For my PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I will be testing an integrative model of mechanisms underlying area sensitivity using breeding bird populations in southern New England forest fragments as a study system.
During the spring and summer of 2016, I volunteered with the Wisconsin State Ornithologists' Union as the Principal Atlaser for two blocks in the second iteration of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas (WBBA II). The goal of the WBBA II is to document evidence of breeding birds across Wisconsin and to compile data to compare to a similar study conducted from 1995-2000. In the field, atlasers do a census of bird populations in all the different habitat types found in their block and look for evidence of breeding. To document breeding evidence, birds must be observed carrying food, feeding young, occupying nests, or a number of other codes. Atlasers are also asked to document species that are possibly (e.g. singing on territory) or probably (e.g. copulation or courtship displays are observed) breeding in the block.
I signed up for two blocks so that I could visit as many different types of habitat as possible and become well-versed in the species breeding there. To prepare, I learned the calls of roughly 150 birds that were likely to be seen or heard in my blocks and studied their breeding timelines, nesting site locations and nesting material preferences, and other details of their behavior. I was able to confirm 31 species, including the Golden-Winged Warbler, which is a Near Threatened species that is declining throughout much of its range. Although neither of my blocks were complete by the end of the 2016 breeding season, I was able to train in a new volunteer to take for the remaining four years of the project so that she can track down and confirm species that I was only able to document as possibly or probably breeding in the block.
In the summer of 2016, I volunteered for two different MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) projects - one at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, MN and the other at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, MN. MAPS is a project coordinated by the Institute for Bird Populations that seeks to monitor bird populations to assist in conservation efforts.
As part of the team of MAPS volunteers at each site, I would deploy mist nets, check the nets at regular intervals, and extract birds for processing. At Hawk Ridge, I also processed birds, which entails identifying the species (not always as easy at it sounds!), aging and sexing them, assessing flight feather wear, checking molt limits, weighing and measuring the birds, and banding them. Volunteering on both projects was an incredibly valuable experience, where I gained more confidence in my extraction skills and was able to practice aging, sexing, and recording data on some tricky species.
In response to declining populations of American Kestrels in parts of their range (including northern Minnesota), Friends of Sax-Zim Bog put up 14 nest boxes in 2015. In the spring of 2016, I volunteered to monitor some of the boxes and returned when chicks were old enough to band them. Monitors observed kestrels at or near nine boxes during the season and recorded copulation at four of the boxes. We also made notes on other species present, general kestrel behavior, and foraging habits.
The chicks were banded on July 6, 2016 by Frank Nicoletti, Miranda Durbin, Peter Yokel, and myself. We drove to each nest box, climbed a ladder to peer inside the box and see if there were young, and then carried the young out and down to the road to band them. There were 21 chicks total, ranging from barely old enough to band to nearly fledged. The reason for the differences in ages is that some boxes likely failed the first time and the kestrel pair occupying the box tried over.
The Great Lakes population of Piping Plovers is endangered due to destruction of suitable nesting habitat and disturbance to nesting pairs. The St. Louis River Alliance organizes a Piping Plover Project to monitor suitable areas of beach on the southern shore of Lake Superior in order to detect any occurrences of Piping Plovers, record data on suitability of the beaches to nesting, determine if there are predators or competitors that could prevent nesting, and monitor human disturbances to possible nest sites on the beaches. I volunteered as a Piping Plover Monitor in Duluth, MN on Park Point and in Superior, WI on Wisconsin Point. Although only one Piping Plover was seen in the Twin Ports area during the monitoring season (it was scared away by an unleashed dog) and it was not during one of my shifts, I was still able to provide valuable information on suitability of the beaches and numbers and types of other shorebirds present.
Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, MN is located at the tip of Lake Superior, which hundreds of thousands of birds migrate past each year due to the thermals along the ridge and its proximity to the lake. During the fall migration, there are three types of banding taking place at Hawk Ridge - passerines and near passerines, owls, and diurnal raptors. I volunteered with all three types of banding in the fall of 2015, though in different roles for each project.
For passerines, I assisted the bander with mist net deployment and setting up feeder traps, bird extraction, weighing birds, and, during public programs, explaining banding to visitors and helping them release the birds. With owls, I primarily assisted with releasing Northern Saw-whet Owls, accompanying trainees on net runs, and assisting with documentation as needed. Last, but certainly not least, I helped with diurnal raptor banding, which deserves its own section.
My role in the banding station was primarily to spot birds and alert the head bander so that he could attempt to lure the raptors to the nets. As easy as spotting sounds, it requires making a determination of what species of raptor is approaching, the direction it is coming from, how fast it is traveling, and whether it appears interested in the station. All of this needs to be determined and communicated to the head bander in a matter of seconds. Although most of the banding was done by our two wonderful banding trainees, I was able to process (i.e. weigh, measure, age, and sex) and band several raptors. Most of the birds I banded were Sharp-shinned Hawks, but I also handled several Northern Goshawks and got to hold a juvenile Bald Eagle in my lap while the banding trainees prepped the band. During the time I was at the banding station, the USDA asked us to participate in a study of avian influenza. The project required taking blood samples and doing oropharyngeal and cloacal swabs. Although our station did not participate in the blood sample portion of the study, I got quite a bit of experience with doing the swabs, managing the samples, and filling out the data sheets.
Because my undergraduate career was focused on science communication and environmental issues, I developed an interest in studies of pro-environmental behaviors and decision making. I began a study on the role of self-identity in the Theory of Planned Behavior with an anti-environmental behavior--consumption of bottled water--as the target behavior. I worked with Dr. Alex Rothman and Dr. Alex Maki (at the time, a PhD Candidate, now a post doctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University) on the study. We looked to see what role self-identity played in the Theory of Planned Behavior and if it helped to explain variance above and beyond the variables already included in the Theory of Planned Behavior. After completing my undergraduate thesis, we started work on a follow-up study looking at multi-choice decision making using the Theory of Planned Behavior as a model (study is ongoing).