This winter, The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation has been lucky enough to get to play a small role in helping students at Jackson Hole Middle School (JHMS) start an afterschool club called Feathers, Fins, and Fur. The club is the first of its kind at JHMS. It has a wildlife focus and has set a goal of learn more about local wildlife and find ways to lend a helping hand where possible.
Students from the Fins, Feather and Fur club build chickadee boxes to install this spring.
At our first meeting we made wildlife journals where students now keep records of the wildlife they see each week. In mid-December, students snowshoed at the Gros Ventre Campground for the Christmas Bird Count to aid in the long-term citizen science effort. Since then, the club has continued to meet regularly each Thursday after school.
The students also participated in several bilingual lessons about the wildlife of Jackson Hole. In some cases students prepare the lessons themselves and present information to fellow students. In other cases, mentors assist with the lesson planning. Last week, the club met in the school’s shop and created chickadee nest boxes which the students will hang in their neighborhoods to enhance nesting habitat for secondary cavity nesters.
Creating nature journals to record wildlife observations was one of the club’s first activities.
Students had an accompanying lesson about cavity-nesting species in Jackson, which was presented in both English and Spanish. They then drew their favorite cavity-nesting species in their wildlife journals.
Our next goal is to engage in a wildlife monitoring project on High School Butte, as part of a larger habitat restoration collaborative between several groups in Jackson.
It’s hard to beat a science project where you get to study wintering-habits of animals like mule deer right out the front door of your school!
Alex Patia is a birder and naturalist who works for Teton Science Schools as a wildlife guide. He lives in Jackson with his husky, Mia.
It’s no secret that winter in Jackson Hole is harsh for wildlife. Many animals migrate out of the area to avoid the deep snow and frigid subzero temps that occur here. You likely know about some of our more charismatic mammals that tough out the winter here, like the elk and bighorn sheep on the National Elk Refuge, but many bird species also stay for the winter. If you don’t normally pay much attention to birds you could be forgiven for thinking that ravens and magpies are the only birds that stick around for winter, they are certainly some of the most abundant and conspicuous winter residents we have!
Even if you are looking for birds in winter you’ll likely only encounter 10-30 species in a day around Jackson. Given how hard it can be to find many birds in winter it may surprise you to find out that 80 species of birds can be found in Teton County, Wyoming every winter. I have put together a list of these 80 bird species and how likely you are to encounter them as well as a list of 40 additional species that have been documented in Teton County but do not normally occur most winters. In this post I want to tell you about some of these fascinating species, their adaptations for surviving the cold, and what you can do to help the birds!
I could tell you about all 80 species of birds that reside in Teton County, Wyoming for winter, but that would require writing a book, so instead I want to highlight some winter birds that can be found right in your backyard. Specifically, I am choosing to discuss birds that will readily come to check out bird feeders and offer nice views vs. species that hide in dense forests all winter. Ravens and Black-billed Magpies may be the easiest corvids to see but if you live in an area within or near forest you may be treated to other members of this bird family including Clark’s Nutcrackers, Steller’s Jays, and Canada Jays. These three corvids breed high in the mountains but in winter they will move to lower elevations and may even visit your bird feeders! In milder winters Jackson Hole can also get Blue Jays, very different from their cousin Steller’s Jays with paler blue backs, white underside, and no black crest.
Black-capped Chickadee by Alex Patia
There are two families of small forest dwelling birds that are likely familiar because of how curious they can be around humans and how objectively cute they are: chickadees and nuthatches. Our two chickadee species are Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, commonly seen year round but more often in small flocks in winter. Both have black heads and pale gray bodies but the Mountain Chickadee has a distinct white eyebrow that is slanted enough to give them an adorably angry expression. Black-capped Chickadees give the familiar “chicka-dee-dee-dee” call that is typically an alarm call to warn all small birds. The greater the danger the more “dee”s they will add. Nuthatches are skilled at climbing tree bark and will go in any direction, oftentimes going down headfirst or even hanging upside down. The Red-breasted Nuthatch is more common than it’s much larger cousin the White-breasted Nuthatch but both will readily visit feeders. These birds are well named because the best way to tell them apart is indeed the color of the breast.
