Ashland was the only count circle in Oregon to observe a Great gray Owl. Want to add the great gray ghost of the north and other mountain specialties to your year list? Registration for the 2015 Mountain Bird festival goes live on the Klamath Bird Observatory website February 6th! Click here for the 2015 Mountain Bird Festival Flyer. Hope to see you there!
On a cool, clear summer morning a few weeks ago in northern California, several members of the KBO team and I crouched behind a screen of willows next to our mist-net, swatting at the abundant mosquitoes and listening to the birds singing all around us. We were a bit nervous, as our research quarry was a Yellow-breasted Chat, a strikingly beautiful bird known for its garrulous song, but also a bird that can be furtive and shy, preferring to keep to the densest thickets of blackberry. Our goal was to capture, tag, and release 22 male chats… and we only had four days to do it!
We would attach a lightweight scientific device called a geolocator to the Yellow-breasted Chats we captured in order to track the birds throughout the year. We wished to learn their migratory routes and the location of their wintering grounds. Understanding migratory connectivity – the way a single bird population links geographic areas through its breeding, migratory, and wintering behaviors – has long been a significant scientific challenge. Many songbirds travel incredible distances over the course of a year, and in most cases they are too small to carry GPS satellite transmitters that would allow biologists to study them year-round. The resulting gap in our knowledge is a barrier to successful full life cycle conservation. Scientists and land managers need to know where birds are throughout the year in order to better understand habitat needs and identify threats.
Fortunately, advances in technology are helping us overcome the logistical challenges of monitoring small songbirds, and we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the movements of North American breeding birds during the past decade. Small light-level geolocators for tracking birds now weigh less than half a gram. A geolocator is attached to a bird via a tiny backpack with two leg loops, and it records ambient light levels throughout the day. The data it collects can later be used to estimate the bird’s prior locations within a few hundred kilometers. Day length gives an estimate of latitude, as days are longer in the north in summer, and longitude can be calculated from the timing of sunrise, as the sun rises earlier as you travel east across the globe. One limitation of geolocators is they are so small they cannot transmit information; therefore, these units must be retrieved—typically following a roundtrip migratory journey—in order to extract the data.
On this cool June morning, Klamath Bird Observatory was attempting to employ the new geolocator technology on Yellow-breasted Chats at our Trinity River field site in northern California. We were trying to lure the male Yellow-breasted Chats into our mist-nets by playing audio recordings of other males singing territorial songs. The hope was that male chats in our area would rush in to investigate the new “rival” and inadvertently fly into one of our soft mist-nets. We also had a painted wooden chat decoy to use as additional bait. We weren’t sure how strongly the males would respond to audio playback or the decoy, and thus we waited anxiously; the success of our mission hinged upon their behavioral response.
After some time passed and we hadn’t heard our target male singing, two of us broke off to set up a new net in a (hopefully) better location. Before long, we heard KBO Executive Director John Alexander’s voice over the walkie-talkie: “He’s in the net!” With excitement, we raced back to the banding station to attach our first geolocator in what would become a very busy and thrilling week.
Assisting in this endeavor were KBO’s Trinity River field interns, who had been mapping the territories of Yellow-breasted Chat pairs, and several other bird species, for the past six weeks. They guided us to each known chat territory, allowing us to quickly locate and capture the resident males. We also had experienced bird banders from the US Forest Service’s Redwood Sciences Lab, including CJ Ralph and Andrew Wiegardt, and volunteer David Price, as well as experienced KBO staff, such as John Alexander and myself, to do the job.
We captured four males on the first day alone. Having the male chat in hand, however, was only the first step of the process! Placing a small geolocator on a small bird whose dense feathers obscure your ability to see what you’re doing requires significant manual dexterity. Each geolocator has a harness threaded through it, consisting of two leg loops made of Stretch Magic, a common craft supply item. The night before, we measured out the moderately stretchy rubber threads and fused them into closed loops in the field house. We used a formula to calculate what size of bird would match up with each harness we created. The chats in northern California ranged from about 22-29 grams in mass, requiring harnesses with spans of 45-51 mm. The difference of a few millimeters may seem negligible, but a harness that fits correctly is vital for bird safety. A harness that is too big or too small could hinder the birds’ wings or legs, and it could fall off or create other problems during the long migratory journey. While our method required some preparatory work, it allowed us to quickly attach harnesses in the field, thereby saving valuable field time and reducing stress on chats during the handling period.
We continued to move through our study plots, setting up nets in the dense streamside vegetation and eagerly watching the male chats respond to our audio “intruders” and fly into our nets. We eventually captured 22 males, which allowed us to deploy all of our geolocators! Now, we must hope that a substantial number of our tagged males survive the roundtrip migratory journey and the long winter to return again next spring so we have a chance of recapturing them and retrieving their data. Due to this challenge, most geolocator studies have relatively small sample sizes; nevertheless, these studies have revolutionized our understanding of migratory connectivity.
We are partnering with Christine Bishop and her research team from Environment Canada and Simon Fraser University. Together, we will examine our data and compare the migratory routes and wintering grounds of our northern California population of Yellow-breasted Chats with those of an endangered population of chats that breed in British Columbia. This project will eventually form a tri-national partnership, including our San Pancho Bird Observatory partners working in overwintering areas in Mexico. We are excited to see the results, but for now we must wait. The Yellow-breasted Chats in northern California are finishing nesting for the season and will soon wing their way back to their southern homes. They will remain there for several months, until the lengthening days of spring urge them to return to us once more.
