June 12th – Little Birds on the Prairie

Me with my first CCLO (Chestnut-collared Longspur) in hand, a very beautiful bird to get to see up close! -SGS

This summer I took a job with Canadian Wildlife Service – Prairie Region, to get some more experience with motus tagging, point counts and just more exposure with fieldwork. We started out the field season in Nashlyn, a grazing co-op in southwest Saskatchewan. This spot is owned by Environment Canada, and so it acted as our training grounds for the first two weeks. During this time we familiarized ourselves with the various protocols: point counting, rapid habitat surveys, and banding. We also prepped and deployed ARUs (Automatic Recording Units) to record bird song and document which birds are present in different areas of the pasture. Rick and I have been speculating that adding a couple ARUs to our monitoring at the Haldimand Bird Observatory’s Hurkman’s Farm site could be a great way to sample breeding birds and migrating birds alike as they use the site.

An ARU just having been deployed. -SGS

While at Nashlyn I also got to prep a few motus tags, which was tedious but also a lot of fun. We joked that it’s like arts and crafts for biologists. We were cutting and gluing harnesses onto the tags themselves, and also checking that all the tags were active. That week my supervisor gave us all a tutorial on attaching the harnesses to the birds, which I will get to do myself later in the field season.

A completed motus tag ready to be put on a bird. -SGS

Tagged Chestnut-collared Longspur. -SGS

We are targeting Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Thick-billed Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Sprague’s Pipits to attach motus tags to. This will allow us a better understanding of their fall migration movements, and in some cases their return migration in the spring. We are also targeting Baird’s Sparrows, Brewer’s Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs to take tail feather samples to be used by the Bird Genoscape Project. In previous years at HBO we have also taken tail feather samples to be sent to the Bird Genoscape Project. If you wish to learn more about this project, you can take a look at their website here: https://www.birdgenoscape.org/making-genoscapes/

As you might imagine, catching birds in mist nets works a little differently in a wide open prairie. We can’t just set the nets up and expect a bird to fly in as its going about its day. Instead we have to take a more active approach! We have the nets set out in a “t” shape, one across and then two coming out from either side perpendicular to the main net. We use a speaker with a playback and a decoy to draw a bird in, and then we run towards it to flush it into one of the nets. Here are some of the fruits of our labour:

A comparison photo of a Brewer’s Sparrow (left) and a Clay-coloured Sparrow (right). We aren’t targeting CCSPs but this one just happened to fly into a net while were were banding another bird – a rare fluke. -SGS

Standardized photo of a Baird’s Sparrow. -SGS

A Horned Lark being measured. The western subspecies is very pale! -SGS

Our banding set-up. -SGS

For the past three weeks we have been point counting in Saskatchewan, first at Grasslands National Park and then in the Big Muddy region in the central-southern part of the province. We have had many cool finds including Burrowing Owls, Rock Wrens, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Common Poorwills, among the other more common grassland species. We have just recently arrived in western Alberta, in the fescue grasslands in the foothills of the Rockies. Here we will soon be point counting at Piikani First Nation, and then in southern Alberta. After the point counts are finished we will have 3-4 weeks of banding, first in Twin River Alberta, then Nashlyn Saskatchewan, and finally Ellis Archie Manitoba. It has been a wonderful experience so far, with a great field crew, beautiful landscapes and amazing birds and wildlife.

And In Other News:

Diane (left) and Mary-Ellen (right) were out on the weekend to plant dogwoods, developing (hopefully) a stand at the east end of the banding area to attract migrants. -DOL

I came across this Snapping Turtle as it was returning from laying its eggs in the meadow. Sadly, I found a couple of previous nests that had been dug up (raccoon?, skunk? possum?) Maybe this old girl’s efforts will be rewarded. -DOL

June 4th – Different Timelines

This juvenile House Finch is in the process of moulting out of its juvenile plumage and taking on its first “adult” plumage. Gives it quite a funky look…. -AAK

After a 2-week hiatus, I arrived at the Fern Hill Burlington campus to find that, for the most part, the nesting/breeding season was well underway. Almost all of the female birds we captured had either brood patches (swelling of the abdominal area so that the loose skin makes more complete contact with eggs) or were showing obvious signs that they were carrying a egg, ready for laying. Most birds that were observable were carrying nesting material (Mourning Doves making a new nest), or food for young recently hatched, or fecal sacs away from the nest so their whiteness didn’t give away the nest’s camouflage. And, as the above picture clearly shows, some species had already produced and fledged young.

