A Jaunt Down South Creek

Follow me and my kayak as we take in the sights of nature at Oscar Scherer State Park down here in Florida. Birds and wildlife abound and I was well armed, with my camera and binoculars. View my video by clicking the images below to take you to my website:

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Endangered Species Day, Every Day

25553126933_d1e7f6affc_bWhile this day is only observed one day out of the year, it is important that we carry the message always.

Earth’s species are at risk of extinction and, unless we garner awareness, educate ourselves and work to support policy dedicated to protecting them, species will continue to be lost.

Let’s observe this important day every day..

Check out my newest post on WildLensInc.org..click the image below for the link to the rest of the story:

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The Project Puffin Story: A Review

View this post, as well as other writings, podcasts and short films focusing on wildlife and environmental conservation at wildlensinc.org.

The book is Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock by Stephen W. Kress and Derrick Z. Jackson

As a “Puffineer” of three seasons working on puffin nesting islands, this is a book that is Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 2.05.01 PMclose to my heart. In it, we follow the undying efforts of a young scientist who was determined to reintroduce healthy nesting populations of a small, hardy seabird back to islands off the coast of Maine. His success, despite strong skepticism early on, has led to a legacy of accomplished seabird reintroduction techniques and devoted preservation that carries a global reach more than 40 years later.

Atlantic Puffins, along with a wide variety of other island-nesting seabirds were vanquished from the islands along the northeastern coast of the United States in the late 1800s, taken by hunters for food and the millinery trade, or feather industry.

To reestablish a seabird nesting colony and bring puffins back to the islands they’d long left had never been achieved. And it wasn’t an easy task, taking many years to achieve even just a hint of success. And that’s not even counting the difficulty of getting the project funded or even simply supported as an idea that might even work at all. To a doubtful scientific community, reintroducing puffins to islands long-abandoned seemed wildly improbable. The work would mean taking birds from further north, from healthy populations that breed along the coast of Newfoundland, and transport them to islands off the coast of Maine. To extract downy, defenseless pufflings (puffin chicks) out of their nest burrow from their native nesting grounds at the age of a mere ten to twelve days seemed like much more than a long shot, it seemed a waste of effort and not worthy of the significant funding that would be necessary for such a feat.

But the young Steve Kress was relentless in his determination and, with the support of renown ornithologist Dr. William Holland Drury Jr., leading seabird expert in New England and research director at Massachusetts Audubon Society, providing a backing of confidence that couldn’t be ignored by the scientific community, Kress was given the support required to allow for the go ahead.

Nevertheless, even with support, this was a feat that had never been attempted: translocating young puffins with the intent that they’d grow up, reach breeding age and return by their own volition to the island they’d been introduced to years before was asking a lot. Puffins, after fledging, stay out to sea for years until they reach breeding age; would the island of their weeks-old translocation been ingrained into the brain of these little seabirds and would they return there to reproduce and raise their young? Or would they rather recall the island of their birth and return there instead? It was quite a gamble and, year after year, the team could only continue bringing chicks to these nursery islands, raising them and watching them take to the sea, hoping they’d return, years into the future.

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Moreover, how did he even know if a ten-day old chick could even make it to fledging age without their parents, something that would take 30-50 days of successful rearing, by a human, no less, to reach? What Steve knew was that puffin chicks were fairly self-sufficient even when it came to the birds’ early lifespan. He knew that the solitary chick–as puffins will only lay one egg a season–don’t require parental regurgitation to be fed as with other seabird chicks; puffin parents deliver whole fish to their young that chick will gobble up, even if merely left at the “front doorstep” of its burrow. Secondly, upon fledging–when the bird first leaves the nest–a puffin chick needs no escorting, the young seabird naturally has the capacity to fledge on its own and will tend to its own survival and migrate alone to the species’ wintering grounds without guidance.

In the early seventies, Kress and his team dedicated years of work struggling against the elements and living life on a remote, uninhabited island miles out to sea, far from the simple luxuries of running water, electricity and food stores. They translocated hundreds of puffin chicks from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock, an uninhabited, 7-acre island out of Maine’s Muscongus Bay, experimenting with artificial burrows-nest boxes implanted into the loamy soil of the Maine island to mimic the puffin’s natural nesting conditions of the north.

As they reared the fuzzy black puffin chicks, which grew into white-bellied, hearty-yet-cautious birds, they could only watch helplessly as the fledged birds took to the steely waters in the night, heading out to sea with no hint as to where they’d follow their instinctive urges when the time to breed came. Incredibly, of the 954 birds brought from Newfoundland, 940 were successfully fledged.

