Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Common Grackles with Yellow Bands!

I got a request to post a new update to the old blog, so here we are. I'm excited to share a new and old project with you here - banding Common Grackles!

In 2015, I started a banding project on Common Grackles in my yard because, well, we had a ton of them here! Each spring I had noticed upwards of 120 birds amassing in our well-treed shelterbelt and going about pairing off, building nests and raising young. I thought this presented a great opportunity to study a common species. Years later, I have come to realize how little research has been conducted on this common 'pest' species. 

From 2015-2020 I banded 319 grackles here at the farm, catching on average 53 new grackles each year and recapturing 18 banded grackles from previous years. Just this winter, using these data my friend Dr Ryan Fisher and I were able to calculate the annual survival rate of grackles at my farm. Our paper has been accepted for publication in the North American Bird Bander, so stay tuned for more about that. 

But from these results more questions arose. Looking at our data, some birds are recaptured many years following their initial banding, while others are caught initially and then not recaptured for years! The longest time interval was a female grackle banded in May of 2012 and then not recaptured again until 2020! That bird was 9 years old when she was recaptured! Where was she from 2013 to 2019? Was she here in the yard, but just didn't get caught or was she nesting in another farmyard somewhere nearby? 

So I decided coded colour bands are going to help answer some of these questions! And that's what I have been up to this spring. These highly visible bands will allow me to resight the grackles in our yard, even if they know how to avoid my trap. So far this spring, I have placed 51 colour bands onto both previously unbanded and recaptured grackles. 

From 2015 to 2020 the birds were banded with a standard metal band. There are 9 numbers that wrap around the band and are difficult to read unless the bird is in your hand, hence the the need to actually recapture them. The colour bands on the other hand are all yellow with black coding and very easy to read with binoculars or a spotting scope. They have 2 letters that are large and repeated around the band. AB was the first band used (I accidently broke AA... haha) and continue through to AZ, then BA to BZ, etc. 

With these coded bands, I am also locating nests in my yard and trying to determine specific nesting locations of individuals to see where they nest in the yard from year to year. I'm also hoping to see if some of these banded birds are observed in nearby farmyards or towns, perhaps even during migration. And I am also really hoping some of these bands will be read on their wintering grounds in the eastern United States to give us some exact locations for where Saskatchewan grackles spend their winter. However, there are an estimated 61 million Common Grackles in North America, so my 50-80 colour banded birds may be easily missed. I'm not getting my hopes up too high.

So if you have found this blog post because you have seen a yellow banded common grackle, please send me an email! clarkejared@hotmail.com.

What I love about this whole project, is getting to know the birds who nest in our yard. For example, 1573-01581 is a male grackle that I banded on April 21, 2017 and have recaptured each year following here in our yard (2018, 2019, 2020, and even 2021!). This male has come back to our yard for 5 years in a row. He now also wears a yellow band with code BF. 

A female, 1352-42767, was banded on May 7, 2015, and has been recaptured in our yard in 2017, 2019, 2020 and again in 2021. She is at least 7 years old now (but could be older). She is now wearing band CB. 

This picture isn't great, but BB is showing off, so I had to include it. 

Birds are captured and banded with proper provincial and federal banding permits. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Banding Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Saskatchewan 2017

 I think I start most of my posts on here by commenting how long it has been since I have lasted posted... I need to post more regularly.  

My Canada Goose banding project in Wascana Park is now over and I have decided to close up the Wascana MAPS station this year, so I have a bit of spare time now to work on a different project.  I am excited to share that that new project will involve Ruby-throated Hummingbirds!

At the end of July, 2016 I traveled down to southern Illinois to get the required training to catch and band hummingbirds.  I spent three days with Cathie Hutcheson, an amazing bander.  We traveled around Illinois to her various banding locations where she has been banding hummingbirds for the last 9 years.  Under Cathie's watchful eyes, I got to band 167 Ruby-throats in the three days I was there!  What an experience!
One of the banding locations in southern Illinois I visited in 2016.  There are a lot of hummingbirds in this area!  At one of the sites, the homeowner puts out 5 gallons of sugar water each day!!!!!!!

I now have authorization on my banding permit to be banding hummingbirds here in Saskatchewan starting in 2017.  The project goal is to begin to get an idea of movements and numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds around the Edenwold-Balgonie-Fort Qu'Appelle area.  I plan to visit a number of sites in this area a couple times each summer and catch and band the hummingbirds that frequent the feeders.  Over time, I will get a better understanding of the population of hummingbirds in the area, as well as how the birds move around on the landscape. 

Part of the reason I started getting interested in banding these hummingbirds is that at my MAPS station at our farm and on the adjacent Ducks Unlimited quarter, I usually catch 5-7 hummingbirds in our mist nets over the course of the season.
 A beautiful male Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Males weigh only 3.5-4.5 grams.

I have started to reach out to folks in the area who feed hummingbirds each year in their yards.  If you have hummingbirds visiting a feeder you maintain around Craven, Edenwold, Balgonie or Fort Qu'Appelle, please contact me to see if we can add your site to my banding locations. 
Hummingbird bands come as a sheet of metal and have to be cut out and formed by the bander.  Bands for Ruby-throats are 6.0 and 5.6 mm in length!  

This project is pretty exciting as only 1 other bander bands hummingbirds in Saskatchewan, Ron Jensen in Saskatoon.  Last year Ron captured 244 Ruby-throats!  So now just like every other bird, if you find a dead hummingbird, please check it for a band!
The last hummingbird I banded in Illinois in July, 2016.  See the single red feather on his throat?  This is a young male!  Next year, when he returns he will have a pure red throat!

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.


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.