El hambre

Varied Thrush, studied by Klamath Bird Observatory Taken by KBO Bander Aracely Camacho

Varied Thrush, studied by Klamath Bird Observatory
Taken by KBO Bander Aracely Camacho

Evening Grosbeak,  studied by Klamath Bird Observatory Taken by KBO Bander Aracely Camacho

Evening Grosbeak, studied by Klamath Bird Observatory
Taken by KBO Bander Aracely Camacho

Phew. A heavy sigh of relief escaped my mouth. Ten birds handled in under twenty-five minutes, that was a record for me, and the normal, safe rate at which a bird bander is expected to handle a live specimen. After a month of scrambling to bring my skills up to par, I finally achieved the 3 minute challenge: take the birds out of the net in under three minutes, collect the data in under three minutes, and release the bird back along its happy way. For this brief moment, I felt competent, like I could actually go about calling myself a bird bander…Until I went off to carry out a point count and mistook a Western Scrub Jay call for a Gray Jay. To the untrained ear, this may seem like a trivial mistake, but for the sake of protecting avian wildlife, it’s a critical error that could skew data necessary to understand where the birds go and what resources we may focus on in land management plans.

These small slip-ups are also my reminder that a challenge met is not a final destination, but rather the beginning to a new path of learning. Attaining wisdom is much like a first encounter with your favorite food item. That first bite seals your fate, a fleeting moment of euphoria that you will forever desire when hunger inevitably strikes. From that moment on, you will always look forward to the next meal, and all of the satisfaction that it will bring.

I remember it distinctly: the day I discovered the glory of the empanada. At just barely eight years old, my parents shipped my brothers and me to Argentina. With five thousand miles on the plane and thirteen hours on a bus to travel, when we finally arrived three days later we burst out of my uncle’s decaying car as chaotically as the loose screws and bolts that precariously pieced the scrap metal together. The scene we happened upon offered no relief: ingredients were sprawled out across a long table, exclamations of “Che!” and “Epa!” randomly interrupted passionate conversations, and sporadic echoes of chastising slaps cut through the crisp air as a warning to keep our prying hands away from the food. After a few failed attempts at sneaking in for a handful of food, my mother put me to work at the table, showing me how to cautiously fold the edges of the dough to tuck the ingredients into a neat pie. Getting my hands in the mess made me more anxious. What would this appetizing packet ultimately taste like?

There is no equivalent feeling that I could relate to explain the glory that consumed me when I finally took my first bite into an empanada. With the juice of sauteed meat and vegetables dripping down my cheek, my family violently attacking the hot trays of food, and the whistles of curious birds in the background, in that moment my mind was awakened to the beauty of good food and company. This wisdom has left me longing for more, a curiosity that I fill with dreams of what kind of empanada (meat, corn, onion, tomato…), where I will eat it next and who I will share this precious knowledge with. Learning is my intellectual empanada; I love it too much not to enlighten others when I fulfill a new tidbit of understanding. It’s a vicious cycle, the more you know, the more you ask, and the more compelled you are to keep seeking answers.

When I first started my adventure into the world of birding, I understood close to nothing about a bird’s biology, need to sing, why they leave for the winter, and significance in society. It was a massive surprise to me that I landed a job with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to work with birds. Something strange happened to me over the course of the year I worked for the Institute–I became insatiably curious about the movements of birds.  While the work empowered me with knowledge of songbirds on the East coast, I was very aware of how little of the surface I scratched. Environment for the Americas called me at just the right time–saying yes propelled me through a series of disparate projects that introduced me to new families of birds and entirely new habitats. By the end of the summer, I had taken on the persona of Yaquina Head’s “Crazy Bird Lady” and often found myself in conversations with strangers about how insanely cute Snowy Plovers are. Yet, even then, I knew I was still swimming in the shallow end of the pool.

