Things that go Bump in the Field


I have spent a lot of time at a lot of different field sites over the years. I have spent days in the blistering sun, days in the frigid cold, and days in the pouring rain, but until this spring, I had never spent any time in the field after dark.

Every year, there is one field site with several kilometres of fencing that need monitoring to ensure the fence is in good working order. This work can take many more hours than we expect and is often completed in very early spring, so the days are still quite short.


This year, after a few days of repairing broken wires, straightening crooked poles and pulling tree branches out of the way, my field assistant and I were almost finished. It was nearing dusk and with a 1.5 km walk back to the road, we knew we had to leave shortly to make it out before dark. But we were so, so close to being done.


Let’s just go for it, we thought. We fixed the final panel of fencing and we started the trek back to the road where our vehicles were parked. But when I said it was “nearing dusk”, I really meant that it was already dusk, so by the time we were on our way out the sun had fully set and it was, well, total darkness. I have particularly bad night vision, so walking over ground was full of hummocks, rocks and small shrubs was particularly challenging for me. Given the terrain, a quick pace was far from possible, so I just trudged steadily along in the dark.


It was quiet. It was so very quiet. Since it was spring, birds were starting to migrate back to their Ontario breeding grounds, so the quiet skies were slowly beginning to come to life again during the day, but night was a different experience. There was only our heavy breaths and the slight rustle of leaves in the trees above to break the silence.

The only photo I got before the sun disappeared.


Suddenly, the quiet was interrupted by a very quick, almost vibration-like sound…and whatever made it was right behind us. Before we could even turn around, we heard a forceful “peeeent” from that same direction. My field assistant and I spun around, but halfway through our rotation, we heard the same vibrating sound again and it was gone.


We took a few more steps and then heard the same quick vibration sound followed by a loud “peeeent”. After this happened consistently for another 2 minutes, I knew I needed to figure out what was making this sound. The vibrating sound was definitely the wind rushing through feathers, so we knew it was a bird, but this was still very early in my birding career (I still knew almost nothing about birds), so that was about it. Something about the sound was oddly recognizable to me, but I just couldn’t place it. So, we walked slowly a few metres away and then turned around quietly and waited. As if perfectly on cue, the vibrating sound was back and as soon as it settled, I shone the light of my phone camera in front of us. And as soon as I caught sight of the bird, I knew exactly what it was, having watched this hilarious internet sensation many times. It was a woodcock!


As soon as I got a glimpse he was off again, and we continued to walk back to the road. The whole way back the woodcock followed us, “peent-ing” the entire time. Maybe we were bothering him and he was trying to get rid of us? Maybe he was protecting something? Or maybe he was just genuinely curious about what we were doing in his home territory so late in the day? Either way, when he escorted us to the car, it gave me a feeling of safety – like something was watching out for us in the darkness.


As we reached the vehicle and packed up our tools and equipment, I heard another nighttime sound, more immediately recognizable: the familiar call of the whip-poor-will was bouncing around in the distance. Having never spent any time in the field at night, that night was a very memorable experience for me. And it was certainly an excellent reminder that when you’re doing fieldwork or spending time in nature, no matter what time it is, you are never truly alone.

Praia, Paradise, & Petrel Poop

We are excited to welcome Alyssa J. Sargent to the blog today. Alyssa is a PhD student at the University of Washington studying tropical hummingbird ecology. For more about Alyssa, see the end of this post.

When seabirds colonize a tiny island, they truly reign. Humans no longer have the last word on dominance—at best, we are tolerated from a safe distance; at worst, we are considered threats most sensibly handled by mobbing.

As tiny islands go, Praia Islet fits the bill: a mere 0.039 square miles, it is a snippet of the Azores, a Portuguese island chain in the middle of the Atlantic. What’s more, it is a hub of ornithological research, positively inundated by birds.

Praia Islet! Teeny-tiny.

During the day, the common tern is king. When I worked on Praia, there were certain sections of the island that our field crew dared not disturb, for fear of either reprisal or treading on a nest. If we waded through the waist-high grasses close to the tern colony, the birds rose into the air in a great white wave, circling overhead; their shrill, burry calls rang and rattled in our ears, and every few seconds a particularly brave or irritable tern would dive toward us, swooping inches from our heads. Their nests, which resembled flattened divots in the golden-green stems, were tightly-spaced—a crammed neighborhood for new families, with no vacancies. If we were lucky, we could catch a glimpse of a fluffy nestling or two, miniscule punks with spiky feathered heads. If we were unlucky, we got parting gifts—delivered directly onto our heads. And after speedily escorting us off the premises, several terns would trail us for a time, like a multi-bodied kite suspicious of our intentions.

From a respectful distance, we could observe the terns wheeling over the sapphire Atlantic, plunging into the water. They often emerged victorious, beak clamped down on a silvery fish; equally often, a rival would attempt to snatch the victor’s hard-earned spoils in midair. We would see these fish strewn across the well-worn trail, vestiges of past battles and unsuccessful thieveries.

