by Max Frankenberry, JHWF Assistant Bird Bander
This past Saturday, May 19, 2018, JHWF staff participated in the annual Wyoming Game & Fish Department bird survey of the South Park Wildlife Habitat Management Area, just south of Jackson. Our group of volunteer birders, including enthusiastic Nature Mappers and Jackson Hole Bird & Nature Club members, met bright and early Saturday morning, led by our local bird nerd expert volunteer, Tim Griffith. Tim has been crucial to organizing Game & Fish bird surveys of the South Park area since 2016, which have so far logged 96 different species for the area! Our pack split into two groups, one to tackle waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors around the ponds, the other to take on “Warbler Alley,” the thick cottonwood tree groves hugging the backwaters of the Snake River to the southeast. What an appropriate nickname that was – Yellow Warblers dotted most every tree in South Park, and were joined by the radiant Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and MacGillivary’s Warblers as well. It was a different traveler from the south, however, that took everyone by surprise.
‘Warbler’s neck’ is a common occurrence on a bird survey.
After a busy four hours of hiking and birding the survey was winding down, and brunch was on the brain. But birding tends to deliver the bombshells at the last moments, and Saturday was no different. Jon Mobeck, our team’s oriole-obsessed leader shouted. “Bullock’s! Wait… BALTIMORE!” In a low hawthorn tree not 50 feet from us, was not only a Bullock’s Oriole, a gorgeous but fairly common bird in Jackson Hole, but next to it was a Baltimore Oriole, a normally much more eastern cousin. Historical records vary, but this bird may be one of less than a dozen ever reported in the state of Wyoming, and likely less than a handful have ever been seen in Teton County. What a find! The Bullock’s and Baltimore seemed to follow each other, flying from tree to tree after one another. Perhaps the Baltimore had lost his way on his normal spring route up from Central America, noticed a bird that resembled his brilliant orange color, and followed that Bullock’s back to our western mountains, far away from his normal east-of-the-plains summer vacation.
A Baltimore Oriole (left) is a rare find in Jackson Hole. The Bullock’s Oriole (right) is more of a local. Photos: Kate Maley
It’s moments like these that make us realize how special close-to-home wild places like South Park are. The diversity of wildlife in these areas can be astounding. But problems exist in the fact that unless these places are studied or surveyed, we may never know the rarities or struggling populations there. This is the issue Nature Mapping Jackson Hole is helping to solve – by submitting data from your commute from work, a dog-walk in a Jackson city park or a backpacking trip through the Gros Ventre, you are helping to build our human community’s understanding of the wildlife community that surrounds us. And every data point really is significant! You don’t often find rare birds like the Baltimore Oriole, but it’s very possible that the deer you saw driving home could represent the beginning of a muley movement exploring a new feeding ground in Jackson Hole. The data you enter from these sightings help JHWF’s partners to prepare management decisions that inspire positive interaction between humans and the wildlife moving into these areas. Knowing that your effort can directly benefit our local species is a reward in itself, and who knows – maybe your attention to wildlife developed from Nature Mapping will lead you to that once-in-a-lifetime animal.
Max Frankenberry spots a Common Merganser on a back channel of the Snake River through Wingspan Optics binoculars.
