I've been home from Hastings for about two week now, but I felt like another post was in order before I wrap things up on this blog. So here's your basic "a day in the life" post. What was it like to live and work at Hastings, to wake up every morning and stare at birds all day?
6:00 am: alarm rings. If it's been an especially hot week, this may happen at 5:00, not 6:00, because you're trying to cram in as much field work as possible before it hits 90º at noon. If it's been an especially long week, this may happen at 6:30, because you've decided that sleeping time needs to be extended by whatever measure possible, and you really don't need more than half an hour to get ready.
7:00 am: knock on Natasha's door. Almost begins to waka. Vague human noises come from inside.
7:05 am: knock on Natasha's door. Natasha informs you that she has just woken up and will be out in a second, really, she will.
7:10 am: Natasha emerges, hair wild, Almost on her shoulder, chocolate bar and instant miso soup in hand. We pile into the car. Almost hops onto the back of the head rest and poops on the seat.
7:15 am: Bring Almost to his aviary, where he will spend the day.
7:20-7:40 am: Arrive at the office and discuss duties for the day, using the board and the feeding watch calendar. The board is a wonderful mishmash of more or less relevant information.
7:45-11:30 am: Conduct a feeding watch. A feeding watch is a three-hour observation session at the nest of a woodpecker group. Speaking into a voice recorder, note when a bird arrives at the nest cavity to feed, what type of food it's carrying (acorn pieces or a freshly caught insect), when it enters the cavity, and when it leaves. To get to the group where you have to do your feeding watch, you'll need to carry your backpack, your spotting scope, and a rolled-up blind. This is best accomplished with rope or with your mad balancing skills (see photo at the beginning of the post).
This is a video I took just after the end of a feeding watch. These birds are nesting in an artificial cavity that was put up by researchers for their use; they will readily use these cavities, and it makes some types of studies and experiments easier to conduct.
To give you an idea of what the parents see when they go into the cavity to feed their babies, here is a picture of the chicks at this nest when they were about twenty days old.
A feeding watch is considered successful if the woodpeckers feed approximately 20-30 times during the 3-hour period. If they don't, or if the watch is interrupted somehow, you have to go back and re-do it the next day.
By 11:30 am, your legs are cramped and you are growing very sick of this little blind.
You are glad to get up and hike back to the office or, sometimes, straight to wherever you'll be spending the afternoon. Roll up your blind and strap it back onto your back, along with your spotting scope. On the bright side, your water bottle is now empty and light.
In the afternoon, you might do any of a few things.
1. Census. The researchers on the study are constantly keeping track of which woodpeckers are present in which group, so periodically, we do three-hour watches just to determine who's around. Lots of band-reading. Also lots of photo ops (these photos are taken with a smartphone through a spotting scope).
2. Scoping all the holes. At the end of the season, we do a cavity survey, which means that every hole on Hastings that has been used in the past couple of years has to be checked for nests or for other uses.
Here is Robin using her mad skills to scope a hole at the Plaque group, 45 feet above the ground.
3. Data entry or office work. Towards the end of the season, it is so hot in the afternoons that even the birds didn't want to be moving. You don't want to be moving either. No point in doing a feeding watch if no woodpeckers show up to feed. Use this time to transcribe your feeding watch recordings onto spreadsheets so the data can be analyzed.
4. Assist at a banding. When the woodpecker chicks in any given nest are 21 days old, they are fitted with colored plastic bands so they will be individually identifiable in the field. Banding can be a complex process, but Natasha has it down to an art. First, she climbs the tree.
Then she gently scoops the baby woodpeckers out of their hole and brings them down to the ground in a soft bag. They can't fly at this age, and they don't mind being cuddled together with their broodmates. After all, they've lived squished in a tree cavity for all 21 days of their lives up to now.
When she reaches the ground, Natasha takes out one baby at a time and takes measurements of its weight, wingspan, bill size, and a few other metrics.
Next, the chick is banded. Each baby gets three colored bands and one aluminum band with a unique serial number (that way, even if somehow it lost all of its colored bands, it could still be positively identified if it were re-captured). The bands are like bracelets; they sit loosely enough on the legs that they can move up and down, and they are extremely lightweight. Colored bands can be solid-colored, split (two colors), or narrow striped. There are so many colors that it is nearly impossible for two birds to have the same band combination. The colored bands are picked haphazardly and don't follow any particular formula. You love to pick the color bands, even though you have to do so with your eyes closed. Natasha thinks you are weird but lets you do it.
Examples of colored bands: split dark blue-light blue, solid yellow, and narrow-striped light pink-bright pink. In the top right corner, a metal band is fitted into a pair of pliers made especially for banding. The hole in the pliers makes it impossible for them to close all the way. That means you can squeeze tightly to close the metal band without having to worry about accidentally hurting the bird's leg.
This chick has just been banded. In the field, its bands would read: "Metal/Yellow; Dark Blue-Light Blue/Orange-Dark Blue." We can't tell whether this bird is male or female until it molts into its adult plumage in the fall, at which time females will develop the characteristic black band across their foreheads.
5. Sometimes the day will be interrupted by a seminar in the early afternoon. Resident or visiting researchers give a weekly talk (followed by a potluck in the evening).
Once, during the hottest week of the season, we had a very special seminar.
4:30 pm (give or take, based on what time we started work and how hot it is): go home. Pick up Almost from the aviary on the way back. Because the aviary is his territory and you're entering it, he will get mad at you and may peck you, which he's not allowed to do. Preemptively filling his bill with a nut is a good way to get around this. Usually he gets over his moodiness once he's out of the cage and on your shoulder. Walk him to the car, where he will poop on the seat.
5:30 pm: Dinner. You eat breakfast early and hike all day, so your meal schedule is kinda funky. You were hungry for lunch at 10:30 and by 5:30, it's dinner time as soon as you can throw something together.
6:00-9:00 pm: Housemate time! Read, relax, play with Almost, or watch Bones.
8:20-9:15 pm: Roosting. This is the creepy-sounding part of field work.
"So what do you do with the woodpeckers?"
"Well we sit really still and watch them go to bed so that in the morning, we can scoop them out of their cavities with spoons."
