Through a partnership between the Colleges and Braddock Bay Bird Observatory in Rochester, N.Y., Joe Sanders ’16 and Maddie Sutton ’17 have spent the first portion of the semester banding birds at the observatory and collecting data on migratory birds that pass through the region. Under the guidance of Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander, Sanders and Sutton will spend the remainder of the semester analyzing data from the Observatory to conduct research on migration biology.
“By completing independent research and participating in data collection, Joe and Maddie get to experience every aspect of the scientific process,” explains Deutschlander. “These experiences are letting them take scientific research to the next level as they collect data, analyze it, present their results, and hopefully publish their work and present it at a national conference next year.”
The data collection and subsequent research project are part of an independent study, Biology 450, which both Sutton and Sanders are completing this semester. The students also are required to complete course readings and hands-on training, take a series of written and practical exams to test their knowledge of external bird anatomy and avian field techniques, and generate ideas for their research topics. In recent years, Deutschlander has mentored nearly a dozen students through similar independent study projects in ornithology and migration research.
“This experience is definitely unique to HWS, and it really has been invaluable. If I was at a bigger school where they offer more ornithology pathways, I wouldn’t have been able to get this type of experience. I love working at Braddock Bay, and I’m very grateful for the experience,” says Sutton, a biology major who was also an intern for National Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program in the Gulf of Maine this past summer.
At the start of the semester, Sanders and Sutton took an intensive six-day bander training course at Braddock Bay, where they learned the basics of the delicate process. Banding birds, a technique that is harmless to birds, involves collecting birds captured in a thin “mist” net, placing a small aluminum band on the bird’s leg with an identifying number, and recording measurements on variables such as species, age, sex, fat content, and wing length. The birds are then released to continue on their migration, and can be tracked at other bird observatories if they are recaptured throughout their lifetime.
Sutton, who banded birds at least two times per week from mid-August through October, explains that banders arrive before sunrise and work for six hours, collecting birds from the nets every half hour. Both Sanders and Sutton each banded nearly 100 birds, contributing to the 4,354 birds that were banded at Braddock Bay this fall.
“The reason we take all this data is because we’re trying to track stopover ecology, or how migratory birds use landscapes like Braddock Bay as a stopping point while they’re migrating,” explains Sutton.
More specifically, both Sanders and Sutton are drawing on their own data as well as data taken at Braddock Bay since 1999 to examine energetics – how birds use their fat stores, which are essential for migration. Their research will not only add to the basic understanding of migratory biology in birds, but will also have conservation implications.
Sanders will examine annual differences in individual energy stores during spring migration and consider the influence of weather factors. Sutton is investigating daily variation in weight gain between different species in order to understand how well birds gain mass in the Braddock Bay region. Sutton’s research will add another 10 years of new data to work previously published by Assistant Director of Citizen Science at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology David Bonter and others, re-evaluating how birds gain mass during stopover at Braddock Bay.
Both students will present their research to the HWS Biology Department at the end of the semester and are hoping to present at the North American Ornithological Conference next summer in Washington D.C., as they each plan to continue their research as Honors projects.
“The culmination of science is communicating it,” says Deutschlander, who has taken a number of students to present at national ornithological conferences. Deutschlander is the chair of the research committee at Braddock Bay, serves on its Board of Directors, and as an elected member of the American Ornithologists Union and the first vice president for the Wilson Ornithological Society. He conducts most of his research on the sensory basis and physiological ecology of migration at the Observatory, where he oversees the Orientation Lab.
Although Sanders and Sutton have different career aspirations, both believe the skills and experience garnered through the independent study have been invaluable.
“Learning about the work that goes into data collection has been a great experience,” says Sanders, who’s applying to graduate fisheries programs. “I am able to demonstrate to graduate schools that I am capable of learning different data collection methods.”
“I’m always looking for any opportunity to do anything bird-related, and this was a significant one,” adds Sutton, who plans to further her ornithological field research throughout her senior year. “Any field experience is good experience, and working at Braddock Bay has only reinforced that this is what I want to do.”