Thursday, August 25, 2016

Top 5 Tips for Beginner Birders at the Beach

South Carolina beaches are not just home to amazing views and fun in the sun; the coastline also provides vital habitat for both feeding and nesting. Here are a few tips for the aspiring birders out there to catch these coastal birds in action!

1.      Get in Gear
Be sure to pack a hat, sunscreen, bug spray, and plenty of water. If you’re not local then you are sure to find out soon enough that our temps reach over 100 degrees some days. Coupled with our infamous humidity, it is essential to prepare for the heat and the mosquitoes you will encounter in the swampy areas. We recommend bringing about two times the water you think you should.

2.      Choose your spot

Along with our very own Audubon Center & Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest, there are tons of coastal birding hotspots in the state. From black water rivers to barrier islands, this list of designated Important Bird Areas is a great place to start your search for a birding adventure.

3.      Identify
Once you start seeing all of our beautiful coastal birds, you are going to want to identify them. We recommend picking up a field guide or use a mobile app for easy access to information on every species of bird in the United States. Merlin and Audubon Bird Guide are both easy and free. There are also all sorts of methods to record each new bird discovery!

4.      Practice makes perfect
Sometimes you’ll get only a quick glimpse of a bird as it perches or flies from one location to another. Practice your identification method by noticing the size and shape, color, behavior, and habitat. The quicker you get, the longer your list will be!

5.      Share the beach

Wherever you roam, be sure to not disturb the birds or their habitat. If you are close enough to agitate the birds into flying away or altering their behavior in any way, then you are too close. Also, make sure to never feed the birds and refrain from bringing pets. Even on a leash, dogs are perceived as predators to birds and will frighten them away.

Photos by Vanessa Kauffmann

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Geolocators 2.0 - Looking to Further Our Understanding of Prothontoary Warbler Migration

In April 2015, we recovered a single geolocator from a Prothonotary Warbler (aptly named “Longshot”). This small device gave us amazing insight into the migration of the "swamp canary" (read about it here). 

Longshot, pictured here during his recapture in April 2015, wearing the geolocator that he had carried since the previous July.

But in order to learn even more about the migration of this imperiled bird, we deployed eight more geolocators on Prothonotary Warblers earlier this spring. Below, we'll describe the process for attaching these miniature tracking devices to these birds. On our next post, you’ll get to meet the eight special birds that we need your help finding next spring.

We received our shipment of 8 geolocators in May 2016. Each of these tiny devices weighs 0.45 grams, which is about 4% of the body weight of the average Prothonotary Warbler. The general rule for attaching a tracking device to a bird is to stay below 5% of their body weight (in order to not risk negatively affecting it).  Tracking technology miniaturized enough to attach to a bird this small has only been around for the last few years!
Eight light-level geolocators arrive at Beidler Forest in May 2016. Learn how these devices work here.

In order to attach a geolocator to a bird, harnesses are made using Stretch Magic (a common type of jewelry cord). Harnesses are tied in a knot creating two loops, and then precisely measured in order to fit around the legs of a Prothonotary Warbler. Once each harness is accurately measured, they are superglued to the geolocator. 

After the knot is tied, each loop must be accurately measured to a specific length. If the length of the loop is just one centimeter off, the harness might not fit the bird correctly.

Once the harness has been measured, the knot is superglued to the geolocator. Pictured here is Aaron Given, Assistant Wildlife Biologist for the Town of Kiawah Island. Aaron helped us get permitted for this project, make harnesses, and deploy each unit. We couldn't have done this project without his help - thanks Aaron!

Once the glue dries, we trim off the excess cord and the geolocator is officially ready to go!

Once the harnesses are made, we hook the geolocators up to computer software, double-check that they are recording light levels, and then the geolocator is ready to go!

A geolocator with harness attached to leads, allowing us to communicate with the individual unit. We use this to calibrate each geolocator, double-check that they are functioning correctly, and most the data when we (hopefully) recover them next year!

Now that are units are ready to be put out, we strategically choose the best candidate Prothonotary Warblers out of those that we've color-banded in the past. This is one of the most important reasons we color-band: since we can use the bands to identify each bird uniquely, we can monitor their return rates and breeding success. From this data, we can determine which of our birds have 1) migrated in past years and returned to Beidler and 2) successfully bred this year. These two factors often influence an individual's likeliness to return in subsequent years, and thus are good metrics for determining which birds to use in this project. 

With that in mind, the photo below is a quick overview of the band colors that we've used over the last three years. That way you can learn the colors of each bird carrying a geolocator and you'll be ready to help us find them next spring!
Each bird gets an aluminum band (marked as "A" on right) with a number on it, as well as a unique combination of three colors. Since the bands weigh next to nothing, there is no worry of them hurting or adversely affecting the birds. Using the numbers below each color, we assign an alphanumeric code to each bird.

Contrary to what you  might think, the harness and geolocator do not go over the birds' wings (although sometimes we call it a backpack); instead, they go over the legs and each loop rests up near the bird's hip. 

Putting on the first geolocator.

First gelocator attached! The unit is designed so that the light stock (the lower, white end) points up from the bird, thus allowing it to record light level readings without accidentally being hidden beneath feathers or obstructing the bird's flight.

In our next blog post, we'll introduce to you the eight Prothonotary Warblers that received geolocators in 2016 so that you can join us in looking for them next year when they hopefully return to Beidler Forest!


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Project PROTHO Intern

Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Anderson for their generous donation to Audubon South Carolina in memory Lloyd and Margaret Cone, we were able to fund a seasonal internship aimed at increasing our monitor efforts of the Prothonotary Warbler at three locations across Four Holes Swamp – two areas in old growth and one area that was logged onceHeather VanTassel, our intern, received her bachelor’s degree in Biology from Carlow University. She went on to obtain her PhD in Ecology from the University of California Riverside focusing on understanding wildlife responses to anthropogenic disturbances in the southwest.
Old-growth Swamp - Heather VanTassel
With Heather's assistance, we have learned that while Prothonotary Warbler densities may not seem to be as high in the logged areas as they are in the old-growth swamp, the once-logged areas still maintain healthy densities of Prothonotary Warblers. These results reinforce our efforts to conserve Four Holes Swamp and allow once-disturbed sites to return to their natural state in order to support healthy bird communities. We also plan to put out 50 Prothonotary Warbler nest boxes in the logged locations, which will provide additional nesting cavities and help maintain Prothonotary Warbler densities in the future.

Project PROTHO Nest Box - Heather VanTassel
You can follow what we are doing with Project PROTHO on our webpage.

Prothonotary Warbler Nestlings - Heather VanTassel