Monday, September 21, 2015

The Lower Colorado River Project, 2015

On a cool March morning in Lake Havasu City, a trickle of biologists in khaki pants and button-up shirts began very slowly to converge on a hill at the north end of the practice plot for the Lower Colorado River Riparian Bird surveys. The team of 14 had spent the morning in pairs, brushing up on their bird territory mapping, discussing flight calls of Lucy’s Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows, and sharing tips and tricks picked up in past years. Nearly all of the team consisted of returning crew members, and even the “newbies” had worked in the area before. At the little hill at the north end of the plot, an Arizona Bell’s Vireo was singing its burry, rambling song. Pencils scratched on plot maps, and clipboards were exchanged as the surveyors compared their distance estimates for this focal species.

Wrapping up the practice survey on the hill. Photo by Dawn Fletcher

Once everyone felt good with their practice survey, the group hiked down to the big set of hills by the lake, where wildflowers were abundant with the spring rain, and Ajo lilies were sprouting up like grass. The khaki army lined up at the top of the hill for a group photo, quickly adopting our goofiest poses; this field season was feeling like a reunion that would run for three months, through mosquitos and tamarisk swamps, cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sunrises, snakes, singing coyotes, and of course, birds!

The khaki army.  Photo by Amy Leist
Since we had such an experienced team this year, we were able to cut down somewhat on training and focus more on trail clearing, which would be beneficial since we had some tough plots to cover! Our 80 systemwide plots are selected randomly every year, stretching from Hoover Dam to the international border with Mexico. Our early season trail clearing and scouting efforts ensure that the surveyor will have access to survey each plot. For some areas, this just means driving out on farm roads and writing up directions. Other times, we’ve been known to spend two days on a plot with the entire crew clearing!

Comparing notes after a practice survey on the Bill Williams River.  Photo by Dawn Fletcher
Our days in Lake Havasu City seemed to fly by, except for a select few thick tamarisk plots on Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, and some memorable days clearing and hiking on the Bill Williams River, where we spent most of our clearing effort. We even checked out an area of the latter where GBBO hadn’t ventured in years, a beautiful riparian strip at the end of Johnson Ranch Road. Soon, though, we were headed to Imperial National Wildlife Refuge north of Yuma, where we had more plots than usual, and they tend to be nasty ones. The first day lived up to expectations, with some members of the team wondering if they’d be eaten first by the swamp or by the clouds of mosquitos! With the latter disturbing the peace even at our usually pleasant campsite, there was some will among the crew to push hard and finish up the Yuma plots in two days. To their credit, these rubber-booted pioneers managed to work hard through two days and finished all the plots well ahead of schedule! This left us plenty of time to relax next to the river at our Blythe field house and knock off the last few plots in Blythe, mostly blissfully simple ag fields (but with one very difficult plot reminding us that it couldn’t be that easy!).

Scouting at Imperial NWR. Photo by Dawn Fletcher

Tamarisk forest at Imperial NWR.  Photo by Lauren Harter

Finishing up a day at Imperial with scouting two kayak plots on the Colorado River and Martinez Lake.  Photo by Dawn Fletcher
The Bill Williams River at the end of Johnson Ranch Road. A beautiful day to be scouting plots! Photo by Lauren Harter

With training and trail clearing finished comes the time to divide up into our three field houses, in Havasu, Blythe, and Yuma. This is always a bittersweet time, knowing that we won’t be all together again until the end of season party. At the same time, everyone was eager to start finding birds, and more than a few were ready for their own rooms and beds!
In addition to the usual bird-filled Bill Williams surveys and scattered tamarisk-and-arrowweed surveys elsewhere, the Havasu crew surveyed an area south of Needles that is soon to be restored into a backwater for native fishes by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). It’s not much now, mostly sand dunes with pockets of, well, tamarisk and arrowweed, but it will be exciting to see the place transformed into a vibrant marsh lined with native trees.

Lesser Nighthawk chick. Photo by Lauren Harter
The Blythe crew spends most of their time in the cottonwood-willow-mesquite forests that have already been planted by the BOR in that area. While many of those surveys are quieter than native habitats, one benefit of surveying in Blythe is getting to watch the birds go about their breeding season. The Blythe crew diligently studied calls, behaviors, and nests of their breeding birds whenever they could, for their own learning and to share their knowledge with the rest of the team. Many times the other crews will turn to the “Blythers” when they have a question, like this strange squeaking call made by a female Blue Grosbeak, actually a call soliciting copulation! Video by Jarrod Swackhamer.

