NGOs (Non-Governemental Organizations) like the Nature Conservancy, and most importantly landowners. (I already posted a blog about getting to go on aerial sage-grouse surveys...). Stakeholders are key to the success of conservation goals. Participation  and buy-in from stakeholders is the only way that large scale conservation can be successful. Also, information from these different stakeholders is valuable! These are the people who are most familiar with these places and the wildlife that are a part of their landscape.

The biggest challenge when working with such a diverse group can be finding common ground to stand on. Luckily in Wyoming you don't have to think hard to come up with common ground between sage-grouse conservation and landowners. Sage-grouse need large areas of sagebrush habitat and ranchers want to keep these large areas intact for grazing cattle.

A Heart Mountain Sunrise.
Photo credit: Amy Pocewicz
This past field season I got to work with an NGO that both does science and works with landowners and others to "protect nature, for people today and future generations"the Nature Conservancy. Four of the field sites that we visited this year were located on or close to the Heart Mountain Ranch, which is managed by the Nature Conservancy and ranch managers Brian and Carrie Peters. This land is managed for the public as a recreation area (you can hike to the top of heart mountain), for wildlife and for grazing cattle.

This lek was a fair distance from any road. So Kevin hiked 
out for presence-absence surveys and we all hiked out 
later to collect feathters.
One reason why I really like working with landowners and land managers is they often know better than anyone else where the birds are strutting and they often know the history of those leks and the general area. These observations are incredibly important! When it comes to my field work, it really helps to meet with these people if there is an opportunity. At Heart Mountain Ranch Brian Peters was kind enough to show us where these sites were, exactly where the birds were strutting, any recent count information, and the best way to get there. Finding these locations can take up a huge amount of time because you never know if the roads on the map are really there or what condition they might be in. Also, on occasion the location data is inaccurate; it can be a viewing point or an old lek location for years past. So it is invaluable when there is someone that can show you how to get to the site and where the birds are! Although, for some leks it doesn't matter; it's a nice hike in (above photo). But it is definitely worth it to collect data!!!

Amy collecting feathers!

Photo credit: Beth Fitzpatrick
The other exciting thing for this trip was that Amy Pocewicz, a TNC scientist and one of my committee members, came out in the field with me! As a committee member for my Ph.D. project Amy is one of my mentors and gives me critical feedback on my project, my plans, and how things are coming together. It is a huge bonus when your mentor is able to come out in the field because they can see how data collection on the ground is done. This is helpful because often the conditions in the field are very different then how you imagine it. Plus it is a bonus for Amy. One of the perks of being a committee member (go and play outside)!

So Amy was able to see what I do on a daily basis out in the field... what's that, you might ask??

Me searching for Greater Sage-Grouse sign

Photo credit: Amy Pocewicz
Well the first thing is to scout out the sites that you plan to see the next day. This helps to figure out if it is logistically possible to get to all sites within the allotted time. This is where Brian Peters was our hero! This year I did a good job of planning more sites than I could logistically go to in a morning. This was great because that meant if a spot was inaccessible for some reason I still had more than enough places to go to.

Next, if there is time, we will look for sign (feathers and scat) from birds at the sites, specifically the sites where birds have been observed recently. Depending on how many birds strut at that site, how much fighting goes on, how wind-swept the area is, that days weather conditions, and the type of vegetation will depend on how many feathers or scat can be found.

Measure ambient sound. Gotta make sure you stay still 
and don't sneeze!
Photo credit: Amy Pocewicz
Then it is break time until it is time to collect ambient sound data. So we relax, eat, and most importantly sleep. We did get up to collect ambient sound and the wind that night was right on the cusp of being too windy, so we went out. Unfortunately after taking several readings the measurements were bouncing around too much due to gusts of wind. The wind travels across the microphone and creates noise. So when the wind is gusty it artificially inflates the sound measurements unevenly across the time we are measuring. This means bad data and we don't collect bad data!!

 On a night that has good weather (no wind) we go to as many sites as possible to collect sound data. We have to stop about one hour before survey time because birds sometimes start congregating on the lek by that time (and if it is a full moon they are often there all night). We really try to not disturb the birds and really try to avoid flushing them (scaring them off the lek).

Looking for sage-grouse with heart mountain in the 
background. This particular site we did observe some
 males strutting!
Photo credit: Amy Pocewicz
So then at first daylight we are out at our first site to look for birds. If we find birds we count the males and females and then we head off to the next site. If we don't see any birds, we walk a 1 kilometer transect stopping at the 0 meter, 250 meter, 500 meter, 750 meter, and 1000 meter spots and listen for birds and we search for birds with binoculars at the 0, 500, and 1000 meter spots. The survey stops once we have spotted strutting males or once we have walked the complete transect and not observed any birds.

I see a lot of sunrises this time of year!

Amy and I did morning surveys together and she got to experience both a site with birds and a site without birds.

Kevin collecting feather data.

Photo credit: Amy Pocewicz
Once we are done with the morning surveys we met up with Kevin (he was off doing some surveys on a different portion of the ranch). If there were sites that we didn't find feathers the day before and we observed birds we will return to that site and collect feathers. That is what happened with two sites that Kevin visited. So we all worked together to collect feathers...

Overall this was an incredibly successful trip! Kevin, Amy,  and I collected a lot of data. I was able to spend some time with on of my committee members. AND I got to meet and talk to another stakeholder in the sage-grouse world and see what the Nature Conservancy does at Heart Mountain Ranch. Pretty cool!

Greater Sage-Grouse body feather. A large portion of the feathers we collect look like this
Photo credit: Amy Pocewicz

Greater Sage-Grouse primary feather. These feathers are great to find because they generally provide really good DNA samples. (Can you guess why?)
Photo credit: Amy Pocewicz

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Field stats: May

During May we had some weather that cut our time short, but we still got to see lots of cool stuff... and Greater Sage-Grouse, of course!! 

We went out for 8 days  in May and had some bad weather roll in around May 6th meaning that we were not out in the field as much as we had hoped. Even with this setback we were able to collect various types of data from 28 sites in both the Powder River Basin and Bighorn Basin

Went to 23 sites for presence absence surveys of which 12 had birds
collected genetic samples at 12 sites
collected ambient sound at 9 sites

Sound data was hard to get because this year has been pretty windy. It's Wyoming, I know, but at night you would be pretty surprised how much the wind dies down!

For the whole field season we did pretty awesome!!

We were out in the field for a total of 23 days.

We collected various types of data from 57 sites
We collected presence absence data at 47 sites
Collected genetic samples at 32 sites
and ambient sound data at 18 sites

My goal this season was to get genetic samples from 30 sites within my priority areas....

AND WE DID IT! **High Five**

A little blog hiatus

Well hello! I took a little hiatus on my blogging duties as things towards the end of my field season and back in Laramie got a little crazy. But don't fret! I have some field topics that I wanted to post on, give you guys a nice reflection of my three years in the field, and tell you about what is next. Just to give you a little teaser for my upcoming blogs, I will be talking about:

1. The last of my field stats

2. A field site on Nature Conservancy property (Heart Mountain) and visit from one of my committee members

3. Noise - why measure that?

4. A reflection on my Ph.D. field work (has it REALLY been three years already!).

5. Now what? (Hint: Pipettors, centrifuges, and thermocyclers.. OH MY!)

Thanks for staying with me!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Field stats: Week 2

During our second stint out we were in the field for 7 days (April 18th - April 24th). This time we helped out with some aerial surveys for sage-grouse that were being conducted in the Powder River Basin.

Collected various types of data at 12  sites in both the Powder River Basin and Bighorn Basin
Went to 11 sites for presence absence surveys of which 9 had birds
collected 92 samples at 8 sites (42 feather and 50 fecal samples)
collected ambient sound at 4 sites

Collecting feathers at a lek near oil and gas development

Here is a list of the wildlife we saw:
Greater Sage-Grouse (shocking.. I know)
Long-billed Curlew
American Avocet
Northern Shoveler
Canada Geese
Horned Lark
Western Meadow Lark
Short-eared Owl
American Robin
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Great Blue Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Bald Eagle
American Crow
Red-winged Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Golden Eagle
Cedar Waxwings (large group)
Common Grackle
Northern Flicker
Sandhill Cranes 
Black-billed Magpies
Cedar Waxwings
Strutting Greater Sage-Grouse

Mule Deer
White-tailed Deer
Cottontail Rabbit sp.
Yellow-bellied Marmot

Other cool stuff

Chorus frogs
Grasshoppers are out!
Indian Paintbrush
Flowers are starting to bloom!
Chorus Frog. This is a photo of a frog in 2011 in the Medicine 
Bow National Forest. I am unsure if this is a boreal or western 
chorus frog.

This picture of Indian Paintbrush was taken during my first 
field season (April 2012) on a morning with a dusting of snow

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Conservation at its best!

So this is going to be a quick one! This morning was exciting because I got to go out and do an aerial survey for sage-grouse!

Conservation at its best is when agencies, scientists, industry, and the public work together to manage a species. I think sage-grouse is a good example of an effort that spans several states with Wyoming leading the way. In the Powder River Basin environmental consulting firms, Wyoming Game and Fish, BLM, energy and extraction companies, and landowners are working together on an issue that can be very difficult. How do we manage a population and still develop? And there is no easy answer. But the only way this can be accomplished is if we work together. In the Powder River there is a lot of development and these groups have worked hard together to do lek surveys; both in the air and on the ground. In other words, they coordinate who is going where every year so that leks are not getting counted by multiple different people/groups (not an easy task!) Aerial surveys are used to see if a lek is active, find new leks, and just to survey hard to get to areas or areas with no ground access.

On the flight I tagged along with this morning we didn't see any birds but it was still really cool to see how we survey for sage-grouse from a plane! 

Pretty view

Coal mine

Field Stats

So just so you can get an idea of what I am doing.

Kevin collecting fecal samples at a lek.

We went out for 8 days (left Thursday and came back Thursday, April 3rd - April 10th)
Collected various types of data at 17 sites in both the Powder River Basin and Bighorn Basin
Went to 13 sites for presence absence surveys of which 9 had birds
collected 252 samples at 12 sites
collected ambient sound at 5 sites
Greater Sage-Grouse foot prints

Same foot prints with Kevin's hand for scale.

