So, about gulls..

First off, I’m going to ruin your childhood surety. Are you ready? Brace yourself:

There’s no such thing as a seagull.

The very word makes any birder shudder. In fact, no such creature exists. Except, that is, in the common-yet-false knowledge of the average beach-goer. Want to sound like you know your stuff in the bird realm? Call it a gull. And then, why not go ahead and take it a step further: Find out what species of gull it is. Be it the black hooded Laughing Gull or the enormous Great Black-backed Gull, the largest gull in the world, you’ll find that calling any old white bird flying around the seashore is not only wrong, it is an affront to the wide world of gulls.

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Greater Black-backed Gulls

To take this a bit further, I want to address those of us who have fed these clever, opportunistic creatures. The last time I did it was more than 25 years ago and I distinctly remember the pinch of beak onto finger and the rush of joy turned to dismay. These birds will go out of their way to get your food, to the extent that you’ll hardly know how that cookie that you’d been eagerly lifting toward your open mouth suddenly became many meters away (and growing) from your empty maw, snapped up in the beak of the gull that just took you for a fool.

Whether we want to feed them or not, we are. The bits of food we leave behind are scavenged with gusto, as are the french fries strewn across all the parking lots of the world. While most birds flee at the sight of a human, gulls are sure to occupy space as near to us as they dare because generations before them have undeniably benefitted from our waste and carelessness and voluntarily-tossed breadcrumbs. They’ve learned to take advantage, to await any opportunity of food.

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Laughing Gull

And they’re reaping the benefits, as portrayed by the immense populations some gull species have grown into.  Here is where our impact on nature once again plays a hand, indirectly enough so that it passes under most of our awareness. This is because it’s happening in even the most remote of ecosystems. Gulls pushed out of the human populous move to more secluded areas to find food and will hunt in an opportunistic manner, perhaps following the lobster boats to distant islands, and some of these birds may find themselves suddenly looking down upon a seabird colony brimming with edibility. The island colonies are made up of ground-nesting terns, eggs barely hidden on the bare earth. Common Eiders, a species of sea duck, make their way up the beach followed by sooty cottonball chicks. Here is a vulnerability that the opportunistic gull will happily take advantage of, and with gusto.

As a 19 year old, shiny new field biologist (so designated by one Dr. Steve Kress), riding the swells of Maine’s Saco Bay to one of the nesting colonies where I’d be spending my summer, a flurry of wings that caught my attention on the beach of my soon-to-be island home. A momma eider was leading her seven fuzzy chicks up the beach and those little morsels were just too tempting for any gull to pass up. Before my jaw could even drop in disbelief, every one of the chicks had already disappeared down the gullet of one of the gang of hungry gulls.

One of the primary reasons Project Puffin is still going, forty years after its initiation, is that without a constant human presence during the breeding season, the gregarious, predatory gulls would eradicate all the other nesting species on the island. Laughing gulls will take eggs and steal the food that adult puffins and terns bring in to feed their own young, an act known as kleptoparisitism. Herring and Great Black-backed gulls will swallow an entire tern fledger whole. By the end of the summer, it’s hard to find a fledgling Common Eider anymore. They have to run the gauntlet every day and few succeed.

Nevertheless, these birds aren’t evil. They’re just sustaining themselves, just like we do every day, just heading over to the grocery store or cafe and picking up some hunk of meat or a delectable dessert. What the problem is, is us. But the more we know, the more we can help moderate how our lives impact ecosystems. And the more we know, we can share what we’ve learned with others and, best of all, better appreciate the flurry of wings around us.

 

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Fisherbirds and their humans

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So obviously someone here has things figured out..

 
Welcome to my tropical wintering grounds, Sarasota, Florida! A far cry from frosty Seal Island, where I spent this past summer, helping for a third season a 40+ year project under Audubon that monitors reintroduced seabirds, the charismatic Atlantic Puffin being the main show, that nest in colonies on seven Project Puffin-owned islands off the coast of Maine. So I will be posting here from my base camp while also writing pieces for the blog I’m now taking on, at Wild Lens, Inc.. My writing will continue to be primarily bird-focused and based around conservation and research of species and how they survive alongside mankind. Management is key! And if that means 40 years of occupying and monitoring these sensitive species that wouldn’t otherwise be able to nest successfully because of more hearty species like the ever-present, french fry snatching gull that is looking for an opportunity to snag an easy meal (like a fuzzy tern chick), then so be it!