South Park Wildlife Habitat Management Area Species Count 2018 Surveyed by 22 Participants
American Coot 3
American Crow 1
American Goldfinch 11
American Kestrel 13
American Robin 74
American White Pelican 38
American Wigeon 9
Bald Eagle 6
BALTIMORE ORIOLE 1
Bank Swallow 4
Barn Swallow 6
Barrow’s Goldeneye 16
Belted Kingfisher 4
Black-billed Magpie 9
Black-capped Chickadee 24
Black-headed Grosbeak 2
Brewer’s Blackbird 1
Broad-tail Hummingbird 2
Brown-headed Cowbird 6
Bullock’s Oriole 4
Calliope Hummingbird 6
Canada Goose 114
Chipping Sparrow 2
Cinnamon Teal 47
Cliff Swallow 7
Common Merganser 37
Common Raven 15
Cooper’s Hawk 1
European Starling 21
Gray Catbird 1
Great Blue Heron 6
Green-tailed Towhee 1
Green-winged Teal 2
House Wren 14
Lesser Scaup 7
MacGillivary’s Warbler 3
Marsh Wren 5
N. Rough Wing Swallow 11
Northern Flicker 19
Orange-crowned Warbler 2
Red-tailed Hawk 6
Red-winged Blackbird 62
Ring-billed Gull 2
Ring-necked Duck 12
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 7
Ruddy Duck 4
Sandhill Crane 3
Savannah Sparrow 6
Song Sparrow 51
Spotted Sandpiper 24
Swainson’s Thrush 1
Tree Swallow 219
Trumpeter Swan 2
Turkey Vulture 6
Vesper Sparrow 2
Violet-green Swallow 3
Virginia Rail 1
Western Meadowlark 3
Western Tanager 1
Western Wood Pewee
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
White-crowned Sparrow 3
Wilson’s Warbler 1
Yellow Warbler 130
Yellow-headed Blackbird 37
Yellow-rumped Warbler 94
Species Total 68
Three mule deer does and a fawn spotted on the Sept. 10, 2017 float trip. Photo credit: Forest Dramis.
A quick step into the dory and a careful shifting of weight with binoculars raised and off we go, five lucky Nature Mappers floating the Snake River on a sparkling Sunday morning. We glide swiftly and smoothly under the Wilson Bridge (with the chittering of swallows and clamor of traffic overhead) and emerge, calling out: “Two, no three Ravens!” “16 Tree Swallows, I think? They move fast.” “Look, a Great Blue Heron!” “No, Osprey!” “Both!”
As we flow downstream, we scan the shorelines, water and sky, and settle into intervals of excitement and tranquility. A designated Nature Mapper jots down the tally for common species and takes GPS points for unusual sightings. A morning’s count can include eight Bald Eagles, a moose, numerous Spotted Sandpipers, Common Mergansers, Yellow Warblers, nesting Bank Swallows and a flotilla of American White Pelicans. Or perhaps we spy a marmot family basking on a rock, or a beaver up a backwater.
For seven years, Nature Mappers have been gathering data on wildlife thanks to A.J. DeRosa, owner of Jackson Hole Vintage Adventures. A.J. donates his handcrafted wooden dory and an expert boatman every Sunday morning from May to October. With this opportunity for consistent data collection, Nature Mappers have been able to record trends and shifts in species’ numbers and locations over the summer months (May-October), year to year. We are beginning to discern patterns in species’ migrations, nesting locations, and possibly, with time, impacts of flooding, dike vegetation management and river use.
These results are possible thanks to over four-dozen trained nature mappers and friends participating each year. Ace volunteer Tim Griffith schedules the teams and often adds his expertise on the floats. Since Tim started coordinating the trips with A.J., many species’ sightings have increased significantly. Tim has a fine ear and eye for the birds! Please read Tim’s 2017 Nature Mapping Jackson Hole Snake River Float Trip Annual Report here. It includes a species list and numbers; the special conditions of 2017 during the spring flood and its effect; and the season’s variation in eagle numbers. Be sure to contact Tim if you wish to volunteer on a Snake River Float Trip this summer!
An idyllic setting, Jackson Hole Vintage Adventures Tipi Camp is a wildlife rich habitat Photo credit: Forest Dramis
“You can’t be unhappy in the middle of a big, beautiful river.” – Jim Harrison
On Sunday, May 6, I had the privilege of participating in my first Nature Mapping Snake River float trip. And what a trip it was!
Along with fellow “bird nerds” Jon Mobeck and Tim Griffith (trip leader/coordinator) and guide Adam “Dutch” Gottschling, I spent two hours of the morning floating the eight-mile stretch of the Snake River between the Wilson bridge and Jackson Hole Vintage Adventure’s Tipi Camp.
Having recently moved to Jackson from the relatively flat plains and forests of the upper Midwest, I have a long way to go before I look up at the grandeur of the Tetons with anything but complete and utter awe. So, had we merely floated for two hours looking only at the river and surrounding mountains, without seeing any wildlife, I personally would have considered my Sunday morning well spent.
