“Bird Camp” is the annual assemblage of about two dozen seasonal research assistants, grad students, and my wife, Amy, in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona. These people are there in service of an ongoing research project designed and run by a University of Montana scientist; the project has been chugging along for about two decades now and has had other sites in Venezuela and South Africa. Amy is the on-site manager of the Arizona project.
The purpose of the project is to measure the reproductive success of local songbird populations, around 25 main “focal” species. Most directly, this requires finding and monitoring their nests. In order to be able to find answers to the dozens of questions that might arise concerning why certain species of birds are more or less successful at reproducing themselves, a multitude of information is collected along the way. The researchers videotape nests, weigh tnestlings, insert temperature probes into some eggs and collect information about what kind of and how much vegetation is in the vicinity.
Each year, certain specific questions arise – whether from other scientists who contact Amy’s scientist and ask for his help collecting certain data, or from the grad students who are working on their thesis projects – and various additional tasks arise, for example collecting egg yolk for a biologist from Washington who is interested in analyzing the birds’ DNA.
Finally, as part of the general background data collection, the researchers also trap and collect data on various small mammals in the area, such as the squirrels, who are predators of eggs and nestlings.
2. The People
Aside from the grad students, who are mainly present to work on their own projects and do not have distinct job duties, there are three main classes of Bird Campers.
2.1 Nest searchers spend their workdays creeping patiently around in the woods, eyes and ears cocked for any sign of a bird that they might be able to follow back to a nest. They must be able to identify birds by sight and sound, as well as recognize certain bird behaviors that suggest a nest is nearby: gathering nest-building materials, making alarm cries, etc. When they find a nest, they record its location on a nest card using compass directions and yardage from various fixed station markers and other landmarks in the woods.
These directions might read something like the following: “From station marker 2, 20 yards south to large stump. 15 yards northwest. Nest is in small tree about four feet from the ground.” The directions would actually be more condensed than this and would use more precise numerical compass bearings, but you get the idea.
The directions have to be precise and clear enough that anyone else can follow them, as various other staff members (in particular, Amy) must later visit the nests to count and weigh eggs and nestlings and set up video cameras to capture the parents’ nesting behavior after the humans leave. Grad students, at work on their own projects, may also want to visit all the nests of a certain species.
2.2 Banders catch birds in various pre-set locations each day, record data about each bird, and attach identifying bands to the birds’ legs before releasing them. Some of the birds they catch are already banded, enabling the collection of data concerning survival rates from year to year.
Banders catch the birds using something called a mist net, a light, floppy net strung between two poles in the manner of a volleyball net.
Banding is demanding work, as the birds should neither languish in the nets nor be handled by the banders for too long. So the banders must race from net to net (often set up a good distance apart in rough, forested terrain) only to stop, take a deep breath, and gently disentangle any caught birds. Then, back at the data-collection station, they must carefully handle the birds – manipulating the wings and other body parts – as they take measurements with calipers and weigh them.
2.3 Mammal trappers use humane traps to catch squirrels, mice and other small mammals that reside in the area. There are usually only about two of these, as mammals are not the major focus of the project. The trappers set out at the beginning of the season with frame backpacks full of traps, then check the traps each day and record the required measurements.
Aside from the general (and very minor) risk that anyone in the Coconino faces from wildcats and bears, the mammal trappers face the greatest occupational hazard: exposed to mouse excrement, they are at risk for hantavirus, and so must wear fit-tested OSHA-approved respirators when getting up-close and personal with their traps.
3. The Environment
The Coconino National Forest consists of Ponderosa firs and deciduous trees, high atop the Colorado Plateau. The area around Bird Camp is at around 7-8,000 feet, which is why – even though this is Arizona – the heat shouldn’t be the first thing you think of when you try to imagine the place. In the early part of the season (late April), temperatures can drop as low as the 20s overnight and rise to the 60s or 70s during the day. As the summer wears on, temperatures get significantly hotter, but they never approach the levels seen down in the desert near Phoenix or Tucson. Nonetheless, parts of the forest, especially on ridges and hills, can feel more like desert than forest, and there is an incredible amount of dust at all times. Down in the drainages, or lower-lying areas, the forest can be much thicker, with more deciduous trees and undergrowth.
The camp is located about 45 minutes’ drive from the nearest pavement, including a stretch that descends into and climbs out of a deep canyon. The road is rough but bearable, especially in the soft-suspension Suburbans that are the camp’s main vehicles. (Less so in the camp’s F250, with its high-cargo-capacity and thus extra-stiff suspension.)
