Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part 5

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program (MAC) to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

Departure

The day before departure the Mariana fruit doves receive a colored band and are placed in the transport boxes. This is the last time they will be handled before they are released. The doves do not receive color combination bands like the Rufous fantails because they were banded with a metal band that has a unique number engraved on it.

On departure day the birds are taken to the dock and moved onto the boat. Everyone involved from US Fish and Wildlife and the MAC program shows up to help and to see the birds off and wish them safe travels. It is a joyous occasion with a great sense of relief. The birds are just hours away from being released to their new home. A crew of mostly US Fish and Wildlife employees and three MAC plan representatives will accompany the birds on their journey.

Once they reach their destination the transport boxes will be loaded onto backpacks. They hike up a mountain to the pre-selected release site. Below is a photo of Anne Heitman demonstrating the backpack.

The rest is up to the birds. In the coming years the department of Fish and Wildlife will do population studies to make sure the birds are reproducing.

It was quite an honor to be involved in this project. It is amazing to work for the Houston Zoo and get opportunities like this one!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part 4

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

When the bird room is full of Rufous fantails and Mariana fruit doves the veterinarians do a medical exam on every single bird. We had two vets, one vet tech, and four bird keepers helping with the exams. It was great having this many people on hand to complete this enormous task as efficiently as possible.

During this process a small amount of blood is taken from the underside of the wing with a capillary tube, just like when a person is checking their blood sugar levels. The blood is put onto a slide; this is called a blood smear. The slides are looked at under a microscope to see if the blood cells are normal and to make sure the white blood cell count is normal. If the white blood count is high that could mean the bird is fighting an infection.

Medical exam performed on a bird as it prepares to be translocated for conservation purposes
Blood from each bird is looked at carefully to ensure the blood cells are normal and the bird is healthy

After the blood is collected the bird is given a physical. The vet checks the body condition, sound of its heart and breathing, and checks its eyes to make sure it has no issues with vision. If the bird seems less than the pinnacle of health, the bird is released and not translocated. We want to make sure every bird has the best chance of surviving in its new home.

Each bird is looked at carefully by wildlife professionals

The last thing done during the exam is a feather collection. The feathers are collected so that the gender of the bird can be determined. This is not determined while we are there, but it takes about a week or two for an outside lab to do the work. This information is recorded for future data analysis.

All these things are noted for each individual bird’s records. Note cards are kept with the birds while they are in our care and we write down everything that happens. The birds’ weight, where it was found, diet consumption, bands (identification), and medical notes are all written on these cards.

Records are kept for each individual bird

Next time the birds will be prepped for departure and we will watch them sail away towards their new home!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part III

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

The bird room for native birds who are being relocated to islands without the invasive brown tree snake

When the birds come in from the field, it’s time for some important record-keeping. The birds are banded, weighed, and their wings, legs, and tails are measured. They are also given a physical to make sure they are in good body condition. We check for signs of nesting as well (such as a bare spot on their belly). Each bird gets a metal band with a unique number engraved on it. This helps us to identify each bird and more easily keep track of them as we feed and monitor their condition.  Below are several photos of the process for both the fruit dove and the rufous fantail that we met in the previous blog entry.

Measuring the tarsometatarsus length
Measuring primary feathers
Measuring tail feathers
Checking feather quality
Measuring tarsometatarsus length
Banding the birds-putting small tags on the birds for identification purposes

After they receive their physical they are placed in their own individual box. The dove boxes are larger than the boxes for the fantails because they are much larger birds. They will then travel to Guguan (another island in the Mariana region). This travel time also gives us a chance to collect feather, blood, and fecal samples in order to determine sex and the stress level of every bird. Disney Animal Kingdom sends a team from their veterinary clinic to collect these samples for a study they are doing on cortisol (stress hormone) levels. I will go more in depth on the process of the medical exams next time.