In much of the lower 48 states winter is the best time to see native sparrows at backyard bird feeders… but not in Jackson. Even the hardy sparrow Dark-eyed Junco, a sign of winter affectionately referred to as “snow birds” in the eastern US, only winter in small numbers here in Jackson Hole. But what we lack in sparrow diversity in winter we make up for with finches! Many of our winter finch species can be found year round here, but some like Black Rosy Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, and Pine Grosbeaks spend most of the year high in the Tetons and only descend to Jackson occasionally in winter. The most familiar and abundant backyard finches are House Finches and American Goldfinches, both of which are generally most commonly seen in town, especially in winter, as they do quite well in urban environments.
Cassin’s Finches look somewhat similar to House Finches but with a thinner bill, pink color on males, and thin crisp streaks rather than wide blurry streaks on the females. Pine Siskins, a smaller and less yellow cousin of the American Goldfinch, can form huge flocks in winter and will make themselves known with their loud “zeeeeeee” calls. Red Crossbills are common year round but unlike other finches they will rarely visit feeders, instead preferring to use their specialized bills to open the cones of specific conifer trees.
Bathing Red Crossbill by Alex Patia
Here in Jackson Hole we primarily have type 5 or Lodgepole Red Crossbills that have bills just the right size for opening Lodgepole pine cones. They will also feed on Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce cones. White-winged Crossbills are much more seldom seen, as they are a more irruptive species, meaning they may venture south or to lower elevations in huge flocks some years but will be notably absent other winters.
Evening Grosbeaks, a giant yellow finch with black wings and tail, are similarly irruptive and highly nomadic moving around throughout the winter. If you see Evening Grosbeaks in your yard count yourself lucky and savor the moment! Also highly nomadic are the Gray-crowned and Black Rosy Finches. Gray-crowned Rosy Finches are strictly a winter visitor to Jackson Hole as they breed in mountain ranges closer to the Pacific coast from the Sierra Nevada and north to the tundra of Alaska. Black Rosy Finches breed in the high alpine of a few isolated locations around the interior West including the Tetons.
Rosy Finches by Alex Patia
One adaptation Rosy Finches have for frigid nights is roosting in large communal flocks inside caves, rock crevices, barns, and old Cliff Swallow nests! Every couple of years Common Redpolls will appear, often among large flocks of Pine Siskins to which they look similar save for a stubby yellow bill, namesake red cap, and pinkish breast on males.
Lastly, if you are very very lucky you may have my favorite finch visit your yard: the Pine Grosbeak. This is a truly giant finch with bright red head and breast on males and a more subdued but still beautiful yellow head and gray body on females. Pine Grosbeaks spend most of their year in subalpine forests but will come to lower elevations in winter to visit feeders or like Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings they will feed on lingering fruit in hawthorns or ornamental cherry trees.
If you are wanting to attract birds to your yard and help improve their survival through the cold, harsh winter you only need three things: food, shelter, and water. You may think that you’ll need a heated birdbath to supply birds with an ice-free water source, but most birds will readily eat snow as a water source. So, you really only need two things: food and shelter. If you have any large native trees or dense shrubs you not only have shelter but also food in the form of hibernating insects in the bark and seeds in trees. You can supplement bird’s normal diet by putting out bird feeders but there are a few things you should consider with any bird feeder setup. If you’re not wanting to feed or attract rodents the feeders will need to be hanging from a pole more than ten feet from the nearest trees or branches and with a baffle or metal cone about halfway up the pole so rodents cannot climb up.
Red-breasted Nuthatch, a common visitor to backyard feeders, by Alex Patia
The feeders should also be high enough up that a bear cannot reach them, especially if you intend to feed the birds outside of winter. And for the sake of the bird’s health please, please clean your feeders! If you never clean your feeders birds will get sick as a result by spreading diseases like salmonella (usually spread by lethargic Pine Siskins) and conjunctivitis (spread by House Finches with swollen eyes) especially if bird droppings are allowed to accumulate.
There is a very easy way to avoid your feeders become ground zero for a bird pandemic though, simply use bleach water or hot soapy water to clean them (a brush with a long handle is great for getting inside the feeder), rinse thoroughly afterwards, and let them dry completely before placing back outside. Try to only put out enough birdseed that will get eaten in a week or less to minimize mold and bacteria growth on the food, and then you can simply clean the feeders between filling them. I recommend feeding nyjer, black oil sunflower seeds, and suet. Avoid seed mixes with milo and millet as most native birds don’t eat these, but rodents and invasive European Starlings and House Sparrows will! If you follow these tips your feeders should stay pest and disease free!
As you may know, the February challenge for Nature Mapping is to report finches. Because most finches are so irruptive with huge fluctuations in movements, range, and population size year-to-year any and all data on when and where they do occur can be incredibly useful to better understand their changing populations. Hopefully, with this list of common winter backyard birds you will feel confident in spotting and reporting the feathered friends visiting your backyard this winter.
