Two field technicians set up a recorder on a tree in the forests.


Science Snapshot

Welcome to Science Snapshot, a podcast about wildlife projects at Voyageurs National Park, and the field biologist who work here.


Science Snapshot: Bats


S: Hi and welcome to the Voyageurs National Park podcast miniseries “Science Snapshot”! My name is Sheridan Noll, and I’m a seasonal wildlife technician working in the park during the summer of 2021. In this miniseries, we’ll explore the different wildlife monitoring programs run by the park and speak with other technicians to gain insight into their jobs.

Today, we’re talking about bats (as I say the word bats, have flapping sound and squeaking layered in). These incredible little mammals inspire both awe and fear. We are often scared of what we don’t understand, and bats are mysterious nighttime animals that not many of us are lucky to see.

In this episode, we’ll talk with two friends of mine, Abby Kostiuk and Josh Kolasch. Both are colleagues who are working together on different bat projects in the park.

Thank you guys for being here and speaking with me today, I’m really excited to talk about your projects and see what you guys have been up to this summer. So, first I’ll just have you give quick introductions and talk about your positions here at Voyageurs.

J: My name is Josh Kolasch, I am the bat research technician here at Voyageurs in partner with the Great Lakes Inventory/Monitoring Network. My primary focus here is doing bat acoustic monitoring throughout the park. That just looks at recording echolocation calls in different locations for different time periods throughout the park so we can monitor populations.

A: I’m Abby Kostiuk and I’m a biological science tech for the wildlife crew here at Voyageurs. I basically help out with whatever wildlife projects are going on. So that includes trapping beavers, bird surveys, vegetation surveys, bat box monitoring and installation. And also helping Josh out with the bat acoustic monitoring.

S: Nice! It’s great to have you both here!

J: Thank you!

A: Oh wow, yeah, I’m honored.

S: [laughs] Why don’t we take a moment to get to know you two better? I’m curious as to what sparked your interest in the wildlife field, like what made you decide to go into this field.

J: Well, I guess I can start when I was young. I was obsessed with most things wildlife. From making my parents mad by digging holes in the backyard for dinosaur bones to flipping over rocks for rollie polies and salamanders, catching frogs, bringing snakes in my parents’ bedroom, fishing, hunting, watching birds, just walking through the woods. So, it kind of started young, the passion. I wasn’t sure if I could do a career out of it, then eventually I just said, ‘the hell with it’ and now I’m working in the ecology field.

A: I was born and raised here near Voyageurs, so I was always outside exploring whatever nature had to offer in the area. I didn’t really have to go far, we lived on the edge of town, so there was a lot of woodsy areas around. My interest in wildlife came naturally, I’ve always had an intense interest in animals, for sure. Particularly mammals, and especially

wolves. I watched a lot of Nat Geo docs when I was little, so that really pushed my interest along, for sure. Also just spending a lot of time outside, kind of getting lost in my own little world for hours at a time until my parents had to call me back inside when it was dark, so, yeah.

S: Yeah, that’s very relatable. I love that you two are so passionate about wildlife. And I’m kind of the same way. Ever since I can remember I’ve just loved being out here and doing stuff with animals. So, before coming to work here, what was your background? What kind of experience did you get, what jobs did you have? Did you work with any species other than bats before coming here to Voyageurs?

J: Yeah, I’ve been lucky enough so far in my early career to work with a pretty diverse group of animals. I’ve done some American Kestrel work, which is a small falcon species found pretty much throughout North America. I’ve done stuff with Gray Wolves as well, so that’s been really fun over the past few years getting to stay involved with them. Also with songbirds, salamanders, small mammals, a lot of camera trap stuff including putting up cameras on bear dens, watching when they come and go out of hibernation, how many times they leave during the winter, and kind of how they’re using it during the summertime. As well as putting camera traps up for martens, wolves, and other carnivores, I’ve done oyster restoration stuff, too.

