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Bitten by the Birding Bug

Jul 20 2017


Image: Releasing a banded Tri-colored Blackbird, one of five endangered species found in the Santa Lucia Preserve (video credit Dr. Christy Wyckoff)

By Catie Mong
B.S Earth Systems'16 and M.S. Earth Systems'17
Conservation Intern for the Santa Lucia Conservancy

Out West Student Blog

Student Blog

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’m starting to become a birder…

I’ve always been slightly wary of these types. You know, the ones who energetically wake at 4 AM, excited to spot some obscure drab brown bird that doesn’t even sing. It all seems pretty questionable.

But as I wrap up my third week as an ecology intern under the direction of Dr. Christy Wyckoff at the Santa Lucia Conservancy, a large focus of it has centered around birds. The Santa Lucia Conservancy stewards the land of the Santa Lucia Preserve located in Carmel, CA. I should mention that the Santa Lucia Preserve is not your typical nature preserve. It's a partnership between private homeowners and the Conservancy, a non-profit land trust. Following a conservation development model, members of the Preserve own their homesites as well as parcels of protected easement lands managed by the Conservancy. The Conservancy owns an additional 10,000 acres, creating a 20,000 acre landscape, 90% of which is permanently undeveloped and perpetually protected through conservation easements.

Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel

The Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel (Photo: Catie Mong)

In less than a month, I‘ve already worked with three of the five endangered species in the preserve: California Red Legged Frogs, Smith’s Blue Butterfly, and Tri-colored Blackbirds. The Tri-Colored Blackbird is the last terrestrial colonial nester, meaning that they nest in groups in the thousands. Or at least they did. Tri-coloreds have been in sharp decline in recent years, with only a few locations hosting massive flocks. Several hundred Tricoloreds make their homes among the vegetation surrounding ponds on the preserve. I was lucky that my first week included the last Tricolored banding day of the season. Not only that, but a partnering research group joined us to collect blood and feathers for their DNA study. Three traps were used: passive and active traps baited with cracked corn (black birds are cracked corn junkies as Dr. Christy describes it) and mist nets. The passive traps are wire cages that allow the birds to enter, but prevent them from leaving. The active trap looks similar, but requires someone to pull a string to close the trap door once the birds have entered. The last collection method is mist nets (essentially standing nets that are so thin that it makes it difficult for the birds to detect before flying into them. Each bird was weighed, banded, body condition evaluated, and sex and age recorded if possible. While I didn’t have enough experience to process the birds, I was taught how to hold them while they’re released. Dr. Christy was able to record a pretty cool slow-motion video of the release.

Tri-colored banding is only one of the many monitoring activities going on at the preserve. So far I’ve helped out with camera traps, pond sampling, eDNA surveys (sending in pond samples for lab testing to detect the presence of California Tiger Salamanders), vegetation transects, butterfly transects, bird surveys, and soil sampling. Luckily, the Preserve is part of the Point Blue Rangeland Monitoring Network, so I was already familiar with the protocol for the sampling since it was the same method used during my internship last summer with TomKat Ranch.

I decided to check out from the Conservancy’s library a CD set called “Western Birding by Hearing.” I’ve been playing it on my morning drive to work, hoping that maybe I’ll learn by osmosis if I play it on repeat enough times.

Twenty-four grassland points are randomly selected throughout the preserve. Vegetation surveys, soil sampling, and bird counts are taken at each of these points. My second day on the job, I went out with Dr. Christy and Mike Stake, a bird expert from Ventana Wildlife Society, to do bird counts at 12 of the 24 grassland points. We met at 5 AM, and over the course of four hours covered 12 of the 24 bird monitoring sites in the preserve. At each point, we recorded all the birds we saw or heard over the course of five minutes. Not only could Mike identify a bird in flight, he could identify the species by its call, and determine how many meters away it was. My role during the survey was to constantly ask, “what bird was that?” I was so impressed by Mike’s ability to differentiate species by sound that I decided to check out from the Conservancy’s library a CD set called “Western Birding by Hearing.” I’ve been playing it on my morning drive to work, hoping that maybe I’ll learn by osmosis if I play it on repeat enough times. That’s the problem with birding, it’s addicting. One morning of birding, leads to reading field guides in your spare time, and multiple birding apps on your phone, which leads to spending Saturday morning volunteering at the local bird banding station for fun…

However, if becoming a birder allows me to have more experiences like releasing the Tri-Colored blackbirds; I’m totally ok with being bitten by the birding bug.

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