I was recently reminded of the importance of taking small, individual, and conservation-minded actions. John Norton and Kathy O’Neil, Nature Mappers with the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, reached out to me with some questions about how to make their windows safer for birds. With the multitude of issues facing wildlife and the environment, it is easy to become jaded when it comes to our own actions, but John and Kathy’s conscientious approach to solving the window problem at their house reminded me that taking these small actions can be the difference between life and death for our fellow denizens of the planet.
Indeed, many of us read the shocking report published in 2019, by Kenneth Rosenberg, et al. indicating that there are approximately 3 billion fewer birds in North America than there were in the 1970’s. This equates to an almost 30% decline in bird abundance across species. The authors used data from multiple monitoring networks (including citizen science efforts like the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count) to determine this number.
Declines are being seen across many species and are not only limited to rare and specialist species such as the Black Rosy-Finch, but also include habitat generalists, such as the Brewer’s Blackbird, and introduced species such as the House Sparrow. The causes of these declines are broad and often interacting. For instance, urbanization and industrial agriculture converts native habitat which in turn impacts insect populations. Not only are the birds losing their homes; they are also losing their food resources.
Bird declines due to land use change are exacerbated by direct mortality. In 2014, Scott Loss and his coauthors estimated the annual anthropogenic mortality of North American birds. They found that behind domestic cats, windows are the second leading source of human-caused mortality of birds. Automobile collisions are third. In North America, between cats, windows, and cars, billions of birds are killed annually.
Automobile collisions are difficult. Roadkill is a widely recognized byproduct of our transportation system, and while collisions with many mammals can be mitigated with the implementation of crossing structures and funnel fencing, among other measures, it is difficult to keep cars from hitting birds. Speed reduction and carpooling can help, but ultimately, bird-vehicle collisions are likely here to stay.
Fortunately, the other two direct impacts can be mitigated.
Cats are a controversial topic, yet the answer is quite simple. Keep your cat under your control. There are many ways to do this. You can keep your cat safely indoors, where it is also less likely to get killed by a car, maimed in a fight, or preyed upon by wildlife. Just be sure to provide plenty of enrichment for your beloved pet inside your home. You can even walk your cat on a leash, like you would a dog, to get it the exercise it needs and the outdoor experience it may crave. If your cat loves to lounge in the sun, you can create a “catio,” which is a contained extension of your house where your cat can roam, but birds and other potential prey items remain safe.
Bells and brightly colored collars are not sufficient to keep birds safe, especially during fledgling season when young birds are not savvy enough to escape predation by these skilled hunters. Even if you do not have a cat, there are still ways you can become involved in this issue.Visit the American Bird Conservancy’s cat page for more information.
Windows are a relatively easy fix, as well. You may have heard of the mass mortalities that occur as birds are migrating over large cities at night and become disoriented by light. Like moths, nocturnal migrants are drawn to lights and exhaust themselves as they fly around high-rise buildings in large cities or die when they collide with the glass. The National Audubon Society and other groups have formed “Lights Out” initiatives to decrease avian mortality during spring and fall migration. Here in Jackson, birds and other wildlife can benefit from turning the lights off at night, not to mention the energy savings to humans and contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But the problem is not only in large cities. Residential windows, like many of ours, are also fatal. Although individual residences and other low-rise buildings are not likely to see localized mass mortality events, there are more of these types of structures on the planet and the cumulative impact of these buildings is actually greater than the impact of the fewer lit up skyscrapers. Birds see their habitat reflected in the windows of low rise and residential buildings and collide with windows when they attempt to fly into the reflection of trees and other habitat features. Even if you see a bird appear to recover and fly away, many window strike victims die later from internal injuries. Fear not!
There are many simple solutions that will make your windows bird-safe. Most solutions involve using something to break up the reflection of the habitat. You can do this with tempera paint, window marking pens, tape, or paracord. Just make sure the markings on the exterior of your windows are at least 1/8-inch-wide and no more than 4 inches apart (2 inches is best, especially if you are thinking of little ones, like hummingbirds).
Decals, such as raptor stickers, are not effective, unless you place many of them on your windows, such that the maximum spacing between them is about 2-4 inches. You may think the markings on the windows will be obnoxious, but when I installed DIY Zen wind curtains on my home, it was only a matter of time before I did not even notice the paracord anymore; and window strikes declined remarkably and immediately! Even when I did notice the addition to my home early on, it reminded me that I was proud and happy to think of the lives I had saved. Similar to my experience, John reports that since installing his bird-saving window markings, he has noticed a reduction in strikes; however, the real test will be this winter, once his feeders are back up.