As for the two-person Yuma crew, they surveyed a wide variety of plots, from created habitat at Yuma East Wetlands, to desert washes and quiet agricultural fields, to those impossible flooded tamarisk forests at Imperial NWR (which were also full of birds!). That area also had a good number of kayak plots this season. Kayak plots are often difficult but very rewarding, a morning’s adventure out on the water with the air full of the chatter of Marsh Wrens and the clacks and hoots of Least Bitterns. One morning in the marsh, Andrew was watching a few migrant Wilson’s Warblers foraging on a floating weed mat. Suddenly a huge carp burst out of the water, and a warbler at the edge of the mat disappeared, swallowed by the big fish!

Wilson's Warbler.  Photo by David Vander Pluym
A Great Horned Owl seen on a kayak survey. Photo by Lauren Harter

A Yuma-area plot at Picacho State Recreation Area.  Photo by Lauren Harter
Once surveys get started, everything turns into a blur of birds, maps, colored pencils, and computer screens. Long days of data cause more fatigue than 2:30 a.m. alarm clocks, and occasionally the well-oiled machine gets caught up on a flat tire, a forgotten gate key, or a stick in the road managing to break the truck. But when the sun is rising at 5:45, the cool breeze is playing in the cottonwood leaves, and you’re all alone with the trees, the water, the desert, and your birds, nothing else seems to matter. We’d like to express our appreciation and admiration to our surveyors who have faced these challenges year after year and keep coming back, because where would the LCR Project be without its amazing crew members?

- Lauren

The Crew.  Photo by Amy Leist.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Nevada Bird Count 2015, The Wrap-Up, Part 3

I wrote up some of the crews’ highlights in Part 1 and Part 2 – here’s the final installment!

Ned wrote:

I had an amazing time this summer doing the NBC.  My first impression was great; it was awesome to have a solid crew of smart, friendly birders.  All season long I felt that there was great comradery and we all had a great time sharing adventure stories.  It still feels like just a few days ago when we first pulled up to the Mormon Mesa and Moapa.  That place was unlike anything I had seen before and really struck me. All season long I was seeing new places and being blown away by the variety of landscapes Nevada has to offer.  Time flew by and I was a little sad when it was over.  My favorite moments were definitely during our group camp in the Toiyabe.  There was just something intangible and incredibly special about that place. Having everyone together for a campfire really brought everything in.  Then in the morning when we all set off on our birding missions, I felt like we were a birding army, taking the Toiyabe by force, each with our own personal mission.  

Jeff wrote:

Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge on Pyramid Lake stands out as one of my favorite places visited on the Nevada Bird Count this season.   Approaching the lake provides a view of the conspicuous, pointed cone or pyramid shaped tufa mound, for which the lake is named.  Anaho Island and much of the surrounding landscape is composed of these tufa formations, a type of limestone that was created underwater over thousands of years.  Due to permit regulations, few people are allowed to set foot on the island in an attempt to protect colonies of breeding birds that call this place home.  Without a fear of humans or predators, many of the birds are extremely inquisitive hopping within a few feet for a closer look at the intruders.  Access is possible only by boat and conducting surveys while hiking across the island yielded a variety of grebes, terns, herons, wrens, and one of the two largest America white pelicans colonies in the west.  Large numbers of spiders litter the rocks and due to the remote habitat and lack of predators a high concentration of rattlesnakes slither about.  Exploring Anaho Island and observing its inhabitants was only one of many unique and memorable experiences this summer.

And Bobby’s highlight was one of mine as well – but his take is much more fun!

Four Birds in a Hollow House

When camping in the Toiyabes
I came across a single tree.
All bark of white and spindled stem
An aspen quaking in the wind.

Upon first glance 
It did withhold
A secret which would soon unfold.

Creeping closer, what caught my eye
A cavity not six feet high. 
And from within the tireless bleet
Of nestlings with a need to eat.

Then from behind as I did gape, 
A sapsucker with bright red nape,
Alit upon the holed trunk,
And filled their gullets up with gunk.