That said, we ended up observing over 40 species of birds, mammals and amphibians along the river and in the area immediately surrounding the Tipi Camp. Not bad for the first week of May! (Indeed, I’ve since learned that this is on the high end compared to historic species counts.)
Highlights included 54 American White Pelicans (the largest number ever recorded on one trip), one Swainson’s Hawk, one Merlin, a Greater Yellowlegs and two moose. Though, based on the excitement in the boat, to call the Merlin and Greater Yellowlegs mere highlights is a gross understatement. For good reason too! It turns out only a handful of each species have been spotted by volunteer citizen scientists since the trips began in 2010.
I’d like to say it was beginner’s luck, but I’ve spent enough time appreciating the wild spectacle that is nature to know that to try to claim any credit is silly at best. Besides, who knows what will be seen throughout the rest of this summer? Either way, this trip was an awesome start to what is sure to be an amazing float trip season. Even without such a notable species list, I feel lucky to have been a part of such an experience—to have spent the morning exploring an area of nature that few have the chance to see in a way that even fewer are able to see it.
JHWF partners with AJ DeRosa’s Jackson Hole Vintage Adventures to provide this incredible opportunity to float down the eight-mile stretch of the Snake River between Wilson Bridge and South Park and to collect important data about the various species of mammals, birds and amphibians that use it. Trips take place every Sunday morning from May 6, 2018 through the end of September. Cost is $30 per participant. To learn more, visit the Snake River Float Trip webpage or call the office at 307-739-0968. To sign up for an upcoming trip, contact project coordinator and expert birder Tim Griffith at email@example.com.
Species Counts Along the Snake River
May 6, 2018 8:00 AM – 10:00 AM
Canada Goose 144
Barrow’s Goldeneye 1
Common Merganser 24
American White Pelican 54
Great Blue Heron 3
Turkey Vulture 4
Bald Eagle 6
Swainson’s Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Spotted Sandpiper 10
Greater Yellowlegs 1
Belted Kingfisher 4
Northern Flicker 4
Black-billed Magpie 6
American Crow 14
Common Raven 3
Tree Swallow 50
Bank Swallow 5
Cliff Swallow 2
Black-capped Chickadee 7
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 11
Mountain Bluebird 7
American Robin 31
Yellow Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s) 5
White-crowned Sparrow 2
Song Sparrow 47
Red-winged Blackbird 11
Brown-headed Cowbird 2
Brewer’s Blackbird 7
Species Counts at Jackson Hole Vintage Adventure’s Tipi Camp
May 6, 2018 10:15 AM – 10:45 AM
Canada Goose 3
Green-winged Teal 2
Common Merganser 2
Ruffed Grouse 1
American White Pelican 4
Spotted Sandpiper 3
Downy Woodpecker 1
Common Raven 1
Tree Swallow 1
Black-capped Chickadee 6
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 5
American Robin 5
Yellow Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s) 5
Dark-eyed Junco 1
White-crowned Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 4
Red-winged Blackbird 1
Brewer’s Blackbird 2
Frogs ? (unable to get an exact count)
Cyclists gather at Bradley-Taggart parking lot for leg two of the Mountain Bluebird Classic.
Jackson Hole Cycling’s unique fundraiser on two wheels this past Saturday, April 28, 2018, brought in over $1,200 for Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation’s (JHWF) Bluebird Nestbox Project.
The “Mountain Bluebird Classic” is an annual spring group ride of the area’s road cyclists. Named for the mountain bluebirds who are busy building nests in cavities during the spring, the cyclists meet at the Home Ranch Visitor Center and ride to the Bradley-Taggart Lake parking lot to meet others who want to ride a shorter 30-mile version of the social ride (from Bradley-Taggart parking lot to Signal Mountain and back).
This year, the National Elk Refuge (NER) was able to open the north pathway early so the cyclists braving the longer 70-mile version of the road ride were able to see many of the nest boxes along the NER’s western border that JHWF installed and have been monitoring since 2003.
