Learning Feather by Feather

Field Report #2: Base Camp

If you’re looking for the frontiers of birding, try the tropics. Limited knowledge exists and the ability for mistakes abound. Last week during a training session we noticed a number of presumably juvenile Barred Forest-falcons clustering in pines along a ridge (2-3, with a possibility of some of those being adults). The following day we were treated Barred Forest-falcon consuming a passerine. It was quite exciting to watch the predator consume the prey. As the act proceeded,feathers rained down and the ornithologists scurried about collecting the feathers. One of the projects here is to sample isotopes across the various communities to construct food webs.

We’ve since used our assortment of feathers to identify the deceased as a Blue-crowned Chlorophonia. Go science!

A day or so later towards the end of a low-key banding day, we captured one of these fine, fierce predators. As we were reading the description in detail, something wasn’t quite adding up. Turns out, we weren’t working with Barred Forest-falcons after all, but the much rarer, endemic White-breasted Hawk. Whee and whoops!

How we mistook a hawk for a forest-falcon I’m not entirely sure, particularly as the forest-falcon in question has great Elvis sideburns of feathers. It wasn’t until we were examining the hawk feather by feather that we realized our error. (To be fair, there was some question of where the bars were in the earlier encounters!)

This was a much more exciting discovery. The Americans on the team (Rob and I) received a bit of grief over the misidentification initially as the White-breasted Hawk is a subspecies of Sharp-shinned Hawk. However, unlike the Sharpie, White-breasted Hawks have….. white chests. I did however note as I arrived to the net that it was very much Sharpie sized, so I feel I’m off the hook on that one. (There’s a bit of bantering and division between American and British procedures and customs. It’s mostly in good fun unless you say anything less than stellar regarding David Attenborough*.).

The White-breasted Hawk was a ringing first for the park. I can’t share all my photos due to limited bandwidth, but from just this one I hope you can get the sense of what a fine bird it is!

Hawk in the hand. White-breasted Hawk, a ringing first in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 15, 2015.

Hawk in the hand. White-breasted Hawk, a ringing first in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 15, 2015.

*They’re probably just as displeased if you misspell Attenborough. Alas.

Note: While I am in the field I will have no access to most social media including facebook, twitter, and google+.

Perils of Data-based Birding

As a birder-scientist, not only do I have the joys of exploring farmlands and forests for novel encounters, but I also have the “joys” of exploring fields…. as in data fields.

As part of my PhD program, to become more knowledgeable about birds, I have to spend more time away from real birds (much of the current knowledge transfer system is based on similar logic…e.g. to improve learning we should spend less time learning and more time testing).  For the spring semester, I opted to do a rotation in the lab of Dr. Gareth Russell.

The Russell Lab does fascinating work looking at animal choice and response to their environment by modeling behavior and movement.  Current and recent work has followed Grizzly Bears in Alaska, Big Horn Sheep in California, Baleen Whales social networks in the Atlantic Ocean, Elephants in Africa.  The modeling element comes in when scientist try to interpret why the animals made the choices they did.  What elements of the environment most resonated with the animal causing its behaviour?

Turns out since you can’t actually ask the animals, you can use a computer to figure it out.

For my project, I can share the details later, I obtained  USGS banding records for songbirds along the east coast to determine movements over time.  My goal was to use this data to answer questions about their migratory movements in the fall.

As it goes with a venture into any new area, there’s a steep learning curve as you get to know the landscape.  You have weird experiences such as when I reloaded the data set and every bird name involving a color (say yellow warbler and white-throated sparrow) became {#*code#) warbler and (#&code#(-throated sparrow.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Twitter Screen Capture.

So after months of learning to program in Mathematica (mixed success), I managed to create a map! This beautiful rendered map shows 50+ years worth of records where in the birds presented:

  • were banded and recaptured after July 1,
  • were banded and recaptured in the same year,
  • were recaptured in a new location.

Mathematica output.

Mathematica output: Apparently one bird didn’t get the memo and went west, not south.  H1: That bird can’t read a compass. H2: That bird is a rebellious juvenile.

However, as beautifully colored as it is and as important as it looks, it’s only ~800 pieces of data across 44 species and 50+ years, not enough for a solid analysis. Back to the drawing board.

When after significant hours of effort, you’re still coming up with nothing, you doubt yourself, even when other people have faith. “There aren’t any birds here!”

Twitter Screen Capture.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Then you do something really basic, like identifying an American Robin, or writing a function which figures out how many days into a year it is.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Now you know there are birds there, and you’re just not finding them.  You feel conflicted about that.

Three weeks to go and we’re still “exploring the data”.  The sun is nearly setting.

Mathematica output: Tree swallow presence (blue) and absence (white) data with years as the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.

Mathematica output: Tree swallow presence (blue) and absence (white) data with years as the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.

So, finally we made a graph.  This graph, for Tree Swallows, shows presence (blue) and absence (white) data with years as the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.  Think January at the bottom and December at the top.

Now that I’d found one bird surely I could find them all, but could I do it by family?

Yes… Probably… How hard could it be?… Maybe… If I had more time… Impossible… Wait, what?… No… Maybe… Nope… Did I get it?

After a very dark night:

Mathematica output.

Mathematica output: 10 families of songbirds tracked over the years for arrivals and departures. years are represented on the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.

