Thursday, April 23, 2015

Lightening the Load for Longshot

The weather forecast for last Wednesday (April 15th) was for rain and thunderstorms. We had five volunteers signed up to come help with our Prothonotary Warbler banding project (better known as Project PROTHO), and when they all arrived at the visitor center at Francis Beidler Forest, it was pouring rain. We were nearly ready to cancel.

Things have a way of working out, though, and Mother Nature obliged for about six hours that day, giving us enough time to try to catch Longshot. If you haven't heard about the Prothonotary Warbler that retired Audubon South Carolina State Director Norm Brunswig affectionately named "Longshot," see our previous post here. Amazingly enough, this tiny bird (weighing about 14 grams) wore a small device called a geolocator (weighting about 0.4 grams) for the last 10 months, flying to somewhere in Central or South America during that time. It is our hope that the device itself will answer that precise question - where did he go? Geolocators take light level readings to infer a relative position, thus enabling researchers for the first time to track the long-term movements of a small bird.

Staff and volunteers transport banding equipment on the boardwalk. Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.
Before last week, we'd already tried once to catch Longshot without success. Imagine our worry: he travels 2,000-3,000 miles wearing this device, and then we can't catch him to take it off when he's 20 feet away from the boardwalk at Beidler Forest! Last week was our second chance at trying, and our fear was that he might become shy of our net and decoy, thus making him even more difficult to catch.

Sure enough, we arrived at his "spot" on the boardwalk around 9:00 a.m. and tried unsuccessfully to catch him once again. After about 30 minutes of trying, we admitted defeat and left to try to catch a few other Prothonotary Warblers that were unbanded.

We had much more success doing that! The pictures below are a few taken by our talented volunteers of the banding process.

Every bird that we band receives a silver, aluminum band from the United States Geological Survey. This band contains a number that corresponds to a national database, so that if this bird is ever captured again somewhere else, whoever catches it can learn exactly where and when it was originally banded. We also add color bands in a unique, three-color combination so that we can identify birds individually. Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.
These are the color bands that we'll be using in 2015. Each color corresponds with a number, and in addition to the silver USGS band that every bird gets, we can assign a unique alphanumeric combination to each bird. The red-yellow striped band has a slightly different number - this band will be used on every bird we catch this year (the 15 stands for 2015), but will not be used in subsequent years.
The bands don't hurt the birds and are extremely small/lightweight (see picture above for scale). This bird's new name will be A1500, based on the colors used and their arrangement on the bird.

In addition to leg bands, a standardized set of measurements is taken from every bird that we capture. This information will be compared with data from researchers in several other states that are capturing Prothonotaries and performing the same measurements. Photo courtesy of Marcie Daniels.

Once the birds are processed, we try to take a few documentary pictures and then release them as quickly as possible. Here, a volunteer releases a newly banded bird. Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.

We banded three new birds for the day, taking us through lunchtime. Near the end of our field day, we decided to take one more chance at catching the Prothonotary with the geolocator. We set the net up in PRECISELY the same spot that we banded him in July 2014,!!

"Longshot," the Prothonotary Warbler that's been carrying a geolocator since July 2014, is finally captured! Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.

Once he was removed from the net, we were able to get a close up look at the geolocator (pictured in center). This device was attached to the bird as a harness, looping around his upper legs using Stretch Magic. A simple snip with a pair of scissors and it was off! Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.

The recovered geolocator from "Longshot," lightening the load he has to carry by 0.4 grams! The right end of the device is the light sensing stock, the gray portion contains the battery and storage unit, and the brown string is the cut harness. Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.

A914, aka Longshot, before his release last Wednesday. A truly remarkable story! Photo courtesy of Marcie Daniels.

Once we captured and removed the geolocator, we released Longshot and packed up our gear. About 20 minutes after arriving back at the center, the rain set in again. We had a fortunate day of weather that allowed us to catch a very lucky bird!

