Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Birds of No Man's Land

Over the weekend of September 7-9th, I had the extraordinary pleasure of venturing into Yellowstone National Park with the Advanced Field Research class of Rocky Mountain College. What made this trip unique to me is that I have already taken this class. This round I was joining as part of a larger effort made by Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society. A major effort of the YVAS has been to set up monitoring stations for species, primarily birds (after all, it is the Audubon Society), along the amazing Yellowstone River. So what what better place to include than where it begins? I couldn't agree more. I've always been interested in the details of nature and the interconnectedness. But in that moment, when I first saw the begginings of the Yellowstone River. I could only take in the landscape. It was so magnificent and overwhelming and pure that all I could do was let it take me over. It was one of those moments that reaffirms why you love the things you do. This reminded me why I want a career in the environmental sciences. Anyway, back to reality. The YVAS has worked to establish several points along the Yellowstone River.  We now have data from the Yellowstone River at the Montana-Dakota Border, Isaac Homestead WMA, Two Moon Park, Grey Bear Fishing Access and the newest addition...the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.
Headwaters of the Yellowstone River in all of its majesty
I would encourage you to click on each of these pictures to see their full size. I am sad to say that pictures do not do it justice, but I did my best.

Mornings on Yellowstone Lake
This effort by the Yellowstone Valley Audubon is spectacular. Think about it, how many organizations do you know that have made a concerted effort and commitment to pursuing the preservation of an ENTIRE river through the continual monitoring of species over time. What is striking to me is the size of the group and what they're doing. On average, the YVAS meetings I have attended have roughly 50 to 60 people. Some contribute more than others, but in every sense they all contribute. If you ever think you can't do something because you are too are dead wrong. This is a group of people driven but pure passion and look what they can do when they harness that. It's incredible.  This is what the natural sciences need; people who don't count costs to pursue what matters most to them.  This is not work to them, it is joy.   Most study areas anymore never exceed county boundaries it seems like and yet here they are studying hundreds of miles of river. I am beyond impressed. I am sincerely glad that I have chosen to intern with the YVAS.

The birds. Oh the birds. They were spectacular.  What I saw was something special. What first stood out to me was how many American White Pelicans were soaring over Yellowstone Lake as we canoed towards our destination. As we started crossing the open waters I noticed a large white blur off to the East. What I was seeing was Molly Island. What makes Molly Island special is that it is one of the few remaining breeding grounds for American White Pelicans.  That was a special thing. I am in one of the most remote places of the lower 48 and here is place that is vital to the pelicans.  Later on that day when we had been at camp for some time I heard a call that I have only ever heard once before and right away I knew it was something special. Trumpeter Swans.  While I was never able to get close to them, this population of Trumpeter Swans was unique. It is one of the last resident populations.  Most swans are only here for a portion of the year but this birds endure the harsh seasons that Yellowstone National Park can produce. Among the other birds was a flock of probably 2500 American Coots, a number of raptors including Coopers Hawks, several Red-tailed Hawks, an Osprey chick, and several Bald Eagles.

The Bald Eagles were amazing both in their beauty and what they represent.  As you all know, they are a symbol of freedom to the United States.  As I look back on when they flew by me on the shores of Yellowstone Lake I know they were more than just birds to me.  I've been feeding an idea lately.  We are very blessed to live in a country that we can argue about nature.  Obviously, not every decision made regarding the environment is going to please everyone, but isn't it amazing we can discuss environmental problems? In some countries with a more command and control style that is simply not an option.  But here we can work towards the preservation of the places that mean the most to us.  And so here I am standing on the shores of a lake in one of the most federally protected lands in the United States and a Bald Eagle flies by.  Again, I just had to take it in and treasure that moment.
Heading towards the headwaters

I want to publicly thank those that have been involved both with my internship and with the osprey research project.  There is a huge list of people to thank. Steve Regele, Kayhan Ostovar, Lucas Ward, Emily Ward, Marco Restani, and Monty Sullins have all been monumental in making a dream come true.  There are many more from power company employees to city government officials to citizen scientists.  Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be where I am at today. Thank you!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hard Parts of the Job

