Thursday, September 1, 2016

Surveying the Laguna Division Conservation Area along the Lower Colorado River

Below is a guest post by Kaitlin Murphy, one of GBBO’s seasonal surveyors on the Lower Colorado River project.  Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kaitlin!

Dawn splashes amber light over the vertical stripes of marsh plants all around me, illuminating the intricately patterned bodies of two silhouettes in a dead cottonwood tree above my head. The silhouettes swivel their heads to look down at me. Razor claws gripping dead branches and golden eyes drooping with sleepiness, they perk up at the hoots of a distant neighboring pair. The male stands up on his perch, leans forward, almost as if he is going to somersault into the marsh, and puffs his white-feathered throat, letting out a low, booming answer. The female joins in with slightly higher-pitched hoots and few cranky yelps. Then they retreat into a huge thorny mesquite where they will doze in the shade until dusk falls and hunger draws them out again. Their nightly pursuits are written in the sand each morning.

If you've never spent much time in the desert, or especially if the only time you have spent is staring out the car window blasting down the interstate at 85mph, you might be tempted to believe there's nothing but a lifeless wasteland out there. Endless shades of brown – tawny sand, rust-tinged hills, dusty mountains carved by winding dry riverbeds, scraggly plants barely squeezing any green into the landscape. Aside from a few wheeling ravens, and ramshackle trailers that may or may not still be occupied by snowbirds, signs of life are slim. That is, until you pull your car over to the shoulder and step into a dry wash to relieve yourself (the nearest gas station still 80 miles away). The glaring sun keeps your eyes low, and scanning the cracked earth you discover a foreign language scrawled across the sand.

I'm standing knee-deep in a crystal clear marsh, but up beyond the bank is a sparse mesquite bosque, each sand-marooned shrub wreathed by tiny footprints – the paired dots of bouncing kangaroo rats, galloping four-paws of desert pocket mice and cottontails, patterned tick-marks of little grasshopper feet, and even the unusual squat-stamps of toads. The night crew of the desert. Alongside the pitter-patter, larger tracks trundle across the open sand, sometimes interrupted by dug holes and messy attacks– coyote, bobcat, raccoon, skunk, and Great Horned Owl. The owl tracks are unmistakable -  longer than my forefinger with two toes pointing forward, one pointing back, and one sticking straight out to the side. Owls are what ornithologists call zygodactyl – their inner front toe able to swivel to the back, maximizing the surface area of deadly talon potential during an aerial pounce. The sand here is so fine, I even found a full-spread wing imprint of an owl touching down. But wait, you say, do owls really walk on the ground? These ones apparently do, quite a lot, as evidenced by their sloppy gait traced across the dunes. By the time I arrive at dawn to survey for avian life, the authors of all these stories have tucked in to their burrows, tunnels, and hiding places under dense brush.

For the past 5 years, GBBO has been leading the breeding bird surveys along the Lower Colorado for what's called the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan. Through on-the-ground surveys and data analysis, GBBO documents the use of virgin, disturbed, and created riparian habitat by breeding and migratory birds. Each spring, GBBO sends out intrepid field crews to riparian plots around Yuma, Blythe, Lake Havasu City and Lake Mead to conduct area search and spot-mapping surveys of bird activity, with a focus on six of the more-imperiled passerine species. Other agencies and crews monitor endangered populations like Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Elf Owl. Then in the fall, GBBO conducts extensive vegetation surveys to link the bird data with environmental conditions. The analysis of this data contributes to current and future management plans.

And this is where I come in. This is my third spring season with GBBO's LCR crew. The first year I was hired, I was living in Maryland and looked forward to hiking among dry dunes and cacti. Contrarily, the LCR surveys are some of the wettest I've ever participated in! It's true, I've yet to be caught in a rainstorm. But with the intermittent water flows, I never know when I am going to be knee-, thigh-, or even chest-deep in marsh water. I've even had the pleasure of surveying by kayak!