Now that the geolocator is back in our possession, we're going to send it off to our Audubon colleagues in Louisiana who can hopefully use software to analysis the data. If it all works out, are fingers are crossed that his "backpack" will tell us not only where he spent his winter, but how he got there too.

Stay tuned to this blog for more updates on Longshot and our other banded birds!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Project PROTHO - 2015 update and the return of "Longshot"

In 2008, Audubon South Carolina began what is still known today as Project PROTHO, a citizen science endeavor to learn more about the population of Prothonotary Warblers living in the swamp at Francis Beidler Forest. This project has continued off and on since then - for a comprehensive history of Project PROTHO, see past posts written by former Education Director Mark Musselman here:

After a gap in 2012 and 2013, this project picked back up in 2014 with our interest in geolocator technology. A geolocator is a light-sensing device that is (currently) the most advanced technology available to track the movements of a small bird like the Prothonotary Warbler. These devices take light level readings each day that are ultimately used to determine the bird's estimated latitude/longitude position. The geolocators are worn as a "backpack," with a harness securing the geolocator to the bird and a small light stock sticking out of the end. The biggest catch with using geolocators is that they don't work in real time - birds must be caught, fitted with a geolocator, then captured again the following year to have the device removed!

So why use these devices at all? There's a big question that Audubon SC hasn't been able to answer: where do our birds go when they leave the swamp? We like to think that we keep the swamp a healthy place for these warblers, but we only host them for less than half of the year. In the winter, Prothonotaries spend their time in Central and South America (see our previous post here about a recent trip to Panama to see these birds). But what area specifically? Is it a healthy ecosystem? Is it threatened by development as so many coastal mangroves are? Is there something that we could be doing in another country that would help these birds?

There are many questions still to answer, so in 2014 we began banding birds again to establish a population of known individuals that we could potentially use as candidates to wear geolocators. The permitting and timing in 2014 left us in a bit of a bind so while we were planning to deploy four geolocators as part of a pilot project, we were only able to deploy one.

A Prothonotary Warbler about to be fitted with the only geolocator we deployed. We captured, attached the geolocator, and released this bird in July 2014.

The odds of ever seeing a banded bird again once it leaves to migrate are very low, less than a 1% chance. Prothonotary Warblers, however, make good candidates for geolocators because they show high site fidelity (fancy term meaning that they like to return to the same wetlands from year to year).

Imagine our surprise when a group of bird-watchers saw this very special bird on April 4th, EXACTLY the same spot on the boardwalk where we captured it last July! This bird likely traveled a round-trip flight of approximately 3,000 miles - only to come back again to the same section of Beidler Forest. And for the first time ever, he's carrying technology that will hopefully tell us precisely where he went...and how he got there!

Our returning "geolocated" bird (aka Longshot) seen on April 4th at Francis Beidler Forest. Note the small white blob on his back - that's the light stock of the geolocator!

Like male Prothonotaries are apt to do, here's a picture of our geolocated bird carrying nesting materials to a cavity. Males usually arrive at Beidler before the females and will choose a handful of cavities to line with mosses and other materials...then they let the females choose which one they like best!

Another angle of "Longshot" and his geolocator. Note that he, like many of the birds we're studying, is color banded. Each bird gets a unique 3-band combination so that we can identify each one individually.

So, remember the "catch" that we mentioned? That's right, we still have to catch this little guy again to get the geolocator off before we can learn anything. We'll be trying to do that this week, so stay tuned to this blog for updates!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Prothonotaries & Panama: Building Conservation Partnerships Across the Americas

This winter, I was fortunate enough to travel to Panama to study the Prothonotary Warbler with a group of researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). The Prothonotary Warbler is a brilliant yellow bird of the eastern United States, and for those of you that have been to Beidler Forest any time from April through August, you may have caught a glimpse of this bird that has long been called the "canary of the swamp." Like many migratory species, the Prothonotary is absent from our landscape during the winter; instead of hanging around in the cold, these birds fly more than a thousand miles to the balmy tropics of Central and South America. Once there, they prefer to spend their time in coastal mangrove forests ranging from Mexico south to Colombia and Venezuela.

