Playing for the other team

Among field biologists, like in any other group of people, there are divisions that may not be apparent from the outside.  There are the animal people and the plant people.  The bird people, the frog people, the snake people, the fish people.  No matter how far down you get, there always seems to be another division: groups within groups within groups, like a stack of Russian nesting dolls.

Ever since my first job, I’ve been a bird person – more specifically, I’ve been a songbird person.  With the exception of one summer spent chasing shorebirds in Alaska, all my work has focused on these small, colourful, perching birds.  And I’ve been quite satisfied with this – I saw no reason to go explore the world of, say, waterfowl, or birds of prey.

But I must admit, I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by seabirds, mostly because seabird people often do field work in the most remote, beautiful, and dramatic places imaginable – from the steep cliffs of Ascension Island to the isolated beaches of the Aleutian Islands.  However, despite a certain jealousy about seabird field sites, I’ve never been that interested in the birds themselves, for one simple reason: the majority of seabirds nest in huge colonies.  These loud, smelly groups of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of birds have never really appealed to me.

One of the things I like best about songbird research is that it usually involves marking birds to allow for individual identification.  As the field season progresses, you get to know the birds within your study population pretty well.  For example, when you check nests, you know ahead of time which birds will launch themselves at your head in a kamikaze attempt at defence, and which birds will only sit and watch, chirping mournfully.  Part of the joy of research, for me, is being able to distinguish those characteristics that make one bird distinct from another.  And I’ve always assumed that this would be much harder, if not impossible, to do in the middle of a chaotic mass of thousands of birds.

But last summer, I got an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.  As I was trudging through long days of data analysis in the office, a former labmate offered me the chance to help her out in the field for a few weeks.  We would be catching and banding Common Terns in a large colony on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.  Colony-nesters or not, there was no way I was turning down an opportunity to get back into the field – so I accepted the job.

From the moment we scrambled out of the boat onto the beach of the island colony, I realized I was in a whole new world.  The first thing I saw was three tern eggs, snuggled into a twig-lined depression in the sand.

My first tern nest!

My first tern nest!

“Ooh!  Nest!  I found a nest!” I cried in excitement.

To put my excitement in context, finding songbird nests usually involves hours or even days of careful detective work.  It requires a lot of patience – a lot of watching, waiting, and hoping for the bird’s behaviour to reveal the slightest clue about the nest’s location.  There are also usually a fair number of wild goose chases, and endless amounts of frustration.  Managing to successfully track a songbird to its nest is always cause for a happy dance.

So after years of working with songbirds, I’m pretty conditioned to be excited when I see a nest.  But no sooner had I gleefully announced my first tern nest sighting when my gaze shifted a few metres up the beach…and there was another one.  And another…and another…and another…

All of a sudden, I started to see the appeal of working with colony-nesting birds.

My second...and third...and fourth...tern nests.

My second…and third…and fourth…and fifth…and sixth…tern nests.

As we picked our way carefully up the beach into the main part of the colony, masses of hysterical terns rose into the air, their grating two-note screams (which, oddly, sounded a lot like the introductory notes of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) making my ears ring.  The smell of the colony – a mix of fish and decaying organic matter – matched the musical theme.  So far, I decided, being in a seabird colony was pretty much what I’d expected: overwhelmingly loud and smelly.

However, once we’d set up our blind and hidden ourselves from sight, things calmed down a bit.  A few minutes after we disappeared from view, the circling crowd of terns above us began to descend, and the cacophony began to quiet.  I watched as nearby birds returned to their nests, dropping out of the air with their feet stretched towards the ground, then wiggling themselves into position over the eggs.  They all finished with their wings crossed and tails pointing out at a 45 degree angle – fitting onto the nest like the lid on a jar of cookies.

Time to sit on those eggs again...

Time to come on down…

...and wiggle into the right position.

…and sit on those eggs again.

As more and more terns returned to their nests, quiet descended over the colony. I could hear the waves out on the lake and the wind rustling the island’s sparse vegetation.  I was just starting to relax…when suddenly, the colony rose into the air again, hundreds of birds moving as one.  To me, sitting in the blind, the sudden rush of wings felt a bit like being inside a snow globe, or maybe an Escher painting: terns rising up all around me, the sound of endless beating wings almost like the sail of a boat flapping in the wind.

A blizzard of terns.

A blizzard of terns.

For the next two weeks, we spent a lot of time watching the colony, and every day, the pattern was the same: short periods of calm, punctuated with frequent episodes of mass panic.  And the longer I watched, the more I realized that the individual quirks I love so much in songbirds were also evident in the terns.  For example, each time the colony flushed, there would be one or two individuals reluctant to follow the trend.  They’d stay sitting on their nests until long after everyone else was up in the air.  And it always seemed to be the same birds that stuck around while everyone else circled above.  I started to wonder: were those birds braver than the others?  Smarter?  Or maybe just lazier?  I came to the conclusion that, while the sheer number of birds in a colony may make it difficult to observe behaviour on an individual level, it is possible – and those distinctive personality traits are certainly there if you look for them.

I’m not saying I’m giving up on the songbirds: I doubt that will ever happen.  But my brief sojourn in the world of seabirds convinced me that it’s a place I’d like to visit more often.

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