Birding and Beyond: Applied Science at Seney NWR

By Sarah Toner October 1, 2015

This week’s post is written by the new student in charge of the YBN, Sarah Toner. Originally from Ann Arbor, MI, Sarah is starting as a freshman at Cornell this year. You can find Sarah’s biography here.

My alarm clock went off with a loud “whip-poor-will.” I hastily groped around for it and turned it off before it woke Emma in the next room. Becky, my roommate, was already up. I glanced at the clock: 3:15 a.m. Groaning, I turned on the lights and started to get ready. Bug-proof shirt. Hip waders. Lunch and water bottle. Clipboard. Binoculars. Sunblock. Flinging our gear into the back of the work truck, Becky and I head out. It was time for a marsh bird survey.

Seney from a lookout tower

Seney from a lookout tower

Last February, I was absolutely thrilled to be hired as an Applied Sciences Intern at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Seney is known for its wetlands habitat, not just for the man-made “pools” along the Wildlife Drive experienced by many visitors, but also for Strangmoor Bog in the Wilderness Area, one of the most undisturbed patterned fens in the country. Historically, Seney was a vast expanse of wetlands–acidic, stagnant bogs; alkaline, flowing fens; and cattail marshes–with a “sheet flow” similar to that of the Everglades: water flowed across the landscape slowly, working its way through the wetlands with few obstructions. Among the lowland wetlands are “pine islands,” small ridges a few feet higher than the surrounding landscape that are dry enough for pines and larger trees to grow. Seney provides habitat for a number of northern birds, including breeding warblers, loons, Trumpeter Swans, and even some field birds like Sharp-tailed Grouse and Bobolinks. My job let me range all over Seney by car, foot, ATV, and even canoe, giving me the chance to explore its wide diversity of birds and wildlife.

Performing a marsh bird survey in a (hopefully) mosquito-proof outfit

My primary duty at Seney was to perform the Secretive Marsh Bird Survey. Created by Dr. Michael Monfils of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, the survey is designed to provide a snapshot of bird diversity in a marsh. My fellow interns and I surveyed by playing a ten-minute recording at each point count and listening for target species. The recording contained five minutes of silence and five minutes of playback for five different “primary target” species: American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Yellow Rail, Sora, and Least Bittern. Primary species, the ones on the tape and a few others like Wilson’s Snipe, required additional details about when they were calling and where they were calling from. Secondary species, such as Sedge Wren, Sandhill Crane, and Swamp Sparrow, were more common and needed less information. After the ten minutes were up, we moved on to the next point count.

This process may sound simple enough as I describe the protocol, but fieldwork is always messy and never simple. We had our fair share of #fieldworkfail moments, from forgetting the speakers back at the house half an hour away to getting spectacularly soaked at a creek in the marsh that was just a bit too deep to wade through and a bit too wide to jump across. Moreover, flailing through dense brush in hip waders is absolutely exhausting, and many of our points were not on established trails. One set of points was on a three-and-a-half mile loop with no trails, an abundance of downed trees, and a dense thicket of 15 foot-tall alder shrubs. Also among the challenges were the mosquitoes, which are nothing short of jaw-dropping in the UP. I wore a head net, mosquito-proof shirt, rubber hip waders, and leather gloves and still racked up an impressive number of bites around the seams of my clothes, some of which have yet to fade a month later. At some points, I passed time when birds weren’t calling by waiting until my glove grew fuzzy with mosquitoes and then swatting them all. I killed about fifty mosquitoes on the back of my glove each time I did this, and it didn’t take long for the glove to look fuzzy once more.

The author struggling over an improvised bridge

Despite these perils, I enjoyed the field work immensely. We learned the area around the points–really, truly learned the area as we blundered through bushes trying to stay on course while also searching out the most efficient routes. Thanks to this past summer, I am now quite good both at finding game trails that I can walk along and also at orienteering using a compass and GPS. GPS alone can be quite erroneous at times, particularly in forested areas; ours always had a delay, which meant that we tended to walk in a zig-zag while the GPS tried to figure out our new course. My navigational sense is not as good as a birds’, but at least I’m better than our GPS was at times!

