Saturday, July 26, 2008

A brief return to the mountains

A brief return to the mountains

16:00 hrs on 17 July 08: Base camp was in good condition. It had weathered yet another field season. Many days and nights were spent at camp. It was disassembled and loaded in my truck within 45 minutes.

The tent had to be emptied and cleaned. Tarp cords were unfastened from the posts and surrounding trees. I pulled the tarps off and swept them clean of dozens of spiders and periodic cicada exoskeletons. Also losing there home were the three large crickets that perched each night on my screen window.

Between the tarps was a mouse nest. The mice family evidently successfully saw the young leave the cozy home. No sign was evident of the wriggling babies seen in silhouette from inside the tent a month prior.

After removing recycling, a bag of rubbish, and miscellaneous camp items from the tent, the stakes were pulled and it was put up. Moving the tent from its ground area of three months revealed a matted depression of leaves that hadn’t seen the light all summer. The floor area was randomly dotted with the exit holes of periodic cicadas.

All that remains at camp is what was there before. Only stones stand at the tarp posts and around the fire pit. A few small stones also remained around ferns and saplings that were endangered of being trampled.

Not a tree or brush in the camp had been felled for any purpose or by accident. It was a truly low impact field camp.

The evening lighting was phenomenal. It’s a scene frozen in mind. The light our eyes perceive can never be captured on film, but the lighting was optimal for photography.

As I write this on the mountain side above camp a pileated woodpecker is scaling up a tree only 30 meters away. This evening’s singing birds include; peewees, nut hatches, wood thrushes, ovenbirds, cardinals, scarlet tanagers, hooded warblers, black-and-white warblers, wrens, vireos, and blue-jays. The birds that are being vocal are not singing much if at all. They are mostly calling and more active in the sunlight of the northwest slope. By far the dominates sounds are those of the buzzing, humming and whining hordes of insects.

Elk tracks were abundant. A pair of dung beetles rolled a ball of elk droppings as a flat millipede crawled by for a photograph. An ovenbird, a swallowtail, and a few flowers provided good portraits as well.

Moving south and up the ridge’s slope light beamed through gaps and lit the way with striking patches of green. It wasn’t the dull green of spring. The foliage was bright. This was the setting for the final evening on the mountain. It was indeterminable whether the natural soundings or mixed emotions where the backdrop.

Both seemed to be in unison. I was in mid-thought on a tangent. I think it was something about anthropomorphism. Then the unexpected happened. A cerulean sang at 20:57hrs. It sang only a song or two and was silent for a while than sang twice more. The canopy of hickory and oak was full of other species as well. None of them where singing much. First year birds were darting about more actively than the adults. Among them were first years fattening up for migration in another month.

The mountain was at peace and so was I after a tranquil close to another field season.

The sun set quickly and I walked down from the mountain through the darkness. It was a brief return… a brief season. Time flies. It’s as fleeting as migrating songbirds.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Cerulean hunting with an expert and mentor

July 17th, 2008 again: … Days pass quickly during the short breeding season of “the jewels of the jungle” and two weeks passed by filled with new field experiences.

Then it happened. In May of 2006, I met a great teacher.

Every now and then, you meet someone extraordinary that helps to humble you, inspire you, and teach you.

This happened to me with the arrival on the scene of Mark Blazis. When he rolled into the driveway at the field house, I met his keen eyes and said to myself, “yes… this is a serious and noble person.”

Before long, my wife and I were having dinner with him east of Knoxville after passing on a spontaneous helicopter ride (due to poor visibility). He has led a remarkable life and continues to share his knowledge by guiding people in Africa, Amazonia, and the Galapagos.

All of his many adventures, told and untold experiences he has kept true to the humanities and is humble servant to art of teaching. Nature is his classroom and the knowledge he conveys has more depth than can be gleaned at one sitting.

It’s not just knowledge; however, that makes him such a remarkable person. It’s beyond something that can be “pigeon-holed.”

Mark exudes a professional demeanor, permeated with endless enthusiasm for learning, and is driven to encourage goodness, if not excellence in others.

I was just getting to know him when we set out on Royal Blue plot three with our mist net, decoys, and playback to band ceruleans. I had seen a male and female displaying nest-site selection behaviors we call “sit-spins” on an Oak branch near a couple basswoods. Within a day Tiffany Beachy had found them nest building. This seemed like a logical territory to attempt banding.

Mark, Faustino, Joe, and I made our way down the steep slope with gear in tow.

“Look’, I said. “A barred-owl!”

The crepuscular symbol perched low near a spring seep to our south at 35 meters. I raised and lowered my binoculars, then glanced back at Mark.

The symbolism was obvious and spiritual.

Mark proceeded to show us how to set nets in order to target band canopy dwelling ceruleans.

Other birds are easier to band. Ornithologists have invented many ways to capture birds for banding purposes. Each species requires a different tact.

For instance; hawks can be lured to bow-nets or snares with bait either from migration routes on hilltops or from hunting perches, many songbirds can be caught with or without playing back their songs through well placed speakers, and wild turkeys can be rocket-netted over corn piles.