When the sun began to drop, drenching the ocean creases in pink and lilac, a changing of the guard soon followed. The terns settled quietly into the grasses for the night, and a steady stream of newcomers arrived: burly shearwaters—Cory’s and little—and their much daintier relatives, Monteiro’s storm-petrels. Fresh from foraging expeditions, these birds trumpeted their arrival, until the darkening sky was awash with darting shadows and a cacophony of calls.

A little shearwater nestling! Pure fluff.
Sunset in the Azores.

Any one of these small storm-petrels could have traveled over 300 miles in one foraging trip. You’d expect them to collapse in exhaustion, but these birds meant business. They returned to land for all things breeding: to find a mate, choose a nest burrow, incubate their eggs, or feed their nestlings. Deep into the night, while the Milky Way glittered overhead and the moon bathed the island and surrounding waters in silver, their silhouettes darted erratically through the air like bats. Above the distant sound of the waves, we could hear them squeakily calling to one another.

The Monteiro’s storm-petrel is endemic to the Azores. This fact, combined with their mostly-uncharted foraging patterns, nocturnal habits, and affinity for nesting in burrows, makes them a tricky study subject. But what’s science without a challenge?

It was with the goal of cracking such mysteries that I joined a research team studying these petrels—which we affectionately dubbed “stormies”—in the Azores. We camped out on Praia, a scrap of land off the shore of Graciosa, one of the smaller islands in the chain. We were the sole inhabitants; the islet had a single, cramped building with no electricity or running water—and quite a few cracks in the roof, which the rain was fond of worrying its way through. Our bunkmates were omnipresent Madeiran wall lizards, which dispersed in a scrabbling frenzy when we passed them, and flies that hung sleepily in the air with no apparent destination. Occasionally a bemused shearwater would wander its way inside. Once a pair of enterprising terns, in the market for real estate, snuggled their nest among the shingles of our battered roof.

Pure fluff, miniaturized: a Monteiro’s storm-petrel nestling.

It was, as we put it, “rustic”. But this suited our purposes well. We had the run of the islet—that is, the sections not ruled by terns—and there were plenty of opportunities to study the stormies. Monteiro’s are handsome little seabirds, the dark gray of thunderclouds and smelling strangely of wax. In order to disentangle their enigmas, we used many instruments familiar to field ornithologists: mist nets to catch birds on the wing, bands to individuate each bird, camera traps nestled into burrows to see the petrels’ hidden activity, GPS tags to track their odysseys out to sea, and other tools like acoustic playback and diet analysis.

Measuring a little shearwater nestling to gauge how much it’s grown!

Of course, diet analysis is a euphemism for what, in the field, amounts to collecting bird poop. And oh, was there bird poop. That might not be the first thing that comes to mind when imagining these fluffy little birds, but it’s no small detail—it stippled the rocks in a layered mosaic and graffitied our clothes. Every time we handled a bird, we—and our trousers—were at risk.

Things weren’t glamorous, but Praia was its own sort of paradise. Yes, we were crammed into a building with three times as many people as rooms. Yes, we got mobbed by terns, and yes, we got pooped on. Habitually. As is always the case in the field, we hit snags. But there was unmistakable beauty in the windswept grasses tangled with wildflowers and the iridescent, crumpled ocean surface; there was the thrill of witnessing a mother and father stormy reunite at their burrow through the feed of a miniscule camera, and of cupping one of these small birds between our fingers—his powerful wings folded crisply against skin, his tiny heart playing a tangible staccato, and his dark eyes shining with intelligence. Finding magic in these moments is at the heart of fieldwork. That, and being okay with a little bird poop.

I’m a field ornithologist by trade. During my PhD, I intend to study tropical hummingbird ecology, and leverage advanced technology to answer previously inaccessible questions about these tiny gems. With this information, I hope to contribute to conservation efforts by increasing knowledge and fostering local engagement. I believe that sharing science with others is incredibly important, and that writing is a particularly effective medium to do so!  

Nest building

Early one May morning in 2019, I disembarked from the ferry in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, bewildered and discombobulated from too many days of long-distance driving and too little sleep. The previous evening, I had left continental North America behind; however, I still had a long way to go before reaching my new home in St. John’s.

The route from Port aux Basques to St. John’s.

Back when I started planning my inter-provincial move, it seemed an entirely reasonable proposition make the 900 km drive from one end of Newfoundland to the other in a day. Blinking in the cold, salty ocean air that morning, I wasn’t quite as sure. But turning around wasn’t an option, so I filled my travel mug with coffee and climbed back into my car.

However, as the day wore on, it became clear to me that I had severely underestimated the size of my new home. By early afternoon, I was barely at Grand Falls-Windsor (town motto: “Perfectly Centered”). Many hours later, I crossed onto the Avalon Peninsula – only to find an impenetrable fog blanketing the highway. I gripped the wheel a bit tighter as my mind filled with images of moose lunging suddenly into the path of my car.

The sun had long since set by the time I drove into St. John’s. All day, as my tires ate up the miles, my panic had also been ratcheting up. I had moved to Newfoundland to coordinate a breeding bird atlas – a massive citizen science initiative to inventory all the bird species breeding on the island. But as I drove…and drove…and drove…I couldn’t help but think, “We have to atlas all this?”

A very different view.

