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
--- OR ---
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!
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.]
A couple months ago, one friend asked for my help identifying a bird he had seen. "Blue on the top, white belly, white stripe along the wings, a bit lighter around the eyes," he said. I asked him how big it was: "Was it bigger than a robin?" and found out that he didn't know what a robin was. I realized I'd have to back up a little bit.
We eventually figured out that his bird was a Blue Jay, but I was surprised by how long it had taken me to get there. For starters, when he said "blue," my mind immediately jumped to birds like the White-breasted Nuthatch and Black-throated Blue Warbler, which are more blue-gray than blue.
A Blue Jay is really, truly blue, but it's a bird I'm so familiar with that it almost didn't occur to me as a possibility. Then, when my friend looked closely at the photo of a Blue Jay I sent him, and said he wasn't sure that was his bird because he didn't remember it having black on the wings like the bird in the photo. I realized I didn't know how to respond. If size, shape, behavior, and general color pattern pointed to a Blue Jay, I wouldn't look farther. I had never stopped to consider the details of Blue Jay plumage.
This conversation made me realize that I needed to step back a little and think about how I identify birds, and that I also wanted to help beginning birders learn to see the bird's most important features more quickly. This idea lay dormant for a while, until I was asked to write a bird identification pamphlet for Pook's Hill Lodge, where I was staying in Belize. I wasn't trying to write a field guide: I'm not that good, and besides, a wonderful field guide to the birds of Belize already exists (if you're going to Belize, this book is necessary!) Instead, I tried to create an introduction to birding, using examples of birds found at Pook's Hill, so that visitors, intrigued by the beautiful birds around them, could make a start at knowing what they were seeing.
I owe a lot of credit to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on this one: the basic layout of my guide is based on their "Bird ID Skills" series, which focuses on similar features of birds to those that I wrote about and goes into a lot more depth than I was able to do. I would also like to thank H. Lee Jones, for writing such an incredible and comprehensive field guide, and Dana Gardner, whose illustrations in Birds of Belize provided the references for my own drawings.
That said, here is my bird guide. Read from left to right across the rows, from the top row to the bottom row.
Eventually you guys are going to figure out that this "Part 1" thing is a clever trick to get you to keep reading. But I promise there will be a part 2 to the food post eventually, and there will definitely be a Belize, Part 2, since I have a lot to write about.
From November 12th to December 12th, I was in Belize, staying at Pook's Hill Lodge. That's in the Cayo district of Belize, which is inland and pretty much centered North/South. Here's a map. The red star is the approximate location of Pook's Hill. It's about eight miles (very long miles, through the jungle and over an extremely bumpy dirt road) from Belmopan, the capital, and about two miles from the village of Teakettle.
Belize is a small country on the eastern coast of Central America. It's bordered to the West and South by Guatemala, to the East by the Caribbean Sea, and to the North by Mexico. As of 2014, Belize had a population of about 340,000. In terms of land area, it's about the same size as Massachusetts, whose population in 2014 was almost twenty times that of Belize. As you can see from the map above, Belize's villages and towns are largely tightly clustered together along the main roads, and there are large expanses of land that are extremely sparsely populated. As a result, much of Belize remains wild, and the country is quite progressive in terms of environmental legislation and conservationism, although it still faces problems from poaching, logging, and development.
I went to Belize mostly for the birds, and the bird diversity there is stunning. The country has about 600 species of birds, in part because it has a wide range of habitat types, from cloud forest and montane coniferous forest to mangroves on the coast and subtropical broadleaf forest inland.
I did find birds. Here's a picture of one of them, a female White-whiskered Puffbird that posed nicely in a tree near my room one morning.
But before I dive into the bird stuff, I want to talk a bit more generally about Belize and what I was doing there.
I was staying at Pook's Hill as a volunteer, which means that in exchange for staying there, I helped out around the lodge with whatever projects were going on. On the best days, this meant leading guests on bird walks. A lot of people come to Pook's Hill to watch birds, since the lodge sits on a large nature reserve and almost 300 species have been documented there. But many of the people came were just beginning to look at birds. It gave me so much joy to introduce them to some of the magnificent birds at Pook's Hill. It was even better because I was learning at the same time. Sometimes we'd run across something that I didn't recognize, and then the fun was in looking it up in the guidebook and figuring it out together.