EFTA’s suggestion to apply for Klamath Bird Observatory was my invitation to accept a new challenge: to learn about the songbirds of the West coast. Through this experience, I am operating where I feel most comfortable learning–out of my comfort zone. My colleagues, trainers, and Stephanie are all pushing me to be a better biologist, advising me on where I can improve my technique in handling wild birds and inspiring me to study the bird’s life cycles in more depth. I am incredibly blessed to be surrounded by stimulation, and be able to study our subject matter up close through banding with KBO. On our first day our supervisor handed Stephanie and me a checklist of materials and tasks he wanted us to master. As I go ticking off the checks, my mind rolls into a conflict of complacency and impatience; each step I conquer paves way to another hill to climb. In the field, I am happy to embrace my slip-ups, because they bring to light my weaknesses and force me to bridge the gaps in my understanding. Much like the craving for empanadas, questioning my developing expertise is my motivation to keep learning.

Spend a lot of time with coworkers and somehow you end up matching! Here are two my colleagues, Kendall (our resident photographer) and Aracely. Both are great teachers, and inspirational biologists.

Spend a lot of time with coworkers and somehow you end up matching! Here are two my colleagues, Kendall (our resident photographer) and Aracely. Both are great teachers, and inspirational biologists.

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Study, study, study!

In return for the service of its volunteers, Klamath Bird Observatory offers a Bander certification and a Trainer certification. Stephanie and I are soon to put our skills to the test through the written component of the Bander certification. To prepare, I am hiding away in coffee shops over the weekends to frantically cram information into my brain on the history of bird banding, technique of handling birds, how to read molt limits, what kinds of birds ornithologists study, the life cycle of birds, what birds like to eat, where birds live, why birds migrate…the list goes on and on. In the spirit of learning, I thought I’d share a study material I created on the taxonomy of songbirds.

Taxonomy is the science of categorizing organisms. The categories follow a ladder system, cascading from Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, and sometimes Subspecies. Birds are listed under the Order Aves, similarly the word in Spanish for bird is “Aves.” Under this umbrella, birds are then split into different categories known as “Orders.” For our purposes at KBO, we are primarily looking at songbirds, under the Order for Passeriformes. For our exam, we must know the different families of songbirds, which are divided based on the specific characteristics such as the amount of flight feathers each species has.

The flight feathers are broken into three groups: the primaries, the secondaries, and the rectrices. The primary and secondary feathers are the flight feathers of the wings while the rectrices are the tail feathers. The wing flight feathers closest to the body are the secondaries, with the three closest feathers (secondaries 6-9) being called tertials. Most Passeriformes will have 9 secondaries. At the bird’s carpal joint, located at the bend of the wing, a new set of flight feathers emerge: the primaries. Passeriformes may have anywhere between 9-13 primaries. The attached table (click the link to Songbird Familes) is my attempt to memorize which family has how many of each type of feather. I hope you find this a useful tool too, for when you’re wanting to geek out to some bird biology.

Here is a visual overview of a bird's flight feathers.  Source: http://swartzentrover.com/cotor/Photos/Hiking/Birds/BirdPages/Anatomy/Anatomy.htm

Here is a visual overview of a bird’s flight feathers.
Source: http://swartzentrover.com/cotor/Photos/Hiking/Birds/BirdPages/Anatomy/Anatomy.htm

Songbird Families -feathers

When it rains, it sprinkles

It’s incredible how marked the difference in climate is with only a few hours of driving distance from the coast. For all of the days I spent dancing in the rain of Newport, I am now tanning in the endless sunshine of Oregon’s central valley. Of course, there are very logical geographic reasons for this–crossing the mountains one is already very aware of the new conditions that lie on the other side. However informed you may be, the body is still always in shock, helplessly succumbing to the new environmental pressures. Within a few days, I had already forgotten what rain felt like, the scents of dampened soil were nothing but a memory, and I suddenly feared of melting if a drop were to miraculously fall on me.