 

I actually succeeded as the sun rose.  Talk about symbolism!  I’ll have a chance to share this in my next meeting on Friday. Hopefully we can call this success.

Can only imagine what’s next?  3D versions?

Stay tuned for Rotation 2 news coming Summer 2015 when I return to real fields (or forests anyway)!

Life Changes

As you may have noticed, posts dropped precipitously this fall.  While the season was  steeped in birds, I just didn’t have enough time to write about it!  In September, I began a PhD program in Biology at the urban Rutgers University campus located in Newark, NJ.   For several weekends, I joined Montclair State University’s ornithology class as they traveled around the state to stellar birding locations such as Brigantine and Cape May.

At Rutgers my focus will be birds. (Dear reader, do you expect anything else?) During the first semester, we were required to join a lab for mentoring purposes and pick a small project or skill to build upon.  My adviser and I identified banding passerines for my mentoring project.  Most of the following photos were taken by cellphone since the purpose of the activities were science, not photography.

Early in the season, I joined the New Jersey Meadowland Commission’s (NJMC) banding project:

In 2013, the NJMC banded 5,503 birds. More than 26,000 birds have been banded since the program began in 2008. The information helps researchers learn more about how habitats in the Meadowlands benefit migrating birds. (link)

The NJMC runs an extensive operation with as much as a dozen nets operating at once, capturing 200+ birds on a busy morning.  On these days, they may have as many as 10-12 volunteers running the nets and banding the birds (hopefully!).  Some nets require a quick bike ride to reach.  It’s quite the challenge to bike and bird, but a greater challenge to bike and carry birds over one’s shoulder.

Early in the season I was at the Meadowlands about once a week, but as the season lengthened, things got busier and I was mostly at the Rutgers Station, pictured below.

Location of RUNBO:  Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. Note the cart at the top of the stairs to the right.  October 2014.

Location of RUNBO: Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. Note the cart at the top right of the stairs. October 2014.

Claus and I decided to run the station twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, opening on Mondays if a day had been rained out.  Compared to the Meadowlands set up, you might think our set up was rather drab, but how many banding observatories do you know of with a Starbucks close enough to hit between net runs?

On my first day in the Meadowlands, one of our first captures was an American Kestrel. As my previous research focused on the kestrel, the other banders decided this was most auspicious.

Early catch at the Meadowlands. Meadowlands Banding Program.  September 2014.

Early catch at the Meadowlands. Meadowlands Banding Program. September 2014.

At Rutgers, in addition to banding birds twice weekly, we conducted two point counts, a deathwalk, and Claus leads bird walks on Wednesdays in October and May.  I’ve outlined our fieldsite below in classy yellow.

RUNBO field site located in urban Newark, NJ.

RUNBO field site located in urban Newark, NJ.

The above map indicates the location of our banding station, “RUNBO”, the Rutgers University Banding Observatory, our fancy name for our banding cart; the location of our two nets (in previous seasons there was a Net 2); and the path we walk on our deathcount, or deathwalk.

The deathcount, or deathwalk, is a lap we do around the interior of the quad to collect any of the poor migrants who fly into the glass surfaces.  To date, we have a freezer with ~400 frozen bodies.

New friend; male Common Yellowthroat. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

New friend; male Common Yellowthroat. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

However, sometimes we find more than corpses.  This young fellow, an immature male Common Yellowthroat was only stunned.  I picked him up, and having nowhere else to put him safely where he could recovered from his befuddled state gave him a ride.  He stayed with me for most of the perimeter until we encountered a stunned (or stunning?) female Common Yellowthroat.  The immature male instantly recovered and demonstrated his prowess by immediately flying into a nearby window, not once, but twice.

Red-eyed Vireo. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Red-eyed Vireo. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

We mostly catch Common Yellowthroats and various Sparrows, but sometimes we get an unusual visitor.  Pictured above was a silly challenge to identify correctly.  You don’t often get good looks at this fellow: a Red-eyed Vireo.  Note the lack of red-eye in this photo – very deceiving!

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler recuperates before departure on a cold morning.  Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler recuperates before departure on a cold morning. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

After removing them from the nets, and placing a USGS band on the leg, we release them.  Sometimes however, they’re more content to remain in the hand, particularly when it’s a bit nippy out.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Note the fiery red cap. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Note the fiery red cap. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

This fellow looks quite fierce, but like the Black-throated Blue Warbler, he stayed in the hand before heading for the bush.

Rare Yellow-breasted Chat visits campus. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Rare Yellow-breasted Chat visits campus. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

One of our most exciting captures was this Yellow-breasted Chat.  Not only did we get one, but we got two. (And we know they were different individuals thanks to the bands!) It was also a lifer.  (I saw it later perched in a London Plane tree.)

A common visitor, the American Woodcock. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

A common visitor, the American Woodcock. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

A surprising, but common find, are American Woodcocks.  What is most unusual about this one is the fact it is alive (or at least was at the time of the photo).  All too often we find these birds dead or dying due to collisions with the glass.

So why do wildlife studies in Newark? What’s the draw?  While tropical and remote sites are fascinating to visit (until you acquire a botfly!), many areas are highly developed requiring the wildlife to interact with them in novel ways.  So often we look to study pristine regions in hopes of conserving them and we forget about the natural places right close to home for most of us.

So lots of birds, just not lots of words.

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!