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Posts Tagged ‘Banding’

Greetings from Ship Island!

Bobby Brittingham here! As my time is coming to a close on Ship Island, I wanted a chance to post one more educational blog about our work before a farewell blog!

You may or may not have heard about “bird banding” before, it is an extremely common form of essentially tagging and releasing birds. Using specialized pliers, a small metal “C” shaped band is clamped shut around a bird’s tarsus (leg-like the shin bone equivalent to humans).

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BBL size 2 band, with the identification number, these are the bands used on all of the birds on Ship.

The banding database provides a lot of information on each bird, where they have been seen, where they nest, where they migrate, or even if the bird is alive, as long as the bird’s band is seen and read correctly by another researcher. These bands are essential to distinguishing one bird from another to perform other research procedures or to distinguish which bird belongs to which nest. On Ship we had very late nesting, so Collin and I have been banding as many chicks as possible with our limited time so that these birds can be identified on where they go over the next year.

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Collin banding with specialized pliers, one of Collin’s first banded birds!

Bands vary in size and number of letters based on the size, type of band, and/or species of the bird. For the common terns on Ship Island, a single size 2 “BBL” band is placed around their right leg; these bands each have a unique 9 digit number.  These bands are then entered in an online database through the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the “status” of a bird can be updated by individuals all over the world. For example, a tern was banded on Petit Manan this summer, and it has already been spotted by another researcher in Venezuela all the way in South America!

band on chick

The chicks do not mind the bands as long as they’re put on correctly. When they are put on right, they even look stylish!

For me personally, it is the most fun protocol we perform out here, nothing beats the feeling of getting to meet hundreds of chicks that I have the privilege to watch over every day on this island. Not only that, but it is crucial for research purposes. With the late nesting that occurred this year on Ship, it will be interesting to see where these birds could have possibly gone earlier this year by resightings of the chicks that we band this summer. Be on the lookout for one more blog from the Ship Island crew later this week!

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The beginning of the week started out slow and rough as the weather was not cooperative.  High winds made it so we could not go out to the tern colony as we wanted the adults to stay on their eggs and keep them warm from the howling winds.  Finally the weather broke Tuesday afternoon and we were able to do some trapping and banding of adult terns.  We do this by selecting a couple of nests, replacing the eggs with wooden ones so they do not get damaged, and placing a chicken wire trap over the nest with the door open.  When the adult walks into the trap, they step on a trigger platform that closes the door.  As the adult sits in the trap incubating the wooden eggs, we walk up and take it out of the trap through a hole in the top.  The adult is then placed in a bag where it is weighed using a spring scale.  We then band the bird and measure its wing chord and head-bill length before it is released to return to incubate its eggs which we have switched back to the real ones.

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A common tern checking out the trap

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Measuring wing chord length

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Measuring head-bill length

Wednesday we headed over to Matinicus Rock to help them with their tern census.  It was nice to get out to another island to see what was going on there; plus we got to see Atlantic puffins, razorbills, and common murres, three species that do not nest on Metinic.

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Atlantic puffins on Matinicus Rock

The next day it was our turn to census!  With the help of a few guests, we were able to count 608 nests in our colony of arctic and common terns!  We did this just in the nick of time as we came across multiple hatched chicks with more popping up every day!  The rest of the week was spent securing our productivity plots which are circles of fencing surrounding a number of nests.  When the chicks within the plots hatch, we record the hatch date and band them.  Every time we visit the plots, we weigh the chicks and keep track of how they are doing until they fledge.

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Pipping arctic tern egg

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A hungry chick waits to be fed

Throughout the week we have also come across savannah sparrow chicks and fledglings, and spotted sandpiper chicks running around on the rocks.  An identifying characteristic of spotted sandpipers is they bob their rump up and down as they walk; it is funny to watch the tiny fuzzy chicks do this as well!  We are looking forward to more chicks showing up in the upcoming weeks!

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A tiny spotted sandpiper chick

Until next week,

Helen

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While most of the other MCINWR islands are winding down for the season, Petit Manan is still going strong with major alcid trapping, island-wide guillemot and storm petrel checks, Arctic tern re-sighting, and our new-this-year project: Atlantic puffin feeding studies.

Atlantic Puffin with bill load

Atlantic Puffin with bill load through scope.

Puffin flying to burrow with fish that we have to identify as part of our feeding study

Puffin flying to burrow with fish that we have to identify as part of our feeding study

During our alcid checks, we discovered two little surprises in the form of Razorbill chicks! Only five pairs are breeding here on Petit Manan, so each new chick is very special to us. We even managed to capture one of his parents bringing food back to the burrow, an unusual sight here on PMI

Freshly banded Razorbill chick

Freshly banded Razorbill chick

Razorbill flying with food

Razorbill flying with food

Here are a few more snapshots of what else has been going on at PMI.

