Sunday, June 19, 2016

The start of the MAPS season in Saskatchewan!


Well the first 10 day period of the MAPS season is over now!  We have to operate 1 banding day during those ten days for each MAPS stations.  2016 marks the first year I am operating 3 MAPS stations, so there is lots to report already!  This is the 7th summer for the Wascana MAPS station (in the Habitat Conservation Area of Wascana Park), the 4th summer for the Saw-whet MAPS station (at our farm and adjacent Ducks Unlimited Canada property), and the 1st summer for the Edenwold West MAPS station (west of Edenwold, on a Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation property).  I am only able to operate these stations thanks to the numerous volunteers who help! A special thanks to them!

Wascana MAPS - June 18, 2016
A total of 56 birds of 12 species were captured during the 6 hours of banding using 10 nets.  We placed new bands on 49 of those birds and 6 were recaptures.  This is the lowest number of birds captured on the first session of the 7 summers, but was the same as in 2012.

This year there are at least 10 Marsh Wrens vocalizing in the marsh which is exciting, as they have not been present since 2013.  We did catch one.  What we did not hear on Friday or Saturday, was Song Sparrows calling.  Last year, we had our best Song Sparrow capture rate, with 26 birds banded.  So it is very strange to not hear them calling...
Marsh Wren

One of the most interesting recaptures was the only Gray Catbird we caught (which was strange).  This bird was banded in 2010 as young of the year!  Which makes this bird 6 years old.  But what was most interesting was that we have not seen this bird since banded him back in 2010.  Where has he been for all those summers in between, but very neat to see him back in the Habitat Conservation Area.
The recaptured Gray Catbird from 2010. 

Another recapture of significance was a male Tree Swallow which we banded back in 2012 as an adult which we caught on Saturday again!  He was an adult when banded in 2012, so that makes him at least 5 years old.
Tree Swallow from 2012.

Here is a list of all of the birds captured and recaptured from Wascana MAPS.


Species Banded Recap
Red-winged Blackbird 13
Yellow Warbler 11 4
American Robin 8 1
Cedar Waxwing 6
Least Flycatcher 3
Warbling Vireo 2
Common Grackle 2
Brown-headed Cowbird 1
Marsh Wren 1
Red-eyed Vireo 1
Tree Swallow 1 1
Gray Catbird 1

Warbling Vireo

Saw-whet MAPS - June 13, 2016
Saw-whet MAPS had the highest capture rate of the three sites in the first period, with 58 new birds banded and 12 recaptures, for a total of 70 birds captured of 15 species.  7 mist nets are operated at this location.  A high number of Cedar Waxwings and Red-winged Blackbirds boosted our numbers.  But we also caught quite a few House Wrens.  We also captured three female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds but I do not have hummingbirds on my banding permit (nor the correct bands) so released them unbanded.
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

We caught 3 female Brown-headed Cowbirds and all three were already banded.  One was banded in 2013 and two from 2015.
One of three Brown-headed Cowbirds captured.

Three male Yellow Warblers returned to our farm this year who were originally banded in 2013!

I think the most interesting recapture from this location, was a Song Sparrow that we banded as a young bird last year, has now returned and found his own territory.
Song Sparrow banded in 2015.

The list of the birds captured at Saw-whet MAPS.

Species  Banded  Recap
Cedar Waxwing 11
Red-winged Blackbird 10
House Wren 7
Least Flycatcher 5 1
Yellow Warbler 5 5
Gray Catbird 4
Baltimore Oriole 4
American Robin 3 1
Clay-colored Sparrow 3
Warbling Vireo 2
American Goldfinch 1
Song Sparrow 1 1
Common Grackle 1 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Brown-headed Cowbird 3


House Wren
Male American Goldfinch

Edenwold West MAPS - June 15, 2016
I was very excited to start this site this year.  I had never heard of any birding reports from this piece of land and so wasn't really sure what to expect.  It is a half section that is predominately a solid block of trembling aspen.  There are some adjoining large blocks of aspen to the south east and west but essentially this is an island of forest in a sea of cropland.  What would we find?  I had hoped for Veery's, Red-eyed Vireos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and maybe Ovenbirds.  

