Wake Audubon Blog

Passing it on

i Jul 8th No Comments by

Authored by John Gerwin, Research Curator, Ornithology, Museum of Natural Sciences; Treasurer, Wake Audubon.

As many of you know, Wake Audubon has supported a youth group for about 6 years now (the Young Naturalists Club).  The Museum of Natural Sciences has supported such groups for many years (e.g. Junior Curators).  As part of my job as a bird researcher at a public institution, I get to work with these groups, helping to co-lead various activities. Over the past two years I have been working with a handful of kids from each group. They have been assisting with activities in the bird specimen preparation lab, the bird collections, and bird banding at Prairie Ridge.  This year, I was able to offer them a “field camp” to one of my research study sites, to provide additional experiences.

Male Black-throated Green Warbler with color bands

Male Black-throated Green Warbler with color bands. Uwharrie Mountains 2014. Photo by John Gerwin

For this, we spent 5 days in mid-June in the Uwharrie National Forest, which is about 30 minutes southwest of Asheboro. The Uwharrie Mountains are the oldest known mountains and as such are well-worn. That makes them small by mountain standards – the highest peaks are only ~1000’ in elevation, with most of them topping out at 700-900 feet. But height is not the only factor – indeed, part of the camp was to see firsthand how the “aspect” of a mountain affects the habitat on that slope (the aspect is the direction the slope faces).  And the see firsthand how steep some old mountains are!  The bird I study primarily in this region is the Black-throated Green Warbler (BTNW), which is characterized as a bird of “northern” forests. This species is common in the higher Southern Appalachians, on up to Canada.  Many such “boreal”, or northern, birds occur at the higher elevations because the habitats they seek are found on the north-facing slopes.  BTNW’s in the Uwharries represent a disjunct population and are quite uncommon there.  And there is yet another disjunct group in the Coastal Plain, from southeast Virginia to about Charleston, SC.  I and colleagues are conducting habitat and genetic studies to understand more about this species across its range, and specifically, its behavior in the Uwharries region.  One interesting thing I and my colleagues have documented over the past few years is that the BTNW occurs only on the north, northeast, and east slopes of Uwharrie mountains, but not on all mountains in that region.

3 members each from the Young Naturalists and Junior Curator programs came along.  Our activities included the following:

  • Use a compass, read a topo map, then head out with a map and compass to find, and survey for the warblers, on those NNE slopes.  GPS may not always work, and batteries die so it’s important to know how to use a compass and a map for field work.
  • Practice radio telemetry. I use this technique to learn about how the birds utilize the landscape. For that, we attach small radios on birds, which we can then find with a receiver and antenna. For this “field camp” exercise, I had access to a collar that had been used on some large mammals but was no longer being used. We were able to hide the collar in various places on a hillside and then allow each person to go find it.  There is a bit of an art to this, especially when you are traipsing across a steep, often rocky hillside, strewn with fallen tree trunks and branches, along with patches of dense understory shrubs/saplings. The metal, rigid antenna is 2’ long with 3 tines on each side that are about 15”, and this is attached by a cable. All of this makes for some interesting “footwork” to get to where you want to go to find the beeping transmitter.  Of course we hid the unit in challenging situations!
Young Naturalist practicing telemetry at Uwharrie field camp
Young Naturalist practicing telemetry at Uwharrie field camp
  • Learn how to do a “vegetation plot”. This is one element of understanding how an animal uses an area, and why. We record a suite of characteristics about the places where we detect our marked birds. It takes about 45 min to do one plot and for a study, we will do 20-30 such plots for each bird tracked. Once again students could better understand how challenging this can be.
  • Use our mist net/bird banding experience to capture and band some birds. Several unbanded warblers were found during the initial surveys; yay!  We then went back to the two locations where these birds were found, set up mist nets, and used song playback along with a wooden model to lure any birds in. In the end, we captured and banded two one year old males. In the other location, the two birds would not come down low enough to be caught.  They did respond to the playback, but remained higher than the nets (which only go up to 10’), and mostly sang back to the playback.  I presume these were older birds who are typically more cautious especially at this time of year (they have finished their first breeding attempt and by the second round, older birds are typically less aggressive – the two younger males likely did not have mates).
Black-throated Green Warbler model.

Black-throated Green Warbler model. Photo by John Gerwin

Color bands on Black-throated Green Warbler.

Color bands on Black-throated Green Warbler. Photo by Olivia Merritt

  • Walked a lot of steep slopes in the forest with food, gear, water, and fairly high temperatures (upper 80’s each day, even low 90’s on one or two). As one student pondered near the end of our 5 days…..”You guys do this for HOW many hours/day? And HOW many days each season?”   It’s great to be outside, but the days are long and there are many challenges, which all were able to experience.
  • We camped at a nice Forest Service campground. Nonetheless, some nights brought very noisy neighbors!  This is another challenging element of field work.  Fortunately, there is a gas station/market nearby, along the highway, that serves good ice cream!  Somehow we managed to swing by that spot several times.
  • We drove to the Carolina Raptor Center one morning to do a mist net demo for a group of 5th graders who were doing their own “summer camp” week with raptor center staff.  In addition one of our newest Young Naturalists was able to join us there. She and her family were headed to Atlanta that day and were able to detour for most of it; a pleasant addition. We set up a couple nets, one near their feeder. We also deployed a couple of our wooden models, in order to show their kids how to use binoculars (which they had), with some positive reinforcement (models are much easier to find than a moving bird!).  Just after lunch we caught a titmouse at the feeder, so their kids got to experience that as well.

In the end, we had no rain the entire time, which was a pleasant surprise as mid-June usually brings some rain, at some point, in a 5-day period.  We had a great time experiencing some elements of doing field work to study a bird species. In addition, we took time to enjoy other aspects of nature, such as the skinks and toads that abound, other species of birds, and the many plants around. We allocated time for journaling, reviewing photos, and just chatting around the picnic table.  We probably stayed up too late a few nights, but a campfire has a way of causing one to stay up a little longer at night.  Of course we did some S’mores one night – I tried out some vegan marshmallows, along with Rainforest Alliance chocolates, and organic graham crackers or flatbread (your choice).  The marshmallows were pretty tasty, although I don’t think they toasted quite the same.  I hope to do this again in 2015.

Eastern Box Turtle.

Eastern Box Turtle. Photo by Olivia Merritt

Five-lined Skink.

Five-lined Skink. Photo by Olivia Merritt