Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Something is watching..

So I realize I haven't blogged in a while, and maybe I should start with what I've been up to for the past few months first, then I'll get to the Mountain Lion sighting (but not by me, unfortunately!).

Starting in June, I've been chasing Yellow-billed Cuckoos all over the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge, trying to help add to the woefully little that is known about their behavior, biology and habitat preferences. This much is known: Cukoos are sneaky little buggers. It's a safe bet that when you are tracking cuckoos, they know it. You can dress in camo, hide under a bush, lie still for hours, it doesn't matter. They know. They see you.

One of the stated goals of the project is to radio-track cuckoos in natural riparian habitat, to get a better idea of how to tailor the restoration sites to their needs. So far, the project has over 20 birds with radio-tags on the restoration sites... and 0 on the the Bill Will. Apparently, one of their preferred habitat characteristics on the refuge is a distance of several hundred meters from anything even resembling a passable road. Also, lots of water and dense undergrowth. None of these things make hauling and setting up a 40+ pound mist net setup practical. After several failed attempts, we've shifted our focus to nest searching.

You'd think that would be easy. They nest low to the ground, often a mere 4 meters high. They're big birds, so they're easy to see on the nest, even in the tangle of bushes they like to nest in. Well, that's not the case. Seeing a cuckoo is a rare treat, even for cuckoo researchers. Following one to a nest, impossible. So we awake hours before dawn and sneak into their territories, hope to hear the male on the nest call to the female off the nest, thus giving away the nest location.

Which brings me to the morning of the 24th. 4:10am, hiking out to a lonely spot on the Bill Williams River, to sit in the dark next to a burbling beaver dam spanning the "river". My partner was stationed about 100m upstream, out of earshot because of the beaver dam. At our appointed meeting time I started to head upstream, only to run into my partner coming downstream with a look of terror on her face. A MOUNTAIN LION(!!) had apparently ambled upstream past her, walking within 10 meters of where she was sitting on the bank, and was last seen splashing into some bushes on the opposite bank.. right where she heard the cuckoo we had come out to look for.

After arming ourselves with stout staves and working up our courage, we went back upstream to explore. The cat had apparently passed by me without me having any clue as to its existence, save for a vague sense of unease earlier that morning. While contemplating the likelihood of it still being in the area, I looked up and lo and behold, there was the nest! Satisfied with the days work, we booked it out of there and back to the other half of our crew, who had also found a nest (sans mountain lion). A good day, especially when you add in all the other wildlife we saw, including a bobcat, a gray fox, a kit fox, a beaver and a muskrat!

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