The purpose of roosting, or watching the woodpeckers in particular group at sunset as they go to bed, is to determine which cavities they are sleeping in. Then, if there are unbanded birds in the group, Natasha and Eric can set up an bobber next to the cavity entrance, attached to a long string. When the string is pulled, the bobber plugs the entrance. Then the woodpeckers can be scooped out of the hole (sometimes a large cooking spoon is necessary if the cavity is especially deep), measured, banded, and released.
Mosquitoes aside, roosting can be a peaceful, relaxing experience with lots of good views of pretty trees against the sky.
9:30 pm: Bedtime. Or more Bones, but remember, the alarm rings at 6.
Woodpeckers are popping out of eggs all over the place here at Hastings. With the breeding season in full swing, it's rare to get a day off, and even rarer to get the same day off as someone else. Robin (my fellow Acorn Woodpecker tech) and I somehow managed to swing it one day last month, and we drove down to Big Sur. Here we are in a fallen redwood tree.
Big Sur is a region of the central California coast known for its spectacular views and state parks. Robin is familiar with the area after working there a few years ago on a California Condor conservation project. Her work involved hauling frozen dead cows up mountainsides to feed to the birds, as well as radio telemetry to track specific individuals.
California Condors, members of the vulture family, are huge, ancient birds. They were around when wooly mammoths roamed the earth, and they're still around today, but they're in trouble. Their populations have been declining for centuries, and they became extinct in the wild in the late 20th century. Through captive breeding programs, condors have been reintroduced into parts of their former range (including this area of central California), but there are still only a few hundred California Condors living in the wild. They are scavengers, and among other things, they are at high risk for lead poisoning from ammunition left in the carcasses that they eat.
When I came to Hastings, the California Condor was one bird I was excited to see. They are more common south of Hastings (in Big Sur, for example), but I knew anything was possible. I lucked out one day while sitting in a blind right by the main office, watching an Acorn Woodpecker group. As I focused my scope on a dead tree nearby, I saw a large shape in the distance. It was too big for a Red-tailed Hawk, and as it glided closer over the hill, I could see that the undersides of its wings were partially white. Its primaries stuck out at the tips of its wings like feathers. It was the wrong shape for a Golden Eagle, the second large raptor that immediately sprang to my mind, and the color pattern was not right for a Turkey Vulture.
Then the bird flapped its enormous wings, only once, only downward, with no upstroke, and for the first time I got a sense of the sheer size of this creature I was watching. California Condors can have a wingspan of up to three meters (9.8 feet). That's almost twice my height (I'm 5'2").
I watched as the condor glided over the hill, crossed over the office, and then disappeared behind the trees on the other side. It made no sound that I could hear, but it was magnificent.
I was excited to see more condors in Big Sur, maybe at closer range. Unfortunately, although it was beautiful and sunny at Hastings the morning of our trip, the weather was quite different on the coast.
A dense fog covered the land, and sometimes we could barely see the water.
We met up with one of Robin's condor conservation friends at a roadside pullout and checked in. He had a portable radio antenna and was scanning the area for signals (as part of the condor conservation project, condors are radio-tagged so they can be individually identified and their movements monitored. Condors weren't moving much in the fog and chill, but one bird gave a steady signal, and he was close. We looked around, and after a little while we found him, perched 600 feet down on the rocks below us. Condors are huge birds, but he looked tiny.
Our day was relatively condor-less after that, but we took a hike through a redwood forest and had fun discovering lots of other nature-y things. I felt like a kid playing in the woods, especially when we found the huge fallen redwood tree that I mentioned before. Here's a picture that gives a better sense of the scale. I'm 5'2".
Really, there's nothing like hiking through a redwood forest to bring out your inner child, probably because it makes you feel so small.
We found flowers, bugs, and flowers with bugs in them.
We meandered through gorges, and despite the fog, we found a pretty view at the top of a mountain.
Somehow, even though we spend all day watching Acorn Woodpeckers, Robin and I still stopped to watch a group high up in the redwood forest. We were amazed that they made granaries in what is known to be a very hard wood. We were temporarily miffed that none of the birds seemed to be color-banded, unlike the ones at Hastings, but our attention was drawn pretty quickly by an active nest, parents and relatives flying all around and scrambling to feed the noisy chicks.
After our hike, we returned to the overlook for more condor-searching, but no birds were in the area, and the fog was just as dense as it had been earlier. We did see some other cool things off the coast, though, including my first looks at Pigeon Guillemots, and great views of passing dolphins and migrating Gray Whales.
After a lunch at a favorite restaurant of Robin's and a stop for groceries in town, it was time to head back home. Back to our very own misty hills, greedy woodpecker chicks, and gorgeous wildflowers at Hastings. Back to more tiny little natural marvels, like this Western Fence Lizard basking in dappled sunlight.
Last week, Natasha and I took a road trip with a woodpecker.
He sat on our shoulders. He pooped on the seats. He jumped onto the dashboard. He sang along to the music. He became alarmed at low-flying gulls, groves of shade trees, and passing motorcyclists.
The woodpecker in question is Almost, who is almost two and lives with Natasha. When Almost was banded as a 3-week-old chick, Natasha found that he was missing half of one wing, and the other wing was not fully developed. He would never be able to fly, which is a death sentence for a wild Acorn Woodpecker. Rather than euthanize him, Natasha raised him as an education and outreach bird. Now, in addition to acorns, he eats almonds, walnuts, and hickory nuts from Trader Joe's. He pecks holes in Natasha's furniture and poops on her floor. And he loves company.
Last weekend, Natasha and I drove up to Berkeley to help man a table at UC Berkeley's "Cal Day," which Berkeley's open house for admitted students. Hastings Reservation (where we live and work) is managed by Berkeley and associated with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology there, so as part of the Cal Day showcase, we brought posters, tree climbing gear, a radio antenna, and some woodpecker cavities to show people what we do.
It's pretty weird, a soon-to-be Yale undergrad and a PhD student from Old Dominion University presenting research at a UC Berkeley event. But let's not kid ourselves; it's about the woodpeckers, not the humans and their arbitrary universities.
Almost was the star of the show. People were curious about him, what he was, why he was with us, what he ate, etc. etc. We answered a lot of the same questions over and over. Since I've already given you an overview of what I do every day and what the woodpecker research entails, I'd like to address the good questions. The meaty questions. The woodpecker questions. Presenting...
Cal Day, Abridged
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Please Do Not Pet the Woodpecker
Question: What kind of bird is that?