And my panic went deeper than that. The scraggly fir and spruce trees and quiet waterways scrolling uninterrupted past my window were very different to the deciduous trees, crop fields, and suburbs of southeastern Ontario. The landscape felt very alien, and I felt very out of my depth. It seemed impossible that this place would ever be home.

***

If left to my own devices, I might never have left my apartment. But I had moved to Newfoundland to do a job, and part of that job involved learning what fieldwork in Newfoundland was like. If we were going to ask citizen scientists to brave the island’s bogs, forests, and windswept cliffs, it seemed only fair to understand what we were asking of them.

Where’s Waldo?

And so, less than a month after arriving, I found myself setting up camp on a small island off the north coast, spending my days plunging my arm into underground burrows, groping blindly for Leach’s storm petrels, and my nights untangling them from mist nets by the dozens. A few weeks after that, I perched on the edge of a precipice at Cape St. Mary’s, staring at northern gannet nests until my eyes crossed and my vision blurred. (Magic eye pictures are nothing compared to trying to find a particular nest among hundreds packed onto a rock ledge.) And shortly after that, I was in a helicopter, heading out to the rugged backcountry of Gros Morne National Park.

***

Yup.

And suddenly a year had passed, and I found myself right back where I started. After a long day on the road, my car was suddenly encased in fog. Between the dark and the dense air, it was impossible to see more than a few meters ahead; I crept along at a snail’s pace just in case a moose suddenly got the urge to cross the road. Our headlights lit up two words painted onto a rock by the side of the road: “Fog off”. I couldn’t have agreed more.

The parallels were striking. But over the year, many things had changed

“You know, it’s a mistake to think of Newfoundland as a terrestrial place,” said my friend from the passenger seat. “It’s half marine, at least at times like now. That fog? That’s the ocean paying us a visit.” I couldn’t decide whether that made the fog more benign or less.

My friend and I were on the first leg of an epic journey to survey for birds in some of the farthest flung places on the island. In planning for the trip, we decided to target locations citizen scientists would be unlikely to get to. In other words, we picked a few peninsulas and followed them right to the end.

A perfect day for a dip in the ocean.

And so my second summer in Newfoundland consisted of exploring some of the small towns, dirt roads, and hidden gems of the island’s interior, serenaded by the omnipresent “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” of white-throated sparrows. From an ocean dip in St. Alban’s, to the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted in Grand Falls-Windsor (they should put that in their town motto!), to exploring an enchanted little park in Summerford, it was the kind of trip that can make you fall in love with a place.

I’ve often said that fieldwork offers a unique opportunity to get to know a landscape. But I don’t think I realized just how true that is until I moved here. Over the last year and a half, fieldwork has given me the means and opportunity to get out and explore this windy, foggy, magical island. Newfoundland still isn’t home to me, but it no longer feels impossible that one day it might be. And in the meantime, I can’t wait to get back out there next summer and explore some more.

Studying a species you’re not sure exists

This week on the blog, we are happy to have Charlotte Hacker, a PhD student at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, who shares her adventures of studying the elusive snow leopard on the Tibetan Plateau of China. For more information about Charlotte, check out her bio at the end of the post!

I have a confession to make…

But first, some background. I’m a noninvasive conservation geneticist using DNA extracted from snow leopard scat to answer questions about the diet, distribution, abundance, density, and landscape connectivity of these animals, among other things. I predominantly focus on populations of snow leopards living on the Tibetan Plateau of China. I’ve been fortunate to establish collaborative projects with other scientists at an incredible research institute in Beijing which have facilitated opportunities for my favorite part of research – fieldwork. 

Charlotte Hacker in snow leopard habitat collecting carnivore scat samples. Photo credit: Rou Bao

I’ve been back and forth between the United States and China since 2017. I’ve sampled hundreds of kilometers of transects, I’ve picked up approximately 600 carnivore scat samples, and I’ve extracted DNA from over 1,500 samples. I’ve met and interviewed dozens of local people about their attitudes towards wildlife. I’ve spent hours staring out the window of an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve identified individual snow leopards based on their genetic profile, determined their sex, and figured out what they ate. I’ve published a handful of peer-reviewed papers and technical reports. I’m one year out from getting my doctorate, which is basically a PhD in snow leopards.

The big secret? I’ve never seen a live one in the wild.

In my defense, there’s good reason for that. There are reasons why there’s still so much we don’t know about snow leopards. They are well camouflaged and elusive. They live at low densities and at high altitudes in terrain that can be inhospitable to humans.

One incredible advantage of my research is that I don’t need to find a snow leopard to study the species, but seeing one in the wild has been on my bucket list since the first time I stepped foot on the Tibetan Plateau. I’ve had three close calls, which I hang on to each time I go into the field, thinking, “Remember when you almost saw one? Remember when one probably saw you but you didn’t see it? Hold on to hope!”

Close call #1:

In addition to collecting scat, we record and take pictures of any signs indicating carnivore presence. Typically we find things like pugmarks (paw prints) and claw scrapes along our collection transects in the thick of snow leopard habitat. But one afternoon, driving along a well-traveled dirt road, our driver slammed on his breaks. “看看! (Look, look!),” he exclaimed. I sat up, holding onto the headrest in front of me. On the left periphery of the dirt road were immaculate snow leopard pugmarks. One after the other, in succession: two sets. We immediately hopped out and inspected, careful not to disrupt the tracks.

