Living for the Birds
Finding My Love for Birds and Life in the Field as a Biological Research Technician
From the age of seven, I’ve led a fruitful life as an undeniable bird nerd. I recall riding the school bus and making sure to always sit on the right side so that I could see the array of bird feeders set outside The Backyard Naturalist, a little store that sells birdseed, feeders and nature-y gifts. I would sit glued to the window, completely captivated as the bus waited at the red light right next to the flurry of life that fluttered around the feeders
I’ve been told that my first word was “duck” and that I would always take notice, at a very young age, of birds flying overhead. It seemed as if my future was already laid out for me.
My mother noticed my invested interest and called the store knowing that they hosted monthly birdwalks. The hesitation was obvious on the other end of the line when she asked if she could bring a seven-year old little girl along on a four hour hike that promised to be slow and quiet! Mom won out and convinced the woman that it was her little girl’s interest that provoked the call.
Walking close to my mother, we approached the circle of adults standing in the store parking lot early one Saturday morning. They wore khaki vests adorned in multi-sized pockets and large, expensive-looking binoculars hung from their necks. They consulted their bird books and talked quietly. Norm Saunders, a kind, confident man, greeted us and introduced us to the group. We were handed pairs of binoculars and he encouraged me to try them out, instructing me all the while. I peered through the lenses, with child’s hands struggling to put a bird feeder into view.
The first trip introduced us to Tridelphia Lake, a beautiful area that I’ve since visited countless times. As the group of us approached the bank of the large body of water, an American Kestrel was spotted. What luck! It landed in the tall, bare tree right at the lake’s edge! A sudden outbreak of activity behind me produced several scopes, much more powerful than binoculars, set up on tall tripods. I was encouraged to take a look, before the little bird of prey flew off. There was soft laughter as I craned my neck, looking upward toward the eyehole. Norm lifted me up so that I could take in the magnified view of this magnificent little raptor. From that moment, I knew that there would never be a time when birds would not be a part of my life.
I grew into a young adult, under the teachings of that group of birders. My fascination with birds and the natural world thrived under the teachings of that wonderful group birders. As a college graduate with a degree in Biology and Environmental Studies and a focus in Wildlife Conservation, I would occasionally visit The Backyard Naturalist and Debi and Mike (the store owners, and the ones responsible for this story!). They would proudly show off a drawing hung up on the wall behind the cash register-that of a kestrel that I had sketched in colored pencil, years before. In one corner was a box in which you had a close-up view of the colorful little bird, as if you were peering through the scope.
From college, I entered the life of a biological field technician. Through websites I would find field jobs studying various bird species and ecosystems. They were always about 3-9 months long, resulting in a very transient lifestyle.
For my first job, I worked on islands off the coast of Maine. The islands were inhabited by nesting terns and puffins and I spent two summers studying their breeding productivity and feeding habits. I would live on an island with two to four other researchers, and we would sleep in tents, eat and gather in a tiny cabin where we would record our data recorded for the day.
These species of birds were reintroduced to this area after having been extirpated (locally wiped out) from the islands in the 1800’s due overhunting by humans who wanted them for their feathers. The bird have now repopulated the islands and are confronted by another concern. Huge Black-backed and Herring Gulls are now preying upon their eggs and chicks. The populations of these gulls have skyrocketed as they have adapted to humans and thrive on our trash. Gulls are now in such great numbers that they are a real threat to the seabirds breeding on the island. Part of our responsibility is to dissuade the gulls from the area on the island where the nesting colony is. The management and monitoring that we researchers do is what keep these populations of puffins and terns in existence.
For my next job, I left the islands to pass a summer in New Brunswick, Canada. There, I studied several species of migrant songbird, the Black-throated Green Warbler and the Blackburnian Warbler. We traveled to sites throughout the Bay of Fundy National Park, as well as sites outside of the park, to specific GPS point locations where we would determine if birds that had been banded in the previous breeding season were once again occupying the same territory. This “site fidelity” is common in these species of birds and, if a bird was not found at its territory the next year, it was determined to have died. The results are compared to birds living outside of the park in areas near those of which were heavily logged. The Master’s student we worked under was studying the difference between survival of birds that had territories inside the protected park area verses the birds nesting in the unprotected, heavily-managed areas.