Answer: An Acorn Woodpecker.
Q: Why is he called an Acorn Woodpecker?
A: Well, he eats acorns. That might have something to do with it.
Q: What are all those holes for?
A: Acorn Woodpeckers make holes in trees to store acorns. Each hole fits one acorn perfectly. In the fall, they pick acorns off the trees and stick them into holes to save them. That way they have something to eat when there are no insects around in the winter.
Q: Do they farm bugs? I heard they farm bugs.
A: That's a myth. It's much more energy-efficient for the woodpeckers to eat the acorn meats, which are rich in protein, than to wait until they rot and eat the insects that come to feast on them. Studies have been done to show that the acorns in Acorn Woodpecker granary trees are remarkably free of insects. In fact, the woodpeckers constantly maintain their granaries and throw away any rotting acorns to prevent fungi and insects from infesting their stores.
Anyway, doesn't it also make a lot more sense that they're eating the acorns than that they're farming bugs? I mean, farming is pretty cool. Leafcutter ants do it. But let's not overcomplicate things. Occam's razor, people.
Q: What's wrong with him/why is he in captivity?
A: Most of the Acorn Woodpeckers in the population that we study are color-banded, and newly hatched chicks are banded when they are 21 days old and have not yet left the nest. Almost hatched in a nest at Hastings, but when Natasha climbed his tree to band him, she found that he was missing two thirds of his right wing, and his left wing was underdeveloped. He would never be able to fly, and he never would have survived in the wild. Rather than euthanize him, Natasha raised him to be an education and outreach bird. (Don't try this at home. Keeping wild birds in captivity requires special permits, and the people at Hastings have them.) Almost is very friendly and loves meeting new people. But he's not domesticated, and he's not a pet––he is a wild animal who is simply habituated to humans.
Q: Can I pet him?
A: Almost doesn't like to be petted. Also, he's a wild bird with a very strong beak, and he could do some serious damage if he got angry. He could peck holes in your fingers. He could draw blood. He could cause massive liability problems. Please give him his space.
Actually, Almost is normally very gentle. But there's a serious reason he doesn't like to be petted. Acorn Woodpeckers do not practice allopreening (preening each other's feathers). In some birds, like parrots, birds preen each other as a form of bonding. Acorn Woodpeckers hardly ever touch each other, so to them, being touched is scary and makes them feel threatened.
Q: Can I touch him?
A: Please don't touch the woodpecker. He doesn't like to be touched.
Q: Can I stick things in his granary, like my fingers?
A: That really wouldn't be a good idea. Almost gets angry if people mess with his granary. Remember what we said about the finger-pecking? If you want to stick acorns in holes, we have a nice piece of granary over here, and lots of acorns you can play with.
Q: He's a woodpecker, right?
A: Yes, this is an Acorn Woodpecker.
Q: There's this woodpecker that won't stop drumming on my metal gutters. How do I make it go away?
A: In many species of woodpeckers, males make loud drumming sounds to advertise their presence and attract mates. They typically look for the loudest materials they can find: hollow branches, gutters, sign posts. This is a natural part of their behavior, and it will stop in a couple months once the breeding season is over. But this question isn't particularly relevant to Acorn Woodpeckers, who drum only very rarely, during territorial power struggles.
Q: Did he make all those holes?
A: Yeah, he did! Well, most of them, anyway. This granary branch broke off of a tree, so some of them were made by other woodpeckers. In Acorn Woodpecker family groups, all the woodpeckers pitch in to make holes for acorns. It's a lot of work.
Q: How long does it take to make one hole?
A: Usually it takes 15 minutes to an hour. But that varies depending on a lot of things, like how hard the wood is and how good the woodpecker is at pecking. Woodpeckers are born knowing they should peck and knowing how, but they aren't born knowing how to peck well. Almost made some pretty pitiful holes when he was a baby.
Q: Why don't the acorns just get stolen by squirrels?
A: Squirrels and other birds definitely try to steal the Acorn Woodpeckers' acorns. But Acorn Woodpeckers live in close-knit family groups, and they defend their territories year-round, not just in breeding season. If a squirrel or a Western Scrub-Jay tries to steal acorns from a granary, the whole group of Acorn Woodpeckers gets mad and gangs up on them. A squirrel is no match for six or seven Acorn Woodpeckers.
Q: Excuse me, where's the bathroom?
A: Pretty much anywhere. On our t-shirts, on the car seats, on the ground...
Q: *stares blankly*
A: Oh. Um. Through the doors, up the stairs, and to the right.
Q: Is that a real bird?
A: Yes, it's a taxidermic specimen from the museum.
Q: Is it dead?
A: ...yes? I hope.
Q: So, do Acorn Woodpeckers live around here?
A: Acorn Woodpeckers live throughout most of California, wherever there are several species of oak trees in the same habitat. Their range extends up to southern Oregon and down through parts of Mexico and Central America. Acorn Woodpeckers are also really adaptable. They do fine in cities. You might have seen them around your home or in a nearby park.
Q: What's the climbing equipment for?
A: Acorn Woodpeckers build their nests in cavities really high up in the trees. So to band the chicks, Natasha has to do some serious climbing.
Q: Can you make the woodpecker come out of his cavity?
A: Almost loves people, but he's met more people in a few hours today than ever before in his entire life. He's a little overstimulated, so he's taking a break right now. He'll come out when he's feeling rested.
Q: Oh look, he's coming out of the cavity! He's so cute! Can I touch him?
A: Please do not pet the woodpecker.
I love answering questions about Acorn Woodpeckers. Do you have any that we weren't asked at Cal Day? Comment and I'll do my best.
Spring is breeding season for birds, and it shows. They're wearing their brightest plumages, they perform crazy courtship displays and sing beautiful songs, and when they've found mates, they begin building nests to raise their babies.
Watching a bird build a nest is pretty magical. Some birds weave strands of grass together. Others scoop up bits of mud in their beaks and glue their nests to ledges or houses. Some, including Acorn Woodpeckers, lay their eggs at the bottom of hollowed-out tree cavities. Regardless of how exactly they build their nests, many birds spend a lot of time on them, making them as cozy, sturdy, and safe as possible in order to safely raise their babies.