Most mornings, if I wasn't birding with guests, I went out on my own walks to record bird songs and calls with equipment that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology lent me for the trip. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an online archive of natural sounds, called the Macaulay Library, and they've recently linked it to eBird. Now every recording that someone submits becomes its own "digital specimen"––with details about location, time, date, recording equipment, species, age, sex, behavior, and other information pertinent to the recording. And all these recordings are available for free, as an increasingly valuable archive to be used for fun, for education, or for science and research.
I'm going to write more about the audio recordings later, but as a teaser, here are a few checklists that I've already uploaded audio to.
As I mentioned, many of the guests who come to Pook's Hill lodge either aren't birders or know only a little about birds. But for many of them, coming to a tropical place full of bright, colorful birds is inspiring, and they want to learn more. So one of my other projects while I was in Belize was to write and illustrate a pamphlet designed for the beginning birder. I wrote about how to look at birds, focusing on color pattern, shape, size, and behavior, and I tried my hand at drawing birds, which is something I hadn't really done before.
I plan to post the pamphlet here as soon as I can get it into a format that will make sense to view online, but again, here's a teaser. The illustrations are mostly in black and white, but I did this Keel-billed Toucan in color because really, how could you not draw a toucan in color?
Every Sunday, I'd take a break from recording and bird walks and pamphlet-making, because Sunday was trail cam day. As part of a study by a student at the University of Southampton, Pook's Hill has been managing six motion-activated trail cameras. The object of the study is to obtain a census of animals, particularly mammals, that are using the human-created trails, with the ultimate aim being to determine the extent to which human activity on the trails (or tourism in general) affects these creatures. So every Sunday I would hike out to collect the cameras, come back to the office to offload any pictures that had been taken that week, and then hike back out to replace the cameras on various trees along the trails.
It rained on and off for most of the time that I was in Belize, so these hikes meant a lot of mud and a lot of mosquitoes. (Eventually I decided I'd prefer the heat to the mosquito bites, and so I hiked in long sleeves and long pants). But it was well worth it, because trail cameras offer an incredible opportunity to "see" wildlife that's otherwise too reclusive or too nocturnal to find. Almost every week, we would have a photo or two of an ocelot on the cameras. We also got great looks at Great Curassows, Great Tinamous, and a Blue-crowned Motmot, which are all birds that are quite hard to see normally––it took me until my very last day to see a Curassow with my own eyes, and even then it was only a brief flash of feathers on the path in front of me. There were so many other animals, too, and it was a wonderful reminder of all the wild things living right next to us.
The most thrilling parts of looking at the trail cameras came when we looked at the time stamps on the images: in a few cases, the camera took a picture of an ocelot or a group of coatimundis just minutes or an hour after a hiker had passed by. When I walked the trails myself, it made me wonder what was watching me.
The picture above shows my other ongoing project at Pook's Hill: replacing and repainting signs for an "arboretum trail," a sort of self-guided interpretive nature walk. Several years ago, a group of botanists created this trail, posting signs at the base of certain trees along a small stretch of trail and preparing a booklet with more information about each of the tree species. But when I got there, many of the signs were overgrown or missing. So I created new ones! These signs have just been painted and outlined and are waiting to be attached to their posts.
I had fun with these signs: I got to learn the names and uses of some of the trees, including Mahogany (the national tree of Belize), Red Gumbolimbo (often called the "tourist tree" because of its peeling red bark, which is thought to have evolved as a defense against climbing vines), and the Rubber Tree (whose sap really does make rubber––the ancient Maya used it to make rubber balls for their games). I also learned how to use a power saw and re-taught myself how to use a drill (which was made substantially more difficult by the fact that the two pieces of wood I was screwing together were joined at a 45-degree angle and could not be laid flat. Hence the cinder block in the picture).
When I wasn't hiking or sawing or birding, I observed lots of cool critters (lizards, howler monkeys, large spiders, geckos on the ceiling, leaf cutter ants, you name it), and got to visit some maya ruins. I made chocolate, held a boa constrictor (at the zoo), touched a boa constrictor (in the wild), and got hit by a bat (the flying kind, not the baseball kind). I also got to meet some fantastic people and see a little bit of Belize, which is an unusually diverse country, in terms of both the people and the flora and fauna.
Now I'm back, and I miss everything but the mosquitoes. Here are a few more pictures, and there's more to come, I promise.
A striped basilisk, also known as a "Jesus Christ lizard" because they can run across water. These little basilisks were absolutely everywhere, especially on sunny days when they liked to sun themselves on rocks along the road. They never failed to make me smile, with their ridiculously long tails and toes. They also have an uncanny ability to stand completely motionless; you can't even see them breathing.
