Friday, September 4, 2015

Turkey Vulture tagging in southeastern Saskatchewan

This year I was again able to assist Dr. Stuart Houston's crew with their Turkey Vulture tagging project in Saskatchewan!  It was great to be part of the small group of dedicated researchers who study this species in North America!  Such a unique bird and a smelly one...
An adult Turkey Vulture.

Imagine if you will, a dead, rotting, nasty skunk on the side of the road.  A delicious meal for a Turkey Vulture.  After consuming as much as it can carry the adult vulture will return to its nest (possibly 80 kms away!) and regurgitate its semi-digested meal out for its babies to eat.  The young gobble up this fantastic meal.  Unfortunately for us taggers, when you go up and try to catch the young vultures they then throw up their semi-digested dead skunk meal to try to make us think twice about grabbing them... fantastic...

The goal of tagging these young birds is to determine at what age turkey vultures begin to breed at.  Amazingly, prior to this study only 1 known aged breeding bird was known to science - an 11 year old bird in Wisconsin.  Because turkey vultures defecate down their legs to cool themselves, no one is allowed to band this species with a metal band.  So this is one of the reasons for the lack of prior knowledge but also why we use wing tags.

So far 7 tagged nestlings have been found breeding in Saskatchewan 4-10 years after being tagged.  But we need more of these records!  7 records isn't that many considering the over 1217 nestlings that have now been tagged in SK!  Despite the low number of birds being found again as breeding birds, over 400 sightings have been made of nestling turkey vultures once they have left the nest and up to 10 years after being tagged. It is estimated that turkey vultures can live to be 40 years old!

So if you see a green tagged turkey vulture in Saskatchewan sitting on an abandoned building in the spring PLEASE contact me!  This sighting could reveal previously unknown information on this species!!

Here are some of the birds I tagged this year.

 Alisha shows the wing length on this young vulture.

My cousin Hunter and my son Rowan with 03A.

Ralph Goff holds 04A a young vulture tagged in an old house on his land. 

Diane and Hunter with 05A.

05A back in the old barn it was raised in.  It will be less than a week before it can fly.

New tagging recruits, my sons Rowan & Teal & cousin Hunter with 06A.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Photo Gallery: Nests around the Saw-whet MAPS station

As part of the MAPS protocol, we record all of the birds observed during the MAPS sessions and determine the breeding status of these birds around the station.  If the bird is carrying food for example, it suggests that it is feeding young and therefore is breeding in the MAPS area.

Another way to confirm breeding status, is to actually notice their nests.  This is one of my favourite parts of the MAPS program!  We travel the trail to check nets every 20-30 minutes during the morning and make over 10 trips along the same route!  So you start to notice things as you go.

I run a second MAPS station in my yard and on an adjacent Ducks Unlimited property, near Edenwold.  2015 was the 3rd year running this station.  Almost all of the birds that nested here this summer have now departed south and so I thought it was a good time to look back at some of the nests we found within the station in 2015.
Baby Tree Swallows in a nestbox.  There were 8 chicks in this nest!

Here they are a couple weeks later.

This was one of my favourite nests to watch this summer!  A Ruby-throated Hummingbird!  The first time I had ever found one.  Can you see the nest sitting on the horizontal branch in the middle of the photo?

Two little beaks poking out, on the left and one just at the back on the right.  

Getting a little big for that nest!

Baby Barn Swallows.

I was walking along looking at my feet as I walked, when I looked up and a few feet from my face was this female Least Flycatcher staring right back at me!

 This is the same nest once the eggs had hatched.  

The same nest, with an adult tending to the young. 

Here there are a day before they fledged. 

Eastern Phoebes nest in our yard in an old shed but this year their second nest was a reused old nest from the year prior right above our bedroom window.  They refurbished it and raised a second brood! 

Here are the chicks in their lovely soft nest!

Here they are just before they fledged. 

This is a Cedar Waxwing nest.  

One of 6 Purple Martin nests in our two Purple Martin houses.

Here is the perfect nest of a Yellow Warbler.

This Gray Catbird nest was right in the hedge row beside the boys swing set.  She would not move off that nest while we worked around the yard.  They fledged at least 3 chicks.

