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 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.

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 we were still getting the hang of things, we three travelled together to air force bases in California, trapping and banding owls and then went our three separate ways to cover sites in Colorado, 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 much 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! They didn’t seem bothered.

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 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 fluff balls.

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

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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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Why not sell out? Puffin style..

So now that I have a whole pile of puffin pictures from my work with these birds this summer as well as in 2003 and 2005, I figure, why not try and see if any of these suckers will sell? I figure, now with the holidays coming, who wouldn’t want a puffin magnet or a set of puffin-themed greeting cards?

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These are the very puffins I’ve had the pleasure of working with on Project Puffin’s Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. These charismatic little seabirds now nest on islands off the coast of Maine in robust populations thanks to director Steve Kress and reintroduction efforts of his 40+ year effort under the umbrella of Audubon Society.

Feel free to have a browse! And keep checking in, because I’ll be adding photos and new gift ideas regularly. Also, if you see any photos on this site you’d like to see as a card or mousepad, just let me know and I’ll be sure to see what I can do.

Thanks for stopping by!

~stacebird

 

 

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Pining for the Field: Puerto Rico

So while I’m back to reality, much removed from the hidden world of birds, I’ll take a look back at other field jobs I’ve taken part in over the years. We’ll harken back to 2006 when I travelled to Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge to study Smooth-billed Anis..

I remember flying into the airport and the air was heavy, further weighing down my backpack which was filled to bursting with everything I’d need for the next several months working in the field.

Dr. Jim Quinn of McMaster University, renowned for his long-term work studying
smooth-billed anis in Puerto Rico, picked up my new acquaintance and fieldmate Eric and I. Jim drove us across the island, over the lush mountains, dripping vibrant green to puertofreako-043-2the southwest corner of the island. In stark contrast, this section of the island lies within the subtropical dry forest belt and looks like the African savannah dotted with acacia and mesquite trees. More than 200 years of overgrazing has led to much of the land becoming overrun with invasive species including the dreaded, leg-ensnaring buffel grass and guinea grasses that grow taller than I could ever hope to be. But through habitat management, this refuge is providing a protected ecosystem for local wildlife, wintering migrants and endemic species including the yellow-shouldered blackbird. The refuge is even specially designated as Critical Habitat for this particular endangered bird.

But the bird we were concerned with was one that wasn’t in any kind of critical condition puertofreako-033as far as population goes, as Smooth-billed Anis do well in and around areas of cultivation and are common in the tropics of Central and South America. But these feisty characters are worthwhile for study thanks to a barrage of fascinating attributes.

Anis are a communal species that lives in groups of around seventeen birds or so. On the refuge, we had more than ten different territories marked out that we determined by tracking birds we’d captured previously and fitted with radio-transmitters, one per territorial group. This way we could easily locate and observe the individual groups and it helped us find their nests which were monitored throughout the season.

What’s particularly unique about these birds is that each territory will communally build a puertofreako-006nest of sticks high in the trees and subsequently, every egg-laying female in that group will add each of her ovo-contributions to that sole nest. With their joined forces, a smooth billed ani nest has been known to boast up to 36 eggs. I recall climbing up the rickety 20ft ladder that swayed along with the branches and peering into a nest to discover a multitude of white eggs, each about the size of a half dollar coin.

Over monitoring the course of laying, we saw some eggs develop robin-egg blue scratches indicating at attempts to exude the egg from the nest. While the benefits of social living remain preferable – working together, looking out for each other – there still remains an instinctive desire within the females to pass on their own genes. Competition has developed in which the ladies will kick out the egg (the more unsuccessful attempted expulsions of an egg become evident as more and more of its milky coating is scratched away) and then settles down to lay her own!

What’s more, these rascally females are even known for covering up a previously laid clutch by placing a layer of leaves over them and then adding her own to the new “empty” nest. There have been nests found to be as many as eight layers deep, but only the top uncovered layer can be properly incubated by parents to hatching.