Today, though, the marsh is lowering. Just a week ago, I was tip-toeing through a channel with my pack above my head. This season I am stationed in Yuma, Arizona to survey two big habitat creation projects: Yuma East Wetlands on the north-east edge of town, and Laguna Division Conservation Area (LDCA) about 20 miles upriver, straddling the California-Arizona border. Yuma East is older, with some nice big cottonwood stands, plenty of bird-life and even a resident bobcat. LDCA is brand new, a baby habitat growing up fast. In 2011, the tamarisk sea was bulldozed and re-graded to create winding channels, varied slopes for ecotones, and larger bowls of open water for wintering ducks and future recreational fishing. Water delivery and control systems were constructed to direct water in what are called “pulses”, from Imperial Dam at the north end and back to Laguna Dam at the south. The next season, marsh plants and tiny saplings were planted by these crazy machines that look like 4-driver tuktuks with a harvester on the back, but instead of harvesting, it inserts baby trees into the ground. With this new technology, the painstaking process of hand-planting trees has been reduced to 10% of the time and energy necessary.

By the time I arrived early April 2016, the marsh areas were fully grown and humming with the sewing-machine songs of Marsh Wrens, witchity-witchity of Common Yellow-throats, hilarious guffawing of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and terrifying growling of Great and Snowy egrets, White-faced Ibis, and Black-crowned Night Herons. Cormorants were sunbathing and an osprey was fishing from dead snags left purposefully by the dozer crews. A beaver slapped the water in warning and fish darted in the shallows. The trees are still young, some just reaching above my head. They were arranged in sweeping rows with willows lining the waterways, cottonwoods above them, and mesquite and desert riparian grasses on the drier islands. As I weave between the glowing deciduous leaves, the air is relatively quiet, except for the bombs going off in the hills to the east. On the other side of Mittry Lake lies Yuma Proving Ground, and often my “flyovers” category could include all manner of mechanical birds, not to mention paratroopers floating on the horizon.

The current lack of birds in the young “forest” is not in the least disheartening, though! In fact, all that photosynthesizing lends an excitement to the air, I can almost taste the potential in the wafting pollen. This habitat may be quiet now, but in a few years I can envision a winding row of towering cottonwoods ringing with Yellow Warblers and willow thickets so dense only small creatures seeking shelter can enter. If Yuma East Wetlands can be used as a gauge, the future is hopeful. Just across the highway from downtown, you can be transported into a wildlife wonderland. Bobcats, mule deer, Gambel's Quail, legions of lizards, even a few rattlesnakes dart among the well-crafted shrubland and forest plots. Marshy ponds harbor rails and herons, and flocks of thousands of migrating swallows roosting for the night The magic is only interrupted by winks of human design – concrete canals slicing through cottonwood groves, sputtering irrigation tubes winding around mesquites and shady burrows harboring squeaking ground squirrels. This sort of cyborg nature seems slightly disingenuous – wilderness on life-support – until you witness the results in blossoming biodiversity.  

As I sneak along the drying mud in LDCA, eyes scanning the ground for nighthawks, I see millions of mammal and heron tracks – the collective treading of animals over the past three years laid upon one another, never fully washed away by the gently rising and falling water levels. Signs that wildlife are already filtering in to this new opportunity. A barely-audible flickering tickles my right ear, and in my peripheral vision I catch the frantic flapping of a female Lesser Nighthawk. Her Oscar-worthy performance of broken wings and seizures momentarily draws my attention away from her two speckled eggs, laid directly on the sand. Their camouflage is impeccable, and if it weren't for the nighthawks' undying parental devotion, I would worry about accidentally stepping on them. The nocturnal birds spend all day shading their precious investments on exposed gravel bars, even bringing water from nearby sources in their breast feathers to sprinkle on eggs that could go from developing to sunny-side up in sizzling ground temperatures – sometimes up to 20 degrees hotter than Yuma's average triple-digit highs. I take a quick snapshot of the eggs and move on, careful not to leave a dead-end scent trail. Within seconds, the mother is back on her “nest” – more conceptual than practical, but it must work often enough!
Water is life on earth, but it is no more painstakingly obvious than in the desert. Parched by sun and wind, any bit of water effects the plants and animals for miles around. The humidity created by deciduous transpiration effects valley temperatures and weather patterns. A hundred miles upstream, the Colorado is fed by the Bill Williams River, one of the last remaining stands of riparian forest. It is now a Wildlife Refuge, and harbors thirty-four species of butterfly – eleven of which were historically common throughout the river system, but are now only found there. Even elusive creatures that spend most of their time on the dry ridges – bighorn sheep, mountain lion, and ravens – come down to the valleys and springs to fill their gullets with life-saving liquid.

