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Tag: Sarah Rockwell

KBO tracks the first Oregon Vesper Sparrows!

Written by Dr. Sarah Rockwell

Vesper Sparrow (c) Frank Lospalluto

The unique Oregon subspecies of Vesper Sparrow, roughly estimated at just 2,000 birds, is of conservation concern. It is currently under review for listing under the Endangered Species Act because of its small population size and declining trend. One of the biggest challenges in identifying ways to help migratory species is the fact that we don’t know where they are for most of the year. Vesper Sparrows breeding in Oregon are only here for about half the year, from mid-April to early October. Because different subspecies of Vesper Sparrow mix on the wintering grounds in California and are not visually distinguishable, until now, we only had a rough idea of where Oregon Vesper Sparrows spend the non-breeding months. This study will help answer questions essential for future conservation efforts – where are these birds going during migration and winter, and what challenges might they face there?

To address this critical knowledge gap, we expanded KBO’s ongoing Oregon Vesper Sparrow research to include using miniaturized archival GPS tags to track the migration of sparrows breeding in the Rogue Basin. In 2020, we captured 10 males via target-netting at our Lily Glen study site, color-banded them, and deployed GPS tags using a leg-loop harness attachment (for more details and photos of this process, see here ). In 2021, we located and recaptured four of these birds to retrieve tags and stored data. Three of the tags successfully recorded these individuals’ fall migration and/or wintering locations; one also contained the spring migration track!

Non-breeding season movements have never been tracked in this subspecies before, and results from these first three birds are incredibly interesting in their variation. You may have already followed the adventures of Po, Gram, and Affy in our recent series of Facebook posts, where we learned where they traveled during migration, but we will recap the highlights here and below in a video. One male (Po; in green) departed Lily Glen on Sept 19 on what appears to be a “false start” migration attempt – he spent one night about 25 km southwest of Tule Lake and then headed right back to Lily Glen – a behavior that we hadn’t recorded before, and in fact, would have been nearly impossible to observe without the GPS tag data. He left Lily Glen again on Sept 24 and sped down to his wintering grounds in just two days. This was also the only individual for whom we also captured spring migration – Po left his overwintering area on the evening of Apr 9, made two short stopovers just east of Vina, CA, and Redding, CA, and was back setting up his territory at Lily Glen by Apr 15.

Another male (Gram, in blue) left Lily Glen on Sept 19 and spent two weeks on an extended fall stopover outside of Chico, CA, before arriving at his wintering grounds in October. A third male (Affy; in pink) chose a more westerly route and had multiple short fall stopovers, including at Sutter Butte, an interesting geological formation made of eroded volcanic lava domes outside of Yuba City that provides a habitat island in the highly developed Central Valley. Unfortunately, Affy’s GPS tag stopped functioning mid-October, so we do not know his final wintering location. The two birds we have wintering locations for (Po and Gram) spent the winter near Raymond, CA, and El Rancho, CA, in what appears to be oak savannah habitat in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

This study is the first to identify precise migratory stopover sites and overwintering areas used by this imperiled subspecies, and it addresses a critical information gap for future conservation efforts. So far, it seems like the Oregon Vesper Sparrows are using grassland and oak savannah habitat in the foothills east and west of the Central Valley as a stopover and overwintering habitat and avoiding the heavily agricultural Central Valley. We retrieved additional GPS tags in 2023, and after analyzing the data, we will use this information to assess whether conservation actions are warranted at non-breeding sites.

The Bureau of Land Management, Carpenter Foundation, Oregon Conservation and Recreation Fund, and Oregon Wildlife Foundation supported this GPS-tracking work.



Cover photo: Oregon Vesper Sparrow (c) Frank Lospalluto

Vesper Sparrow Video Premiere

Photo was taken at Lilly Glen of an Oregon Vesper Sparrow by Frank Lospalluto.

