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.
This article first appeared on the American Bird Conservancy Blog.
Migratory birds—which must overcome so many natural challenges as they journey from one end of the globe to another—are having a much harder time overcoming the obstacles that humans have added to the mix: habitat loss, environmental contaminants, climate change, and a lot more.But we humans can be helpful, too. I saw vivid proof of that last January in the highlands of northern Nicaragua, where declining migrants such as Wood Thrushes spend the nonbreeding season. For years, this area has been a stronghold for farmers growing quality shade coffee. Not coincidentally, it’s also known as a paradise for birds. An Island of Fertile Green
Everywhere we looked, we saw migrants: Philadelphia, Warbling, and Yellow-throated vireos; Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Wilson’s, and Yellow warblers rolling through the understory in constant, flickering motion; Western Kingbirds and Western Wood-Pewees hawking insects in the treetops; Summer Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks mixing with resident species like Black-headed Saltators and Clay-colored Robins. Flocks of Baltimore Orioles descended on blossoming trees and plucked the brilliant yellow flowers, dropping showers of blooms as they drank the rich pockets of nectar they’d revealed.Later, in the village of San Juan del Río Coco, I met with members of a cooperative of more than 400 small coffee producers who raise more than 2.5 million pounds of shade coffee every year. These producers raise coffee the way it’s been farmed for centuries there, below the canopy of intact, functioning forests that provide critical habitat for scores of migratory bird species. When these shade coffee farmers prosper, the outlook for migratory birds gets brighter, too.
Seen from space, though, the hills around San Juan del Río Coco are an island of fertile green surrounded by hundreds of square kilometers of land already converted to sun coffee, pasture, and grain fields.Increasingly, small shade coffee farms have been destroyed to make way for sun-tolerant coffee—an industrialized, chemical-dependent system that renders what had been prime bird habitat into the ecological equivalent of a parking lot. By some estimates, more than 40 percent of the shade coffee farms in Latin America have already been lost to satiate the demand for cheap coffee. Drink the Right Coffee Americans drink one-third of the world’s supply of coffee and are the driving force behind the shift from traditional, shade-grown coffee to habitat-destroying sun coffee. The decisions we make at the supermarket or specialty shop have profound effects on birds. Sun coffee may be cheaper to purchase, but in truth, there is no such thing as “cheap coffee.” Throughout the tropics, inexpensive sun-grown varieties exact an enormous toll on biodiversity, not to mention rural families and small cooperatives steamrollered by large agribusinesses. Fortunately, there is a surprisingly easy solution: Drink the right coffee. Scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) created the Bird Friendly program to certify the very highest-quality shade coffee farms—the ones that provide the greatest benefit to migratory birds. By certifying this exceptional coffee, the SMBC program elevates its grade, so it then commands a premium price in the marketplace. This increased value creates a powerful incentive for farmers to keep shade coffee farms intact. While there are other shade certification programs, Bird Friendly is widely regarded as the gold standard. It requires USDA organic certification, and to qualify, farmers must meet a rigorous list of requirements, from canopy height and native tree diversity to pollution controls when the coffee is milled. The result? Coffee that safeguards habitat for the birds we care about, while providing an opportunity for farmers to receive a higher price for their crop—and which, because it ripens slowly in the shade, tastes far richer and more complex in your cup. That’s the way it happens in the shade forest oasis that surrounds the Nicaraguan village of San Juan del Río Coco. Please, do what you can to protect this oasis and many more like it—for the bugs, fruit, and nectar these healthy forests still produce, and for the way of life that supports both rural families and migratory birds. All you have to do is choose Bird Friendly coffee. It may be the easiest and tastiest way to help migratory birds. Editor’s Note: Klamath Bird Observatory proudly drinks Bird Friendly coffee in our offices. Ask your local coffee shops, supermarkets, and food co-ops for shade grown Bird Friendly coffee. Scott Weidensaul is the author of more than two dozen books on natural history, including Living on the Wind and Of a Feather, as well as his newest, The First Frontier. He is also an active field researcher, specializing in the migration of owls and hummingbirds. Weidensaul lives in Pennsylvania.