Songbird Monitoring in Costa Rica with Alejandra Martinez-Salinas

Alejandra Martínez-Salinas had her first experience monitoring songbirds in mist nets in 1999. Her life changed from that moment on.  In The Messenger, she says “ I fell in love with the migrant songbirds because they are so small, but also strong. They are really determined to get somewhere”.  We filmed with Alejandra in Costa Rica last February.

Alejandra is an ecologist/ornithologist and a PhD candidate in the Joint Doctoral Program between the University of Idaho and CATIE, the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Turrialba.  When she was still in college in her native country of Nicarauga,  Alejandra had the opportunity to assist a group of ornithologists from the Smithsonian Institute doing field work. Back then, she only learned how to set up and take down mist nets just prior to going into the field, and she didn’t have much experience releasing birds from the nets. Today, fifteen years later, Alejandra leads the Bird Monitoring Program at CATIE.

Indigobunting

Martinez-Salinas arrived at CATIE in 2006 to pursue her master’s degree in forest management and biodiversity conservation. Soon after graduation, with Fabrice DeClerck, one of her Master’s thesis advisors and Rachelle DeClerck, an environmental educator, she began discussing the possibility of setting up a bird monitoring program that could cover different types of agricultural land uses. It was clear from the moment they set it up that a monitoring program was not going to be a small task but they decided to give it a try. Seven years later, the bird monitoring program is a huge success.

Since 2008, they have been trapping and banding birds in six different agricultural land uses within the CATIE campus. They band and release wild birds in forest, pastures divided by live fences, cacao, multistrata and simple agroforest coffee and sugar cane plantations. To date, they have banded  9,000 birds, including 56 species of neo-tropical migrants.

mourningwarbler

Our crew filmed a wonderful scene with Alejandra handling a Mourning Warbler, which had come back to CATIE after being banded in the same site the year before. Most common migratory songbird species visiting their mist nets are the Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Mourning and Tennessee Warblers, Alder Flycatcher and Swainson’s Thrush. Some of the rare or one-time visitors include Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers,  Bay-breasted and Blackpoll Warblers.

yellow_warbler_coffeeplant

Alejandra is very concerned about how monoculture farming is affecting diversity and habitat on coffee farms. She is currently conducting experiments to prove that birds can have a significant effect on reducing harmful insects, like the crop damaging coffee berry borer.  She says if they can convince the local farmers that the birds can do just as good a job as chemical pesticides, it will be really good for the birds, because more farmers will want to have more diverse crops to attract more birds to their farms, and the farmers will in turn save money on pesticides.   Reducing pesticides benefits the whole ecosystem in many ways.

In the last seven years, hundreds of visitors from many different countries and backgrounds have come to visit CATIE.  Each of the visitors leaves the bird banding stations knowing a little bit more about songbird conservation in agricultural lands and the importance of saving all species for a balanced ecosystem.

Watch for Alejandra on screen in The Messenger, to be released later this year.

CATIE

 

 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Andrew Farnsworth

The SongbirdSOS film crew ventured to  New York City to film with Andrew Farnsworth, a Research Associate of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology during the  annual  911 Memorial Tribute in Lights.  While there with some volunteers from the New York City Audubon , we also found out more about the exciting and ambitious Bird Cast project, which aims to provide a window into the world of migration at a scale previously unimaginable.

Farnsworth is hopeful, as are his collaborators, this new vision of migratory behavior could ultimately be used to prevent the deaths of millions of birds. In this video clip,   Farnsworth explains how cool 21st technology is changing migratory bird research.

 

Andrew Farnsworth grew up in the greener and quieter suburbs of the city where he now lives, watching the seasons – and weather and most importantly birds – change. Throughout his childhood Andrew says he would wonder about the calls of passing nocturnal migrants, fully aware of the identities of some species and be completely befuddled by others.

As did many students of migration, he read with great interest about the ways to grasp the otherwise unfathomable magnitudes of birds migrating under the cover of darkness, occasionally seeing glimpses of their shapes while watching the moon or by the lights of tall buildings.

When we caught up with Andrew at the 911 Tribute last year,  he and members of the Audubon Society were situated on a parking garage roof in Manhattan, at the base of the lights, observing and monitoring the powerful beams for bird action.  Our director Su Rynard and the SongbirdSOS crew documented the evening, filming from dusk until almost dawn.

While the powerful lights provided a spectacular opportunity to observe and film migratory birds, the dangers were also apparent. That night they had to shut the lights down several times, which allowed migratory birds that became trapped and circling in the lights, to disperse.

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Andrew said the prospects for this year’s Tribute in Light were intriguing. Unlike many previous years, a frontal boundary was approaching the region and generating potential for a large flight of migrants to coincide with the memorial. Thankfully, the passage of the front did not occur until several hours after sunset, and the potentially large number of migrants getting caught in the light did not become a reality that evening.