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Fuzzy tern chick just ‘cuz.

So today I sat down on the seawall next to a boat fisherman who was filleting his afternoon haul of snappers. He had quite the audience.  A pod of highly anticipatory pelicans circled itself around our man as he sliced the fleshy sides off the fish and tossed the head and vertebrae into a sudden flurry of bat-like beaks, splashing water and flopping wings. He told me some good spots for fishing off the bridges around here, I’d like to try my hand at getting my own food once again. It’s a pretty darn sustainable way of life, provided what you’re eating isn’t too tainted with unnamed chemicals and pollutants!

We wondered why the gulls hadn’t seemed to catch on. I guess it’s all about happenstance, because who knows when you’re gonna get a windfall like a guy pulling up with buckets of baitfish and carcasses! Well, the pelicans got word quick.

How do you feel about feeding the birds? It’s funny because humans get a lot out of it and it makes the birds have to invest a whole lot less energy into finding food for the day. It also can make certain less human-shy species really rocket in populations (thanks to the bounty of french fries in our parking lots, for example) and then become either pests, like the fact that you can’t eat at Siesta Key without having half your sandwich (or granola bar, as in my mothers’ case) get snatched right out of your hand when you lift it toward your mouth for a bite. And the fact that gull populations which boom thanks to the glut of food off of lobster boats then peel off and see this island full of fat juicy tern chicks and, can you blame them?

Humans have an impact on everything around them, everything they interact with, including the ecosystems trying to operate despite them. And opportunists like gulls will take advantage of any free meal, as we all would. But then you watch a family being run off from a beach picnic and you shake your head in shame lamenting that that is what those poor people will equate birds with from now on: a traumatizing experience caused by greedy, flocking pests. Don’t get me wrong, I was that little tyke feeding the gulls back when, and I was pretty sure the one had my finger as it flew off, that’s how hard it snapped my hand as I held a piece of bread skyward. I take full responsibility, as we all should! Now it’s just a matter of voicing the problem and being willing to discuss it, because there is no ONE solution. Not to this, not to anything. I enjoy feeding the birds, but where is the line drawn?

Thoughts? Comment about it here!

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Journey through a waterlogged savannah..

On my southward migration to spend time with my grandmother in Florida this winter, I made a point of visiting a favorite migratory stopover of mine in Georgia, the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

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A great egret takes flight above a herd of white ibis.

Set on the marshy bottomlands surrounding the Savannah River, this federally protected habitat provides a safe place for migratory waterfowl to pause along their journey between nesting and wintering grounds so as to refuel and reboot. As one of more than five hundred National Wildlife Refuges peppered across the country, the aim is to furnish our long-distance fliers with protected spots to feed and rest along their biannual travels. With the ever-growing onslaught of human development, these crucial areas are strategically placed provide the equivalent of safe lilypads to hop along as the birds make their way north and south along their migratory flyways.

Three thousands acres of the refuge is made up of freshwater impoundments, which can be dated back to the mid-eighteenth century when the soggy land was used to grow rice. Hand built dikes enclosed the waterlogged rice fields, offered an easy conversion into current prime aquatic habitat for waterfowl and wading birds.

The refuge has a 4-mile loop called the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive that cars can follow at as slow a pace as they choose to observe the multitude of coots, ibises, moorhens and egrets that plunge their searching beaks into the shallows, in search of the next succulent invertebrate. While I did see a pair of blue-winged teal, it seemed as if most of the waterfowl (think ducks) had already carried on northward toward their breeding grounds.

There are plenty of pull-offs along the drive for those of us who want to hop out and get on a short trail or two. I walked along one of two dikes hugging a shallow canal and watched harriers (handsome birds of prey sporting long tails) sweep low above the grassy landscape in search of prey. I encountered several alligators, the largest must’ve been about nine feet, at least in my head. The opposite bank of the canal provided a supreme sunning spot for one of the larger buds. I was glad I chose the side I was on, and continued along my way after waving hello and taking an image or two.

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If you ever find yourself in the Savannah area, be sure to make this wildlife refuge a definite part of your trip!

