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.

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