I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but better late than never! I just finished my work as an avian field technician (or in other words, the field season ended) working for a NCSU grad student. His work focused on studying the use of habitat by Bachman’s sparrow (BACS), a southeastern endemic. In North Carolina, they can be found in wiregrass-longleaf pine forest communities, which when managed for the federally endangered Red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW), in turn benefit the BACS (and many other species specific to this threatened habitat).
I applied for this job because as a native of NC, and having spent my undergraduate career on the coast, I felt a special fondness for the longleaf pine forest ecosystem. My first encounter with really caring about this special habitat was through my professor and mentor, Dr. Steve Emslie, at UNC Wilmington. UNCW has a pretty big campus, where a large portion of it is undeveloped forest. One patch was situated near central campus – right across the street from Dobo Hall, home to the Biology/Marine Biology Department (and my favorite building!).
This patch was frequently used by ecology classes to demonstrate different field techniques. It was sometimes (although infrequently) burned – a fair attempt at forest management. In 2009, the then-Chancellor Rosemary DePaulo decided that this particular patch should be cleared to build a new set of “luxury” apartments and a parking deck. This turned into a big controversy, as very few people knew of this plan (part of her “Master Plan”) until a few months before the proposed clearing was to take place. It felt like it was being kept hushed to those of us opposed to the expansion. There was a whole suite of other issues associated with this – the covertness, the stubbornness (there were several other places to build that would not impact the forest), and environmental carelessness. A small group banded together to try to fight (or at least delay) the clearing and defend the forest, but to very little effect. On May 15, 2009, the patch was cleared. In the midst of bird nesting season (and in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) – there were several documented nests in the area prior to clearing.
red-bellied woodpecker at nest, UNCW forest
inside the UNCW forest
While the forest was not strictly pure longleaf pine forest, it used to be (would have been historically) – i.e. there were LLP trees there but it was overtaken by other species. Still, several LLP forest species lived there – box turtles, brown headed nuthatches, several woodpecker species (not RCWs), great crested flycatchers. But, in becoming involved with the movement, I became passionate about protecting what little remaining longleaf pine forest habitat there is (less than 2% of the historical range). The history of the longleaf pine forest is fascinating, and closely tied to the history of the expansion of the New World and the southeast post-colonization. An excellent book concerning this, written by an NC author, is Looking for Longleaf, by Lawrence S. Earley.
So, to make a long story short, due to my special interest in LLP forest, I jumped at the chance to work for someone studying them!
My part in helping his research involved going out to somewhat-randomly-selected* sites in Holly Shelter Game Land (a 75,000 acre, predominantly “pine flatwoods” forest managed by The Nature Conservancy) and Croatan National Forest.
*These sites were selected randomly, but within ranges (determined by LIDAR scans) managed for RCWs – i.e. they had a relatively open above-ground shrub layer. The LLP pine forest ground layer is characteristically dominated by wiregrass, and not much else, so there are the tall LLP trees in the canopy, and then the wiregrass – leading to what is described as a “park-like” appearance.
Once I arrived at these points by handheld GPS, I would do a survey of BACS, but also note down any other birds heard or seen. The BACS survey lasted three minutes upon arrival, and then another three minutes after playing the male BACS’ song for 30 seconds. Generally speaking, BACS were not detected upon arrival (they can be shy and cryptic, disappearing into the wiregrass), but after playback, males reacted quite vociferously, especially earlier in the season when they were extra territorial.
This was the especially important part – recording how many songs the males gave out. This is what a Bachman’s sparrow male’s song sounds/looks like (video). You can see that the little guys really put everything they got into being heard – their little bodies shake from the exertion! I love their song…it’s very distinct (although the Eastern Towhee can sometimes sound like that last part) and melodic. Their responses varied highly – sometimes the males would barely react, or give a few half-hearted songs, or a “whisper” song – what we called when they were close by, singing, but it was like they were little ventriloquists, throwing their voices further back and making themselves sound far away. Others really gave it all they had – the record number for one bird was 47 songs in 3 minutes. This particular male sang one song after another, non-stop.
After completing the callback survey, we measured tree basal area (using a wedge prism), determined which tree was dominant in the canopy, and the quality (fresh, fair, poor/dead) of the wiregrass. Then, we took a random bearing off of the compass, and walked 100 m in that direction, doing a plant survey every 10 m. And this completed the data for the point!
My work lasted from April to the last week in July. I had a great time, going out into the coastal forests and being where I loved. It was great experience to rack up and to add to my resume. And I definitely honed my birding skills, especially identifying birds by song and call alone. However, I decided that after experiencing a little terrestrial ecology field work, I wanted to get some more experience in marine biology, putting my degree to good use. So…I applied for a position in New Bern as a marine fisheries observer, and a couple of weeks later, got an interview, and a few days after that, was offered the job! More on that later………