Possible impossibilities

Over the last year, I’ve come to realize that one of the major downsides to writing up your thesis is sitting behind a desk for 16 hours a day – especially when you’re used to spending lots of your time outside.  So to remedy the situation, I’ve started taking every possible opportunity to sneak in a little fieldwork.  Early last spring, I decided to get my field fix by heading up to QUBS with a friend who needed to catch a few black-capped chickadees for her own thesis work.

It was a beautiful early March day – frigid, but bright and blustery.  Mounds of snow glittered in the dazzling sunlight, and the lake was still covered in ice.  We arrived at my friend’s study site, and set up the Potter trap (essentially a cage with trap doors over a feeding platform; when birds go for the food they trigger the doors and trap themselves), and backed off to await our first hapless victim.

Then we waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

The woods, usually alive with movement and calls, had never seemed so silent. Even though I knew better, it seemed to me that there were no chickadees within 5 miles of our trap.  Sitting and waiting for something that seems increasingly unlikely to ever happen tends to cause your mind to wander.  As I sat there that day (getting progressively colder), I found myself thinking about all the time I’ve spent trying to catch birds over the years.

Ornithologists – indeed, all field biologists – frequently have to catch wild animals for research purposes.  However, although this is often the key step on which all subsequent steps depend, it is usually only briefly mentioned in the Methods section of scientific papers, glossing over all the effort, patience, and utter frustration involved in the process.  In reality, catching birds is a study in contradictions: simultaneously extremely stressful and extremely tedious.  This became particularly apparent to me during my first PhD field season in British Columbia.

I arrived in BC in early February, fired up with enthusiasm and determination.  My first goal was to find and catch as many wintering western bluebirds as possible.  On our first morning in the field, I dragged my field assistant out into the cold and snow, and headed for a place where (according to our sources) we’d be sure to see bluebirds.

Sure enough, we had only been walking along the trail for a few minutes when a small flock of the little thrushes appeared and settled into a nearby tree.  I threw down my bag and tugged out our net and poles, flinging supplies every which way in a frenzy to get set up and catch my first bird.

It seemed to take forever to get the net up.  We had to use a rubber mallet to pound the aluminum poles into the frozen ground.  Then we began to string the net between them.  But mist nets are delicate things, made of fine mesh to make them more difficult for birds to see.  They tangle easily and are quite difficult to handle with gloves; the more I hurried, the more complicated the tangles seemed to be.  So off came my gloves, thrown unceremoniously on the ground with the other discarded equipment, and I started untangling the net with my numb fingers.

Finally everything was in place, ready to go…at which point the little flock of bluebirds took off over the hill, leaving us sitting there in silence.

Having spent the effort getting the net up, I thought we might as well stay and see if the birds came back.  So we plopped down into the snow, staring at the empty net, blowing in the fierce wind.  The 6 by 4 foot stretch of mesh looked impossibly small in the big, wide world.  It seemed ludicrous to imagine that a bluebird would ever occupy that particular space – why would it, when there were so many other places it could be?

The wide open spaces of the Okanagan - and one lonely little mist net.

The wide open spaces of the Okanagan – and one lonely little mist net.

I was starting to get quite discouraged when suddenly soft chattering and whistles heralded the return of the bluebird flock.  I held my breath as they approached the general area of the net – and then let it out as they sailed straight over it to perch in a nearby tree.

Messing with my head: a male bluebird perches on the mist net.

Messing with my head: a male bluebird perches on the mist net.

The next thirty minutes felt a bit like being on a rollercoaster.  My hopes would go up, up, up as the flock fluttered their way towards the net…and then drop like a stone as they bypassed it.  (Or, in several extremely irritating cases, actually perched on the net itself.)

But then…it finally happened!  One of the males in the flock misjudged his trajectory, hit the mesh, and got tangled in its strands.  Despite my frozen and creaky muscles, I leapt to my feet, running full out towards the net.  But just as I stretched out my hand to grab him, he managed to free himself and took off into the nearby trees – quite literally slipping through my fingers.  (This happens more often than you might think.  In fact, just a few weeks later, a camera crew from a local station, filming us for a news story, witnessed a similar mishap.  They also recorded my frustrated response, which – if I’m going to be honest – involved a fair amount of profanity.  Luckily they edited the footage before it hit the news!)

We never did catch a bluebird that day…or the next…or the next.  In fact, although we put in roughly ten hours of effort a day, every day, for the next six weeks, we only managed to catch seven bluebirds in total. That works out to approximately 0.017 bluebirds per hour effort – a pretty high ratio of time spent sitting around to time actually spent handling a bird.  There were days when, as I stared at our little net blowing in the breeze, the idea of capturing a bird seemed absurd: a complete impossibility.

But then, every once in awhile, there would be a bird hanging in our net and the impossible would suddenly become possible.  And every time that happened, the feeling of triumph would make all the days of frustration worthwhile.  It’s amazing how good outsmarting a bird can make you feel!

The end result of all that work: putting a band on a bluebird.

The end result of all that work: putting a band on a bluebird.

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