Time for the tenuous connection to my own life. Unlike the birds, I am not preparing to mate and raise babies this spring. But I have spent the past couple weeks settling in to a new place, organizing and re-organizing my space to make it my own, and delighting in the spring weather and the antics of the breeding birds all around me. Since mid-March, I have been living at Hastings Natural History Reservation in Carmel Valley, California. I'm working here as a field tech on a long-term study of Acorn Woodpeckers, and I'll be here until July.
It's beautiful here. The habitat is mostly oak savannah, which means oak trees interspersed with grassland, chaparral, and other open habitat. In other words, acres and acres of rolling hills that look like this:
To an easterner, one of the most striking things about this landscape at this time of year is the wildflowers.
To an Acorn Woodpecker, this landscape is home.
In general, a woodpecker makes its living by pecking wood. Most woodpeckers peck at trees to extract the insects living in the wood. Others, like sapsuckers, make little holes deeper into the tree and drink the sweet xylem sap, or eat the insects that are attracted to the sap. Woodpeckers also use their tree-pecking skills to excavate larger holes, or cavities, which they use for roosting (sleeping at night) and, during the breeding season, for nesting in.
But Acorn Woodpeckers don't stop there. No. Acorn Woodpeckers take woodpecking to another level. In the fall, they drill acorn-sized holes into tree bark, dead branches, or even house siding and store acorns in the holes, making "granary" trees that provide them with a food source through the winter and spring, when there are no acorns to be found. They also eat bugs, tree pollen, and various other things, but acorns are their staple.
So what am I actually doing here?
People have been studying Acorn Woodpeckers at Hastings for decades, and every season there are a few different scientists researching different aspects of the Acorn Woodpeckers' social interactions.
Why are Acorn Woodpeckers so interesting? They have a very complicated social structure. They live and breed on discrete, defined territories, in groups, not in simple pairs like most birds. The breeders in a group can be just a male/female pair, or they can be a polygynandrous group of a few males (usually brothers or closely related) and a few females (usually sisters or closely related, but unrelated to the males). This means that babies raised together might be siblings, half-siblings, or cousins.
To make things even more complicated, the breeding woodpeckers in each group are assisted by "helpers," offspring from previous years who stick around and help to raise their younger siblings or cousins, even though they don't breed themselves.
This system raises lots of questions from an evolutionary perspective. For example,
There's a lot of complicated evolutionary biology happening here. But as a field tech, I'm doing the dirty work. Right now, there are a few main things I'm doing.
1. Censusing woodpecker territories. We have a list of all the individual birds that are known to be part of each group. But we have to update that list periodically because sometimes birds die, sometimes they move away to other groups, sometimes new woodpeckers join a group, etc. So I conduct three-hour watches at a given territory and try to identify as many woodpeckers as possible. When I determine that a certain bird is still in that group, I update the list with the date it was last seen.
But how do you tell the birds apart??? They all look the same.
The majority of the population of Acorn Woodpeckers at Hastings is color banded, meaning each bird wears several colored leg bands that can be read through a spotting scope to identify the bird in the field. Here is a photo of a captive Acorn Woodpecker named Almost showing off two of his color bands. Almost lives with Natasha and is missing part of his wings, so he can't fly. He can certainly climb, though, and he can make holes and eat acorns. So life is pretty good.
It's pretty easy to read Almost's color bands in this photo, but imagine trying to read bands on a bird that's a lot farther away, moving around on a tree all the time, and often sitting on its feet and fluffing up its belly feathers. It's challenging. But reading color bands is also very rewarding when you get it right, because then you can be certain that you're looking at a specific individual bird.
The artist in me loves reading color bands because of, well, the colors.
Red Orange Yellow Light Green Forest Green Dark Green Light Blue Medium Blue Dark Blue Mauve Light Pink Bright Pink Dark Pink Brown Gray Black White
They can be combined in many different ways. Bands can be a solid color, split (like the bands on Almost's right leg), or narrow striped (narrow stripes of two different colors, repeating along the band). Sometimes the color combinations can be frustratingly hard to read, like if a bird's leg is Light Blue-Light Green/Light Green-Light Pink. In bad light, those colors all look the same. But other times the colors stand out beautifully, like one bird whose left leg was Yellow/Orange and looked like a flash of sunlight when she took off from a branch.
When I'm able to read two or more of a bird's color bands, I write down the colors on a data sheet, along with information like the date, time, species name, and the specific territory that I'm censusing. I also write down the sex of the bird, which is very easy to determine in Acorn Woodpeckers: all you have to do is look at the extent of their red caps.
Here is a page from my field notebook. I've recorded the band colors I was able to read on several woodpeckers. The circled numbers on the right side of the page are the individual bird ID numbers: by comparing the bands that I saw to a list of birds previously seen at this territory, I can usually confirm which birds I saw.
This particular census was special, though, because I found two birds at this territory that weren't there before. They are numbers 5700 and 5833. You'll see that I wrote a little four-letter abbreviation under each of those numbers: PLQE and PLAN, respectively. That means that those birds were listed as living on other territories (called as Plaque and Plaque Annex, or PLQE and PLAN), and they must have moved to this territory since the last time someone censused it. Finding out about birds that have moved like this is part of the reason we do these censuses. In a little while, the master list of the woodpeckers will be updated, and these birds will be transferred from their old territories to this group, called RE28.
2. Moving base stations
Natasha, the PhD student I'm working for, is specifically studying Acorn Woodpecker dispersal. Acorn Woodpecker "helpers" (young from previous years who stay on their natal territories to help raise the next year's chicks) spend some of their time scouting around for new territories that they might be able to move to in order to become breeders in their own right. Natasha has fitted a bunch of woodpeckers with solar powered nanotags, which are so light that the woodpeckers don't really pay any attention to them. The tags ping every so often as long as there is sunlight. To pick up the signals from the tags, Natasha has placed three base stations at various Acorn Woodpecker territories. The base stations have an antenna and a data logger. Every time the base stations get a signal from a nanotag, they record the date and time, which nanotag it was, and how strong the signal was. Natasha can use this information to figure out where the woodpeckers are going, when, for how long, and with which other woodpeckers (they often travel together with their broodmates).
The problem is, there are only three base stations (these things are expensive) and there are a lot of woodpecker territories. The base stations stay at each territory for two days, so every other day they need to be moved. Natasha has randomized the order of the territories that the stations go to.
