Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Day 29: Through the Binoculars

I had a day off today, so I went out with one of the birding crews!

Introducing the team (from left to right): Laura, Carmen,
and Emilie from Trent - look how excited they are! Also
notice the mosquito jackets that everyone is sporting. That's
right, beige is the new black and netting is the new chique
fabric up here in Churchill. It always seems to come into fashion
right around the time mosquito buzzing is the loudest. I'm
not sure that is is a coincidence. Luckily, the extreme wind
kept most of the mosquito mass away today!
This is a nest! Can you see the four eggs? Really hard to
find these. While walking through the muddy fen, the birds
that are sitting on the nests will flush - flying up to get you
to follow the parent rather than finding their nests. It is so easy
to watch the bird fly off and miss where the nest is hidden in the
sedges, making it a great method of drawing predators away
from the nest. Typically, there are four eggs in a nest of a shorebird,
they just fit well in the nest and all can get warm. Though we
found one with 5 eggs and one with only 2, the oddities.

So we walked from nest to nest, marked on GPS. So we zig
zagged for several kilometers. Once we got to the nest, there
were several measurements and notes made. Here, Carmen
is measuring the size of the eggs and seeing if they are
 warm, which means that male has sat on them recently.  We were
looking at phalarope nests and dunlin nests, both of
which have the male do most of the care of the eggs
and chicks - the brood!

The eggs are also submerged in warm water for a few seconds
to determine the stage of development. If it sinks, it is still in early
stages of development. If it floats, it is nearing hatching, but
then you have to look at how it is floating. It floats because
an air sac forms. The air sac gets bigger as the chick nears hatching
causing the egg to float at different angles. When the long axis
is vertical and 90 degrees, it is less developed than when the
long axis is horizontal and floating, when it is really close
to hatching. This isn't always accurate though. A better
indicator is seeing the star on the shell where the chick has
started to peck it's way out. If I remember well enough, once
you see the first tiny cracks in the shell, it is about two
more days until they hatch. We came across one nest that
they had seen the cracks on yesterday, but when we got there
today, everything was gone except the top of one shell.
Laura determined that it was a victim of predation.
It was so sad to see a nest that was so close - you can hear
the chicks peeping at this point in development - be
completely destroyed. Nature can be harsh at times, but
predators have to eat, too.

After the egg check, and sometimes in reverse order, we put
a cage around the nest with a door open on one end. That
way, when the male comes back to sit on the eggs - sometimes
circling for 20 minutes before going in - he will settle onto
the nest. Then one of the birders will jump up and run at
the trap, scaring the bird away from the door of the cage.
The birder then sticks her hand into the cage and grabs the
bird from behind with it's head between two fingers so it
doesn't get injured and can't struggle too much.

This is a dunlin with the proper hold demonstrated. We caught
two birds today, this is the first. It was extremely docile! It
never flapped or tried to bite or claw, so unlike my bird, Star,
at home who would draw blood, though she does have a much
smaller beak to access the fingers gripping her. These birds
are tagged with a unique three letter ID which later has to
be read by binoculars. I'm still amazed that anyone can
read the small lettering when all you see is a flash of the tag
as the bird is running through the sedge. I definitely
need some improvement if I'm to help with tag id.

So now to play with the birds. This is Emilie, she is about
to kiss the dunlin - who looks a bit terrified. Just kidding,
she is actually blowing on the feathers to see several things:
1. She is looking for pin feathers, new feathers coming in after
a molt, to judge health.
2. She is looking for the yellow-white fat layer, another judge
of health. This one was pink, so it had no fat.
Other measurements are taken as well.
Here, the tarsus (foot) is being measured.
The beak length, and the beak and head
length are also measured using the caliper.
Basically, this is an avian checkup.

A checkup which is not complete without taking a blood
sample. A small prick is made into the vein near the elbow
of the bird's wing. If you have ever given blood, this is like the
prick on the finger that they use to test the amount of iron in your
blood (whether if floats or sinks in a certain amount of time).
That is about the same amount of blood that is taken from the bird.
It stops bleeding really quickly as well. You only have about
10 seconds to get the sample before it clogs. This bird amazed
me, it didn't even flinch!

This is the labeled vial for the blood sample. It will be tested
for DNA to understand the genetics and relatedness of birds
in this area compared to other nesting areas. If there is enough
blood, it is also analyzed for diseases such as malaria and viruses.

One of the highlights! I got to hold a wild dunlin! I also got to
let it free after it's alien abduction was complete.

Working out in the fen also gave me a glimpse of another three bears, a mother and her two cubs who were lounging around some of the ponds. We were far enough away that we weren't in immediate danger, but we didn't stick around to see what the mother would do. The most dangerous situation with bears is getting between a protective mother and her cubs. We booked it out of there with Laura deciding to come back tomorrow to check on the nests in that area rather than risk working so close to the wild bears. During the rather high-paced walk away from the bears, I lined myself up perfectly with a godwit nest! It flushed about 5 feet from me, which makes it really hard to find their nests since you have to be really close to them before they fly. The group of birders from Cornel are studying the godwits, having to walk around 20 km a day in sucking mud searching for the nests, many of which they have found have been predated! They were really happy that I was able to find one for them. Beginner's luck! It also made me happy to be useful in the field!

A great day off! I think on my next one, I will go hunt for some fox dens!

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