In Bog We Rust: How to catch blackbirds on a birdathon

For this year’s Great Canadian Birdathon we were, somewhat by design, in the field. Much like last year around the same time Jay Wright and I were on Rusty duty. For a week and a half, we were out attempting to catch rusty blackbirds at the McClelland Lake Study Site.

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

Canadian Toad (Bufo hemiophrys) hiding in the moss

Background: As part of the Smithsonian’s Migratory Connectivity Project, members of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group have been deploying archival GPS tags on Rusties since 2015 at sites in Alaska, Alberta, and New Hampshire.  These tags allow us to track migration routes and timing, and to locate wintering grounds for different breeding populations, but the birds must be recaptured the following year to retrieve the GPS data.  At the McClelland Lake breeding site in northern Alberta, we first deployed tags in 2015 and recovered two of these tags in 2016.  These tags showed similar flight paths and wintering ground sites, so we deployed another round of tags in 2017 to confirm the migratory connectivity of the Alberta population.  This year we returned to the site to attempt to find and recapture some of these tagged birds. This is where we were on June 3rd during the Great Canadian Birdathon!

Jeeves getting a PinPoint GPS tag in 2017

Cross-checking colour band combinations so we know who to catch again

Morning

We left our campsite early and headed off into the Treed Fen where the Rusty Blackbirds breed. On the way we passed through upland Jack Pine forest where we heard Western Tanager, Western Wood-Pewee and Olive-sided Flycatcher; Trembling Aspen copses, where we encountered Least flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush and Red-eyed Vireos; and every type of burnt forest, where we saw Black-backed Woodpecker, Orange-crowned Warbler and Mountain Bluebird.  Once we reached the fen we suited up with waders and gear and headed to our nest searching locations. We already knew where two nest locations were. Jeeves and Arthur had both come back to nest within a square kilometer of their nests last year.  Wooster and Guinevere, however, had yet to be relocated.  

To catch the returning Rusty Blackbirds we first had to find their nests. At this time of year, they should mostly have been feeding chicks, so we thought that they’d be easier to both find and catch. We were right about at least the finding part. We found four nests that day, one of which was from a female who we had banded the year before. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a PinPoint GPS tag so we weren’t any closer to reaching our goal. While looking for nests we noticed some heavy swallow migration as large numbers of Bank, Tree, Cliff and Barns flew low over the black spruce. While they picked off uppity gnats the Cliffs sang their rattling and sputtery songs.

Jeeves’ nest with 5 chicks nearly ready to fledge

Wandering along a fresh seismic through our study site

Afternoon

As we weren’t finding any new colour banded birds we decided to head out to the edge of the fen where moss meets lake. Many of the Rusties come out to feed here on the large hatches of dragonflies that erupt in early June. Along the shore we saw a handful of ducks, shorebirds, gulls and terns. Exoskeletons from dragonflies first taking flight littered the reeds. In some patches you could easily count over a hundred skeletons in a single square meter of sedge. Blackbirds were coming out in small flocks to feed still, but we couldn’t spot any banded birds so we headed back to camp.

A small segment of the many dragonfly exoskeletons after an emergence along McClelland Lake

Burns featured prominently in our travel to and from the fen

Our new route back to the trailer was probably a mistake. From years of blowdown since the last fire, all of the trails that seemed open on satellite imagery were now covered in fallen pine. White-throated Sparrows seemed to be the only birds still singing in the hot afternoon sun, so our trip back was both slow and uneventful.

Back from the fen after a long day we sat down for a pasta dinner and rested up for another week of Rusty work. We didn’t know then, but over the next several days we would manage to capture both Jeeves and Arthur, who brought back two functional tags detailing their annual travels.

Jeeves returned in good health with a record of his year on the GPS tag

Arthur (center), Jay (left) and Jeremiah (right) were all excited after tag removal

Post and photos by: Jeremiah Kennedy and Jay Wright

The Great Boreal Owl Adventure

In February 2018, the Bayne lab had several crews scattered over northern Alberta deploying autonomous recording units (ARUs) to detect owls, specifically Boreal Owls, for Jeremiah Kennedy’s MSc project. ARUs were deployed in a grid of 16, over a 2.4km2 area in places with historical Boreal Owl detections. Due to winter accessibility and logging activity, an ARU grid needed to be moved. The field crew in northwest Alberta (Connor Charchuk, Lauren Law, Ben Paulsen, and myself) decided to do evening playbacks for Boreal Owls to best locate a new place to deploy a grid. Connor highlighted a couple areas he thought we should check out and around 8pm, we set out to start our search.

