ARGOS USER STORIES

Sage Grouse Tagging

Told by Thomas Gray1 and Jason Wood2

CLS America, Inc.1

Brigham Young University2

Most of us who have watched the Life or Planet Earth series fell in love. They are mesmerizing, and I oftentimes find myself reaching in the dvd bin to watch them again. One of my favorites involves strutting birds. Why? Their mating dances and the efforts that they go through are quite amazing, and I would like to think I would come back reincarnated as one of them strutting my way through the desert.

 

A perfect example, the sage grouse! Here is a clip from BBC on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KdOvNSDxws) showing male sage grouse showcasing their dances. The accompanying music is quite fitting, too!

 

Fast forward to April 25th, I find myself flying into Salt Lake City, UT from Monterey, CA. I am packed to the gills in winter wear which seems strange because it’s in the 70s in Monterey, but when the cold frosty wind hits my face in route to the rental car I don’t mind. Mind you, it was in the 70s just two days prior, compared to today’s high of 47 degree (April 25th). To make it more amusing, it was back in the 70s and 80s the following week. Somehow I manage to always break inverse weather no matter where I go.

 

From Salt Lake City I drive south to Provo, UT to meet up with Jason Wood. Jason is attending Brigham Young University, and the thesis for his Master’s Degree is on sage-grouse  winter forage and movement corridors. His research will give valuable feedback on extensive habitat treatments that have occurred in south central Utah.

 

After meeting in Provo we caravanned south to a small cabin just outside of Koosharem, Utah. (It’s about 3 hours south of Salt Lake City). We spent the next few hours going over the process of how Jason captures and tags sage grouse, and up to this point I was incredibly ignorant. I won’t even go into what I thought was how it worked because I was so far off!

 

Sometime around 6:30pm or so we headed even further south (about an hour) to meet up with the rest of the field crew. Some came from the United States Forestry Service (USFS) and others from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Each of the groups work together to pool their resources in order to better manage the sage grouse population in this area, and it seems to work extremely well (from an outsider’s opinion).

 

Guess what we did once we all met up? If you guess drove further south then you’re right. The birds sure don’t care how far we go to find them! We headed a bit south to a well-known lek. (According to Wikipedia, “A lek is an aggregation of male animals gathered to engage in competitive displays, lekking, that may entice visiting females which are surveying prospective partners for copulation.”). I picture the males lining up to the bar, ordering a few drinks, and then heading down to dance for the ladies.

 

We spent the next couple of minutes going over roles (ie: who would do what) so that we were all on the same page.

 

Jason strapped a generator to his back and connected a spotlight to it. I would describe his job as the guide, spotter, or coordinator.

 

Two interns from USFS carried pole mounted nets and thus we can call them netters. To better visualize, the poles were roughly 8-10’ in length, made from wood, and had a diameter of 2”. Attached to one end was the net which was triangle shaped (rounded corners) and large…perhaps typically used for fishing. I am drawing this picture in your head to point out they are large, and I carried one for the remainder of the week so I feel compelled to describe them.

 

Today my job was photographer. With me I carried my Canon 7D with 24mm F1.4 and 8mm fisheye lenses along with a GoPro strapped to my chest (virtually useless in low/no light, fyi).

 

And off we go, Jason leading (the only light source) with netters on each side and me hopping from one side to another. About two minutes into this, we catch a bird! It was a bit surreal. I assure you that we were not this lucky again.

 

How do you “catch” a bird?

 

Well, it’s strikingly simple and yet quite challenging at the same time. The spotter uses the spotlight to disorient the bird by shaking the light at it while one of the netters sprints towards the bird lowering the net cautiously on top of it pinning it to the ground. In doing so they’re laying the long pole flat on the ground and shimmying up to the net and immobilizing the bird so that it does not break free from the net. It doesn’t take much, really all you have to do is place your hands on the bird with the lightest of pressure applied.

 

Once the bird is secured by the net the rest of the process is also pretty straightforward. Jason had one of the USFS interns extract the bird from under the net and place it in a lightweight, breathable sack in order to get its weight. After the weight and sex are determined, the bird is then held securely so that an Argos satellite tag can be attached (backpack form factor / attachment). The magnet is removed and a confirmation of the reception is made to ensure there are no transmitter issues. That data along with a variety of other information are collected and jotted down as well. (By the way, I now know how to sex a sage grouse based on a number of unique features: white and yellow gular sacs, colors around the eyes, and males are generally much larger than females.)

 

Once the bird is fitted with the transmitter and all the data recorded it is released on the ground, and after a few moments it flies away into the darkness.

 

And back to it we go finding several birds over the next few days. The process changed slightly when we went from on foot to riding all-terrain vehicles (cover more ground). On my last night there we were able to recapture birds that we had tagged the previous days in order to ensure that the transmitter hadn’t moved or bothered the birds.

 

After shadowing the rest of the team for the week, I had the opportunity to be the netter, and what an amazing rush it was! I have tried to do my best to describe the process; however, without going through it yourself I am not doing it much justice.

 

During one of the days Jason and I went out on a hunt to recover two Argos transmitters that had been stationary for too long. This, with many species, is an indicator that the tagged animal suffered mortality or the tag had fallen off. The third likelihood in our case was that a female was nesting, so we were cognizant of this in order to not disturb them while on-nest.

 

The great thing about these particular transmitters (manufactured by GeoTrak) is that they were equipped with GPS receivers. So, we were fortunate enough to have GPS locations of where the tags were last reporting.

 

The first tag reported only about 100 feet from the road, and we found that tag within about ten minutes. I imagine we spent more time walking to where the tag reported than looking for the tag. Fortunately the tag was in re-useable condition, and in this case it appeared that the bird suffered a mortality event. We found several sets of clumped sage grouse breast feathers lying nearby to where the tag was found indicating that something had got to the bird.

 

The second tag was significantly more challenging to find access to. What I find complicated on land searching for transmitters is that you generally have little to no idea what land access you are going to have. In this case, we spent a fair bit of time just trying to figure out how we could get nearby access to the tag eventually finding a road that took us close. The tag was a bit harder to find, but we found it. Jason suspects this bird also suffered mortality as there were several indicators (due to the tag damage) that some predator bit into the tag several times eventually leaving it behind.

 

All in all it was an amazing trip learning more about sage grouse which I believe to be the most tracked bird using the Argos satellite system (through CLS America). In April, we received transmissions from 709 unique individuals covering two countries and nine states!

 

I want to thank Jason Wood for taking the time to educate me on sage grouse and his project and allowing me to tag along (pun intended). In addition, I want to thank the members of USFS and BLM who were very informative, helpful, and extremely welcoming.

A pair of pronghorn that I caught a glimpse of outside the cabin in Koosharem, UT.

Jason Wood (right) weighing a sage grouse. In some cases males can weigh twice as much as females.

After removing the magnet from the Argos transmitter, Jason checks it against a RF receiver to assure that it's functioning.

The sage grouse is removed from the breathable sack and secured while the tag is being fitted to its back (much like a backpack that you might wear). 

Jason takes a few moments to line up the tag on the bird so that it's not favoring one side over the other. 

The tag is almost secure at this point; all that is left is to make sure it's even and add the crimps to hold it in place.

The bird is ready to be released as soon as the excess material is trimmed (ie: the lines running off the back of the harness).