By Lead Nature Mapping Volunteer Frances Clark
Late fall, early winter is a time of adjustment for wildlife, as well as us. The increasing cold and diminishing food in November encourages movement of species. Many warm bodied critters have left the valley, while others stay here. Winter residents must hibernate, or they must balance their energy budget: conserving their energy use by resting in warm, protected locations or adding to their energy stores by moving and finding sufficient food.
Raccoon tracks in the snow from Wilson, Wyoming.
Some small mammals disappear but others are active. Look for any chipmunks, mice, or voles that may still be seeking seeds, fruits, and invertebrates. They will soon hibernate or go into a torpor. Record these stalwart individuals if you see them. Red squirrels stay up and about to defend their cone stashes vociferously. At night skunks and raccoons are roaming for food and then hunker underground or around buildings for warmth. Fox and coyotes are padding along trails and through fields looking for all the above as their main meal. Long- and short-tailed weasels are turning white and also darting about for prey. Have you seen a bear as a last of year (LOY) entry?
Many of the above critters are usually invisible to us; however, with a skim of snow their tracks prove they are here. Some, such as snowshoe hares, are actually best noted in winter. Pull out your winter-tracking field guides, find a 6-12” ruler to measure the footprint size and stride, and determine whose prints cross your path. Under “activity” enter “animal sign: tracks, scat”, under “notes” your ID details. If possible, attach a photograph of the prints with a ruler for scale (a new feature on our data entry form!) to help our biologists verify your entry. It is fun to record the mysterious dramas going on in our neighborhoods and wild places.
Large mammals are shifting venues, too. Watch for elk and deer crossing roads and grazing in pastures. Where are they now? Keep an eye on the buttes to see if the mule deer are coming back to their traditional winter range, or have the summer fires on East Gros Ventre Butte caused them to shift elsewhere? Where are the bison hanging out? Bighorn sheep are coming into the Elk Refuge. Can you record their “territorial” or “breeding” activity in the next few weeks? And moose: are they bunching up at Antelope Flats? What are they eating? They often prefer antelope bitterbrush at this time of year.
Bighorn sheep can currently be spotted on Miller Butte. Photographer Credit: Mark Gocke
Look and listen for birds*. Trumpeter swans are migrating down from Canada, adding numbers to our resident population. Where are they resting/loafing, and which routes are they flying? See if there is a tundra swan mixed in. Which ducks are feeding in open ponds and streams? Remember, some may be in “basic” (e.g.. non-breeding or dull winter) plumage—an ID challenge. Grouse—ruffed and dusky–are in the forests; and nuthatches, juncos, golden-crowned kinglets, and chickadees forage in mixed flocks. The corvid family: ravens, crows, Canada jays, Steller’s jays, and Clark’s nutcrackers often come down from higher elevations and into town when there is deep snow and cold—they are smart. Cooper’s hawks take advantage of birds congregating at bird feeders. Use your binoculars to spy soaring rough-legged hawks or fleeting groups of snow buntings and horned larks in open grasslands. Or find kettles of ravens and eagles over a gut pile.
There is plenty to Nature Map in Jackson Hole these next few weeks. The new entry form makes it easier than ever. Your sightings are extremely important to indicate which wildlife habitats are essential for winter survival. Keep on mapping! Thank you.
*Note: The JH Bird and Nature Club will be hosting a “Winter Bird ID” program December 10th. See the Calendar of Events below for details.
With the 2019 field season in the books (and Mountain Bluebirds from our nestboxes showing up as far south as Ft. Worth, Texas), November is a great time to cozy up by the fire and reflect on the robust, scientific data gathered during this year’s monitoring program!
This season was our third consecutive year banding Mountain Bluebird nestlings on the National Elk Refuge (NER) with identifiable colored-bands. It also marked our 16th straight year engaging volunteers to help monitor Mountain Bluebird Nestboxes on the NER nestbox trail!
We will likely remember the 2019 field season for its uncommonly cold spring and relatively low rates of bluebird nestling success compared to previous seasons.*
We can report success in banding another “cohort” of nestlings and having 4 banded birds from previous years resighted in Jackson Hole this year.