The playback protocol consisted of three parts: (1) Listen for 2min, (2) Play the song of the Boreal Owl for 2min, (3) Listen for 2min. We tried not to get our expectations up for finding a Boreal Owl, as most owl playback attempts are not successful. We turned off Highway 88 north of Red Earth Creek and headed west down a side road. A kilometer in, we started our search. The plan was to try a playback at each kilometer. The first playback was unsuccessful, but we expected most to be. The second stop was silent for the first two phases, and in the final seconds of the post-playback listening, Connor and I looked at each other with wonderment in our eyes. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “Yeah, what was that?” I replied. We both heard a soft, single call in the far distance, not the typical sound an owl makes. Optimistically, we thought it could be the contact call of a Boreal Owl responding to our playback. “Let’s go check this out” I suggested, and so we walked down the road to where we thought the call had come from. “Alright, play the song again” Connor prompted. Connor played the call from his phone and Ben remarked, “Oh look! A bat just flew overhead!” (I can’t make this stuff up). Ben. This is northern Alberta in February. There are no bats. WAIT! THERE ARE NO BATS! WHAT COULD THAT HAVE BEEN?! Ben shone his flashlight on a group of trees on the other side of the road to where he thought the creature flew to. “THERE IT IS! OVER THERE! SHINE YOUR LIGHT OVER THERE!” Connor exclaimed. There it was. A Boreal Owl perched in a tree no more than 20 feet away!

Figure 1. Boreal Owl in aspen tree, inspecting the singing owl coming from our playback. Photo: Natasha Annich.

We jumped and celebrated in excitement! High-fives, hugs, and shouts of joy were abound. The Boreal Owl is one of the boreal forest’s most elusive critters. The bird has a characteristic staccato song that is heard far more frequently than the owl is ever seen, but even then, it can be a challenge to find. Boreal Owls are poorly understood, and most banding records are sparse and incidental. They may follow migratory patterns of Northern Saw-whet Owls, but no one knows for sure. Anyway, back to the story. We watched this owl for several minutes, and it even swooped back across the road nearly taking out my eye on the way – yes, I literally had to duck out of the way! Then it perched in a patch of black spruce and with four flashlights and my iPhone, we managed to snap a somewhat identifiable photo of it:

Figure 2. Boreal Owl in black spruce, inspecting the singing owl coming from our playback. Photo: Natasha Annich.

We decided we had pestered the bird long enough, and got back in the truck. Connor then realized he had forgotten to take a GPS point, so got back out of the truck to go mark the waypoint. He then came running back, “she’s calling! Come have a listen!” So, we all got back out to listen to her contact calls – something none of us had ever heard before. Connor managed to record the call the owl was making and while we were all listening attentively, we heard another owl singing off in the distance in response! We concluded that the bird we were watching must have been the female, and the male was off in the distance. It was the perfect spot to build a grid for Jeremiah’s MSc project! Stay tuned to find out what he found.

 

Smart system for detecting owls: Automated technology identifies calls of Barred Owls, Boreal Owls, and Great Horned Owls

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An autonomous recording unit deployed in the field to record owl calls.

PhD student Julia Shonfield in Erin Bayne’s lab at the University of Alberta has developed an automated system for detecting owl calls, eliminating the need for researchers to spend nights in the field to survey owls. This new approach combines using audio recorders with a software program that can detect owl calls, called recognizers, and is similarly accurate and far more efficient than other, more traditional methods.

For more details of this work, see the university press release here:
https://www.ualberta.ca/science/science-news/2018/april/automated-system-detects-owl-calls

To hear Julia Shonfield talk about owls and her research, check out a clip of a radio interview on the local CBC Edmonton station: http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/radio-active/segment/15537010

“Utility of automated species recognition for acoustic monitoring of owls” by Julia Shonfield, Sarah Heemskerk, and Erin M. Bayne was published in the March 2018 issue of the Journal of Raptor Research, available at https://doi.org/10.3356/JRR-17-52.1.