As the funding for our trapping project finally came through, we spent the first two weeks of the month building our trap sites up in the Ferris Mountain region of our field office. It was physically demanding work but essential for our project and rewarding in its own way. Each trap site consists of three cover boards and a Y-shaped drift fence with a pit-fall trap in the middle of each arm and a funnel trap at each end. The fence is designed to encourage animals to either enter the funnel trap or fall into the pit fall traps. We have twelve trapping sites; six within exclosures and six outside of them. This is in an effort to compare the type of species that occur in grazed versus ungrazed areas.
The purpose of the trapping project is to inventory the herptile species that occur in the area, assessing both the diversity and the abundance of species. We will also be comparing species occurrences between grazed and ungrazed sites. We trap for ten consecutive days, checking each trap daily. We will do three sets of trapping total, one set per month. As herptiles go this month, we caught many Wandering Garter Snakes (Thamnophis elegans vagrans), two Bullsnakes (Pituophis catenifer sayi), a Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens), and a Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). When we catch a snake we will insert a pit-tag just under its skin to track if a snake is a recapture or not. We will also cauterize a small part of the snakes scales in a systematic numbering system as another way to identify different recaptured individuals. For frogs, we mark them by preforming toe-clippings and again use a specific numbering system to tell between different individuals. Since our traps don’t discriminate we also catch plenty of mammals. Most of what was caught were Deer Mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) and voles. However we also caught Masked Shrews (Sorex cinereus) and Northern Pocket Gophers (Thomomys talpoides).
I hope to catch more rattlesnakes as the season goes on, they are a fascinating species to work with. Before handling a rattlesnake we will use a tongs to guide the posterior of the snakes body into a tube so there is little risk of the snake being able to bite you. Once tubed the snake can be handled safely and is processed the same as any other snake that we catch.
Before trapping we spent a day doing surveys for the Greater Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi). Surveys for horned lizards consists of walking transects and scanning the ground for the well camouflaged animals. Once one is spotted they are pretty easy to capture by hand as they are relatively slow. Horned lizards main defense against predators is their camouflage. Their flat-bodies cast very little shadow and they will often stay completely still when you pass by making them even more difficult to notice. When one is captured, if it was not a recapture, we will pit-tag it.
June went by fast out here in Wyoming. My co-intern finally arrived this month and I think we will be a good team this summer. We started the month off on night call surveys and finally heard Spadefoots calling! It was a really exciting moment and we were able to get within a couple meters of the calling toads. We also found clusters of egg masses in the same vicinity. Knowing definitively that the Great Basin Spadefoots are in this area could allow us to increase protections in the area for this BLM sensitive species. I’ve attached a video of them calling below!
Great Basin Spadefoot egg masses
The second week in June I was in Chicago for a week long training with the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was most interested in the plant taxonomy that we learned as it is an area that I do not have a lot of experience with, being predominately wildlife. I learned a lot and meet a ton of new and interesting people, including our hosts, who I hope to stay in touch with into the future. The Chicago Botanic Gardens are an absolutely beautiful place and I recommend visiting them if you ever get the chance. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to see some herps in the gardens, catching a fowlers toad (Anaxyrus fowleri) during one of our exercises and finding a spiny softshell turtle laying her eggs (Apalone spinifera).
Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera)
Chicago Botanic Garden
When we got back from the gardens we returned to doing night call surveys but unfortunately didn’t find anything. The good news from the week was that the funding for our trapping project finally came through so we will be able to start making progress on that soon! This last week we were able to help the Wyoming Game and Fish Department with their breeding surveys for the Wyoming Toad (Anaxyrus baxteri). The Wyoming toad is considered extinct in the wild and is found only within the Laramie Basin. There are multiple zoos with programs dedicated to the survival and propagation of the species. No single reason has been determined for the rapid decline in the species population but likely culprits are chytrid fungus, pesticide usage, or habitat alterations. For the breeding surveys we were looking mainly for egg masses and tadpoles and they will have surveys for adults later in the season. We were able to find both captive breed and wild tadpoles and a few adults during our surveys. It was really exciting to find the wild tadpoles as it is a great sign for the population. June was a good month and I look forward to what July has in store.
I have had the opportunity to work on a multitude of different projects over the past month and gain many new experiences. We continued to monitor Greater Sage-grouse leks into mid-may and I enjoyed getting to observe these birds unique behaviors. The week after leks we started on night call surveys for the Great Basin Spadefoot (Spea intermontanus) and the Plains Spadefoot (Spea bombifrons). It was a bit of a challenge switching from waking up at 3:30 in the morning to monitor leks to staying up until 3:30 in the morning monitoring for toads but I am definitely glad for the experience.