According to Andrew, “Some birds did fly through the beams on the night of the Tribute, though mostly at high altitude and without stopping and circling. Of interest was the peak in numbers after the winds strengthened with the arriving air mass behind the front.  Many seemed to hold off and made their migratory passage through the city the following night, long after the tribute lights had been extinguished.”

Andrew’s also been working on another pilot project that many who track birds will recognize as a long standing goal to create a device to record, detect, classify, and post to a website flight calls of migrating songbirds.

He is doing that in collaboration with other scientists at the Cornell Lab and he encourages volunteer citizen scientists to get involved by contributing their recordings from low-cost but effective microphones like those designed by acoustic monitoring pioneer Bill Evans.

Farnsworth continues to post weekly BirdCast forecasts for four regions of the US based on forecast weather and previous eBird data to give birders a sense of what species will be on the move and in what numbers. There are also weekly analyses for these same regions, highlights from eBird data of which what species actually occurred and what the radar looked like at a typical peak hour of nocturnal movement

The scenes in SongbirdSOS at  the 911 Memorial Tribute site are quite beautiful. If you’d like to know when the film is screening near you, please join our community. 

 

Predicting Songbird Migration with BirdCast

Artwork by  Luke Seitz

Artwork by Luke Seitz

BirdCast is an exciting bird migration prediction application now in its third year of operation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Dr. Andrew Farnsworth will introduce audiences to BirdCast in the SongbirdSOS documentary when it is broadcast next year.
Farnsworth says the BirdCast project aims to provide real-time forecasts of songbird and other species migrations, much like a weather forecast substituting ‘migrations’ for ‘storms’ and ‘birds’ for ‘rain.’

Launched in 2011, BirdCast can now forecast bird migration on a continental scale by merging radar, eBird, acoustic, weather, and habitat data.  The migration models will also allow researchers to better understand bird behavior in response to environmental change. This article from Cornell’s All about Birds website explains how Eight Intriguing Migration Mysteries were solved with Birdcast. 

Farnsworth told us the Birdcast project idea came about after he spent many hours atop Mount Pleasant in Ithaca with Bill Evans listening to bird ‘night flight calls’ during spring and fall migration and then doing his graduate years with  Dr. John Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the Lab of Ornithology and Dr. Sidney Gauthreaux, a pioneer in analyzing radar for bird migration .

Today Farnsworth says he’s trying to keep up with a creative and talented graduate student Benjamin Van Doren who has been a analyzing all the BirdCast data  to help the project study wind drift and how birds behave in windy conditions across the North East US.

For more on the basics of bird-watching by radar, check out this article on eBird.

BirdCast is a collaborative effort funded by the National Science Foundation and the Leon Levy Foundation, with partners at Microsoft, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Artwork  from  the blog post – Eight Intriguing Migration Mysteries Solved With BirdCast and eBird | All About Birds 

Ottawa Citizens Start FLAP Bird Rescue Initiative

FLAP. Ottawa. fall colour. dead birds Michael Mesure, founder and Executive Director of the FLAP bird rescue organization, which is featured in SongbirdSOS says that many citizens of the city of Ottawa (Canada’s capital city) were shocked and troubled when a flock of approximately 30 Bohemian Waxwings collided with a glass walkway at their City Hall last year.  The sudden and public death of these beautiful birds drew a frenzy of media attention and the interest of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists Birds Committee.

One member in particular, Anouk Hoedeman, was concerned by this event and started on the search for a solution. Although it is rare for an entire flock of birds to hit as in this incident, it is altogether too common for birds to collide with building windows.   It is estimated that up to 1 billion birds die from window collisions each year in North America alone.

Most people have had an experience at home, at the cottage or even at work where they have witnessed a bird dying in this way. These experiences are upsetting and scary, often because people do not realize why birds collide with windows or what can be done to prevent it.

The sheer scope of this issue was brought to the attention of Sarah Kirkpatrick-Wahl at Nature Canada with the release of a series of scientific papers released by Environment Canada in Fall 2013 on the major human causes of bird mortality.

Anouk and Sarah’s separate searching lead them both to FLAP.  (Fatal Light Awareness Program) Over the years, FLAP Canada has received calls from the Ottawa region about birds that have been found, but Mesure knew something was different this time around.  Anouk and Sarah were put in touch and started meeting with others who were interested in finding a solution, including staff at the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre.

In SongbirdSOS, Michael Mesure states that due to a recent precedent setting court case  in Toronto, it is now illegal for buildings to knowingly attract and cause the death of birds in Ontario.    He says “We’re excited about this new wing of FLAP volunteers gathering in Ottawa so they can make a difference for local and migrating bird populations.  Ottawa is a dynamic  growing city on the banks of an important river system which is a natural migratory bird pathway.   With the increase in new building development , incidents of bird collisions have increased.   It is not surprising that environmental concerns are arising because of this too.’’

