The Hermit Thrush is very well named. One might not know of its presence but for a soft quoit call or a brownish blur rushing into the base of a bush. They are a quiet, skulking, and reclusive species. This is a good reason for trying to catch them in nets to quickly place a band on their leg, figure out their age and sex, assess their physical condition, and release them on their way. Researchers attempting to learn more about Hermit Thrushes usually capture many more of them than are heard or seen. And with a brief examination in the hand we learn so much more than could be learned from a passing encounter using non-capture monitoring methods.
KBO has banded a great many Hermit Thrushes over decades of monitoring at several study sites in our monitoring network. They are consistently in the top ten most numerously captured species each year. This species is present throughout the year in our Klamath Siskiyou Bioregion. And so it was mid-September a couple years ago at a study site along the western shore of Upper Klamath Lake …
The Odessa Creek Campground, within Fremont-Winema National Forest and about 22 miles west of Klamath Falls, Oregon, is the location of a KBO long-term monitoring station operated each year since the fall of 1996. The campground is well-known as a hot birding spot and as a “vagrant trap” – that is, as a place where bird species show up far away from their usual range of distribution. This has made the station an exciting one to operate over the years with several species captured that might be considered out-of-place like American Redstart, Black-and-White Warbler, Gray Catbird, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Ovenbird, and others. But the real value of the study site is its usual richness of birdlife during the nesting season and fall migration. The habitat is mixed with a fairly mature conifer forest adjacent to an expansive riparian forest and the great wetlands of Upper Klamath Lake. The mixed and rich nature of habitat equates to a mixed and rich bird community. There are many breeding species as well as large migration waves using the area.
On September 18, 2012 KBO biologists experienced a fairly big and busy day capturing 65 birds of 15 species, including flycatchers, jays, wrens, chickadees, thrushes, warblers, sparrows, and finches. One of these was a Hermit Thrush given the band number 2551-10469, a healthy youngster just hatched earlier that year. The following week, another busy day was had at Odessa Creek Campground with 76 captures, several of these already-banded, including our quiet and skulking acquaintance number 2551-10469. After that day, we had no further contact with Hermit Thrush number 2551-10469. That is, until earlier this year with the arrival of a report from the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory that 2551-10469 had been captured and released by a banding operation at Cabrillo National Monument near San Diego, California on April 4, 2014!
But this hermit’s story doesn’t end there. Many chapters are yet to be uncovered — where was this bird hatched? What route has it used in its migrations? Where has it ultimately gone in its northern nesting and southern wintering destinations? The hermit’s tale has an exciting beginning with nine days in September at Odessa Creek Campground and a flashy appearance (with a shiny band) at Cabrillo National Monument a year and a half later, after three migrations of over 800 miles during each journey. What ribald and dashing adventures to be had, what dangers to be narrowly escaped, what sun and song filled summer mornings to come? We anxiously await the next installment … or as we say in biology, more study needed.
This is a preview of the Spring Birds of Malheur trip written by KBO Board President Harry Fuller. Trip #2 (June 11th-15th) is selling out fast!The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was created by President Theodore Roosevelt over a century ago. Malheur has long had a reputation as a great birding hotspot in the high sagebrush steppe of eastern Oregon. Nearly 200,000 acres of lake, marsh and riparian habitat surrounded by steep mountains make the Malheur Basin a rich and diverse birding location. Oregon largest breeding colonies of White Pelicans and Sandhill Cranes are found here. Many other species are at the western edge of their breeding range, including Bobolink, Eastern Kingbird, and Franklin’s Gull. Raptors we will see include Bald and Golden Eagle, Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Kestrel and many Northern Harrier. Short-eared, Barn, Great Horned, and Burrowing Owls all nest in the area. We may see a dozen species of waterfowl including Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal. The land birds we will see include daylight hunting Common Nighthawks, flocks of White-faced Ibis, Loggerhead Shrike, Sage Thrasher, with the largest song repertoire of any bird on Earth, Say’s Phoebe, nesting Willet and Long-billed Curlew, Wilson’s Snipe, Brewer’s and Sagebrush Sparrow, Rock Wren, and late migrants which may include vagrants from the east. Mammals we can expect include pronghorn, coyote, yellow-bellied marmot, Townsend’s cottontail, Belding’s ground squirrel, and perhaps long-tailed weasel. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible birding hotspot, with over 280 species recorded. It is a must-see destination for birders and nature lovers.
