Snapshots from the Field Season: Digital Media

Although the end of the field season has officially arrived, everything we learned this summer is still very much with us. In addition to the data we collected (and have already started to organize into graphs and tables), we’ve ended up with an extensive collection of digital media: all in all, more than two thousand files of photos, videos, and audio recordings.

Throughout the past few months, we were almost always attached to a camera, video camera, or audio recorder when we were out in the field. Our mission was to document as much as we possibly could of the life histories for the Cardinalids we were studying. Many of us were trained the semester before to work with the digital equipment we would be using in the field – as an optional addition to his Ornithology course, Dr. Winkler led weekly Sunday morning outings where budding ‘digital ornithologists’ had the opportunity to learn to work with professional-grade DSLR cameras, such as the Canon 5D Mark II (complete with 500 mm lenses and tripods), as well as Marantz recorders with either shotgun microphones or parabolas. In these chilly mornings, we learned how to adapt to different light conditions or adjust our depth of field by changing ISO and aperture, we learned the important steps to taking clean audio recordings, we learned about adjusting the gain and always switching the microphone on before recording. At first, we took blurry photos, we recorded more of the shuffling of feet than birdsong, and we were frustrated when we had the perfect shot framed but our subject flew out before we could snap a future masterpiece. And yet, before long, we gained confidence and improved our techniques, quickly becoming what Dr. Winkler likes to call a ‘generation of digital ornithologists.’

We took Dr. Winkler’s goal of having scientists adept at working with the technology associated with digital media and applied it to our research team. Over the field season, it has become clear that collecting digital media is important in many ways – scientifically speaking, it is invaluable for documenting interesting behaviors or morphological characteristics, or even for demonstrating field methods, but on a larger scale, pictures, videos, and song recordings speak to an audience beyond the scientific community. The very nature of digital media is conducive for widespread dissemination and hopefully, enjoyment. So we hope you enjoy the following snapshots from this past field season:

Credit: Justin Hite

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) gathering nesting material.

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) on the nest, incubating.

Links to videos uploaded on Youtube to come.


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Graphs Are Cool or A Lesson in Data Entry

Since this is the first season we have spent chasing and watching Cardinalids, we have learned many things by making mistakes.  At the beginning of the summer, we discussed the need to enter our data, such as nest watches, spot maps, and photo information, into the computer immediately upon returning from the field.  However, as time went on, we forgot about our previously established and somewhat ambitious protocol.  Consequently, many nest watches were left unentered.  Blissfully ignorant of this, we began compiling and standardizing the nest watches we had entered into the computer into one large, colorful spreadsheet.  We excitedly sorted and analyzed it using a program called JMP that allowed us to easily calculate means and standard deviations, as well as perform t tests.  After making three beautiful graphs using these calculations, we decided it would be a good idea to make sure all the data sheets had been entered.  At this point, you may be wondering why we didn’t make sure all the data was in the computer before analyzing it.  We’re still wondering that…

After rediscovering and entering the extra nest watches, some of which were painfully long, we again went through the process of compiling and analyzing our data.  While I can’t say that those were the best few days of the field season, I can say that we are all now fairly competent with JMP and have each only had a few spreadsheet-related nightmares since then.

So, (drumroll please) here are the new and improved graphs!


From this, we learned the importance of immediate data entry, how to make fancy graphs, and that a trip to Waffle Frolic is the best way to end a day of data.

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Foraging: looking at how the birds survive and evolved

As a program in Tompkins County, we are not only working to better understand the ecology, behavior and phenology of the different Cardinalids in our area, but we also hope to compare the biology of at least the two species we are currently focusing on, and gain insights in their evolution. A project that has arisen during our field season this summer and that could bring us closer to several of these goals is the recording of foraging observations. All birds spend a considerable proportion of each day finding enough food for their survival and, eventually, that of their chicks. This makes their foraging central to their life, relevant to everything else that the birds must find time to do.