Black Guillemot chick being weighed during our weekly productivity checks

Black Guillemot chick being weighed every 5 days as part of our productivity checks

Leach's storm-petrel chick

Leach’s storm-petrel chick

PMI crew banding a puffin chick, minus Julia who took the photo

PMI crew banding a puffin chick, minus Julia who took the photo

A puffin undergoing the banding process

A puffin undergoing the banding process

Wayne and Julia with their first captured adult Razorbill!

Wayne and Julia with their first captured adult Razorbill!

Until next time,

Wayne and Julia

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Last week, John and I trapped and banded our first terns! We were thrilled to finally have the opportunity to see and work with these birds up close. But these amazing up close interactions did not come without a lot of hard work and preparation.  The process of trapping and banding is very detailed and a complete understanding is needed to keep the terns happy and healthy.

Before we could start banding, Julia and Wayne had us practice on dummy birds. These dummy birds were composed of cardboard toilet paper rolls for bodies, Q-tips for legs, and duct tape for heads. Julia and Wayne informed us of the methods of handling and banding terns when out in the field and with their help we simulated banding on our dummy birds by using old bands. After we felt comfortable with banding we learned how to collected measurements from our birds. When a tern is captured we recorded the weight, wing length, and head and bill length of the tern. We got to see and use all of the tools used to take these measurements.IMG_8528

In preparation for trapping, we laid out all of our equipment out on the lawn and checked to make sure all of the traps had all their components and were functional.  John and I spent some time getting used to setting up the traps and gripping the idea of the little quirks that makes the trapping process run a lot smoother.  Once we were quick and efficient with setting up out traps we were ready for the real deal!

Laura & Julia setting up their trap

Laura & Julia setting up their trap

Our first trapping day was nerve racking and exciting! We had to find a balance when trapping and banding our terns that would enable us to work fast but also be gentle and thoughtful when handing the terns. As much as we wanted to take our time and soak up all the beauty, we had to act quickly and efficiently when banding the terns to minimize the amount of stress placed on the birds. I felt uneasy going into my fist banding experience; this wasn’t like the dummy birds we practiced on, the terns move around a lot more than the dummies and one wrong pinch on the band could harm the tern. But to my surprise banding my fist bird came natural to me and it went smoothly. I got to trap and band many more terns that day and I hope to do some more in the next few days.

John and his tern

John and his tern

So far we have trapped 19 COTE (common terns) and 16 ARTE (arctic terns) our goal is to have a total of 20 COTE and 100 ARTE by next week! Trapping and banding terns is important because it shows sight fidelity and survival rates of juveniles and adults.

– Laura Bollert

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Although I may have spent the first few posts talking about songbirds and gulls, terns are our focus around here. These feisty seabirds are what bring us to Metinic, so it’s high time I let them have their “tern” as the center of attention.

Metinic’s terns, both Common and Arctic, had a rough season last year. Because of an unfortunate combination of bad weather and lots of egg-eating gulls, the terns were forced to abandon their nests shortly after they began laying eggs.

A Common Tern soars over Metinic - Photo by Zak

A Common Tern soars over Metinic – Photo by Zak

We were all holding our breath to see if the terns would take a chance on Metinic again this year. Even if they did, we had no idea how many would actually return.

After completing our annual tern census this week, we’re pleased to say we have 350 pairs of terns nesting on Metinic this year!

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An Arctic Tern on the nest – Photo by Zak

We’ve also had chicks of both species start hatching – more than fifty of the island’s most adorable residents have popped out of their shells. The adult terns are already hard at work bringing in enough fish to feed their new chicks. It will be about a month before these little fluffballs are ready to fly, so the adults have their work cut out for them.

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An Arctic Tern brings back a fish for its chicks – Photo by Zak

These days, Zak and I are out banding chicks in our productivity plots so we can chart their growth. Unlike tern parents, we can’t tell chicks apart without some kind of marker, so all productivity chicks are banded within a day or two of hatching.

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Amy banding a tern chick – Photo by Zak

We’ve also been trapping and banding adult terns. As with gulls, the best way to trap a tern is on their nest. We replace the eggs with wooden dummy eggs and set a trap that springs when the adult returns to incubate. We then band the tern and take a few measurements before releasing it. The dummy eggs are removed and the real ones are put back in the nest.  The terns aren’t too happy with the process, but they always seem to return to the nest within 15 minutes of being released.