Dams and irrigation have created a lot of opportunity for humans in the forms of agriculture, development, and energy. It's heartening to know that it’s possible to give back a little to the other residents of this verdant desert corridor. It takes a lot of work but it is proving to be worth every drop. I can't wait to come back in a few years and see the habitats all grown up!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

BioBlitz 2016 at Great Basin National Park

A few weekends ago, ten of us from GBBO, plus some friends, ventured out to Great Basin National Park for the 2016 BioBlitz where we engaged in a weekend of interesting talks, great people, and some fantastic birding. Most of us, even a few that have lived or worked in Nevada for years, have never actually visited the park, which is crazy because it is absolutely stunning! Mountains that spring out of the valley floor, low light pollution accentuating the starry sky, and the ability to escape into incredible, breathtaking landscapes and solitude. Even during a busy BioBlitz weekend, there were times I couldn’t hear the sound of another human being. I was told there are areas in the southern portion of the park where you can go and not see another person for days, even in the peak visiting season. The busiest area was probably Lehman Caves, and for good reason! It felt as though we were walking through King Triton’s castle (pardon the Little Mermaid reference) or some other subaquatic world. The tour guides were entertaining and kept the hour and a half tour interactive the entire time. The only negative was not getting a chance to see the endemic cave pseudoscorpion (Microcreagris grandis) rumored to be seen that day. The park hosts a BioBlitz every year, and previously had focused on invertebrates. This year, they decided to join other National Parks in a national birding BioBlitz to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service. The park service chose this particular weekend, May 20-22, because it coincided with the week of International Migratory Bird Day, National Citizen Scientist Day, Endangered Species Day, and the International Day for Biological Diversity. Busy week! This is just one of many things the National Park Service is doing to celebrate their 100 year birthday. If you want to find out more about it, you can check out their website:


Great Basin National Park happens to be a great place to have a birding BioBlitz with such a variety of habitats, ranging from the valley’s salt deserts, to dense sagebrush, bustling riparian zones, pinyon-juniper, coniferous forest, up to the alpine zone on Wheeler Peak! The park also lays claim to some of the oldest living trees in its three bristlecone pine groves. Elisabeth gave an informative talk the first night on the different birds that might be seen in the different habitats, and ways to identify them. Hers was the one of over a dozen engaging talks given over the weekend directed at birders of all skill levels, including live demonstrations of birds and reptiles. Participants had the opportunity to hone their bird whistling skills, learn the basics of identification, and practice avian illustration.

Of course the main activity of the weekend, at least for GBBO folks, was birding. The first night at camp we tracked down the singing Spotted and Green-tailed Towhees, and stood in awe at a Cassin’s Finch’s impressive mimicry. Also at camp were Black-headed Grosbeaks, MacGillivray’s Warblers, Warbling Vireos, American Dippers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Western Tanagers, Chipping Sparrows, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and a rafter of Wild Turkeys with poults. We listened for owls and Common Nighthawks, but the wind and rain made that difficult. There were scheduled birding tours in the mornings, and a few of us from GBBO led some of the groups. It was a great opportunity to explore the park and engage with other birders. The tours we led were beautiful; winding through aspen and coniferous forest with elements of sagebrush and pinyon-juniper communities. The first morning we had a layer of fresh snow that complemented the bright white trunks of aspen and accentuated their fresh green leaves. Mark Dorriesfield mentioned the snow was probably the highlight of his first tour, even with singing Virginia’s Warblers.

Tour leaders recorded all the birds seen and heard on their routes by all participants in an attempt to record as many of the species that occur in the park as possible. Some tours were more education-based, teaching the basics of bird identification and pointing out the different songs and calls of common species, while others were focused on data collection using point counts. Throughout the course of the weekend 1843 birds were recorded of 73 different species. The most common species included Mountain Chickadees, Cassin’s Finches, Pine Siskins, American Robins, and Clark’s Nutcrackers. These were seen or heard on nearly all the scheduled tours. There were a few species that really needed to be sought out, including Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Goshawk, Gray Flycatcher, Common Poorwill, and American Dippers. A full species list is included at the bottom, including order of abundance.