But after four years of reintroduction, none of the fledged puffins had returned to the island. In order to continue with the project, it was necessary to show some kind success to the scientific community so as to continue to receive support to keep the project going, but there was no sign of puffins on or near the rock, at least that the team know of, pointed out Kress:

“I worried that these highly social birds might be returning to the vicinity of Egg Rock, but if they did not see other puffins on the island, they might not stay long enough for us to see them. And if they landed on the water but never came ashore, we would not see their bands and be able to prove that the translocations were working.”

This concern led to a game-changing development and something that has influenced seabird research and reintroduction efforts all around the world. The struggle to lure a social bird to a deserted island led to the genesis of the use of seabird decoys to attract these social birds back to their artificial nesting grounds. Decoys had never been used for birds for anything other than hunting. By mounting these painted replicas on boulders and high outcrops around the island, the puffins, which actually were nearby, were drawn back to the island they’d left behind, four years prior. In June of 1977, the team watched a puffin land on Gull Rock, the highpoint of the island. It was the first to land on Eastern Egg Rock since the 1800s, Kress and his team reflected, and a monumental moment in the history of ornithological research and conservation.

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As the birds came back to the island, a new challenge presented itself. By offering up prime nesting habitat for these birds, the seabird researchers had the responsibility that the birds they were luring in would find a safety on the island so that they could successfully carry out their breeding season and not fall prey to predators. That meant replicating a healthy functioning ecosystem that hadn’t existed on the rock since the first half of the 19th century. Healthy and functioning includes a biodiverse system which will support more than one species. In the case of other islands off Maine’s coast that had historically supported a rich diversity of seabird species, the outhunted birds were replaced by the ubiquitous and aggressive gull which is a less sensitive creature to human influence than other seabirds and exist in great populations along Maine’s coast. They’d taken over the islands and likely helped deter other more cautious species from recolonizing. To be able to ensure a safe island nesting environment, human presence is essential to inhibit gulls from pushing out the more apprehansive species. A Greater Black-backed or Herring Gull will prey with relish upon seabird eggs, chicks and even fledgling puffins.

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Imminent Common Tern dive-bomb

By attracting terns to the island, reusing the ingenious method of social attraction through decoys, along with the implementation of audio systems that broadcasted their vocalizations near the decoys mounted on the rocks, the implementation of a more diverse, functioning ecosystem was developing. These feisty, sharp-beaked, pointy-winged, fork-tailed, gull-like seabirds nested on the open rocks off the treeless islands, around which jumbles of boulders lined the perimeter and within which the quickly growing colonies of puffins had established their nesting burrows. While puffins were wary birds that flee at the first sign of a predator, terns would rather face the enemy, ganging up and diving upon and taking sharp stabs at any gull that chose to run the tern gauntlet to nab a tasty egg or chick. But terns hadn’t nested on the islands in decades so it took another five years before the first pairs of Common and Arctic Terns took to nesting there again.

Now, Project Puffin is in its 44th year and manages seven islands that host more than 20 nesting waterbird species including the endangered Roseate Tern, Arctic Terns which migrates hundreds of thousands of miles within its lifespan, Razorbills, Guillemots, sea ducks known as Eiders, Great Cormorants, Manx Shearwaters, egrets and ibises and various shorebirds. Each season, teams of seabird biologists spend the summer out on the islands monitoring and protecting these species while learning about how they interact with their environment in the face of human encroachment and climate change.

The early methods that Kress used to bring these birds back to the islands are now standard in the toolkit of seabird biologists have been crucial in the success of seabird restoration efforts made around the world.

“Behind every restoration are innovative and caring biologists who are doing their best to enhance chances for survival for rare species and enhance biodiversity. These are true heroes of our time, often risking their own safety to undo mistakes of others.”

Currently, of the seven Project Islands, three island, Eastern Egg Rock, Seal Island and Matinicus Rock, support more than 1,000 nesting pairs of Atlantic Puffins.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Stephen W. Kress is the National Audubon Society’s Vice President for Bird Conservation and director of the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program and Hog Island Audubon Camp. He is an associate of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca NY, where he developed and teaches a popular course in field ornithology. His work in seabird conservation and habitat restoration is world renowned for the  innovative methods developed in Maine. He lives in Ithaca, NY.

Derrick Z. Jackson is an award-winning op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in commentary. He is an associate editor at the paper as well as being an editorial board member. He is also well known for his nature and documentary photography; his images of Barak Obama have been exhibited by the Boston Museum of African American History. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Dr. Steve Kress and me on Seal Island, Summer 2016.

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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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