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Volunteers from Humboldt State University help KBO recapture Yellow-breasted Chats returning from Mexico with valuable data

Introduction by Sarah Rockwell:
We described the start of the Yellow-breasted Chat geolocator project in a previous blog post (CLICK HERE TO VIEW). Geolocators are lightweight devices designed to track a birds’ whereabouts by recording daily light levels. These novel data can then be used to determine migratory routes and wintering grounds—we need to know where birds go when they leave their breeding grounds before we can understand potential conservation needs during migration and winter. Since then, we have recruited a Ph.D. student, Kristen Mancuso, who is supervised by researchers at the University of British Columbia and Environment and Climate Change Canada. KBO’s Executive Director, John Alexander, is an advisor on her committee. She is studying chats in British Columbia, northern California, and Mexico—throughout the range of the western subspecies. Here is a project volunteer’s account from last year’s field season!

By Kelly Commons, HSU Master’s student

On my first day with the Yellow-breasted Chat project, I woke up to a dark, early morning with more than a bit of chill to the air. Since it was my first day, I would have the help of veteran chat-catching volunteer Kachina Rowland and the project leader Kristen Mancuso. We were on the hunt (to catch and release!) chats that wore color bands on their legs which meant they also wore a geolocator device we needed to remove for its record of where they had been since last year.

We had made our way to a site the team had been to several times before (unsuccessfully) to catch the notorious Dark Blue-White-Dark Blue-metal (DWDX for short). As the sun rose high over the hills and the day turned long, Mr. DWDX had managed to evade our nets. In fact his constant chattering song seemed to mock our best efforts. Disappointed but still game, we tried elsewhere looking for color-banded chats in riparian forest overgrown with blackberries that chats seem to love. Chats make a confusing variety of grunts, chatters, and whistles, so we had to keep a sharp ear out for any of their more subtle call notes. We found several singing males, but none of them were color banded. The day ended warm and sunny but with just three more days left to find our chats!

The next morning we trudged through streams, rocky hills, and blackberry bushes and while we found several chats, none of them were banded. About to give up, we finally heard one last male singing in the distance and scouted his territory before calling it a day. We split up to opposite sides of this chat’s bramble. I caught glimpses of him flying back and forth across an opening in the trees, but I couldn’t see his legs well enough to tell if he had any color bands. I was moving to a better location when Kristen spotted him—and his bands! This male had a geolocator and we were determined to catch him the next day. A successful day deserves a reward and after we got back to camp we treated ourselves to s’mores around the campfire.

On the next to last day in the field, we trudged over and through yesterday’s streams, rocky hills, and blackberry bushes to set up nets for our newly found bird. We set up wooden decoy males by the nets even though the other birds the team had tried to catch weren’t falling for this trick. However, within minutes of playing a recorded male song at the decoy, our male flew in the net! Gotcha! We removed his geolocator, took measurements, feather samples, and snapped a few pictures before setting him on his merry way. We even had enough time left in the morning to try for old DWDX again! Nets and decoys were deployed for him but we weren’t able to repeat our morning’s luck. A lovely female Black-headed Grosbeak in the net did brighten my mood before we headed back to camp.

The last morning was full of promise as we attempted to catch DWDX one more time. We set up nets in a different location, but still weren’t able to convince him to come into our nets. We did, however, catch his previously unbanded neighbor and outfitted him with some spiffy new bands before we let him go. As the day wore on, we became less and less hopeful. However, a feisty Red-breasted Sapsucker caught in the net was just the pick-me-up we needed to end the day on a good note. We may not have caught our nemesis, but we left with smiles on our faces. Now Kristen moves on to British Columbia to catch returning chats there, as Kachina and I return to regular life, with a bit more knowledge and experience under our belts.

Editor’s note: The 2017 Yellow-breasted Chat banding team, comprised of PhD student Kristen Mancuso, KBO Research Biologist Sarah Rockwell, and Humboldt State University volunteers Kachina Rowland and Kelly Commons, recaptured three males with geolocators this season, nearly doubling the sample size from the Trinity River region. We even recovered one from a male who had dutifully carried his geolocator backpack since 2014!