Dove boxes
Fantail boxes

Every day the fruit doves are fed a mixture of papaya, Kaytee exact high fat formula, and water. This is done three times a day. The rufous fantails get fed meal worms and flies four times a day. The idea is to have them eat consistently to ensure they are as healthy as possible throughout their journey.

Next time we will see our rufous fantail friend get a medical exam.

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part II

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

Field days are long and hot. In this blog entry I will walk you through a typical day in the field. With lots of photos!

We wake up at 4:00 am to be ready to head out to the field by 4:45 am. We get to our site at 5:15 am and unload the gear for the day and start opening the mist nets (a net used by ornithologists and biologists to safely gather birds for research and conservation purposes). At 6:15 all the nets should be open and then we wait. Nets are checked every 15-20 minutes for birds. All non-target birds (those birds we are not relocating as part of this conservation effort) are released immediately.

Mist nets are used for to safely catch birds for research and conservation. Here is our team setting up the nets for Mariana fruit doves.
Ellen, a Toledo Zoo staff member safely removes a wild bird from the mist net. Trained zookeepers who work with birds daily assist with this task due to their extensive background and training in handling birds.
A Mariana fruit dove
Birds are transported to a transport crate using soft cloth bags.
These transport crates are used to safely move birds.

There is a second field site for a different bird species, the Rufous fantails. The nets used for this species are not as tall and the mesh is also smaller. The fantails weigh about 8 grams while doves weigh about 75 grams.

Another mist netting site, setup to locate another species of bird, called the Rufous fantail.
Each bird is kept safe in a labeled cloth bag before it is moved to a transport crate.
Transport boxes for the birds.
Each label from the cloth bags is placed on the transport crate to identify the individual bird.

Flies are then collected and put in the box for the bird to eat. The fantails are very active birds and need to eat constantly. We catch flies by placing buckets over a tray of fish. If only you could smell through the internet!

Collecting flies for the birds to eat.
Modified petri dishes are used to collect the flies. The petri dishes are then placed in the box with the bird and the lid is removed quickly so that the flies don’t escape.

Someone makes runs out to both field sites to pick up birds every few hours to take them to the holding room.

At about 4:45 pm we will close up the nets and head back into town.

Next time I’ll tell you what happens to both this fantail and dove when they get to the “bird room”!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

Houston Zoo bird staff is currently assisting the MAC (Mariana Avifauna Conservation) plan. This year I am helping out in Saipan where we will be focusing on two species, the Mariana fruit dove and the rufous fantail.

Mariana fruit dove at the Houston Zoo. The Zoo works to protect all the wild counterparts of the species we have here. Houston Zoo bird staff are currently overseas, ensuring this species is protected in its’ natural habitat.

For those who don’t know, the MAC plan’s goal is to establish self-sustaining populations of Mariana forest bird species on uninhabited northern islands. Due to the invasive brown tree snake damaging the local bird population, it is important to create other healthy populations of local birds where brown tree snakes are not a threat. The work done here is an insurance policy for local birds.

After 3 flights and 24 hours of travel I made it to Saipan. They didn’t waste any time putting me to work either. I spent half of my first day in the field finding fruit doves, more on that later. The second half of the day I helped with community outreach by manning a booth at the Flame Tree Festival.

The Flame Tree Festival is a celebration of the Saipan community and culture of the Chamorro people. The local children perform their musical talents on stage. Local dances are also performed. There are art booths and food stands. The festival seems is very popular and we had a successful night discussing bird conservation.

The photo below is of the booth we had set up. The wheel on the right was popular with the kids. They could spin it and win a trading card with one of 15 local Mariana forest species on it. We had two little boys who kept coming back and spinning it for a new card. It was a lot of fun interacting and educating the public about bird conservation. It’s important to let them know that there are things they can do to participate and help!

Discussing local birds at the Flame Tree Festival.

Next blog l will talk about how a field day runs. In the coming entries we will follow a bird through the whole process of moving to another island!

Staff Saving Wildlife in the Mariana Islands (Part 6)!

This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas. 

An educational opportunity in Tinian.

