Sunday, September 29, 2013

Bird Banding 101

Recently I have been able to begin volunteering for something I've been wanting to do for quite a long time now...bird banding!  Yet another thing awesome about Toronto, they have their own station set up at Tommy Thompson Park.  The station runs 7 days a week and is open to the public to come watch only on the weekends.  It's been pretty slow so far (averaging about 30 birds a day) but boy is it exciting!  You learn so much quicker when things are up close. Like they say "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!"

During migration, migratory birds make their way either to their breeding or "wintering" non-breeding grounds. Since it is now autumn, they are heading to their non-breeding grounds. For many of the small birds, like hummingbirds, warblers and flycatchers, this means a long track from the boreal forest to South America! Now we have it easy being able to sit on a plane to fly there, maybe experience some turbulence, but these little guys fly there facing everything from hurricanes, buildings, starvation, and exhaustion. The hummingbird, for example, flies 15 hours or more straight to cross the Gulf of Mexico! (Stutchbury, 2011).

Birds ready to be banded
Banding is a way for ornithologists to collect data on birds that would not be able to be collected any other way. While surveys ( like Christmas bird count or breeding bird surveys) are a very important way to collect bird data, many birds go uncounted and aspects of health are not measured. So although it is more intrusive to the bird, it's data is incredibly valuable to determine the state of their populations.

Bird extraction
(photo by: Tim Thorington)

Banding begins before the sunrise, opening nets about half an hour before. The nets look something similar to a badminton net, where birds fly into it, land in a little pocket of net, and we are then able to take them out. Extraction of the birds happens every half hour so that they are not stuck too long, and they are brought back to the station! 

At the station each bird is fitted with a band, based on its size, that has a unique number on it. They are then identified, sexed (is it make or female?), aged to if it's an adult or juvenile, fat is checked (more fat = in a healthier position for migration), and then weighed.   All these numbers help to show how healthy these birds are in their long migration process. Birds that are less fat either just landed from a long flight from, say, Hudson's bay....or it could reflect habitat that doesn't bear enough food. Fat birds are all ready to hit the road again, and also show there is a good amount of food produced by the ecosystem! 
Weighing a warbler
Checking some fat!

It is really awesome to see some of the data that comes out of this research. I've added a photo to this that is a list of birds having been banded at TTP and found elsewhere! 

Birds recovered by TTP

Questions that banding can help answer:
- How old do birds live for in the wild?
- Where do birds migrate from and to?
- Are the habitats they are using healthy?
- Do they use the same routes, or different?
-Where do they migrate from and to?
- Are migration times changing?
- Are any species experiencing population declines?

Although there are some people who worry about the stress placed on birds through banding and handling, there is no other way as efficient and accurate to get the type of information we get from this activity.  With birds being in such danger that they are of extinction, it's important that we do our best to learn as much as we can, study as much as we can, and do what we can to ensure their populations don't reach more of a low. Although there is some stressed placed on birds, the benefits received from the knowledge to better plan and help them is far greater.

So!  Stop by a banding station near you that allows people to watch and see what you can learn!  Tommy Thompson is open on weekends for people to drop by, and many banding stations even sometimes do demonstrations for migratory bird festivals.  Get up close and personal with some of our favourite feathered friends and see just how amazing they are!

To learn more what we find at TTP check out their website or facebook page!

Here are just a few photos of what we've had so far!

Canada Warbler
Wilson's Warbler

Pectoral Sandpiper
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Common Yellow-throat

Wilson's Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Silence of the Songbirds

Silence of the Songbirds is written by Bridget Stutchbury who is a professor at York University here in Toronto.  I found this book not only very easy to read (especially for people who do not like a lot of technical/scholarly writing) but it was captivating.  It was also, one of the most depressing books that I have ever read, which I learnt as I (an admittingly overly emotional person) began crying in the corner of the TTC subway (can you say embarrassing?).

