Author Archives: Hilary Yu

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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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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