During my time here at Hawk Ridge, I've had a few people ask what the point is of collecting all these data. What is being done with the numbers of birds we record? What are we learning about hawks and other birds from these numbers?
The answer is: these data have taught us a lot about bird populations, survivorship, and ecology, and they will continue to be a valuable resource in the future. Let me try to answer a few questions that I get asked a lot.
1. What data do you collect? Every hour, we count the number of raptors of each species that fly by the hawk watch. They get entered onto a data sheet that looks like this:
The numbers are broken down by hour, by species, and sometimes by age and sex, for species for which it's possible to tell. For example, Northern Harriers (NH) have distinct immature, adult male, and adult female plumages, so usually we can age and sex them. But the data sheet also includes a row for Unknown Northern Harrier (NH Unk.), in case a bird is so distant that we can't tell its age or sex.
At the hawk watch, we also collect data on non-raptors, like songbirds, waterfowl, etc. that fly by the hawk watch in the morning. We collect this data in much the same way, hourly on a data sheet with each species listed separately.
At the banding station, there are opportunities to collect even more detailed data. Hawk Ridge has banding programs for songbirds, raptors, and owls. After putting a band on each bird, the banders "process" the bird: they collect data on its species, its age and sex, its weight, and the length of its wing. The unique number on each bird's band also gives us the opportunity to collect more data: if the bird is re-sighted or recaptured at a different station, we might be able to find out how far it migrated or how old it lived to be.
2. What happens to the data that you collect?
The raptor data that we collect gets entered into a website called HawkCount, which is run by HMANA, the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Here's the October month summary for Hawk Ridge, and you can use the toolbar on the left to see summaries for other months and other years, as well as more detailed daily summaries (which break down the counts by hour). HawkCount does not include details on sex and age of the raptors; that data is kept by Karl Bardon, our count director, on the theory that it's better to collect as much data as we can; if birds are consistently ageable or sexable in flight, it seems silly not to record what we see.
The non-raptor numbers are kept and summarized by our head counter, Karl Bardon. You can read Karl's summary of the non-raptor data in this paper, published in The Loon in 2012.
The bird banding data are reported to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory, which keeps records of birds banded dating back to 1960.
3. Are there other sites around the country that monitor hawk migration?
Absolutely! There are over 200 hawk watch sites across North America. You can find a complete list on the HMANA website, here, and explore data for each site. Together, the North American hawk watches are helping to give scientists a more comprehensive knowledge of hawk migration patterns.
4. What is the ultimate use of these data?
Collecting data at the hawk watch is satisfying because I know that we're contributing to something bigger. Lots of scientists have drawn on hawk migration data from Hawk Ridge and other hawk watch sites for their research. Here are some examples:
This post has been pretty light on photos. Sorry about that! Here's a Long-eared Owl to make up for the lack. I got to watch this bird get banded and released last week at the owl banding station.
One day a few years ago, my friends and I started looking up the names for groups of animals. Everyone knows the generic ones, like a "flock" of birds and a "herd" of cattle, but it turns out that if you dig deeper, there are some pretty awesome group names. Have you heard of a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, or a parliament of owls? How about a smack of jellyfish, an exaltation of larks, a romp of otters, or a pitying of turtle doves? If you're like me and you're fascinated by this, you can check out lots more animal group names here and here.
One group of animals in particular has been on our minds lately here at Hawk Ridge: a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks. "Kettle" isn't a group name quite like the others; it doesn't refer to the species of birds involved, but to the form that they take as they fly.
In this post, I explained a little bit about how thermals work, and for the sake of my typing fingers and the sanity of those of you reading this post whose job it is to explain thermals all day, every day, I'm not going to go over it again in detail. Visit the links above for an explanation, which can be as simple as "warm air rises!" or as complicated as specific heat capacity and pressure and inversions and cool stuff like that.
In a nutshell: hawks have a long way to migrate, and they would rather not expend a lot of energy if they can help it. So they soar up on thermals, circling and circling and getting as high as they can before gliding down to the bottom of the next thermal, and the next, and the next, all the way down to South America. Here's a diagram I found on this website that explains the process pretty well.
So what exactly is a "kettle" of hawks? Usually, birds riding thermals don't do it alone. When one bird finds a thermal, others fly in to join it, and pretty soon they make a swirling mass of hawks, called a kettle. It's pretty spectacular to watch, as more and more birds join the kettle and your binocular view fills with dozens or hundreds of birds.
