Friday, January 29, 2010

Wood River Valley: Mountain Lion Encounter!

Story and photo by Sara Sheehy, donor relations manager in the Conservancy's Hailey office.

I told my friend I had “quite the story to tell.” He retorted by saying “Quite the story to tell – that was the understatement of the decade.” I so rarely tell stories here, but this one is a good yarn.

And it’s all true.

I woke up this morning in a scream. I couldn’t figure out why, until I focused enough to hear the howling and snarling outside the window. My first thought was that a fox or coyote was after one of the barn cats, and that our neighbor’s dog was fighting it off. I sensed a faint scuffle happening near the barn but it was too dark to see.

After dragging Mike out of bed, we grabbed a flashlight and headed outside. My main concern was that there might be an injured cat in the yard.

Just outside the barn we came across a sizable patch of blood.

I heard a faint noise, and something rushed out of the darkened barn towards us. I screamed, and shone my light on what turned out to be my neighbor's dog. She didn’t come near us, but I started to worry that it was her blood we had seen.

I called the neighbors in my concern, and shortly all the lights went on in their house. I proceeded to get ready for work. As I was walking through the living room, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large shadow lurking on the side of their house.

My first thoughts were “No way. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.” The shadow turned its big head in the reflection of light against snow and I couldn’t deny it. Cougar.

After calling my neighbors again to warn them to stay inside, a car pulled into the driveway. A woman I didn’t recognize got out, unaware that she was 20 feet from the shadowed cougar. The cougar crouched.

I panicked, flung open the window, and yelled at her to return to her car. She moved her headlights to flash at the house. The mountain lion stood up, turned, and stalked away.

The woman left, with our neighbor’s dog (and the neighbors) a short time after. Once it was fully daylight, I returned outside and hunted down the large paw tracks. The one pictured above was behind the barn.

The circumference of the paw print was bigger than my palm, but smaller than my fully extended hand. A big cat.

The happy ending to this story is that the dog is recovering from her run-in with the cougar, and we are hopeful that the one missing barn cat will return (barn cats have a tendency to disappear occasionally, and they are great hiders).

I am grateful that when I went out to investigate the “fox” this morning, that it was only the dog that came out of the barn, and not the cougar, too.

I live in a very narrow valley where large animals are feeling the constant pressure of fragmentation and development where they once traveled.

It is a constant struggle in these situations to do what is best for humans and animals, while remembering that we as humans have invaded their home. I don’t yet know what the resolution in this particular situation is, but it is never easy.

For now, I will be keeping my two dogs close at hand and being careful not to venture outside during dawn and dusk. I hope the cat got a healthy scare and will move into a more wild locale. I hope that for the cougar, and for us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Goshawk

Blog by Dayna Gross, Silver Creek Preserve manager

One of my favorite times of the year, winter at Silver Creek inevitably brings with it a rare bird sighting or two.

I am always quick to point out to people that the winters, although quiet, are quite busy with wildlife. It seems that all the critters congregate at Silver Creek for the open water, the shelter, the midge hatches, and the abundant rodents.

This year, we had a barn owl at the visitor center for a few weeks--scaring the hunters first thing in the morning.

Last week I was told a great Silver Creek story--- the remarkable story of a bird that came to Silver Creek during the winter from hundreds of miles away. It appears that this journey may have helped make her one of the longest lived northern goshawks on record.

Jack Kirkley, biology professor at the University of Montana, trapped this goshawk at her nesting site in the Big Hole Valley in southwest Montana in 2003. The tag led him to find that she was originally banded by a Boise State University graduate student in 1991.

After a tip that she was seen around the Silver Creek area in 2004, Jack drove down here and confirmed that it was the same bird.

He has since lost radio contact and believes she is probably dead. Fourteen years and four months is a very long run for a goshawk, though.

When I asked him the normal age range for the bird, he told me that he sees a lot of one and two year olds die from starvation in the winter and most don’t live past five or six.

He thought that she travelled all the way from the Big Hole Valley to Silver Creek in the winter and speculated that this may have been the reason for her living so long—winter site fidelity.

