My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tending the Grayling Fish Eggs

One of the strategies Red Rock Lakes NWR uses to increase the Arctic grayling population is to raise babies.  The do that at a remote site incubator (RSI).  This incubator is at the Elk Spring. Getting there is lots of fun.  It is about 10 miles from headquarters, over Red Rock Creek and past Widgeon Pond.  There are long views across prairies to the hills and the snow-covered mountains behind them.

Stewart, one of the summer hires and a housemate,  let Kirsten another summer hire and housemate,  and me tag along and he showed us how to remove the eggs infected by a fungus.  This is done each day to buy time for the other fish to hopefully get to hatch. 

View across Elk Creek to  Centennial Mountain Range
 W had about a quarter of a mile hike to the site. I heard house wrens, yellow warblers, common ravens,  and other birds who were busy defending their territories and foraging.

Hiking in up Elk Creek to the spring
I was surprised at the incubation system.  It consists of 4 black 5-gallon buckets with attached pipe system.  Water comes directly from the mouth of one of the spring openings to the pipes and and then is returned to the creek after feeding each bucket individually. The tops are covered to keep the eggs in the dark, which is healthiest for them.

The Incubator 
There is a LOT of watercress there.  I had to take a few bites.  It is still as deliciously peppery as I remembered from my encounters with it as a child.


Then it was time to get to work.  Stewart took the 5th bucket, which has a much bigger fungus infection in it and demonstrated how to suck out the diseased eggs.  I brought a towel but he is using his jacket to screen the bucket from the really intense sunlight. He uses a plastic pipette to suction up white eggs.  This bucket had around 150 infected eggs. Kristen and I both had about 50 infected eggs in each of our buckets and were able to each finish two buckets while he did this one.

Stewart pipetting eggs

The eggs - we took out all the white ones

Another view down the creek - I found this on the way back. 

The eggs hatch in about three weeks. Then the fry will struggle to live, but most of them will be eaten.  The few that do make it can live up to thirty-two years and will start spawning at four - seven years. 

I'm writing this while waiting to help Stacy with her telemetry project.  She works with the guy who put the radios in the grayling.  (See last blog for a picture of one of the fish we will be tracking today.)  My job is to be the moose diverter.  I get to carry the bull horn and bear spray and take down the data while she holds the radio receiver.  Hopefully this old body will make through the hike along Red Creek. (Just back from that trip - and still mostly alive - but never did get to prove my prowess at scaring off a moose.)

I also am going to survey bluebird boxes.  Really looking forward to doing that job.  We have mountain bluebirds here and they are fighting with the tree swallows for the nest boxes.

The male bluebird is fending off a pair of tree swallows as the female arrives with nest material.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Fishy Story - with the Fish Guys

I met two guys, Jason Marsh and Josh Melton, collectively referred to as the "Fish Guys" who were moving out to another house as I was moving in to the bunkhouse.  They are doing a survey of Arctic grayling and go out three times a day to take fish from fish traps and tag them. This sounded so interesting that I asked to go along with them on Sunday. What a fabulous learning experience.

There are only two native populations of Arctic grayling left in the lower forty - this one and one in Big Hole, Montana so the state, Fish and Wildlife Service, and universities all have studies going to try and save them.  Jason and Josh are collecting data for the FWS.

We started the survey just before 9:00 A.M. on Red Rock Creek. The first thing the guys had to do was to clear trash and silt from the weir.  The water was the highest it's been in the fifteen years the survey has been going.

Donning the waders

The survey is set up with a weir and two traps.  One catches fish swimming downstream and the other catches fish swimming upstream.  Fish swim upstream to spawn and back down to Red Rock Lake after they finish spawning. There are four main species of fish in the creek: the grayling, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, brook trout, and white suckers. The cutthroat and brook trout are non-native and are being removed. The guys kept all the trout for the food bank.  I volunteered to behead and gut them.  We packed them into bags of two fish and froze them for delivery to the food bank.  I also got some trout for the house.

Cleaning out the trash behind the weir - Jason is doing the silt dance to stir it up and move it downstream

 Today, most of the Arctic grayling had spawned - only one pair was swimming upstream to spawn. But the suckers were in the midst of spawning so we had lots of them in the downstream trap and they were almost exclusively in the upstream trap. And one of the cutthroat trout I cleaned had a few fish eggs.

Hauling fish to the survey station



Inserting the tag

Newly tagged grayling

A recaptured radio tagged grayling - from a study by another graduate student

The beautiful dorsal fin of a male Arctic grayling

The only egg-carrying female captured

Wonder why they call them suckermouths ?