 

Many thanks to Jack Short for his beautiful musical accompaniment! More can be found at https://soundcloud.com/cyrano138. And be sure to check out his writing here and here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Warm Winter Sands: Florida Birds

For as long as I can recall, my family has been going to Florida each year to visit my grandparents in Sarasota. For as long as I can recall, the birds there have never failed to IMG_3375.jpgcapture my attention, captivating me with enraptured awe. Here I was first exposed to the wonder of the rich biodiversity of the warm southern climes. I saw my first Roseate Spoonbills, exotic in both color and shape. I first heard the raspy bellows of Sandhill Cranes echoing across the shores of Myakka Lake, proclaiming their existence to the heavens. With their rose pink faces and downward arching beaks, I loved watching gangs of White Ibises roam throughout the residential areas, prodding the soft earth as they made their way across the neighbor’s lawn or the shallows of a manmade lake. When a flock flies overhead, their pristine white feathers glitter in the sunlight , wingtips dipped in black ink.

And the beach holds an entirely different set of fascinating and wonderful birds: There’s the never-ending onslaught of ospreys and pelicans and terns that hurl themselves into the rich, crystal blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, providing endless entertainment as I jog above the lapping waves along Siesta Key.

Ring-billed and Laughing gulls lounge on the powder-soft sands that make this beach famous, interspersed with groups of Royal, Sandwich and Forster’s terns.

Flocks of Black Skimmers contrast against the light colors of their fellow seabirds, their black, uneven bills with the bright orange base creating a comical effect.

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Black Skimmer

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Royal Tern

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Forster’s Tern

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Sandwich Tern (mustard on beak)

Most of the birds seem almost unrecognizable from how they appear during the breeding season, their winter plumage softening the stark contrast between blacks and whites.

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Laughing Gull

For the “cold” months, the birds spend their time resting in large flocks on the beach, heads tucked, or preening for long, intensive stretches. Many of the birds will return to northerly nesting grounds toward the end of winter, their feathers shifting back into breeding plumage to look snazzy for yet another nesting season. But for the winter, they rely on southern beaches to pass the days until the time to breed arrives.

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As I grew as a birdwatcher, my attention was drawn to the smaller shorebirds, darting along in groups, their tiny legs a blur as they skitter across the sand and shallows. Sanderlings are always the most prolific, their silvery white, plump little bodies seemingly propelled by batteries, downturned heads busily searching for invertebrates.

Smaller, darker Least Sandpipers are interspersed with Semipalmated Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones as lone Willets pick their way through the lapping waters on long thin legs. Solitary Black-bellied Plovers, lacking in the key descriptive feature at this time of year that gives the bird its name, forage in the softer sands up among the shallow dunes, occasionally emitting a sad, drawn out, questioning whistle.

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Ruddy Turnstone

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Willet

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Black-bellied Plover

In addition to birds on the beach, you may also be treated to the occasional sight of a wintering common loon feeding among the soft waves, its stunning black-and-white checkered plumage from the summer traded for the soft grays of winter; or a view of the majestically magnificent frigatebird soaring with a starkly pointed wings, forked tail and crimson throat patch.

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Common Loon

My favorite of the Siesta Key shorebirds is the mouselike Snowy Plover which occupies Siesta Key all year, nesting among the dunes in the spring (sometimes much to the chagrin of some beach goers indignant that they must share the beach with anything other than other humans). These birds, designated as state threatened are protected by biologists and volunteers, who monitor hatching and nesting success (or lack thereof) and rope off and protect sections occupied by these vulnerable nesting birds.

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Snowy Plover

Among the many threats to their survival are gulls and crows, hawks, raccoons, and without doubt, the oblivious human, unaware of the importance (or even existence) of this threatened species and the delicate chicks that freeze still at any sign of danger, flattening themselves into the sand. Foot traffic in these sensitive areas can lead to disastrous results.

According to a snowy plover volunteer I spoke with, there were twenty-two adults this year on Siesta Key but only five plover chicks successfully fledged from eight nests. This was apparently the largest number achieved in recent history thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteer nesting-shorebird stewards to educate the public and provide protection for the birds.

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Blue-and-red banded Snowy Plover

It’s important that people come to terms with the fact that the beach doesn’t just belong solely to us. It’s hard not to feel indignant when your easy beach access or favorite place to put down a blanket and enjoy the sea breeze is suddenly not allowed, but through outreach and education, people can come to the realization that these birds are special and just as important as all other species, including us. Since their populations are threatened by our own actions, it’s up to us to take responsibility to be sure that we don’t wipe them out through carelessness and lack of awareness. Let’s share the beach so generations from now, our children’s children’s children can experience the beauty and biodiversity of life that this beach and our planet support.

