2013/06/02 Tracking Purple Martins

The Release!

I had the pleasure of being invited by Jim Ray, wildlife biologist at Pantex, to volunteer for a Purple Martin conservation research project. The project would consist of trapping 22 Purple Martins which would be identified, measured, weighed and samples of feather and blood would be collected. Then the birds would be outfitted with tiny geolocation devices which will record their daily movements for up to a year.

The project is part of overall research being done by York University researcher Dr. Kevin Fraser from Toronto to study the movements and behavior of Purple Martins. The geolocation trackers were funded by the Department of Energy and Pantex in connection with a Presidential directive to help study and preserve migratory birds.

I thought you might be interested in some of the methods used to capture and work with the birds. Ray and Fraser were assisted by volunteers consisting of biology students from WTAMU, Jim's family, and myself.

 

Trapped!

Trapped!
Once a volunteer trapper sees a bird enter a housing structure, they had to run up with a paint roller on an extended handle to block the entrance. The roller has to be kept in place while more volunteers run up to lower the structures so the bird can be retrieved.

 

Almost Captured

Almost Captured
The housing structures are lowered and a step ladder is used to reach the structure on the top tier where the paint roller is still blocking the entrance. One of Ray's sons stuffs socks into openings where chicks are about to fledge and they should be prevented from leaving the nest.

 

Bird in Hand

Bird in Hand
A side access door is used to carefully find and remove the adult bird without disturbing the chicks. Each structure was marked with a tag indicating safe to trap or those that have eggs in the nest not to be disturbed.

 

Checked and Bagged

Checked and Bagged
Once the bird is secured in hand, it is checked for sex and if it has a geolocator attached. The bird remains calm in the bag.

 

News Angle

News Angle
A TV news crew has arrived from NewsChannel10 and they request permission to attach a camera to the nest housing supports before they are raised up again for the birds to continue feeding.

 

Jim's Interview

Jim's Interview
Jim Ray takes time out from getting the project running to explain to a TV news reporter how he managed to attract Blue Martins to his property and his efforts to help in conservation of the species and their habitats.

 

Kevin's Interview

Jim's Interview
Dr. Fraser explains how his Purple Martin migration research will help in understanding why their numbers are falling from year to year as part of his postdoctoral research.

 

I know at least two local TV stations and the Globe News sent reporters out to get the story. I give my kudos to KFDA NewsChannel10 for the best coverage. You can watch the video they produced here in a new tab - Pantex gets hands on with purple martin conservation.

Back to Work

Back to Work
Jim and Kevin get back to work after their on camera interviews with the TV media are done. The birds will first be weighed which is recorded along with the number of the structure they are nesting in and any leg bands they may be wearing. New leg bands are put on and recorded as needed.

 

Measurements

Measurements
Measurements are taken of the bird's lower leg and a measurement is taken of the right wing and recorded.

 

Feather Samples

Feather Samples
Two samples of wing feathers will be snipped from specific locations and a specific tail feather will be plucked and placed in a small envelope for each bird.

 

Blood Sample

Blood Sample
A small blood sample is taken from an easy to find artery in the wing.

 

Measure to Fit

Measure to Fit
The geolocator uses a simple string harness to loop around each leg and under the wings so the device is centered on the bird's back. The first loop is measured to provide the best fit for the right leg. One of the loose ends of the harness will be looped around the left leg and back to the chip

 

Placing the Geolocator

Placing the Geolocator
Placing the geolocator begins with putting the measured loop of the harness around the bird's upper right leg. You can see the photo sensor protruding from the back of the chip.

 

Secure the Geolocator

Secure the Geolocator
Once the loop has been tied around the left leg, the long ends of the harness are snipped off and secured to the geolocator. The small piece of plastic underneath the device helps to prevent any sealant from getting on the bird's feathers. The plastic is removed and a final check is made to make sure the device is placed squarely on the back of the bird. The bird will later preen its feathers for a better fit and aerodynamic profile for flight.

 

The Release!

The Release!
After each bird has gone through the same procedure, they are released back into the wild so they can continue to hunt dragonflies for their growing babies. (Photo: Dusty Reins)

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I hope to get invited for the project to retrieve the geolocators from the birds next year in the spring and discover where they have traveled.  Purple Martins are the largest member of the swallow family in North America, and affixing small geolocator tracking devices will help expand scientific knowledge about the birds.

“Purple Martins are declining in some areas of the United States, and it is critical we continue to learn about their year-round needs and protect them,” said Ray, who studies a variety of wildlife species in his work at Pantex.

Ray said Purple Martins have been popular among bird watchers since early settlers found Native Americans providing the birds with living quarters in hollowed-out gourds. Providing birdhouses has been a popular pastime for birders ever since.

“I’ve been fascinated by Purple Martins since I was exposed to them when I went to graduate school in South Dakota,” Ray said. “Although I have been studying and promoting them for 25 years, it took me 16 years to attract my first nesting pair.”

Martin aficionados like Ray place specially constructed bird houses in their yards. Ray, who along with Fraser holds a permit to capture the birds, has banded more than 10,000 Purple Martins. Since 2007, geolocators – which weigh 1.5 grams and estimate the location of the birds by recording sunrise and sunset times – have expanded the scientific knowledge of the birds’ movements. Researchers discovered the small birds spend up to a month and a half flying south to Brazil in the fall, but return north to their U.S. breeding colonies in only two weeks during spring.

 

 

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