Klamath Bird Observatory hosted an outreach event for professional partners on June 9th at our Upper Klamath Field Station’s Sevenmile Long-term Bird Monitoring and Banding Station in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. This picturesque research facility, a historic Forest Service Guard Station, is located on the northern outskirts of the Klamath Basin, nestled in a small clearing surrounded by shrubs, forest, and streamside habitats.
Such habitat diversity translates into avian diversity, and as our partners enjoyed pastries, spooned parfait, and sipped coffee at the start of the event, a variety of birds called from the surrounding vegetation, including Northern Flickers, Yellow Warblers, Western Tanagers, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Song Sparrows, and an occasional chatty Belted Kingfisher.
Klamath Bird Observatory initiated this first annual Bird Banding Outreach Day to demonstrate the value of our long-term monitoring program to our professional partners who support the KBO programs that inform their natural resource management work on public lands. KBO Executive Director John Alexander opened the event with an overview of the history of the Klamath Bird Observatory, focusing on our work in the Klamath Basin and our nearly 20 years of collaboration with the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and US Fish and Wildlife Service. Then, Science Director Jaime Stephens provided a summary of our scientific programs, including a new study on the habitat preferences of Black-backed Woodpeckers in green, unburned forests.
The group, including US Forest Service professionals from the Fremont-Winema National Forest, then moved to a shaded picnic table near a copse of young aspen where biologists are set up to measure, band, and release songbirds that are being tracked as part of KBO’s long-term monitoring program. When we arrived, KBO intern Kaitlin Clark from Michigan was gently blowing on the head feathers of a Yellow Warbler to glean information about skull development that can help determine the bird’s age.
KBO Biologist and Banding Project Leader Robert Frey described the purpose and procedure of the banding program to our guests. In brief, bird banding is a method of bird monitoring that can be used to track the size and characteristics of a population over time. First, a bird is gently caught in a soft, fine net called a mist net. After being carefully removed by a biologist, a small aluminum band is placed around the bird’s leg like a bracelet. Engraved in the band is a unique number which will allow biologists to track the bird if it is recaptured. Additional data are collected (e.g., age, sex, weight, breeding condition) and then the bird is released to continue its daily activities.
The Klamath Bird Observatory banding program has numerous conservation applications. We learn whether birds are successfully breeding in an area—an indication of healthy habitat. We learn whether birds are surviving migration—information that can inform international conservation efforts. Re-sightings of banded birds give us specific locations related to migration routes and overwintering sites. More generally, we monitor birds because they tell us about the functioning of the environment as a whole, and this has important consequences for birds, other wildlife, and human communities.
Before concluding our morning, each of the banding interns—including Aracely Guzman from Mexico City, Alexis Diaz from Lima, Peru, and Chris Taft from Seattle, Washington—spoke about their interest in bird conservation and their professional development goals for their internship with KBO. One of the great contributions of the KBO banding program is the training of over 170 early-career conservation biologists who go on to advance conservation in the US and abroad where many of our breeding birds spend their winters.
Klamath Bird Observatory is grateful for our federal agency partners who enable and support the bird conservation work we do on public lands. Thanks to all of those who joined us for our first annual Bird Banding Outreach Day!
Klamath Bird Observatory is currently serving on a national team of scientists and communications specialists working to produce annual State of the Birds reports. The reports link bird conservation to the fundamentals of sustainability. They recognize that bird populations, like the famous canary in the coal mine, serve as bellwethers of the health of whole ecosystems, and thus our economic and social well-being.
As the State of the Birds Team works on the upcoming report, which will provide an update on bird population trends in our country since the initial report five years ago, we reflect on the centennial commemoration of the Passenger Pigeon. Once North America’s most abundant bird, the Passenger Pigeon was driven to extinction 100 years ago. A lesson that emerges from this travesty is that we must use proactive approaches to natural resource management and excellent applied science to avoid such unnecessary losses in the future.
While the State of the Birds reports highlight many inspiring conservation success stories, such as the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon, and the effective management of migratory birds through the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, they also outline some alarming trends. For example, declines of western forest birds appear to be sharpening, a reflection of the forest management challenges facing local communities, economies, and ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest.
So, by placing a birding festival within a conservation context, we are balancing troubling news about declining bird populations with the optimism that science-based conservation can work. The Mountain Bird Festival celebrates how citizens and science can reverse bird population declines through strategic habitat conservation, an engaged citizenry, and stewardship for resilient ecosystems. During the festival, field trip goers will be exploring the Klamath Siskiyou Bioregion, an area renowned for its high diversity of western forest migratory birds. This is also an area where opportunities abound for improved conservation of these species.
By signing up for the Mountain Bird Festival, every registrant will be purchasing a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp and thereby directly contributing to habitat protection within the National Wildlife Refuge System. Additionally with registration, every festival attendee will be purchasing a Mountain Bird Conservation Science Stamp, with proceeds supporting Klamath Bird Observatory’s scientific programs that are driving western forest bird conservation in the Klamath Siskiyou Bioregion and throughout the Pacific Northwest.
We hope you attend our inaugural Mountain Bird Festival and help us write a new conservation success story starring citizens, science, and mountain birds.