With the obvious outcome of this study, the idea was to have legitimate data to present to forest managers in order to display the necessity of leaving adequate forested land for species of importance.
Next I flew down to Puerto Rico where I spent a winter in the southwest corner, also known as the driest part of the island. The habitat was thorny trees, shrubs and grassland. Here populations of a bird called the Smooth-billed Ani were common. This species is unique for its social behavior and is therefore a well-studied subject. They form territorial groups ranging from six to twenty or so birds and the majority of the group members are female. Together, they build a nest of twigs and each female lays her eggs there.
- Birds are Far From Boring
At first look, one wouldnt imagine the complex lifestyle that these birds lead. Perky and a sleek, lustrous black, the Smooth Billed Ani is not much larger than a grackle. Sporting a long, rounded off tail,...
As the field crew, we were responsible for following groups using radio telemetry while trying to locate their nest. From there, we would climb up to the nest, sometimes at great heights, up extendable ladders. Swinging in the breeze, I would count the eggs and, if there were chicks, we would band them, weight and measure, and take blood. This information would be used to determine genetically the various relations and the intricacies of female dominance leading to parentage.
On to my next job, I spent a summer working nights in order to keep up with the late night schedule kept by Burrowing Owls. These owls live across the Western United States and I traveled between California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Utah to study these birds. The work was to search vast expanses of grassland and sage brush to find breeding pairs of these owls. They make their nests in abandoned prairie dog holes. The owls are cryptically colored as they are very vulnerable to predators including coyotes, badgers and various birds of prey. Their camouflage makes it very challenging to locate the birds, but rewarding when you succeed. We monitored their production, and put bands on the birds to be identifiable in following years. Their geographical range is of interest in this research because populations are encountering differences in food availability which may lead to changes in their migratory patterns.
In my next job, I spent a whole year working as a biological technician at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge on the Chesapeake Bay. There, I participated in monitoring and protection of the endangered Piping Plover and the American Oystercatcher. These shore-nesting birds are encountering ever-increasing populations of raccoons which are relentless in their nest predation. There have been multiple occasions in which every nest on Fisherman Island (also managed by the Wildlife Refuge) was predated and no chicks made it to fledging age allowing escape from predators by flying away. This kind of work is frustrating and sad. I commonly encountered situations like these in my fieldwork across the years. Once again, the ever-increasing population of raccoons can be attributed to humans.
Finally, I worked another summer out west, this time in the Pacific Northwest. There I studied woodpeckers in heavily logged areas. It seems as if there wouldn’t be any birds in this kind of area, but the loggers are mandated to leave a number (a very small number) of standing trees in each logged plot. Here we would find nesting woodpeckers. They depended particularly on dead trees left standing because they are unable to build their holes in living trees. The fresh wood is too dense. So, struggling to walk over ravaged land now overcome with prickly blackberry bushes, we would locate nest trees and mark them in GPS units. We would regularly return to the trees to monitor nest productivity. The information was, similarly to the study in Canada, used to determine better forest management practices.
All of these jobs held rich learning experiences, beautiful or sometimes disheartening sights, and a wider view of the natural world and the struggles it endures. All of these jobs were in very remote areas where very few humans have trod. There have been times, standing in the middle of nowhere, that I wish I could communicate what I was seeing to the wider public. Share the sometimes very precarious state of so many different natural ecosystems. There are many, many people, like me, working behind the scenes, finding out information about species in order to ensure them a better future..or any future at all. The hard work of these field researchers often goes unnoticed by the general population, often because the information is not widely accessible, nor reader-friendly for the non-scientist. Well, this is where I come in. I have crossed from that world to this one. You have read my past, now know my future: I am going to go to these “nowheres” and I am going to meet the biologists, the technicians, the scientists..and I am going to share what I learn so that it can be digested by people outside of the world of science. Instead of preaching to the choir, I’m going to preach out on the street: “Here is what is left of nature! Get to know it, get in it, fall in love with it, help save it…before it’s too late!”