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Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more posts in my Pining for the Field series, which documents my fieldwork with birds around the US as well as into Puerto Rico and Canada.

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Pining for the Field: Burrowing Owls of the West

This is the only field job that I can say I’ve ever held a lap full of baby burrowing owlets.

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How does one happen to find oneself in such a predicament?

It was 2007 and I had applied to a field position nest searching, trapping and banding burrowing owls across the western United States, carrying on research on population trends at varying latitudes in relation to range and migration. This would be my first time working with raptors though, as you might be able to tell from the above photo, neither these little guys nor their parents are very intimidating (don’t tell them I told you that).

Somewhere along the way before the job started I was informed that I’d need that driver’s license that I’d been successful at putting off getting for the past seven years (I was 23 at the time). I was forced to finally take the dreaded driver’s test in preparation for the job, seeing that the position called for solo road trips throughout Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah and Idaho.

The project was run under Vicki Garcia of the University of Arizona where a great deal of research on this western species of raptor comes from thanks to her efforts like hers and those of principle investigator Courtney J. Conway. Adding to another year of their long-term burrowing owl field study, we continued that summer to monitor their production and put bands on the birds to be identifiable in following years. Geographical range was of interest in recent research because populations were encountering differences in food availability which may lead to changes in their migratory patterns and how development and agriculture may impact that.

When we first arrived to the job at “basecamp” in Tucson, Arizona which is where the university is located. The team was made up of three of us: Megan, Lance and me. Vicki drove us out across the shrubby landscape of Tucson to give us our first introduction of this jaunty, intense little owl set atop stilt legs.

For those of you who don’t live in a desert, like I never had, I never learned what a wash is. It is is a big cement canal that runs at (presumably) strategic locations around the city for when the flood rains come so as to avoid flooding. Like ephemeral rivers: dry for the entire year until the monsoon strikes. But when the washes are dry, wildlife takes advantage. In addition to coyotes loping along the dry concrete bed, there are plenty of small rodents and insects that occupy the dirt slopes peppered with vegetation. And where there’s prey there’s the coinciding predator: the burrowing owl.

It took me a moment to discern the marbled brown and white plumage against the sloping earth of the wash. A second shape appeared next to it, a pair. The two owls stood by their burrow, just as entirely aware of us as we were of them. But, meanwhile, the city went 30646391395_482b94197c_oabout its business. A busy street filled with lanes of backed up traffic and blaring horns, pedestrians hurrying down the sidewalk where we stood at the lip of the wash, staring across at the little raptors on stilt legs, yellow eyes fixed on us.

They took short flights between the precipice and the burrow entrance, their silent wings flapping softly like moths. They hunted for grasshoppers, mice and kangaroo rats as the sun went down and we learned how we’d be capturing these birds for the next three months to contribute to a growing wealth of knowledge about these fascinating and beautiful birds and how they’re being affected by human development and agriculture.

After a couple week of training in a group, I was handed the keys to my own mode of travel from now on: an enormous Ford Bronco, my boxy white army tank of a field vehicle. In the back I had sufficient box traps and bow nets for the summer of owling that was ahead of me. Having spent time with my coworkers while as we were still getting the hang of things, we travelled to air force bases in California, Idaho and Utah. Now solo, I was let loose to take care of the field sites in Colorado as my territory.

The project had an agreement with military and air force bases that we’d do our fieldwork on their lands, seeing as how many of these sites were perfectly suited for the kind of habitat burrowing owls require, wide open grasslands with scattered sagebrush along with plenty of grasshoppers and mice for the feasting. Most of these locations were huge open expanses of land that were reserved as training grounds. While most of this, in a way, was removed from humans, we also found ourselves trapping owls burrowing on the grass median between fighter jet landing and takeoff strips. We wore ear protection, but who knows if the owls could hear anything at all.

In addition to giving our identities so freely to the armed forces of the United States just to walk around and study birds, we also were given, at every base, the obligatory rundown of the threat of unexploded ordinances still scattered who knows how haphazardly out across the land. The duds..or so I hoped. I remember my body turned to instant ice one night when I was walking around the desert looking for owls and my leg snagged on a wire. The taut line trailed from my leg to beneath the earth attached to who knows what. I slooooowly let the tension loose expecting this moment to be my last. And yet here I am.

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Pinion Canyon, some 2mil acres.