I guess we have to wait another 9 months before we will see any of these again... I am looking forward to it!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Our oldest known bird recaptured at Wascana MAPS!

We are now 2/3's of the way done the 6th season of Wascana MAPS!  Does the summer fly by or what!? 

Some of the most interesting stories I think we have learned at Wascana MAPS over the years is from returning birds.  Session 4 added a few new recaptures of birds who we hadn't seen yet this summer.

Our most exciting find was recapturing our oldest known bird to date at Wascana MAPS.  This female American Robin who we first banded on June 26, 2010 proved she was still alive by getting caught in one of our nets!  When I first banded this bird in 2010, she was an ASY bird, meaning she was hatched in 2008 or earlier!  So she is 7 years old now or older!  Wow!  This is the 4th time in 6 years we have seen her, first in 2010, again in 2012, 2014 and now 2015.

This bird demonstrates why banding birds with unique identifiers is so important to understanding population dynamics.  When I have a bird in my hand, I can typically tell whether that bird hatched this year, last year or sometime before that (for many songbird species).  But if that bird is 7 years old like this robin, without a band on her leg, I could only say she is 2 years old or maybe more...

Truly amazing when you consider an ADULT robin only has about a 50% chance of surviving each year (based on MAPS results for our region).  So in 2009 if we band 100 robins (the year she would be considered an adult), by 2010, only 50 will be alive.  By 2011, 25 are left, 2012, 12 are left, by 2013, 6 are left, and by 2014 maybe 3 are left.  By 2015, in theory only 1 or maybe 2 of those robins banded 7 years ago should be alive... I'll say it again.  WOW!

Female American Robin (#922-79913) first banded in 2010.

We also recaptured a Brown-headed Cowbird (2013), a Gray Catbird (2011), a Common Yellowthroat (2012) and a Song Sparrow (2013), who have been recaptured EVERY year since they were first banded (in brackets).  These birds are demonstrating how important Wascana Marsh is for their survival and how strong their fidelity is to this location.  These birds travel thousands of kilometers away each fall and back in the spring, to come back specifically to this area in Wascana Park!  Truly amazing stuff and truly speaks to why protecting this area for these animals is so important.

Female Brown-headed Cowbird (# 2571-03960) first banded in 2013 and recaptured at Wascana MAPS each year since. 

We have now completed what is termed the Adult superperiod in MAPS jargon.  Sessions 1-4 are dominated by breeding adults and few young (although we have seen a lot of young American Robins and Song Sparrows in the last 2 sessions).  For the last two session of the summer we enter the Young superperiod!  This is when we see a lot of the young that were produced during the summer start to really disperse (as they are heading out on their own) and start to arrive in our nets.  Last year (2014) because of a number of factors we saw a pretty significant decrease in the number of young produced compared to the previous 3 years.  

What will this summer bring?  Was the warm, dry conditions good for nestlings?  Or did this cause a decrease in food sources for some birds to feed their chicks with?  In the next two weeks we will find out.

So far this year we have seen the highest number of young Song Sparrows every banded at Wascana MAPS, which is 15 birds!  Prior to this, the highest number we have captured in a summer is 3!  This is great to see, as last year only 1 young Song Sparrow was captured.  

One of the 15 juvenile Song Sparrows we have captured this year at Wascana MAPS.

Here are our total results so far for 2015.  

In addition, here is a comparison graph of the total number of birds captured during each session at Wascana MAPS from 2010 to 2015.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Spotting a green tagged Turkey Vulture

It seems like in the last month or so there has been a flurry of sightings of Turkey Vultures (TUVU) with green tags on their wings!  According to Dr. Stuart Houston of Saskatoon the lead of the Turkey Vulture tagging program in Saskatchewan, 1225 Turkey Vultures have now been tagged in the province over the last 11 years!

Despite having been involved in this project for about 4 of those years, at the beginning of this summer I still had never seen a tagged Turkey Vulture flying around!  However, that all changed on Sunday this week, as we drove home from Big Sandy Lake.

We were just two miles north of Melfort when Kristen spotted a TUVU circling in the air beside the road.  I was going to pull over to have a look at the bird, when a second bird flew out of the ditch, just as we passed it and landed on a nearby fence post.  As the bird flew out of the ditch I caught a glimpse of a green wing tag!

A88 just taking off.