- Volunteers and JHWF staff successfully monitored 112 nestboxes along the western edge of the NER this nesting season.
- The Mountain Bluebird nestbox-occupation rate was only 11% this season. The 89% of nestboxes that were unused by bluebirds were either left unoccupied our utilized by Tree Swallows or occasionally by House Wrens.
- JHWF professional bird banders placed identifying colored-bands on 43 nestling bluebirds. This number was down from 72 in 2018 and 85 in 2017; however, as the number of banded birds grows, we expect the number of “resighted” birds to increase reach summer.
- Ten (10) adult Mountain Bluebirds which hatched in NER nestboxes have been “resighted” since banding began in 2017. This includes 4 resights made in 2019. Deceased birds account for 2 of the 10 resightings; one banded bird was hit by a car near the National Museum of Wildlife Art while another struck a window near Tribal Trails.
- Several bluebird nests were predated (likely by weasels or raccoons) and/or were abandoned in 2019. We now installed safeguards on 25 nest boxes with a history of invasion, which we hope will deter predators in 2020 and beyond!
Please click here to read the full report on the 2019 Mountain Bluebird Nestbox Monitoring Season. This report includes stories of individual birds, such as the female recently recorded in Texas.
To learn more about our Mountain Bluebird Nestbox Monitoring Project, follow this link.
*It’s possible the prolonged cold snap played a role in reducing the rate of successful nests we saw this year. Further explanation is provided in the report.
By Kyle Kissock | Communications Manager
Wildlife-Fencing Project Completed
The Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) recently completed the installation of “wildlife-fencing” along S. Highway 89 from South Park Loop Road to Munger Mountain Elementary School.
This general stretch of highway is a well-known hotspot for wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs), primarily due to the combination of high traffic volume and proximity to high-quality habitat for elk and mule deer, species which both utilize the nearby Snake River corridor.
New “wildlife-fencing” along S. Highway 89 funnels wildlife towards underpasses where they can cross under the road, like this one just north of the waste transfer station.
The goal of the new wildlife-fencing is to keep animals off the road and funnel any would-be highway crossers towards a series of wildlife underpasses.
Drivers can spot these underpasses in three locations: just north of the waste transfer station, under Flat Creek bridge, and under the Snake River bridge (on both sides of the river).
To assist any animal that might wander onto the road and find itself trapped between the parallel fence lines, “jump-outs” have also been constructed along the highway to enable wildlife to safely escape the roadway without the ability to re-enter.
Know the Danger Zones
While the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation is optimistic about the new fencing decreasing WVCs within the fenced zone, we’re still asking motorists to expect wildlife on the roadway while traveling on S. Highway 89. In fact, the possibility exists for a potential increase in animal-crossing activity in certain areas, especially where the wildlife-fencing comes to an end.
Recently completed “wildlife-fencing” runs from South Park Loop Road to Munger Mountain Elementary School on S. Highway 89. While the new fences will help keep animals off the road, drivers should be aware of increased numbers of wildlife on the roadway at the ends of the fences (orange ovals).
This is because when an animal encounters the new fence near its northern or southern limit it will likely follow the new barrier until its first available crossing opportunity.
This opportunity will either be an underpass within the fenced zone, or the end of the wildlife-fence depending on the direction the animal choses to travel.
These new “danger zones” exist near the Munger Mountain Elementary School (southern fence terminus) and the intersection of Highway 89 and South Park Loop Road (northern fence terminus).
For the time being, travelers south of town will notice WYDOT has placed digital message boards at each of these locations to alert drivers of this exact issue.
View showing the full extent of an underpass designed to allow wildlife to safely navigate the movement-barrier formed by S. Highway 89.
Motorists should also be aware that the 3-mile stretch of Highway 89 from South Park Loop Road to High School Road (an existing WVC hotspot area) remains unfenced. It’s possible this stretch may also experience an increase in wildlife road-crossings as animals are inadvertently directed north by the new wildlife-fencing.
With the completion of this S. Highway 89 wildlife-fencing project and the possibility of significant wildlife-crossing funding through the SPET ballot, it’s exciting time for innovative wildlife-crossing solutions here in Teton County.