Last year, Jackson Hole Cycling’s executive director, Forest Dramis, asked participants to make donations for JHWF’s Nature Mapping Jackson Hole project, which recently added mountain bluebird banding and resighting to its conservation and research efforts. The 2017 ride brought in almost $300 while the 2018 ride raised over $1,200, so far. JH Cycling matched the riders’ donations this year.
Approximately 60 riders took part in this year’s event, which featured “bluebird” skies and unseasonably warm temperatures in the mid-60’s. Two riders even came from out of town for the scenic ride. One cyclist who did the ride last year came back all the way from Minneapolis, Minnesota to tackle the challenging social ride in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). Another traveled from California to ride with her nephew.
Cyclists regroup at the base of Signal Mountain during the Mountain Bluebird Classic.
The Mountain Bluebird Classic was envisioned eight years ago by avid cyclist and science educator Aaron Nydam who wanted to create an event that captures the spirit of cycling and is inclusive to most all levels.
About Jackson Hole Cycling:
A 501 (c)7 non-profit organization, Jackson Hole Cycling is a group of avid cyclists living in Jackson Hole, Wyo. They provide information and events that help people enjoy the some of the best riding in the country, both road and mountain. (www.jhcycling.org)
Approximately 60 cyclists participated in the 2018 Mountain Bluebird Classic.
By Sarah Ramirez, Teton Raptor Center Research Technician
It’s nearly impossible to drive around the Jackson area without seeing a wooden platform attached to a powerpole or freestanding. This summer, Teton Raptor Center will utilize citizen scientists to monitor over 60 osprey platforms throughout Teton County (excluding Grand Teton National Park’s, as they monitor their own). These platforms will be checked once a month, starting in April and finishing in August, and will determine occupancy by Canada Geese and nesting productivity of Osprey. Data collected in past years by Nature Mapping Jackson Hole volunteers has been integrated into the ongoing Teton Raptor Center-led project.
In the last few years, Canada Geese have been nesting in osprey platforms in Teton County. Since they migrate into the valley weeks, if not a month, before osprey do, they generally nest beforehand and take claim to these platforms. Canada Geese prefer to nest in open, unobstructed areas, and these platforms most likely give their eggs/goslings a better chance against mammalian and reptilian predators. Teton Raptor Center has developed a nesting platform that tilts downward while the geese are looking to nest, and are pulled flat once the Osprey return to the valley. With our monitoring activities, it is important to note how many and which nesting platforms are being used by Canada Geese, so we can correctly place tilted platforms in needed areas.
Keep an eye out for osprey nesting this season! Regardless of where you see Osprey, Nature Mapping their locations and behaviors can help us learn more about their needs and preferences, ensuring that they thrive here into the future.
While the saying has had many applications over the years (its first recorded use dates back to the 16th century!), “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” can be taken quite literally when it comes to bird banding. Having a bird in the hand allows researchers to take quantitative measurements and make up-close, detailed observations that, in most other contexts, would be difficult, if not impossible. What’s more, after multiple years of collecting such data, we can start to observe changes and trends within an avian population and, eventually, to make deductions about the health of the ecosystem.
This is largely the goal of the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. Begun in 1989 by the Institute for Bird Populations (IBP), the program is a cooperative effort to collect standardized data on North American landbirds. By increasing understanding of the factors that affect avian populations and their relationships, from a local to a continental scale, ecologists are able to make informed conservation and management decisions. Furthermore, the effectiveness of those decisions will be able to be measured once they have been put into action.
Beginning in June 2018, JHWF staff and volunteers will be leading banding efforts at two MAPS stations in the Jackson area. Both sites were started by the Teton Science School’s Teton Research Institute in 1991 and 2003 and were run by the Teton Raptor Center from 2014-2017. We hope to be able to contribute ongoing data for many years to come!
JHWF Associate Director Kate Gersh (left) records data provided by Teton Raptor Center’s Allison Swan (right) at a banding station in 2017. The two organizations worked closely during a transition year to ensure that the essential program would continue smoothly.
How does MAPS work?