Cutthroat trout on the way to the food bank

And charity does begin at home.

The end
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Sorry for the lateness of the post.  But I've been moving in, and had to drive 230 miles yesterday to buy groceries.  That ended up being an almost all day endeavor. And I'm at 6000 feet above sea level, so I'm still moving slowly.  I'll have Monday off and then get my official orientation on Tuesday. Hopefully, I'll be back to my usual energy level.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Visit to the Garden of the Gods

I drove fourteen hours on my first day of migration from Texas to Montana, so I could have a few days to play. I spent the first night in  Pueblo, Colorado and had only a forty minute drive to the Garden of the Gods the next day.  It opens at 5:00 A.M. and I arrived there just before sunrise to find most of the parking spaces in the first parking lot full.  There were two groups of runners preparing to leave, along with several other people who were out to exercise by themselves.

But soon they dispersed and I had the place mostly to myself, except for occasional walkers or runners. The parking lot to the visitor center was closed, but I walked in to get a picture of Pikes Peak framed by a red rock formation .  I hiked part of the trail that goes around the edge of the park while waiting for the sun to light up the huge sandstone formations.  Then I cut through the central area.  Swallows were everywhere.  I expected them to be cliff swallows but I could see they had white bellies. After looking at a picture of one of them, and seeing a blue-green back, I decided they must be tree swallows. They were using the holes in the sandstone just as though they were holes in a tree.  Other birds soon started calling, then one of my favorites, a canyon wren, sang its wonderful waterfall of a song. Other birds I saw or heard included scrub jays, ravens, and magpies.  I couldn't recognize several species of small birds that were busy feeding or chasing each other.

I stayed until the visitor center opened and visited it and enjoyed the movie.  The entrance is free but the fourteen minute movie was four dollars.

Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak

Most of the rocks are the red sandstone

Some of  runners leaving the parking lot

The main parking lot and formation

Catching the first light

The walking area as seen from the perimeter trail

Tree swallow at nest in rocks

Think these are t he Siamese twins and a view of Pikes Peak

Bee attractants

These were the only ones of their kind I found
Balancing rock

I was so close to Pike's Pike that I decided drive up to the top. My overstuffed car managed to make it up to the top.

The area around Pike's Pike was a cloud factory - this at the top by the tram track

I'm staying with Natalie and her daughter in the Boulder area.  I'll spend one more night on the road and then will be at Red Rock on Friday morning, if all goes well.  Natalie and I had a wonderful time in the Denver Botanical Garden today and missed the tornados and most of the hail, but did get in some heavy rain on the way home.

Off to get ready to start another long day of travel and then get to sleep.

Night all.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Stroll Through Herman Park

I'm selling my two Cannon lenses. I no longer want to haul them around, since I seldom use them. A guy called about my Sigma 50-500.  He lived in Humble, so I offered to meet him halfway. After we met, (and I sold him the lens) I went on to Herman Park and took a stroll and then went to the 3-D Galapagos movie.

The park was overrun with thousands of school children. So I quickly went towards the more remote areas of the park. I came upon a strange structure.  It appeared to be a house made of sticks, but when I went inside it, it was a kind of a maze. When I got home I found it is called Boogie Woogie.  It was designed by Patrick Dougherty who is famous for designing quasi-architectural structures out of twigs. I was built with the help of 150 volunteers and ten truck-loads of invasive tallow tree saplings. It will remain here a few years.

View from outside

There are lots of choices for how to move around inside

Wind Waves - another art-in-the-park piece

The next big change I noticed was that there were no gardens - no rose garden, herb garden, native plant garden, wetlands garden, nada. Even the building where garden clubs used to meet is gone. Instead there is a big bare area, behind a fence, with lots of tarp posters with pictures and information about what will be coming to these combined spaces.  This is a fifteen -acre area, so it will look dramatically different in the fall. Can't wait to get to visit the completed garden.

Bare space is being modified

And supposedly, in October, 2014, it will look like this. 

So there were very few flowers anywhere.  I found a few late bloomers in the Japanese garden where I also enjoyed the green landscape, with it's myriad textures and contrasts.

Society Garlic almost blooming

The waterfall pond and streams add tranquility and are enjoyed by both  birds and people.

A fledgling blue jay 

The new growth on the pines was  lovely close-up

Daylilies were one of the few blooming plants in the Japanese garden

I continued my walk into the native plantings area of the park. I found black-bellied whistling ducks, along with Muscovy ducks, mallard ducks and mallard/Peking duck crosses. There were also hords of grackles and pigeons, and a group of trees held several species of migrating warblers.