With just a few more days to go here on the island of Tinian, we had an opportunity to talk to the students (ALL of them!) in the local elementary school. They came in two groups, k-3 and 4-6, of about 140 students each.

Two members of our group, Fields Falcone from Memphis Zoo and Ellen Gorrell from the Toledo Zoo put together a great PowerPoint program covering the birds of the island, why they were endangered and what we were doing, as well as what the kids could do to help.

Fields Falcone discussing native birds with local school kids.
Fields Falcone discussing native birds with local school kids.

We had a demonstration net to show how we trap the birds, as well as transport boxes so we could explain the process of moving them to their new home. Josh Minor, a member of the education team at the Toledo Zoo, did a great job talking to the kids and getting the concepts across to them. The children were interested in the birds from their home, some of which they never see if they don’t go into the forest. The older children especially were interested in the process, and wanted to know why we would come from so far to do this. It was a chance to share my love of birds and my concern and fear that we may lose these wonderful animals.

Josh Minor highlighting the need to conserve these birds, found nowhere else on the planet!
Josh Minor highlighting the need to conserve these birds, found nowhere else on the planet!

It was also a chance to raise awareness of the fact that these birds are from nowhere else on the planet, and that it is possible that we could lose them. Josh actually ran into one of the kids in the grocery store the next day, and he said “I’m not going to eat birds any more”! So the information did get across!

Conservation work isn’t just something that’s done directly with the animals. Raising awareness of the problem and the threat to the animals, encouraging children to learn what they can about the birds and what they can do to help (like plant a tree), is just as much a part of the work as the translocation of the birds. It was good this year to have a part in both.

Audience at the local school.
Audience at the local school.

To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.

Staff Saving Wildlife in the Mariana Islands (Part 5)!

This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas. 

Hello again From the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands!

Netting the birds is going well. We now have 54 Tinian Monarchs and 28 Bridled Whited Eyes in our bird holding room. We’ll collect another 25 White-eyes to reach our goal numbers. While we have the birds, they are maintained in small boxes, fed and monitored by zookeepers and veterinarians working on the project. Any bird not doing well, is overly stressed or appears to be going downhill is released where it was trapped.

While in holding, the birds are weighed daily to monitor how well they are eating. They are also given a full exam, including drawing blood for diagnostic blood work. The boxes have a perch attached to a bar on top of the box. The bar is lifted up and a scale put under it, so that when the bird sits on the perch it can be weighed. This allows us to monitor the weight and not stress the bird. This picture shows the perch and the bar on top that the scale goes under.

Scale bar
Scale bar

But my part is more simple; prepare diets, clean the boxes, feed the birds and do the dishes. While the boxes are cleaned, we prepare the diets and then feed the birds. It may not seem it, but this is still part of the overall conservation effort, and an important part of maintaining the bird. And there are a lot of dishes to clean and birds to feed!

Dirty dishes
Dirty dishes
Clean dishes!
Clean dishes!

 

Steve Howard (Houston Zoo Bird Department) preparing food for the birds
Steve Howard (Houston Zoo Bird Department) preparing food for the birds

So we’re getting closer to the day of release, when the birds we’ve collected will be moved to Guguan Island, north of the island of Tinian. In the meantime, I got to talk to some elementary school children about our project. More about that later!

To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.

Houston Zoo Staff Saving Wildlife in the Mariana Islands (Part 4)!

This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas. 

Greetings again from Tinian!

Things have been going fast – we’ve already trapped 40 of the 54 Tinian Monarchs that are to be translocated to Guguan. Along with the birds moved last year, this should assure that there is a “safe harbor” population of birds from Tinian (the Tinian Monarch is found nowhere else in the world). So, should disaster strike in the form of the Brown Tree Snake invading the island, there will be birds safe in another place. The picture below is of a Rufous Fantail just extracted from the net. They are beautiful and curious birds, and will often fly to a nearby branch to investigate what you’re doing.