Moving the base stations around like this gives Natasha a good sample of where the woodpeckers are spending their time. She hopes to use this information to figure out more about dispersal patterns: where are woodpeckers going, and why? They often disperse in family groups, but when do these groups form and how long do they last? I try to think about these big questions when I'm hauling a base station up a particularly steep hill.
3. Roost watches
Most of the woodpeckers on Hastings are color banded, but there are many that, for one reason or another, slipped through the clutches of the banders. If the birds aren't color-banded, we can't track their movements from group to group. And if there is more than one unbanded bird in a group, keeping track of the group's interactions becomes a nightmare.
Natasha plans to capture and band as many unbanded woodpeckers as possible. But capturing them isn't easy. To do that, she sets an ambush in the morning to catch them as they come out of their roosting cavity (Acorn Woodpeckers sleep in holes in trees, which helps keep them warm and safe from predators). The catch here is that there are a lot of holes in trees, and in order to catch the woodpeckers, Natasha has to know beforehand which cavity they're sleeping in.
Roost watches involve sitting very still for about 40 minutes right as the sun goes down and the woodpeckers go in to roost, watching the possible cavities and keeping track of how many birds go into which cavity.
4. Finding nests
It's breeding season for Acorn Woodpeckers! We have already found a few nests with eggs in them, and yesterday four chicks hatched in the nest of the woodpecker group that lives right by our house. Throughout the next two months, we will be monitoring the Acorn Woodpecker nests, banding the chicks, and doing feeding watches to determine which members of the group care for the babies, and to what extent.
When we census groups, we have to be on the lookout for possible nests. One indication is woodpeckers sitting in cavities during the daytime, sometimes sticking their heads out.
But hey, it's nice to have some variety.
My main work is with the woodpeckers, but I delight in watching the other birds and animals around here, too. The other day, I found an American Kestrel nest in a hole in a dead tree. One of my housemates is monitoring Western Bluebird boxes, and she has already found some babies.
On a few occasions, I've been bobcats walking around in the middle of the day. Mule deer roam the fields and there are apparently wild hogs around, although I haven't seen them yet.
On wet mornings, newts cross the road and cause delays.
Anna's hummingbirds zip around everywhere, showing off their beautiful pink throats.
And wherever you go, you can hear the "waka" calls of Acorn Woodpeckers. We'll see what the rest of the season holds. Here's to baby woodpeckers!
It was my half birthday yesterday. Six months since my birthday Peregrine, already. This year is flying by.
I normally don't celebrate half birthdays; it seems like overkill. And I didn't intend to celebrate this one; in fact, I didn't even realize until the evening what day it was. The day before, I had wanted to make flourless chocolate cake, but we didn't have any baking chocolate in the house, so last night I bought some and planned a yummy dessert. Then I happened to glance at the calendar. Oh. Well, it can be a half birthday cake, I guess.
Flourless Chocolate Cake from Epicurious.
For the raspberry sauce: purée one package of frozen raspberries in a food processor with some water and some sugar (to taste). Pass the mixture through a sieve to remove the seeds and transfer to a saucepan. Simmer for a long time until the puree is reduced to a syrupy consistency. Add a little more sugar along the way if you want, but keep the sauce tart; it'll balance out the sweetness of the cake.
I have been cooking a lot lately. Over the years I've bounced around between sewing, drawing, elaborate easter egg decorating, embroidering, painting, paper cutting, and various other crafts that keep my hands busy and appeal to my aesthetic sense, and I think cooking may be my latest art form. It's hands-on, colorful, and a great creative outlet, and the end product is delicious. This year has also shown me that I can cook tasty and balanced meals from scratch, which is strangely empowering. I don't know how I'll be able to go back to eating in a dining hall next year.
Anyway, I'm in the middle of a couple weeks at home before I head off to California, and my brother is at school and my parents at work during the day. So I've taken the opportunity to cook more. My mom loves not having to come up with dinner every night. Best of all, the rest of the family seems to give me as much credit for cooking as if it were an unwanted chore, so more often than not they offer to clean up the kitchen afterwards. Really, we're looking at a win-win situation here.
It all started with an apron.
Two large dish towels was exactly the right amount of fabric for this apron. The horizontal seam just above the pocket is where the towels are sewn together. I cut off three hemmed edges from the towels to make the straps, and there was just enough fabric left over for the pocket. And the towels were already hemmed, which saved me the trouble of finishing the bottom and sides.
Well actually, it started long before the apron, but it's sort of a chicken and egg situation. Because I was cooking so much, I wanted an apron, so I made this one out of two big, pretty dish towels we got on sale a couple years ago. But now that I have the apron, I want to use it all the time. So I cook. Here are some of the things I've made recently. Recipes, if I used a recipe, are at the end of each section.
Blueberry muffins with a twist
I don't always read the Food section of the New York Times, but when I do, I come up with gems like this recipe. These muffins are made with whole wheat flour and cornmeal, using oil instead of butter, etc. etc., but they have so much oil in them that I'm dubious as to their actual health benefits. But I'm not a fan of overly sweet, cakey muffins anyway, and these had blueberries and grated apple in them, so I was sold.
Because of the frozen blueberries, the batter came out kind of an unfortunate color.
But the resulting muffins were moist and delicious. They have oatmeal, cornmeal, and all purpose flour in addition to whole wheat flour, which saves the muffins from tasting too "healthy." Instead, the flavor is complex and, frankly, a lot more interesting than it would have been with white flour alone. The tart grated apple that I added (you can substitute grated carrot if you want), along with the frozen blueberries, gave the muffins a nice tang. I didn't make the orange streusel, so I can't comment on it, but in my opinion these little bundles of deliciousness didn't need anything extra.
I did just one thing wrong with this recipe: I made the muffins the night before I left for a weekend in New York City. When I got back, they were gone.
Darn, I might actually have to make them again.
Whole Grain Blueberry Muffins from the New York Times. I skipped the orange streusel and used grated apple instead of grated carrots. Make sure the batter is thick enough; my muffins didn't puff up as much as I would have liked.
Salmon, green beans, and Asian-inspired salad
This weekend, I spent a night with my friend Mirella at Barnard College in NYC. Mirella has been working at a restaurant (as an actual cook, not a waitress), and she knows and loves food. (She also writes for the Columbia University Culinary Society; you can read her posts here.)