This past spring, Anouk and another volunteer, Cynthia Paquin, began daily patrols in the downtown core of the nation’s capital.  They found that the majority of collisions occurred after sunrise, with more birds hitting when it was bright and sunny. Their first season of patrols confirmed a problem with window strikes, so Anouk, Sarah, Cynthia and others began earnest efforts to establish a local FLAP program. This fall, they began building a more solid base of patrollers and drivers to help their efforts.FLAP.Ottawa volunteers

To date the Ottawa Wing of FLAP has recorded more than 300 birds representing about 60 species, including 20 warbler species and threatened species such as Wood Thrush and Canada Warbler. Species collected range from Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to a surprising Barred Owl.

Although many of the birds are found dead, Ottawa Wing volunteers are always thrilled to be able to rescue a stunned or injured bird and have managed to rescue dozens of warblers, kinglets, Brown Creepers, sparrows, woodpeckers and more. They already have a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/FLAPOttawa and on it they have been posting some successful bird rescue videos.

As word spreads about FLAP volunteer efforts in Ottawa,  more calls are coming in about injured and dead birds from office workers and homeowners. The group hopes the attention will get more people involved in this critical bird conservation initiative in Ottawa.  You can contact them at Ottawa@flap.org or 613-216-8999.  http://www.flap.org/ottawa.php

If you want to find out when the SongbirdSOS film featuring the bird rescue work of FLAP will be coming to a movie screen near you, please sign up for our newsletter.

Photos courtesy of Anouk Hoedeman

Stutchbury Tracks Tiny Songbird Migration with Geolocator

Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, Ornithologist and author (Silence of the Songbirds) was one of the first scientists to use light logger geolocators to track tiny songbirds. Watch this exclusive SongbirdSOS video of Bridget retrieving a geolocator from a Hooded Warbler for the first time.

Bridget told us how it came about…

I started tracking migratory songbirds in 2007, after discovering that light-logger geolocators had been miniaturized to only 1.5g by the British Antarctic Survey.  For the first time ever it was possible to attach this device to songbirds and, if they returned the next year, re-construct their start-to-finish migration routes and timing.  At this size it was only safe to track relatively large songbirds that weighed over 50 grams but most songbirds weigh far less than 50 grams.  As with any technology, the geolocators were soon made even smaller, allowing researchers to track smaller songbirds.

In 2010 I had the good fortune to test the smallest tags at that existed at that time (0.6g). The tags were built by James Fox from the British Antarctic Survey. I wanted to know if it was possible to track warblers, which typically weigh less than 15g.  In the spring of 2010, after receiving permission from the US Banding Lab to do a pilot study, I caught five Hooded Warblers at my long-term study site in northwestern Pennsylvania. It was with some trepidation that I gave these little birds a relatively large piece of luggage to carry for the next year. I followed them carefully over the next months to make sure they were healthy.

Bridget and Student

You could not tell that a male Hooded Warbler was carrying a geolocator unless you happened to get a really good look at his back.  They sang vigorously, chased other males, mated with their females, and all five males successfully raised a family.  That August, just before they were about to depart for their winter-time migration, I recaptured three of the males and I was pleased to notice that their weight was healthy and that they were moulting their feathers normally.

Then came the long nine month wait.  The next year two of the five males returned to re-claim their territories in May and seemed no worse for the wear.  Amazingly, Director Su Rynard  and her SongbirdSOS documentary crew was there when we captured the first warbler ever tracked with a geolocator! After analyzing the light data I discovered that this bird, 2430-41205, had flown south to the Florida panhandle, across the Gulf of Mexico, and spent the winter in central Nicaragua.  In spring, he flew up to the Yucatan peninsula, across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River valley back to his exact same 100m x 100m territory in Pennsylvania.  Even after tracking several hundred songbirds, I still find it amazing that such a small bird can travel so far and with pinpoint accuracy.

Banded Hooded Warbler

What become of this infamous bird? Bridget’s colleague Dr. Ron Mumme from nearby Allegheny College has been studying Hooded Warblers in her backyard forest ever since. He reports that this bird survived to make a second round-trip the next year and again nested successfully, although he has not been seen since.

The second Hooded Warbler Bridget tracked also wintered in Nicaragua and has nested on the same breeding territory every year since 2010. He was at least two years old when first banded, which means he’s flown the 7000 kilometre round-trip at least four times in his lifetime for a total of 28 000 kilometres!!  He wasn’t spotted in 2014, and a new male has laid claim to his territory.

Bridget reminds us that Aristotle believed that migratory swallows buried themselves in the mud over the winter like frogs.  In many ways that seems far more likely than a little 12 gram bird flying over half-way across the globe.

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