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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

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