Mirella and I have been friends since I was in kindergarten and she was in first grade, and if you know both of us you will agree that it makes perfect sense that we spent our evening cooking something fancy together in her apartment.
On the menu: salmon with soy-maple glaze (but we didn't have maple syrup, so we used honey and brown sugar instead), sautéed green beans with ginger and garlic, basmati rice, and a cabbage/carrot salad with orange slices and a sesame oil/rice vinegar dressing.
We had fun with this dinner. After glazing the salmon with our improvised sauce, we reduced the rest to a thicker glaze that we poured over the cooked fish. The salad was going to be just cabbage and grated carrots. Then I found half an Asian pear on the table, a little past its prime but still good. I grated it in to sweeten up the salad. Then the orange slices added a little tang.
For the dressing, Mirella mixed rice vinegar and sesame oil, plus a tiny bit of soy sauce and some honey. Then on a whim we added the juice from the grated carrots, because why not? The dressing was lovely and light and complemented the salad perfectly.
Chicken couscous, roasted veggies, and salad
From Barnard, I took the subway to Brooklyn to stay with my aunt Sarah. She's lived there for years but I had never seen her apartment or met her cat, so I figured it was time for a visit.
Sarah's boyfriend, Brian, loves to cook, so the second night I was there the three of us went grocery shopping and had a little fun in the kitchen.
I made my grandmother's chicken couscous recipe (with a couple modifications along the way). Brian roasted some cauliflower and onions and made a tahini dipping sauce. Then we threw together a salad: Sarah had some spring mix in the refrigerator, but that seemed boring all by itself. So we added some currants (don't ask me why she had currants), some orange slices (inspired by the previous night's salad with Mirella) and some grated carrots (Brian's finishing touch). Boom.
I have the recipe for this chicken but can't link to it online. Get in touch if you want me to send it to you!
Fish, sweet potato home fries, and spinach
Not everything I cook is fancy, I just tend to take more pictures of the things that are. I made dinner the other night, and it was so easy and un-fancy that I almost didn't know what to do with myself: I had all the ingredients prepared and I realized that the fish wasn't going to take longer than ten minutes to cook. I didn't know when to start. How come I wasn't rushing around desperately trying to get everything chopped and cooked in the right order? Who knew dinner could be so yummy and still so easy?
I fried my fish filets in a mixture of butter and olive oil and drizzled it with lemon juice (if anyone knows a trick for frying fish so it doesn't fall apart, please let me know. It tasted good anyway but it could have been prettier). Then I minced a large clove of garlic and sautéed it with lots of spinach (alternately with the lid off, stirring, and with the lid on to let it steam).
The sweet potato home fries are Sarah's recipe; she made them for brunch one day when I was there. They're easy and delicious. Basically, you chop up some sweet potatoes and coat them with olive oil, spread them on a baking sheet, and bake them at a high temperature for a while. They come out crispy on some sides, but still soft and sweet on the inside. I'm sure you could do a similar thing with regular potatoes, maybe with herbs or spices.
We ate dinner rolls with this meal, but you could also pair it with rice or pasta, or do a potato/sweet potato mix for a more substantial starch.
Thai yellow curry from scratch
Yellow curry is one of my favorite Thai dishes, but I've always been afraid to cook it because I was afraid I wouldn't get the spices right. Then I did a little googling and found a recipe on Pinch of Yum.
The secret to this recipe is that it uses yellow curry paste that you make from scratch. Yes, that takes a while (about 45 minutes and a bit of annoying prep work), but your curry comes out with a deep, complex flavor that certainly beats sprinkling some curry powder on chicken pieces. Also, the recipe makes enough curry paste for about five curries, so it's worth it. The paste freezes well and you can have yellow curry on demand for days or weeks afterwards.
To make the curry paste, I roasted entire heads of garlic, plus shallots and ginger. That all went in the food processor with hot peppers, curry powder, turmeric, fresh cilantro, and other spices. The result was a beautiful yellow paste that's basically pure mushed up spices. It can pack some serious punch (especially if you put in more chiles) I scooped it out of the food processor and felt powerful.
Once the paste is made, the rest of the curry is easy. Chop some onions, sauté them in oil, add chicken pieces and curry paste. Stir around and cook it a bit, then add the potatoes and some coconut milk. Simmer until the sauce is a good consistency and the potatoes and chicken are cooked. Serve with rice and (optional) chopped cilantro.
Here are the recipes, from Pinch of Yum:
Thai Yellow Chicken Curry with Potatoes
For the curry paste: I couldn't find the specific Thai chiles that she refers to, so I used Mexican Arbol peppers. Unless you and everyone you're cooking for loves spicy food, use just a few peppers the first time you make this. You can always add hot sauce later. You will be sorry if you end up with five batches of curry paste that you will never use because it burns your mouth off.
Pinch of Yum also has a beef curry recipe, which I haven't tried yet. But it would be a good use for your leftover yellow curry paste.
If there's a recipe I didn't link to that you're wondering how to make, feel free to shoot me an email. And it goes the other way too: if you have a yummy and not-too-complicated recipe you want to share, I'm always looking for ideas.
De gauche à droite: Frédéric (déguisé en femme), "Nina," Alexandra (déguisée en femme aux cheveux longs), moi, Pénélope (déguisée en Sévillane), et Dark Vador (qui porte un masque) / From left to right: Frédéric (dressed as a woman), "Nina," Alexandra (dressed as a woman with long hair), me, Pénélope (in her Sevillana dance outfit), and Darth Vader (wearing a mask).
Une statue-menhir au Musée Fenaille. Cette statue porte plusieurs colliers, et elle n'a pas de poignard qu'ont souvent les statues des hommes, donc on peut deviner que c'est une femme. / A statue-menhir at the Fenaille Museum. This statue is wearing several necklaces, and it doesn't have a dagger, so we can guess that it's a woman.
