Warbler Trap in Kelly's Brook

Imagine, in the heat of the summer, stumbling upon a tiny oasis. A place with lush tree cover and a stream tumbling over rocks and gently lapping against a shoreline full of life and food. Imagine that you are safe in this oasis and that during your stay there, you become very healthy. Visualize yourself transforming from an intrepid traveler to an integral part of the oasis. Slowly, you lose track of time and eventually, you lose track of where you are completely. The oasis is eternal, a fountain of youth.

But then something in the air changes. A crispness. And then a wind that brings a biting cold. Food becomes scarce and the luster in the eye of the stream fades to the glow of a lightbulb under a blanket.

You, knowing that the oasis is safe and provides plentiful food, stay on searching. But being under the spell of your new home, you have forgotten that the very first change in the air was a cue for you to move on. To chase the warmth.

This is the dramatized account of a migrating songbird more or less forgetting about migration. It's more common than it seems. If you live in a place with marked winter weather changes, you can probably find one of these oases or "traps." Look for a nutrient-rich water source and flora that act as a source of food and a shield against predators.

Kelly's Brook in St. John's, Newfoundland is one such trap. Birders around town refer to it as a warbler trap because that's often the type of bird that strands itself there. This year it played host to a Yellow Warbler (sadly, he did not survive) and a Wilson's Warbler that fared much better.

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As you can see, he had some help making it through the Newfoundland winter (ongoing, as we speak). A local birding enthusiast bops around town to all the stranded, desperate cases that have forgotten to migrate and provides them with suet sticks or food of another kind. Some folks are of the opinion that this isn't a good idea because we should let nature take its course. Some say, What's the harm in feeding a handful of birds so that they survive the winter? I'll let you make up your own mind on that one. I'm really more concerned about why the Wilson's Warbler wouldn't want to be in Mexico right now. I certainly wish I was.

Because the warbler trap, Kelly's Brook, is a hidden gem of a water source, other birdies enjoy it too.

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Tomorrow I am traveling back to Colorado, my homeland. I'm very excited to bring you coverage of the 2016 Sandhill Crane migration if I'm lucky enough to witness it in my part of the state. Stay tuned for the final two 2birdfeature posts and the last few words on Protection Island.

Grad School and Shorebirds and Nerdy-ness, Oh My!

Lately I've been re-reading a bunch of my field guide. Just perusing through it, taking note of the Short-eared Owl's wheezy barks which sound like cheef cheef and the dappled sunlight camouflage of the Northern Flicker (my favorite woodpecker). There are certain cues in my life which cause me to pick up my field guide again albeit only exciting ones make me want to flip past the quick-find pictures to pore into the descriptions and literature. In this case, I recently got accepted at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland to study shorebirds for my master's. Of course I knew that I wanted to concentrate on birds for this degree but I'm lucky to have found a project with shorebirds. In general, many species of shorebirds are little understood and their populations ranging all types of climates have perhaps, genetically drifted apart. Or in evolutionary terms, speciated. My project will focus mainly on Snowy Plovers (unless projects arise with some other shorebirds). Snowy Plovers pose questions about whether their populations are still of the same species. Can this Snowy Plover living in British Columbia be of the same genetic makeup as the plover living in southwest Texas? To help determine this, I'll be using bioacoustics to record the birds' songs and compare them to samples from other populations. So that picture you have in your head of the nerdy biologist walking around in the forest with a small satellite dish, beady eyes bouncing off every tree, that'll be me. And here's the little unsub now (not my picture):

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I am very excited to get to know the Snowy Plover but I have to admit that I don't have much experience or knowledge of shorebirds. Sure I know of a bunch of them and I have glimpsed a few in Colorado (name dropping commence: Greater Yellowlegs, American Avocet, Common Snipe) but I don't know them like I know upland birds and waterfowl. There's only one shorebird that I have known well for as long as I can remember and that is the Killdeer, or as I have duly named it, The Outdoor Alarm System. I remember adventuring through the adobe landscape of my great-grandparent's property and scaring up Killdeer from around the irrigation ditches and the little pond. In the Killdeer's case, "shorebird" means any little body of water it sees fit to resemble a shore. I think it took me a long time as a kid to find out which bird was making my whereabouts known with its shrill alarm because it's camouflage works very well against the pale clay crust which covers the ground that I grew up on. The bird looks like this (from someone else's camera):

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These two Killdeer are doing it, but don't let that distract you from their beautiful black superciliary lines and jail-bird necklaces. If it were possible to study Killdeer using bioacoustics, I would probably try because I love them but here's how it would play out: Steph, excited that she has located a Killdeer in real life, slowly approaches it (very slowly) to attempt to record any song it may provide, any subtle nuances in its mood. Steph stops to refocus her binoculars onto the bird with the idea that she will approach it from this perfect angle or that one. Just as Steph lifts her eyes to the horizon, tenses her body to prepare for undetected movement, THE ALARM SOUNDS. The Killdeer has detected Steph from 30 yards away and through six overlapping groves of Russian Olives.

The problem is, it's very difficult to monitor the Killdeer's natural noise-making because they are so easily perturbed. In fact, I have no clue what they sound like when they aren't alarmed. Very touchy little souls. Cue a video of the Killdeer freaking out. This one is faking an injury called the "broken-wing display" (yes, they fake injuries to collect insurance...er...distract predators from their nest). Bird martyr go!

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Anyway, these are very exciting times and I know I'll have much more to say on the topic of shorebirds as I become more familiar with them. I'll leave you with someone else's picture of a beautiful shorebird I mentioned before called the American Avocet. Happy Tuesday!

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