Once on my own, just my mostrous, trusty Bronco and I, I travelled up and down Colorado’s Rt.25 over the next couple months to visit Fort Carson Air Force Base, Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Pinion Canyon Manuever Site a couple of times each across the months that made up the owls’ nesting season. This way we could trap the parents early and return later when the chicks are hatched and grown enough to be processed and banded. Our goal at each new station was to find owl nests, relocate those knowns from previous years that are currently active, trap birds, band them, take blood and feather samples, measure wing chord and tarsis and observe for mites, deformities or injuries.

Work begins as evening falls and, once owl nesting locations have been determined earlier in the day, traps are laid. Capture methods for male and female burrowing owls are different in that the more submissive female tends to retreat back into the safety of her burrow when approached while the male chooses to fly away and stand nearby, irritated. For the female, we set a rectangular box made of chicken wire and covered in burlap with inward-swinging one-way doors on each end. Setting one end against the burrow hole, you secure it with burlap cushioning so the hole is entirely blocked. The female inside the burrow will eventually attempt to leave the burrow after you move off a bit and will find the trap at the entrance. She can push through the hinged one-way door and not be able to emerge out of the opposite end since it can only swing inward. Here is where I stick my arms in this opposite door and gather my bird(s).

We’re always careful not to leave the birds in the traps too long and therefore only set a few traps at a time close at nests close enough to each other to check frequently. I recall at Fort Carson I had my best catch: all seven fledgling birds, along with their protective mother had retreated into the hole when they saw me coming with the box trap. I gave it hardly any time at all before checking with a flashlight only to see more than a dozen yellow eyes peering back at me from the confines of the burlap trap. Mother and all! Luckily I’d been training the Bio crew there how to do owl work that they’ll continue to do into the future, so they can tell you it’s for real. I still think it’s hilarious that they were all so stunned at the world outside of the burrow that they just stood quietly in my lap, looking curiously in every direction, feathery fluffballs.

For the male owls, you’ve got to convince him to come back around after you’ve made your presence known and he’s certainly not hiding in the burrow to protect whatever children. What draws this predator back to the area is its prey. And we offer it in a wire box: a mouse or gerbil. The box protects the rodent from injury and, when the bird lands on it, a trip wire that is attached to the cage looses a pin that instantly springs open a wire bow net overtop of the bird as it stands on it’s prey. It’s harder to succeed at but even more satisfying than the box trap when you get one.

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It also means I got to have gerbils as best friends for the summer! We found that mice tended to not do as well as the more hardy gerbil. Unfortunately the little guys don’t hold up well under seemingly near-death situations. Yes, we’re horrible people. So I went for gerbils instead! I made friends with a Biologist at Fort Carson who let me let them out in his living room. He came up with the names: Thunder for the yellow one and Lightening for the brown one with the streak across its forehead.

Most of the work involved working out in the middle of what seemed nowhere sometimes, but, for a field job, the room and board was pretty cush. We each had our own food allowance and lived from hotel room to hotel room. I’d sneak my gerbils on the fancy loading cart, the cage under the drape of a pillow, rolling by the concierge toward the elevator. They kept me company over the summer, and through many a long night. We worked together in the endeavor to capture owls. We spent late nights together, just the three of us and the owls. And when we’d get home at three o’clock, to yet another quiet hotel room, I’d let them out in the bathtub to run around a bit before I collapsed until early afternoon.

While the places I worked were on service lands, I certainly did feel like I was pretty well out in the wild on the job, for instance the evening that involved war against canine, running after and screaming at coyotes that were just a stone’s throw away and warily-yet-brazenly approaching the box traps I’d just set. They were recognizing what I was doing and thought they could attempt a free meal in the form of a momma owl. Another time I had a face to face with a badger that stood on it’s hind legs and, I sh*t you not, started dancing to the sun gods, paws raised high, body upright and writhing. badger2016

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of that.

There was always the possibility of a cougar but I never was lucky enough. I did however finally see my first bobcat (and sighed as it ran across my Bronco’s headlights down the dark dirt road, hoping I wouldn’t have to run it off of any of my traps). As far as smaller life on the land, the grasshopper and beetles were fat and plentiful and the owls made a good living off of them. You can 223593_502650234605_6707_nsometimes see the proof when you come across a burrow that has been decorated with the shimmering exoskeleton of the creature that once was: legs, wings and carapaces scattered artfully around a hole in the dirt, perhaps a sign to females that this male promises to feed her well if she agrees to share his hole.

