February 23rd – News From Wyoming (and Hawaii)

2004 seems like such a long time ago….but in that Summer a young McMaster Biodiversity undergrad, Teegan Docherty, did her undergrad project at Ruthven: Assessing the impact of habitat edge on the distribution of woodland breeding birds in Ruthven National Historic Park. With her work, she opened the door and set the standard for a number of future Mac students, including Mike Alkema, Rhiannon Leshyk, and Christine Madliger. We have kept in touch since then and I’m continually amazed at (and quite jealous of) the places she’s gone to do field work in: Nigeria, Vancouver Island, Borneo (for her Master’s fieldwork), San Clemente Island, Hawaii. Currently, Teegan is in Wyoming while her partner, Matt Heathcote, finishes up his Master’s requirments. If she is able to get her U.S. banding permits in time….and the buntings hold on….she will make the Canadian Snow Bunting Network an international organization. Below is a letter I just received from her outlining some of her work and birding.

Teegan doing vegetation sampling.

Hi Rick,

Greetings from Wyoming! We haven’t had much snow here and we are still waiting on our WY State permit to band SNBU. They told us that it would only a week but like our Federal permit it is taking much longer. As of now, it has taken 5 months to get two permits. Arrggh. We haven’t had much snow at all and so no SNBUs. But yesterday we got a lot of snow and I found 3 small flocks. It looks promising?? Below I have written (sorry it’s long-winded) to catch you up on our work in Wyoming and our trip to Hawaii.

Matt setting out a nest camera. - T. Docherty

Sage Sparrow on its nest. - T. Docherty

Things in Wyoming are going very well. We like living here. It is an incredible place naturally and I have never lived anywhere with raptor densities and diversity like this! But it’s windy and the winters are cold!!! My partner Matt is conducting his Master’s research on the effects of energy development on sagebrush obligate songbirds in western Wyoming. Previous work had shown a decline in nest success with an increase in Natural Gas development. So he is specifically looking causes of nest failure and trying to identify the suite of nest predators. I was lucky to be able to help him with this work last summer. Matt’s three focal species are Sage Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher. It has been fun for me to work with mainland Sage Sparrows and compare them to San Clemente Island Sage Sparrows. There are lots of interesting differences. Mainland sage sparrows often choose to put their nest right on the ground, which we have never observed on the island. We were finding nests and setting up and monitoring nest cameras to identify predators. Predators we caught on camera included badgers, a racoon, a Loggerhead Shrike, ground squirrels and chipmunks. Very exciting stuff. Natural Gas extraction is booming in Wyoming and in lots of places in North America so understanding its effects on birds and biodiversity is very important. I have included a few photos from this work. Matt setting up a nest camera next to a thrasher nest, a female Sage Sparrow on her nest, an adult Sage Thrasher carrying food with a Natural Gas well pad in behind, and me doing vegetation measurements with the Wind River Mountain Range in the background.

Sage Thrasher - T. Docherty

Palila - T. Docherty

In November, we attended the 2011 Wildlife Society Conference which was held on the Big Island of Hawaii. Matt was presenting his research. The conference was great, but we were most looking forward to the extra week we had planned around the conference for travel and birding. In 2006, you may remember that I had the pleasure of working on a bird conservation project on this island and this was my first time back. I worked with the Palila (Loxioides bailleui), an endangered finch-billed honeycreeper that is endemic to this island and lives only on the volcano Mauna Kea. Reasons for its decline are mostly related the loss of habitat. The Palila relies on the mamane tree and the dry forest on Mauna Kea for food and other resources. Palila are specialists and their diet is almost exclusively the mamane seeds. Introduced feral grazers such as sheep have caused the degradation of this forest habitat. Palila are also threatened by introduced predators (cats and rats) and other potential threats include avian malaria, climate change, etc. In 2003 the population was around 6000. At the conference I learned that the population had declined to approximately 1200 birds. This is a loss of about 500 birds per year. It is a pretty sad situation.

Akiapolau -T. Docherty

Our birding adventures were a great success. We visited a very good friend who managed the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, a captive breeding center for Hawaiian endemics. Here we saw the Alala (Hawaiian Crow) that is extinct in the wild. After this we dedicated a day to seeing forest birds on the volcano Mauna Kea. We spent the morning at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of very few places where bird populations are doing well. It is an incredible montane rainforest and is home to spectacular endemics including the Akiapola’au, the I’iwi, Hawaii Creeper, and Elepaio. We were lucky to see all but one (Akepa) of the endemic forest birds there. After this we drove to the dry mamane forest on the west side of Mauna Kea to attempt to see the Palila. I was quite confident that we would see one since I had spent a lot of time working here and knew good spots to see them. We spent a long time looking for the Palila with no luck. It just solidified to us that the Palila really are doing as badly as monitoring studies have shown. Finally after 6 hours we spotted one. It was incredible and she was just as beautiful as I remembered. Of all the amazing birds I have had the good fortune of seeing around the world this remains my favourite. If you want to see it, now is the time. I have included some photos from Hawaii. A photo of the lone Palila we saw, an Akiapola’au, a Hawaiian Hawk (I’o), and the Nene (Hawaiian Goose).

Hawaiian Hawk - T. Docherty

The trip was wonderful. For anyone interested in a great birding trip this is truly an amazing place to go. You can bird in the morning and spend the afternoon on the beach! The Big Island has a lot to see, is easy to get around, and has surprisingly diverse habitats. It is a biologically, geologically, and culturally fascinating place.

Nene - T. Docherty

Hopefully with greater awareness of the dire situation in Hawaii, people will demand for better funding, better protection and greater accountability for the conservation of these species. This is certainly a critical conservation issue for Hawaii and the US but it is a global biodiversity issue as well. Of the remaining 42 endemic birds in Hawaii, 33 are on the endangered species list. These species are amazing and we cannot afford to lose anymore.

Happy Birding,


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