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.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A new season! Wascana MAPS

We are just a few days away from starting our 6th season of banding at the Wascana MAPS station and our 3rd season at the Saw-whet MAPS station near Edenwold, Saskatchewan!  I am pumped to get started as it is so interesting to see who has survived to come back to each station for another year.

Will we see the Yellow Warbler (#2180-49826) who was the first Yellow Warbler we banded our first day of MAPS in 2010?  We have captured him in 2011, 2013, and 2014, making him at least 6 years old in 2014!

Will we see the American Robin (#922-79913) who we also banded in 2010, and recapped in 2012 and 2014.  Pretty amazing when you consider, based on MAPS results, adult American Robins have about a 50% probability of surviving 1 year!  She was also at least 6 years old in 2014.

Perhaps we will see some of the young Gray Catbirds or Yellow Warblers that have been raised in the park and are returning to breed in the area!

Who knows!  But what I do know is there are some birds carrying bands on their legs this summer in the Habitat Conservation Area.  We were in the area between May 28 and June 2, while our goats were grazing the caragana in the area and I was able to snap some photos of some of the birds around.  Of the 50 some species I saw in the HCA, 7 species had bands on their legs!  Here are those photos.  Who are they?  What are their stories?

We continue to learn about these amazing creatures this week!

American Robin

Red-winged Black Bird male 

American Goldfinch male (band just visible on the right leg)

This was a surprise to see this Tree Swallow with a band!  We have only banded 7 TRES in 2012 & 2013!

Another American Goldfinch male with a band.

Common Yellowthroat male 

Gray Catbird

Red-winged Blackbird female (this bird was already feeding young in her nest). 

Red-winged Blackbird male

Yellow Warbler male (is this 2180-49826??!!??!!)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Banding Sanderlings

Two weeks ago now, I had the chance to join Dr. Christy Morrissey, a toxicologists from the University of Saskatchewan (of Songbird SOS fame!) and her grad student, Kristin and assistant Christina at their study site at Chaplin Lake, near Chaplin, SK.  Here the team catches Sanderlings, Red Knots and Semi-palmated Sandpipers. 
A view at dusk of the mist nets along the dyke.

Kristin is studying how heavy industrial pollutants affect how shorebirds are able to build up fat reserves which they need to make their long flights from South America to the Arctic.  Shorebirds across the world are experiencing pretty alarming populations declines and one idea is that they are not able to put on enough fat to 1) make the journey at all or 2) reach the breeding ground in such poor body condition that their reproductive success is significantly impacted.

Banding Sanderlings is not for the faint of heart or I should say not for those who like their sleep... This is because Sanderlings have fantastic eyesight and can see the mist nets that are used to capture them during the day, therefore banding occurs at night!  So out we went at dusk to the dykes on Chaplin Lake where the team had their nets set up.
A Sanderling with white flag, P28, with orange band on lower left leg.  I learned shorebirds can easily get leg cramps, so while handling the birds you try to let the legs dangle instead of holding them against your hand.

Our first night we captured 8 Sanderlings and 1 Semi-palmated Sandpiper.  The second night we caught 18 Sanderling, with 12 being caught between 3 and 4:30 am.  Once out of the net the birds are banded with an aluminum band on their upper left left leg. Then an orange color band goes on their lower left leg.  Lastly, a small plastic flag, goes on the birds upper right leg.  The flag the team uses is white with black coding.
The nano tag, white flag, and orange band to be put on a Sanderling.  You can see a piece of pencil lead right above the white flag.

Because shorebirds can travel so far (Red Knots over winter at the very south tip of South America and breeding in the Arctic!) a great deal of coordination goes on amongst sandpiper banders.  If a bird is banded in Canada and the bander puts on a flag, then that flag must be white.  The significance of the bands' placement can be more complex, as with this project, where birds get an orange color band on the lower left leg as well which means the bird was banded at Chaplin Lake in 2015.  

One of the last things team does before the Sanderling is released is a nano tag is glued to its back and feathers.  This nano tag sends out a radio-signal that can be detected with a traditional receiver.  However, the team has deployed 3 receiver towers around Chaplin Lake, as well as 2 towers at Reed Lake, and 1 at Old Wives Lake.  These receivers have a mile or two sensitivity and automatically detect the nano tags when they are in range.  Using this equipment the team will be able to know exactly how long it is taking the birds to put on their fat reserves to make the final stretch to the high Arctic!  The nano tag only weighs 0.6 grams compared to the 45-90 gram bird (depending on the fat reserve!).  So they are less than 1% of their weight.
A pair of Sanderlings all processed.  You can barely see the nano tag wire coming off the birds back.
What perhaps makes this project even more exciting, is the fact that Christy and her team went down to Texas earlier in May this year and captured Sanderlings and Red Knots that are presumed to come north through Chaplin.  If the tagged birds from Texas arrive at Chaplin Lake, the towers will record the radio frequency from the transmitters and the team will know who has arrived and exactly when and for exactly how long they stay.  I talked with Christy this week and she said so far a few of the birds tagged in Texas had arrived at Chaplin!!

The nano tags only have battery for about 65 days, and will fall off the bird once they moult their back feathers, so they are not designed to stay on for very long.  Once the birds leave Chaplin, there are only 2 more towers north, one along Nelson River and one at James Bay.

However, there are lots of towers in Ontario and along the eastern side of the continent.  Interestingly, Sanderlings flying north in the spring stop at Chaplin to refuel, but during the fall they do not come to Chaplin, instead they swing east and follow the east coast as they make their way to South America (some will stay in North America all winter).  So perhaps if one of the tags decides to really hold out for battery life, they could be detected on their migration south.

Additionally, birders can watch for these little bands on these little birds, along the coast in the fall.  If you can see a white flag (upper right), aluminum (upper left), and orange band (lower left), then you know the bird was banded in Chaplin in 2015.  

If you do see a banded shorebird you can report your sighting to, which is a site that is specifically dedicated to banded shorebirds.  If by chance you find a banded Sanderling and find this post, I would love to hear from you!

I had a blast banding shorebirds and am grateful for the opportunity to tag along with Christy and her team.  
The last Sanderling we banded on Saturday morning. 

 An unusual wear in the tertials of this bird, possibly suggesting a Second Year bird, which would be unusual as SY birds do not breed and typically remain on the wintering grounds.  

The view at dawn after a long night of Sanderling banding!