Foraging not only reveals what birds spend a lot of their day doing, but it central to seeing how birds fit together in a community. In order to avoid competition, birds will theoretically try to either feed on different things, or find the same things in different places. Thus they will fill in a ‘niche’ and coexist peacefully. What we try to do when we watch Cardinalids forage is see both what the birds do and where they look for food, which will give hints on how this has helped them evolve together and coexist. This is especially interesting with the grosbeak and tanager because both nest near each other, forage in similar places, and eat similar things (for example, I have seen them both eat inchworms). How can the birds live in the same place and eat similar things? We think there are probably differences in their foraging styles and tendencies, which is why keeping track of them in the forest becomes a relevant project.

Basically, making a foraging observation consists of narrating what the bird is doing to a hand-held voice recorder. Because birds spend so much time looking for insects, we can do a foraging observation most anytime we find the bird, unless this distracts us from our main purpose for the moment, such as nest watching. The harder part, once we have the bird, is to not lose track of it. This can be easy if the bird stays within a group of trees, but they tend to take sudden, long, swooping flights in random directions, which usually marks the end of a foraging observation.

As part of the observation, it is important to remember to begin by stating the time, observer and species. The time is important because it gives an idea of what point in the day the observation was made, they may forage differently in the morning compared to the evening. The species may seem like a basic note, but it is very easy to forget. Once, when listening to a recording, I was pretty sure that the male I had been following was a tanager, even though I had forgotten to mention the species name. Later on though, when listening to the other recordings I had made that day, I realized that it had to be a grosbeak, mostly because I had begun the observation one minute after finishing another that had been a grosbeak. That mistake could have seriously skewered my data!

After that, we try to keep track of the different foraging methods, or ‘gleans’ the bird performs to capture prey, such as when he  hovers under a leaf, or he snatches something as he flies over it. As we want an idea of how active the bird is and where he searches for food, we also keep track of each hop the bird makes, as well as an estimate of the distance and angle (a, b, or c, each equivalent to 30 degrees).

More personally, I really enjoy making these observations. It allows me to actively follow a bird within the forest, where I can hopefully identify what it is doing, and gather the information so that I will hopefully better understand why it does it in the future. Following the bird also leads to interesting incidents. One big one, for example, was the discovery of the nest SCTA 5 as the male chased a woodpecker away from it. Listening to the recording is interesting, because I described the attack, mentioned that the male was now perched on a sugar maple, and suddenly say to Hilary and Justin: “Guys, I found his nest.” However, as I was recording the birds activities, I only briefly indicate where the nest is to Justin, who pats my back, and go on saying ‘he just, oh darn it! He just did something as he changed perch. He gleaned from a leaf as he changed perch’.

Another memorable experience while recording a bird happened while I was trying to figure out what a female-like tanager was doing in a territory that had already fledged its chicks. However, I had lost track of it and was desperately looking for her in the canopy. A green bird flew into sight and I eagerly began recording its actions, which seemed quite tanager-like. However, after a hover-glean, I realize that it has an eyeline and no black on the wings and … “forget it, because it was a Red-eyed Vireo that looked a lot like a Scarlet Tanager from … high up … How humiliating”. This is probably the one of the worst misidentifications I have ever done, but it has caused be to carefully examine each tanager’s bill and wings to avoid similar situations.

Listening to my voice as I watch the bird makes me realize that, despite all the changes I have gone through ever since I came to college (and these are substantial) I remain the birder I will always be. One random comment while I was watching a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak hop between perches, “[…] He’s beautiful! And, […]”, reminds me of why I want to study birds: it’s because they are magnificent creatures, and I love looking for them, understanding what they do, and appreciating their beauty.

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Aerial Mist Netting: Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Another crucial skill for field ornithologists is being familiar with mist netting and bird banding. Stringing up mist nets is often the most effective way to capture birds, especially when used in conjunction with audio playback to draw in potential targets. The nets are usually placed between two trees or poles, creating a nearly invisible barrier for unsuspecting birds to fly into. They then become tangled in the finely-woven web, allowing for the biologists to step in and carefully remove them. Birds can be caught in this way for any number of processing procedures, including banding, physical measurements, and collection of blood or feather samples. They can also be turned into specimens.