One of the most memorable events of the summer occurred that morning when I groaned about getting up at 3 a.m. for the marsh bird survey. Our penultimate point was a shrubby, pretty dry “wetland” where we usually found no birds at all. I had turned on the speaker and mentally prepared myself for a boring ten minutes; Becky was taking photos of me and our setting. As I was listening and looking for birds, all of a sudden I saw some motion on the treeline, and I watched as a wolf walked out of the trees and into the marsh not fifty feet in front of us. A wolf! I quickly alerted Becky and we watched as it paused to smell, sticking its nose above the bushes, and then turned around, gave us a long look, and loped back into the woods. We were absolutely awestruck. We had seen wolf tracks there before, and I had even noticed some fresh ones on the walk in that morning, but it was breathtaking to see the animal in person and at such close range in the wild. At other times, we ran into a wide variety of wildlife, from bears (including cubs) and baby Great Horned Owls to Wood Turtles and Northern Goshawks. It was truly a treat to have a job that allowed me to see so many of the species that thrive at Seney.

Black-backed Woodpecker (photographed with an iPhone)

In addition to the marsh bird survey, we also ran surveys of Black-backed Woodpeckers in Seney, studying foraging habitat; ran the Breeding Bird Survey (50 point counts in one morning, covering all birds across Seney–it was a blast!); searched the area for the Kirtland’s Warbler Census (there are very few Kirtland’s Warblers in the UP, so it was a needle in a haystack search, but it did give us plenty of time to explore around Seney and find other cool birds, such as Gray Jays and Spruce Grouse); and performed some forestry surveys. Many of our studies involved combining habitat and forestry data with information from other surveys, so we used different forestry metrics, including canopy readings with a densiometer, ground cover plots, and categorizing the dominant tree species, in order to quantitatively assess the forest.

Our work took us off of Seney’s main property as well, making for a nice change of pace. Seney manages several island refuges and a patch of the Kirtland’s Warbler Wildlife Management Area, all of them far away from the main refuge. We did forestry surveys near the Kirtland’s Warbler WMA and then took a boat trip out to the Michigan Islands in northern Lake Michigan in order to count the stunning waterbird colonies. The sheer spectacle of thousands of Double-crested Cormorants, Common Terns (with one lost-looking Black Tern among them), Caspian Terns, and Herring Gulls covering the skies and water around the boat was unforgettable.

Emma, another Applied Sciences Intern, with the St. Ignace Common Tern colony

Spectacles don’t get much grander than the Common Tern colony on Coast Guard property on Lake Huron, where Seney maintains a predator-proof electric fence and monitors the population through a variety of sampling techniques. With hundreds of breeding pairs, this colony is one of the largest in the Midwest. The noise from the colony was deafening, and the sheer number of chicks huddled amongst the vegetation on the little pier was mind-boggling. Watching a season of breeding terns, from eggs to awkward fledglings, was an awe-inspiring experience.

The abundance of species at Seney comes from its wildness. On most days when we worked away from the Wildlife Drive, we didn’t see a single person. However, after we earned our Michigan Pesticide Application Certifications and began working to eliminate invasive species from the refuge, we came to understand that its wildness is threatened. Seney is fortunate in that most invasive species aren’t that well established on the refuge. Almost none of them are found in the Wilderness Area; some are found only in a few spots in areas with heavy public traffic (Tartarian Honeysuckle, Forget-me-not), and a few major species (like Garlic Mustard) aren’t found on the refuge at all. Although we sprayed for Tartarian Honeysuckle, Multiflora Rose, and Forget-me-not, our main target was Glossy Buckthorn. We spent hours and hours spraying buckthorn. It got to the point that I saw buckthorn on the backs of my eyelids every time I blinked, even hours after I stopped spraying. Dealing with invasive species takes a long, long time, but the results from Seney are encouraging. The folks at Seney have found and eliminated the first colonies of invasives on the refuge, such as Purple Loosestrife, and it appears that we’ve been able to hold back the spread of invasives. Seney illustrates that there are places that are still relatively “untrammeled” by humans, to use the wording of the 1964 Wilderness Act, but it also illustrates that these places are under threat, and we must work to protect these special places to the best of our ability.

Becky, another Applied Sciences Intern, in a remote fen

I’ve always felt a certain kinship with the Northwoods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; its uniqueness has captured my heart. When I was younger, the UP represented a place of freedom where I had new and exciting spaces to explore and play imaginary games. As I grew older, I began to investigate those places that had captured my imagination, and I found the truth to be just as interesting as my imagination. I learned about bird distribution, hotspots, and identification, but I didn’t learn as much about the rest of the natural history of the UP until my internship at Seney. I left the position with in-depth knowledge about a broad diversity of topics and new lenses with which to observe and understand the world. It seems to me that all people interested in the natural world–scientists, artists, and recreational birders alike–should develop those tools of observation in order to understand, protect, and cherish the natural world.