Why Prothonotary Warblers? Other than their beautiful plumage and feisty temperament, this species is a denizen of eastern wetland ecosystems, and even more, is a metaphorical "canary" for the health of these forest types. Prothonotaries prefer to nest over or next to standing water, and subtle changes in water levels (like, for example, altering or withdrawing flow) can affect their success. Equally as important is their food source, which is often the aquatic larvae of many insects, namely mayflies, as well as spiders, caterpillars, and other tasty insects. Put the aspects of its breeding life cycle together, and the Prothonotary emerges as a good indicator of ecosystem health.

Like many birds, though, the Prothonotary is a species of bird causing concern. While their global population is not currently plummeting (like many birds), they have exhibited a slow, long-term decline over the last few decades. This is despite increased funding and protection given in recent years towards wetlands of many kinds in the U.S. A knowledge gap that could (we hope) potentially explain this discrepancy emerges from the fact that we know very little about the migratory and winter habits of this species.

Cue this trip to Panama. Researchers from VCU, Arkansas State, and Ohio State, in conjunction with Audubon efforts here in South Carolina and in Louisiana, have tasked themselves with trying to understand the full life cycle of this bird. Our VCU colleagues have been working with Prothonotaries in Virginia for years (see, and for the past five years have taken a group of students to work in the mangroves of Panama to study this species.

They were gracious enough to invite me along as part of the trip this winter, with the hopes of learning the opportunities and challenges of working in the tropics, as well as get some firsthand experience with this species in the winter. Below is a photographic journey of sorts, which details our work from December 27th - January 9th.

If you're reading this and find yourself wondering "how can I help the Prothonotary Warbler?", feel free to contact me about it ( We are always looking for partners!

Welcome to the mangroves! There were three dominant species of mangrove at both of our study sites. The mangroves pictured above are Black Mangroves - this species was by far the most common at our first field site on the Pacific coast of Panama. This area had very little standing water, but the high water table and recently-finished wet season made for muddy conditions throughout our time there.

How do you catch a small, flying, avian critter? The answer: mist nets. This lightweight netting is hard for birds (and people, believe me) to see, and is strong enough to catch a bird but light enough not to injure it during the process. Birds are extracted from nets and then banded, measured, photographed, and released. Here, some of the students work with a VCU professor to set up nets at our first field site.

There were some Red Mangroves at our first field site, which are easy to identify by their dense tangle of prop roots. In the picture above, you can compare both Black Mangroves (far left and right of photo) and Red Mangroves (middle of photo). Maybe more so than any wetland ecosystem, mangroves are threatened across most their range, oftentimes destroyed or fragmented by coastal development.

On the second day at our first field site, the VCU professors and the Panama Audubon Society arranged for a group of primary school students to join us in the field. This was a real treat for everyone, including the students, who got to learn about our project, watch us band, and even release some birds!

These students are looking at the feathers of a woodcreeper that was captured to learn how we can tell the age and gender of certain species.

This lucky student is taught the proper way to release a banded Prothonotary Warbler.

An important part of the banding process is analyzing a captured bird's feathers. The wear, shape, and color of certain feathers can tell us a bird's age and gender. Other measurements are also taken that offer clues to the health of birds in certain areas and, in turn, allow us to make predictions about the health of their habitat too. It was a great experience to learn from some real Prothonotary experts! 
A male (left) and female Prothonotary Warbler captured at our second field site. Males are always much brighter (especially on the head/crown), and have more extensive white tail spots.

Our banding station at our second field site along the Caribbean coast. The mangroves at this site were more a mix of all three species (Black, Red, and White), and there was much more standing water. Even in knee-high boots, hardly anyone went through the day with dry feet!

An uncommon capture for us at the second field site was this adult male Golden-winged Warbler. Like the Prothonotary, the Golden-winged Warbler migrates to the U.S. to breed, preferring open habitats in the mountains over wetlands.