The snow leopards had to be nearby. The pugmarks were fresh. A downpour of rain had occurred within the last half hour, which would have washed older tracks away. We started looking in all directions. The pugmark sizes suggested they were from an adult and juvenile – a mother with offspring? Snow leopards can move quickly, but with a cub in tow she could be right in front of our faces.

The pugmarks of an adult and juvenile snow leopard along a dirt roadside. Photo credit: C. Hacker

But despite our best efforts, we didn’t spot the pair of snow leopards. I took dozens of pictures of the area and spent hours after my return to Beijing scanning through each one, hoping to find them hidden in an outcrop. Still no luck.

A picture of the surrounding area where fresh pugmarks were found. Photo credit: C. Hacker

Close call #2:

When we’re on or traveling to and from transects, we count the number of all other animals we spot to get an idea of prey abundance. One afternoon, within 200m of a transect, a herd of blue sheep bounded in front of us. Snow leopards love blue sheep, and I was frustrated because this herd moved so quickly that I wasn’t confident in my count. We had started sampling the transect when our local field guide pointed out bright red blood on a large rock. We followed the blood trail until we found it – the carcass of a young blue sheep with fresh puncture wounds to its neck.

Our field guide started to explain the scene. It hadn’t been killed by a wolf; they attack from behind. Snow leopards and foxes attack at the neck, but the space between the puncture wounds, and therefore the canines, was too big to be from a fox. “雪豹. (Snow leopard),” he confidently stated.

A freshly killed young blue sheep with puncture wounds to the neck. Photo credit: C. Hacker

We started putting the pieces together. Our vehicle hadn’t caused the blue sheep herd to run: a snow leopard had. That snow leopard had been successful in its kill. What if our presence forced it to abandon its meal to get away from us? We elected to leave the transect to allow the animal to reclaim its prey, feeling guilty that we had disrupted the natural order of things in the first place.

Close call #3:

Snow leopards sometimes predate livestock. We’re still trying to figure out why and how often, but it happens. Losing livestock can be a financial burden on herders, so finding non-lethal ways to stop predators from attacking livestock is a high priority. We wanted to test the effectiveness of one of these deterrents, a flashing light called a Foxlight. This entailed interviews of area residents, including one who casually pulled out his phone and showed us photos from a couple days earlier – a snow leopard, sitting in a predator-proof corral (maybe not so predator-proof?), amongst a couple sheep carcasses, just… hanging out.

The herder described the snow leopard as calm. We knew from earlier work in the area that the herders there had positive attitudes towards snow leopards, despite losing livestock to them relatively frequently. This herder was no exception. He waited for hours for the snow leopard to leave, reported the loss to his insurance, cleaned up the mess, and carried on. I sat back impressed but dismayed. If only we had gotten there two days earlier… Another chance to see a snow leopard that just wasn’t meant to be.

A snow leopard resting in a corral after having killed livestock. Photo credit: Bawa

For now, my fieldwork is on hold because of COVID-19, but I’m confident that one day I’ll get to spot the world’s most elusive cat. I sometimes think of what that moment will be like. A sigh of relief? Sheer awe? Accomplishment? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll keep my three close calls in the forefront of my mind to keep the hope alive.

Charlotte Hacker is a conservation geneticist using molecular approaches coupled with traditional field techniques and collaborative work with local communities to study at-risk species. Her PhD work through Duquesne University focuses on bridging knowledge gaps surrounding the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and entails a set of research initiatives between numerous conservation partners and organizations both in the United States and Central Asia. For more about Charlotte, visit her website.

We’re back!

After taking a much needed break over the summer, we at Dispatches from the Field are back in action and ready to bring you more stories of fieldwork adventure from researchers all over the world!

Here in Canada, Sept. 21-27 is Science Literacy Week, and this year’s theme is “B is for Biodiversity”. One of the main goals of our blog is to bridge the gap between the elusive scientist and the public. Sharing our experiences and adventures as field biologists is a great way to communicate why we love what we do!

So in honour of Science Literacy Week, we wanted to highlight some field research stories on Dispatches that showcase the magnificent biodiversity we have here in Canada:

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

Alex Sutton narrates his adventures of chasing Canada Jays in Algonquin Park. Photo credit: Alex Sutton.

Help us celebrate biodiversity by checking out these archived posts, and stay tuned – we’re excited to bring you new stories about field research in Canada and around the world starting in October!

What do you miss most about fieldwork?

As time slips by during the seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic, my plans for fieldwork keep changing. Even in a normal year, fieldwork can be unpredictable. However, when social distancing rules are in effect and uncertainty about how long this could last keeps growing, fieldwork plans may not even have a chance.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the small window of time I had during the cormorant breeding season to conduct my field study still seemed far away. But as cities stayed closed and travel remained risky, that small window approached. If I walk through my neighbourhood down to the shoreline of Lake Ontario, I can see an island where cormorants nest. Through binoculars, I’ve watched the cormorants arrive on the island and build their nests. Although the island is too far away to see any details, as the parents sit on their nests more consistently, I can only assume they are incubating eggs. I’m happy for the birds, but I am also watching the opportune window of time for my fieldwork plans slip away.