MAPS stations use mist nets, placed at permanent locations within a designated study area, to safely capture birds. Banders extract the birds from the nests and bring them back to a centralized location, where they take various measurements and place a USGS-issued aluminum band on each bird’s leg prior to releasing it. Banding begins around sunrise and the nets are open for six hours during one day of every 10-day period. The season begins in May or early June, depending on latitude (that’s the first week of June for us, in Jackson Hole!) and runs through early August.
So what sort of data does one take from a bird in the hand?
After the species identification and band number (whether it is a newly banded bird or recaptured), the most important data we collect is the age and sex of the bird. Is it a young bird or an adult? Male or female? How exactly we deduce this depends on the species; however, many species of songbirds exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning the males are visibly different from the females. During the breeding season, this is often most apparent in the bird’s plumage—males have on their “sexy plumage,” to help them attract a mate, while the females’ feathers are more subtle and subdued, to provide camouflage while they are on the nest.
A juvenile American Robin gets banded with a USGS-issued aluminum band with a unique number sequence. This will allow anyone who recaptures the bird in the future to identify it as the same bird!
Alternatively, by blowing on the bird’s abdomen to part the feathers, we can observe less obvious signs. In preparation for incubation, females will develop a bare patch on their breast and abdomen, called a brood patch, which allows efficient heat transfer to keep eggs and nestlings warm. In contrast, a male will develop a cloacal protuberance. A cloaca is the opening for the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts of all vertebrate animals, regardless of sex, with the exception of most mammals. This orifice will swell as the breeding season approaches, allowing us to identify the bird as an adult male. In some cases, detail as subtle as wing or tail length is required to differentiate between males and females!
As with determining a bird’s sex, it is sometimes possible to figure out the age from the bird’s plumage, from the feather coloration and pattern and/or the shape and quality. The specifics depend on each individual species, but the basic idea is that a bird will have plumage distinctions as a juvenile (only recently having left the nest), a young bird still in its first year of life, and as an adult. Some species will retain certain feathers, usually in the wing feathers, that allow more detailed aging assessments to be made. The Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1, by Peter Pyle, is an invaluable tool that details information about individual species’ molt patterns and feather characteristics that assist in differentiating between ages and sexes.
As with any rule, there are, of course, exceptions. Generally, though, these are all pretty good indicators. That said, just as it’s good to use multiple clues when identifying a bird or any other animal in the field, so too is it good to use multiple measures when making age and sex determinations in the hand.
Plumage characteristics such as the red patch on the face, tail feather shape, and relative age of the wing feathers help identify this Northern Flicker as an adult male.
Additional measurements taken in the hand:
- Skull ossification – birds have hollow bones and their skulls are no exceptions. The skull develops in two layers, which are ultimately connected by small columns of bone, or “struts.” Upon leaving the nest, only the outer layer is completely formed and the inner layer progressively develops over the subsequent 3-12 months, leaving visible “windows” in the meantime. We are able to monitor this development and potentially use it or its completion to assist in aging the bird.
- Fat – birds’ fat stores are constantly fluctuating. While, during the breeding season, we wouldn’t expect a bird to be carrying much excess fat due to the constant flurry of activity, birds are able to increase their weight 75-100% by storing up fat in preparation for migration.
- Feather characteristics – is the bird actively molting? Is there wear to the flight feathers (wings and tail)? Does the bird have multiple generations of feathers?
- Wing chord – birds’ wings have a natural curvature to them that helps generate lift and allows them to be such effective fliers. We take this unflattened wing length measurement, which is a good indicator of the bird’s size, similar to height in humans.
- Body mass – we weigh the bird using a digital scale, recording the mass to the nearest 0.1 gram.
When able, we aim to take all of these measurements prior to releasing the bird. However, the safety of each and every bird is our priority and we are constantly checking in on the bird’s condition during the banding process. If the bird starts to exhibit signs of stress, we will let it go.
We are thankful for all the time and effort TSS and TRC have invested in continuing this long-term study and are excited to be able to contribute to this impressive data set. To learn more about the MAPS program and importance of long-term research, check out the MAPS project webpage. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact Kate Maley, the lead bird bander this season, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kate Gersh at email@example.com. Happy birding!
A Cedar Waxwing perches nearby after being banded and released.