Female Canada Warbler carrying a significant fat load and showing NO signs of breeding condition. -AAK

But, on the other hand, we came across a seeming anomaly – this female Canada Warbler showing no sign of breeding condition and carrying a significant fat load indicating that it still had many kilometers yet to go before starting to nest. The Canada Warbler is noted as being a “late” migrant so, in itself, its presence wasn’t a surprise. It was just interesting to see it, still on its way, amidst a busy, ongoing breeding population.
Banded 15:
1 Warbling vireo

The fact that this Warbling Vireo was showing an egg in its oviduct indicated that it is a female. -AAK

1 Gray Catbird
1 Cedar Waxwing
2 House Sparrows
4 House finches
1 American Goldfinch
1 Red-winged Blackbird
2 Common Yellowthroats
1 Yellow Warbler
1 Canada Warbler

Birds in the hand are probably the best prop for teaching students about the natural world around them… -AAK



May 10th – 700!

Jeremy holds # 700, a male Yellow Warbler that he has just banded. -DOL

Numbers aren’t the name of the game and a total this year might not come close to comparing to a total next year. For example, in the past 3 Springs we’ve banded a total of 27 Myrtle Warblers; so far this year we’ve banded 129! A fluke. But a nice fluke to experience. Next year it could go down to 9, the previous 3-year average. So, I don’t put a lot of stock in numbers per se but….they’re a good motivator when the alarm goes off at 4:30 and you have to roll out of bed for another Spring banding day with the thought that today just might be the day when we hit 700….and we did! Jeremy Petrusma did the honours and although I know it’s just a number, damn it felt good.

Banded 36:
1 Least Flycatcher
1 Northern Flicker
2 Warbling Vireos
2 Tree Swallows
2 Gray Catbirds
1 American Robin
2 Savannah Sparrows
1 Lincoln’s Sparrow
1 Swamp Sparrow
1 Baltimore Oriole
1 Common Grackle
2 Common Yellowthroats
3 Yellow Warblers
2 Western Palm Warblers
14 Myrtle Warblers

ET’s: 38 spp.

May 9th – Still Waiting

Priestley with a lovely male Baltimore Oriole she’ just banded. -DOL

Another beautiful, cool morning. I’ve been finding that the warblers don’t begin to get going until the temperature goes up. And when it did today, there was a fair amount of flitting through the trees but…all the warblers I was seeing were of the “early” variety: Yellow, Myrtle and Palm Warblers. I’m waiting for the bonanza of the long-distance variety, Magnolias, Blackburnians, Blackpolls, Bay-breasted, etc. I have found that their presence tends to coincide with the presence of mosquitoes – those little winged meatballs that fuel their travels. It’s sort of a tradeoff; the wonder of these little migrants vs the aggravation of bothersome insects. Small price to pay I think.

A real highlight of the morning was seeing a furtive Virginia Rail just 3 meters away as it picked its way through the reeds at the edge of the pond. I’m wondering if this bird will nest here – it’s been present for a week now.

Banded 31:
1 Red-bellied woodpecker
3 Blue Jays
2 Tree Swallows
1 Gray Catbird
1 Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow. This bird was carrying a lot of fat – it wasn’t a local breeder, it still had a long way to go.

1 Lincoln’s Sparrow
2 Swamp Sparrows
2 Baltimore Orioles
2 Red-winged Blackbirds
2 Brown-headed Cowbirds
2 Common Yellowthroats
2 Yellow Warblers
6 Western Palm Warblers
4 Myrtle Warblers

ET’s: 41 spp.