Let’s just remember to remain vigilant and give wildlife a break where underpasses and wildlife-fences aren’t, especially as we enter migration season in late fall and early winter!
Note: If you are a Nature Mapper, we encourage you to submit sightings of roadkill on S. Highway 89 to help us understand the effects the new wildlife-fencing
By Kyle Kissock, Communications Manager
2.9 billion birds.
Let that number sink in. That’s how many less birds inhabit North American skies, forests, and cityscapes today, than did in 1970.
You probably saw the (now viral) scientific study that was released last month. It exposed an avian population in free-fall in the United States and Canada over the last five decades. Experts are referring to the near 40% decline detailed in its conclusions as a “full-blown crisis.”
A study recently showed North American bird populations undergoing rapid declines. What can we do to help?
In the wake of the study’s release, I found myself feeling a little helpless. I suspect I wasn’t alone. I understand that from a scientific perspective, losing birds has broader implications for ecosystem health. But more personally, identifying the sparrows, nuthatches, and cardinals of my childhood backyard was one of my first authentic connections to the natural world. The arrival of colorful warblers in the springtime, the flocking of chickadees to the feeder during a winter snowstorm. The thought growing up without these backyard birds elicits a visceral reaction; to me, their simple presence still inspires awe and wonder. I believe birds make our world a richer place.
As a community of wildlife-enthusiasts, I think we have rights to be concerned. But a month out from the sobering news of this study, I’m also trying not to feel helpless. It’s true that reversing this trend and effectively combating decline of this magnitude will take intentional, global action. But what’s stopping us from personally working to save one, two, or three birds a year? For example, Nature Mappers report bird strikes on windows nearly every month . . . is there something we can be doing better that can make an immediate impact?
Let’s starting by taking the causes of avian decline case by case. Then, I urge us to consider if there are steps we can take today to lessen our impact on our avian friends. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service the top three causes of bird deaths in the United States are as follows:
- Cats: 2,400,000,000 bird deaths annually
- Collisions with buildings (glass): 599,000,000 annually
- Collisions with automobiles: 214,500,000 annually
What can we do? – Consider indoor cats. When young birds leave their nests, there is a period of days when they cannot sufficiently fly to escape predators. These fledglings stand virtually no chance against prowling prides of suburban felines. Many of us have pet cats ourselves. All of us know somebody who owns a cat, or cats. These numbers do not mean we should give up our beloved cats. They do mean that if we’re serious about being a good neighbors to local wildlife, we should be aware of the impacts “outside cats” have on nesting bird populations.
What can we do? – Drive a reasonable speed and pay attention to the road. Do not crash your car trying to avoid a bird. Do remember, the faster you drive, the less time any animal will have to react to avoid being smashed by your vehicle. Not carelessly exceeding the speed limit in known wildlife-habitat is a great way to keep yourself and animals safe!
Window Strikes (The single easiest way to help birds)
What can we do? – Birds collide with windows because they see reflections of sky, vegetation, or sometimes themselves. If you have windows that regularly experience bird strikes, please consider one of several mitigation techniques.
- Window decals – These can be purchased on Amazon here as well as from decal-specific sites here or here. Find a decal that works for the aesthetics and functionality of your window. Recommended spacing for decals is small enough that birds can’t fly between them, but anything is better than nothing. Personal note: I had “problem windows” in my apartment before adding a few clear, window decals. My evidence is unscientific, but my problem windows have experienced far less bird strikes over the last year. I wish I had acted sooner.
- Write-on-glass markers – Check out this video to see how to mark your window with glass markers so that they are apparent to birds!
- Vertical blinds and or screens – A screen on the outside of a window can minimize reflective potential of the glass. Vertical hanging blinds on the inside of a window can serve the same purpose.
Click here for more mitigation techniques.
So where does this leave us? Admittedly with a long way to go. But we also know that many people coming together, to make small changes really can result in outsized impacts. As acommunity that pledges to live compatibly with our wild neighbors and reduced human impacts on wildlife, I believe it’s our responsibility to consider everything from moose to Song Sparrows, in the course of our daily lives.