However, while I am frustrated, researchers are used to coming up with plan B (and C, D, etc.)! For now, I am fortunate to be able to use the time to work on results from my last field season.

But as I look back through my data, I keep thinking about everything I miss about fieldwork – and I’m guessing that I’m not alone. So we asked field biologists on Twitter what they missed most about fieldwork. You can check out the full conversation here, but here’s a summary of what we’ve been hearing:

  • Surprisingly, the things that bug you the most when you’re in the thick of it (such as early mornings and the sights and smells of a seabird colony) turn out to be the things you miss the most.

 

  • Your field crew really does become your field family, through all of your experiences together  (including getting a positive response from saying “poop!” and competitions running through sagebrush).

 

 

 

 

 

  • The idea of being unplugged and outside – and everyone else you know understanding why.

 

 

 

  • Enjoying the little things after a hard day’s work (like being covered in dirt and the best tasting ice cream).

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • The cool questions we get to ask and try to answer in limited amounts of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading all the responses we got really solidified the reasons why we love fieldwork. In these times of uncertainty, what we all keep hearing is true – we really are all in this together! So feel free to keep sharing what you miss most about fieldwork and let us know if you want to share a fieldwork story on the blog. We are always looking for guest posts!

How do you solve a problem like migration?

This post was initially published on the Science Borealis blog on April 27th, 2020. Check out their blog for more great science stories, published every Monday!

An ornithological pedicure: taking a claw clipping from a western bluebird for stable isotope analysis. Photo credit: Catherine Dale.

I can feel the rapid thrumming of the bluebird’s heart against my palm as I carefully manoeuvre its foot into position over a tiny Ziploc bag. I pick up my nail scissors and take a deep breath to steady my hand. I will only get one chance to make sure the miniscule claw clipping lands in the bag. If it doesn’t, I will have no chance of finding it…and no way to discover where this bird spent the winter.

Field biology often requires unusual skills. I have spent the last decade becoming an experienced bird pedicurist, because analyzing the chemical composition of tissues like claws and feathers is one method scientists use to determine the movements of migratory animals.

Unfortunately, this method suffers from the same drawback as many others: a lack of precision. As a result, many aspects of bird migration remain a mystery. But this spring, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany are entering the final testing phase of a new space-based tracking system, which they hope will revolutionize our understanding of animal movement.

The puzzle of migration

For Canadians across the country, the return of our migratory birds marks the beginning of spring. Each year, 2.6 billion birds cross the Canada-U.S. border, heading north to their breeding grounds.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle believed the spring reappearance of barn swallows meant they were emerging from their winter hibernation at the bottom of ponds. Although we now understand more about animal migration, many questions remain – largely because it’s very difficult to track individual animals as they travel vast distances around the globe.

For many years, the only approach was to mark animals with bands or tags in the hopes of re-sighting them somewhere else. But the sheer number of animals that migrate makes seeing a marked individual again extremely unlikely.

A flock of shorebirds takes to the air at Oak/Plum Lake Important Bird Area, a migration stopover site in Manitoba. The mixed-species flock includes Wilson’s phalaropes, red-necked phalaropes, stilt sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, dunlin, white-rumped sandpipers, and semipalmated sandpipers. Photo credit: Christian Artuso.

Putting the pieces together

In the 1990s, migration research took a leap forward when scientists realized the chemical composition of animal tissue reflected the place where it was grown. By analyzing the ratio of various isotopes in tissue (termed stable isotope analysis), researchers can roughly reconstruct an animal’s geographic history…which is why I found myself giving bluebird pedicures.

Scientists can also now track moving animals directly by fitting them with tags that record location. These tags can be divided into two broad categories. Archival tags, such as geolocators, record and store movement information. In order to find out where a tagged animal has been, researchers must recapture it and retrieve the tag.

Recapturing migratory animals often proves difficult, especially as many fail to return from migration. So when possible, researchers prefer to use tags that remotely transmit data to a receiver, eliminating the need to recover them.

But transmitting tags face a fundamental constraint: transmitting takes power, and the more power a tag requires, the larger it needs to be. Tags must weigh less than 5% of an animal’s body weight to avoid affecting its behaviour or survival. Considering that many migratory birds weigh less than 10 grams, making tags small enough for them to carry is a huge challenge.

A sanderling carrying a Motus nanotag. The tag’s long antenna is easily visible. Photo credit: Jessica Howell.

The amount of power required to transmit data depends largely on where the receivers are. Tags for ground-based tracking systems – with receivers located on the Earth’s surface – can be very small. For example, the nanotags used by the Motus Wildlife Tracking System range from 0.2 to 2.6 grams, and can even be carried by some large insects. However, the range over which ground-based systems can track individuals is limited. Animals carrying Motus tags can only be detected within approximately 15 km of a receiver.