I hope you are inspired by John and Kathy, your fellow citizens who have chosen to take a small personal action in their lives to help birds. I hope you choose to make a small change in your own life that is beneficial to the other creatures with which we share this lovely world.
As wildlife conservation professionals, we remind ourselves to celebrate the successes. Sometimes we get so wrapped into understanding and mitigating the challenges facing wildlife that we feel frustrated. In these moments, it is sometimes in our best interest, our community’s best interest, and the best interest of the ecosystem to also tally up and celebrate the successes we have achieved. By doing so, we rediscover the wind in our sails. By sharing our observations of our successes, we hope to provide inspiration for our colleagues and friends (all of you!) to continue your conservation efforts!
We are happy to recognize a list of recent achievements that we and our colleagues have made happen. Did you follow the hard work that the County did to update the Wildlife Feeding Land Development Regulation (LDR) this spring? Did you know that the LDR does not include land in the Town of Jackson? Jackson manages wildlife feeding concerns separately from the County and they have embarked on discussions about their Wildlife Feeding Ordinance.
At a recent Town Council meeting, staff and Council members were unanimously in favor of improving the language in the ordinance to provide better security for bears and other wildlife. Councilman Rooks aptly summed up the sentiment in the meeting, “We are blessed to live in bear country and we need to act like it.” The Town will go through two more iterations of reviewing the ordinance language before they approve tighter restrictions on wildlife feeding, whether intentional or not.
Do you remember when JHWF installed ‘wildlife ramps’ on the Snake River levee? That project fledged circa 2013 under the leadership of Greg Griffith with help from Gene Linn from the nearby Linn Ranch. The goal was to make it easier for all wildlife, but especially hooved animals, to access the river by giving them a path though riprap (large, uneven rocks) in which an ungulate could easily break a leg. Three ramps were built and trail cameras immediately captured images of elk, moose, deer, and even coyotes drawn to this new, preferred access to the Snake River.
This summer we worked the with Teton Conservation District to install additional wildlife ramps along the levee system near the Wilson Bridge. The additional ramps augmenting the impact of the existing ramps by increasing the number of easy access locations on the many miles of riprap along the levee Our trail cameras are currently in place, collecting images of wildlife using the ramps. We can’t wait to show you what we’ve found!
Another win for wildlife in our community has been the system of exclusionary fencing and wildlife underpasses on S. Hwy 89, between Melody Ranch and Hoback Junction. Preliminary data has already shown a reduction in wildlife-vehicle collisions (especially involving mule deer) as animals are learning to use the underpasses to move beneath the roadway.
Last month, we worked with our partners at WYDOT, Teton Conservation District, Wyoming Game and Fish and Teton County to design, order, and install signage on the many pedestiran gates along this stretch of roadway. When these gates are accidentally left open, wildlife are able to access the highway instead of being funneled by the fencing to the underpasses. Ensuring the gates stay closed is important in order to allow the fencing and underpass system to do its job moving forward.
Of course, there are staffing successes to report too!
We can’t say enough about the work ethic and positive attitude of our summer intern Charlie Brandin. Charlie played such an important role supporting our bird-banding team in action this summer. She also eagerly pitched in on several fence pulls and helped us collect data on existing fences in Grand Teton National Park as part of a major fence inventory project we’re undertaking with both the Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest.
While Charlie recently departed to begin her junior year of college on the East Coast, we are now looking forward to filling a new, full-time position of “BearWise Jackson Hole Program Manager.” This position will allow JHWF and our BearWise Jackson Hole partners to better address the persistence of human-bear conflict here in Teton County. Our goal is to have the new Program Manager out in the field helping to reduce conflicts by mid-November!
In recognition of all of this and more, won’t you join us in celebration?
Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation is excited to announce a new partnership with beaver researcher and hydrologist Jeff Burrell and a new project for interested Nature Mappers – Beaver Project! In Beaver Project, Nature Mappers will provide information about beaver sign they detect on the landscape in the Jackson Hole area. Read on for more information about Beaver Project from Jeff:
It is well documented that beavers provide a wide range of ecosystem services including benefits for water quality, water quantity, and fish and wildlife habitat. Beavers also make ecosystems more resilient to the impacts of climate change. These benefits include reducing peak stream flows, and so limiting erosion and damaging flashfloods; improving drought resilience and increasing ecologically beneficial natural water storage; stabilizing water temperatures; and creating/maintaining fire breaks and refugia from fires.