Well most of my hunch came to be, as we captured a single Veery and Red-eyed Vireo on the 15th!  We heard at least 3 Veery's calling, as well a couple of Red-eyed Vireo's and one Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  We didn't hear any other warblers besides Yellow.  
Red-eyed Vireo

We did catch 43 birds of 16 species all together, so it was a productive morning!  No recaptures, but not surprising as we have never banded here before.  However, we are only 6 miles away from the Saw-whet MAPS site, so we are hopeful we might get some dispersal between these two sites.  We operate 9 mist nets at this site.  

We also captured 3 female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at this site, that were released unbanded
Kristen extracting a bird from the mist net.

Veery

A list of the birds captured at Edenwold West.

Species  Banded  Recap
Least Flycatcher 6
Clay-colored Sparrow 6
Yellow Warbler 5
Gray Catbird 4
House Wren 4
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 4
American Goldfinch 2
Cedar Waxwing 1
American Robin 1
Warbling Vireo 1
Baltimore Oriole 1
Brown-headed Cowbird 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Red-winged Blackbird 1
Veery 1
Red-eyed Vireo 1
Male Yellow-bellied 

In total we captured 169 birds this first period.  The second period starts tomorrow... Here we go again!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

One little bird's 2500 km journey!!

I could barely believe what I was reading a few weeks ago when I got an email from Robert Benson, from Texas.  Robert emailed me with details on an American Kestrel his PhD student Carter Crouch had captured in south Texas.

On June 30, 2015 at a bird house in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, my family and I banded a family of nestling kestrels.  There were 5 young kestrels in the box, 3 males and 2 females.
Two of the young kestrels from the Moose Jaw nest box banded on June 30, 2015.

My son Rowan, holding possibly 1623-44426!

Robert's email outlined that on November 29, 2015, Carter had caught a young female kestrel that I had banded in Moose Jaw.  She carried band #1623-44426! Amazing!  The distance between her nest box and her winter territory is 2,553 km!

A screenshot from Google Maps showing the distance between the banding location and the recapture location, 2,553 km.  

Carter is doing his PhD on wintering home range (how much area kestrels use to hunt, etc. in south Texas?), survival and site fidelity (do the birds come back to the same spot each winter?).  During the winter of 2014, he captured 34 kestrels and colour banded the birds so they could be easily identified using a spotting scope.  He then observed the birds on a regular basis to see how far they moved during the winter months.  This winter (2015), over 50% of the birds have returned back to their same territories as in 2014!

He added 3 colour bands to our kestrel so she could be part of his study.  In addition, he added some non-toxic dye to her breast feathers to also help identify her from a distance. As of early December, Carter had observed her 10 times along the same 500 m stretch of road and she is typically within 100-200 m of where he caught her!

1623-44426 with her new colour bands back at hunting for prey! Photo credit Carter Crouch.

Carter's volunteer field assistant Matthew Garrick holding 1623-44426 just prior to release. Photo credit Carter Crouch.

This recapture is so exciting because, despite the large number of kestrels that have been banded over the years, very few direct recoveries from a nest box to the known winter ground exist.  This is a very rare find.  But one that draws a direct line between Saskatchewan and Texas!

 A google street view of the exact coordinates of where Carter captured 1623-44426 in south Texas.
From this interesting recapture comes more questions!   
Where will she go to raise her first family in 2016?   Will she return to Saskatchewan?  Will she somehow find her way into one of the 80 nest boxes we have set up?  Will she return to Carter's study site in for winter 2016?

