Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sleep Not For The Birds

Welcome to Karyn and my weekly update from Spain! The past week has once again been filled with adventures on the job and off. We are approaching the half way point on our assignment in Spain, and are still experiencing new work projects and recreational activities. For more background on our two months of studying birds at the Strait of Gibraltar in partnership with the Fundación Migres and Boise State University’s Intermountain Bird Observatory, refer to my last five posts.

Post 1: Our First Days Back in España

Post 2: Mucho Flamencos!

Post 3: Birds, Birds, More Birds, and Whales!?!

Post 4: In and Around Our Temporary Home in Pelayo, Spain (Accidently deleted)

Post 5: More Andalusia Adventures

My past five years of bird research has prepared me for the challenges that work schedules can have on personal sleep. In 2010, I was assigned to a Flammulated Owl project that required me to stay up to at least 2am every night. Since then I have worked on three separate woodpecker projects which regularly require early morning hiking, starting up to an hour and a half before sunrise. However, the work in Spain requires flexibility in sleeping schedule, often on a daily basis. Last week we were out past midnight-banding Barn Swallows and again moon watching. This week I had to be up at 4am to leave for morning songbird banding. Sleep is not for the birds, and I sleep not for the birds!

The Migres work team has grown a bit as four students from universities across Spain have joined the effort before their school begins again in the fall. This has been a great change, providing more flexibility in meeting the work demands, but also comes with the cost of increased coordination as everyone lives in different places. One of my assignments is to transport some of these students to various work assignments.

Morning Songbird Banding

The site of songbird banding is the same as evening Swallow banding, Laguna de la Janda. As I have previously mentioned, this used to be the largest wetland in Europe before it was drained in the 1960’s for agriculture and later used for large wind farms. It is still home to many species including thousands of Glossy Ibis, Cattle and Little Egrets, Gray Herons, and others. The site provides an important stop-over site for migrating passerines, swallows, and storks.

I had to be up at 4am to leave Pelayo by 4:40am. Two of the students that were supposed to go with us, bailed at the last minute, leaving Alejandro and I to enjoy the sunrise in La Janda ourselves. We set the nets up before first light and waited for the sunrise.

The first “net run” was lite on birds, but the second presented more than 50 birds. With only two people to process, we had our hands full. We had Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Reed Warblers, Great Reed Warblers, Melodius Warblers, Cetti’s Warblers, Olivacious Warblers, Nightingales, Sardinian Warblers, House Sparrows, Spanish Sparrows, and a Kingfisher! I banded and measured the wings and Alejandro aged, sexed, evaluated molt, measured tail, tarsus, and culmen.

Kingfisher, La Janda, Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition!

Male Spanish Sparrow, La Janda, Spain.

On the final net run of the day, we had many of the same species including another Kingfisher! Kingfishers are incredible birds. Their feet are soft and rubbery like a gummy bear.

Kingfisher Foot, La Janda, Spain.

Alejandro and the second Kingfisher of the day, La Janda, Spain.

I look forward to the next morning banding session in approximately ten days. In the mean time, we will be swallow banding in the evening later this next week (see report of last session below).

Moon Watching

There are a number of accepted methods for quantifying the volume of avian migration. We spend most of our days here in Spain, as a team is also doing in Idaho, counting the visible migrating raptors. This of course fails to detect nocturnal migrants. Researchers can also use the number of birds trapped for banding as an index of the volume of migration (assumed to be proportional to the volume). Other groups use radar to detect migrating birds. In general, it is preferred to use multiple methods as no single method is perfect and no method meets all of the research needs.

The Migres team has collaborated with teams across Spain using the moon-watching method. This involves counting the birds that pass in front of the nearly full moon and then extrapolating the size of the moon to the full sky. The method we tried out here in Pelayo involved 10-minute samples, counting the number of birds, the type of bird (duck, swift, raptor, passerine), the direction of each bird, and the size of the bird (represents altitude). It is much more difficult than you might think, especially when up to eight birds fly in front of the moon at once.

The Migres teacm also has an experimental computerized system performing the count. This might increase reliability and consistency over individual observers. In the mean time, I must convince the team and volunteers back in Idaho to begin implementing this program with the hopes of future automation.

Swift Flying in Front of the Moon, Strait of Gibraltar, Spain.

Some of the Moon-watchers - Juan-Fran, Eva, Alejandro, Karyn, and Emmy
Strait of Gibraltar, Spain.

Swallow Banding

This last week we joined the growing Migres Team in the second session of swallow banding since our arrival. The plan was the same as I had documented in a previous post. Two nets put up before dark, with a couple of net runs after dark. The focus is on banding swallows, but we do catch other birds also.

Barn Swallow (above) and Red-rumped Swallow (below), La Janda, Spain.

Sedge Warbler (new life bird for me), La Janda, Spain.

This next week, we will repeat the process as we do every ten days or so. I am still hoping to catch and band a European Bee-eater.

Migration Counting

Of course, the counting continues. Seven days a week we have a team at Cazalla, counting the migrating raptors. I am assigned there three days a week. The counts have been lite as of late by Cazalla standards, only 2000 – 3000 migrants per day! Right now the counts consist largely of White Storks and Black Kites, but we are starting to see migrating Booted Eagles and Egyptian Vultures. The Egyptian Vulture is one of my favorites.

Adult Egyptian Vulture, Cazalla Spain.

The stork migration is one of the most impressive sights of animal movement I have seen. Last week we captured this video of a flock of 1000 storks above the town where our apartment is located. Here are two 15 second videos to highlight part of the spectacle (I am NOT a professional videographer…).

1000 White Storks above Pelayo, Spain.
Jebel Musa (translation: Mount Moses) of Morocco, Africa in the background.

1000 White Storks above Pelayo, Spain.

Mountain Biking

We continue to try and experience more of the area in our free time. A friend of mine, Nieves, from my visit last year arranged demo Cannondale mountain bikes for us to ride. The bikes were free as long as we completed a survey/review of the bike’s performance after the ride. We were very excited about the opportunity to ride in a new area. Since we had not been on a bike in more than a month, we couldn’t wait to get on the trails.

Nieves and Jose led us on the ride. Only two minutes into the ride, I crashed right in front of Nieves. I am sure she was impressed with my expert bike handling skills. I was trying to jump a curb, which usually is not very difficult. However, I usually ride with clipless pedals (shoes that attach to the pedal). On this occasion I did not have clipless pedals. I essentially  jumped up and off the pedals, missing the pedals on the way back down! There was no permanent damage to me or the bike, except to my pride. Nieves now has ample material to use against me. It was all great fun.

Karyn and Nieves on the climb up above Tarifa.

The view toward Tarifa, with Africa in the distance.

I forgot to start my phone recording our route for the first 8 km, but here’s what the remainder of the 32 km ride looked like. We started in Tarifa, rode out on a country road until we hit the dirt.


Our fall back activity is to hike in Los Alcornacales National Park as it is situated just behind our apartment. As we have no vehicle to use for personal use, we are essentially tied to hiking from Pelayo or taking the bus in to Tarifa. The park continues to offer new discoveries and rewards.

The Portuguese Sundew is a carnivorous plant with a very small distribution. It is located in poor soils within a few ten kilometers of the coast in Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. Los Alcornocales National Park contains what is believed to be the largest population of the species.

Portuguese Sundew Carnivorous Plant, Los Alcornocales National Park, Spain.

On our last hike I also found two new life birds. The first, and my 900th life bird overall, was the Crested Tit. He successfully eluded my camera. Next up was the Nuthatch. Compared to the nuthatches in the United Stated, this species is huge – more than 4 times the size!

European Nuthatch, Los Alcornocales National Park, Spain.

Musica Brasileña

Near the Migres offices is a ecotourism lodge called Huerta Grande. When working in the office this is where we go to get coffee during our morning break. Last week they hosted live music. They had a four person band playing Brazilian music – bass player, flute player, guitar/singer, and a percussionist. It was great fun and provided one last challenge to our sleep habits!

The next week offers more of the same – counting migrating birds at Cazalla, swallow banding at La Janda, some work in the office, and some time off. I’ll keep you posted.

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