Testing the Airs with Mist Netting

The BRMBR (my way of saying the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge without so much typing), was chosen to be the host of the WBBA (Western Bird Bander's Association, because who doesn't love acronyms) annual meeting this year. My supervising Wildlife Biologist Howard Browers, who is the only active wildlife biologist at the refuge, has taken on the task of planning the entire 3 day weekend event by himself- quite the challenge. That is, it would be by himself if it were not for the helpful hands of his faithful SCA helpers Nikki and Micah.

The main and most important operation for preparing for the conference (for me) was to conduct a series of mist netting trials over the course of three weeks prior to the big weekend (August 11th-14th). Howard is a master bird bander himself, and with many years of experience setting up mist nets and banding, he did a very well job of showing Nikki and I the ropes (or nets, if you will). The area chosen for the Conference netting zone was the Ogden Nature center located in Ogden, a fair sized town located 20 miles south of the refuge. Stage one was finding promising netting areas on the nature center grounds. 6 nets were set up initially, all hidden in the shade with areas next to bodies of water preferred, all off the main hiking trail.

Setting up mist nets is an art form within itself it turns out, with much care needing to be taken in order to insure the nets are set up and taken down without any tares or debris being acquired along the way. Howard has his own special technique which he taught us, and we used rebar and 10ft poles to suspend the nets between trees and shrubs. I was also in charge of operating the weed eater and branch clippers to clear out areas in which the nets were to be set up, a seemingly easy task made miserable given the mosquitoes and Utah mid day sun. The weeks following would be spent uprooting the poles and rebar to test out new areas if nets were unsuccessful, and shaving down more weeds and shrubs in the new chosen locations.

On days we wanted to test the mist nets, our crew (comprising of Howard, us SCA & YCC interns, and refuge rangers Katie and Jason) would leave the refuge at 5:30am in order to drive to the Ogden Nature Center and have the nets set up by 6:00am. Every half and hour or so, two teams would head out to check all the nets for caught specimens. If a bird happened to wander into our nets, Howard or Jason first showed us how to extract the birds slowly and safely, and then later allowed us to do it ourselves. Bird species caught included: Downy Woodpecker, Song Sparrow,  lazuli Bunting, Black-Headed-Grosbeak, Black-capped Chickadee, and American Robin.

After a bird was untangled from the net, it was placed in a sack and brought to our temporary banding station set up in a clearing. A long process was then undertaken to band the bird, as well as take down a long list of measurements such as sex, weight, plumage states, ect. I was fortunate enough to get involved and handle/band birds myself, an extremely exciting experience. The most interesting part of the whole adventure for me was noticing just how extremely different birds can be both within and between species in terms of personalities. For example, the Song Sparrow was rather docile compared to the rambunctious and loud Chickadee.

 Examining a caught specimen. 

 Keeping the YCC in line as we ground some poles

 Our banding station

Data collection

The Wide World of Weeds and Grasses (and Forbs and Unknowns)

There are extensive grasslands on the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and a refuge manager here, Jack Heisler, thought it would be a wise decision to survey them for their vegetation population and health. In order to do this, he recruited the help of a Wildlife Biology Technician at the time, one Clint Wirick, to help him map out the extensive units, and record the grass and forb data which inhabit them. Plots around the area were chose at random, and he went about setting up post marks and monitoring the vegetation structure in these areas.

Clint picked a random direction from the computer generated points, and stretched a 20 meter tape measure in that direction, then went about marking off a rectangular parameter every 2 meters on alternating sides and recorded vegetation diversity and percent coverage in each section. Along with this, each species max height was taken as well, along with percent ground cover.

Our Wildlife supervisor Howard took us out the first day to show us the ropes, and Nikki and I quickly caught on. Since we are UTV and ATV certified, we rode the Polaris UTV out to each individual spot guided by a GPS, often needing to use 4-wheel drive due to the extreme march conditions. The technique for data collection is called the [Technique]. At arriving, a tape measure if stretched in the direction classified, and a rectangle is moved along every 2 meters, as one of us identifies and the other records. Clint also took pictures of every specie of grass and forb on our grasslands and put them into a useful book- which was a valuable asset we found. The percent of the rectangle each species takes up is put into one of 6 classes: 0-5%=1, 5-25%=2, 25-50%=3, 50-75%=4, 75-95%=4, and 95-100%=6. This is also the scale used to identify the bare ground to litter ratio.

After a week of recording, Nikki and I are both experts now at identifying the grasses and forbs present on the grasslands, and if we cant identify a species it is brought into the lab for further inspection. We have been working for days on quantifying all the plots, and have only completed a fraction of all the ones needed to be done. We are sure to be working on this for a ways to come, and will most definitely be able to identify grasses in our sleep before finished.

