Searching for Spring

On Saturday, Tara and I original intended to go to Garrett Mountain – a local migration hotspot to see what was arriving.  I hard heard that earlier in the week there wasn’t much, but it seemed worth a visit, if for no other reason then getting a chance to say farewell to our winter birds.

However on Friday our plans changed when we were invited to join Montclair State University’s Herpetology class on their field trip.  We decided instead to go up to the school of conservation.  It was supposed to be 60 and sunny – sounded lovely.

Well, it wasn’t.

Despite the calender proclaiming April, ice and snow continue at the School of Conservation. NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

Despite the calender proclaiming April, ice and snow continue at the School of Conservation. NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

The weather was just cloudier, colder, and winder than forecast.  Not ideal for migrating birds nor for luring herps from their winter hideaways. Plus, there. was. still. ice.

Our first stop was at Culver’s Lake – a good spot for winter ducks, particularly the Common Goldeneye.  We didn’t stay long – blackbirds, robins, and cardinals were in better attendance than ducks.  The whipping wind had caused the ducks to seek shelter elsewhere.  We had a few Buffleheads and Common Mergansers.  As we were doing a final perimeter check, we did witness a disagreement between a crow and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  having arrived at the scene belatedly, I cannot say who was the instigator, but it was clear each felt right and might were on their side.

We headed into state park land in hopes that trees would provide a more sheltered environment for the birds and ourselves.  It was also the first day of Trout season apparently.  So there were fishermen there.  One had a bird cage.  It even had a perch.  My friend insists it was an eel trap.  As she works with fish (in addition to herps, and now birds) I will believe her.

We went to the Steam Mill Area first.  Again, empty, although we did get our first Mallard of the day. (3rd water body, too).  He looked confused.  A Belted Kingfisher was about, defending territory.  I also caught the welcome chimes of a Eastern Phoebe before we located it in the trees.

At the school of conservation, we did a bit of hiking – checking for herps in preparation for the class and looking for birds before too many people pressured the birds into silence.    We heard additional phoebes and possibly a kinglet. Our nicest find was a Brown Creeper.  While not a spring bird by any stretch, it was missing from the year list so it was nice to see the numbers slowly creep up.

Brown Creeper searches for a morning meal. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

Brown Creeper searches for a morning meal. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

After hiking we stopped at Big Timbers cabin to watch the feeders where the staff insisted we take hot beverage and brownies.  There we got some great views of American Goldfinch transforming into their summer plumage – they look so silly with their mottled plumes right now.   There were between 40-50 goldfinch on the feeder in addition to a House Finch, 1-2 White-breasted Nuthatches, 1-2 Tufted Titmice, a Red-winged Blackbird, and a Downy Woodpecker. At one point a Coopers Hawk slammed into the feeding area causing a quick exodus. This allowed us to drink and nibble before the birds returned.

Tufted Titmouse at the feeders.  School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

Tufted Titmouse at the feeders. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

American Goldfinch are molting into their alternate/summer/breeding plumage. Take your pick of bird jargon. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

American Goldfinch are molting into their alternate/summer/breeding plumage. Take your pick of bird jargon. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

After refreshment, we joined the arriving herp class. It must be so much easier to be a herp person than a bird person…. you can roll up at 12:30, no early mornings required!   We didn’t have much time left before we had to return home for unavoidable commitments.  We did locate a Red Phase Red-backed Salamander and Dusky Salamanders while  a Great Blue Heron coursed low over a stream.  I searched the hemlock and pines for slumbering owls, but no luck there.  Then it was onward home.

The slender Red Phase Red-backed Salamander and the bulky Dusky Salamander.   School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

The slender Red Phase Red-backed Salamander and the bulky Dusky Salamander. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

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Catching Kestrels

With kestrel research this year we’ve made a concerted effort to capture and identify or band all adult kestrels. We also needed to visit newly hatched boxes to determine the day of hatching.  Determining the day of hatching determines the banding and tagging window.  This requires going into the field a couple times a week to visit all the active boxes, which means my free days are typically busier than the days I work.

On this particular day a few weeks ago, we were joined by two by two turtlers (people who work with turtles; verb is to turtle.) for a day of kestreling (to specifically seek out kestrels).

The chosen one (me!( saunters down the road with the modified butterfly net.

The chosen one (me!) saunters down the road with the modified butterfly net.

Catching adults involves the use of a modified butterfly net. A chosen individual (think shortest straw or Hunger Games style selection process) assembles the net and proceeds on the quest to sneak up to the box and slip the net over while the remainder of the team sits in the car and bets on your success. When you are successful, the entry hole is successfully blocked, allowing the team to drive up, scale a ladder, and remove any inhabitants.

