Junco Banding in Sitka, Alaska

As published with the Sitka Conservation Society, November 2014. Front page story with Capital City Weekly in December 2014

Sitka Conservation Society's Conservation Science Director Scott Harris holds a dark-eyed junco collected from a mist net.

Visiting Forest Service Wildlife Technician, Gwen Baluss carefully loosens the tie of a little sac and slowly reaches in. Delicately grasping the fragile creature within, she reveals the dark eyed junco to a resounding “AWE” echoing across the classroom as students pile on top of one another to get a closer look.

For the third year in a row, Baluss has returned to Sitka, Alaska to continue studying and teaching the community about bird ecology. While juncos and other songbirds may frequent our feeders and whistle familiar songs during our afternoon strolls, there is still ample mystery to these birds. Scientists and land managers know relatively little about their range, distribution and migration ecology for one. Secondly, very few of us have been lucky enough to encounter our skittish feathered friends up close.  As one of the participants ruefully commented, “The closest I’ve ever been to one of these birds has been sweeping away the unfortunate remains the cat dragged in.” “Don’t worry,” she facetiously reassured the bird banding team, “This will be my last cat.”

Collecting a junco from the mist net.

Collecting a junco from the mist net.

Last week, Blatchley middle school students, Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary classes, Sitka High students and the Sitka Conservation Society’s (SCS) 4-H program experienced a more pleasant close encounter with our beloved song birds. In the frosted garden behind Blatchley Middle school, Baluss and Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Director with the Sitka Conservation Society carefully and delicately untangle tiny trapped birds from the mist nets. Baluss bands their legs and the team begin taking measurements. Gwen’s enthusiasm for these often overlooked natural wonders peaks as she explains to wide-eyed students how the sheen of a junco’s eyes changes with age from gray to red, how males boast darker plumage atop their heads and how a surprising diversity between individual juncos exists if you just take the time to look carefully. Captivated students edge closer as she starts blowing tenderly on the bird’s belly to reveal yellow fat deposits visible beneath their paper-thin skin. The classroom is fully engaged

Baluss blows on the junco's chest to reveal yellow fat deposits hidden beneath the feathers. 

Baluss blows on the junco's chest to reveal yellow fat deposits hidden beneath the feathers. 

Southeast Alaska offers diverse opportunities for scientific inquiry and exploration just a few yards from the school door. With the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest as our backyard, children here grow up immersed in this outstanding landscape.  Experiences like Gwen’s visit, encourage our youth to approach exploring the environment from an academic or potentially career-driven perspective. Students continue to steward this project throughout the year. In the past, a Sitka High School student Naquioa Bautista, working with the Science Mentor Program coordinated by SCS, based her science fair project on studying the banded bird’s movement. From Naquoia’s study, we learned that Sitka’s winter juncos do not stray very far from their banding sites. On the back wall of Ms. Dick’s 6th grade science classroom, a modern twist on the infamous ‘wanted poster’ is displayed, showing each tagged bird and their band color combination. Students, families and all of Sitka’s residents are encouraged to keep a lookout for tagged birds on their feeders or fluttering about on the trails (please report sightings here).

This week, a few lucky students were given a particularly memorable experience. After a bit of fumbling, the student’s tiny hands encapsulated the virtually weightless fragile feathered mess, their tiny heartbeat pumping against the student’s palm. After taking a knee, the top hand would slowly lift and in an instant burst of energy, the birds would return to the trees of our backyards leaving only tiny soft floating feathers in the air and grins of admiration across each onlooker’s face.

This project is supported by the UAS Natural History Seminar Series , the Sitka Charitable Trust, the Sitka Conservation Society and the University of Alaska Southeast’s Natural History Seminar. Gwen Baluss is a biologist with the US Forest Service in the Juneau Ranger District and a member of Juneau’s Audobon Society. Please report any banded bird sightings to _toscott@sitkawild.org or report to the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network (SALMoN) . To learn more about Sitka’s 4-H program including how to enroll visit our 4-H page end events calendar here.

Students release the juncos.

Students release the juncos.

The End of Antarctica?

I mostly spent the trip home from Palmer Station in a comatose, drug-induced state- lying on my top bunk with eyes fixated on the passing icebergs.  I worried when the last icy remnant of the Antarctic Peninsula would pass by my porthole. I am not entirely sure what my subconscious plans were; maybe I intended to jump from the Gould and grip these fingers into the ice, unwilling to move, unwilling to trade back the Southern Cross for the Big Dipper. Whatever the reason, wanting to fixate on the final fragment of ice caused a bit of overarching anxiety during the return trip. My nostalgic nature makes times like these painstakingly difficult- although I’m becoming more and more callous over the years (good or bad- or just the typical human ageing process?).  Regardless, I don’t remember the last bit of ice. Despite my stubborn attempt to obtain a self-induced flashbulb memory of the devastating end of Antarctica-it probably passed while I was deep in a restless sleep.

An unforgettable night of continuous polar plunges, Seals and penguins on ice floes, a costumed goodbye plunge, clear and beautiful weather, a slow and appropriate crossing of Station E (where we worked in the field), passing through the Gerlache, and a visit to the little island of Copa to pick up a birder- I couldn’t have asked for a more all-inclusive Antarctic getaway (short of maybe a leopard seal shredding an adélie). Although endlessly thankful for my experiences, I am still stubbornly unsatisfied with this being the end of Antarctica for me.

If I were religious I would pray. Pray for the opportunity to find myself working in the future to protect this treasure of a continent; to appropriately thank this land, its wildlife, and nomadic people for all they have bestowed on me. I'm may not be religious but, I can sure be a persistent and passionate pain in the ass. That being said, Antarctica I will see you again. Till then, you can have half my heart.

Listening to: 'On Palestine'- JJ Grey & Mofro

Final Field Report

Week 17, November 22-29, 2011 I am appropriately beginning the final field report of the season within a zodiac cruising across station E. This time there will be no sampling, no operating the winch, no plankton collection. This zodiac is sitting atop the Laurence M Gould- Deneb, Austin, Iva, and I are journeying back home.

Cruising past crabeater seals and penguins on ice floes with decent visibility of the continent, we are still in familiar territory (within the boating limits). We are due to arrive in Punta Arenas on December 1st. Our samples and luggage are all aboard, packed carefully and safely away (thanks to Bamma and Judy)- the field season is officially over.

Our final week on station was understandably busy. Between a visiting tour ship (the National Geographic Explorer), the conclusion of our light adaptation culture experiment, packing away the labs and our personal belongings, Thanksgiving dinner, and trying desperately to soak up and enjoy our very last moments of Antarctic life, we all had our hands full.

Enjoying Thanksgiving dinner on station was an appropriate ending to our time in Antarctica considering all that I- and the rest of Palmer- have to be thankful for. I am thankful for the opportunity to have lived and worked as part of a gracious, kind, giving, and accommodating community on a land of unparalleled beauty. I am thankful to have met and been cared for by a selfless and hardworking station staff. I am thankful to have been selected to join a team of dedicated and passionate scientists to carry out important and challenging research.

Lastly, I am thankful for the classrooms and individuals -family, friends, and strangers alike- who have followed along with us over the last four months. I- and of course the rest of the team- sincerely enjoyed working with all of you and I imagine and hope that someday, you may find yourselves engaged in similar wonderful situations and that you too, will have the opportunity to share those experiences with others.