Local animals, in addition to songbirds, include porcupines, bears, wildcats, deer, elk and various small mammals (such as the chipmunk-like ground squirrels, which constantly probe the camp’s food-storage security measures).
Forest fires break out every summer, as they do in every forest in the West. (You only hear about the ones that get big and/or threaten human dwellings.) This is not as dangerous as it sounds; the fires are not usually very large, and obviously the Bird Camp policy is to be very careful around them. Also, help is close at hand: the ranger station that is the forest’s headquarters is also home to a contingent of forest firefighters, and – as fire season progresses – the camp monitors the firefighters’ radio band so as to stay on top of the latest fire-related news.
It is not uncommon for the area to be placed under fire restrictions late in the summer, meaning no camp fires, all vehicles inspected for exhaust system leaks, etc. Fire season ends in late July with the arrival of the monsoon season.
4. Living Conditions
Bird Campers rough it, though the conditions could certainly be much worse.
There is no running water, but the camp provides porta-potties and a 500-gallon water tank. This means no showers in camp. The campers work 12 days before getting a break in town, but they can take showers on the sixth day at a local campground.
Campers sleep in tents, which they supply themselves. The campers are as comfortable as they choose to make themselves. Some arrive with equipment better suited to backpacking – light, tiny, one-person tents little better than sleeping bags with frames – and usually regret it. Amy, now an old hand, lives like a king with a four-person tent all to herself and an actual mattress on the floor.
Campers can set up their tents wherever they choose in the wooded area around the camp. Think of these personal tents as the suburbs, where the campers go home to sleep every night; some people like to sleep in close-in suburbs, while others set up their tents surprisingly far off in the woods.
To continue with this analogy, the downtown of the camp is a collection of once-white military-style canvas tents. The largest of these, perhaps 20 by 50 feet, is the cook tent. Campers are responsible for supplying their own food, which they store in the cook tent in their own plastic bins and coolers. Cooking is done over camp-supplied propane stoves at one end of the tent, and everyone eats either around a large table, made of doors on top of cinder blocks, in the center of the tent, or outside at a picnic table or in camp chairs.
The other “downtown” tents are the work tent, where tables (i.e., more doors on cinder blocks) are set up for working with the nest cards and other data-related activities, the video tent, where the cameras and tapes are stored/processed, and the supply tent, where various equipment is kept.
Also downtown is a 25-foot camper trailer. (Actually, maybe this is “uptown.”) This is where the scientist who runs the project stays when he visits, usually for three weeks at the beginning of the season. The trailer also provides safe storage/workspace for laptop computers, and the trailer’s freezer sees the occasional stash of ice cream.
There is no cell-phone reception in camp. Every day, Amy goes to the Mogollon Rim, the 500-mile escarpment that is essentially the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, about twenty minutes’ drive from camp. From the Rim, it is possible to see for 50 miles as well as check the camp cell phone for messages and make phone calls to attend to camp business. Camp business includes ordering/arranging repairs for equipment and setting up oil- and tire-change appointments for the camp vehicles. (Those roads chew up the vehicles’ tires.)
5. Work Days
Camp work days begin at 4:30 and run until around noon or 1 p.m. for most employees. (Amy typically works until dusk, however.)
Every twelve days, Bird Camp takes a two-day break. The camp vehicles drive to Flagstaff, though anyone who has brought his or her own car can take it instead. The camp gets a discount at a Flagstaff motel, though the campers pay for their own rooms, combining as they and their budgets see fit. There are no rules against fraternization, though interpersonal drama in recent seasons has been relatively mild.
Flagstaff is a great city for a “port call” like this: small enough to be walkable, but big enough to lose yourself in just a little, if that’s your taste. Favorite hangouts include Macy’s, a coffee shop with great breakfasts; Biff’s Bagels, where the walls are festooned with pictures of people’s dead dogs (fortunately taken while the dogs were still alive, however); the bar in the Monte Vista hotel, where the decorating scheme tends toward red leatherette seats and a general David Lynch vibe; and Dar Thai, a fabulous Swedish restaurant (just kidding).
7. It Doesn’t Hurt the Birds
Contrary to popular opinion, handling nestlings does not cause their parents to abandon them, although it is probably not a good idea to admit this to small children.