Above is an example of one of these kettles. It's really hard to take a decent picture of one, because they can get so high up. The birds in the picture above might look like specks to you, but most of the time we're lucky if we can get that good a view of them. Sometimes kettles can be so far away that they're barely visible in a spotting scope (with a maximum of around 60x magnification). And sometimes the kettles can be right overhead, so you have to crane your neck back to keep them in view and count the birds.
Counting kettles of hawks is one thing I've been learning how to do in the past few weeks. With a few exceptions, it's not a good idea to try to count the birds in a kettle while they're still circling in the thermal. It's when they start "streaming" off the top of the kettle that they form a nice, countable line. In the flight diagram above, the middle bird is streaming: gliding from the top of one thermal to the bottom of the next. When hundreds of hawks do this at once, it's an incredible sight.
In my first post about Hawk Ridge, I talked about our clickers, which we use to tally the different species of hawks we see. Most of the clickers are mounted on wooden boards, but we have a few loose, handheld clickers, which we use for kettle counting. On a big Broad-wing day, the count platform echoes with clicking as two or three counters at a time tally their kettles.
I keep mentioning Broad-winged Hawks (or "Broad-wings" or "Broadies"). What are they, and what's the deal with Broad-wings and kettles?
This is an adult Broad-winged Hawk. It has a reddish-brown head, black and white tail bands, and mostly whitish wings with a black outline on the trailing edge. (This particular bird is molting a few of its tail feathers and maybe one of the outer feathers on its left wing, which is why it looks a little ratty).
But, as I quickly learned when I got to Hawk Ridge, the vast majority of hawks can't be identified by their color pattern or plumage characteristics. They're simply too far away. Instead, we focus on the bird's overall shape, general light and dark coloration on major regions of its body (for example, even from a distance, the pure white head and tail of an adult Bald Eagle stick out in contrast with its black body), and its flight pattern.
So, let's take a more realistic view of things.
Here's a highly cropped version of that first kettle photo. Aha! Now you can't see the reddish color or whitish underwing or tail bands, can you? Instead, let's look at the shape of these birds. As their name suggests, they have wide wings. They also have a pretty short tail, especially when it's fanned out. Their body is pretty stocky, and overall they have a compact appearance. These body proportions are common to most hawks of the genus Buteo, including Red-tailed Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks.
Broad-wings are the most common hawk in these big kettles, and they are the hawk that most likes to soar on thermals. Often, of the hundreds of birds in a kettle, all but a few will be Broad-wings. But usually a few other raptors join the Broad-wing kettles, so counting the hawks isn't quite as easy as clicking a clicker. Before the raptors start streaming, you have to go through and pick out anything that might be different, like these:
Counting kettles is fun, exciting, and exhausting. It makes us all want neck massages. It has brought me dangerously close to falling off the railing of the count platform several times. It can be immensely frustrating when the birds in a kettle fly higher and higher and just refuse to stream off and be counted. But kettles can also lead to some truly incredible hawk totals. Here's the count board at Hawk Ridge on Saturday afternoon. The left column is the past hour, the next column is the day totals, and the right-hand column has season totals written in blue. By the end of the day on Saturday, the counters had tallied 16,815 Broad-winged Hawks, along with 459 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 276 Bald Eagles.
If you're interested in our season totals, check out the Hawk Ridge page on HawkCount. As of yesterday, our raptor total stands at 50,081. Our 50,000th bird was an adult Peregrine Falcon that appeared out of the fog that was beginning to move in on the ridge. We were all glad it was a bird we could point to, and not a distant milling speck in one of the kettles.
In the last few days, I've had the chance to visit the Hawk Ridge raptor banding station. While our job at the count platform is to tally every raptor that goes by, the folks at the banding station want to get up close and personal with just a few (but the more the better!). If we see birds from the count platform that are flying pretty low and seem to be heading in the direction of the banding station, we radio the station and they start "fishing" with their lures.
When a raptor sees what it thinks is an injured bird on the ground, it often can't resist the possibility of an easy lunch. Frank Nicoletti, the banding director, traps the birds as they come in with one of three types of nets. Dho gazza nets collapse over a bird when it hits them. Bow nets can be sprung to swing over a bird on the ground. Then there are mist nets, similar to the kind used to catch songbirds. Mist nets are made of fine black cord, and they are almost invisible to a bird. (Judging from the number of times I have nearly walked into a mist net, they're almost invisible to humans, too.) When the bird flies into the net, it gets tangled in the loose, baggy netting and can't get out.
