Under the Celestial Skies! The Farrago of Sage Grouse and Static Noise!
A large group of biologists were to meet outside of Mansfield, Washington to take part in a special event on a Thursday night. The Department of Fish and Wildlife, with the BLM, were on a mission to capture, tag, and install a small monitor on many sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in the area. The goal was to work the entire evening and capture sage grouse from three different leks sites that were detected via aerial images. Capturing males in these leks sites and attaching these monitor backpacks would help give insight into their migration patterns within the area and provide intelligence on their activities.
Our boss asked Jenny and I if we were interested in helping out with this sage grouse project. We definitely said yes!!! Thursday night, we met with some wildlife biologists from the DFW and drove north to an area that was known for lek sites! We gathered by a solitary building in the middle of nowhere and were given the rundown of how we would accomplish the mission for tonight. We were separated into two groups and were given bags, boxes, nets, lights, and kitty litter. Our group was assigned to go to the Duffy Creek/ Badger Mountain area to look for male sage grouse.
This was the best night to do this!! There was no wind, the temperature was perfect, and there were no clouds. The best part was the light show to the North. There were Aurora borealis (northern lights) to the magnetic north!! They formed in a green hue that eventually led to the development of green spikes shooting up through the atmosphere! There were many shooting stars that were streaking by, you could easily have made hundreds of wishes. The Milky Way Galaxy was so bright, it was hard to see the constellations due to the overabundance of stars in the area!! Pretty ideal conditions to look for the Greater Sage Grouse!
As we made our way out into the field, one of the wildlife biologist turned on a static white sound device. It made a couple booming laser sounds and continued with pure static noise to mask our steps. We moved in a group of five people. The spotter was the only person with the light that looked for the sage grouse. There were two netters on either side, who followed closely. We (CLM interns) were the flank of the group that held the bags that carried the sage grouse once caught. We followed the aerial GPS imagery to the lek sites. When the wildlife biologist found a few sage grouse, she would strobe the light making the sage grouse confused. With the loud static noise with the flashing lights, the sage grouse would have no clue what would be going on, so they would just stand there. The netters and the spotter would get within ten feet of the sage grouse and try to capture it before it flies away.
There were many failed attempts at capturing the sage grouse this evening. They were pretty spooked and probably had a clue of what was going on. I mean, if I was a sage grouse and a saw a massive flashing light from the sky and I heard a large “KKKAAAAAAAAAA” sound, I would fly immediately away from the UFO. I would not want to be abducted! We did catch a few sage grouse! We had to release one, because it did not reach expectations compared to other males the biologists wanted. (I named this sage grouse Snicker Jim.) One time the static sound turned off right when the biologists were about to capture a few. The hypnotic trance was broken and the sage grouse flew everywhere in a great panic. They flew right to the other side of the fence on private property.
We took the sage grouse known as Ralph the Sage Grouse (Jenny named this one) to a meeting point with the other biologist for processing. Ralph was measured thoroughly and he got his own solar powered monitoring backpack to wear! Ralph was a little freaked out, but it looked like he was fine after a while. He did do some wheezing and puffing out of the chest. We released Ralph later to join his bird brethren at the lek site. This evening was truly amazing and it would be an experience I would never forget. Especially with all of the northern lights, meteorites, and sage grouse!!…..oh? You must be wondering why we brought kitty litter along with us? To transport the sage grouse, we would put them in a special box. They would relieve themselves a lot during the transportation process, so we would put kitty litter at the bottom of the box to negate the poop factor. 😉
Go Get the Buns!
After all the excitement with the sage grouse, we were given another opportunity to work with a rare animal species. Jenny and I were supposed to help the Department of Fish and Wildlife with Pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) collections! These were one of the rare animals on the BLM’s list to monitor, so we decided to help the DFW to become more familiar with this species of mammal! These rabbits were extraordinarily cute! They were very small and could fit in the palms of your hands. They really do not bite and they have no visible tail unlike their rabbit relatives. They could be found in sagebrush areas that have undulating topography. They like to nest under various sagebrush within small hills. These creatures were endangered and many of the local scientists were developing breeding programs to boost the population.