The strategy with ceruleans requires luring a bird that lives high in the trees to nets in the understory. Net placement requires anticipation of the birds’ actions, perfect net tension and proper decoy placement. Subtle details in these factors as well as with playback manipulation are additive with general good placement on a territory.

Mark drove the re-bar into the ground himself. He showed us how to fine-tune the nets and then the operation was on. We sat as the playback speakers sent a false claim to cerulean above.

It was an ancient game for man. Waiting for our quarry, we were as still as the stone and logs upon which we sat.

Senses heightened with our eyes set like steel traps for any movement were fixed on the net. Our ears were locked into the agitated scolding from the defensive and territorial male cerulean.

In an instant, he was in the net and our anticipation was released with a flood of excitement. Our good feelings translated into big smiles, high-fives, and handshakes.

As for the cerulean, ensnared by his natural drive to fight any perceived threat to his territory, he dangled in the web of nylon in no way able to understand the predicament or see a way through it. I imagine it felt only anger as it showed little fear.

Our Master bander, Mark, placed the bands, a white color band and an aluminum federal band. We decided to name this cerulean “Spanglish.” I placed him cautiously in Faustino's hands and Faustino opened his palm. There the bird waited before taking flight. I snapped one of the best photos I've ever taken before he flew. Spanglish returned to Royal Blue after migrating to South America.

During the previous days, I had marked waypoints in my GPS of all the ceruleans I had encountered. With this as our guide we set up several more times. In all, we banded six ceruleans during the day. It is a one-day record that still stands even after two more field seasons.

Thank you Mark!

Note: Mark Blazis was given a distinguished honor for teaching by the esteemed Roger Tory Peterson Institute. Mark was fortunate to also have been been a friend of the late Mr. Peterson.


July 17th, 2008: … The end of April flew by as I made fast friends with my Mexican colleagues, Jorge and Faustino, from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.

Neither of them spoke much English, yet I worked hard to bridge the language barrier with species identification assistance. Latin names are rooted much more closely to their native tongue and were of great use.

We developed a “Sign-Spanglish” communication method. It had been years since my formal Spanish training and a couple years since I visited a Spanish speaking country. My last ventures in Spanish were in Spain and the language there compared to Latin America is similar to the comparison of the Queen’s English and North American English.

I would mock extracting an earthworm from the ground and say “Gusano” as I gestured eating it “…eating… warbler..” and then point to the direction of the worm-eating warbler singing and foraging among dangling clumps of dead leaves. They would repeat, “….verm…wheating…varvler…”

And so it went.

Other species were more humorous to act out in charades. For instance, one can only imagine the laughter involved with the combined excitement of them seeing there “new especies” like the “Rose tetas grosbeak.”

It seemed important that they experience as much life as possible in this new and foreign land, so as I learned new species, they learned many and we examined each bird, rock, plant, fungus and earth feature together.

Everything seemed new and that which had been seen before was seen in a new light through their bright Mexican eyes. Faustino had particularly keen eyesight for birds. Though truly a mammal person at heart, he had grown accustomed to seeing birds before hearing them, since the birds sing less frequently in their native Central America habitats.

As a side note, cerulean’s and many of their neotropical counterparts spend the majority of their lives in migration and on wintering grounds. For the population we study, only about four months are spent on breeding grounds.

This is why habitat loss on their migration and wintering grounds is so threatening.

I would be remiss not to mention the comradeship that can be fostered in field research. When people full of enthusiasm and a desire to share learning in a natural setting combine efforts, wonderful experiences happen.

One of Faustino’s only English phrases was, “It’s my life!” I’m not sure were he acquired this statement. Perhaps it was hearing Bonjovi’s song.

It matters not.

It just seemed fitting as we would spontaneously sprint through the woods down a steep a steep slope at the end of the day with Faustino yelling like a Mayan Indian, “…Yes! Ethan… it’s my life!” Or with other moments of fun, discovery, and conversations about the beach or “walley vall (volleyball).”

“Its my life!”

In the late afternoon, we returned from the mountains to the small nearby town of Jacksboro and neighboring Cove Lake State Park. Cove Lake is a birding Mecca and the trails great to explore. Volleyball courts, however, and not birds were our mainstay at the park. Two crews of bird technicians and my wife played a great deal of volleyball at Cove Lake. Our wonderful boss, Tiffany Beachy, would sometimes play with us, too.

It is crucial to have a positive attitude, altruistic qualities, enthusiasm, and an ability to constantly treat people well in order to have a successful field season. A successful season is marked by satisfaction and accumulation of the best data possible.

We shared many new “especies” sightings, volleyball matches, and barbecued meals and I’ll remember them well until the end of my life.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The beginnings

At this time: The cerulean population we have studied for the past few years has now finished all nesting efforts. They have struggled through storms, predation, intra- and conspecific competition. Now the “egg chips” fall where they may. Those that were successful in fledging are actively foraging in the canopy. The young birds are already learning songs and building up energy with the adult population in preparation for migration.