All I can say for sure, is Carter will be watching for her return next winter.  And my team of banders and I here in Saskatchewan will be eagerly opening our nests boxes come spring hoping to find that little kestrel with three colour bands on her legs and one metal band sitting on her first clutch of eggs.  

To read more about this kestrel check out Robert and Karen Benson's blog post.

You can also read more about our American Kestrel nest box study

Thursday, December 24, 2015

American Kestrels populations declining in Saskatchewan

Many people from around Saskatchewan are familiar with a small falcon that commonly nests in urban centres, high up in spruce trees, and gives an ear piercing keekeekeekeekeekee call.  This bird is called a Merlin.

However, this blog post is not about Merlins.  This blog post is about its smaller cousin the American Kestrel.  Most people are not familiar with this brilliant coloured falcon as it doesn't often chose to nest close to people and is often overlooked, as it is roughly the size of a Mourning Dove.  Yet, once a person has actually had a chance to see how vibrant these little birds are, its difficult to forget about them.  That's been the case for me, anyways.  Males and females look different, a phenomena I have mentioned before with Yellow-headed Blackbirds, sexual dimorphism.
Male American Kestrel
Female American Kestrel

In Saskatchewan and across all of Canada, the American Kestrel's population has been declining for at least 40 years now.  According to Breeding Bird Survey Results from southern Saskatchewan, each year their population declines by 2.19% on average.  That means in the last 40 years, there are less than half as many kestrels in Saskatchewan compared to 1970.

It seems we are regularly reminded by news stories about how there are far fewer animals today than 40 years ago.  Our default tends to be thinking about elephants, lions and rhinos across the world in peril, and we forget about wildlife right here in Saskatchewan which are hurting just the same.  The American Kestrel is one such species that is hurting.
Back and tail of a male American Kestrel

Kestrels are cavity nesting birds, meaning they rely on naturally forming cavities or old woodpecker holes to lay their eggs in and raise their young.   Because they only nest in cavities, if they can't find nesting sites they won't nest in that area, even if the habitat is acceptable in other ways.  Thankfully though, kestrels also regularly use nest boxes, so we can provide nesting cavities if they have been lost.
Back of the head of a male kestrel

To learn more about American Kestrels in Saskatchewan, myself and a team of banders (Joe Kotlar, Randy McCulloch, Adam Crosby and Matt Tokaruk) have set up a nest box project.  Besides the Breeding Bird Survey, no other systematic population survey occurs in southern Saskatchewan on kestrels.  Therefore, this project has two objectives, 1) to provide nest boxes for kestrels in suitable sites in southern Saskatchewan to help increase their population given their declines and 2) to regularly monitor the nest boxes to determine kestrel-specific population fluctuations.
Nestling American Kestrels in a nest box

We started this project in 2015.  Using the National Audubon Society American Kestrel Nestbox plan we made all of the boxes the same so that comparisons could be made between locations.  This first year, we set up 5 different locations, close to where each bander is located.  These areas are near Edenwold, Herbert, Nokomis, Prince Albert and Saskatoon.  Each location has a cluster of 10 nest boxes, that are at least 2.4 km apart.  They are set up on trees, poles, and buildings.  In total, 50 nest boxes were available for kestrels.

Our occupancy rates during 2015 where much lower at each location than expected as can be seen in the table below.  Only 3 nest boxes (6%) were occupied in total and only 2 nests successfully fledged young.  This was much lower than expected.

A nest box is active if eggs or young are found in the nest.  Adults may be observed around the box, but if no eggs or young are observed, the nest box is not deemed active.  

My hunch for why our occupancy rate was so low may be that male kestrels scout next years territory in the fall prior to or during migration.  Four of the 5 locations did not get the boxes up until a month before kestrels returned to Saskatchewan in spring 2015.  If males scout in the fall, perhaps our boxes were not set up in time.  We shall see if we have better occupancy in 2016...  It would be interesting to set up cameras at nest boxes in the fall and see if any kestrels stop in and investigate the boxes then.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Resighting another green tagged Turkey Vulture

Earlier this summer, my friend Fran Kerbs emailed me a photo of one of the Turkey Vultures I had tagged back in 2012.  Except the photo was from 11 km away and 2 years after I had tagged it.