When we got to the area, we saw a massive ten acre enclosure surrounded by high fencing. It reminded me of Jurassic Park a little, but instead of dinosaurs, there were little rabbits hopping everywhere. There were many small hills in the area with food, water, rabbit hotels, and artificial tubing that served as a home. High population density areas were covered with black netting to prevent anything from the sky to enter. Next to the enclosure was the rabbit breeding area, where they would introduce younger rabbits to go breed. We were supposed to catch baby pygmy rabbits and collect DNA samples from them.
We had three different ways of capturing these little bunnies. One way was to check the black tubes laying on the ground for possible residents. If there was one or two rabbits in the tubing, we would empty the tube into a pillow bag for DNA sample processing. The second way was to take a pillow case and put it on one end of an artificial home tube and put a tennis ball with a plumber wire in the other end. The ball/ wire would seem like a weasel to the rabbits, so they would run out of the hole into the pillow case. (This part really scared me, because you did not know when they would come, plus you would find snakes sometimes.) In order to do this, we would have to crawl underneath the black lattice netting to these homes. We would be crawling on ant hills, rabbit poop, sagebrush, and more rabbit poop to get to their artificial homes. The third technique was to set out traps for them by their holes. All of the above techniques worked!
(Note: The bunnies were not hurt during the trapping process. They were actually calm and sometimes were eating sagebrush when we found them.)
We had to process all of the rabbits we caught. You had to hold them a special way while they were sexed, weighed, and cleaned with flea medicine. The scientists also collected a small tissue sample from the ear. We caught baby rabbits along with adults. They were separated into different bins that would be marked for release or breeding. Some of the adults we caught would be introduced near the enclosure in the wild. We would take a mating pair of rabbits per person and go to different locations in the wild where there were artificial homes prepared for them. We would release them with some food and head back to the truck at the end of the day! This experience was amazing and hopefully there would be many opportunities to help out in the future!!!
Where Are You, Golden Eagle??
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) monitoring had been going smoothly even though we were monitoring during an inactive nesting period of the eagle’s life cycle. (This is when the eagles would not move much, making them hard to see.) We have encountered many nest sites and some of them had actual eagle pairs!! Golden Eagles have a territory of two miles around the nest site, so we would go to a historic site and look for nests along the cliff sides. If we do not find the nests within ten minutes we would scan other areas within the habitat for potential nesting sites. We would wait about an hour at each site before we moved on. Some nest sites have two adults and other sites would have an adult and sub-adult. If there was a sub adult with a breeding adult, that means conditions were dire and one of the previous mates died, so the adult had to take in a younger, inexperienced adult as a mate.
Most of these nests sites were found on granitic hills, basaltic coulees, and areas with very steep topography. We would look at the benches and tiers within the rock structures for nests. Some of these nests were just about impossible to find until you see a golden eagle flying to it. Their nests varied from massive cups the size of a person to a few sticks placed on the cliff side. When looking at a site with historical nests, we would find more than two nests lying around in the area. Sometimes the eagles make multiple nests before choosing one to settle in. In the Yakima Canyon, we would find many nests in this one location named Pomona. This area had ideal nesting locations with many chukar (Alectoris chukar), bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), and rock doves (Columba livia) nearby. The Douglas Creek site had a very long history of breeding eagle pairs, and you could find many old and new nests on the cliffs. One of the nesting sites that surprised us was Bridgeport. We found the nest right away, but we did not find any eagles. There was a huge nest with two smaller nests. Due to the lighting, we could not get a good view, but we assumed the eagle could be in the large nest. When we came back to the site, we found a golden eagle, but she was sitting in one of the smaller nests that we just passed by, because we assumed they would be in larger nests. (That was a learning experience after that incident.) We will continue doing golden eagle surveys into May. Now, we will be heading north to Oroville to look for golden eagles near the Canada border! I am pretty excited about that!
Find the Golden Eagle Nest!!!
Have a great day, everyone!!!! Keep up the good work and adventures!
Wenatchee, WA BLM
Excellent pictures Justin! Keep ’em coming. I especially like the Pygmy Rabbit one!