And then, in the blink of an eye, came the rain. It only lasted a day and a half, but while it poured it seemed like an endless affair. Here at the cabin we watched the skies beyond the tree tops anxiously, awaiting to learn of our fate for the next field day. In my coastal spirit, I ventured out into the storm on my bicycle, trying to brave the cold for a quick workout. I quickly learned how weakened my defenses were–within minutes I was a freezing mess. I must have looked like a street dog with its tail between its legs. The land has long since recuperated: the few drops that did hydrate an over-parched landscape were quickly absorbed. The community, however, was still recovering from the phenomenon. Even until now, it is the talk of the town. At the grocery store yesterday, the cashier exclaimed how unexpectedly early the rains started this year. Anyone from the Coast would chuckle–what’s the harm in a little rain?

Dramatized reactions set aside, the rain does have a very real implication for our work. Rains makes it quite difficult to safely extract birds from mist nets. Their feathers get wet and don’t slide off of the netting easily, putting the bird at risk of getting too cold. On days with a slight bit of rain, all field operations shut down and we have to wait it out. The next morning involved a lot of sitting around the cabin discussing whether or not the periodic pauses in the storm made is feasible to open up nets for an hour or two. The risk was deemed too high–many of our sites are at least 40 minutes of a drive away, and it can take about 30 minutes to set up the site once we arrive. In the process of simply preparing to capture and collect data on birds we were likely to meet face-to-face with a wet situation.

So what do Field Technicians do on a rainy day? We recover from weeks of data collection by finally entering data and then prepare for another couple of weeks of furious data collection. My colleagues spent a few hours meticulously typing in data and I helped where I could with editing some sheets, drying materials, and stocking our kit for the upcoming days in the field.

Meanwhile, I also snuck in a cooking session of camping food and loaded the car. We were setting off to an overnight-session in a site behind a wildlife refuge. This means that we drive out the afternoon prior to the banding session, camp in a small grassy area next to the maintenance parking lot, and wake up the next morning to walk past rehabilitated lions and bears on our way to the site before the crack of dawn. It’s ironic to think that these animals are in cages, secured away from the public, yet we are walking towards the back country where they roam freely. I often take a peak through the fences to attempt facing my fears of large mammals. The bears don’t seem to pay me any mind–they’re too busy scratching their backs against the trees–but the low roar of the mountain lion never puts my nerves at ease. The chances of running into one in the field are close to none, but I still make a small prayer that the upcoming site visit won’t be a first.

Braving the rain was worth it. The mist and dampened weather made it a slow day for us, but we caught site of many migrating species at the site. The Cedar Waxwings are in full swing right now, and we happened across a Western Tanager and a Common Yellowthroat. In the distance we could hear the calls of a Red-shouldered Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks, while an unidentified raptor (possibly a Cooper’s Hawk) soared overhead. Rain or not, the birds are still moving, and so are we in our quest to understand and protect them.

Bird on!

The Bird Herd

The presentations continued into the evening, leading us to gather under the starlight in this charming barn to listen to this talk on the travels of biologist Jared Wolfe to Equatorial Guinea. The excursion led to the record of several new species for the country and inspired the development of bird research in a region left largely unexplored.

The presentations continued into the evening, leading us to gather under the starlight in this charming barn to listen to this talk on the travels of biologist Jared Wolfe to Equatorial Guinea. The excursion led to the record of several new species for the country and inspired the development of bird research in a region left largely unexplored.

