Fieldwork that’s for the birds

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

This morning Dan and I woke up at the unearthly hour of 4 am. Our purpose was not to inflict some sort of sadistic mental stamina test upon ourselves (though sometimes it feels that way), but rather to trek out into the woods and hike around in circles for seven hours. Okay, so maybe it is some sort of sadistic mental stamina test. But really, it does have a greater purpose.

Today was our very first day of MAPS (a bird research program called Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship – more background info on MAPS here). To say I was a bit excited is something of an understatement. I’ve really missed doing fieldwork. For some five years after graduating university I spent nearly eight months a year outside doing fieldwork. Early morning wakeup calls notwithstanding, I loved it. Unfortunately, it was really hard to make a decent living, and what living one was able to make usually required a fair bit of travel. Winters were always a struggle as I tried to make ends meet in between field seasons. I finally decided I wanted to settle down and stay in one spot for a while, and stop having to constantly line up the next job. So I switched careers, to try to pursue some sort of creative source of income (artwork, writing, etc). We’ve settled down into a home, but I still seem to be constantly looking for my next paycheque. Ah well. One step at a time.

This is the first fieldwork I’ve been involved in in about a year, since we moved here. What makes it even better is that it’s our project. Well, Dan’s, but I feel some sort of ownership of it by proxy. The 4 am wake up was a little painful, particularly for someone whose natural sleep cycle says that 9:30 am is just about right for getting up, but I was willing to be a bit bleary-eyed in order to go out and spend the day in such a beautiful spot. And I did do it for five years, after all, so it’s not all that new.

The above photo was taken at 5:20 am this morning, as we made our first rounds of the site. It’s surprisingly bright for so early in the morning – sunrise is 5:30 – but the air is still cool such that a veil of mist rises up from the warmer water’s surface. I love the colours of pre-dawn, the soft pastels of blue and rose, that gently ease you into the start of the day.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

By 9:30 the sun is starting to climb into the sky, and the light, and colours, are brighter and stronger. It’s interesting to watch how the light changes over the course of a single day. Eventually, when I get organized enough, I’d like to try taking a photo once and hour of a particular scene, showing how the light shifts throughout the day.

This lake is Hemlock Lake, or at least that’s the name we’ve given it. It’s a little too small to have an official name on a map. It’s part of crown land, meaning that it’s owned by the government. No one lives here, except the birds and wildlife. Very few people visit. There are no trails. There’s an ATV track that runs along a portion of the northern side of the parcel, but it doesn’t approach the lake. It’s lovely, and serene. You could be anywhere, miles from human habitation. This is something I love about the landscape around here, it’s so quiet, and away from the roads, relatively undisturbed. Eventually, when Dan and I are finally able to buy a home, I would love to have something in a setting like this.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

About half of the station runs along the western edge of this lake, and the other half tracks back through the mature forest. It’s a good mix of habitats, some open edge, some deep forest, with a correspondingly good mix of birds. There are Ovenbirds, Black-and-white Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers singing within earshot of Chestnut-sided Warblers, Eastern Towhees and Common Yellowthroats. One of the most interesting birds that we heard today was a Pied-billed Grebe, calling regularly from out on the lake. There isn’t very much true wetland habitat along the lake edges; it seems to be a scarce commodity in this region, with the forest around so many lakes butting right up to the shoreline, so I was delighted to hear him.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

The mistnets themselves are buried within denser vegetation, at least when we can find it. This is a pretty good example of one of our net lanes. Mistnets are one of the easiest and safest ways to catch birds, but they don’t work very well when set up in the open. They need to be set against a backdrop of foliage that camouflages the net threads. The birds fly from one tree to another on the other side, but hit the net before they reach it. “Hit” is a rather forceful word. Even when they fly at speed, the net is a bit like a giant cushion, like the big air mattresses that firefighters try to encourage you to jump out of burning buildings to land on. They slow the momentum of the bird without actually causing any impact shock, and then the bird, stopped, slips into a pocket formed by the netting, where, unable to get its wings under itself to take off again, it sits until you come around to remove it. Aside from the indignity of hanging upside-down with their bums in the air, the birds are none the worse for wear for the experience.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

A self-portrait of the banding end of things. Once the birds are removed from the nets, they’re placed in cloth bags and brought back to a central location where they’re banded, measured, and released. The whole process is quick and before they know it the birds are getting back to the business of being birds. Here I have a Brown Creeper in hand, with the data book on my lap, and Hemlock Lake in the background. Because we need to pack everything in and out, the banding setup is a little spartan, consisting of a tackle box with our equipment, the data binder, and a branch to hang the cloth bags from. The bander sits on the ground, or a log. But with a backdrop like this, I’m not complaining.