Voilà un livre que j'ai trouvé dans une librairie à Rodez, qui s'entitule "Paris vs. New York." J'ai trouvé cette page très pertinente à cet hiver et celui de l'année dernière. Traduction grossière de la page en anglais: "hiver: le stationnement alterné est suspendu" / Here is a book that I found in a bookstore in Rodez, called "Paris vs. New York." I found this page especially relevant to this winter and last winter. Rough translation of the French page: "Winter: five centimeters and everyone panics"
Les enfants au Muséum de Toulouse. Nous n'avons pas visité l'exposition duquel s'agit ce panneau, mais il y avait trois trous, trois petites têtes... pas question de rater l'occasion de prendre une photo! / The kids at the Museum of Toulouse. We didn't visit the exhibit that this board refers to, but there were three holes and three little heads... we weren't going to miss the opportunity to take a photo!
À l'intérieur de la grange où habitent les chèvres. Il faisait assez chaud et il y avait une odeur agréable d'animaux et du foin. La journée, les propriétaires mettent la radio pour que les chèvres aient quelque chose à écouter, et pour qu'elles n'aient pas peur des humaines, ce que j'ai trouvé adorable / Inside the barn where the goats live. It was quite warm, and there was a pleasant odor of animals and hay. During the day, the owners leave the radio on so the goats have something to listen to, and so they won't be afraid of humans, which I thought was very sweet.
Le réservoir où coule le lait avant d'aller dans un plus grand réservoir derrière le mur. Le propriétaire nous a dit qu'à cette chèvrerie, on produit vers mille litres de lait par jour. On utilise le lait surtout pour fabriquer du fromage, mais Dark Vador a été permis d'en prendre un litre à boire à la maison. / The tank that the milk flows into, before going into a much larger tank behind the wall. The owner told us that at this goat farm, they produce around one thousand liters of milk per day. Most of that milk is used to make cheese, but Darth Vader was allowed to take home a liter to drink at home.
Pénélope, qui a voulu ranger sa chambre, en train de colorier des petites pancartes pour ses vêtements. Je lui avais écrit les mots en français et en anglais. / Pénélope, who wanted to organize her room, coloring some little signs for her clothes. I had written the words for her in French and in English.
My most lasting impression of the jungle is how incredibly alive it was. There is more rain and more sun, and plants and animals grow fast there. Finding animals in your house is commonplace if you live in the tropics. In the northern U.S., our ideal seems to be to completely separate our indoor environments from nature. I won't get into a discussion of whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, because I think there are arguments both ways, but the bottom line is that in places like Massachusetts, it is pretty much possible. Sure, we might get mice in the pantry or ants in the kitchen or squirrels in the walls or chipmunks in the dining room or raccoons under the fire escape on occasion (yep, they all happened, even the chipmunks). But these tend to be isolated incidents. We call an exterminator or set out traps or poison, and most of the time the creatures go away.
In Belize? Forget it. You could build the nicest house imaginable and you would still find yourself living alongside animals. The tropics probably aren't the place for you if you can't learn to love your ceiling geckos.
So in the spirit of gecko appreciation, here is a collection of animal anecdotes from Belize. There won't be quite as many birds as usual. You're welcome.
Howler monkeys are found all over the Central American rainforest, and they are loud. They "howl," but it really sounds more like a roar. They live in small family groups and they are territorial, so most of the howling will be rival groups howling at each other over the best trees
Howler monkeys are also nomadic, moving from place to place to find fresh fruit and leaves (they eat mostly leaves, which is interesting for such a large animal. Leaves are not particularly nutritious). As a result, days or weeks would go by when we wouldn't hear them at all, and then suddenly they would appear somewhere in the area and howl constantly for several nights.
One day, the howler monkeys moved into some trees right next to the main part of the lodge, where they were visible to everyone. I got some videos.
Pook's Hill kept their hummingbird feeders constantly filled, and the hummingbirds put on an amazing show all day, every day, zipping across the open porch and sometimes coming amazingly close to my head.
In the evenings, as dusk fell and the hummingbirds retired to their nighttime roosts, bats took their place. Nectarivorous bats, predictably, love to drink from hummingbird feeders. They, too, would fly all around the porch and through it, coming amazingly close to people's heads. The only difference was that it was dark.
I think bats are absolutely fantastic; they're like birds with fur! And they eat mosquitoes! (Well, these particular bats eat nectar, but my goodwill for their insectivorous cousins transfers to them). Some guests were less enthusiastic about having so many bats around, but most of them got over their anti-bat feelings when they saw the bats drinking from the feeders. One memorable night, there seemed to be way more bats than usual. They came in droves, seemingly crazed by the sugar water, and they completely ignored us; we could stand by the railing right next to the feeder and they would still come. We shone a flashlight on the feeder to see them better, and still, they came. Eventually they began to land on the red, flower-shaped feeder ports of some of the feeders, and you could see their little arms aligned along the edges of the ports as they bent their heads to the nectar.
The bats never stayed long at the feeder; each drink lasted a split second, and then they were gone. It was hard to see them properly. It became a challenge among the guests to get the best photo of the bats. Lots of beautiful photos of the hummingbird feeders, sans bats, resulted. This was my best shot.
The Belize Zoo
I am not a zoo person; it bothers me to see wild animals living in small enclosures. The Belize Zoo was an exception. Yes, it was still a zoo; there were still cages; the birds still couldn't fly free. But the Belize Zoo does a couple things really well that I have not seen at other zoos.
First, all of the animals at the Belize Zoo are native to Belize. This means that they are living in the climate they are naturally adapted for. It also means that tourists and Belizeans alike are getting to know the fauna of the country they are in, instead of coming to gawk at exotic species out of their natural habitats. The Belize Zoo does lots of outreach, and they have a big focus on teaching Belizeans about their natural heritage, instilling pride in them, and encouraging a conservation mindset.
The second thing that sets the Belize Zoo apart is that most or all of its animals were rescued; either they were orphaned or injured in the wild, or they were illegally kept as pets, or they were used in movies and are too tame to be released. It is still sad that these things happened to the animals in the first place, but at least the zoo keepers didn't go pluck animals out of the wild for the sole purpose of putting them on display.
Third, it's cool to walk around the Belize Zoo because of how integrated it seems with the nature around it. Trees grow in between the enclosures, and walking along the paths feels almost like walking in the forest. People go birding at the zoo, which seems like cheating until you realize that there are many birds to look at that aren't part of the exhibits. The Zoo is one of the top eBird hotspots in the area. My two checklists are here and here, and they don't include any of the captive birds. They do include a Black-throated Blue Warbler, which eBird flagged as rare for that date and location. Who knew?