Exerpt from Birds are Far From Boring:

These strategies of competition allows for a better guarantee that the female and her mate will pass on their genes in the formation of the next generation. This may seem in contradiction to the sociality of these birds, that living in a social group provides better protection than if the birds lived solitarily. Nevertheless, the benefit of single birds within the social group would be that they are less likely to be preyed upon and therefore live to reproduce and, once in the act of egg laying, will further the chances of passing on genes.

Despite the competition, the babes that make it through the egg stage of life start to hatch in profusion, as we delightedly climbed the ladder day after day only to discover another handful of squirmy, wrinkled, naked chicks that have newly emerged. We visited each nest regularly puertofreako-195to note hatch date and start to measure growth.  Part of the study that we were participating in included taking blood samples of the chicks which could be matched to DNA samples gathered from the eggs, thus giving information on individual female productivity success using genetic markers in an examination of the complex mating system and reproductive tactics of these birds. While there is definitely a system of hierarchy going on, there’s still more to be learned.

While watching these birds over the course of the breeding season, between September and the end of November, we became familiar with the different groups, where they liked puertofreako-055to hang out, what were the best feeding patches where the lizards and insects skittered around in the grass, what trees they liked to roost in for the night. We spent a good deal of effort determining this because, by finding their roost tree, we could attempt to trap these wily birds so that we could place colored leg bands on for easy identification in the field. It was not an simple task. It meant that you had to follow the group for the entire evening, without disrupting them, as they decide upon a roost and then you must wait until they are seemingly settled in for the night before creeping silently away. Long before dawn, we’d slink back out as a group, netting and puertofreako-007banding equipment in hand. To capture these birds by this method, a lot of guesswork is involved as to where to set up the extend-a-pole nets that we situated in front of the tree in hopes that was the direction they’d exit at sunrise. Using headlamps, we worked as quietly and quickly as possible to set up the twenty-some foot high nets and then retreated into the undergrowth to wait for the first glow of the rising orb.

So yes, we got skunked several times. But when they do come flying out in the direction you’d so fervently hoped and flop into the giant, baglike mist net, the action starts. We all have a job, one person at each pole as quick as possible (we come blasting out of the grass, let me tell you) so as to rapidly de-extend it and the net flops over itself before the wriggling birds can escape. Then there’s the one or two people designated to extract the bird from the pile of soft net it’s now under while the other begins the banding process. While our success rate made it hardly worth the hours we put in, it was fun! That is, until the great pigeon massacre where we watched the anis fly out the tree in the totally opposite direction from what we’d determined while handfuls of pigeons pouring out of the tree pelted our nets, leaving us a mess of confused non-target birds to detangle and set free.

Bycatch is inevitable and sometimes frustrating, but it give a chance to have some neat views of birds in the hand.

As the nesting season wore on, we noticed some intense interactions among these highly defensive territorial groups, particularly at the boundary edges where two groups meet. Sometimes it’d be violent individual scuffles or the whole colony would aggressively torment an intruding spy until it retreated. The birds were often protecting or attempting to expand their territory. We had one group that persistently snuck into another group’s nest to crack eggs and maul the chicks, perhaps trying to drive out the colony from some prime habitat. One day we witnessed an invasion of one entire colony into a next door territory and a great battle ensued. This is what I love about fieldwork: you become part of nature, watching it so closely day after day that you become a part of it and it feels natural and you find yourself at home. You see things that few people have ever witnessed and you’re learning constantly through observation.

There is such great drama in the lives of the Smooth-billed Ani and I quickly grew very attached to them and that beautiful little corner of Puerto Rico. If you ever get out to the island, please check out the refuge and be sure to say hi to my birds!

More bird job stories to come, stay tuned and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

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eBird: Gotta catch ’em all!

So while I may understand the rage surrounding this summer’s release of interactive app video game Pokemon Go, I think I found a version even more perfectly suited for someone –a.k.a. a bird dork – like myself: an online bird checklist database known as eBird.

