By Hilary Turner
Fall is the best time to observe shorebirds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A few locally breeding species are present during summer, such as the ubiquitous Spotted Sandpiper, the vociferous Killdeer, and grassland obligate Long-billed Curlew; however, many members of this specialized group were in the high Arctic for the summer and are now headed south toward coastal and neotropical destinations.
American Avocets are among the most visually striking shorebirds and also the easiest to identify, even in non-breeding plumage.
Jackson Lake Dam can be a stellar place to observe shorebirds during July-October, with its sometimes-extensive mudflats. South Park WHMA can also provide good shorebird habitat, depending on water levels, and sand bars and shorelines of the Snake River can also harbor migrants during the fall.
Tringa sandpipers are among the earliest migrants we encounter in the Tetons. Whether failed breeders or northbound migrants that didn’t complete the journey, the large and stately Greater Yellowlegs can appear in the GYE as early as late June. Solitary Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs are smaller members of the genus that arrive slightly later and increase in number throughout the early fall.
Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs by Dan Casey
Check for them wading along sloughs and other small, shallow bodies of water. In non-breeding plumage, the Solitary Sandpiper can look similar to the Spotted Sandpiper. To distinguish them, notice the white spots on the back and wings of the Solitary, as well as its complete white eye ring.
Calidris sandpipers are some of the smallest shorebirds that move through this area. Species like Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers move through Teton County each fall, utilizing mudflats, sand bars, and floating vegetation mats as habitat while they refuel for their long journeys. Identification is difficult, but paying attention to shape, size, leg color, and foraging strategy is often more helpful than examining plumage characteristics.
Baird’s Sandpiper. Note the golden hue and scalloped back.
The slightly larger Baird’s Sandpiper is truly impressive. Its elongated wings, specialized to take it across continents, are diagnostic in its identification, as well as its golden hue and scalloped back. Some Baird’s Sandpipers, after breeding on Alaska’s North Slope, may travel to the southern tip of South America in a little more than a month.
Dowitchers are long-billed shorebirds that travel from the high arctic to wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico. Long-billed Dowitchers are frequently seen during migration in the GYE, but Short-billed Dowitchers can also be detected by a skilled observer.
Juvenile birds are more easily distinguished visually by plumage characteristics than adults, but the best way to identify them is by their different flight calls. Bill length is an unreliable characteristic; while female Long-billed Dowitchers do indeed have longer bills than female Short-billed, there is plenty of overlap in male bill length.
Stilts and Avocets are tall, striking shorebirds and unlike some members of this group, easy to identify.
The Black-necked Stilt has the longest legs relative to its body size of any bird in Wyoming and the American Avocet has a long, strongly recurved bill that is also unique. Both also have distinct plumage patterns, although the avocet loses its cinnamon head color in the fall. Stilts and avocets are sometimes found in deeper water than other shorebirds, with avocets frequently swimming in water that is too deep for wading.
By Kyle and Vicki
What purpose does our nestbox trail serve?
Mountain bluebirds are a cavity nesting species which rely mainly on holes in trees, often created by woodpeckers, to raise their young. This species of bluebird is believed to be on the decline in the West due to factors such as habitat loss and competition for limited cavity nests from invasive species like house sparrows and European starlings.
A fledgling bluebird from box 44 is fed by an adult on Monday at the Fish Hatchery. Photo Vicki Morgan.
Mountain bluebirds are among the first nesting songbirds to return to the Jackson Hole area each spring. There is likely some evolutionary strategy at play here; by returning when the ground is largely still snow covered bluebirds risk exposure to lack of food and cold temperatures, but gain an advantage over rival species when it comes to snagging limited nesting sites.
Our trail of volunteer-built nestboxes on the National Elk Refuge’s western boundary not only provides bluebirds with much needed nesting locations, but allows scientists a chance to gain a more complete understanding of the overall health of this sub-population.
How are the bluebirds faring this spring?
Overall, we’re confident 2023 has been a good year for bluebirds. While we won’t have a full dataset until the end of the summer, reports from our banding team and volunteers indicate bluebirds both returned to the trail and nested in relatively high numbers this spring.
While spring conditions imperiled some nestlings early in the season, wet conditions are likely to foster increased numbers of insects later in the summer which may benefit second rounds of nests. Photo: Vicki Morgan.
At one point, 16 active nests were recorded, more than were active over the entirety of last season. According to Lead Bird Bander Vicki Morgan, who surveys boxes and organizes volunteer data weekly, there are currently two to three boxes with nestlings about to fledge, and between four and six boxes where bluebirds are on their second attempts at nest building.
Several fledglings from box 44 were even “hanging out” at the Fish Hatchery parking lot, where they were being fed by their parents as of Monday morning (don’t all go to photograph them at once!).
The success of nestboxes this year can at least partially be attributed to last year’s batch of fledglings. At least four nest boxes contain female bluebirds which were banded last year as chicks. These birds migrated away last winter and have since completed successful return journeys back to the National Elk Refuge to build their own nests, usually within hundreds of meters from where they themselves hatched. The fancy phrase for this is “site fidelity.”
What are the challenges facing this year’s nesters?
Still, bluebirds on the nest box trail have faced challenges in 2023. While nest building jumped off to a quick start, insects were slow to emerge due to late-spring weather patterns and a handful of nests failed with a lack of available food for nestlings. While nest failure is a natural and normal process, it doesn’t mean it can’t be frustrating to witness young birds not make it, especially when you’re rooting for team bluebird! Several of our boxes have also experienced predation in recent weeks. Our best guess is that weasels are the culprit – snakes can also fit through nest box holes but generally devour young birds whole. Weasels on the other hand are prone to leaving behind “nestling bits” as evidence of their transgressions.