Put a bunch of bird nerds together in a wildlife refuge with some of the field’s top ornithologists and what do you get: the Western Bird Banding Association Annual Conference. The day I arrived at the Klamath Bird Observatory, my supervisor laid out a piece of paper and told me to sign my name. At the moment, numbed by the long drive from the coast, I absently scribbled the obscure outline of a printed identity on the line. I figured that I would find out later exactly what it was for, and partly hoped I didn’t just sign my life away. Now, sitting here on a balcony in Arcata I am watching egrets and White pelicans elegantly take off from a salt marsh, chuckling at my fortune to be in the company of ornithology’s rock stars. Just behind me is an ornithologist who has plunged deep into the unknown jungles of Equatorial Guinea to discover dozens of new bird species and launch the foundation of a country-wide initiative to study endemic Neotropical bird species for conservation. In the other room is C. Johnson Ralph, a founder of both Humboldt Bay Bird Observatory and Klamath Bird Observatory. The man is legend–an ecologist who has inspired legions of scientists to dedicate their lives to the conservation of avian wildlife. On Friday night I shared a laugh with John Alexander, another founder of Klamath Bird Observatory and a pioneer, recognized nationally for the study and management of Western bird species. This was only a few of the impressive set of ecologists, ornithologists, researchers, and bird enthusiasts that I made acquaintance with during the conference. In one weekend, a whole world of science was opened to me and I am helplessly consumed by its eminence. The WBBA Conference was a three day bird extravaganza, a meeting place of birders from all over the Americas coming together to exchange ideas, techniques, and information on research in the hemisphere. The conference featured table discussions of data collection methods, tutorials on how to handle raptors, first aid and rehabilitation tips for injured birds, and presentations of Master’s projects. One of my favorite papers to learn about was on non-lethal controls of predators like the Stellar’s Jay. The Corvids are marked by their intelligence, capable of caching 100’s of nuts and seeds for later consumption. Stellar’s jays are nest predators of Marbled murrelets, a seabird that nests in the canopy of redwoods. To prevent the Stellar’s jay from eating murrelet eggs, a Humboldt State University researcher coated eggs with a non-lethal substance that would cause the Stellar’s jay the very unpleasant experience of vomiting. As no species likes to vomit, the Stellar’s jay would then effectively avoid the murrelet eggs, associating the previously tasty morsels with a negative experience. This work is cool because it prevented policy makers from instituting lethal controls of Stellar’s jay as a means of protecting the endangered Marbled murrelet. This was just a taste of the work featured in the conference that successfully rippled the world of ornithology. A main component of the event was the certification of student and volunteer banders. The WBBA tests the skills of trained volunteers through the Bird Bander certification. Achieving this level of proficiency will allow the recipient to apply for federal permits to run banding stations for the study of birds. My colleagues all went through and passed the certification, a long morning of demonstrating their skills at safely handling and processing birds for scientific study. I am so happy for all of them–their hard labor and dedicated studying paid off! With this professional certification, one of my fellow banders will be returning to Peru to apply for permits and grants for a community-based bird observatory in the Andean Highlands. Another will be flying to Mexico to launch a bird banding effort at their observatory. Their work will surely help to fill in gaps of understanding about the breeding grounds of Neotropical migrants and help policy makers region-wide make wise decisions about the management of habitat critical to the survival of the birds we love.

Band that bird!

At Klamath Bird Observatory we study birds using this nifty technique called bird banding. So I thought it might be useful to take some time to explain the art of banding and its importance to the study of birds.

Bird Banding. What is it anyways? Bird banding is a technique used by ornithologists to study birds by capturing them, taking measurements and observations of captured individuals, tagging them with bands or collars, and releasing the bird back into the wild. Bird banding is usually performed in conjunction with the collection of information on the weather conditions, vegetation, and the presence of other avian wildlife in the region. The latter can be done by either standing in one point and keeping a list of what kinds of songs and calls heard or by walking a specific area to record what is sighted and heard.

Why bother? Banding birds allows scientists to seek answers to questions about the bird’s habitat, how long a species lives, the bird’s breeding condition, and population. Studies done on birds via bird banding have allowed us to understand if an ecosystem is functioning at a healthy rate. Birds serve well as an indicator species, basically meaning that a region with a high presence and diversity of bird species is likely hosting a healthy array of habitats. The reason birds are great signs of ecosystem health is because their susceptibility to environmental change is easy to observe. Should a contaminant or some factor negatively impact the region, the presence of birds will also be negatively impacted. A great example of this is the decline of Bald eagle populations due to the use of DDT in agriculture. The noticeable absence of Bald eagles caused naturalists to question why the eagle was suddenly disappearing. Investigations eventually resulted in the banning of DDT. This is, of course, a simplification of this ordeal, but a quick demonstration of how birds serve as a measure for ecosystem health. Banding birds allows ornithologists to get a sense of what birds are present in a region and how many are using a habitat. Some banding projects, like those of KBO, band over the span of the year and decades, collecting long-term data crucial to management decisions on how to protect threatened avifauna.

