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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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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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