Sure enough, upon turning around.  There sat a Turkey Vulture with A88 on its patagial tag.  Bird banders are not able to band TUVU with a standard aluminum band, because of their habit of defecating down their legs as a way to cool themselves.  Over time their crap can build up on an aluminum band and cause damage to the birds leg. So instead some banders put patagial tags on the TUVU wings.

We were just able to get a glimpse of the tag's digits when the bird flew away.

 A88 in flight.

A88 in flight.

Back at home, I contacted the Dr. Stuart Houston and informed him of our sighting.  It turns out this bird is 6 years old!  It was tagged on August 30, 2009 near Hagen, SK as a nestling.  Therefore, 6 years later, this bird is only 70 km away from where it hatched!  Pretty amazing when you consider that these birds winter in Costa Rica or South America!  And it has gone south 5 times now during its life.

My certificate of appreciation for the tag sighting.

What adds to this story, is that this is not the first time A88 has been seen! In October, 2009, on its first migration south, A88 was observed near Trossachs, SK.  And then again in August 2012, this bird was sighted in Saskatchewan!

If you are so lucky as to observe a tagged Turkey Vulture, make sure you record the date, location (gps location is optimal), the tag number, colour of tag (different colours mean different projects) and what the bird was up to.  You can contact me at my email address on this blog and I can put you in touch with Dr. Houston.  Its important to get the 'air number' from Dr. Houston, prior to submitting your observation through the website, as this will help speed up the process.

Dayne Wilkinson, just contacted me a few days ago (June 22) for just that reason after his dad snapped this photo of E81 just west of Prince Albert, SK.  This bird was tagged in 2012, making it 3 years old now.
Turkey Vulture E81 - Thanks Mr. Wilkinson for letting me post your photo!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Wascana MAPS session 2

We completed the 2nd session of the Wascana MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) station this morning.  It was an average morning in terms of total captures.  We banded 36 new birds and recaptured 16 previously banded birds.  Seven of the 16 recaps were those we banded in the first session 12 days ago, and the other 9 were from previous years (2 of which we captured last session as well).  We also captured the first young of the year today - 1 young Robin and 1 Song Sparrow.

Session #2
June 23/2015
Species Banded Recap
Red-winged Blackbird 12 3
American Robin 4 1
American Goldfinch   1
Yellow Warbler 3 5
Cedar Waxwing 5  
Gray Catbird 1 2
Clay-colored Sparrow 1  
Brown Thrasher 3 1
Brown-headed Cowbird 2 1
Common Yellowthroat 1  
Baltimore Oriole 1 2
Song Sparrow 2  
Warbling Vireo1


Brown-headed Cowbird male

Interestingly, we have been catching a lot of Red-winged Blackbirds (RWBL).  So far in the two sessions, we have banded 30 birds and recapped 3 birds from previous years.  RWBL have been our fifth most common species captured over the last five years (a total of 145 have been banded) and on average 29 birds each summer.  So we have already surpassed that this year in only 2 sessions.  Surprisingly, one year old males (SY males) are making up the vast majority of the birds we are capturing.  I am not sure what this means exactly, in terms of why they are so abundant here this year.  These birds typically do not hold territory at this age, as they lack the impressive black and red plumage to impress the females and compete with older males.  So they are just hanging around and learning it seems.  

The water level is amazingly low this year in Wascana Marsh, compared to all other years we have been banding.  This seems to have impacted a few of the marsh species.  For example, we have not heard any Marsh Wrens this year, and very few Sora's are present - today we only heard one call once.

The 7 new recaptured birds we caught today were originally banded in:
2012 - 1 Baltimore Oriole
2013 - 1 Red-winged Blackbird, 1 Gray Catbird
2014 - 1 Brown Thrasher, 2 Yellow Warbler, 1 American Goldfinch

The recaptured Baltimore Oriole from 2012 was a first for our station!  We have never recaptured a Baltimore Oriole before, let alone one from 4 summers ago!  This female must have had success raising young in the HCA to be returning.  She was aged as an adult bird when originally captured meaning she is at least 4 years old now.  
Female Baltimore Oriole #8051-82697

A newly banded male Baltimore Oriole

The Red-winged Blackbird banded in 2013, has returned for her third summer now.  We have captured her in 2013, 2014 and now 2015.