“More than ever, we need beavers doing what they do so well, but they need our help. Information provided by citizen scientists will help wildlife managers understand where beavers are on the landscape and what services they are providing. In Beaver Project we will gather this information by a simple process of field surveys and observations. Beavers leave behind a record of where they are or were active, and what they are or were doing. So not only can we learn about where they are now but where they were active in past. This will help us understand trends in beaver activities so federal and state agencies as well as private landowners can take actions to help ensure beaver conservation and restoration.”
Beaver Project Protocol:
Email email@example.com to be added to Beaver Project in your Nature Mapping account. Not a trained Nature Mapper? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for the August 24th training.
While out hiking along creeks, check waterways for beaver sign. If you see sign on the landscape, please consider Nature Mapping it.
If you see a live beaver, please use Casual Observations, rather than Beaver Project to document the sighting. Beaver Project is for sign only. If you observed a live beaver and beaver sign, you can indicate the live beaver in the notes section of the Beaver Project form.
Beaver activity indicators are conveniently grouped into the following categories. Because many beaver activity indicator persist through time, we can also group activities into current activities (within the past few months, recent activities (within the past year or two, or past activities (more than two years old).
Please view Jeff’s Beaver Sign Identification Seminar on our YouTube channel for more information.
In Nature Mapping Jackson Hole’s Beaver Project, check the boxes of all activity indicators you observe on the landscape, and their ages.
1. Clipping and girdling:
Beavers are famous for chewing wood to gather food and building materials. As they do so, beavers leave distinctive patterns of tooth marks. ‘Clipping’ means that the beaver directly chewed through the wood; ‘girdling’ means that the beaver partially chewed through the wood and then let wind and gravity do the rest.
Current: the wood has a fresh appearance (fresh wood color with sharp tooth marks)
Recent: the wood has changed to a darker color but still retains sharp markings
Past: the wood is much darker and more weathered in appearance with cracks and feathered markings
2. Food rafts, caches and feeding stations:
Beaver gather and store branches to eat (now or later). These branches will have the characteristic tooth marks of clipping and girdling, and can be grouped into age categories in the same fashion as clipping and girdling.
Beavers move branches from harvest location to ponds and streams. To do so they pull the material into the water; these activities leave behind a smooth ramp in the mud adjacent to the pond or stream. These ramps are ‘beaver slides.’
Current: the slide is very smooth in appearance with few if any other animal tracks
Recent: the slide is still somewhat smooth but will likely show other animal tracks
Past: hard to distinguish between a beaver slide and animal path, but the location will help identity as a beaver slide
4. Bank dens, bank lodges and free-standing lodges
A bank den is a simple home burrowed into the stream or river bank. A bank lodge is similar to a bank den but has been reinforced by beavers building a dome of branches and mud above the burrow. A free-standing lodge is a pile of branches reinforced with mud within the pond.
Bank den: current (fresh, maintained appearance with current clipping around the entrance, recent (similar but the entrance will show some degradation and only recent clippings, past (very degraded and likely at least partially collapsed.
Bank lodge: see above but now we can use appearance of reinforcing branches and mud to categorize as current, recent and past
Free-standing lodge: current (current clipping and fresh mud piled on top of branches, recent (recent clipping and mud at least partially washed away, past (past clipping and most if not all mud washed away
5. Scent mounds:
Beaver use piles of debris (leaves and twigs) and castoreum (a glandular scent) to mark territories.
Current: fresh leave and twig appearance and scent
Recent: appearance more weathered and little if any scent
Past: likely not identifiable as a scent mound
6. Tracks and scat:
These are the most ephemeral of the indicators we will use. Mainly note if observed
Current: fresh appearance
Recent: degraded appearance
Past: unlikely to be identified
Beavers excavate canals from the channel or pond to provide safe access to food resources.
Current: sharp boundaries with little vegetation overgrowth
Recent: boundaries less distinct with some vegetation over growth and partial collapse
Past: substantial over growth and collapse
Since dams are for the most part constructed from branches and mud, use appearance of these
Current: fresh cut branches and mud
Recent: recent branch appearance and mud partially washed away
Past: past branch appearance and mud mostly gone
Thank you for your contributions to this important data set. We look forward to understanding more about beaver distribution in Jackson Hole from our partnership with Jeff!