In contrast, satellite tags send data to receivers on orbiting satellites. They can track movement at a much larger scale than ground-based systems, and have been used for years on big animals, such as seabirds and caribou. But most satellite tags are too heavy for small migratory birds.

The Icarus Initiative

In 2007, Martin Wikelski, the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany, proposed a novel space-based system for tracking animals across the globe.

It took more than 10 years, and the cooperation of the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), for the system to become a reality. In March 2020, the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (Icarus) entered its final testing phase. The first Icarus tags are waiting to be shipped to researchers, and the system will be available to the scientific community this fall.

“We wanted to build [a tracking system] specifically for wildlife,” Wikelski says of Icarus. “It’s built by the community, for the community.”

The International Space Station, pictured here in 2009 after a visit by the space shuttle Discovery to add additional solar panels. Photo credit: STS-119 Shuttle Crew and NASA.

Icarus tackles the trade-off between tag size and transmission distance in part by the simple expedient of moving the receiver closer. Conventional satellite tags transmit their data to Argos satellites, which orbit the poles at an altitude of 850 km. Icarus tags will transmit their data to a receiver on the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting at an average altitude of 400 km.

Data collected by Icarus will be stored in Movebank, a free online database accessible by the public.  The system will also incorporate a citizen science initiative: Animal Tracker. While Icarus tags tell scientists where an animal is, citizen scientists can provide information about what it’s doing there. Using the Animal Tracker app, people can follow tagged animals online, and anyone who spots those animals in the wild can submit their observations to the database.

Of course, like any tracking system, Icarus will have some limitations, at least initially. The first tags will weigh five grams, which – while smaller than many satellite tags – is still too heavy for most migratory birds. However, the design of a new generation of tags weighing only one gram is already underway.

Satellite coverage will also be an issue. The receiver on the ISS will be able to pick up signals from most of the Earth’s surface; however, high latitude regions in the north and south will not be covered. Eventually, Wikelski’s goal is to deploy dedicated Icarus satellites strategically to cover the entire globe.

But even with these limitations, scientists are eager to begin harnessing the power of Icarus to tackle some of the unsolved mysteries of migration. Dr. Kevin Fraser, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, is keenly awaiting his first shipment of tags. He and his graduate students plan to put them on saw-whet owls – and they are most interested in the birds that don’t come back in the spring.

Banding a saw-whet owl. Kevin Fraser’s lab hopes to use Icarus tags to track these small owls during migration. Photo credit: Kevin Fraser.

Fraser’s previous research has largely depended on archival tags, meaning tagged birds must be recaptured to determine where they went. Individuals that don’t return to the study sites to breed – those that die along the way, or the young birds that disperse to breed elsewhere – are lost data.

“Most of what we know about migration, we know from birds that have successfully migrated,” Fraser says. “We know much less about where survival might be limited, or what the juveniles are doing. But [with Icarus], for the first time, we will be able to track 100 gram birds (the smallest yet) in near real-time, without the bias of only focusing on survivors and adults.”

Solving the puzzle

With the sliver of claw safely stowed in a bag for later analysis, I’m ready to liberate my captive bluebird. I position its feet over my empty hand and release my hold. For a moment, it perches on my palm, apparently unaware of its freedom…then, in a flutter of wings, it’s gone.

Of the 450 bird species found in Canada, 78% spend at least part of the year outside our borders. This fall, four billion birds will cross our southern border to spend the winter in warmer climes. More than a billion of them will not return, succumbing to the dangers of the journey or the hazards of their wintering grounds.

Icarus offers us a unique window into the world of migratory birds, and a chance to improve their odds. If we know where they go and how they get there, we can begin to understand the perils they face – and perhaps develop solutions.

Of catbirds, chats, and challenges

We are excited to welcome Kristen Mancuso to the blog today! Kristen is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan studying songbird migration ecology and physiology. For more about Kristen, see the end of this post. 

As I wrap up my PhD at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, I think back fondly on 4 summers of field work across North America. In collaboration with other organizations, I did fieldwork in northern California, western Montana, and Mexico…but most of my time was spent in the south Okanagan Valley.

One of my study sites in the South Okanagan Wildlife Management Area. The wild rose sure smells nice but walking through it is very scratchy.

The Okanagan Valley is a hot tourist destination in the summers, known for its lakes, beaches, wineries, and fruit. For biologists, it’s also known for its unique biodiversity – the semi-arid desert habitat is home to species occurring nowhere else in Canada.

My PhD research aims to learn more about the full annual cycle of 2 species of songbird: the yellow-breasted chat and the gray catbird. The population of yellow-breasted chats in the south Okanagan Valley is listed as Endangered federally, with only a few hundred breeding pairs in the province. In contrast, the gray catbird is abundant and not of conservation concern. Studying the two species together allows for a comparison between a common and an at-risk riparian songbird species. Environment and Climate Change Canada has been monitoring both species in the region for many years, and this PhD project piggybacks on their efforts.

Both yellow-breasted chats and gray catbirds are migratory, spending most of the year south of the Canadian border. In North America, most research on migratory songbirds occurs on the breeding grounds, but a better understanding of their migration and overwintering life stages is crucial to identify and address potential threats. This is especially important for endangered species, such as the yellow-breasted chat, to aid recovery efforts.

