As I sit in the office in Escalante, I can’t believe my time here is almost over! The fall rains have come to this formerly hot and dry desert landscape, and a familiar chill is in the air once again. Except for the one main highway that runs through town, none of the roads here are paved. The remaining roads are made of clay and silt, which makes them pretty dangerous when it storms, and impassible when the scourge of floodwaters literally wash them away. Back when summer was in full swing and the area was more reliably safe to traverse, our team was able to conduct surveys of many different animal species on the monument. Our boss, Terry, partners with the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, so we spent many early mornings driving to beautiful sites along slick-rock rivers and in the crisp mountain forests.
A typical day goes something like this:
We arrive to work between 4:30-5:30 am in order to make it to the sites early enough. The birds are more active and numerous before sunrise. We begin by getting all the banding equipment in order and setting up the drop-net traps. If we have time before the survey begins, we scramble to make a fire to keep the frigid winds at bay. Then, eyes still red from lack of sleep, we begin trapping! The traps have a feeder hanging in the center. Once a bird lands and begins to drink, we trip a wire from about 15-20 feet away. A circular net drops around the feeder and makes contact with the base. The bird is unharmed and still free to fly around in the enclosure. We simply grab a small mesh bag, walk up to the feeder, and very gently reach in and get the bird.
Terry is trained by the network to examine and band the birds, so once we deliver the birds to him, we begin to take data. First, exact species, sex, and age is confirmed. We then look to see if the bird already has a band. If not, the bird’s tarsus is measured to make sure the band will fit. Too big and the band either falls off or gets material wedged inside. Too small, and you risk injury to the bird. Each band has a unique number used to identify the bird if captured again. Banding species of any kind is a very precise and meticulous process, but is especially important in this situation as hummingbirds are obviously very small. Can you imagine using a special pair of pliers to apply a metal band to an ankle that’s barely bigger than a piece of pencil lead? Special care is always taken to make sure the birds are not injured. I’m glad Terry knows what he’s doing, because I’m not ready for that kind of pressure!
Next, we gather information about the bird’s specific markings, colors, and condition. We measure the birds weight, length of the wing chord and culmen (bill), how much fat is present, wear on the body’s different feathers, and more. The four most common hummingbird species we encounter are: Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Calliope. We all try to work as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that the birds don’t endure more stress than necessary. Hummingbirds have extraordinary metabolisms, so they lose a lot of energy in the short time we have them. Because of this, we make sure to feed each bird before releasing them.
Each survey period is precisely five hours long. We take care to measure the change in temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover every hour. We also record the number of birds that simply fly by to check the feeder out, rather than stop for a drink. Birds are discerning creatures, and many of them are rightfully skeptical that their usual feeders are now surrounded by a mess of unintelligible equipment. Usually after the first 1-2 hours, the number of birds we trap takes a dive. This is a time for us to desperately run to the fire and warm our freezing hands. Once the survey period is over, we pack up and find a nice spot overlooking a lake or river to eat lunch, remembering all the fascinating species we caught that day!
Though getting up at 4:00 am wasn’t always easy, it was definitely worth it. Those early mornings were some of the best of the whole season, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything- not even more sleep.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument