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.  
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.  


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.

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.

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!