How do you catch them? The whole process takes only a few minutes and is always conducted with the bird’s health and safety in mind. Birds are caught with nets; which kind of net employed varies on the size and lifestyle of the type of bird the study is focused on. Mist nets are appropriate for smaller songbirds. These are ~12m x 6m nets made of a black threading string with five pockets extending the width of the net. Rocket nets are used for larger birds, like Turkey Vultures. This is an action-packed capture where you bait the net with a carcass and then shoot a net out at the bird. Waterfowl and shorebirds can be captured either with mist nets or nets released from helicopters. In both cases, trained banders are waiting nearby to and extract the bird and quickly collect the needed data to release the bird back into the wild. The process takes less than 3-4 minutes and the bands weigh less than 2% of the bird’s body weight.

Okay, congrats! You have a bird, now what? Once captured and safely removed, the banders will look at the bird’s feathers and examine the body to assess its age and sex.The bander will then collect other information of importance to the project being administered. This could include measurements of the bird’s wing, tail, beak, tarsus, and weight. Other data important to banding projects are signs of molt, blood samples, and toenail samples.

How to tell if a bird is male or female: For birds that are dimorphic, as in the male and female plumage are different year-round, the sex can be an easy guess. Most birds, however, have more subtle hints to their sex. In these cases, the banders may be able to look at the eye color or subtle plumage characteristics. If the bird is in the breeding season (ie. Spring and Summer), the bander can also gently blow on the bird’s stomach to look for a brooding patch or a cloacal protuberance. The brooding patch is a section of the stomach with featherless skin. In most species, the female will develop this in the breeding season to be able to better regulate the temperature of their eggs. A male, on the other hand, will develop a swelling in their cloacal area to hold semen. Seeing either of these morphological characters will indicate the sex of an adult bird. Outside of the breeding season, it could be close to impossible to know. Some birds just like to stay mysterious.

Bird banding is fun because it’s not only a great scientific approach for studying birds but also a wonderful educational tool. When appropriate, bird banding projects engage the public with nature through live demonstrations of bird banding. Since I don’t have the honor of hosting you in person, I will attempt to host you in a “blog presentation” with some pictures. This is a VERY small sample of what we find living in the Siskiyou Bioregion:

Golden-crowned Sparrow: this is the first time I saw this little guy! It was a pleasant surprise to see the pretty, golden feathers on the crown. The amount of black vs. brown on the bird's head is telling of the bird's age. The more brown, the younger the bird. Want to take a guess? Taken by Kendall Norcott of Klamath Bird Observatory

Golden-crowned Sparrow This is the first time I saw this little guy! It was a pleasant surprise to see the pretty, golden feathers on the crown. The amount of black vs. brown on the bird’s head is telling of the bird’s age. The more brown, the younger the bird. Want to take a guess?
Taken by Kendall Norcott of Klamath Bird Observatory

Common Yellowthroat--one of my favorite birds to band, jst because it's so darn cute. Taken by Kendall Norcott of Klamath Bird Observatory

Common Yellowthroat One of my favorite birds, because it’s so darn cute.
Taken by Kendall Norcott of Klamath Bird Observatory

Spotted Towhee: this bird is dimorphic. The male has a slatey black crown, while the female has a grey crown with a brown wash to it. The eye ring of an adult bird is bold red. Can you tell what age and sex this bird is? Taken by Kendall Norcott of Klamath Bird Observatory

Spotted Towhee This bird is dimorphic. The male has a slate black crown, while the female has a grey crown with a brown wash to it. The eye ring of an adult bird is bold red. Can you tell what age and sex this bird is?
Taken by Kendall Norcott of Klamath Bird Observatory

McGillivary's Warbler: you can tell what kind of warbler it is by the disjointed white eye ring. Taken by Kendall Norcott of Klamath Bird Observatory

McGillivary’s Warbler You can tell what kind of warbler it is by the disjointed white eye ring.
Taken by Kendall Norcott of Klamath Bird Observatory