The Great Grassland Abyss

 Taking Care of Business

Taking Wildlife Biology to the Skies

On the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, we have a lot of birds, and a lot of those birds love to nest here. The folks located over in the Engineering and Biology department of Weber State University are curious about those nesting birds,  in particular the White Faced ibis and Franklin's Gull colonies located on unit 3B. They are so interested in these bird's nests that they decided to conduct a study looking at their frequency and location on the islands scattered about in the 3b unit, which are surrounded by a lake of no more then 2-3 feet.

The way the Weber State scientists see it, if you want to understand a bird, you have to become the bird. In order to get a good accurate visual of the nests located on the scattered islands, the use of a small radio controlled plan was brought in, which is where the Engineer scientists are involved. They mounted a high definition camera on the bottom side of a Styrofoam 3 foot wing span plane, and set it off in the refuge's skies to record as much detail on the nests as possible.

It was very interesting working with these professors and scientists, and exchanging stories, ideas, and aspirations in relationship to what they were doing and wildlife. "It's great to be doing this", one of the team members told me, "We love using this technology for good. So often these planes and techniques are used in military operations. I'm glad we could use this power to help the environment." Indeed, being trained in wildlife biology for the last four years of college has involved a lot of hands on work directly with nature, and it was eyeopening to see how engineering and technology such as this could go hand in hand with understanding wildlife.

The Crew


Take Off

Nesting Colonies

In Flight

Plane Recovery team

Abnormal Amphibian Survey

Continuing my work at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, I was given an assignment that I never thought I would be conducting at a bird refuge: frog catching. Katie, one of my supervisors here at the refuge, explained the project to me as a large sampling of frogs across the country, mainly the Northern Leopard frog and the Western Chorus frog here at the refuge. This information will be used to determine the abnormalities of frogs in our area compared to frogs in other areas of the country. The presence of a high proportion of abnormalities in our population would suggest contamination of our water in some way.

So, my mission, as I had to accept it, was to catch these little buggers. This seemed like an easy enough mission, given that much of my childhood was spent in the creeks of southern Ohio doing just that. However, as I soon found out, these frogs are far different than the ones jumping  around my childhood back woods. The first few days spent on this mission turned out hardly any results, as Nikki and I were looking for tadpoles of the species, and the only real way to do this is dip your net into the water randomly and hope for the best. Luck has never really been on my side, and I like a challenge in my work opposed to blind luck.

After a good four hours of walking all over the BRMBR wetlands without any frogs to show one day, we realized why the tadpoles escaped us- we spotted the tiniest frog hoping around on the grass next to us.  They had already begun to meta-morph into terrestrial beings, and we were simply looking in the wrong place. The next day, we went back to a pond in which many tadpoles were caught at weeks before, and sure enough, frog soup. I caught 20 Northern leopard frogs just by myself that day, using a technique I had to develop as we went along. They float motionless in the water, and you can’t see their little eyes staring up at you. Like a ninja, one must creep slowly in the water towards them without any sudden movement, until your net is within striking distance. Then, like a flash of lightning, come down upon the frog and scoop it towards you to ensure that it won't escape. This, of course, works for the Northern Leopard frogs. The Chorus on the other hand is the size of a dime and was only caught by looking at the dry ground and spotting them in between cracks.

All caught frogs were then put into ziplock baggies, brought into the lap, and then numbered and measured for a different array of things, such as SVL (snout to vent length) and Gosner stage, as well was carefully examined for any abnormalities. All abnormalities were sent in to headquarters, along with a frog quota from each site.

For more information on the project, visit http://www.fws.gov/contaminants/Issues/Amphibians.cfm

Catching frogs in the field

Measuring and Accessing each frog


 Our subjects in waiting
 My supervisors investigating an abnormality
After a hard days work

Examining frogs in the lab.

Waterbird survey and breeding bird survey

I experienced my first in depth bird survey on the BRMBR with the resident Wildlife Biologist, Howard Bowers. I didn't know what to really expect, as we needed to count every bird we could see on the entire 80,000 acre refuge. I have taken Ornithology classes in college, but they were mostly on birds found in the eastern United States. And, as I am sure all of you know, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is home to many different types of shore birds who migrate through and rest here, few of which are seen in South Eastern Ohio. To say the least, I started off slow. However, after the first couple hours of seeing the same birds over and over again with Howard's expert advice on what to look for, I become competent enough to help him sight birds myself on each unit with binoculars and scope.