Our Cardinalid project here in Tompkins County did not specifically require any data from netted birds. Our focus for this season was primarily on behavioral ecology, which can be observed in the bird’s natural setting. However, we still recognized our study site as a great location for learning the basics of mist netting. More importantly, it was imperative that the Borneo crew be well-versed in proper net set-up and bird handling, as much of the information they hoped to obtain in Tawau was dependent on the capture of individual birds. However, there was an additional snag that came along with this need: many of the target Bornean birds live at higher levels in the forest foliage. While mist nets are typically placed on the ground and extend as high as the poles they attach to, a significant number of the target taxa for Tawau are primarily birds of the canopy. As such, we were faced with the challenge of not only refining our basic net and bird handling skills, but also trying to come up with a way to catch higher-flying species.

The answer to this problem turned out to be surprisingly simple, largely thanks to the ingenuity of crew member Justin Hite. Using the tools at our disposal, we were able to design and construct an elegant and efficient means of placing nets at greater heights than usually possible. To begin, a “backbone” of p-cord was strung between two trees at the desired vertical level for the nets to hang from. This was achieved either by throwing the ends of the rope or using the large-size slingshots provided for us by the Cornell Outdoor Education department (COE). Next, full loops of p-cord were then attached to the “backbone” at either end. These loops were large enough to run from the ground up to the line, and they were fastened in such a way that they held their position horizontally while still maintaining the freedom to move in a continuous loop. Lengths of PVC pipe (with holes punched in them for attachment of mist net trammels) were then tied to these loops so they could easily be brought down to ground level or run up to full height. The ends of these loops would be tied to nearby trees to keep the nets taught, but could easily be undone to lower them on command. Once the nets were strung between these pipes, the system was ready for operation.

We set up several “net backbones” at various heights in different locations of interest. Our on-the-spot solution to a very important problem proved more effective than we ever expected. We caught a wide variety of species in our nets over the weeks, including Ovenbirds, titmice, and various thrushes. This allowed us the chance to practice extracting birds from the netting and processing them for data and banding. What’s more, our system was found to be surprisingly efficient even when capturing birds in the treetops. The total time it took from a bird hitting the net to returning the emptied net to position was only about 2 minutes. Mind you, that includes getting to the net, freeing the loops, lowering the PVC pipes and net, extracting the bird and placing it in a bird bag, running the nets back up, tying them off, and returning to the banding station! Not bad for a morning’s worth of crafting.

We can only hope the system we devised has been equally effective for our colleagues in Borneo!

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(Un)happy Endings

Even for birds, things sometimes don’t go as planned.  In fact, we’ve found that for Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, life often doesn’t follow its intended course.  None of the Grosbeak nests we’ve found have lasted until the chicks fledged, and many were “popped” (eaten) or abandoned before the eggs even had a chance to hatch.   After six failures, but before we resigned ourselves to the apparent curse of the Pheucticus, we did a little research.  Friesen, Cadman, and MacKay found that only 46% of the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak nests they kept tabs on made it to completion, i. e. 54% of their nests did not yield any fledglings (1999).  Compared to our 0% success rate, 46% was looking pretty good.  However, Dungay, Woods, and Nichols reported a success rate of only 32% (2001).  Consultation of the Birds of North America account revealed that our Grosbeaks’ low success rate may also be a consequence of the fragmented nature of the available habitat.  Despite their preference for fringe habitats, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks also tend to have a lower nesting success rate in more fragmented habitats.

Taking all this into account, and pushing valiantly through the heartbreak of losing yet another nest, we decided we needed to make darn sure the nest was empty.  We had assumed the happy Grosbeak couple was incubating when one or the other was constantly on the nest, which we first observed on July 2.  This meant that there should have been eggs in the nest.  To check for the presence of eggs, we used a very special piece of equipment: a nest mirror (also known as a mechanic’s mirror).

