Tall Timbers Research Station

This past weekend I went down to Tall Timbers Research Station to color band Loggerhead Shrikes to see if the bands will actually stay on the birds. Our worry is that these ferocious birds are ripping the bands off and spittin' them out. We hope that with continued surveillance at Tall Timbers, we can see if this suspicion is merely paranoia or not.

It was amazing to see these birds in the majestic Longleaf Pine Ecosystem, and knowing that this is the original shrike habitat adds a certain wildness to the whole experience. I think that wildness comes from the plethora of species diversity that surrounded me there, making it hard to focus only on shrikes. I wish I could spend a month there just running around looking for as many plants and wildlife as I could find and just observing. Superficially, that idea seems like a waste of time for me; a whole month I could spend doing school work, researching, or writing my thesis. But in the back of my mind, I know it's not.


How to band a shrike (don't try this a home)

So I didn't do anything bird related last weekend... I know. It's shocking. So I thought I would describe how I catch Loggerhead Shrikes.

First, AND MOST IMPORTANT, we acquire all the appropriate permits. Trapping any wildlife without the appropriate permits and training is highly illegal. (Not to mention, harmful to the critter.)

Then, we drive around areas where there have been reports of folks seeing Loggerhead Shrikes, like agricultural areas in Laurens County, Georgia.

Once we see a shrike, we get the trap ready, drive slowly up to the shrike and set the trap on the ground.

The trap is a large cage with a smaller cage inside. The small cage has a white mouse inside for bait (Don't worry, the small cage prevents the shrike from touching the mouse). The door to the big cage is held open by a wire that is attached to a lever that the shrike lands on when it enters the big cage. Once the shrike hits the lever, the wire moves out from under the door and the shrike is trapped inside.

Once the Shrike is caught, we first place a metal US Fish and Wildlife Service band on its leg and sometime we place color bands on its leg in order to identify it later.

We 'process' the bird by taking measurements on bill, wing, and tail feather dimensions.

We age and sex the bird and then we try to get a sense of its nutritional condition by looking at its fat between its furcula (fused clavicle), which is also know as the 'wishbone.'

Next we weigh the bird.

Then we let it go!

So why do we put the bird through all this torture? Well, this information is sent to a larger database at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, and with this data we can begin to understand the population dynamics of this species. Considering their species is declining and we don't know why, this is valuable information.


Panola State Park Banding

Here's the list of birds seen and banded plus a few pictures from banding at Panola State Park last Saturday, Nov. 8th.

This is the kind of diversity you can only find in native grasslands! Once this site is managed for invasives we'll get even more!

Location: Panola Mountain SP
Observation date: 11/8/08
Number of species: 38

Canada Goose 8
Great Blue Heron 1
Black Vulture 40
Turkey Vulture 15
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Mourning Dove 50
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 1
Pileated Woodpecker 2
Eastern Phoebe 2 banded one bird
Blue Jay 7
American Crow 12
Carolina Chickadee 3
Carolina Wren 2 banded one
House Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 2
Eastern Bluebird 10
American Robin 75
Northern Mockingbird 3 captured 2
Brown Thrasher 1
European Starling 40
Eastern Towhee 2
Chipping Sparrow 15 banded 2
Field Sparrow 10 banded 6
Vesper Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 15 banded 7
Song Sparrow 70 banded 23, captured 5 others
Swamp Sparrow 50 banded 27, captured 1 other
White-throated Sparrow 15 banded one
White-crowned Sparrow 1 banded one hatch year bird
Dark-eyed Junco 3
Northern Cardinal 2
Red-winged Blackbird 100
Eastern Meadowlark 15
Brown-headed Cowbird 120
American Goldfinch 25 banded one hatch year female

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow


Where shrikes lived before barbed wire

This past weekend a group of volunteers from across Georgia came together to work with DNR biologists and managers to participate in collecting native grass seeds to redistribute in areas where the native vegetation has been replaced by exotic, invasive plants. Restoration efforts, likes the one this weekend at Panola Mountain State Park and Sprewell Bluff State Park, epitomize the type of conservation efforts that are so desperately needed if we wish to conserve the biodiversity our state has been blessed with. This is where the real work gets done. Not in the ivory towers of academia, not behind a desk, but out in the field. Well... I take that back, (even though all of us would like to spend all our time in the great outdoors.) If not for the work of researchers and planners, the on-the-ground work would never materialize. (Being a grad student, I should know better than to criticize the ivory towers I spend my typical day in, but that is neither here nor there.)

When I was growing up, trees were trees, grass was grass, birds were birds, etc. I had an appreciation of the wild things around me, but I had no idea of the historical landscape of our state. I did not know which species were native versus which were exotic. The only exotic, invasive species I remember anyone talking about when I was growing up was Kudzu, but I always thought it looked kind of neat. So it came as a big shock in my undergrad schooling, to learn that most of our native warm-season grasses were being out competed by exotic cool-season grasses. I was amazed to learn that Georgia's ecosystems were largely fire-dependent, and that years of fire suppression and development have severely reduced and fragmented our native landscape. As the habitat diminished, so did the species who called these places home.

The loss of native grasslands in Georgia has largely gone unnoticed, but it is an ecosystem that is vital to a myriad of species which forms the trophic base for the surrounding ecosystems. The abundant plant diversity gives rise to abundant invertebrate, rodent, and avian diversity , which, in turn, facilitates herpetafauna and carnivore diversity, and so on. But these places are almost gone. While habitat loss is the easily recognized culprit, fire suppression is just as guilty. As the landscape goes through succession, certain grasses get crowded out, some grasses remain, and pine forests emerge. If fire suppression continues, hardwoods will eventually out compete the pines. As the canopy closes up, the remaining grasses go away. While big, beautiful hardwood forests are valuable, so are all the other stages of forest succession; stages which are maintained by fire. Entire communities have evolved within this framework.

It took a long time to destroy this habitat and it will take a long time restore it. Additionally, it will take some pretty drastic measures bring it back. Woody vegetation is removed manually and by herbicides. Exotic grass is just about impossible to control manually, so more chemicals are used combined with a prescription of fire. The ground becomes scorched, but out of the ashes, and on top of the bare mineral soil, native grass arises. Long lost habitat is restored.

A lot of people ask me where did Loggerhead Shrikes live before pastureland and barbed wire fences. This is the answer.

My dad collecting yellow Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) at Panola Mountain State Park

Longleaf pine (Pinus palustus) habitat where we collected seeds at Sprewell Bluff State Park

At Sprewell Bluff State Park the fall colors were phenomenal as is exemplified by this tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)



The Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) is an amazing bird that is experiencing population decline throughout it's range and we are not sure why. Here in Georgia, a team consisting of researchers, state wildlife officials, bird conservation experts, and myself hope to explore, understand, and conserve this ecologically valuable, yet dwindling species and its habitat. This project is part of a much larger effort to preserve biodiversity in order to maintain the ecological services that we all depend on. As a grad student, my adventure has just begun.

Even though the focus of this blog will consists of updates and personal thoughts on my research, my hope is to get folks interested in the project and to develop and maintain an open dialog of not just my project, but of any relevant conservation work going on in the Southeast; from university research to environmental education to personal wildlife observations.