Working with osprey is not always a walk in the park. 95% of the time it is a blast but there are difficult days. Today was one of those days. An osprey chick was caught in the bailing twine at the nest at Western Sugar (the sugar beet factory). I want to start off saying how thankful I am for the great employees at Western Sugar. From the management to the main staff. These people genuinely care about the osprey that are on their property. I have personally met the manager and he has a solid history and care for wildlife. Today they went above and beyond the call of duty. They were very quick to notice that something was wrong with the osprey at their nest. The employees quickly notified management who in turn called Marco R., the bird bander for the osprey project, and Marco was on his way by about 9:30 this morning. I was in class while things were getting organized so I missed a call from both Marco and Kayhan but the second I got out of class I raced down to Western Sugar to help out Marco. They already had the Genie lift out with the osprey on the ground. That was huge of them to not only be quick to recognize something was wrong, but do what they can to help solve the problem. We took measurements on the bird and put a band on its non-injured leg to hopefully keep track of things. We then took the chick back up to the nest. It initially tried to fly away but ended up grounding. I think it was partially scared and unsure of the range of use of its injured leg. While it seems weird that we put it back in the nest even after an injury to the leg, there is a reason. Osprey don't do well in captivity. When I visited the Montana Raptor Conservation Center in Bozeman I saw various injured birds that were receiving medical attention. I noticed that most of the raptors seemed calm, except for the osprey. It never once seemed to stop moving or flapping its wings. So in the interest of this bird, we put the osprey chick back in the nest. This one could still grasp and move its talons so we can hope for the best. I trust that it is in good hands while at Western Sugar. The employees care about these osprey so I can rest assured knowing that it will be under constant supervision.

Putting the osprey back in the nest
Today really made me take a hard look at how and why I care for wildlife. It made me genuinely hurt inside when I saw it struggling the way it was. It looked terrified and I would be too if I had never been handled by a human before. Especially if I was injured. I might think it was my last day ever. But that really motivated me because while it was a human product (bailing twine), we as humans have the ability to make a difference and come to the aid of these animals. That's no excuse to not change our practices just because we can fix it. There is nothing efficient or ethical about that route. That is part of the reason I've been working to help solve the bailing twine issue. I will get into that later as it moves forward. But to the members of Audubon Society, I will get the pamphlets about osprey and bailing twine into the right hands. I can promise you that.

Thank you Western Sugar!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Houston, We Have Liftoff

Well at this point, all of the young are in the air! They grow up so fast. This completes a large portion of the osprey life cycle. All that's left is migration and reproduction, which are actually pretty big deals. But it's almost like watching a child grow up because  you do get somewhat attached to them. I feel almost like I'm better at guessing the age of an osprey than an actually human baby! I have particularly liked watching Osprey 1 this year because this is the first year they have really taken to the actually platform and not the power line about 100 yards away. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Osprey 1 holds some significance so it's great to see a whole family. I was just there yesterday casting a line and watching birds. I thought to myself yesterday that I would go fishing with the osprey. Naturally they outfished me. I only got a few bites while they simply swooped down and grabbed lunch. I could be wrong, but I think I spotted one of the chicks in a tree with its very own fish. Which I can appreciate. It was probably hard enough for the male to keep feeding them when they couldn't even fly let alone near full sized. Teenagers....

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, Inc.

After spending the day with Beartooth Electric sampling osprey I felt that I had a slightly better handle on what I was doing. Sampling with Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, Inc. was going to be a good day for several reasons. We met Mike and Andrew from Yellowstone Valley Electric at the Duck Creek Fishing Access around 8:00 am that day. Also there was Monty Sullins. Monty is a member of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society and was crucial to the creation of this project. Monty was one of the original few that decided to make a concerted effort among the local Audubon chapter to search out and begin monitoring osprey nests along the Yellowstone River. Monty has been working on monitoring the osprey for several years now. Monty not only has the most osprey nests to monitor but also the longest stretch and yet he has been very faithful in monitoring them.
Monty Sullins holding an osprey nestling
The nest at the Duck Creek Fishing Access site is special for several reasons. It is listed as Nest #1 in my mapping system because it was erected in honor of someone that genuinely enjoyed birds. The platforms that you see throughout Montana have in large part a great deal to do with a few citizens that truly love the the outdoors and the birds that fly over them. These poles are not cheap so when one is erected in honor of someone that loves birds it's a big deal. I especially think it's cool because in a way it's like a living legacy. There is a family of osprey that live atop that platform with two nestlings. This man's memory lives on in the form of something he loves and to me that is pretty cool.
"Osprey #1 with Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, Inc."
Another trend I began noticing was that this was the second power company to donate the largest truck they had. I have to be honest-the little kid in me thought this was pretty cool. It was like I went from playing with little Tonka Toys when I was little to being around the real thing!

