Spying on sharp-tailed grouse with trail cameras in Wisconsin
About a year ago, I attended an excellent workshop about sharp-tailed grouse. Yeah, I know you’re jealous. Anyway, during the seminar portion of the workshop – which was held at the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area in Grantsburg, Wisconsin – some biologists with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) discussed an interesting new survey method they were considering. I caught up with them afterwards and have been interested in it since. Looking at the calendar, it won’t be long before sharp-tailed grouse will be dancing on their leks again (Watch: Sacred Lek), so here’s a glimpse into what this new survey is and how it can help biologists.
Traditional lek surveys
Many people look at wildlife biologist jobs and see only the amazing “highs” – like radio-collaring black bears. But the reality is that there are slow moments like any job. One such instance is sitting quietly waiting for sharp-tailed grouse to appear. It’s exciting when they’re there, but it can feel more like a grind when you have a long list of work tasks to finish and the birds aren’t cooperating. As early spring arrives, male sharp-tails gather on dancing grounds, called leks, to perform courtship rituals and attract females. Surveyors wait in blinds on the edge of the lek and record how many individuals come in, as well as weather conditions, time, date, etc.
But sometimes the weather isn’t right or the birds don’t show up on lek sites for another unknown reason, which makes for a lot of wasted time in a viewing blind. It’s an inherent risk with this kind of survey. Also, the precise window when the most grouse are dancing (called the ‘peak’ in lekking activity) can change a bit year to year depending on weather conditions. That means that if a survey is scheduled a week off of the peak, the index used for population trends could be very different. All that wasted staff time and travel expenses means the surveys aren’t necessarily cheap, either.
Enter the trail camera survey
Chris Pollentier and Mark Witecha from the WI DNR described the trail camera survey at the grouse workshop. In spring 2019, they placed trail cameras on six lek sites as a pilot study throughout northwest Wisconsin. Over the survey timeframe (mid-April through late May), they had about 7,650 trigger events with at least one sharp-tailed grouse in the frame, and each trigger event takes three photos. Even though the vast majority of those 23,000 pictures are the same birds, it’s a tall order to go through them all. But they ended up with some amazing ones!
The new survey procedure has many benefits compared to the traditional survey. One of the biggest benefits is that biologists can continuously monitor lek sites 24/7 because the cameras take photos every time they detect motion. The cameras also determine the peak lekking activity (based on the number of birds displaying), which can help biologists adjust future in-person surveys to occur in a much more specific and accurate window. Improving the accuracy of surveys should improve our tracking of population trends over time, which should improve management decisions. Perhaps the best reason to use the cameras is that biologists can focus traditional surveys on larger, established lek sites (called primary leks), while utilizing trail cameras for smaller or more remote sites. This provides the right mix of surveying a large area adequately while still being cost-effective.
Of course, it’s not a perfect solution yet. The main issue is that cameras are immobile unless staff can get back to move them. If sharp-tails slightly shift their dancing area or start using a different lek site nearby, the cameras won’t capture anything. As you can imagine, identifying unique birds from thousands of pictures can be challenging. The WI DNR is still determining the most useful metric for counting birds during these surveys. As far as how to process all this information, there is a potentially useful solution in the works.
Photo analysis using snapshot
One of the cooler aspects of this pilot study is that the DNR is considering using a crowd-sourcing project called Snapshot Wisconsin to help analyze the pictures. The Snapshot project itself uses a statewide network of trail cameras on private and public properties to monitor wildlife throughout the year, which can help inform management decisions. For this sharp-tailed grouse survey specifically, the DNR could theoretically upload all of the pictures received and then allow citizen scientist volunteers to screen the pictures for misfires and other animals. This would dramatically reduce the amount of pictures the biologists would have to go through to conduct their survey. Having done a similar task for a project in Africa, I can tell you this is a cool way for the public to get involved in an interesting study. But with such a huge project, there are still some wrinkles to iron out, which they are currently working on.
Why tell you all of this? Mostly, I think it’s important that more people understand these surveys and the excellent work being done by state agencies. The more you can get involved (potentially through the Snapshot program), the more informed you will be when it comes to public input on policy changes or management decisions. And the more informed you are, the more likely you are to support projects that conserve our wildlife species and their habitats. So ask questions and go reserve a blind for viewing sharp-tailed grouse – did you know that was a thing? As mentioned, watching sharp-tails do their dance is an awesome thing to see in-person. And even if the birds don’t show, it will be a morning spent in the solitude of nature. We could all use more of that.
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Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.