However, it wasn’t until very recently that tracking technology became small enough to use on songbirds. Now, we have lightweight GPS tracking devices, weighing only 1 gram, that birds can carry with them on migration. This is the technology I used to track chats and catbirds across their full annual cycle. But in order to follow the path of a migrating bird, we needed to capture birds and attach the GPS tags, then recapture them a year later to remove the tags and download the data. Therefore, most of my time in the field was spent capturing, resighting, and recapturing birds.

Bird capture

To capture birds, we used mist-nets. Mist nets are a common tool to capture songbirds and are made of a very fine, soft mesh that is nearly impossible to see. The net is stretched between two poles and contains multiple pockets. When a bird flies into the net, it falls into a pocket and gets tangled but is not harmed. We gave each bird we caught a combination of 3 unique colour bands and a standard numbered band.  The colour bands allowed us to identify the individual from afar. A subset of birds were also given a harness with a GPS tag attached, which they carried like a backpack.

Chats are territorial and will respond to playback of other chats’ songs, so we targeted specific territorial males with strategically placed nets, using a stuffed dead chat as a decoy. Catbirds don’t appear to be as aggressively territorial as chats and unfortunately, don’t consistently respond to playback, so our best bet was to passively capture them first thing in the morning. This meant getting up at ungodly hours. I had my schedule down to the minute: wake up at 2:30 AM, leave by 3:00 AM, arrive at site by 3:20 AM, and then set up ~ 8 mist-nets by headlamp as fast as possible so they were ready to catch birds before first light, around 4 AM.

My field technicians carrying banding gear from a chat territory.  The white styrofoam box contains the decoy.

My main catbird site along a trail. A mist net is barely visible on the left.

A catbird given some fresh colour bands. Two black bands on its left leg, plus a green and standard band on its right leg.

GPS tags attached to the back of yellow-breasted chat.

GPS tags attached to the back of colour-banded gray catbird.

Resighting colour banded birds

The purpose of resighting colour-banded birds was to identify individuals that needed to be recaptured to remove GPS tags and also to monitor the return rates and survival of birds. Survival estimates are valuable for conservation and monitoring efforts to better understand if birds are making it through the winter and migration and returning to breed.

To resight birds, we used binoculars and high-zoom cameras, which sounds easier than it is. Yellow-breasted chats and catbirds live in places no sane person would normally venture into: dense bushes of wild roses and thickets of poison ivy. In order to protect ourselves, we wore thick rain gear. Did I mention that the south Okanagan is also known for its intense sun and heat? Temperatures in excess of 30°C are not uncommon, and the rain gear quickly turned into a sweat trap. To add to the challenge, the clouds of mosquitoes (and to a lesser extent, ticks) meant we also often wore bug nets to cover our faces.

Both chats and catbirds are relatively sneaky and hard to see, but males periodically pop up out of the dense vegetation to sing and defend their territory. This often meant a long, hot wait for the bird to appear – and when it finally did, we typically only had a few seconds to get a photo. All too often, our attempts ended in failure. Sometimes we heard the bird but couldn’t see it; other times, we saw the bird with our eyes but couldn’t find it with the camera. Often we were too slow, and the bird went back into thicket before we could snap the picture. And in the most frustrating cases, we got the photo – only to find that it wasn’t usable for identification purposes for a multitude of reasons: the camera focused something other than the bird, the photo was over- or underexposed, the bird’s legs (and therefore colour bands) were hidden…

The chat is front and centre and yet my camera focuses on the tree in the background.

Catbird silhouette. Not helpful for ID.

Nice shots of chat but can’t see legs.

Nice shots of catbird but can’t see legs.

Even when we did get a clear photo, interpreting the colour of the bands wasn’t always easy. Standard aluminum bands can appear white or light blue. Red bands can fade and look like orange.

But the challenge was in part what made it so appealing! When we finally nailed a bird’s colour band combination, there was a definite sense of accomplishment. Looking up who the bird was, when and where it was banded, and whether it was seen the previous year – in short, its whole history – was exciting. The oldest catbird in our study was at least 6 years old, and the oldest chat at least 11!

Despite the sleep deprivation, poison ivy rashes, and rose scratches, spending the summers studying these birds was something I looked forward to every year. Being outside watching the birds at dawn in their natural habitats, foraging, singing, and building nests, was beautiful and peaceful. Using new technology to learn more about their migration was fascinating. Having great field technicians was an added bonus, and being able to go swimming or go for ice cream after a long day in the field made the summers unforgettable.

Kristen Mancuso is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan studying songbird migration ecology and physiology. Her PhD project is in partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada. She has a love for fieldwork and exploring the great outdoors. After her PhD, Kristen hopes to continue her career in wildlife conservation. This fall she will be working as a bird bander for Mackenzie Nature Observatory. Follow her research on Instagram @yellowbreastedchatresearch

Good things in the world and on the horizon

I am a planner. I find comfort in knowing exactly when everything is happening. I plan out every month of the year, every week and every day. While I have become more flexible over the years, I still struggle when one of those things changes, especially at the last minute.

