By Lupita Solano / Environment for the Americas
Before this internship my experience with birds included curation (taxidermy) of bird specimens for the Natural History Museum of UC Santa Cruz, and occasional birding with the Natural History Club at school. Some of the birds I have curated for the museum include a black oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani), a Cassin’s auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus), an Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin), and a black cormorant. Most of my bird experience prior to the internship had been with birds that were immobile, and easily identifiable. When I was told I would be conducting bird surveys during this internship, I was a little intimidated but ready to learn.
On the first day of the surveying trip, one professor from UABC La Paz asked me to count black brant’s (Branta bernicla nigricans) in the San Ignacio lagoon, while on a small boat. Counting black brant’s in the middle of the day with a beaming sun, reflecting bright shimmery light from the water’s waves, made for an embarrassing first surveying experience. With shaking binoculars, I counted for a while and finally gave him my count, 100 black brants. He responded with a chuckle and said there were probably more like 400.
This internship has been a challenge with a steep learning curve, but after the first three or four days of the trip I was able to better help with bird surveys by offering my counts which contributed to accurate data intake. During this time I also practiced my bird identification, particularly of larger and more distinct species. For example, I became familiar with long-billed curlews (Numenius americanus) because they are large and have a very distinctively long and curved bill. Black brants were also good as a beginner bird to survey because they have distinctive white bands on their necks and a white undertail coverts which my supervisor liked to call its pañal which means diaper in Spanish.
Something unique to the internship in Mexico that I had was being able to learn shorebird names in Spanish. It has helped me greatly in identifying them. For example, a sanderling (Calidris alba) is called playero blanco which has helped me figure out what those white shorebirds on the beach are. Some names are also just more fun in Spanish, my favorite is pihuihui, which is a willet (Tringa semipalmata).
Towards the end of the trip I had a lot of fun looking out for snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus), and became proficient in identifying their sex (if they have a darker semi band mark around their necks they are male, if it is lighter they are female). We also looked for colorful bands around their legs. These anklets are used as markers to be better track the success of snowy plovers during their lifetime. I was able to find one with bands, and helped determine the color of some my fellow surveyors spotted.
As the bird surveys progressed, not only did I become better at identifying shorebirds, but I also bonded with people from different learning institutions and who had a lot of incredible stories and knowledge they wanted to share. Eduardo Palacios and his wife, Lucia Alfaro have worked on migratory birds and habitat conservation since the 80’s and used to conduct surveys on rough terrain without the technology they use today. Daniel Galindo, a professor at UABC La Paz shared with us his research and work with snowy plovers and I got to see the bigger picture in the surveillance and observations of snowy plovers along the west coast. I also got to meet students working on their thesis and PhD papers and learn about the projects they are involved in, including their research, and how they got where they are. Most of them got their undergrad in Marine Biology, and one person was an Oceanographer and all of them had a passion for birds.