While one of us were looking and spotting for birds on either side of the vehicle, the other was writing the data down in the most clever way. Say we spotted 42 White Faced Ibis, and a mile down the road spotted just 2, and then another half mile saw 13 more, meanwhile seeing a plethora of other species in between. Thats too much information to write in digit forum on the charts we are keeping and within the time frame of finishing the entire refuge in one day. So, using a symbol system helped out immensely, and a box with a cross through in represented 10 individuals: each 4 corners are one, each line connecting two dots are another, and the two lines through the center are two more. Of course, when 350 American White Pelicans are spotted on an island, the digit format is brought back.

For an entire 8 hours Howard and I rode the dykes between units, stopping ever 5-20 feet or so to peer back through our binoculars. By the end of the day, I was an expert at identifying every shore bird we saw, to say the least, and could even tell apart a female Mallard from a Gadwall at a distance. The day flew by incredibly fast for 8 straight hours of riding around in a truck at 10 miles an hour, mostly due to the serine beauty of the refuge and Howard's priceless knowledge I was being taught.

Some very notable sightings while we were out are the rare Goldeneye (duck) and a two pairs of Grebes that were doing their mating display dance. The Grebes were interesting not only for their beautiful dancing, but the fact that one pair were Clarke's Grebes and the other Western Grebes, and the pairs were trading off partners with one another.

The following morning, before the crack of dawn, Howard and I went out again to conduct another survey, however this one being a point count survey of breeding birds on the refuge. Howard would drive every half mile and stop, then we'd get out and he'd watch in all directions for three minutes for signs of birds- either sight or song. I am very impressed with his skill and competency in identifying birds- every single sound he heard he recognized, and he could spot the smallest dot in the distance and identify it. He set a very high standard and goal for me to shoot for, and I am hoping one day to be as experienced as he is.

 The massive 80,000 acre refuge complex

BRMBR Week Two: Geese Catchin'

By far, one of the most fun and wild experiences took place during my second week working at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. The Fish and Wildlife service conducts surveys and bandings on a yearly basis for the Canadian Geese that inhabit the waters of our country. And, to do this, they must first catch them, which is where I came in. First, however, we had to make sure that there were in fact Canadian Geese upon the refuge's wetlands, and thus myself and the refuge's main wildlife biologist, Howard Browers, took the truck around the entire 80,000 acre area and scouted for the birds with binoculars. We didn't see hardly any the entire 8 hours we were out, until the very end of the loop in which, as luck had it, we spotted 300 or more geese. The FWS was called out for the next day.

And how does one catch a Canadian Goose, masters of flight and migration? Why, wait until they molt their flight feathers of course. And how does one catch the birds who reside in water and are masters of swimming? You guessed it: Airboats. So, the SCA and YCC interns geared up in life jackets and googlies and boarded 4 large and powerful airboats, with the intention of catching the elusive birds with bare hands. In order to do this, we were instructed to to lay flat on our stomachs, half hanging over the front of the boat, arms extended to grab any part of the bird possible. While cruising at full speed. Amazing  fun, to say the least.

Upon capture, the geese were loaded into large crates onboard and then brought to shore once max capacity was reached. Each was unloaded one by one, and brought to the professional banders and sex was recorded for each, and  some of which were already banded were recorded again. Each were released, and scrapes treated.

Me and the airboat

Goose Transfer

Living the dream


Learning to band

New Adventure: Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

Well, it didn't take me very long to get on my feet after graduation. The shock of leaving Ohio University with a Wildlife and Conservation Biology degree hasn't wore off- how could it, after only a couple weeks? But, I didn't have time to think and ponder life too much, as there is a world to be saved. The SCA came calling, and the Bear River Migratory bird refuge needed my services. So, after only a week of spending time with family, off to Utah I went via the United hospitable airlines.

My first impressions of the west, as this is indeed my first time experiencing this beautiful land, was breathtaking to say the least. I always felt drawn to the energy and untamed wilderness of the west without ever actually visiting, and my spirit yearned for its freedom the entire four years of college. However I could not prepare myself, or my eyes, for what was to greet me as I stepped out of the terminal in Salt Lake City- mountains I have never seen before stole my attention completely and left me in a state of awe. I am afraid, as I was warned by friends before I left, that I have been bit by the west, and will not want to ever leave.

My co-workers at the refuge are extraordinarily amazing to work with. I never would of imagined people being so happy and content with their jobs, and the pleasant personalities everyone brings to this place builds the refuges energy to an amazing level. I was welcomed warmly by everyone on staff, and got a chance to meet my fellow interns of the YCC (Youth Conservation Corps) as well as my fellow SCA partner Nikki Tulley. My first week at the refuge was spent with these awesome kids, and as a group of new and curious interns, we were trained in such ways as leave no trace, first aid respondent, and CPR. A good amount of time as well was spent getting to know these other people who I will be working with very closely in the next few months.

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

CPR Training

First Aid Training

Team Building Exercise