During each MAPS session we record all species of birds observed as well as noting their particular behaviour to suggest whether they are breeding in the area or not.  For example, birds only carry food in their bill if they are returning to feed chicks, so if we see a Gray Catbird carrying food, this suggests they are nesting somewhere in the area.

To date we have observed 94 species in the Habitat Conservation Area, during the MAPS program (from June 10 to August 9) from 2010-2015.  We were excited to add the 95 species documented - a Green Heron.  This is a rare visitor to Wascana Marsh and it was the keen eye of Kim Mann who picked that one out!  Here are some long shot photos to confirm its identity!

Adult male Song Sparrow & a recently fledged Song Sparrow chick 

 1st young Robin we captured this summer

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

First Wascana MAPS session in the bag!

Last week we had a success first session at the Wascana MAPS banding station!  This is our 6th summer of banding songbirds in Wascana Marsh!  The Wascana MAPS station is located mainly in the Habitat Conservation Area in Wascana Park.  I now operate the station in a volunteer capacity (first 4 years were as the Park Naturalist of Wascana Centre).  In Saskatchewan, there are now 5 stations in operation - Wascana, Saw-whet (near Edenwold), Craven, Beaver Creek (near Saskatoon) and Love.  In North America, we are 5 of the 500 or so stations that operate each year!  To learn more about the MAPS program visit the Institute of Bird Population's website.

Thursday, June 11 was the day!  We started opening our ten mist nets at dawn, which on June 11 is at 4:47 am.  We keep them open for 6 hours and so begin closing them at 10:47.
A lot of volunteers out for our 1st session of the summer! Thanks everyone!

We had a pretty productive morning with 46 birds being banded and 17 birds being captured that already had bands on their legs! Below is a detailed break down of what we captured.  In total 13 species were captured during the course of the morning which is a little low, 14-17 was the range for the last 5 years.  The total number of birds captured was right in the middle of what we would expect for the first session (range 53-88 over the last 5 years).

Session #1
June 11/2015
Species Banded Recap
Red-winged Blackbird 18 2
American Robin 6 1
American Goldfinch 6 1
Yellow Warbler 3 9
Gray Catbird 3 3
Clay-colored Sparrow 3  
Cedar Waxwing 1  
Least Flycatcher 1  
Common Yellowthroat 1 1
House Wren 1  
Brown-headed Cowbird 1  
Baltimore Oriole 1  
Brown Thrasher 1  

Net 9 with a robin waiting to be removed.

What I always find interesting are the recaptures - these are birds that we have already captured and banded previously.  Because this is the first banding session of the year, all of the 17 birds recaptured are from previous years.

Of special note was one of the Red-winged Blackbirds.  This bird (#922-79909) was first banded in 2010 as a Second Year bird, meaning he hatched in 2009.  This makes him 6 years old now!  Interestingly, this is the first time we have recaptured this individual since originally banding him in 2010.  Where has he been all this time?
922-79909 telling me how much he likes me...

Two of the Yellow Warbler recaps were from 2011, making this their 5th summer in the HCA!  Amazing to think these little birds who weigh 9-10 grams can fly back and forth from Regina to Central or South America each year for 5 years now!  One of the warblers hatched in 2010 and the other in 2011, making these birds 5 and 4 years old, respectively. 

The last interesting thing about the recaps that I will mention, was 3 Yellow Warblers were captured in the same net on the last run of the morning (in net 9).  All three had been banded on May 26, 2013 in the HCA!  What are the chances we would catch those three birds together like that again.  Only 1 of these birds had we recaptured in other years.  

In total our recaps were broken down like this. 
Originally banded in:
2014 - 3 Yellow Warbler, 1 Red-winged Blackbird, 1 Gray Catbird, 
2013 - 1 Gray Catbird, 1 American Goldfinch, 1 American Robin, 1 Common Yellowthroat, 3 Yellow Warblers
2012 - 1 Yellow Warbler, 
2011 - 2 Yellow Warblers, 1 Gray Catbird
2010 - 1 Red-winged Blackbird

 A second year Baltimore Oriole male - a striking molt limit!

Releasing a female American Goldfinch. Just got her in the frame, lol, look at James' elbow.