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


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


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

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