As the warblers work to meet the challenge of enduring a long migration, I sift through the folders of imagery and audio files that I’ve acquired while observing them during their breeding seasons from 2006-2008. I’ve camped beneath the canopies and lived in the heavenly woodland paradise shared by these birds for many nights and days.

Along with the accumulated data there is an evolution and transcendence I hope to convey. Like the thick humus of the forest floor producing nutrient rich soil, these natural experiences feed my spirit in the truest fashion. Nature is my classroom and my church providing lessons which are relearned and relived through the modern medium of digital audio files and the pages of my journal. With these tools I hope to share with others the many adventures found during cerulean summers.

The media collection is large and in order to find any meaning in it or crack and codes in cerulean communication, it must be organized. This collection, also backed up on CD, is reviewed on a sluggish computer through Google Inc.’s “Picasa 2.7” media software (Fig 1). Each audio file is further cataloged according to content in a Microsoft access database (Fig 2) with detailed time, location and various other attributes. While cataloging, field journal notes and correlated GPS logs are reviewed. Each file is a step back in time to specific instances that are relived and contemplated.

It seems daunting. Over six thousand files stare at me on the screen. It’s seemingly a dichotomy of a pleasurable challenge.

Where do I start?

Where else?

The beginnings…

I left New York in mid-April after visiting friends of my wife and I that we met while attending SUNY Cobleskill. The Giardenelli’s family is full of love for friends, and nature. As Amy and headed to Tennessee, they moved much further and setup Otorongo ecotourism lodge in Peru ( In the same computer folder with pictures of these good people, my first photos during the cerulean study are found.

The very first image in my album captured in Royal Blue, was taken on 27 April 06. It is of a strikingly colored invertebrate crawling through its leaf litter habitat. This flat millipede (Cherokia Georgiana) was a new species of millipede to me, but became a common sight (Fig 3). When picked up they emit a cyanide chemical, which smells like almonds. This toxic defense is a form of communication that has served the ancient bug species well through the millennia.

The next photograph is of a Northern slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) (Fig 4). Their name is appropriate coinage albeit this example is not so northern. “Herp” people as they are casually called, moisten their hands before examining these delicate creatures. In so doing, moisture is not stolen from the air-breathing skin of amphibians. Even with wet hands, slimy salamanders produce a sticky glutinous substance that is almost resinous and binds fingers with the adhesiveness of honey. When this is experienced once, it’s best to leave this species in place. The slimy is just one of many representing twelve families of salamander in the southeast. This region in general and especially in the nearby Great Smokey Mountains, houses the greatest diversity of salamanders on earth.

The first bird photos reveal the typical of spring setting in the Cumberland Mountains with the trees just budding and the early, newly arrived neotropical migrants seem weary as the scavenge the denuded branches for insects. A scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) looks inquisitively from upper branches (Fig 5). A black-throated green warbler (Dendroica virens), normally a canopy dweller, skulks along the ground for the odd crawling morsels (Fig 6).

The first audio file containing cerulean song was taken on May 9th, 2006 at 08:10hrs (Fig. 7). I had borrowed my wife’s camera and decided to test the video function. After all, I could at least attempt to capture the setting with more than a just a silent two-dimensional image. The result is panning footage of a typical spring scene with dense morning fog on a Cumberland Mountain east slope. Ambient light reveals a scene of lush green flora and the rising sun is beginning to break through the misty curtain. Birdsong is a constant surrounding sound of life that irrupts with intensity that dominates the mountains as they have each spring since the late Miocene or Early Pliocene Periods (Lovette and Bermingham 1999).

At the time of this first recording, I had know idea that the songs I was hearing would draw me into the vast, complex, and fascinating field of avian acoustic communication. Without the foresight afforded by hindsight, it took another year for me to begin taking detailed notes on individually color-banded birds with GPS coordinates. It was simply a pleasure to be witness to this life force. Now that I have recorded songs for two more years, it is not only a simply and instinctual pleasure, but has become deeper. Experiencing nature and birdsong in particular has become a consuming endeavor.

It is not just the birdsongs. Many photographs were taken during recording days. They serve to show much of the flora and fauna that is connected to the birds in the dynamic ecological web. The 600 million year-old rocks that were once part of the sea now anchors rich soils with an enormous mycorrhizal structure entwined with roots of plants. These ancient growths house invertebrates, harbor mammals, and reach through the thick misty morning air above the terrestrial domain to form song perches for the birds.

As I listen to this first audio file I long to open it in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s (CLO) Raven software, but I know song analysis will be best done after compiling all the other recordings to which I’ll compare it. I still need to organize the audio and photographic collection.

So I digress.

My first photographs while studying ceruleans where not just of birds; they were of invertebrates, amphibians, plants, and rocks. Like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and countless other naturalists, I wanted to record all biotic and abiotic “cogs in the wheel.” I review and relish those from 27 April 06. Once organized its on to the next folder 28 April 08….


LOVETTE, I.J. & BERMINGHAM, E. 1999. Explosive speciation in new world

Dendroica warblers. The Royal Society. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B