With a global pandemic being announced as a result of the coronavirus, I knew things would change in my schedule. Between Friday March 13th and Monday March 16th my schedule went from full, colour-coded, organized chaos to empty. All appointments, meetings, events, etc. cancelled or postponed. Watching the news was overwhelming: more cases of COVID-19 worldwide, more deaths, the first local cases. This of course causes us all to worry. My brother works at an airport – what does this mean for him? How will my Grandma weather this – will she have what she needs? So many questions, so many worries, so much change.

Since I am now working from home in the short term, I had to run into my office the other day to grab a few supplies and on the way home I stopped by one of the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s field sites. I parked by the roadside and walked up to the gate and just stared. Keep in mind, this is an alvar and it is March, so there it doesn’t look particularly exciting at first glance. But in the end, there was a lot to see, I just had to be patient.

I could see a small Prairie Smoke plant just beside the gate that survived the winter. It was covered in ice crystals. If you stared long enough, you could see the ice crystals begin to change shape and disappear as the bright morning sun melted them away into nothing. A bit of rustling caught my eye to the right where a large stand of Eastern Red-cedar trees stood tall and a Red Squirrel poked its head out and scanned the open area. A large Hawthorn in the distance had two birds perched in its leafless branches. I grabbed my binoculars from the car to take a closer look. Two American Robins sat still in the tree. Their beautiful red breasts were lit up like fire, catching the morning light in just the right places. A large crow flew overhead letting out a couple of loud “caws” from above. This spooked the robins and off they went into the tree line to the south.

I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. For a moment I escaped the present. And I thought of the things to come. Soon, the alvar will be alive. Pink and yellow blooms will line the ground. Meadowlarks will return and sing their sweet songs from the tops of trees. The butterflies will flutter around like delicate paper caught in the wind.

For a solid ten minutes, I didn’t think about my schedule changing. I didn’t worry about my family. I didn’t even think about coronavirus. These moments reminded me that there is hope and there are good things on the horizon. The world is still filled with beauty, despite what we feel and what we see on the news. Nature can be refreshing and may give us the energy we need to weather this storm.

Wishing the best to all our readers in this uncertain time. You are all in our thoughts.

I’m late for a very important date!

I don’t like to be late. I am the kind of person who arrives extra early to the airport just in case I can’t find the gate or I get stuck in security. If I am late for whatever reason, I feel incredibly anxious. So when my time at a field site is limited by the arrival and departure of a pre-scheduled boat, this is all amplified.

When we arrived at Bonaventure Island with our research permit, the staff members reminded us of our agreement: “You can join us on the employee boat. It is the first boat to depart for the island in the morning and the last boat to depart for home in the evening.” Great! We wanted to spend as much time as possible on the island, collecting data on the northern gannet colony there.

Sarah carrying equipmentIt is easy to lose track of time when I am sampling during fieldwork. I get really focused on the task at hand, on how many birds I have sampled already and how many I still have to do. The time ends up passing at a very variable rate; sometimes really fast, and sometimes really slow. One day we were so focused on sampling that we did lose track of time – a big problem when you’re on an island and the only mode of transportation to your cabin is a boat about to depart.

Sometime after lunch, absorbed in our work, we heard someone shouting and rustling through the bushes. We looked up to see a colleague running over to us, saying “It’s time to go! We are late!”. We finished processing the bird in hand and started to pack up as fast as possible. But it still took a good 5 minutes to get all our equipment and samples ready to go. Within that time, a park staff member came barreling down the narrow path on a four-wheeler to meet us. “Come and hop on, the boat is going to leave!”. I looked at this four-wheeler with two seats in the front and a small flatbed in the back and wondered how 6 adults were going to fit on it.

the treachorous pathSomehow, we all made it into the vehicle (or in my case, half in; the other half was hanging through the door frame) and started the trek towards the boat. In a previous blog, I talked about the difficult, steep hike up to the colony. Now, we were 6 people crammed into a four-wheeler, flying back down this same path. Our route was mined with potholes the size of large buckets and tree roots lying in crisscross patterns across the path. This did not make for a smooth ride! I clutched the handle with all my strength as we tipped from side to side without slowing down, really pushing the four-wheeler to its limit.

boat at the dockLuckily, we did make it to the boat in one piece prior to its departure, and except for a few hungry staff members, no harm was done. But I didn’t want to make any more staff members angry with us, so I vowed that we would keep better track of time the next day. The only problem was that I was wearing a really old watch, (because no one with any sense wears anything nice to a seabird colony) and I didn’t trust the time on it.

Sometime after lunch, I checked the time. My watch said 3:30 pm. Just to double check, I looked at my phone. It said 4:30 pm. I panicked: “Oh no, my watch must have frozen, we have to go!”.

a no walking sign in front of the colonyAt top speed, we packed all of our gear up and headed towards the main lodge…only to find everyone still working. Unbeknownst to me, my phone had switched to the Atlantic time zone of 1 hour ahead! My unreliable watch was right: it was actually only 3:30 pm, meaning we still had lots of time to sample. Of course, now we were all packed up and ready to go. But luckily for us, there were a few birds nesting near the main lodge that we could process to pass the time. And we were not late for the boat!