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Banding an adult tern – Photo by Zak

By banding adult birds, we have a better chance of seeing the bands again – any breeding adult has already proven its ability to survive at least one migration, so it’s likely that it will survive another year. Some terns can live to be more than thirty years old, and every time we see the band we add another piece of information about that bird’s life.

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An Arctic Tern – Photo by Zak

You may notice us wearing some strange looking hats in our photos. While we’d like to pretend these are the very latest in high fashion, they’re actually a practical method of tern defense. When protecting their nests, adult terns aren’t afraid to peck an invader, be it gull or eagle or human, on the head. They typically aim for the highest part of the body, so adding a flag to the top of you hat is a good way to keep your head from getting pecked.

COTE ATTACK

Tern attack! Adult Common Terns defend their nests from an invading mammal (aka Amy) – Photo by Zak

We’ve got a few more terns stories coming up, plus an update on some of our other seabirds, like Black Guillemots and Leach’s Storm Petrels, so stay tuned!

-Amy

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You’ve seen them on docks. You’ve seen them on dumpsters. They eat fish, french fries, and everything in between. But where do all these gulls come from? And where do they go once they’ve finished their lunch?

 Gulls can be found just about everywhere there’s water (and plenty of places where there isn’t). There are plenty of them around, and they’ve gained a reputation as garbage-eating pests.  But there’s way more to a gull than dumpster diving.

Some gulls, like this Great Black-backed Gull, are actually quite handsome! - Photo by Zak

Some gulls, like this Great Black-backed Gull, are actually quite handsome! – Photo by Zak

First of all, gulls are actually cousins of the terns we’re working so hard to protect out on these islands, and these cousins have a lot in common. Both terns and gulls prefer to nest in large colonies, and lay their eggs in nests on the ground. They’re both strong fliers, capable of traveling long distances over the ocean (although nothing quite tops the pole-to-pole migration of the Arctic Tern).  Males and females of both tern and gull species are almost identical (although males tend to be a little bigger) and both parents work together to raise their chicks.

So why have gulls done so well when terns are in trouble? It all comes down to food. Gulls are opportunistic – they’ll eat anything. Terns are picky eaters – they generally only eat fresh-caught food they pluck from the water themselves. Like a tern, gulls also love fish. But they’ll also eat mussels, urchins, crabs, and in recent years, human refuse. They’ve learned to follow fishing boats, flock to open dumpsters, or sometimes snatch food right out of people’s hands. So gulls have thrived on these new abundant food sources, while terns have been struggling.

A Herring Gull, Metinic's most common gull - Photo by Zak

A Herring Gull, Metinic’s most common gull – Photo by Zak

But we and the Refuge have been wondering, where exactly do Refuge Island gulls get their food? Does a gull here on Metinic fly all the way to the mainland for a meal? Or do they stay local and snack in the intertidal zone? This year is the pilot year of a study to answer those very questions with the help of GPS.

So, what’s the plan?

Step 1: Catch a gull.

The best way to do this is on the nest. The setup is simple enough: the gull sits on a string tied to a wooden prop. The prop separates into two pieces and the box falls down, capturing the gull. We replace the real eggs with wooden ones so they won’t accidentally get crushed. Sounds easy enough, right? Maybe not.

Some people call gulls rats with wings – and it’s not a total misnomer. Both rats and gulls are a lot smarter than many people think.  It took us several hours of trapping to catch our first Herring Gull.

Catch me if you can!

Catch me if you can! AKA, Gulls – 3, Biologist-0

Step 2: Attach a GPS Logger

These little boxes, called igotU tags, are programmed to take a GPS reading every 3 minutes for about 4 days. To attach one to a gull, we put it in a waterproof casing then tape it to the gull’s back feathers with extra strong tape. The tag is light enough that it won’t hinder the gull when it flies, and hopefully the tape will keep the gulls from preening the tag off.

igotU tag getting taped to a Herring Gull's back - Photo by Amy

igotU tag getting taped to a Herring Gull’s back – Photo by Amy

We also band the gull and take a few measurements to determine if it’s a male or female.

Zak checks a GPS tag

Zak checks a GPS tag on a Herring Gull

Step 3: Release the gull!

Amy releasing a tagged and banded Herring Gull - photo by Zak

Amy releasing a tagged and banded Herring Gull – photo by Zak

Step 4: Trap the gull again.

To get the data from the GPS loggers, we have to trap the gull again and remove the tag. Stay tuned for Part 2 to see what we find out!

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A GPS-tagged Herring Gull on its way – Photo by Zak

– Amy

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