And The Hits Keep Coming

The 19th season of fieldwork kicked off on Wednesday!  This was the beginning of my fifth season with a long-term American Kestrel nest monitoring program in Warren and Sussex counties in NW New Jersey.  The NJ study is significant because there are few long term research projects out there due to the nature of grants and the publish or perish mandate. There is a longer monitoring program run by Hawk Mountain – since the 1960’s I believe, but I read the research on that a few months ago, so don’t quote me and certainly don’t cite me!

What does Kestrel research entail?

The most important thing is probably a sense of humor because weird and unexpected stuff always happens. In all seriousness though it requires the willingness to jump in,do whatever is needed, and the ability to slug it out for 10-12 hours in the field at a go.

On the first trip out, we need to check and prep each site for the upcoming breeding season.  This entails emptying out old nests and putting in new wood shavings – Kestrels are messy birds!    Occasionally it involves some repair or trimming of vegetation.

Return visits are done to monitor which boxes are in use by kestrels, or other native birds.  Unused nests and other animals are evicted (unless immatures are present, then they can stay until fledging or maturity).  If a box is used, then we monitor to ID the adults.  Are they returns from earlier seasons?  New individuals to NJ?  We determine nesting date, and then we return and band the nestlings before they fledge.  We have about 100 boxes across the two counties, so it’s a full day in each county.

On Wednesday, the high was in the upper 30’s/40’s, with a 10% chance of rain.  Much better than Tuesday or Thursday’s forecast.  Mind you the wind blew; it rained; it even dared to snow!   There were three of us in the field – an undergraduate participating for credit, my adviser who has run the program for all 18 previous seasons and myself.  Yet we persevered.

No Kestrel sightings (historically the first sighting is always in Sussex), but collectively we identified by sight or sound 39 species of birds.  We had a false alarm of a Red-headed Woodpecker which would be a lifer for me, but in retrospect it was likely a weird sounding Red-bellied Woodpecker.

But I did get a new life bird!  As we visiting a box near the Alpha Grasslands, the professor generally climbs the ladder to monitor each box while my job is to spot for Kestrels and record all data observations.   From the ladder, the professor called down that he thought he heard Snow Buntings!  I had my binoculars up within seconds because this bird has eluded me all winter.  I’ve gone to at least 3 places where they were reported without any luck.  I found three floating around the field – playing freeze tag.  They’d abruptly fly to the next spot, then freeze on the ground making finding them again nearly impossible.   So I didn’t even blink until the professor was off the ladder and on the birds.  Then I handed my binoculars over to the undergrad so she could take a peek.  I ran for my camera, but got back just as they departed for a distant field.

So that was pretty cool.  Of course day 2 of fieldwork had to top day 1.  The professor and another graduate student spotted a Black-legged Kittiwake in the Walkill NWR and got to band a Eastern Screech Owl.

Then on Thursday, I got to see 3 Brown-headed Cowbirds at the feeder while working on a term paper!  So two new bird species for the year and one new life species!

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6 thoughts on “And The Hits Keep Coming

  1. Sounds busy and beautiful! I can only imagine, but fieldwork must be the ultimate fruition and fulfillment, the culmination of so much build up and anticipation. I’m sure it has its dull and disappointing moments too, but it sounds like a blast.

    • Exactly! That’s precisely the nature of the work. There are days you’re freezing or you feel the sun burn accumulating, days where everything seems a bit off, but even in those moments there really isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be. If I could find a way to do field work as a viable, sustainable career option it’d be at the top of my list.

      • Oh heck yeah.

        It’s been in the 90s all week here (hot for March even by Phoenix standards). After several days of great birding, I am burnt and lightly seasoned. In terms of things being ‘a bit off’…yes the ol’ epidermis is shedding now, so I can get burnt all over again. Perhaps with an Irish surname like Farley you can sympathize Kathleen.

        It seems like there are lots of sweet field work jobs on the west coast, with the PRBO and other conglomerates. I’ve no idea what the pay is, but hey if it puts you to work in California…

      • Well in NY/NJ we can’t seem to shake this snow. Regarding the epidermis, I can absolutely empathize – when I did fieldwork in AZ it wasn’t so bad – I guess I was exposed to enough of it my skin toughened up, but when I did fieldwork in NC, I burned every single day. Of course I could have just worn long pants and long sleeves every single day, but I was in the Outer Banks and who wants to do that at the beach?

        There are very sweet fieldwork jobs in California. Pay tends to be on the low end, but generally it comes with housing. Unfortunately every 3 months or so you’re looking for a new job and it doesn’t come with benefits. The only way I think to get permanent fieldwork with benefits is to go the academia route and become a professor or work for the government, but will definitely keep PRBO in mind.

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