Join Klamath Bird Observatory and Vesper Meadow Education Program for the premiere of the short film “From the Field – A Study of the Oregon Vesper Sparrow” by Daniel Thiede. We will hear from Program Director Jeanine Moy about the restoration work and connection to the community being done at Vesper Meadow. Then Dr. Sarah Rockwell will give a brief talk about the research KBO is conducting on the Oregon Vesper Sparrow, followed by a short walk in Vesper Meadow to a Motus node. The afternoon will conclude with a showing of the film, with time afterward for discussion and questions. Come learn about this little brown bird and experience one of the beautiful places it calls home!

Refreshments and light appetizers are included. Dress for the weather as this event will take place outside at Vesper Meadow and in an open-sided barn. Wear sturdy walking shoes if you plan to join the walk.

This event is hosted at Vesper Meadow and will be from 4 pm – 6 pm on October 10th. This event is limited by the number of attendees. Register below to reserve your spot.

Klamath Bird Observatory follows CDC guidelines. KBO events are being offered with COVID-19 safety as KBO’s primary concern. Proof of vaccination will be required for all in-person participants. All individuals attending an event must also fill out the Waiver of Liability form that will be emailed to you once you register for the event. Paper copies will be available at the event. Please do not attend the event if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Masks are not required but wear based on comfortability.

Coming this Field Season: Oregon Vesper Sparrow and Technology

Spring has sprung, and migratory birds are making their way back to the Klamath Siskiyou Bioregion. Klamath Bird Observatory (KBO) is preparing by dusting off field gear, mapping out survey sites, and hiring summer staff. Each staff member has their own favorite thing to look forward to this field season: starting a new project, expanding an active project, or wrapping up data collection.

Dr. Sarah Rockwell, one of KBO’s Research Biologists, is excited to be expanding the Oregon Vesper Sparrow GPS tracking project. KBO will be deploying more tags at our Lily Glen study site near Howard Prairie. Sarah will also be training partner Bob Altman with the American Bird Conservancy to expand the study and place GPS tags on Oregon Vesper Sparrows in the Willamette Valley this summer. KBO will look at the Willamette birds’ migratory routes and overwintering areas, and compare them to the data KBO has gathered from birds in the Rogue Basin.

Oregon Vesper Sparrow (c) Frank Lospalluto

This summer KBO will also continue to deploy MOTUS tags on late-stage Oregon Vesper Sparrow nestlings. In previous years, very few juveniles have returned to the same meadow where they were hatched. To investigate this, Sarah will be putting MOTUS nodes out in new meadows surrounding past sites, expanding her search for these birds.

Oregon Vesper Sparrow Nest

Sarah is wrapping up collecting resight data for the Oregon Vesper Sparrow this summer – by resighting individually color-banded birds year after year, she can analyze their annual survival. KBO has also studied the sparrows’ nest success and habitat preferences in past years. The vegetation characteristics of sites where the sparrows choose to place their nests could be used to encourage land managers to plant beneficial vegetation. Other partners are collecting parallel data in the Willamette Valley, OR, and Puget Lowlands, WA, for similar use. The Oregon Vesper Sparrow is under review to potentially be added to the federally threatened and endangered species list, and Sarah hopes these data will help contribute to a decision.

This summer Science Director Jaime Stephens is excited about the ongoing Oregon Vesper Sparrow project. “KBO has been focusing our field research on this species for nearly a decade. A challenging part of science is that it can take a long time to gather the necessary data. In the next two years, KBO expects to have results available from this project that could be very impactful. These include nest success and breeding season habitat relationships, and as that wraps up we are moving on to MOTUS and GPS tagging to study non-breeding season movements. We are finishing an exciting part and moving on to an even more exciting part of the project.”

To learn more about the Oregon Vesper Sparrow and KBO’s conservation science projects click here. “Coming this Field Season” is a blog series highlighting the different projects that KBO staff are working on this summer. Subscribe to the blog and follow us on Facebook and Instagram to be notified of the next article.