John Anglin, 2021 BdA summer biology intern performs a bird survey

My alarm goes off. I hear the birds outside my trailer and wonder how it is they can sound so chipper this early. With muffled groans, I get out of bed and make the best cup of coffee I can manage in my semi-conscious state. I’m off to do a survey for the southwestern willow flycatcher, a tiny passerine bird that nests in willow groves at Bosque del Apache. Though I do find the biology of this bird fascinating, part of me wishes our sleep schedules were more closely aligned.

I gather the essentials: a compass, a GPS unit for marking locations, binoculars for observing behaviors and spotting nests, and a small speaker to broadcast the flycatcher’s song – a special tool for “callback” surveys. I wake up a bit more as I step out the door and feel the morning cool on my face and hands. I drive into the survey area, careful to avoid the mud traps laid by last night’s rain. I park at the corner of a willow grove and wait for a bit more sunlight, checking and rechecking the functionality of the speaker and GPS unit. I step out and hear the blaring of a red-winged blackbird and the chaotic squeaks of a Bell’s vireo. I am amazed by all the vocal beauty and bizarre tones around me. These calls are soon masked by a buzzing cloud of mosquitoes. Once more, I am astounded, believing that I have cumulatively never seen as many mosquitoes in my life as are around me at this moment.

I raise my speaker and broadcast the signature call of the southwestern willow flycatcher. “Fitz bew! Fitz bew!” I wait for a response, but all I hear is more blackbirds, a lone vireo, and many, many persistent mosquitoes. I press on. After several cycles of broadcasting and listening with no flycatchers to report, I make peace with the possibility I will not encounter my target species this morning.
I broadcast the next call with low expectations and – almost immediately – hear a resounding fitz bew! in response. I am overcome with a rare combination of excitement and single-mindedness. I forget about the buzzing and biting mosquitoes. All lingering grogginess vanishes. My attention is laser-focused on this little bird. Nothing else matters. It is bliss.

Southwestern willow flycatcher | Photo by Kelly Colgan, courtesy of www.NM.Audubon.org

As a Biological Intern at Bosque del Apache, field surveys were a regular responsibility for my fellow interns and me. We conducted flycatcher surveys from May to July of 2021. The “detection method” used in a survey depends upon the species. In birds, it is common for closely-related species to be nearly indistinguishable by sight. A petite, olive-colored bird with white wing bars and a modest head crest could very well be a willow flycatcher… or a wood pewee, or a dusky flycatcher! A much better identifier is often song. Survey protocols are developed according to the biology and peculiarities of a species. For willow flycatchers, the “fitz bew” is unmistakable – a sharp, chirp-like note followed by a short, descending second. To be as precise as possible when collecting data, only the “fitz bew” can count as a positive identification.

Our survey units were all in riparian habitats. Moist soil provides a home for willows, and willows offer just the right branch structure for flycatchers to build their tightly woven, cup-like nests. However – even in seemingly optimal habitat – not every nest succeeds. Some fall prey to hungry ravens and hawks; bad weather can tip a nest and spill its contents; cowbird parasitism can be a death sentence for chicks; and parents may abandon nests for reasons we do not fully understand. My fellow interns and I conducted nest-monitoring studies to track nest success rate, periodically checking the number of eggs and observing parental behavior.

From July to August, we conducted surveys for a very different bird – the yellow-billed cuckoo.

Yellow-billed cuckoo | Photo by Benjamin Murphy, courtesy of Macaulay Library

In some ways, this is the easier bird because you can identify them by sound and sight. They have brown and white feathers, a slightly curved yellow and black bill, and long, elegant tail feathers – nothing looks like a yellow-billed cuckoo except a yellow-billed cuckoo. Other features make them more challenging to study. Cuckoos occupy larger territories than willow flycatchers, which means longer survey routes, which means (yikes!) getting up earlier. Like flycatchers, cuckoos occupy riparian habitats, which means (yikes again!) more mosquitoes.

Cuckoo surveys are even more exciting than flycatcher surveys. They offer a more complete sensory experience, requiring listening and watching. Stomping through mud and ducking under vegetation on a cuckoo survey evoked a genuine sense of adventure. Though I was a relatively short drive away from the comfort of my trailer, I was away from the incessant demands for my attention in Wifi Land. I was outside, I was in nature; I was on assignment – and I was free!

The best educational experiences teach you not just things how things are done, what things are made of, or how things work. They also teach you about yourself. I have learned a lot about survey protocols and running a wildlife refuge, as well as the life histories of two very important endangered birds; I’ve also learned that I love a) field work, and b) science communication. I enjoy the solitude of surveys, and I look forward to going back to civilization to report and discuss my findings.

Since finishing my internship, I have been writing content for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. I aspire to enrich people’s wildlife viewing experience by describing the science of animal behavior and wildlife conservation. My aim is to maintain a career in collecting field data while continuing to write about wildlife for professionals and hobbyists alike. The insights I gained during my time at Bosque del Apache have been invaluable. I am grateful to have gotten to know such a special place so intimately.

———

As I return to the car, having completed my last cuckoo survey, I reflect on the three months I’ve spent here. I think of the fence lizards scampering around the picnic area outside my trailer. I think of the painted turtle laying her eggs across the river from my flycatcher survey unit. I think of hundreds of tiny frogs in mid-transition from tadpole to adult, scattered around a small desert pool seen on a morning hike. I drop off my work vehicle for one more time and resolve to enjoy my final hours at Bosque del Apache. I pack up and head off to the next adventure, knowing I’ll be back.

Article by John Anglin