Brown Creeper fledgling (with pesky deer fly)

I took a few quick photos of the Brown Creeper before releasing him. He was actually put back in a bag and trekked back to the net he was caught in, since he’s a young fledgling possibly still dependent on parents, who will still be hanging around the net location looking for their missing baby. You can see the noticeable fleshy yellow “gape” at the corner of his mouth, a characteristic of baby birds, and the downy-ish feathers along his throat and belly. Catching the young birds is an important component of the MAPS program – the P for Productivity in the project’s acronym, measuring birth rates.

Note the deer fly resting on the creeper’s back. These things were relentless. As the sun began to climb higher, around 10 am, the deer flies came out. What started out as a relatively pleasant, quiet hike quickly turns into a test of patience as you’re swarmed by hoards of deer flies, buzzing about your head, landing on your neck and shoulders, biting their sharp, painful bites. It’s hard to concentrate. It’s also hard to get a good photograph, as the flies seem bent on landing on your subject (fortunately not biting, however). On my next trip in to town, I think I’ll be looking for deer fly repellent/control.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

There are quite a number of small creeks running out of Hemlock Lake, some of which have been dammed by beavers up near where they leave the lake, forming still pools. You can see the old beaver dam at the lower left of this one. I’m not sure that the dams are still maintained; if there continues to be a beaver here (and it may be that the site is no longer inhabited), then he seems less concerned about keeping things plugged. The pools are very pretty, however. Along the edge of this one you can see one of the many hemlocks that the name of the lake refers to.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

There are some other small wetlands, too, which are natural pools. This one is deep within the forest. The trees in the centre are dead, allowing sunlight to penetrate down to its surface. It always seems strange to me to find a pool in the forest covered with tiny pond lily leaves and duckweed, something I tend to associate with open-water ponds and lakes. This one drains out in a small creek, lined with jewelweed, and runs into another tiny pool. In the latter there’s a toppled trunk that has exposed a large root mass, in which a Northern Waterthrush built a nest.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

Columbine next to beaver pool next to forest. There’s so much lovely scenery in these sites that it’s sometimes hard to focus on the task at hand. I took more habitat shots today than I did bird photos. We ended up catching a total of 16 birds, which was a decent start to the season – I don’t think we had a single check where we came back empty-handed, which goes a long way in keeping your enthusiasm up. Things will pick up in a couple of weeks as more young birds fledge and their parents start bringing them to the forest edges. For more details on the site, the project, and today’s results (including more photos of birds we caught), pop over to Dan’s account of the day at the Frontenac Birds blog.

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6 responses to “Fieldwork that’s for the birds

  1. Great account. Sorry about the deer flies. Really sorry.

  2. Sounds like you had a good time — except for the deer flies, of course.

  3. As a kid I grew up banding birds in Australia, with my father. Lovely to see it again, via your blog.
    Happy memories.
    Seeing birds in the hand gives you an understanding of them which others never achieve – for example about how fine their toes are (probably not on your creeper, but on other small birds, or how their tongues have that fork at the back (which sometimes gets caught in a net, and needs to be very carefully un-hooked). Or just the beauty of their feathers. Or their different shaped beaks and nostrils, or feet designs.
    As I said – happy memories. Thanks for bring ing them back via your blog.
    Denis

  4. As a kid I grew up banding birds in Australia, with my father. Lovely to see it again, via your blog.
    Happy memories.
    Seeing birds in the hand gives you an understanding of them which others never achieve – for example about how fine their toes are (probably not on your creeper, but on other small birds, or how their tongues have that fork at the back (which sometimes gets caught in a net, and needs to be very carefully un-hooked). Or just the beauty of their feathers. Or their different shaped beaks and nostrils, or feet designs.
    As I said – happy memories. Thanks for bringing them back via your blog.
    Denis

  5. Hi Seabrooke!

    Can I recommend deer fly patches? You apply the white sticky side to the back of a hat or cap and leave the exposed brown side there to catch the nasty little blighters. Some bug repellent on the underside of your hat’s cap/rim will keep them out of your face. Oh and restrain your hair or it will end up in the deer fly patch…trust me.

    Glad your first day of banding went well.
    B

  6. I’m encountering a situation together with your rss feed . Don’t know why I am not in a position to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting similar rss issue? Anybody who is aware of kindly respond. Thanks

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