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@stacebird

But really, the birds are absolutely charming, fascinating, charismatic and simply gorgeous. Having a burrowing owl in the hand where you can observe the beauty of its dappled feathers and the softness of this small fierce predator. The glow of those eyes, even in the middle of the night, is staggering. They’re not apt to bite and they don’t clutch you too painfully with their claws although sometimes they hit you in the sweet spot of a nailbed. And I’m pretty sure that, as with every bird I let go over the course of that summer, they all know my face by heart as I’ve determined based on the soul-wrenching look they give me just before I let them go.

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I picture this face sometimes, just before I’m about to fall asleep…

But watching them in the evenings, you can see a silhouette of the silent hunters with their powdery moth wings, hovering above the ground staring intently until softly dropping onto its quarry. If you ever get to Tucson, keep your eye out because you can guarantee they’ve already got you in their sights!

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Don’t mess with me.

 

Below is an article from the Fort Carson Air Force Base newspaper on me and the fieldwork I was doing there that summer:

 

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Project Puffin video short!

*update: the video should work now!

So I’ll be keeping up with my Pining for the Field series now that I’m not in the field. It details my various bird jobs in locations including Puerto Rico and Canada. My upcoming post will be about my job working out west with burrowing owls in 2007.

But first..

I’ve been drawing on my multimedia skills, lately. Here’s a short video clip about Project Puffin. The photos and video are all mine except for the two clips labeled as explore.org video. It’s kind of like a teaser preview, short but sweet.

I’m fairly new to the video-editing world, but as they say, practice makes perfect, so get ready for more to come!

 

If you’ve not visited Project Puffin’s site yet, it’s a great resource for those of you I might’ve managed to get hooked on puffins. To learn a lot more about them, click below:

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And if you haven’t had a chance to check out my online store, here’s a link:

http://www.zazzle.com/feathersawryphotos

 

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Pining for the Field: Bay of Fundy

My first bird job out of college (after having two seasons of Project Puffin under my belt), I traveled north to New Brunswick, Canada to do warbler studies in and around Bay of Fundy National Park.

It was the summer of 2006.

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Female Black-throated Green Warbler

We were after Black-throated Green and Blackburnian Warblers, both little forest gems, songbirds that mainly spend their time high in the trees. Warblers are tiny little creatures and, despite their tropical-seeming plumage, not many among the non-birdwatching population can say they’ve actually had a good look at one. It’s not easy! These tiny birds don’t sit still. They’re primarily insectivores so they’re constantly shooting from branch to twig to leaf to pinecone in an endless search for that next protein-rich morsel. Doesn’t make for easy viewing.

I remember on one of my first birdwalks, holding a small pair of binoculars in my seven-year old hands and trying to get a hold on one of these darn birds, trying to keep even just one in my field of view as they’re darting among the treetops. I recall streaks of vibrant yellow, green and black on that early morning at Meadowside Nature Center, in the peak of spring migration when all the birds are extra frantic to eat – they’d had a long trip north and were hungry!

The study, which we carried out under researcher/biologist Brad Zitske and University of New Brunswick was to determine negative effects of habitat loss on these two species of

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Teeny color bands for teeny warbler legs

warblers by resighting male birds that had been banded within their nesting territory the previous year. Since these territorial birds come back to the same nesting location to breed each season, the birds that he’d captured (using mist nets) and banded with color-coded plastic bands in previous years, we could identify based on the color combination unique to that individual. The determining factor for survival of these birds over their territory depended on the amount of appropriate habitat available (the best being a mature forest of a mixed species matrix). And, in an area that is largely harvested for timber, birds are at significant risk of losing the habitat they depend on to survive and successfully procreate.

To determine the presence or absence of a bird on its territory depended on driving deep into the logging lands, down empty dirt roads to random-seeming locations until our maps, compass and GPS told us where to go. It was a cross-country effort, diving (on foot) purposefully into the woods, attempting to find that banding location (usually) marked with a piece of flagging tape tied to to a tree.

Armed with my binoculars, a tape player and a full-on rain suit to combat the clouds of mosquitoes,

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Black-throated Green, ready for a fight.

black flies, noseeums, horseflies and deerflies, I strode out into the forest with my directional tools until I found the next flag marker. That meant that I was in one of our previously-banded bird’s territories. There I’d throw in the species-appropriate tape and turn the volume up high, with either a Green or Blackburnian song blasting out of the player. Binoculars in ready position, I’d wait for what I hoped would be an irate male warbler wondering what the heck another warbler was doing singing in it’s territory and arriving with a vengeance, dukes at the ready.

