Monday, September 20, 2010

A Southward Migration

Millions of birds are, at this very moment, engaged in the world's most astounding mass movement.  Powered only by their own brawn, love-handles (or fat, which in the bird world is of life-and-death caliber of importance), and self-will, these birds are driving southward, come what may.  Imagine the entire northern hemisphere alive with fluttering wings, slowly drifting southward across mountain tops, across wide valleys and deserts, across lakes and vast stretches of ocean.  More than anyone can count, and more than anyone can imagine.  Many will stop in Mexico, central Africa, India, but many will continue further, to central and south America, to southern Africa, to Australia and New Zealand.  There is one bird, however, that outdoes all others...the Arctic tern.  Traveling about 49,700 miles every year, the Arctic tern (which only weighs 100 grams or about 1/4 lb) wings from the Arctic all the way to Antarctica, truly bipolar organisms.  This is a phenomenal feat. 

It is this bird that I will think of as I undergo my own south-bound migration.  There are a few similarities: they are going to Antarctica for the summer (our winter), I'm going to Antarctica for the summer...they weigh next to nothing, I weigh next to nothing...but that's about where the similarities end.  I'm going almost 10,000 miles and will hardly be moving a muscle to do so (except running to my next flight...good thing they make those flat moving walkways, otherwise I would have to use my muscles even more).  Although I should put on fat (to stay warm!), I don't have to because I don't have to use my own energy reserves to power my body down there (good thing they make those massive, fuel-powered, flying sardine cans for us to ride inside of).  Thus said, my feat is not nearly as phenomenal.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, our small crew (7 or 8?) will be headed to the US station McMurdo, a town of about 1,100 people in the summer (see map below).  We will be collecting data pertinent to the study of population dynamics of Weddell seals operated by my professor and friend from Montana State University, Robert Garrott, whom I also worked for in Yellowstone last winter.  

I am still in disbelief that I am headed to Antarctica; it is something that I never even contemplated dreaming about because, sheesh, it is just so unrealistic of a thing...no one gets to go to Antarctica!

But, here I am, half-packed, trying to imagine all I need to survive down there.  I keep telling myself that if I can survive a winter in Yellowstone, I can survive a summer in Antarctica too (supposedly, Yellowstone gets just as cold).  I leave from Idaho Falls on Sept 26th, and will arrive in Christchurch, NZ on Sept 28.  A few days later, we will clamber into a C-130 and try to beat the Arctic tern to Antarctica.  

The next blog post will come directly from Antarctica right to your face for your viewing and reading pleasure.  

Beat that Mr. Arctic tern.

Map of Antarctica borrowed from the United States Antarctica Program Participant Guide 2008-2010 edition

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Bander's Lament

Juvenile Merlin
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All who missed my Yellowstone elk and wolves presentation to the Idaho Master Naturalists will be given another chance (it may be your last!).  I will be presenting for the Snake River Audubon Society at the Idaho Falls Public Library this Thursday (Sept. 16) at 7:30pm in the basement conference rooms.  Here's what its all about, as I stated in the Audubon newsletter:

"Last winter, I had the opportunity to spend five months in Yellowstone National Park researching predator-prey dynamics between two of the Park's most famous and controversial large mammals--the wolves and the elk.  While tracking the wolves and elk with radio telemetry and performing necropsies on kills, I attempted to photograph all that I observed during the winter (often with frozen fingers).  This presentation will feature some of my most interesting observations (which goes beyond just the elk and wolves), as well as provide a summary of the past 20 years of research from this project."

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It was terribly sad to depart from Lucky Peak...my final day was last Friday.  I'm pretty sure I just about cried as I released the very last bird of the day, a female Western tanager.  The folks I worked with were simply awesome, and I learned a massive amount regarding birds, migration, molting, research techniques, handling skills, etc.  Lucky Peak is a very unique place, and I continue to urge everyone to make a trip up there (enduring the steep and bumpy 4-wheel drive road) during the fall migration period to see and hold birds up close.  Don't live near Lucky Peak?  Search for other bird observatories near where you live; there are many across the country.

The day before I left, a very good article in the Idaho Statesman about the Idaho Bird Observatory's banding operation on Lucky Peak was printed....check it out!  I was lucky (no pun intended) to have the reporter randomly choose me to follow during a net run...!  A neat thing to remember my season there anyway.