The second nest that Yellowstone Valley Electric took us to was another privilege. Many of you might recognize this nest. Does "The Osprey Outpost" ring a bell? It's on the highway to Red Lodge just before Silesia so I'm sure that many of you have at the very least passed it. It's just an elderly couple that runs a small store out of their home, but they named their place after the osprey that live high up on the platform in their front yard. This nest has an interesting history. Osprey have a very high affinity for nesting on top of double-cross arm power poles-which is exactly what is next to the current platform. The couple cared very much for these osprey and did not want to lose them so they made a special agreement with the generous administration at Yellowstone Valley Electric to erect a platform adjacent to the current pole and change the height of the power lines in order to accommodate for the osprey. So up until this point the osprey have had a relatively uneventful life. That is, until a Canada goose decided to try and make this her new home. Canada Geese a real problem to nesting Osprey. They come early, don't seem too picky about where they lay their eggs, and are out of the nest early. But as evidenced by the rather high nest, these osprey had been there for a while and didn't appear ready to go down without a fight. And eventually they reclaimed their nest! Which is somewhat unusual but impressive nonetheless.

When we showed up there was nobody to be seen. I had really hoped that the owners would be able to see the osprey when we arrived but I couldn't find a phone number beforehand. I found a number on the front door and called but with no answer so we began working anyway. I had received permission from them early in February to go up to this nest as it was. Once we had gotten the chicks down, one of the owners came flying around on his John Deere gator  wondering who was getting near his osprey. He finally recognized me and I got to share something special with him: we let him hold one of the osprey nestlings. That felt really good on my part to be able to allow someone who cared so much for the birds on his property to finally hold one of them in his arms. Oh and one more thing...there was an unhatched Canada goose egg in the nest!
One of the owners of The Osprey Outpost holding an osprey nestling
One thing I appreciate about this project is that it allows me to give back to the people that help me. I don't know how many people can say that but it's a good feeling to be able to give back to those helping you in more than just words.
Mike-left Andrew-right
A huge thanks to Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, Inc. for donating their equipment and time to this project! I couldn't have done this without you guys. Once again, I highly suggest that you send a thank you to the great people at Yellowstone Valley Electric. Jerry Ellis was crucial to getting us what we needed. You can contact them here -

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sampling: Day 1-Beartooth Electric Cooperative, Inc.

I have to be honest. I didn't know what to expect when we were headed to the first nest. I knew that it was only accessible through the power company because it crossed some private property in order to make it to the platform put up by Beartooth Electric Cooperative, Inc. We arrived at our pre-determined meeting place just outside of Columbus at a cemetery on the frontage road. We were to meet Don and Jake, two gentleman who work for Beartooth Electric. That morning it was Kayhan Ostovar, Marco Restani and his wife Julianne and myself representing this project.

Things looked sketchy out of the gate. We had some trouble finding exactly the right road that would take us to the nest. When we finally did find it, a farmer had been irrigating recently and it seemed likely that one of the bucket trucks would get stuck. After all, these trucks have to weigh between 7,500 and 10,000 lbs with all of that equipment. But Don and Jake were determined to make this happen for us. We didn't want to push them too far beyond anything they were comfortable with. I felt this was fair because the service they were providing was invaluable and free of charge. We took it easy and scouted out a dry path and finally made it to the nest. At this point, I myself haven't seen an osprey up close; only through a pair of binoculars.

Beartooth Electric Cooperative, Inc. bucket truck taking Marco to the 1st nest

An osprey-quite shocked at what this strange thing is that is touching him
At this point my heart was racing. I didn't know what to expect. I'm thankful for the confidence that Marco exhibited. Marco is what's known as a Master Bander and permitted through the USGS to handle and draw blood from birds. He has worked with literally thousands of birds. I can remember shaking in excitement as the bucket lowered down and Marco held out the first box. The first look in the box at the osprey nestling and I was enamored. I could simply not believe that I had a wild osprey nestling so close!
One of the 1st nestlings-quite in shock at the experience of being handled by this new creature
 We finally got to work. I didn't handle any of the birds at first because frankly I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Marco's wife, Julianne, has helped Marco before so I let her step in and the two of them showed me the ropes. It's just an animal right? How hard could it be? Really hard. It's not just an animal. It's a raptor nestling who thinks it's going to die because that's what wild animals think when they get caught in nature. I was taught a lesson in gentleness because these are fragile creatures at this stage in their life. But they sure are tough and not one has ever given up completely.

With the first nest out of the way, we headed to the second nest that was under the jurisdiction of Beartooth Electric Cooperative, Inc. This nest was much trickier. The location doubled both as a powerline and a platform. The platform was in fact situated above a 2-cycle powerline. Basically it could zap you pretty well if you didn't know what you were doing. The linemen had to first protect themselves from potential hazard. They placed a great deal of rubber protective devices on all of the active lines. It was not safe for us to go up to this nest so we gave a crash course to them in osprey handling. Don and Jake did a great job-even with a rather protective mother. You can see her in the picture above circling the nest. She had a number of close encounters but overall she let us do our work unharmed.