What I personally liked most about the books was it's almost "textbook" layout. Each chapter was about a different threat that songbirds face, many little bits resonating throughout other chapters. Each chapter, along with all it's doom and gloom, gives some insight to little everyday things that people can do to make their lives a little more "bird friendly".  The chapters range from talking about coffee plantations, to city lights, habitat fragmentation, cats, to buying your groceries. Being a birder, I loved recognizing the names of all the species she talked about and learning extra little tid-bits about their lives.  My most interesting read was with hooded warblers and their surprising promiscuous lifestyles!

From conducting research in the tropics, to birding around the University in Toronto, to sitting and watching birds bustling outside, the book made me really connect and understand on a basic level what was going on with bird populations and why it was important.  It made me connect with certain species just through words, such as the Scarlet Tanagers Brilliant colours, or the magnificence of how such small beings could travel such far distances (for example some warblers travel from the Boreal Forest all the way to South America such as Chile or Brazil!)
"Birds are not just bio-indicators of environmental change; they are nature's blue-collar workers, helping to sustain the environment that we share with them"
There were many ways throughout reading this book that surprised me.  My biggest surprise were the list of fruits and veggies that were most harmful for birds in the way that they are grown...infact many of them are my favourites. It was also shocking to learn just how many birds die each year from hitting buildings. It was estimated that a single building in Chicago would cause 1500 bird deaths each year.  Although Toronto itself has many issues with migratory birds hitting buildings, it is the first city in the world to implement a migratory bird protection policy for building designs and lighting.  Wow!  To learn more about birds and buildings, or find out how to volunteer, visit the website of a wonderful group called FLAP.

 Keeping it short and are the main ways Mrs. Stutchbury suggests that YOU can easily play a role in saving birds.

Buy shade coffee or sustainable coffee that is organic and fairly traded
Why? It increases tropical forest habitat for birds and other wildlife; conserves soil; provides fair profits for farmers; fewer pesticides in the environment.     
When buying produce from Latin America, such as bananas and pineapples, choose organic when available.
Why? Reduces the amount of dangerous pesticide use in the tropics; fewer birds killed; safer for farmers and consumers.

      Buy organic, or avoid altogether when possible, the North American crops that pose the   greatest risk to birds. These include alfalfa, brussels sprouts, blueberries, celery, corn, cotton, cranberries, potatoes, and wheat.
Why? Same as above! (Makes me so sad though, since an all-time favourite of mine!)

Buy wood and paper products that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Why? Increases amount of forest being logged sustainably and responsibly; better habitat for birds and a healthier forest.

Buy disposable paper products (toilet paper, paper towels, etc) that are made from recycled paper and that are not bleached with chlorine (Such as Kleenex brand).
Why? Reduces logging pressure on forests; increases habitat for birds; creates less pollution

Turn off the lights at night in city buildings and homes during peak migration periods.
Why? Fewer birds killed and injured by hitting the buildings; also saves electricity

Keep your cats indoors!
Why? Fewer birds killed; healthier and longer lives for pets.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

G Ross Lord Park

Well!   So much for writing once a week and trying to keep up to date!  That seems to be almost impossible, especially now since I have begun volunteering also Saturdays...when I am home...Geez the couch looks amazing!

But!  I am excited to say that I recently bought a new camera. It's nothing too fancy but it is a beautiful Canon Rebel T3i. I have never before owned a SLR, so it is really a huge treat, and also a huge learning curve.

I brought it out last week to G. Ross Lord Park, which is located in North York off of Dufferin St, during my lunch hour. Although it is known to be one of the "hot spots" in Toronto for birding, it was all so very silent, except for the vast number of dragonflies flying around!  I have to say, with the zoom and macro on this, I know that I will be taking a many photos. The most recent addition to my little photo dragonflies!   During my walk around I was able to see three species (probably not new to me, but new in the sense that I was able to realize they were separate species and ID them later).  The first was the White-faced Meadowhawk (see photo on the lefthand side).  This cute guy has a very red body and then two adorable little white cheeks! The second species was a Green Darner Dragonfly (see photo to the right). There was a third species I wasn't able to actually grab a shot of unfortunately, I believe that it was some sort of a bluet!
Green Darner
White-faced Meadowhawk