Our lodging and meal accommodations were terrific. We stayed in a home owned by Advantage Tours Panama owner Guido Berguido ( that bordered the edge of Soberania National Park in Gamboa, Panama. When we weren't in the field, we had a great spot to lounge and bird-watch. I highly recommend Guido and his staff for any guiding needs in Panama!
From left: our chief guide and Advantage Tours Panama owner Guido Berguido, guide and Panama University student Alex, and guide + birder Ovidio. These guys are amazing!

Pictured here (and below) are just a few of the birds that I was able to photograph at Guido's house. This is a beautiful Blue-gray Tanager.

The very dinosaur-like Gray-headed Chachalaca

The left-hand hummingbird is called a White-necked Jacobin. The smaller hummer on the right is a Violet-bellied Hummingbird. Our "lodge" was a great place to watch and photograph (with the right level of patience) hummingbirds.

One of the popular and numerous non-avian sightings was the Central American Agouti. You can liken this rodent  to a tropical version of our house cats (agoutis are native, however). We saw them often, especially in Gamboa, lounging in the yard and crossing the street.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

The great thing about staying in Gamboa is that we were equidistant from both of our study sites, but were also only a few minutes away from one of the best birding sites in central Panama: Pineline Road in Soberania National Park. Here are a few of the birds we found on an afternoon trip there. This is Broad-billed Motmot.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

A distant, blurry shot of a Chesnut-mandibled Toucan

White-tailed Trogon


Non-bird sightings included monkeys, sloths, Leaf-cutter Ants, anteaters, a few species of squirrel, and more. Here is a Three-toes Sloth that actually moved!
Howler Monkey
Silky Anteater curled up sleeping.

On New Year's Eve, our guides took us into the historic location of Panama City (Panama Viejo) for some sight-seeing and dinner. It gave us a great view of the current heart of Panama City as we overlooked the marsh. The bay formed here on the Pacific side of Panama is one of the most important wintering locations for shorebirds in Central America. The Panama Audubon Society played a key role in the protection of this bay (
Almost forgot to mention...apparently there is canal in Panama. We stayed right next to the Panama Canal while in Gamboa, and were able to watch ships move through it every day. Question: how long does it take a ship to traverse the canal? Answer: about 10 hours.
On our last night in Panama, I was invited by my VCU colleagues and the Panama Audubon Society to give a presentation on our work in South Carolina. It was an honor to be a part of this, and I am deeply grateful to Lesley, Cathy, Rosabel, and everyone else for this invitation.

Overall, it was an amazing trip and I am very happy to have been a part of it. It was inspiring to see the work being done for Prothonotaries outside of South Carolina, and I arrived home even more energized to do continue to do our part. We've done some great work and come a long way, but there's still much to do. I hope this trip is just the beginning for us, as we expand into the tropics to help protect the full life cycle of the Prothonotary Warbler and other important neotropical migrating birds.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Educator's Week at Hog Island (by Matt Johnson)

What happens when you mix together the Maine coast, a 300-acre island owned by Audubon, a dozen expert staff, several dedicated volunteers, and 57 science teachers and informal educators? The answer: one of the most exciting and educational camps for adults held anywhere in the country!

This is the best way that I can think of to describe the Educator’s Week camp at Hog Island. Organized and directed by Pete Salmonsahn, the Education Coordinator for Audubon’s Project Puffin (, this five-day camp focuses on reaching educators from around the country who teach kids and young adults about science and the outdoors. Attendees this year ranged from elementary and middle school teachers, to Girl Scout instructors, nature center educators, and Audubon naturalists.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the attendees this summer, and I loved every minute of it. I've been working as the Education Manager at Francis Beidler Forest for about 14 months, and I am so thankful that my Audubon colleagues agreed to send me to this camp.

Below are some of the photos that I took during my stay at Hog Island. I will caption each with a brief description and some details about my favorite parts of the week.

