Scouting the park interior

Frontenac Provincial Park

Yesterday afternoon Dan and I left Raven at home and headed over to the park to do some hiking. That morning he’d had a meeting with the park superintendent about the research he intends to do there. His research permits have now been approved, so he has the green light to go ahead with his work inside the park boundaries. With the application for permits for research on the nearby crown land also approved, all that remains left to do is line up funding. He’s already received a portion, his outstanding applications look promising, and he’s received great support from the local community and feels any remaining balance can be made up through fundraising efforts. Things are looking good. You can follow along with the latest observations, survey results, and various administrative updates at the Frontenac Bird Studies blog.

Frontenac Provincial Park

Following his meeting, Dan came home and started scrutinizing a map of the park, looking for possible areas to place his study site. There are several tiers to the project, but the one I have the most involvement in, and the one that requires a set location, is MAPS – Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship. It is a banding program that allows you to determine the population statistics of the birds of a region. It’s more than just censusing your local patch – because birds wander after the young fledge, in post-breeding and post-fledging dispersal, the data collected from MAPS provides information for as much as 12,000 hectares of the surrounding landscape. The data tell you things like how many males and females are in the population, how many are first-time parents or experienced birds, and general recruitment numbers (birth rates), as well as survivorship (death rates) through birds recaptured in following years, since birds usually return to the same general area year after year. These are important figures because they can help to pinpoint causes of population declines (or booms, should the birds be so lucky). Monitoring programs such as the Breeding Bird Survey can simply tell you the whos and whats. It’s the MAPS program that helps to tell you the whys.

Frontenac Provincial Park

The banding, of course, requires that you have a set location where you can set up mistnets with which to catch the birds. For nets to be most effective you really need to place them in mid-story vegetation, either scrubby bushes or second-growth, or dense evergreen or forest understory. This sort of habitat not only encourages birds to move around lower (at net height) as they’re foraging, but also conceals the net from view. A net sitting out in the open is easily seen by birds, and they usually avoid it.

It’s difficult to assess habitat from aerial photographs, though; although you can sometimes get a sense of general landscape features, usually it requires an actual site visit to determine the actual habitat structure. In the case of the park, there isn’t even high-res satellite photos, so all we really have to go by is the park maps. We’d like to site the MAPS station sufficiently far from public trails to not have to worry about anybody blundering in to a net, or coming across a captured bird and trying to help (usually their good intentions just make the situation worse, because they’re unfamiliar with how to safely use a net, and while banding is generally a safe practice, often injuries can result from untrained hands). So to avoid any risk of that, we were looking for interior sites that would still be relatively easy to access and hike through.

Frontenac Provincial Park

We spent considerably longer out hiking than I’d planned, but we got to hike through a section of the park I hadn’t visited before. We were looking for an area of scrubby, semi-open habitat, where the size of trees was limited by a thin layer of soil, the result of two waves of fires early last century that burned through following the clearcutting of the land, leaving the empty landscape prone to erosion. We didn’t find what we were looking for – I think we’d have to go a bit further east for that – but we did hike through some younger and more rocky forest than what’s around our house. The habitat in that area is still more open than the mature forest surrounding our lake, with a lot of granite outcrops and grassy oak savannahs. Quite a number of small vernal pools and little wetlands scattered across the area, too.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a strong mid-story component to the habitat, at least through that region, and we had trouble identifying any areas that would be suitable for banding activities. Which was a bit of a shame, because we were intrigued by the birdlife possibilities in that habitat, very different from what we’ve seen elsewhere in the region. We’ll have to keep looking. Still, it was a really enjoyable afternoon, and an interesting change of scenery from our usual destinations.

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Today at Kingsford

Northern Saw-whet Owl

A couple weeks ago, Dan applied for his Master Bander permit, and last week it was approved. Dan has been banding for some 15+ years, and is one of the most skilled, conscientious and research-oriented banders I know (our relationship naturally has nothing to do with this bias, of course…). Master permits are not handed out lightly, as you need not only a wealth of knowledge and experience, but also a worthy project for the Bird Banding Office to justify giving you a permit to band birds independently. Both of us previously held subpermits under a Master permit held by someone else at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, for the bird research station project in Toronto. Because the TRCA’s projects are confined to Toronto, we needed our own permit to be able to do research here.

Dan’s initial plans include three primary projects, the first, and soonest, of which is migratory owl monitoring. The only species of owl that migrates in large numbers is the diminutive Northern Saw-whet Owl. The grown adult is one of the smallest owl species on the continent, and certainly the smallest here in the east, only about the size of your outstretched palm. They breed in boreal and montane mixed forests, but move south in the fall. This movement, plus the fact that they respond to tape broadcasts of their call, makes them easy to monitor through banding studies, and there are many stations and individuals across North America who go out every night in the fall to see who’s passing through. Banding is a quick and painless procedure (the aluminum band goes around the leg, like a permanent bracelet, rather than attaching to the bird), and is generally over in just a minute or two for the birds with a minimum of stress. Yet it provides us important information on population sizes, demography (age and sex ratios), the relative success of the breeding season, and other data that can be very helpful in monitoring the owl populations and, through them, the ecosystems they are a part of.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

We set up our mistnets on our property a couple days ago and have caught three saw-whets in two nights (running just a few hours each night). This is an excellent capture rate for these little birds, and we have high hopes about what we might find this fall. Undoubtedly you’ll see another post on owls in the next couple of weeks, which will go into more detail on these delightful and remarkable creatures. (For one, they’ve got oodles of personality – check out the expressions of these two different individuals, both telling me what they think of the whole experience).

(Incidentally, I had planned to post this last night after I got home from working the Canadian election – a long day, at some 13 hours start to finish, but one that at least goes quickly. Not long after my return home at 10pm, the puppy chewed through the telephone cord that connects the computer to the internet. I felt that was a sign I should just go to bed, tired as I was, and we worried about replacing it this morning.)

the Valentine bird

Female Northern Flicker feathers

One of the cool things about being a bander (or visiting a banding station, or going out with an independent bander) is the opportunity to see live birds up close, at a distance that you’re only likely to view them otherwise if they crash into your window (and hopefully that doesn’t happen too often). Lots of details that you might not notice when the bird’s in the field being viewed through binoculars can be seen easily with the bird in the hand.

Female Northern Flicker feathers

Female Northern Flicker feathers

The above photos are a great example of this. Over the last few years I noticed that some of the spots on Northern Flickers were heart-shaped. But only on the females! The males had round spots in the same areas. I won’t claim that this will hold true over a large sample size or across a broad geographic area, but still thought it was really neat. The funny thing is, despite this observation I never took any photos specifically of the spots! So these are cropped from full-bird photos.

Here’s the male for comparison:

Male Northern Flicker feathers

I’ve worked for many, but the station I’m primarily affiliated is the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station in Toronto, Ontario. There are many such stations across both Canada and the US, as well as other continents; I know Britain has a huge ringing contingent, and I know of ringers/banders in most other parts of the world.

Banding, as touched upon in the chickadee post, is not only an invaluable scientific tool for studying bird populations, it’s also a great way to share birds and the natural world with people – kids in particular just love seeing the birds up close. If you have the chance I highly recommend finding out if there’s a banding operation in your area, and seeing if you could visit (most stations are open to the public some or all of the operating season).

A male Northern Flicker, the whole bird. The more traditional way to tell that it’s a male is by the black “moustache”, which the female lacks. :)

Male Northern Flicker