The basic plan was as follows:

Much more difficult than anticipated!

Operation Nest Mirror

Simple enough, right?  We thought so.  However, we forgot that the nest, although located relatively close to the ground, was also directly over a giant patch of honeysuckle.  After several tries, Hilary eventually managed to hold the mirror in a position that reflected the image of the tragically empty inside of the nest to Emma and me, who were looking on intently with binoculars and a camera.  Although our hard work revealed nothing but an empty nest, we felt we had accomplished something by figuring out how to look inside a nest that was way above our heads.  Hopefully the next time we use our ingenuity to look in a nest, we’ll be greeted by the sight of happy little chicks!

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What Could be Better than Ice Cream?

Two Fridays ago, our research team headed into the field, eagerly anticipating the prospect of Purity ice cream at the Lab of Ornithology’s social that afternoon. Little did we know that we were in for a very different (and as much as we love Purity ice cream), even better, treat.

Opening up what we’ve termed our “nest contents” spreadsheet in Excel, we briefly scanned our timeline to gauge the approximate time of hatching for our only active Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) nest at the time. The Scarlet Tanager account on BNA (the Birds of North America Online) describes departure from the nest on day 9 or 10 after hatching; by our rough calculations, the fledglings at our nest of focus would either be near the nest, already out and begging for food, or in the nest, close to fluttering out. With that in mind, Jen and I decided to head out for a two-hour nest watch, lugging – just in case – the HDV camera lent to our team by Macaulay.

While Eric and Tim went in search of new nests and juveniles, the two of us settled down in a spot where we could get a clear view of the nest (SCTA5 is notorious for being extremely well-hidden). After focusing the video camera on the delicate, saucer-shaped nest far above our heads, we started the watch. The first 30 minutes or so were much like any other day of nest watching involving parental care of nestlings – one parent at a time arrived to the nest at varying time intervals – the only exception, however, was that within that first half hour at SCTA5, only the male visited the nest.

For a brief (and of course, always exciting!) snapshot of our nest watch that day:

At 10:55 AM, as the parents were out foraging, there was some slight movement on the nest.
At 11:01 AM, the male was singing softly as the female called in the under-story, on a branch remarkably close to the observer – both aspects being atypical for the behavior of a female tanager while foraging for her nestlings.
For the next five minutes, the female gradually moved closer and closer to the forest floor directly below the nest, continuously chck-brrring.
At 11:05 AM, sounds that seemed to be begging calls were heard. The male and female continued to sing and call until suddenly, there was a small flash of a fluffy grey bundle scurrying towards a log.

Yes, indeed – it was a Scarlet Tanager fledging, our first one seen straight out of the nest.

The HDV camera Jen and I had luckily brought out was quickly trained on the fledgling, who was remarkably agile. He was able to make his way across the forest floor fairly quickly and was capable of short, fluttery flights. As Jen and I followed him from one log to another, he eventually tried to move up along a small sapling – an evolutionarily helpful instinct for avoiding predators.

Scarlet Tanager Fledgling

Hello, world!

As we were wholly engrossed in our careful stalking of the fledging, we almost forgot to call Tim and Eric to join us. When they finally arrived, armed with a Marantz audio recorder, an extra battery for the camera, and an additional tape for the video camera, our small but extremely excited fan club for the fledging was complete.

Eric Gulson taking an audio recording of begging calls.

Our team spent the next five hours collecting digital media on the fledging, who finally decided to stay on a thin sapling branch (which oscillated up and down every time the male tanager came in to feed his fledgling, leading to some adjustments with the video camera). In the course of those five hours (time does fly when you have a fledgling to occupy your thoughts), Eric found another young Scarlet Tanager fledgling about 6 meters up a maple. This second fledgling was being fed by the female in the territory, indicative of a rather common practice among parent birds of splitting up feeding duties among their fledged young.

Jen Goforth recording a video of the fledgling.

At the end of the field day, we reluctantly left the SCTA5 territory and headed back to the data trailer with our photos, videos, audio recordings, and of course,  some lasting memories – perhaps not of ice cream, but certainly of a very endearing fledgling.