Vicki, the owner of Pook's Hill, has a fantastic moth light. Mounted on a tripod in front of white sheet on one of the few dry nights, the light would attract an amazing number and variety of moths. I know next to nothing about moths, and I have my work cut out for me learning birds without getting into moth ID. But I do think they are beautiful. If anyone wants to take a shot at identifying these, go ahead!
Overheard in the Pook's Hill office
Guest: Excuse me, do you have a protocol for dealing with scorpions?
PH Staff: Well, we usually just move them outside. Do you have one in your room?
Guest: Well, I already brought it outside. Just wanted to check that that was the right thing to do. Thank you!
Apparently Pook's Hill does offer complimentary scorpion removal services for guests less animal-savvy than this one.
Mammals without wings
Belize has all sorts of cool mammals. A lot of them are nocturnal, and even the diurnal ones are skittish, so they tend to be less visible than the birds. But I did have a few cool mammal encounters.
Coatis (also known as coatimundis), are a raccoon-like mammal with a long tail found in Central and South America. They climb trees, using their tails for balance, and they travel in large groups. On a few of my walks through the jungle, if I was moving very quietly, I would come upon a group of coatis foraging in the underbrush on the forest floor. If I stood still and quiet, they often would not notice me. Sometimes the group would be in the process of crossing the trail. I would watch as adult after adult came across, their long tails sticking straight up into the air. Then there would be a short pause, and then some much smaller baby coatis would scamper across to catch up.
Eventually, I would sneeze or swat a mosquito, or the wind would change, and the coatis would see or smell me. And then, oh my goodness, the squeakings and snufflings that went on! Up into the trees they would go, one after another, wheezing and chirping and making all sorts of alarmed movements. Then they would sit on branches and vines, watching me. It was always such a delight to find them.
The animal below is a tapir, also known as a "mountain cow," and it is the national animal of Belize.
One day, as I was walking by the river, I came upon a trail of tapir tracks deeply embedded in the sand. From the different sizes of the tracks, it looked like a mama tapir had walked here with her baby. Vicki has many cement casts of tracks on display at Pook's Hill, and she is always excited to find new tracks, so she set me up with some cement, and I and a visiting biologist and one of the managers went to fill the tracks. The video below is of me filling one of the tracks. Video creds to Mison Ferguson, manager at Pook's Hill and budding cinematographer!
The trail cameras that I was responsible for were another way to observe mammals that wouldn't let themselves be seen. Every week was like a treasure hunt when uploaded the pictures from each camera onto the computer. We had coatimundis, agoutis, lots of gibnuts (a large rodent that sort of looks like a cross between a pig and a guinea pig), and a few armadillos, mice-opossums, and skunks. We also had an ocelot (!) that would appear on one of the cameras almost every week. One week, it came right up to the camera and sniffed it. I wondered how many times the ocelot had been hiding right near me as I walked, fully aware of my presence, when I had no idea it was there.
Other visitors to my room
As I brought my suitcase into my room on the first night in Belize, I was greeted by a remarkably large millipede on the floor under my bed. I think millipedes are cool, so I bent closer to examine it. It noticed my movement and curled into a tight ball. The extremely large spider (maybe a small tarantula?) next to it that I hadn't seen also noticed my movement and scuttled across the floor, inches under my nose. Removed the millipede from the room with a cup and a piece of paper. Removed the tarantula from the room by opening the door, sitting on the bed and waiting for it to find its own way out.
The next night, I noticed some hairy legs poking out of the drain in the ground outside my door. But the tarantula never came back into the room. That I knew of.
A Close Call
Two owls began to call from the trees on the edge of the clearing. I heard them from the main porch at Pook's Hill and jumped up. I was determined to record an owl before I left Belize, and these were the first owls I had heard since I got there. So naturally, my recording equipment was put away neatly after a day of use.
I ran the hundred yards up the hill to my room and arrived panting. I strapped on the recorder and headphones and ran back down to where the owls were, thankfully, still calling. It was pitch black and I couldn't see them, but there were definitely two; they called back and forth in a lovely duet. The best place to record from turned out to be in a grassy area near some parked cars, not far from the house where the kitchen staff and some of the guides lived. I approached as close to the trees as possible and recorded, cursing the noise from a nearby generator and from the insects, which were deafening at night.
Here is the recording I made, edited only slightly, of the two Black-and-White Owls.
The grass was wet from a rain shower a few hours before, and as I walked through the grass in my flip flops, my toes got damp and chilly. Earlier in the day, I had been properly dressed in a quick-dry shirt, field pants, and hiking boots, but it was almost time for dinner and I had already taken a shower and changed into comfy clothes. Hence the flip flops. I was absolutely not dressed for the field, so I was thankful that the owls had so cooperatively called from right near my room. I could just stand on the nice, safe, mowed grass in my flip flops, no trail walking necessary.
The owls stopped calling and I returned to the porch to socialize with guests. One of the guides, Mario, appeared, in a hurry and with a frightened look on his face. All talking stopped. He showed us a picture he had taken just moments ago of a Fer-de-lance snake, which he had found on the ground. Right next to the stairs to his room. Right near where I had been standing to record the owls. In flip flops.
[Follow-up and clarifications: they killed the snake. As a general rule, snakes found at Pook's Hill are left alone, and if this one had been found on a trail in the jungle, it would not have been killed. Since it was found so close to the staff house, right where people walked every day, they felt it was too dangerous to leave it alone. Fer-de-lance bites are extremely dangerous and definitely fatal if not treated promptly. However, Pook's Hill has an antivenom kit, and there is a hospital eight miles away. After this, I stopped wearing flip flops anywhere except on the porch and on the road, and always with a flashlight.]
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Welcome to Hawk Ridge
A Massive Migration
A Happy Birdthday
Photos from the Week
Visiting the Banding Station
A Watched Kettle Never Streams
Food, Part 1
The Big Picture
Last Weeks at the Ridge
Belize, Part 1
How to Look at Birds, A Guide (or: Belize, Part 2)
All Creatures Great and Small
Kids and Language, Again
More Photos from France
Food, Part 2
Building Nests in California
Please Do Not Pet the Woodpecker
Condors and Creatures in Big Sur
A Day at Hastings
I am a high school graduate taking a gap year before college. I’m interested in birds, biology, and the natural world, as well as history, foreign languages, writing, and reading.