Spadefoot toads prefer friable soils where they can easily burrow down using their cutting metatarsals or tubercles on their hind feet. They breed quickly after heavy rains and prefer ephemeral streams which can make them difficult to locate.The procedure for night call surveys starts just after dark. You begin on a predetermined route and stop every half mile to listen for calling amphibians. After three minutes of listening you record everything that you heard and take a bearing on the direction you heard the call. Later if you want to search for the source of the call you can follow the bearing and set out a recorder or do dip-net surveys. The first two nights that we went out we heard nothing calling at all. I believe this is because it was to cold outside for the amphibians to be breeding. The third time that we went out we heard a ton of Boreal Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris maculata) but unfortunately no spadefoots. It’s interesting being out in the field so late into the night as you notice things you would normally miss like the international space station, distant thunderstorms, or packs of calling coyotes.
Wyoming Traffic Jam
I have also had the opportunity to assist with monitoring Mountain Bluebirds (Sialia currucoides). The BLM maintains and monitors nest boxes for the bluebirds mostly around the Sinclair area. Most of the boxes were originally placed by a worker at the Sinclair oil refinery but when he could no longer take care of them he asked the BLM to step in and we did. Since then we have added more boxes throughout the field office and there are plans for additional ones to be added. Mountain bluebirds naturally nest in tree cavities created by woodpeckers so in areas such as the RFO where trees are scarce the nest boxes help to maintain their populations. When we go out to check the boxes we look for male and female birds hanging around the nest, check to see if the nest inside is actually bluebird or a different species, and count the number of eggs or hatchlings inside. Bluebird eggs are usually a light blue but we have one nest where the bluebirds eggs were white which is a relatively rare phenomenon and fun to see.
Female Mountain Bluebird Sitting on Her Nest
I have spent a few days out in the field helping survey raptor nests. When you find the raptor nest the goal is to determine first if it is still active and the species that is using it, then to monitor for chicks. We have some artificial structure that we have placed to keep raptors from nesting on power lines or on the tanks at well sites, but we monitor natural nests sites as well. One thing that we are hoping to learn more about is if the placement of artificial structures is deterring raptors from building natural nests and how big of an impact these have on their behavior.
Greater Short-horned Lizard
I also had the opportunity to go on an onsite a couple weeks ago for some proposed gas wells down in the chain lakes region of our field office. It was definitely an informative experience and I am glad I got to learn more about how the BLM works with oil and gas companies to maintain both their and our goals. While there are definitely difference on both side of the issues everyone was willing to work towards a satisfying compromise. I also caught my first herp of the season, a Greater Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi), while walking one of the proposed roads. The only other herp we’ve caught so far was a bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) that was sunning himself on the road. These are interesting snakes that will mimic rattlesnakes in an attempt to frighten off predators. One way they do this is by vibrating their tail back and forth and making a hissing noise meant to sound like that of a rattle. Hopefully we will start hearing and catching more amphibians and reptiles in the coming weeks as it starts to get warmer. We placed some cover board up near Ferris Mountain and I am looking forward to see if we will find anything there. Until nest time.
I have only been at my position here in Rawlins for one week so I am still getting my feet under me and figuring out the lay of the land. I was surprised on my first day by the size of the office. Rawlins is a small town but the BLM Rawlins field office has 3.5 million acres of public lands with around 100 people working here. Everyone that I have met so far has been incredibly kind and genuine and I am looking forward to getting to know them better. I am the only seasonal intern at the office currently and it is likely that will not change for a couple more weeks, I look forward to meeting the other interns as well.
The main project that I will be working on this season will be inventory and monitoring of the amphibians and reptiles in the Rawlins Field Office (RFO). However, since my partner wont start until June, I will be helping with other projects until she arrives. This week I have been helping mostly with Lek Monitoring or ‘Grousing’. This entails rising a couple hours before sunrise and driving to know lekking sites for the Greater Sage Grouse. Around sunrise you count the number of male and female sage grouse that you see. These are amazing birds! A lek is the area where the male grouse preform their mating display and where the females watch from the sage brush to choose their mate.The mating display is unlike anything that I have ever seen. To display, they spike their tail feathers, hold up their wings, puff out their chests 3 time in a row, and inflate the bright yellow air sacs on their chests to produce a type of popping or bubbling noise. The grouse will preform their displays every morning for all of the breeding season, sometime starting in the middle of the night and going until just past sunrise. Grouse return to the same lek every year (with some exceptions of course!) and usually all of the females will choose the same one or two males to mate with. Most of the occupied leks that we’ve seen so far have had around 30 birds on them.
Greater Sage Grouse displaying on a lek
As for the amphibians and reptiles, I have done a little bit of training with them this week. We took nets out to two different water sources to try to capture some amphibians. We heard Chorus Frogs but only caught one Northern Leopard Frog. We also tried to noose some lizards, which consists of lassoing a lizard with a small piece of string (in this case dental floss) tied to a snake hook. For some reason the string doesn’t frighten the lizards so you can slip the loop around their neck and have a better chance of capturing them. My mentor is also working with people from the Game and Fish Department and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database (WYNDD) who are doing amphibian surveys in the RFO. I got to sit in on their meeting the other day which turned out to be pretty informative. If plans stay the same we will hopefully be working together to survey for Spadefoot Toads in the coming weeks. I’m excited to work with them and learn from these other agencies.
Overall it has been a good first week in the office and I am looking forward to what the rest of the season will have in store.