For me, this story really struck a chord. I think of the mountain ranges she would have had to cross just to get here.

And, why here? Of all the places, I wonder why she chose Silver Creek.

It is in my nature to be a little imaginative, so my guess is that she was drawn here, like we all are, because it is such an awesome and remarkable place! (With lots of rodents, of course).

Photo: A goshawk caught at Silver Creek in the 1990s.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Birds on Open Water

With ponds and lakes frozen, one of the best places to look for birds is wherever you find open water. Silver Creek Preserve, the South Fork of the Snake, the Boise River, the Salmon River and its tributaries and the Henry's Fork are just a few places to check out for excellent winter birding.

Flocks of waterfowl congregate at deep river pools; you'll see many species now that can be difficult to spot in large flocks at other times of year. Look for American and Barrow's goldeneye, bufflehead (pictured above) and other diving ducks. Gadwalls, green-wing teal and widgeon also spend the winter on Idaho's rivers.

American and hooded mergansers are a common sight. These birds are fun to watch as they dive under water and come back up with whitefish and small trout. At times, a merganser will seem to swallow a ten-inch or longer fish, which seems a difficult feat for a bird of that size.

In East Idaho, trumpeter and tundra swans make a dramatic sight as mist rises on the Henry's Fork and South Fork.

It's probably the best time of year to see bald eagles. I've seen as many as six along the Boise River while sitting quietly there in the early morning. While in Coeur d'Alene last week, many nature lovers reported seeing a lot of eagles around Cougar Bay.

Willows and other vegetation along streams are alive with black-capped chickadees, red-shafted flickers and many other birds. In the early morning and at dusk, great horned owls--hooting as the begin to nest--can often be seen silhouetted on tree branches.

So take a walk along a river or stream this winter--the birds are there in abundance.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hogs in Idaho, Hippos in Australia

Recently, I reported here on the confirmation of feral hogs in Idaho, a most unwelcome announcement.

Now comes the strange case of a pygmy hippo roaming freely in Australia.

Welcome to the strange new world where we never know what animal might show up in your backyard. Read more on my blog at Cool Green Science.--Matt Miller

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Stanley Bird Journal, 1971-1983

Last week, The Nature Conservancy's Idaho field office received via mail an interesting notebook from 83-year-old Betty Jo Olson of Twin Falls.

Betty was doing some house cleaning and thought we might be interested. Her little notebook details all her bird sightings from 1971-1983, while living in a trailer in Stanley.

She certainly saw a lot of birds, from Audubon warblers to ouzels to golden eagles. She documented when birds like sandhill cranes showed up in the spring, and how long birds like towhees hung around her place.

On an Audubon bird count, she even saw loons on Redfish Lake.

Her notes were sprinkled with colorful descriptions of bird behavior. For instance, here's an entry on a pair of bluebirds: "The female has asked him over to the new house several times, but he seems to want the swallow house. I can hear her saying: I want a 'new' house..."

Betty wondered if her notebook would be of any use. Do such observations help conservationists?

Actually, personal observations of birds and other wildlife are playing an important role to help document population trends, occurences of rare species, appearances of new non-native species and the effects of climate change.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology counts on observations from thousands of individuals for its Project Feeder Watch and the Great Backyard Bird Count (mark your calendar; this year's count is from February 12-15). Both track long-term trends for bird conservation.

Today in Cool Green Science, the Conservancy's Dave Mehlman shares how birders are being asked to help track sightings of the imperiled--and little studied--rusty blackbird.

Conservation biologists can't be everywhere at once, so observation from citizen-naturalists is a tremendous help.

We always value hearing from nature lovers, friends and members. If you have something you'd like to share, contact the Idaho office nearest you.--Matt Miller

Photo Credit: Cephas under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Give Deer a Brake

New signs are being installed on Highway 21, between Boise and Idaho City, urging motorists to "Give Deer & Elk a Brake."

The signs will also include tallies of the number of deer and elk killed on that stretch of road each year.

While this may seem grim, hopefully it gets drivers' attention, and gets them to drive slowly and carefully.