I then wandered around the forested area of the park to find not much more than, unfortunately, litter.  Walking towards the south, I eventually came up to a spot where I often go.  It is somewhat of a lake that often is flooded, although in drier times it will become a mud flat offering a lot to different shorebirds!  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see too, too many, although two were able to make an appearance.
Mud Flats

Solitary Sandpiper
 The first shorebird that I was able to see was a solitary sandpiper!  There were two of them in one of the little deeper areas scouting for some delicious bugs. In and around them floating were also a few mallards.
Mallards with two Solitary Sandpipers
Over towards the middle of the pond there wasn't too much exciting.  I was able to get a photo of some killdeer that were running around together.  They have always been a bird I have a love/hate relationship with.  While in farmer's fields last summer I would hear them constantly screaming at me "Kill!  Kill! Kill!"  and it..well...became rather frustrating!  "I know you are there!!! I would yell back!"  But at the same time, they are also one of the coolest birds I know of.  They have these amazing blood red eyes, and two bands around their necks.  When a predator (or in my case a goes towards where their nest it, the killdeer will drop one wing and drag it while screaming and running to resemble an injured bird.  This is such a fantastic response as it distracts predators from its nest and instead ends up going towards an "injured" bird that then can fly to safety at the last moment.  Spectacular!
Here's a few more shots and to hoping that birding picks up a little bit! =)

Happy outdoorsing!

Mallard on the water

Mud Flats

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Birding, Butterflying and a Confrontation

Well!  I've had a few weekends go by at Tommy Thompson since the last post.  Went a week with no internet from doing field work so it's taken a little bit getting back into the swing of things (not to mention rested up to not feel like the walking dead!).

Unfortunately while leading the bird hikes I am trying (hard!) not to actually be taking this will be a little lacking in the photo department!

Two weekends ago was a fairly quiet day when it came to the bird hike.  We saw quite a few barn and tree swallows in their usual spots (either flying overhead or at the area where the new building is being built perched along the wires).  One of the most exciting finds, which I didn't realize at the time, until I came back and looked at my photos...were that some of the baby birds were infact baby bank swallows!  There was this little boy with us (probably about 8 years old) who was awesome and spotted a mockingbird, which was actually a first for me!  A great white Egret was resting in the Cell one area of the park, along with a few mallards and the every playful Kingfisher trying to grab himself a meal. While walking away from Cell one we were able to hear a Spotted sandpiper off in the distance!  Otherwise..that is really about all we really saw, it's been quite the quiet days so far.

Baby Bank Swallows
Barn Swallows
Great White Egret
The next weekend at Tommy Thompson Park happened to be the Toronto Butterfly Festival!  I was set to give 3 tours throughout the day and each of them seemed to go fairly smoothly without hiccups.  It's always so interesting meeting the people come out to these events and always amazing to see the wide variety of experience levels.  Some people make me feel like I need to read through my Bird ID book about 20 more times a day, and others who are less experienced make me excited to teach them what little I feel that I know! We were able to see only a few butterflies this day: Monarch, Cabbage White, Yellow Sulphur, and a White Admiral which was the highlight.  While many people were very excited to go on the search for butterflies, others really surprised me with their frustration that butterflies were not abundant and were not displayed throughout the park similar to a conservancy.  It felt strange to me needing to explain to people (especially grown-ups) that the butterflies in this park were not brought here for display and we could not make them sit perfectly on a flower for you...and that instead they are free and migrating through on their long journey making you play a game of "hide and seek" for a good shot.  It was a real reminder that many people in this area have not grown up along side nature but instead probably are used to museums and conservancies/zoos with animals on display.  Either way, I was very happy that they came out!