A 2023 fledgling with this year’s diagnostic color-band combination. Photo: Vicki Morgan
Are the nestboxes helpful for the birds?
We believe they are. Although not all nestling birds survive (you’re welcome weasels – for the buffet), the fact that many bluebirds do successfully fledge indicates the Mountain Bluebird Nestbox Project is likely having a net positive effect. Two years ago, a bird banded on our trail was recaptured and released in Texas during winter migration. And each year more and more “resights” of birds banded in previous years pour in. It’s going to take more than one productive year to help ensure the longevity of this species in our region, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get excited about this season’s results!
By Renee Seidler
At a recent County Commission meeting, Commissioners decided to hold a workshop to discuss proposals to develop the Stilson lot at the corner of WY22 and WY390.
Proposals from Teton County Parks and Recreation may include: multiple softball and soccer fields, fencing around ball fields, pickle ball courts, housing, recycling, a daycare center, a retail shop and a playground.
CLICK FOR DOWNLOADABLE .PDF OF PROPOSED DEVELOPMENT
Wildlife Crossing Structures May Be Compromised
Teton County and WYDOT are spending a combined $7.65 million dollars to build wildlife crossing structures for the safe passage of moose, elk, deer and other species and to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions. Two of these structures currently open into the Stilson lot area. Proposals to develop this lot could greatly compromise wildlife ability to use and move across the landscape.
Proposed development plan for Stilson lot area.
Amenities such as ball fields and retail buildings not only take up habitat that animals will no longer be able to use, but they also mean more cars and more people, equating to even greater disturbance to wildlife. Wyoming Game and Fish data show extensive seasonal and year-round use of the Stilson lot by both moose and elk. These animals use the habitat that surrounds the current parking lot for resting, foraging, and migrating.
Teton County Scenic Preserve Trust
Currently, the Stilson lot is ringed by an easement held by the county. This easement was created in 1997 and was meant to preserve Open Space for wildlife habitat, scenic resources, and/or agricultural uses. This easement was gifted to the county by the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in trade for modified development rights north of Stilson lot, a trade meant to offset the impact of denser development in a rural residential zone. If development expands inside the Stilson easement it could severely reduce the quality of the Scenic Preserve’s Open Space and set a precedent that could challenge the protection of other land easements in our county. In this community, where we have committed to preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations, we cannot afford to lose protected habitat.
Participate in the Process
If you would like to learn more, we encourage you to reach out to your County Commissioners. At the June 26th Board of County Commissioners Workshop, at 10:00 am, there will be an opportunity for public comment. You can also write a letter to the Commissioners and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact us at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation office with any questions: 307-739-0968. Your voice is important in preserving our ecosystem and wildlife.
If you’ve been out exploring the Snow King area trails recently you might have noticed an unusual amount of wildlife “browse” on young aspen trees and willows.
The sheer quantity of new browse is one indicator of the importance of this low elevation habitat on the edge of town to deer and moose, which winter here.
The abundance of fresh bark stripping confirms the Snow King area was heavily used by wildlife when winter closures were in place.
While it’s normal for these species to feed on tree bark, bark isn’t necessarily a preferred food source when more nutritious options are available.
Based on the sheer abundance of browse and bark stripping along Josie’s Ridge, Sink or Swim, and other trails, it’s likely protected winter range areas were especially valuable for wildlife this year, given the above average snowpack and prolonged cold temperatures.
And we have good news to share!
While wildlife clearly used the trail system and surrounding habitat, we were thrilled to hear Bridger Teton National Forest reported zero known winter range closure violations this year – a testament to the public’s awareness of the role winter range plays in helping ungulate populations conserve much needed energy.
Ungulates are the only animals that strip bark on trees. Porcupines, voles and even black bear may create similar markings.
Exactly how human presence effects wildlife behavior is complex and varies by recreation type, time of year, species impacted, and other factors.
In this case, limiting our footprint in critical areas during a challenging time of year remains one of the most useful tools we have to ensure wildlife is given every chance possible to make it through until a wider variety of habitat becomes available in the spring.
Coming off a rough winter that resulted in abnormally high statewide declines in mule deer and pronghorn, we’d like to thank you for doing your part by abiding by area closures and helping to successfully spread the word this year!
The tips of these willow branches have been munched, likely by moose. This is a common sight in the Cache Creek drainage.
Photos courtesy of Linda Merigliano
A roadside elk near Hoback Junction (photo Mark Gocke).
Have you had a chance to read the 2023 Teton County Annual Indicator Report? Being a science-based conservation organization, we love that Teton County created measurable, achievable goals to strive toward the Vision put forth in our Comprehensive Plan.
One of the indicators that the county looks at in its annual report is wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs). The county uses Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation’s roadkill Nature Mapping data to look at annual changes, a three-year running average of changes and a five-year running average of changes in WVC. The goal is to keep county wide WVC below 206 (the level measured in 2012). From our last report, 165 WVC were reported in 2021, down from 220 the previous year. However, the running averages were both above 206, suggesting that there is still not a significant downward trend.
Despite this news, we expect the county trends to start changing more significantly over the next years to decade, as wildlife crossings are built and funnel fencing directs animals to crossings and keeps them off the road surface. WYDOT has begun construction on the WY 22-390 project which will build four wildlife underpasses and reduce WVC around that intersection. Additionally, Teton County is using some of the Wildlife Crossings Specific Purpose Excise Tax, “SPET”, dollars to have a consultant team (including a well-known road ecologist) create preliminary designs for mitigating three other WVC hotspot areas in the county.
Protecting our wildlife doesn’t always happen quickly, especially when it comes to projects as big as creating wildlife crossings, but patience can bring conservation rewards in due time. We are happy to have been part of this process throughout our 30-year history… we were founded on the goal of reducing wildlife roadkill in Teton County and we remain closely involved today!