Ken timo
Rufous Fantail

There are other species of birds here that are not being moved at this time. These are birds that live on multiple islands and are not endangered. These “non-target species” are released when caught. This is me holding a collared kingfisher that I had removed from the net.

steve king
Collared kingfisher

Today there are more people coming in to work on the project. There is a start-up crew, which I’m on, and a close-down crew, the ones coming in tomorrow, and they overlap by about a week. Since we’re doing so well with the trapping, we’ll take a day off tomorrow and spend some time meeting and getting to know each other. Then we’ll head out to the field again and continue trapping. We have most of the Tinian Monarchs, now it’s time to start collecting the Bridled White-eyes. These birds are beautiful, and so tiny! They weigh in at around 7 grams.

So that means the bird room, where the birds are held and maintained until release, is about to get busy! I’ll be working there now, so I’ll write more about that next.

One last thing for today – I took a walk down to the beach this afternoon and wanted to share this picture. It really is a beautiful place!

image1

To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.

Houston Zoo Staff Saving Wildlife in the Mariana Islands (Part III)!

This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas. 

Friday April 22, 2016

Hello again from Tinian! This was a looong, hot day, but we wound up with 21 mist nets set up! The spots for the nets are cleared using saws, machetes and muscle, and are linked by trails cut the same way. Some are easy, some require some branches to be removed to make way. We cut as little as possible, so our impact on the forest is minimal, but it’s still a lot of work! I’ve included a picture of a cleared trail, and a net all set up. This net is stretched between two telescoping plastic poles. It’s very hard to see the net because it’s made from such fine nylon thread, but that’s the point! The birds miss it too.

martha blog 3
Left-a trail cleared by biologists working to save native birds. Right-a mist net setup to catch birds to move them to another island.

Tomorrow we’ll open the nets and start catching birds. We would have begun today, but we didn’t have enough flies. Yes, flies. We set up a flytrap with tuna (that’s a WHOLE tuna) as bait, and collect them to feed to the birds that we catch. Tinian Monarchs, one of the target species this year, are fly-eaters. They will eventually start eating meal-worms, but for the first few days we feed them live flies. I’ll tell you later how we get them into the bird box without letting them go! I’ll describe the bird boxes in future posts as well, the boxes are ingenious and allow us to keep the bird healthy until it’s released.

One last thing – I was walking through the woods today listening to Mariana Fruit Doves call. This island was blasted flat in World War II, defoliated and some even paved over. There are 5,000 people presently living here. Still, after all that, there are native birds left to sing to us. Lets hope we can keep that going!

A beautiful Mariana Fruit Dove. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Adams, Houston Zoo.
A beautiful Mariana Fruit Dove. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Adams, Houston Zoo.

To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.

Houston Zoo Staff Saving Wildlife in the Mariana Islands (part II)!

This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas. 

Tinian, Thursday April 21st.

This was the first day of field work. Today we cleared underbrush in the forest to make trails, along which we will set up our mist nets. So why are we here trapping birds? The short answer is the brown tree snake. This is an aggressive predatory snake that loves birds. After its accidental introduction to Guam, it wiped out nearly all native birds on the island. There are no snakes on the island of Tinian at this time, but it could happen in the future that the brown tree snake makes it here, and that would be disastrous for the local avifauna (birds). So birds are trapped, and then moved to another island that doesn’t have a population of brown tree snakes. Then, should the snake make it to Tinian in the future, at least some birds will be safe on another island.

Brown tree snake. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian.com, Isaac Chellman
Brown tree snake. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian.com, Isaac Chellman

To do this though, we have to get the birds! So that brings us back to today’s job – clearing a path and space in the forest to put up nets. The nets are 36 feet long, and are stretched between polls (telescoping plastic poles). When open they are about 10 feet from top to bottom. So space must be cleared to stretch them out, with enough clear vertical space to raise the nets up. This picture shows us clearing a net lane prior to putting up the poles and net.

Clearing space to setup mist nets
Clearing space to setup mist nets

Tomorrow – more work in the forest! Then we’ll open the nets and see what we catch!

To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.

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