Such signs have been used in many different areas as way to draw attention to big game deaths on roads. (I photographed the sign below in Woburn, England). This is a project of the Idaho Transportation Department, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Ada and Boise counties.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is also installing a wildlife underpass along this road.

To protect migratory wildlife and wintering big game from the dangers of roads, conservationists must use a variety of methods--habitat protection, overpasses and underpasses, education and signage. Otherwise, we will lose many populations of large mammals. Efforts like these signs are important steps.--Matt Miller

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Feral Hogs Confirmed in Idaho

As reported Friday by the Capital Press, the presence of feral hogs has been confirmed in Idaho.

A feral hog was killed in February in the Bruneau Valley of Owyhee County. Trail cameras set up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have confirmed additional animals present in the area.

Feral hogs are one of the most adaptable and invasive mammal species worldwide. Once established, they are extremely difficult to control. They spread livestock diseases, damage stream habitat, tear up native plants and eat bird nests and native plants.

In many states, isolated reports of feral hogs have led--quickly--to established hog populations that are difficult, if not impossible, to control.

The Nature Conservancy helped lead an effort on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California to eradicate pigs, which had upset the ecological balance on the island. The pigs attracted golden eagles, which in turn preyed on the native island gray fox--found nowhere else on earth. The pigs were eradicated, and golden eagles were relocated.

But on mainland areas, pigs can be extremely wary and difficult to find. They also have large litters of piglets--allowing their populations to rebound from control measures quickly.

It is believed that hunters introduced feral hogs to the Bruneau Valley from California--a terribly short-sighted action. Such illegal introductions can have long-term impacts on both wildlife and livestock.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is undertaking a control program this winter, when the hogs will be easier to track. Now is the time to make sure these hogs don't become established in southern Idaho. If you see one, please report it to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture immediately.--Matt Miller

Photo by NASA, on Wikimedia commons.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Silver Creek: Year in Review

Submitted by Dayna Gross. Photo by Sara Sheehy.

It’s already winter at the Silver Creek Preserve—the sandhill cranes are long gone and the trumpeter swans are making their winter home here. Waterfowl sparkle on the water and a barn owl is taking care of the rodent problem at the visitor center!

These are some just of the wonders The Nature Conservancy hopes to preserve for future generations.

We are grateful to all our partners in conservation, to all of the landowners who have contributed conservation protection agreements, and to everyone who values the natural world and its many wonders. This year has been remarkable—with a new easement adjacent to the preserve, record student numbers, amazing (although unusual) hatches, great fishing, and high water levels.

Some of the accomplishments in 2009 include:

Molyneux easement: Thank you all for your generous contributions to make this happen! We closed on a conservation easement on the Molyneux property, adjacent to the preserve and visitor center!! We are still raising money to pay for this easement, however, so please donate.

Budweiser Conservation Award: John French was one of four finalists for the Budweiser Conservationist of the Year. John and Elaine French have a property under easement along Silver Creek and have contributed time and resources to make sure Silver Creek remains an amazing and productive spring creek. We will know soon whether he won the Budweiser Conservationist of the Year!

Silver Creek enhancement plan: An effort with our neighbors and partners to better plan and fund restoration work throughout the Silver Creek area is underway. Public meetings will be organized in 2010.

Graduate research: Our graduate student from Montana State, Bri Schultz, who is studying spring creeks and what makes them healthy completed her field work this summer. She will be completing (and presenting) her thesis in the spring of 2010, so stay posted.

Fire restoration: The fence and signs that burned in 2008 were replaced and the seeding that was conducted in 2008 paid off-- you can hardly even tell that 20 acres of the preserve burned. We will be focusing on weed control in 2010 to ensure native plants thrive.

Record student and volunteer numbers: More than 1000 students visited the preserve in 2009. We clocked over 1400 volunteer hours with more than 50 volunteers! In addition, visitor numbers were up slightly this year—right around 7200, with 80% of those anglers.

There are already many activities planned for 2010. Check back frequently for the latest news at Silver Creek Preserve!