Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pre-dawn Swallow Shenanigans

I started work this morning at 3:30am, after only 3 hours of sleep. Why? To trap birds in their burrows before they wake up, of course!

I have joined Wink's research crew the past two mornings, to capture Bank Swallows by placing simple traps in their burrows before they wake up. The traps consist of a metal or paper towel roll tube, with a ziploc bag taped around the end. Place the tube in the burrow, the bird wakes up, heads out the tube, and falls into the bag. Here's Wink demonstrating the traps in action last year:

Unfortunately, our jaunt this year was too early to get light for my camera, so I have a lot of weird long-exposure images. I like to think of them as artsy.

Here's the bank (last year) with a large colony of Bank Swallows (if I recall correctly, over 70 active holes last year). A handful of N. Rough-winged Swallows and Belted Kingfishers also nest in the area:

We came in yesterday, and scouted out the holes. We identified and mapped which burrows were within reach of our ladder, and watched to see which were occupied. We then placed the ladder, and did a small bit of scraping to give the ladder some notches to fit into on the sloping face. We then stashed the ladder until this morning, when we returned before even the lightening gray of dawn. Ladder went up, Wink went up, placed some traps, and then treated us to a hearty breakfast:

We waited about an hour, and the sky lightened to gray. We heard one, then several, then a whole swarm of Bank Swallows as they awoke, and either exited their burrows or arrived from there roosts. We saw birds tumble into one trap, and Wink retrieved them. After a while, no birds came out of the other burrows, but we saw adults hovering at the traps trying to get in. We realized that the chicks were near enough to fledging, that the adults were no longer sleeping in the burrows. So, down came the traps and ladder, and off we went with our catch of the day:

You might now be wondering why we stole these birds from their homes. Last year, a fellow undergraduate started a project in Wink's lab to compare the aerial maneuverability of various swallows species and other insectivores. Wink wanted more Bank Swallow samples this year.

The flight tunnel (the long side tunnels are camera mounts):

It turns out we caught two from the same nest this year, both juvenile, post-fledged (fully flighted) birds. We were definitely too late this year to catch adults. Aren't they adorable?

A Bank Swallow from last year, showing a unique feature to the genus, a feather tuft above the hallux (rear claw):

It's quite an experience to finish an 8-hour workday before lunch!


  1. now this is my kind of day, hard banding day and breakfast! This is one species I have not had a chance to band yet! Keep up the great work!
    (PS: This is my 3rd time trying to post, using my blogger profile and hope it works)!

  2. Thanks! Hardly a hard banding day though, we only caught 2 swallows :) After we flew those two, I retreated back to my molecular biology lab before the heat kicked in. I did the dirty field work last summer, this summer it's pipetting.

    Oh, and your comments are working. :)

  3. Phew! I'm glad they changed the date! I don't think I could handle a morining like that.

    As for the swallows: at least there's those stupid chimes to guide the youngsters all the way home.