Looking down and to the right
My eyes met with a troglodyte,
A brown and striped little wren
Conveying bugs into its den.

Two birds, one tree
How could it be?!
Surely there cannot be three!

But as I swiveled round the side,
Into a cleft a bird did glide!
What graceful flyer had I seen?
A swallow cast in violet green!

I stood in wonder marveling
At all the birds within the rings,
That this one tree of frosty white
Could be the home to so much life.

And as my mind began to drift,
I noticed yet another rift,
A largish hole at height of chest, 
Yet seemingly an empty nest.

Ah! But of course a head did rise 
To my now dwindling surprise,
All grayish brown and pink gaped frown
A baby Flicker stared me down.

All this action certainly 
Had roused its curiosity. 
Its showing made a full account 
Of four birds in a hollow house. 

So if you're tromping through the trees 
By foot, by bike or even skis,  
Be mindful of each darkened niche  
And what its tenant has to teach.

Thanks again to all of my crew this year – I so appreciate all your hard work and great attitudes!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Nevada Bird Count 2015, the Wrap-Up, Part 2


Continuing with crew highlights from their season, Dan wrote:

While Ned and I were in Tahoe our first weekend, I hiked around an area of upper Truckee river road near south lake Tahoe. It was chilly, early in the morning, so decided to scope out some trees and see what birds were around.  While walking through a small patch of aspen trees, I spotted a tiny lump on a branch. Upon closer inspection I found it to be a northern pygmy owl tearing the head off a lizard almost twice the length of itself! I was able to watch it for almost a good hour while it sat and stared at me, gnawing occasionally on the dismembered lizard.   To top it off, it also was a life bird for me, so it was really neat to have seen it up close.

Looking back on it, I suppose I should have woken Ned up to see it, but he just looked too comfy sleeping in his hammock. Oh well. You snooze, you lose!

Alan shared:

For me one of the distinctive feature of this field season was being in an area with so many of the "classic" breeding birds of North America. In Florida we don't have many of the most iconic North American species staying to breed. Some of these species include Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers, Chipping Sparrows and American Robins. Most of my other field jobs have also been fairly far south and have lacked these species as breeders or only had them in small numbers. I enjoyed finally being able to see so many of these "normal" birds on their breeding grounds. 

Mark finished:

One thing that has always been on my birding bucket list was to find an active Northern Goshawk nest. While most raptors don’t like it when people wander too close to their nest, goshawks are known to be particularly aggressive, causing the interloper to duck to avoid getting a pair of talons to the scalp. Whether a wise wish or not, I got to check off this experience in the Toiyabes at the end of the field season.     
I was finishing my loop of scouting an atlas square for the next morning’s survey, making my way down the hillside towards the woods, when I heard the unmistakable, loud, “keek keek keek” of a goshawk. Scanning around I then saw the bird, an adult, flying out of the trees and coming straight for me! It passed over fairly high and landed in the trees behind me, still screaming. I had only seen adult goshawks a few times before and was really excited to get such a great view! But even better, with this one so agitated I knew immediately what it meant and started exploring the woods for their nest. During my search the bird, a male, continued to make passes at me. Most of which were high enough to avoid too much worry (but still enough to keep me on my toes), but one was too close for comfort and I ducked to avoid him. I eventually found a nest with the larger female perched nearby, but could not see anything in the nest. Since it was late in the season it seemed likely the young had fledged, but I was surprised that the adults were still defending the area.

Upon returning to camp I discovered that other members of the crew had seen a young goshawk near 2 empty nests on either side of a trail nearby. So the goshawks had been successful, and must have been defending the area where their young were hanging out. 

The next morning I headed back to the square for my survey, and followed the trail carefully towards the nests. Once I got close, the male immediately started calling again and made a few passes over me. Like the day before, the female was sitting near one of the nests, and as I got close she flew towards me as well. It was the only time she did, but she made it a good one, and I had to drop to my knees to avoid her. The male then escorted me on my way, screaming the whole time, until he felt I was more than far enough from their territory. The rest of the morning was very productive, and I found many other confirmed breeders as I wandered back and forth across the square. But any time those wanderings brought me within about 150m of the nest site, it wasn’t long before I would hear the screams of the male as he came to let me know my presence was unwanted.

It was a real privilege to such a close encounter with these incredible predators, and definitely one of the highlights of my season with the NBC.