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.
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
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,
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
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.