One of the best things about working out of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) is the opportunity to share with and learn from other biologists working on a broad range of topics, from bay ice and zooplankton in tundra ponds, to trees, seals and foxes. Today, Shawn, Brad and I took a break from our Godwits and followed Anne Corkery and Jen, from Trent University, to their site to help band Semipalmated Plovers.
We arrived at Bird Cove and began walking along the broad, gravelly beach. It was windy, and quite cold, at least compared to yesterday's heat. We started to see Semipalmated Plovers running along the beach almost immediately; they would pause to give their two-syllabled call, raising their entire bodies with effort, and would then resume running in short sprints from one spot to another, legs a blur. Some were already banded here, with a combination of two color bands on the right leg, and a color band and flag over a metal band on the left leg, but we soon found some territorial birds without bands, indicating new nests to be found.
We sat on the sand to watch an unbanded male, in hopes of him leading us to his nest. As Anne and I watched, the male stood quite still for a while, and it took me a while to notice the head of his female poking up from the ground just at his feet. She was incubating on the nest, and the male had led us straight to it-- how kind! We walked over to the nest in order to set up a walk-in trap. This is a metal-mesh cylinder with a screened over top that is placed over the nest; there is a door on one side where the bird can enter, but when you run towards the trap to retrieve the bird, it tries to get out the opposite side and ignores the door.
While we approached the nest, and as Anne measured the eggs and placed the trap over the nest, the birds constantly called and gave broken-wing displays, walking away from the nest as they did. When they were about 20 meters away, and noticed that we had not followed them away from the nest, they would run back and try again, starting their display from just a few feet away.
When the trap was set and the eggs measured, we would sit back a few dozen meters and watch as the adult bird would slowly approach its nest and investigate the mesh cage. It would often take several minutes, but eventually the bird would find the door and determine the trap to be inanimate enough for its liking, and it would sit down to incubate. Anne would then run towards the door side of the trap and grab the bird from underneath. Then we went to work, putting a unique combination of color bands on its tiny, yellow legs. In the hand, their 48 grams feel almost non-existent, especially compared to the 400-gram Whimbrels we have been banding recently, but their large, dark, inquisitive eyes make the handful of feathers feel infinitely more significant than their weight suggests.