Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander and Maddie Sutton ’17 have been awarded the Wilson Ornithological Society’s (WOS) Jed Burtt Undergraduate Mentoring Grant, funding that advances their study of warblers during part of the birds’ migration between Canada and South America.
Through the project, “Orientation and Energetics of Migrant Warblers During Spring at a Northern Stopover Site,” Sutton is investigating mass gain of warblers as they refuel at Braddock Bay Bird Observatory near Rochester, N.Y. Stopover habitats are important places for migratory birds to rest and refuel, as migration is energetically exhausting. Eventually, Sutton hopes to assess the quality of the habitat at the stopover by evaluating changes over time. She will also participate in a new area of research at the Observatory, examining stopover duration and departure directions of individual blackpoll warblers using radiotracking technology.
“I am honored to be receiving this award and adding to Jed Burtt’s legacy,” says Sutton, a biology major with a minor in Spanish. “From a scientific perspective, this is a really big deal because it will add another facet to my research project and add another data-analyzing skill to my tool belt.”
Named in honor of the late Edward “Jed” H. Burtt Jr., a past-president of WOS and internationally respected ornithologist who died this past April, the grant supports research projects that demonstrate the greatest capacity of mentoring and collaboration with undergraduate students.
“It is a personal honor to be one of the first recipients of this new mentorship award. Jed was the quintessential mentor,” recalls Deutschlander, WOS first vice-president and a friend and colleague of Burtt. “Jed taught me that setting the bar high for students is easy, but helping them achieve and reach that bar is the greatest challenge and most rewarding aspect of mentoring and teaching. The Wilson Ornithological Society strongly supports mentoring of students and young professionals. It’s always been a part of who we are, and this new award highlights the society’s dedication to mentorship.”
Currently, Sutton is analyzing data on warbler energetics at Braddock Bay going back to 1999; she is determining how well they gain mass during spring migration, and assessing how sex and age, as well as other factors (e.g. migration timing, weather) affect mass gain during stopover. Deutschlander says the project’s findings could shed light on similar stopover habitats in the Great Lakes region, and will likely help ornithologists understand the factors that affect refueling success at stopover habitats. Most warblers breed in the boreal forests of Canada and make long migrations to South America. Species like the blackpoll warbler migrate at more than 2,000 miles, making them impressive endurance athletes of the animal world.
“Last spring I began my first semester of Honors work where I am using the data that I and others have been collecting in order to assess stopover habitat quality – that’s looking at whether or not trends in mass gain have changed since the station has been operating,” Sutton says. “From a conservation perspective, this will allow us to determine how well we are conserving the land at Braddock Bay.”
The project will also be advanced by the addition of a radio-receiving tower at Braddock Bay and the use of new radiofrequency nanotags for birds. The tower will be part of the Motus Wildlife Tracking System across Canada and the Northeast.
“This feeds into my current study because we will be able to get a comprehensive look at where individuals that have come through Braddock Bay go when they aren’t in New York,” Sutton says. “This also puts us into a network of other radio towers and will benefit migration conservation efforts as a whole.”
Following the project’s completion, Sutton will give a presentation on her research in March 2017 during the WOS annual conference at Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Meyers, Fla.; her costs for travel to and participation at the conference are part of the mentorship award.
In addition to her work with Deutschlander, Sutton is conducting summer research with Associate Professor of Biology Meghan Brown and Research Scientist and HWS Director of Introductory Biology Laboratories Susan Flanders Cushman ’98.
Last year, Sutton worked on an independent research project advised by Deutschlander, and had previously interned for National Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program in the Gulf of Maine. Following graduation, Sutton says she’d like to go on to be a scientist and professor.
“I have really enjoyed my experience at HWS,” Sutton says. “I have met some amazing and inspirational scientists that ignite the fire in me to be a motivated student and future scientist. I am so lucky to be welcomed by professors who look not only to teach you, but to work together with you on their personal research. The Biology Department in particular is very invested in the lives and well being of their students.”