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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...

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!