If you are interested in signing up, please contact Assistant Director Marcella Rose Sciotto at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your $300 conservation donation reserves your space.
Over the past 19 years, Klamath Bird Observatory has hosted over 170 student volunteer interns from 16 countries and 23 of the US states. Our objective with each individual has been to create a safe and fun learning experience, with the hope that we impart some positive influence on their academic and professional careers. Certainly, we have enjoyed the company of some incredibly bright, energetic, and enthusiastic individuals.
Luis Morales of Mexico interned with KBO in 2012. At that time he was laying the foundation for a new bird observatory in his native San Pancho, Nayarit, located on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Luis mentored with KBO Executive Director John Alexander as part of his training. The San Pancho Bird Observatory is now a healthy and growing organization advancing bird conservation and education in western Mexico, where many of our nesting songbirds spend their winters.
Keith Larson of Washington interned with KBO in 2004 and 2005. He later completed a PhD at Lund University in Sweden studying songbird migration patterns. Keith is now a research ecologist with the Abisko Arctic Research Lab in northern Sweden, where he is examining the effects of climate change on Arctic ecosystems.
Viviana Cadeña Ruiz of Colombia interned with KBO in 2002 and 2003. She later completed her PhD at Brock University in Canada on the effects of high altitude acclimation on thermoregulation. Viviana is now an eco-physiologist. She recently commenced a three year postdoctoral research fellowship with the University of Melbourne in Australia, where she is researching the adaptive significance of color change in bearded dragon lizards.
These are just a few examples of KBO intern successes – former KBO interns making positive impacts in the world of science and conservation throughout the globe. Our hope, as always, is that their KBO experience has played some part in their accomplishments.
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!
On Saturday January 4th, the Klamath Bird Observatory family, including staff, interns, board members, volunteers, partners, and supporters, participated once again in Ashland’s annual Christmas Bird Count. The Christmas Bird Count is an American tradition and the longest running citizen-fueled biological survey in the world, dating back to the year 1900 when the count was initiated by the Audubon Society as a blood-free alternative to the existing Christmas tradition of hunting birds.
Now, each year during the winter season, tens of thousands of volunteers venture outside for a day of fun and birdwatching. The information they collect sheds light on the health of bird populations, which itself speaks to the health of our society.The day of the Christmas Bird Count in Ashland began with persistent fog in the lower portions of the valley and bright sunshine in the higher elevations. American Robins and Cedar Waxwings were out in abundance, and a few species never before recorded during Ashland’s count were observed, including the Northern Goshawk. A local newspaper reporter joined one of the Christmas Bird Count teams to learn more about the event as well as Klamath Bird Observatory’s activities, including our efforts to elevate bird conservation through our upcoming Mountain Bird Festival. You can read the full Ashland Daily Tidings article by clicking this link.
I had gotten my truck stuck in the snow, and had dug it out, three times before finally stopping six miles from the location where I was going to survey for Great Gray Owls. This was not a problem; I had backcountry skis for exactly this scenario although I hadn’t yet learned how to use them. I buckled into my skis, put on my pack, and strapped my hiking boots onto one side of my pack and a bucket of mice to the other. I looped the strap of my bright yellow boom box (for broadcasting owl calls) over my shoulder and I started skiing.
I fell three times going down the first hill and was grateful to see a steady incline in front of me, figuring uphill would be easier and ignoring the fact that I would have to navigate down that same incline later in the day. By the time I reached my survey site I had only the lid of the mouse bucket, the rest had apparently been swallowed by the snow during one of my tumbles. I quickly realized that it would be impossible to track an owl to its nest tree because I could neither hike in these snow conditions nor ski through the forest without injury. Lacking mice and limited to the road, it was the only day in two seasons of surveys that I was grateful that I didn’t detect an owl. With the survey complete, I turned around to follow my tracks back to my truck.
I was making my way up the final hill, equally exhausted and frustrated, when a few feet in front of me there was a songbird the exact color of Crater Lake on a sunny day, perched on a barren shrub above the shimmering snow. I smiled, grateful to have found a profession where I could challenge myself in amazing places and see beautiful things every day. Although I did not hear an owl response that day, I later learned I had skied right by the nest tree and expect she had watched the entire spectacle unfold.