Some final photos:

We caught a flammulated owl!!  The only one during my time there.  The owl crew ran around and woke everyone up at midnight to come see their first of the year (besides a common poorwill and flying squirrel)

A very small bird, as you can see.  Actually, the flammulated owl is the second smallest in North America (second to the elf owl) 


And some crew shots:

Jack and Heidi enjoying a red-breasted nuthatch

Heidi blowing feathers aside to assess belly fat on a yellow-breasted chat

Me blowing to assess fat on an adult white-crowned sparrow.  Photo by Paul Plante.
Jay with his first Swainson's hawk

Rob with the rare catch of a Swainson's hawk

Sean removing a sharp-shinned hawk from a can.  (Can? Used for weighing purposes)

Sean with the sharp-shinned hawk

Ian with red-tailed hawk

Garrott with red-tailed hawk

Ian with red-tail

Sara with red-tail

Garrott with Swainson's

Sara with Swainson's

Ian with merlin
Merlin

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Songbirds are cool, but...

The view from the hawk blind slit...facing North to see the oncoming Southward-bound raptors
"Sharpie coming in...don't move...." Hidden from within the hawk blind cube, Jay yanks a green string, his hawk-like eyes peering out the small slit in the blind, intensely focused on the sharp-shinned hawk that had appeared from nowhere.  With the pull of the string, a white pigeon (with the unfortunate job title of "lure bird") is flung into the air.  The fluttering of its wings immediately catch the eye of the hawk.  

The lure bird...a white pigeon tied to a string, allowing the hawk trapper to "toss" it into the air to attract hawks.
But a sharpie (as birders call them) will only rarely go after a bird as large as the pigeon; and Jay, knowing this (having pulled the pigeon just to initially get the sharpie's attention), pulls a smaller string, sending a small English sparrow into the air flapping.  The focus of the sharpie instantly shifts; in less than a second it descended on the sparrow.   

The fear of the sparrow must be terrific at this moment, but lucky for him, we are not out for entertainment.  Surrounding the little sparrow is an array of mist-nets (similar to the ones used for the songbird banding operation).  The incoming sharpie plowed into the mist-net, which collapsed instantly (as intended) over him.  Nearly simultaneously, another sharp-shin jetted in from a different direction, and, with nothing learned by observing the fate of its fellow species, crashed into another net.  Two birds with one stone.

The door of the banding shack exploded open as Jay and Rob bolted towards the entangled birds; waiting too long can result in a bird escaping (and thus loss of data, which biologists passionately HATE).  

Jay and Rob removing two sharp-shinned hawks from the collapsible mist-nets.
Rob with diligent hands untangling the tangled.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wholly enthralled by the hawk trapping operation: the hawks flying high overhead, Jay methodically tossing the lure birds, the shift of focus as the hawks see the lure bird flapping (which can be from a phenomenally long distance away), the silent, rapid approach of the hawk, the clink of the collapsing mist-net, the burst out of the blind shack of seemingly crazed biologists to untangle the birds for measurement and banding.  

English sparrow lure bird, tied to a string (hard to see)
Providing shelter and water for the lure bird...see, we're not completely heartless biologists
A banded juvenile sharp-shin
Sharp-shin wondering what in the world is going on
Processing the Sharp-shin (Rob putting the band on)
Other photos of the day:
The lure bird is actually surrounded by two different sets of traps: the collapsible mist-nets and a clam-shell net trap (if the raptor actually lands on the lure bird; injuries and deaths of the lure bird are surprisingly rare)

Jay removing a sharp-shinned hawk

Sharp-shinned hawk, juvenile male
Jay in his element.
American kestrel
American kestrel
American kestrel

But by far, the best part is holding the raptors.  For never having held a raptor before, this is how it went: "oh, ok, cool...I'll just hold on to this bird and get my photo taken with it...that's pretty sweet" to [grabbing the bird], "HOLY COW THIS IS AMAZING!" 

Me with juvenile, male Sharp-shinned hawk
With juvenile Red-tailed hawk
With juvenile Swainson's hawk (Jay's FIRST ever!)
Jay has been hawk trapping for years, and is always on the prowl for catching a new bird.  Two years ago, he caught a gyrfalcon, an extremely rare and privileged occurrence.  This year, he caught his first Swainson's hawk, a common species that does not get caught often (presumably because it is thought that Swainson's don't eat at all during their migration down to South America; think about that for a second).

A happy Jay with his first Swainson's hawk.
 More:

"Hey Mom!"  (Red-tailed hawk, juvenile)
Red-tail

Swainson's hawk during measurement and banding process

Swainson's

Release of the Swainson's
Parting shot of the hawk blind overlooking the system of traps.

And here's a Lincoln's sparrow captured in the songbird mist-nets...cool huh?

Lincoln's Sparrow--actually quite a rare catch

ANSWER'S to the last capture quiz:

1  Townsend’s warbler
2  Red-breasted nuthatch
3  Spotted towhee (juvenile)
4  Black-capped chickadee
5  Semipalmated sandpiper

WINNER: Glenn DeVoe!  Two in a row for Mr. DeVoe...good job pa!