Here I am learning how to handle adults.  This is my teacher look.

Here I am learning how to handle adults. This is my teacher look.

On this particular day, I began learning how to remove the kestrels from the butterfly net which is a delicate process because kestrels have claws of death and they are none too pleased with you.

Female after banding.

Female kestrel, after banding.

We determine whether the birds are returns from a previous year, new to the area, or banded by someone else. We measure wing and tail feather length and weigh the birds before release. In the event that it is a new bird, we also band and tag the bird.

With the checks at this age, we simply weight them. Their weight allows us to determine hatch date. At this time kestrels gain weight at a uniform rate so you can backtrack to figure out when hatching occurred. Then you return during the banding window to band and tag the chicks.

Baby kestrels have attitude from the day they hatch.

Baby kestrels have attitude from the day they hatch.

Here are the chicks we’ve pulled from one of the last boxes of the day. You can see how small and scrawny they are.

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Baby Kestrel peers up at the world.

Kestrel temper tantrum from being removed from the nest box.

Baby kestrels sleep in the sun. Warmth is warmth.

They’re pretty docile. They have no idea what is going on. There’s a bit of whimpering and murmuring, but nothing like the older chicks or the adults! Once the measurements are complete, we return them to the boxes. At this particular box there were 4 chicks that were hatched and 1 egg.

I climb back up to the box to return the chicks to the nest.

I climb back up to the box to return the chicks to the nest.

I climbed back up to return the four to the nest and this is what I discovered:

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A kestrel chick that hatched just moments ago.  Still  in the egg!

A kestrel chick that hatched just moments ago. Still in the egg!

In the moments we had them down for weighing, the last egg hatched! This is a kestrel hatched moments ago!

Painting the Painteds

**Not a bird post.**

So apparently there is more to this world than birds.  (What?!) One of my classmates who shares an interest in birds, currently researches demographics of painted turtles and musk turtles at the School of Conservation in northwest NJ.   I’ve been invited to help with the data collection.  Or enticed… there have been offers of witnessing territorial battles between Ospreys and Bald Eagles as well as exotic warblers. (None of which I saw today.)

After class on Tuesday night, we headed up there to handle a turtle emergency.  A turtle emergency being defined as not having enough time to process turtles and return them to the pond. We worked there until 12:30 am. Whee!

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The lake at the School of Conservation.

I got to go back there again this morning to help with collecting and processing.  When we arrived, bright and early (8ish, but it was a 90 minute commute!) it was still in the 30’s so we processed turtles collected last night before heading out on the lake.

In many ways, field research is some of the best work there is.  (In many ways, I can see why people think the spending on science and research is extravagant.)    If you saw us, canoeing all about the lake, we looked peculiar.   We had 2 canoes, but 1 GPS and 1 temperature sensor. A quality field GPS costs significant money (1000s).  The canoes were constantly together and separating, together and separating as we roamed around the lake as we had to return to the other canoe each time they caught a turtle.

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Musk Turtle. They smell and bite. Birds are much better.

How does one catch a turtle?  Unfortunately, I have no pictures of this part of the process because I was leery of taking my camera on the lake without knowing what I was getting into!  I had heard stories of mishaps and near collapses.   If you have two people, one person steers, and the other portrays a figurehead, or George Washington (who I suppose is also a figurehead in many respects), stands at the prow and points.  The pointing is generally in the direction of a spotted turtle (not a species). The steer-er, in the steer, navigates the boat there, then the pointer switches roles and becomes a turtle catcher.  While either sitting or standing, they need to use a net with along handle to scoop up a turtle who will try to run away or burrow into the mud.

The turtle team at work in the lab.

The turtle team at work in the lab.

We did this for about two hours, before heading inside to process the 25 turtles we collected.  Processing entails recording lots of information including size, mass, shell characteristics, and collecting a genetic sample.  If these were birds, you pluck a feather and done deal.  Since they have no feathers (silly things), we either need to do a bucal (mouth, saliva) swab or a coacal (anal) swab.  That was my fun job.  The final steps entail marking them and photographing them.  That’s where the title of this post comes in.  We actually paint codes onto them so we can easily spot them from the canoe and identify them in the database.

Processed turtles are collecting in the pool waiting to be released.

Processed turtles are collecting in the pool, waiting to be released.

After all the collection is done, they are returned to the lake until the next time we catch them.