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.
Jump to a Post
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.