One of the greatest things about the BioBlitz was the variety of people that came out to participate. There were professional birders, beginning birders, birding photographers, and folks that knew nothing about birds, but were interesting in learning and interacting with their natural environment. It was impressive the number of young kids in attendance that had fantastic identification skills for their age and were excited to share that knowledge. I think everyone in attendance probably learned something new over the weekend, and got to enjoy the beauty of Great Basin National Park in the process. Thanks to Gretchen Baker and all the staff and volunteers at the park that put the event together. Here are some of the things GBBO folks enjoyed most about the weekend:

As mentioned, Mark said his highlights would include “seeing the Snake Creek Valley covered in freshly fallen snow on Saturday morning, getting amazing looks at a gorgeous adult dark morph Ferruginous Hawk on the drive in to Snake Creek Sunday morning, and seeing a young goshawk pursuing a Dusky Grouse along a ridgeline later that morning”.

Noah must have been on the same tour- “I loved the hikes with expert birders as well as meeting local people interested in birds and conservation. The variety of attendees made it a fun and educational experience. My favorite birds were the Goshawk and dark morph Ferruginous Hawk I was fortunate to see. A great weekend in an amazing landscape.”

And Grace added “I was so impressed by all the bird enthusiasm and knowledge of everyone there. That's the most bird talk I've ever experienced in one weekend!”

You can find pictures of the event on the national park website and on our facebook.  Below is the list of birds we recorded, along with their abundance rank.

- Kelly

Common Name
Abundance Rank
Dusky Grouse
Wild Turkey
Turkey Vulture
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Northern Goshawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Golden Eagle
Spotted Sandpiper
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Common Poorwill
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Red-naped Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Gray Flycatcher
Dusky Flycatcher
Gray Vireo
Plumbeous Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Steller's Jay
Western Scrub-Jay
Pinyon Jay
Clark's Nutcracker
Common Raven
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Juniper Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Dipper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Mountain Bluebird
Townsend's Solitaire
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Virginia's Warbler
MacGillivray's Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
Green-tailed Towhee
Spotted Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Brewer's Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole
Cassin's Finch
Pine Siskin
Lesser Goldfinch
Evening Grosbeak
Unknown Passerine

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Preparing for Another Spring along the Lower Colorado River

Kayak surveys at the Bill Williams NWR. Photo source: Dawn Fletcher

Great Basin Bird Observatory is gearing up for the 2016 field season, set to start in early April.  Typically our season begins a bit earlier in March, however, this year the entire crew is returning and these old pros will need significantly less training on our field protocols and bird identification.   We are lucky to have such a great crew returning, with many of the members on their fourth and fifth seasons with us, and one member returning for his seventh season. 

What keeps crew members coming back season after season?  One major draw to the project is our survey method, the area search and spot mapping method, which allows surveyors to spend time thoroughly scouring a survey area recorded all birds they see and/or hear and any evidence of breeding.  This method in particular gives surveyors an opportunity to intimately learn about the resident bird species on their survey plots. From these types of surveys a wealth of natural history information can be gained, such as onset of the breeding cycle, initiation of migration, and timing of the fledgling period, to name a few. 

Hammond’s flycatcher caught during mist netting birds volunteering on a BOR project. Photo source: L. Harter

Leopard lizard observed during surveys. Photo source: D. Fletcher
Throughout our surveys we have also documented many rare species of birds using the lower Colorado River and some even nesting, such as confirmed breeding of a Nutting’s flycatcher, the first breeding record for this species in the United States.  Each our surveyors record several rarities to our study area including nesting Tropical Kingbirds and Rufous-backed Robin.  In addition to observing lots of interesting species of birds, crew members have also seen a myriad of wildlife including mountain lions, bobcats, badgers, skunks, javelinas, beavers, coyotes, and several species of snakes and lizards. 

California Leaf-nosed Bat caught during mist netting bats volunteering on a Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) project. Photo source: Lauren Harter
Lastly, in addition to GBBO's monitoring project, there are several remarkable research projects occurring along the river, which our crew members have been able to volunteer on during their free time. These include mist netting and banding birds and bats, lowland leopard frog and Mexican garter snake surveys, and Elf owl, Cuckoo, Southwestern willow flycatcher and Marsh bird surveys.  We are so excited for the upcoming field season and grateful to have an awesome field crew that comes back year after year. 

Were you on the LCR field crew?  If so, tell us about your experience!  


Many days and nights spend birding together as a field crew. Field crew 2015 birding together at Lake Havasu.  Photo source: D. Fletcher

Water crossings are common during surveys. Photo source L. Harter