Fran spotted C37 on June 6, 2014 along route #99 near Craven Saskatchewan.  I tagged this bird on August 6th, 2012 near the town of Earl Grey in Saskatchewan.  This is a remarkably close resighting of a young Turkey Vulture 2 years after fledging, based on the 153 km average of other resighted young TUVU.  It is also amazing, considering this bird likely had migrated south possibly to Venezuela twice already in its lifetime!  It is believed, based on the tagging research we have been doing, that Turkey Vultures do not breed until 6 years of age.  One year later, I wonder where C37 is now?  Mexico? Venezuela?  

Thanks for helping to track these neat birds Fran!  And thanks for letting me share your sighting.

 Here is C37, still downy white after being tagged on August 6, 2012.
C37 and C38 back in their man-made cave where Turkey Vultures nest in Saskatchewan.
C37 on June 6, 2014, along Route #99 in the Qu'Appelle Valley with an untagged vulture.  Photo by Fran Kerbs.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Opposed to the Wind Farm At Chaplin Lake

I have never really deviated from my bird banding posts here on this blog, but today I would like to share with you my letter that I have sent to the Environmental Assessment Unit at the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment.  

After spending a long time banding Ferruginous Hawks around Chaplin Lake and this spring banding Sanderlings along the dykes of Chaplin Lake, I feel a deep connection to this place and have an understanding of what this place means to birds in general.  I feel to not voice my concern about the proposed wind farm that is to go just north of this important bird area, would be a disservice to the organisms I have held in my hand.  
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Two Sandlerings ready to be released this spring, 2015. 

Sunrise over Chaplin Lake.  



Dear Environmental Assessment Unit,

I would like to send this email to express my concern for the location of the proposed wind farm at Chaplin lake.  There are two major issues I have with the proposal.


First, Chaplin Lake is an internationally recognized Important Bird Area.  Millions of shorebirds use it as an important refueling station during their migration north to the Arctic.  To place a wind farm directly north of this area seems incredibly ill planned.  According to The State of Canada's Birds (2012), shorebirds as a group have seen dramatic population declines in Canada over the last 40 years, with population losses close to 50%!  Additionally, research by Stewart et al (2007) found that shorebirds experienced the second highest collision rate with wind turbines as a group.  So we know that a huge number of shorebirds use this area, we know that shorebirds are highly susceptible to mortality due to collisions with turbines, AND we know that shorebirds as a group are declining in Canada.  So I am having a hard time understanding why this placement of wind turbines in this recognized Important Bird Area is a good idea... or why this proposal has even made it to this stage frankly.

My second major concern is the placement of a large portion of the turbines in native grasslands.  Saskatchewan only has approximately 20% of native prairie remaining in the province.  Species at risk, such as Sprague's Pipits, Ferruginous Hawks, and Bobolinks, along with other birds such as Baird's Sparrows, Western Meadowlarks, and Upland Sandpipers readily use these remaining patches of native prairie.  In fact, I have banded many Ferruginous Hawks nestlings in this area, data for which the Conservation Data Centre has on file.  The State of Canada's Birds (2012) also undeniably shows that grassland songbirds as a group have experienced dramatic declines in Canada over the last 40 years.  In addition, research by Leddy et al. (1999) showed that turbines negatively influenced nest densities of grassland songbirds due to human presence at turbines, noise of the turbines and the motion of the turbines as possible causes.  The authors recommended that turbines should be placed in cropland so that grassland songbirds are not negatively impacted by wind turbines.  So again, we know that native prairie is becoming an increasingly rare ecosystem in Saskatchewan, we know that many species, including species at risk use this grassland around Chaplin, we know that grassland songbirds as entire group have seen major declines in Canada, AND we know that turbines decrease the nesting density of grassland songbirds.  So as with my first point above, I am still perplexed why this site is even being considered for a wind farm!