Marco allowed me to handle my first bird at this point. I was so nervous! But I was able to keep my calm while handling the birds, which is unusual for me because normally when I'm this excited/nervous my motor skills are a joke. But I think my determination to pursue what I love doing and my admiration of these incredible raptors allowed me to steady my hands. And then I held one....
This was hands down the highlight of my year, possibly my college experience. I can say that they are sleek, yet powerful while maintaining an air of elegance about them. It sounds cheesy, but hold one and you'll know what I'm talking about.

None of that day's events would have been possible without the help of Don, Jake and Eric Elton at Beartooth Electric Cooperative, Inc.
Jake-left Don-right
I highly encourage you to send a thank you to the folks at Beartooth Electric Cooperative, Inc. You can do so at the following address-

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

More Than I Expected!

On Saturday as part of my internship, I was asked to lead a bird walk for some homeowners of the East Rosebud Homeowner's Association as part of their event "Celebrate East Rosebud." It was kind of a rough start because I had to work until midnight the night before and get up at 6 am to drive out there. I found the lodge where I was supposed to meet and decided to head up to the trailhead for just a little bit and see what kind of birds might be in the area. There was no shortage of Western Wood Pewees or Warbling Vireos that morning. I eventually made my way back down to the lodge where people were beginning to gather. I really only figure between 5 and 10 people might actually show up so I thought that was it. But it was still not quite 10:00 am when it was supposed to start so I figured I would wait a little bit. They just kept coming and coming and coming! In the next 15 minutes there approximately 40 people standing in front of me! Now, I feel that I have a decent grip on my bird identification skills, but I was starting to become slightly nervous at this point. Reasonably, I didn't want to make a fool of myself so I was a little tense. I was given a chance to introduce myself so I put in a good word for the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society and their field trips. After spending the previous weekend trip to the Pryors with YVAS I was more than happy to suggest they all look into it.

So we started off. I was preparing myself to walk up the trailhead, but they decided to walk along their lake since most of them own that property. It actually ended up adding a few more to the group because we were birding in the front yard of several homeowners (they must really suffer out there...birding off their porches). There were a few things that were frustrating.  For one, we didn't start until 10:00 in the morning so by that point only the really chatty birds could be heard or seen. The rest were trying to save some energy from the warm sun. The size of the group made some aspects difficult. Not everyone was able to see the bird and also speaking loud enough for everyone to hear sometimes scared away the birds. But I think it didn't deter anyone so I am glad for that.  The Ruby-crowned Kinglets and House Wrens were quite easy to hear, but not always to see. We had the opportunity to watch a Mountain Bluebird actually hunt as well. They have this interesting behavior where they seem to hover and then drop once or twice before they go after their insects. We were lucky enough to see both the males and the females. Of the few power lines around, they were littered with Tree Swallows and a Violet-green Swallow every so often. We walked for about 45 minutes and then we seemed to wander into the yellow colored bird territory. We happened upon a Yellow Warbler nest and soon after found several Common Yellowthroats. Probably the most interesting sighting for me was a Spotted Sandpiper. They are a relatively solitary bird, but they have a distinct behavior and call they make when they are defending their nest so I started looking around and sure enough this little fuzzball of a bird comes waddling out of some Bulrush! That was pretty exciting for a lot of people. Not soon after that we found a pair of Gray Catbirds playing with each other which was fun for everyone to watch. I was very thankful for the opportunity to get out of Billings for a little bit and spend some time in one my absolute favorite places in the world-the Beartooth Mountain Range.

Chicks All Around

Well, it's about that time again. At this point all the osprey in Montana that are going to have chicks, have had their chicks. Some took longer than others, some were early, but they're all born and they are awkward little fellas! I think it's interesting how the young hardly resemble their mothers in many bird species. A fawn looks like its mother deer, but an osprey chick looks like an awkward little shiny black bird that wobbles around at first! Today I realized that even though you might not be able to tell if the chicks are born, the parental behavior can tell a story in itself. I haven't studied the behavior of many other bird mothers, but I have to believe that ospreys are great mothers. First off, they are extremely defensive.  And second, they seem to do everything in their power to not abandon the nest. And when they do, they are never out of sight.  I watched a nest on the old river bridge just outside of Hardin today. At first she proceeded with alarm calls, as expected. But for the first time that I've been watching nests this year, she left and the male was away from the nest as well. And then something else happened that I can't explain, but do intend to find out.  The female flew back to her nest, appeared to steady herself, then she fluffed out her wings, not extended, but seemed to shelter her chicks, and then the feathers on her neck where her markings are seemed to extend outward. As soon as she assumed this position, her chicks waddled up to her. I observed this behavior at two different nests, both with chicks. I will let you all know what I think it is as soon as I find out.