An Avocet in Hand is Worth Two in the Bush…

Elusive Avocets Teach What it Takes to Become a Wildlife Biologist

ABOVE: An American avocet with chicks. Photo by Barbara Wheeler/USFWS

This post was written for Open Spaces, the official blog of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s part of a monthly series featuring SCA interns writing about their experiences working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Today, Sara Prussing checks in from Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.

Summer has come with a bang to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Cool May showers and high river flows have become distant memories in the swelter of June and July. The wetlands resound with an enticing cacophony of breeding birds. Above the deep marshes, the oinks of white-faced ibises mix with the harsh scoldings of Forster’s terns and nasally laughs of Franklin’s gulls. Passing by a stand of reeds or bulrush, a lucky visitor might hear the whinny of a nearby sora or the territorial grunt of a Virginia rail. During May and June I listened for these reticent rails during secretive marsh bird surveys and was fortunate to spot a few. Today, though, my eyes are set on a less elusive target.

Refuge biologist Howard Browers and I are on a shorebird banding mission. While we drive, high-pitched kleets ring in our ears as the mascots of Bear River Refuge, American avocets, glide into view. The avocets are in full breeding mode, adorned with cinnamon hoods and shadowed by their offspring. Once I spot three avocet chicks wading idly on our right, the game is on.

I hop out of the truck, net in hand and wader boots pounding the ground. The chicks scatter in different directions to thwart me, but my attention is entirely focused on the farthest of the three. It runs freely above the sulfurous mud, and I follow with a galumphing stride. I start to close the gap and reach out my net, closer, closer… SCHLUMP! Without warning, my left boot slides off and I collapse in the muck. Scrambling up, I watch the chick disappear behind a curtain of bulrush. As I pass the spot, I glance down to see a bundle of feathers crouched between the stems. I gently close my fingers around its torso and begin the long trek back to shore.

Yep. That’s an avocet chick in my hand. 

I hop out of the truck, net in hand and wader boots pounding the ground. The chicks scatter in different directions to thwart me, but my attention is entirely focused on the farthest of the three. It runs freely above the sulfurous mud, and I follow with a galumphing stride. I start to close the gap and reach out my net, closer, closer… SCHLUMP! Without warning, my left boot slides off and I collapse in the muck. Scrambling up, I watch the chick disappear behind a curtain of bulrush. As I pass the spot, I glance down to see a bundle of feathers crouched between the stems. I gently close my fingers around its torso and begin the long trek back to shore.

Bear River Refuge is working in collaboration with Weber State University to band as many American avocet and black-necked stilt chicks as possible this summer. If a banded bird is seen or captured again at a later time, then the observer can enter its unique band number and location into the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Bird Banding Laboratory website, which contains the numbers and locations of more than 4 million re-sightings of banded birds. This information helps scientists to better understand the migration routes and longevity of many bird species in North America.

Avocet capturing and banding is one of the many perks of my year-long SCA internship, and I am thrilled to have a variety of work to do.

Some weeks I help to conduct vegetation or water bird surveys, and other weeks I devote to entering data and creating maps. On occasion I switch hats to become an environmental educator and interpreter. During my favorite activities, I teach Brigham City students how to model a watershed with their hands, how to graph and analyze population trends, and how Bear River Refuge manages water to enhance bird diversity.

Hands on experience with wildlife? Check.

As a birder and an aspiring conservation biologist, it is an honor to work at a renowned wild bird refuge. While I am honing new field techniques and computer skills, I am also learning about what it takes to manage an 80,000-acre refuge. It seems to me that the entire refuge is a dynamic, living mosaic that begins with a base layer of soil and water. Each crevice bursts with plants, invertebrates, fish, birds and mammals. These components thrive on and build off each other, and the artwork increases in complexity with the additions of maintenance workers who alter the land, biologists who monitor its resources, supervisors, educators, budget masters and the list goes on.

There is even a space in the mosaic for an SCA intern to explore and learn what it takes to become a wildlife biologist.

BELOW: Sara teaches a group of Box Elder County students about the management of Phragmites australis at Bear River Refuge Photo courtesy of Andrea Johnson

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