Notes from the Northern Boreal: A wandering bird biologist’s field journals

In the previous issue of the Manitoban, we featured the first contribution of what stands to be a recurring column of mine, “Notes from the Northern Boreal: A wandering bird biologist’s field journals.” The premise of that article, and those to follow, is to share anecdotes in the form of journal entries from my time “in the field.” My work, often in remote, wilderness settings is spent performing ecological field research as well as “point counts” (monitoring the presence, abundance, and density of migratory songbird species by listening to their songs). This column catalogues my experiences from this past summer working for the Canadian Wildlife Service in the oil sands of northeastern Alberta. 

16 June, 2012

Canada Warbler Sighting

3:50 a.m.: My coworker and I arrive, part ways and bushwhack towards our respective ends of the day’s survey area. Alberta’s Highway 63—notoriously referred to as “Hell’s Highway” or “The Highway from Hell” for the amount of vehicle-related accidents that occur along various stretches—bisects and runs through the easternmost side of the site. The sounds of 18-wheelers, hauling what I suspect to be oil sands grade industrial equipment—maybe toy-like Tonka trucks and diggers the size of bungalows; conical drill bits the size of VW Beetles—already permeating and frustrating the calmness of predawn as they grumble by in the distance.

I make my way through the dew-covered brush, towards my first point-count of the morning: a relatively young, open, wet mixed-wood forest, dominated mainly by willow (Salix) and an assortment of paper birch (Betula papyrifera), white spruce (Picea mariana), and balsam fir (Abies Balsamea), with a sea of knee-high grasses and sedges blanketing the forest floor.

During the 10-minute interval spent listening to the birds vituperatively chatter at one another, one bird’s song stands out from the others: it’s the “Chip-Dichety-See-Whichety” song of a Canada Warbler (Wilsonia canadensis). This is a “lifer” for me – the first time I’ve encountered this species in its natural setting.

Generally, Canada Warblers prefer a deciduous (trees that shed their leaves annually) or mixed-wood canopy forest with a healthy coniferous (cone-bearing spruce, pine or fir trees) understory. Part of our protocol dictates that, when performing point-counts in habitat that Canada Warbler’s could conceivably be attracted to use for breeding, we are required to use an MP3 wildlife caller (an audio-playback device) in attempt to provoke an audible response from any Canada Warblers (CAWA) in the area.

We do this by playing a recorded version of their song. In so doing, the idea is that perhaps an agitated male will sing back in defiance of this simulated male CAWA, where it is our job as observers to then record their presence as well as the nature of said response – be it a mated-pair drawn in to investigate or a territorial male.

Not two “Chip-Dichety-See-Whicheties” into the playback and the male CAWA heard during the point-count has presented himself before me. Within metres of my face, he flits about from branch to branch, staging bluff dive-bombs at the playback machine I hold in my hand, he’s no less territorial and no doubt confused at the sight of me. I suppose he expected more – perhaps one of his equally temperamental male CAWA competitors.

And as I shut the recorder off, a flourish of yellow and black colours – and he’s gone.

This encounter is doubly important to me as an avid birder. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada  (COSEWIC) designated the Canada Warbler species as “Threatened” in 2008; the species has sustained “a significant long-term decline” in numbers. According to COSEWIC this decline is most perceptible in the CAWA’s Canadian boreal breeding ranges, and there are several contributing factors that have been outlined.

For instance, up to 90 per cent of the CAWA’s wintering habitat in the Andes has been deforested, harvested for wood and repurposed for agricultural operations. Here in western Canada, the construction of roads through the boreal forest is suspected to have a significantly harmful effect.

The trouble with American Redstarts

After two more point counts in a row that yielded Canada Warblers singing, I now find myself in an old growth white spruce forest not 200-metres from the gurgling Kettle River. En route for my final point of the day, I come across and opportunistically perform three point-counts in different areas of this old growth spruce habitat, the first of which I am greeted with the harsh, hiccupy slur of the Blackburnian Warbler occupying the penthouse of a 30-metre tall white spruce tree.

As I fight my way through a kilometer-long stretch of dense green alder (Alnus viridis) and willow chaparral, I arrive at my final point of the day. Nearing 10 a.m. there is little in the way of birdsong in the air – too late in the day. Midway through the point-count I hear the slightly off sounding song of a . . .  is it a Chestnut-sided Warbler . . .  no, Black-and-white Warbler? Or is it a Bay-breasted Warbler?! All three songs coming from the very same location?

As the timed point count interval comes to a close, I decide to try “pishing” the bird out of the tangled thickets. To “pish” is to utter some gravelly combination of phrases, like “pish-pish-pish,” in an attempt to arise suspicion in nearby birds, so much so that the more inquisitive individuals incidentally reveal themselves in trying to investigate what is producing that dissonant, unbirdlike sound.

I “pish” four sets of four “pishes,” quickly, in a staccato manner. To my delight, the mystery bird deigns to unveil itself: a male American Redstart. It dropped from the brush not four metres from me, still singing, interchanging between the bastardized song of a Chestnut-sided Warbler, and some sloppy, midway Bay-breasted Warbler/Black-and-white Warbler imitation.

In studying recorded birdsongs this spring—and most migratory songbird biologists must do this—I used paraphrases as a mnemonic tool too help me differentiate different birds’ songs. I acquired MP3 copies of warbler recordings made by the naturalist, Jim Butler complete with his very own paraphrases for birds’ songs.

In one of these recordings, Butler discusses the male American Redstart, discloses it is a “mimic” and discusses how it can impersonate several different species. For the Chestnut-sided Warbler, some birders use “very-very-very-pleased-to-meetchu;” the Connecticut Warbler is “chippy-chubby-chippy-chubby-chippy-chubby;” the Magnolia Warbler sounds like “pretty-pretty-flower;” the Black-and-white Warbler sounds similar to a squeaky wheel, “weesa-weeza-weeza-wee;” and for the Bay-breasted “will-you-will-you-sleep-with-me seems to work for those with a sense of humour.

And so here I stand, watching the American Redstart sing me the songs of other birds in disbelief—the bird with the repertoire so varied—and I think, “Jim Butler was right!”

“What if I hadn’t gotten visual identification of this bird? How many times have I mistakenly recorded ‘Black-and-white’ or Bay-breasted’ when it was just an American Redstart, fucking with my mind?!”

Check the next issue of the Manitoban to read about the black bear that ate the seat of my ATV.