What’s the solution?  I am all for wind power generation!  We need to dramatically alter our energy production in this province from coal to a low carbon emission alternative such as wind, to help fight climate change.  However, we do not need to sacrifice wildlife by placing these turbines in the wrong places.  We have 80% of southern Saskatchewan covered in cropland, where grassland songbirds do not nest.  Move the wind farm away from Chaplin lake and put it in cropland.  Compensate landowners appropriately for accommodating the turbine on their land.  The benefits of wind energy for climate change are very important.  As long as we are intelligent about where we place these turbines, they can have low impact on wildlife as well. 

Thank you for taking the time to consider my opinion on this proposed wind farm and I hope common sense will prevail and the birds of Chaplin Lake and the surrounding prairie will not be impacted by an ill-conceived plan.  

Sincerely,

Jared Clarke



Leddy, K.L., Higgins, K.F., & Naugle, D.E. (1999) Effects of wind turbines on upland nesting birds in conservation reserve program grasslands. Wilson Bulletin111, 100-104.

State of Canada's Birds. http://www.stateofcanadasbirds.org/

Stewart, G.B., Pullin, A.S., and C.F. Coles. 2007. Poor evidence-base for assessment of windfarm impact on birds. Environmental Conservation34, 1-11.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Will these Yellow-headed Blackbirds come back?

This summer, I started a project on two sloughs around our farm near Edenwold, SK.  Yellow-headed Blackbirds are beautiful birds when you actually have a close look at them and get over the fact they are 'blackbirds'.  

Two year old breeding males have striking yellow heads and throats, a black mask and bill, with a jet black bodies, and white primary coverts.  First year males, lack the bright yellow, instead have a dull yellow head, and a brownish body.  Generally, these young males do not hold their own territory.  The females on the other hand, have a brownish body plumage, with some yellow on their head and throat.  Males are bold and flashy to attract their mates and females are more cryptic to hide while incubating.  

Male Yellow-headed Blackbird
Female Yellow-headed Blackbird

There are a number of interesting things about Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  Males hold territories and may attract multiple females into their territory to nest.  This mating strategy is polygamy.  The male will sometimes help the first female who nests in his territory to feed her offspring, but the rest of the females must care for their brood entirely on their own.  This summer, I believe one male had 4 females in his territory, but they can apparently have up to 8 females.  Males defend their territory from predators and other rival males.  Female yellow-heads weave a basket nest, amongst the cattails that hangs over top of the water.  Prime nesting territory seems to be where the water is deeper, but the cattails are still tall.  
A Yellow-headed Blackbird nest with 4 eggs.  

We have a high density of Yellow-headed Blackbirds nesting all around us as the water level has been high around here for the last 5 years.  On our slough maybe 30 meters from our house we had at least 20 yellow-head active nests, over the course of the summer.  This abundant local population provides a great opportunity to study this species, while keeping my carbon footprint associated with the project low.  

The question I am interested in is nest site fidelity of female yellow-heads.  In other words, how often do females return to the same slough year after year to build their nest.  So to study this, I began marking the birds with small plastic colour bands so that individuals can be identified with a camera, binoculars or a spotting scope.  On the two pictures below you can see the colour bands clearly on their legs.  
The colour band sequence on this female is left leg, red over metal, right leg, yellow over red.  
The colour band sequence on this male is left leg, yellow over red, right leg, red over metal.  The opposite of the above female. 

This summer (2015), I captured and colour banded 17 adult yellow-heads on two sloughs.  Now we wait to see who comes back.     

Can you see the band on this females leg?  

 During the winter, Yellow-headed Blackbirds form large flocks.  This one was down the road from our place in September and even includes a male red-winged blackbird.  I wonder where this flock is now.