When a bird comes in, binox go up and then there’s the fun of trying to identify the combination of four micro, colored bands resting on the toothpick ankles of these miniscule birds. So four different colors, say, red over yellow and blue over green. Was that left foot, right or the other way around? An irate warbler dancing around on the branches looking for his invisible arch enemy makes attempting to determine the color combination much less the specific leg each band is on is quite the feat! I might have cursed a warbler or two that summer..

What was sad was the nest site I was directed to to resight some nesting birds that, when I arrived to the GPS location, was no longer a forest. Just a ravaged, treeless hillside. Brad was comparing between birds nesting within the protections offered by the park (i.e., these birds won’t come back in the spring to discover their home non-existant) with those outside the park including logging lands. That’d be a bitch, wouldn’t it? You fly hundreds of miles south, leaving your nesting grounds behind for the winter and then turn around and fly hundreds of miles back north for the spring only to discover your home territory completely trashed. Then there’s the whole process of fighting your way into a new territory, hopefully adequate enough to win the hand of a mate.

Sometimes my forays into the forest could get quite exciting. I had the grand pleasure of a close encounter with a Northern Goshawk. I’d been alerted by a co-worker that there was a nest in the vicinity where I was working so I went out of my way to find it, seeing as how I’d never seen one of these imposing birds. They’re actually known for being highly protective while nesting and I stayed a respectful distance. When I lifted my binoculars to see her among that jumble of sticks that was her  nest, my heart swelled. I was dazzled by those eyes! So intense and calculating. I was completely caught by her spell and didn’t really notice that she was flying straight for me, filling my binoculars field of view with feathers, talons and hatred. It wasn’t until the last possible second that I completely just hit the forest floor and watched her purposeful figure shoot right across where my head had just been. I got out of there ASAP.

Another time I was somewhere out in the middle of the forest, playing some Blackburnian to the trees when I heard a distant thunder. I sat wondering what it really might’ve been when the answer came hurtling out of the trees: an enormous cow moose tore past, hooves pounding the ground, completely concentrating on getting herself the hell outta there. She was only a stone’s throw away and I could feel the ground thundering as she flew by. As I watched the dust settle, I couldn’t help but look in the direction she’d come, fearing the worst. I got out of there ASAP.

If you ever want to see a moose, go to New Brunswick. We saw them pretty darn often, both in and around the national park. One time we came across a pair of teenagers who

snowshoe

Moose dressed up as Snowshoe Hare

were walking along one of the dirt roads we were following to our next resighting spot. Instead of peeling off the road, they both decided to start trotting in front of us as we followed. Picking up speed, my comrade in arms (aka. the driver) wanted to see what would happen. Well, one gave up and turned off while the other just didn’t seem to understand how easy it would be to just sidestep us by turning into the woods so he starts booking it down the road, picking up dust with his pounding hooves, running like a rabbit: front legs between hind legs style. Moose can run fast.

Another day, quite early in the morning and mist was rising off the ground, we happened across a huge bull with a full-on tree for a rack. In the early dawn, his huge form came out of the mist and, all around him, were ravaged trees and huge stumps. He looked very sad.

Another part of our job over the summer included helping with a  mist-netting operation in the National Park. We set up various nets in the forest and fields and checked them on a rotation over the course of the morning, catching other kinds of warblers (there are many) and all sorts of other species of songbird. They fly into the nets and we gently untangle them and put a BBL on (a USFWS-issued metal band with a unique, identifying number), weigh the little bugger, take some body measurements, determine sex and, if possible, age based on plumage. We can also check for a broodpatch, in which the bird (namely the female, sometimes the male) loses feathers to leave a bare patch of skin on its belly. This is so that they can sit on the egg or chick and provide warm skin-on-skin (or shell) contact.

Seeing these little jewels up close is a thrilling occurrence, as well as sobering. Such a tiny little spurt of life is up against so much in it’s life: the perils of the elements, predators and their entire existence is based around the need for healthy, suitable habitat to nest, migrate and spend the winter, spanning across home ranges that don’t consider state or country boundaries or whether a forest is designated to be clear cut or not.

 

 

 

 

 

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