And saw lots of wildlife!
Greater Sage-Grouse
Green-winged Teal (maybe)
Rock Wren (Kevin saw this!)
American Kestrel
Bald Eagle
Golden Eagle (several juveniles)
Red-Tailed Hawk
Northern Harrier
Prairie Falcon
Western Meadowlark
Horned Lark
Western Meadowlark (I'm working on my camera skills..)

Mule Deer
Coyotes (only heard)
Cottontail Rabbits
Action shot of pronghorn running next to our vehicle
Happy camping!!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Greater Sage-Grouse are out!!

This is my third year and I still get exited every time I see male sage-grouse strutting on a lek (or breeding site). The males congregate early in the morning at locations that tend to be more open (less shrubs/sagebrush) than the surrounding area.

From far away it can be hard to tell if an area looks like a lek unless there are birds on it.
Photo credit: Beth Fitzpatrick, 2014.

Often roads are used as leks. Photo credit: Katie Zarn, 2012

 And they do a little dance on a small territory that they have claimed and will fight for that spot.
Photo Credit: Sage Grouse Initiative
 Males fan out their tail feathers and inflate and deflate two yellow air sacs. They use these air sacs to make a noise that sounds like a drop of water in an empty bucket. It is pretty amazing how loud that sound can be when there is no wind (when is there no wind in Wyoming? Some early mornings).

Peak season is when the most females and males attend the leks and that is occurring right now. The most females we saw was about 7 at one lek. So the females come to the lek, and check all the males out. They will all pick the same one or few males to breed with and then it is off to lay their eggs. And the males will continue to lek until about mid-May. If a females' nest fails (they aren't fertilized, eaten by predators, or the female abandons the nest for any reason) she may try to re-nest.

The females find a nice shrub, usually a sagebrush to nest under. They lay between 6 - 13 eggs. The chicks are precocial (which means that they are pretty self sufficient from the time they hatch).
Photo credit: Katie Zarn, 2012

They will stay with their mom or another adult female for most of the summer. When they are first hatched they eat a lot of insects and then slowly their diet changes to plant material... And you guessed it; they eat a lot of sagebrush!!

These are cool birds! They do some weird stuff and it is just neat to see. Watching wildlife perform natural behaviors is great and when you are outside long enough or a lot, you get a chance to see these behaviors. Sometimes you spy a creature before it notices you and you can observe unique behaviors. For birds, the males tend to be prettier and sing for the ladies and sage-grouse are no different. But they go above and beyond. It's like going to a dance. Except its a group of guys out on the dance floor and the girls watching by the sidelines to figure out who is the best dancer.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Made it to the field!

So this post is a long time coming! I made it safely to Hyattville, Wyoming about two weeks ago, my field technician Kevin arrived, and we had our first stint in the field! So, I have a lot to share. Instead of inundating you with one long post I am going to do several posts over the next couple days.

Let me introduce you to the field!
So here is our home base:
We are staying in a house on a ranch with another sage-grouse crew.

The goal this field season (my third) is to collect genetic samples (feathers, fecal, tissue from dead animals) in areas where I have data missing. I have collected A LOT of samples so far, but there are some locations within my study area that I have very few or no samples.

Where is my study area you ask? I am doing my research in the Bighorn and Powder River Basins
The Bighorn Basin is the left outline and the Powder River is the right outline. The colors represent landownership. White is privately owned land and the colors represent different state and federal ownerships (National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Wyoming State Lands, etc.)

Since my study area is so large I have a couple modes of transportation

The ATVs are useful to get around on rough roads and wet conditions. Plus, we can get to field sites faster and get to twice as many if we can split up.

Who is this we? This year I have someone helping me out!

This is Kevin! He will be helping with all my data collection in the field. He worked for another student in my adviser's lab last summer (https://sites.google.com/site/murphylabuwyo/meet-the-lab)

Oh, and the data that I'm collecting. Let me introduce you to that.

fecal samples:

I only collect the pellets

Photo credit: Katie Zarn

These samples come from Greater Sage-Grouse.

Alright, I think that is enough of an intro for now!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

To the field!!!

Hello and welcome to my blog!

I am off to the field on what might be my last field season for my Ph.D. project and so this will be a chronicle of my adventures.

Why do a blog now?
Well, as a University of Wyoming Science Posse Fellow I talk to middle and high school students in Wyoming about my research in ecology. Since I will be away all of April and half of May I wanted to share with everyone what I am up to as sort of a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what I think is the best part of my job!

If you have seen my career talk, you might remember this:

 So, this is the part that I think I do, except for me, it looks more like this:

I love this part of my job! I get to hike around the hills in Wyoming, see cool wildlife, watch Greater Sage-Grouse, camp, and just be outside. Most importantly, I hope the data that I collect while in the field will be helpful for wildlife biologists and land managers. So, tomorrow, I will drive from Laramie, WY to Hyattville, WY.

I will update this blog as often as I can (most likely, when I am at home base in Hyattville). See ya  in the field!