If you find yourself acting to minimize your impacts on birds on the heels of this report, please let me know at email@example.com. I’d love to share your story!
Note: In the past, Nature Mappers have coded mortalities from bird-window strikes as “Accidents” in the NMJH database. To be more specific going forward, the correct coding will be “Serious Injury” with a prompt to make comments in the “Notes” field to record a bird-window strike.
Choke Cherries are favorites of birds, bears and small mammals. Birds can become “tipsy” feeding on the fermenting, fall berries.
As wildflowers fade and grasses dry, wildlife depend on the more permanent presence of woody plants to get through the next several months. Lowly shrubs are key for survival. They offer up colorful fruits and still-green leaves and stems providing essential fats and carbs for bird for migration and mammal hibernation for winter. And dried fruits and bare twigs contain sustenance throughout winter for critters above ground.
Here are a just a few examples of shrub and animal connections. Research on which animals species use which plants is relatively sparse for our region. Your Nature Mapping observations noting what animals are using which shrubs and how are helpful information.
Bears eat berries. In summer huckleberries are a favorite and right now they are into hawthorns—the main reason for the recent closure of the Moose-Wilson Road. Of course bears consume many other fruits as well.
In late summer, thimbleberries stand out amidst broad green leaves that thrive in the moist shade of streamside forests. Once red, the raspberry-like fruits disappear within a day or two—who ate them? Perhaps birds, squirrels, chipmunks, but no one knows for sure.
In late summer, tanagers, grosbeaks, vireos, robins, and waxwings search hillsides and backyards for service berries, chokecherries, and now ripening hawthorns. In town they will look for planted crabapples (bears will too!). Red-stemmed dogwood fruits are particularly high in fats needed by migrating birds.
Serviceberries serve as late summer food sources for birds like Waxwings, Tanagers, and Robins.
While some bird species will keep flying south, the local abundance of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings will depend on the amount of fruit persisting over winter. Rosehips are particularly durable. Leftover fruits come spring give an added boost to returning migrants.
Bright orange elderberry and mountain ash are particularly popular with birds, small mammals, bears, elk, and moose. Some people have said these berries are poisonous because they see so many untouched and often on the ground. Elderberries have a high alkaloid content—we people must always cook the berries first. However, they are preferred foods of many critters. Most likely, the plentitude of berries keeps them from all being consumed right away. Also, these fruits become more tasty with a frost or two which brings out the sugars. It is possible for birds to become tipsy on fermenting fruits.
Studies indicate that antioxidant compounds in polyphenol and anthocyanin rich fruits help reduce the extreme metabolic stress of migrating birds. Anthocyanins show up as a deep purple maroon color.
Hawthorne berries are a favorite of bears. They grow in abundance along Moose-Wilson Road.
After the rut in late fall, moose congregate, often by the dozen, on Antelope Flats. They are eating the nutritious green leaves and twigs of antelope bitterbrush, not the pungent silver twigs of sagebrush.
Moose also depend on the cover and browse of willows stands. And as those with gardens know, moose will zero in on red-stemmed dogwoods and roses in the landscape.
Sagebrush grows in abundance in Grand Teton National Park. Wintering moose, however, are largely grazing on the intermixed antelope bitterbrush.
Leaves and twigs, as well as the dense twiggy habit of sagebrush provide food and cover for greater sage-grouse winter long.
Bighorn sheep, along with deer and elk, will preferentially browse a low fuzzy shrub called winterfat on dry knolls. Winterfat contains 10% crude protein in winter.
Townsend’s Solitaire, related to robins, particularly savor the evergreen cover and bluish “berries” of juniper. So look for them on dry hill sides with an abundance of Rocky Mountain juniper, such as the flanks of Miller Butte.
Juniper Berries are a food source for the Townsend’s Solitaire, a relative of the American Robin
All our wildlife depends on plants. Take a closer look at these connections, and please keep on Nature Mapping!
By Frances Clark
Frances will be presenting a program on “Teton Shrubs: ID Tips and Wildlife Values” Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 6 p.m. on at the Teton County Library.