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Bird Research in the Black Mountains

Hello, my name is Edward Landi and I am a student in Wildlife Biology at NC State. I was a recipient of the College of Natural Resources’ Enrichment Fund for the summer of 2017. This is one of the great opportunities offered to students like myself in the College of Natural Resources. I used the fund to support my involvement in a bird research project. The focal species was the Hermit Thrush  (Catharus guttatus) in the Black Mountains of North Carolina.

Male Hermit Thrushes sing to defend their territory.

 

The Hermit Thrush has expanded its breeding range south over the past forty years into the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. We collected data to understand their range expansion by measuring the area of habitat a thrush uses for foraging and breeding, called the home range. We used radio telemetry to track the movement of thrushes every day.

Mt. Mitchell (pictured here) is a part of the Black Mountain range. The summit is 6,684 ft above sea and the tallest point in the US,  East of the Mississippi River.

To do radio telemetry, we caught thrushes using mist nets set up between two poles twelve meters apart. Mist nets are made of a thin, hair-like thread and, when set up, look like volleyball nets. After capturing the birds, we put radio transmitters on their backs and followed signals emitted by the transmitters to record the location of each thrush. The research project was led by John Gerwin, the Research Curator of Ornithology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Olivia and Vanessa Merritt were a part of the research team this summer and are now both students in the wildlife biology program at NC State.

Olivia holding a Hermit thrush about to be released.
Museum volunteer Brogan using an antenna for radio telemetry while tracking a Hermit Thrush

By the end of the field season, we collected home data from tracking nine different Hermit Thrushes via radio telemetry. We had a high 2016-2017 survival rate among the Hermit Thrushes banded in 2016 because 10 of the 13 Hermit Thrushes were captured or seen again in 2017. We found 3 Hermit Thrush nests by the end of the field season

The radio transmitter size comparison to a quarter.

The thrushes that we captured and tracked were individually identified in the field with bands we put on their legs. A unique nine-digit number, like a social security number, was on one band and a combination of three colored bands identify each individual thrush in the field.

My favorite thrush was one I called “Double Orange” for the two orange bands on his right leg. I met Double Orange a year ago in June 2016, during our first field season. He was caught for the first time on the final week of that field season. I am proud of his capture because that was the first time I caught a thrush completely on my own. I had set up the mist net for the first time successfully without dropping it, and it stayed in place despite strong winds that almost knocked over the two poles holding it up.

Double Orange the Hermit Thrush

Bias is not welcome in research projects; however, I could not help myself. Double Orange was easy to track because he was always easy to see. Unlike the other thrushes, he was not shy and sat out in the open when I approached him. I learned the most about the daily life of a Hermit Thrush from Double Orange because I could observe him the most. I was pleased to see Double Orange had survived another year and made it back to his home range to breed again.

Myself holding one of the first captured Hermit Thrushes of the 2017 field season.

Future with Birds – Edward reflects on how this experience has effected his hopes for after graduation