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Nest Searching Tales

The following are several accounts of nest finding by team member Eric Gulson.  We named the nests after the species (RBGR=Rose Breasted Grosbeak, SCTA=Scarlet Tanager) and the order in which the nests were found.


Earlier in the season, we were working with several Scarlet Tanager nests and one Grosbeak nest. However, one day Cat monitored that Grosbeak nest (RBGR 1) and found that it was abandoned: no adult came during those two hours or ever again.  Because of this, finding a Grosbeak nest became a more pressing matter, and we began looking for more adults. Two days later, Jack and I were heading into the woods on the trail we take every day and I was lingering behind. As I passed a group of shagbark hickories to my right, I heard the Grosbeak call, similar to a sneaker squeaking on a basketball court. Around five meters up a pair was perched, but they immediately left and flew across the corner of a small field, a total of around 20 meters. I followed them and it seemed as though the female was collecting nesting material. She was near the ground, but disappeared momentarily behind a tree. Soon though, to my surprise, they flew back to the group of trees they came from, where the female headed straight up and towards what proved to be a nest under construction. The nest, as if to humiliate us, was over halfway done and directly above the trail. We had passed by it several days straight without taking notice. We immediately began monitoring it and by the end of the field day, it looked considerably less like a platform and had a clear bowl shape. The pair also copulated in a nearby sapling that day, and the flashing of the male’s white rump and wing patches along with its pink underwing coverts was a striking sight.


One afternoon in late May I decided to stay after everybody had left, because I had my bicycle and did not depend on anybody else for a ride. It was the day after RBGR 1 had abandoned their nest, so I checked on that site before heading headed further south. Here, I heard the chck-brrr of a Scarlet Tanager, followed by two more. Four individuals, two pairs, appeared and I was clearly at their territorial boundary, since one pair stayed around in an oak tree while the other flew south. I lost track of the pair in the oak, but after a while was able to hear the other pair calling and decided to follow them. Here, I found the male in a small tree, while the female was moving around quite near the ground. She was looking around and dropped to the ground, where she hopped around several times and began pulling at something between a leaf and the floor: spider silk. She was collecting the fibers for a nest, but I quickly lost track of her when she left the floor. However, the male was always to be found in a group of small trees and I resolved to visit the next day. I did, and once again found the male in a group of trees and the female on the ground. I lost track of her until I noticed her flying into a group of basswoods, high above the ground. After watching her enter the area and loosing her four times, I finally saw the nest, twelve meters up, on the fork of a major branch. It immediately struck me how obvious its position seemed, with twelve meters of open space between it and the ground, but it still took me two days to find. I was particularly attached to this pair because the male often came quite close to us when we monitored its nest, and both individuals had distinctive patches of yellow on the head, especially the female. Unfortunately, we lost track of them once their chicks fledged.


We found the nest of Scarlet Tanager 5 quite by accident. Hilary, Justin, and I had just spent hours searching for a new Rose-breasted Grosbeak nest in early June and were returning from a swamp through a different route when Justin heard a Scarlet Tanager to our north. We decided to follow it for a moment because it was near SCTA 4, although further to the east. The male was distinctive, because he had a couple of white spots on his wing, so Hilary decided to try to photograph it, and I began recording a description of its foraging movements in a microphone, trying to keep track of the bird’s every movement. As he approached a beech tree, he suddenly attacked a woodpecker that had been in its branches. Because I had seen grosbeaks and woodpeckers forage side by side, it seemed odd that the tanager would ever chase it off, so I decided that its nest might be nearby. Sure enough, a little to above and to the right of the incident there was a group of twigs and grasses, so I called Justin and kept monitoring the birds foraging behavior. As it turned out, where I was standing was the only one of four places where the nest is visible from the ground, I had been extremely lucky. It also became clear that this one and SCTA 4 were neighbors, because we would hear the males counter-singing in the mornings and were able to walk in a nearly straight line from one nest to the other.

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