Before:                                                                       After:

pokemon                                                   1T9A5219

 

Watching birds, or rather, being aware of all the ones that exist with my audio/visual realm at just about every second I’m in a conscious state, makes for a rich view of life and fla-march-2009-047one’s surroundings. While I walk, jog, drive, bike or daydream through life, I’m unconsciously noting in my head what birds I catch out of the corner of my eye, the sound of their call note or the shrouded flick of a wingbeat in the shrubs. While I enjoy writing about or photographing the birds I’ve seen, I’ve never been much one for making lists of what I’ve encountered. Some people are meticulous about recording new birds as they see them, keeping years and years of bird lists. While I do have journals with the overall amount of species I’ve encountered on various different adventures and travels, I don’t keep it all in one place, I don’t have the coveted “Life List”. I have no idea how many bird species I’ve seen in my lifetime.

Well, here is where this handy app, launched in 2012, comes in.

I’d heard of eBird and how avid birders, young and old, are putting it to good use, I only decided to finally give it a go this past September, my final month out on Project Puffin‘s tern and puffin island, Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. Seeing as how I’ve been a birdwatcher for my entire life, why not start on an uninhabited island that I’ve gotten to frolic around on all summer, which just so happens to be covered by unexploded ordinances and is therefore closed to the public? Aside from us researchers, the only eBird checklists made for Seal Island are from those who’ve only boated around it. One of the perks of being a field biologist (until that gets me blown up).

Working on my very first list, it was immediately exciting because I got to sit out on our cabin porch, staring out over the island, watching random migrant songbirds moving ancient-checklistthrough. Even when you don’t see anything especially out of the ordinary, making a unique list for that day, that time, that location, those species is important. It’s your contribution, your mark, what you’ve gathered and just jotting it down won’t just mean it’ll get lost in a dusty drawer ages from now. Instead, the information you’ve retrieved will get instantly downloaded into a huge database through the esteemed Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And by opening up this ability to the wider birding public through the ease of an app on your phone, information can be uploaded constantly.

In addition to the influx of data, there is also the invaluable investment by individuals who are even entering backlogged data they’d been keeping before the advent of the ebird phenomenon. As long as you’ve got the date and time and place, entering this information can be added to historic trends that can be extrapolated including bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.

So on the 10th of September 2016 on Seal Island NWR, I started my first contribution as an eBird citizen scientist. That morning we had three different empidonax flycatchers

landing on one of the ropes that batten down our composting outhouse. Red-breasted nuthatches “meep”ed as they skittered under that porch awning and pecked away at driftwood. We had few young yellow-crowned night herons that hung around for most of the second half of the season, making them seem more like neighbors than confused wayfaring strangers. Even the influx of juvenile purple finches that hung around camp for days was exciting to add to the list.

Now that we’re into October, I’ve already made a total of 21 checklists so far throughout Maine, Virginia, Maryland and Florida with a total of 117 different species observed. I’m calling it my official Life List. I don’t mind starting from scratch. It makes getting the next “life” bird all the more thrilling, even it’s not especially rare. And since I’m not officially working in the field now that the season is over, it makes me feel like I’m contributing to something worthwhile. We all are.

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-5-50-29-pm

So now I have lists and data that tell me all about the species I’ve seen over the course of this Fall season and, not only can I look back at my lists, photos or notes on my sightings, I can look at everyone’s accumulated data organized depending on the area or time of year. I can find out what certain birds are migrating through or if any rarities are being seen nearby. While it’s all still new and shiny for me, I can see this being an ingrained hobby to add to my already-ingrained hobby. I was in Florida a couple weeks ago and, during a solo jaunt through the woods looking for Fall migrants, I happened across a few eBirders more than twice my age (and with a life list probably many multiples larger than mine). It’s evident that I’m behind. Gotta catch up with the times..gotta catch ’em all!

 

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