American Goldfinch on a Thistle.
The last part of this is unfortunately going to be a little rant on my end.  At the beginning of one of the tours a lady was chatting with me about a lot of little things when she inquired about my necklace, which is a Browning symbol that my boyfriend had given me as a gift.  I explained to her that I am a waterfowl hunter (as many of you who know me know) and that it was just a symbol of a company.  She suddenly started screaming really loudly "SHAME ON YOU" over and over again, then stormed off to join another tour.  I was initially incredibly shocked to have someone scream at me, then immediately became very embarrassed with over 30 eyes looking around to why someone was "shaming" me, their tour guide.  Now, after a week or so thinking about it I am not only hurt at the quickness her judgement of my character turned but I was even more upset that I wasn't able to "defend" what I do and attempt to have an educational debate.

I wish I could have told her that:

1) I completely and totally understand her disgust and repulsiveness towards hunting.  Not too long ago I was in the exact same frame of mind and also seriously contemplating becoming vegetarian. Unfortunately my doctor flipped a lid when I mentioned it, worried about my already incredibly low iron levels and said it would not be in the best interest of my health.  Being an environmental studies student I looked into other ways and learnt through a visit to an Ontario park about hunting and the role it plays in conservation and one's connectiveness to nature.

2) That not all hunters are life-taking, murderous, trophy chasing, killing machine assholes that they are all too often depicted as. Many of those who I have connected with have some of the highest respect for nature and all beings, whether they be human, animal, or plant. Many have admitted to me that they have practiced for years to get the perfect shot outside of hunting so that when they do go out for an animal it has the quickest and painless death, and once they have an animal...they have many times cried for it's loss and thanked it for what it's given them.  As cheesy as it sounds, it's 100% true.

3) I would tell her that hunters wouldn't be able to hunt if the ecosystems of what they eat either didn't exist or were unhealthy.  The vast majority of hunters are very aware of their surroundings, understand the animals biology, life cycle, and habits.  Most duck hunters I have met have said the most important thing is to be able to ID a duck flying (which for anyone who has's CRAZY difficult!).  Hunters have often been referred to even as the pioneers of the conservation movement. Every year hunting related organizations direct millions of dollars towards wildlife habitat conservation.  Ducks Unlimited (Including US, Canada and Mexico) put over $85 million towards conservation efforts and over $3 million towards conservation education in 2011 and 2012 totalled (Click the link to see the auditor report). Other organizations such as the OFAH and Delta Waterfowl also contribute to conservation and securement of land to be maintained.  In addition to these organizations, hunters help with their own private land creating habitats such as prairies, wetlands, and forest. The understanding of "if you don't take care of it, it wont be there in the future" is very understood..with the majority.

Sunrise on Luther Marsh
4)  I was once told by a hunter that you have never truly lived life until you have watched the sun rise over a river, fog lifting from the water as ducks sit quietly, take off, and land on the water.  After experiencing this...It's one of the truest words.  It is something that you can experience with and without an intent to hunt.  I came across a statistic from a Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference in 2011 that said "up to 75% of hunters are motivated to hunt each year because hunting connects them physiologically to nature like no other activity". That as well..can never be more true.  Not only are you more aware of the natural world around you, but every night you are surprisingly that much more thankful for the meal on your plate, because you recognize it was a life.

5) Lastly (certainly not least...but it's getting a little lengthy now), I have tried very hard to use the word "majority" because I recognize that these attributes can not be extended to everyone.  There are many levels and aspects of hunting that I (as well as many others in the lifestyle) disagree with.  For example, my biggest is those who sport hunt. I firmly believe that if you do not eat it or use it in some way other than a head on your wall, you shouldn't be out hunting it.  I recognize that there are, more of these people than I probably think and hope that there are, and it is these individuals who paint the lifestyle and hobby in a bad light.  I hope that you can recognize and understand that we are all not like this and that although you may personally never wish to partake or fully agree, I wish that you learn to respect other lifestyles different of yours and that it doesn't call for a "public shaming" of those who do different.

That, is what I wish she could have heard.