In the native area, this hover fly was enjoying these flowers.

As I walked around the lake, I enjoyed the view of the entrance of the park with high rises behind it and visitors interacting with the place and the animals.

View across the lake to the entrance area

Family  feeding the pigeons

I stopped  for a few minutes at Miller Theatre and joined hundreds of children watching an operatic version of Rapunzel. This was the destination for some of the throngs of children but other school groups were having lunch, and when I went to the Galapagos movie, I was the only adult there that wasn't monitoring children.  And they were packed into the museum area. (Miller Theatre has totally free productions from many of the art venues in Houston. Check out this year's schedule here.  I've always loved going to the productions and sitting on a blanket or chairs on the hillside.

Miller Theatre and the hill behind it used by viewers

Kids watching Rapunzel

 If you live in the Houston, Texas Area and want to learn more about Herman Park, click here to read their newsletters. Herman Park also houses the Houston Zoo and the Houston Museum of Natural Science so it has always been one of my favorite destinations. The park is celebrating its Centennial Anniversary this year and is really sprucing itself up with lots of exciting new art and gardens, as well as repairing damage to trails, and wild areas.

Oh yes, If you need  a 100 mm Canon image-stabilized macro, I have a deal for you. Lens is in new condition and takes wonderful macro pictures. 

When this blog comes out, I'll be visiting my my daughter and family in the Texas Hill Country. Then it's on to Montana.  Getting excited!  I  may not be able to get a post out next week since I'll be traveling.   But I'll catch you up on my adventures as soon as I can. I plan to visit the Garden of the Gods in Colorado and will be living in the most beautiful of wildlife refuges.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

In the Pink: The Lives of Spoonbills

I recently visited the wading bird rookery at High Island.  In the last few years, there have been more and more roseate spoonbills competing for nesting spots with great ,snowy, and cattle egrets and neotropic cormorants. 

I drove into the back entrance to this Audubon sanctuary, then walked along a path that went under a tunnel of trees before reaching steps that lead to the raised edge of the lake. Shrubs have grown up in the last few years, since Hurricane Ike destroyed a lot of trees here and the path along that levy is mostly behind shrubs.  But the Audubon Society has built several viewing platforms so you can get many perspectives on the rookery. 

The sound and smell of thousands of birds hits you first, then you get to a viewing spot and see one end of the rookery.  It is on a horseshoe-shaped island .  Both arms could be seen in the past, but now the back arm is mostly screened from view by the shrubs growing on the front arm.  As you move down the path along the lake, you get closer and closer to the birds, until you are only about eighty feet across the lake from many of the nests. 

I love roseate spoonbills and, over two visits, one a couple of years ago, I had many roseate spoonbill pictures, so I thought I'd share the lives of these beautiful/ugly, graceful/clumsy, birds.  I really admire their fashion sense.  Who else would wear hot pink with red, orange and yellow?  Even guy spoonbills wear these colors with panache. 

A small piece of the rookery at Smith Woods, High Island, Texas

Life in the rookery is chaotic with birds flying in and out, birds feeding in the water at the base of the trees, birds fighting, having sex, resting,  collecting sticks, or just hanging out. When the chicks hatch,  the action gets even wilder. Spoonbills do a little courting but I'm not sure which actions are part of the courting ritual.  The males bring in sticks and then both seem to decide where to put them.  I saw some males bring sticks to females already sitting on eggs. 

There are frequent chases and confrontations, that usually don't get to the physical stage

An altercation with a snowy egret

Feeding peacefully

Snack time

I couldn't find my picture of it, but a few years ago I heard the sound of sabres rattling.  I looked toward the sound and saw two spoonbills fighting over a stick.  One went after the other with his bill and the second one blocked back with his own bill.  Then they shook their heads and rattled their bills until one finally gave up and left the stick to the victor. 

These guys seemed to be each trying to break a stick off the larger branch

This bird was trying to find a stick

And this bird brought a stick to the nest

Hanging out - picture taken two years ago and this tree has fallen down

They look their best in flight

Both pairs share nest duties but often one bird is on the nest and the other is standing nearby.  The bird standing around often chases off other birds. 

Chasing off a rival?

Beginning of another altercation

Birds often land at the very top of a shrub or tree - is this part of their display?

Both mates are often together with one on the nest and one standing nearby

There is NO privacy

I have yet to be there when I can get pictures of the babies. But if you live in the area, there should be babies you can visit in two or three weeks. Great egrets already have babies and some snowys are sitting on eggs. The light is best after 4:00 P.M.

Click on the picture to read many more blogs about wild birds.