The reason for this post is not only to showcase one of Audubon's most prized assets, but also to let YOU know that there are scholarships available for ANY science educator to attend this camp. Several of the attendees received scholarships that covered half or all of the tuition costs for the week. IF YOU ARE A TEACHER OR INFORMAL EDUCATOR, CONSIDER REGISTERING FOR THIS CAMP IN 2015 - you will not regret it! See more information here: 

            Our view from the dock at the Todd Audubon Sanctuary, looking across the water at Hog Island. Access to Hog Island requires a short ferry ride from the mainland.

 Arriving on the dock at Hog Island. The camps made available each summer are among the oldest and longest-running environmental education camps in the country. The island can accommodate about 80 people at a given time.

 Plaque displayed in the "Fish House" auditorium on Hog Island. The Todd family played the most important role in the designation of the island as an Audubon sanctuary.

Our boat for the week: the Snowgoose III. This vessel took us on two harbor tours, one of which featured the bird that everyone was hoping to glimpse: the Atlantic Puffin. In the background of this photo is the mainland.

On board the Snowgoose IIII for our first voyage off of the island and around Muscongus Bay. Wildlife seen on this trip included Harbor Seals, Osprey, Black Guillemots (neat little relatives of puffins), Common Eiders, and Harbor Porpoises. Binoculars and a camera are helpful, so bring em if you've got em, and sunscreen is a must!

The first afternoon on Hog Island we spent in the intertidal area. We seined for marine critters and found quite a bit of neat organisms. The staff that led our little excursions were amazing - all lifelong educators with incredible knowledge and patience!

 Campers checking the seine for intertidal life.

Our haul from the seine net. Critters included Green and Hermit Crabs, shrimp, sculpin (fish), limpets, and much more!

A hiking trail through the spruce-fir forest on Hog Island. There were several miles of hiking trails, and plenty of time in between programs to explore. I thought that the flexibility of our schedule was great - plenty of programming with built-in breaks.

Sunset at Hog Island. Coming from a South Carolina summer, the weather we had at Hog Island was incredible! Highs in the mid-70s and lows in the low-60s with lots of sunshine.

Our second excursion into Muscongus Bay off the Maine coast. This was an all-day trip to Eastern Egg Rock (the island in this photo), one of the few breeding locations for Atlantic Puffins in the United States! This island is a featured location for Project Puffin, a multi-decade effort to reintroduce this species into its historic breeding range. Not only did we get a very interesting history of this project while on this boat tour, we also got to see puffins!!

Puffins in view! I neglected to bring my nice camera (bad mistake), so all of my images are with my smartphone. So...the small dots on the left-middle of this photo are indeed Atlantic Puffins, with the edge of Eastern Egg Rock in the background. We were lucky enough to see at least 50 puffins that day, plus several other rare/unusual seabirds!

While we did spent a significant chunk of time exploring the island and surrounding area, much of our programming on Hog Island was designed to help us better engage our target audience (aka students, visitors, etc.) regarding environmental issues. Pictured here is Trudy, one of the AMAZING educators that led us through several different mini-workshops during the week. These mini-workshops featured such things as: birds and bird-watching, water/watersheds, geology, photography, wetlands, sensory exploration, arts/crafts, and a whole bunch more.

 A simple, fun craft idea that we learned while on a nature hike one afternoon. This is just reversed tape with natural "items" that were collected while on the hike (leaves, sticks, etc.).

On our last night, we were treated to a lobster cookout, and we had Cream Puff-ins for dessert! The food on Hog Island was incredible. Let me repeat that - the FOOD WAS INCREDIBLE! Not only was every meal delicious, but every meal also featured a vegetarian and gluten-free option. I was so impressed by this, and by all of the volunteers who gave up their time to prepare and clean up from meals.

Leaving Hog Island. It was an incredible five days - a trip that leaves you feeling refreshed and ready to take the environmental message back wherever you're going. Like I mentioned earlier, please consider applying when scholarships become available for camp in 2015!