Regardless of the type of net, banders know how to carefully and gently extract the bird so it doesn't get hurt, at which point they can weigh it, measure it, and put a band on it. The process is pretty much the same for songbirds and raptors, except that raptors are much bigger and have extremely sharp beaks and talons. If you get pecked by a songbird while taking it out of the net, there's usually no serious harm done. Getting pecked or "footed" by a raptor is a different story. The valiant banders and trainees at the banding station sport scratches all over their hands and an uncanny ability to ignore the blood dripping down various parts of their body.
But I'm exaggerating things a bit. The banders know what they are doing, and Frank was kind enough to show me around the station the other day. Here I am holding an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk, which banding trainees Reed Turner and Alan Moss taught me how to handle safely, gripping it in just the right place to avoid getting footed.
Here's Alan with the sharpie, showing off the bird's short, rounded wings, long tail, and the beautiful reddish barring on its chest.
We can tell this bird is an adult because of that reddish color on its chest, and because of the red eye and the slate gray color on its back, as you can see here.
The way that I'm holding the bird in the first picture is called the "popsicle hold" for obvious reasons. Alan is demonstrating the "three-quarters hold" which is used to show the bird's wing.
These photos were taken during a slow period at the banding station. But for a while during my visit, it was pretty busy, and I'm not referring to humans. The banders sit in a blind (a small hut painted brown and green to at least sort of blend into the trees) with the nets in front of them in a field. Raptors come in from over the trees in front and stoop to catch the lures. Alan told me that's the coolest part of his job: while they don't see as many birds as we do at the count platform, the ones they do see are diving in close at amazing speeds. I got to watch at least three Sharp-shinned Hawks and one Northern Harrier come into the station and get banded.
On Monday, the banding station caught a juvenile Northern Goshawk. A goshawk belongs to the same genus, Accipiter, as the little sharpie in the pictures above, but it's bigger, bulkier, and just plain scarier. (British author Helen Macdonald recently wrote a very good book about training a goshawk, which is packed with descriptions of the ferocity and beauty of this legendary bird. It's also well-written and filled with interesting history, and I'd recommend it to anyone, birder or otherwise) This goshawk was the first I had ever seen, and it hurtled low over our heads at the platform like a missile. We barely had time to reach for the radio and yell "Hawk watch to banding station: GOS!" before it went down below the trees and was caught in their nets. And since it was my first goshawk ever and only the second one caught at the banding station this year, I got to go down and see it.
When I walked into the banding station, the bird was screeching its head off, and the intimidation factor was high. I have frequently heard the calls of kestrels, Merlins, and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and most birds will vocalize when they're caught, out of alarm and in attempts to scare whoever's holding them into letting them go. But this goshawk was something else. It's a very large bird and has a voice to match its size, and within the confines of the small banding blind, it was deafening. While she measured and banded the goshawk, Karen Stubenvoll (Hawk Ridge board chair and volunteer raptor bander) explained how dangerous goshawks can be, and how she has learned to be cautious and extremely respectful of the bird's size, power, and sharp talons while she handles it. I listened in fascination from a safe distance, until she asked if I wanted to hold the bird.
I did. Oh, yes, yes, yes, I did. Those talons looked very, very sharp, and the bird was very, very big, and I couldn't have been more excited.
Karen held it first. She looks so calm.
I held it next. I look calm, too, but I assure you I was feeling like doing a little screaming of my own.
The bird was warm and solid in my hands, and strong. As it called, its whole body shook, and I felt my hands slipping lower down the sleek feathers. As you can see from the picture, my two hands together barely fit around the bird's body. Eventually, the bird worked a wing free, and I let go, because I could tell that trying to readjust my grip would only result in pain, blood, and screaming. (This is why Karen held the bird first.) The goshawk took off into the forest and perched on a tree, shaking its feathers.
The first time doing anything is special, and holding this bird was no exception. It's not every day that you get to hold your lifer (in birder slang, a "lifer" or "life bird" is a new bird species for you; one you've never seen before). It was awesome to have felt this bird's heart beating and to have watched it fly free, knowing that I may be one of the few humans who will ever touch it.
But if doing something for the first time is special, then doing it over and over again diminishes how intensely we experience it. I'm glad I got to hold this goshawk, but I'm equally glad that I don't hold goshawks every day. Already, up at the hawk watch, I catch myself zoning out as the hawks stream by, ticking off a sharpie on the ridge, two sharpies on the lake, a kettle of fifty broad-wings, no big deal. The sheer number of birds makes us forget that each one of them has a bill and talons and powerful wings, each one has a voice to fill a banding blind or strike terror into the heart of a flock of crows, and each one has a heartbeat.
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.