A: In undergrad, I kind of worked with several small projects with Canada geese, small mammals, things like that. Working here with the park is only my second field job I’ve ever really had, I just graduated college about a year ago. My first field job was last summer with the Voyageurs Wolf Project. I just worked with wolves for a whole summer, tracking them and trapping them also, and yeah it was really, really great. Here at Voyageurs, I’ve worked with multiple different animals already including bald eaglets. I wouldn’t say I really worked with marsh birds, but we did marsh bird surveys, and I’ve had a lot of experience with beavers already, just from this spring alone, a lot of trapping and handling. That’s been really great.

S: That’s a really wide range of experience with a lot of different species, I think that’s really cool, especially that you have different backgrounds but ended up working in the same park with the same species. Okay, so were there any differences between working with bats and working with other species that you’ve worked with before, like wolves or kestrels?

J: Yeah, I think with bats especially the acoustic monitoring is interesting and different because most of this data we can’t interpret without technology and software because human ears can’t hear bat echolocation. That’s different, it’s not like looking at pictures or even live handling bats, most of this is done through different computer software to analyze it. It’s a passive survey as well, we’re not actually going out and sitting and listening and recording, we’re setting up monitors that are doing that at night on their own time. So, it’s a lot of different technology, and it kind of makes it easy, just setting it up, programming it, and taking it down, so that’s one of the cool things. They’ve been moving away from handling bats. They still do mist-netting for live captures, but…

S: Can you explain mist-netting a little bit? What does that entail?

J: So, mist-netting is also used for banding songbirds and other birds. It’s where you set up these clear nets and bats or birds will fly into them, and there’s people waiting nearby who will handle them, take information and measurements, band them possibly, and then release

them unharmed. With how you need people on the ground constantly for that, and there is a small risk no matter what you do when handling wild animals so I guess mitigating that and using these passive methods makes sure you don’t need people out there, you can capture the animals in a more natural setting, and it’s actually more accurate, as in you can get more species by using acoustic monitoring versus only using live handling.

S: Yeah, that makes sense.

A: I’ve just noticed that with the work we do with bats, like Josh said, you don’t really get to see them in action very much. We only go out during the day, and obviously they’re nocturnal, so that doesn’t really match up. They aren’t really active during the time period [we’re there], they’re pretty mysterious. I’ve never really worked with nocturnal animals before, so that’s pretty neat. I do know with the bat box monitoring and the rehab we’re doing with the boxes I have gotten to see them a couple of times in the boxes and occasionally they fly out. So, I have seen them, but it’s not frequent at all.

J: Like those little browns that one day in the bat box.

A: Yeah, very cute.

S: They sound cute! It also sounds like bats are unique with maybe some unique challenges. You said you don’t really get to see them, they’re nocturnal, they use echolocation, so you have to use these different sound monitors to capture the sounds they make. Were there any other challenges you faced while doing these surveys?

J: Honestly there hasn’t been too many challenges so far besides the nature of field work, so scheduling when you can get out there, and Voyageurs being mostly water for your transportation, if it’s kind of windy or rainy you can’t really get out. That’s probably the main challenge as well as with this project we’re using the same locations every year. This project has been going on since 2015 and we’re repeating at the same sites, so sometimes finding those exact trees and sites we’re setting up the equipment on can be difficult with just how remote the nature of Voyageurs is. But other than that, it’s been pretty smooth sailing so far. Can’t complain.

A: With my project and, also with helping Josh, it’s similar with me too. I think at the beginning it was difficult without him there to find a way to get out to some of these sites. It was easier to have another person that had to do work, too. We ended up pairing his project and my project together. Certain days we would go out and do both, and it was really convenient. We’d go over to my historical sites that had bat boxes, check the condition on those, and then go to one of his sites to put up an acoustic monitor so it worked well together. There are so many different areas of the park; four different lakes that these boxes are on, so it takes a lot of planning.

S: And they’re not small lakes, either. Did you mention how long it takes to get to some of these places, how long it takes to boat there?

A: Sand Point takes about an hour.

J: We have to go to the east side of Rainy Lake which takes about an hour and a half.

S: That’s a pretty long ways to go.

J: Pretty remote parts of the lake too, wherever we go, and not necessarily the safest places with all the rocks in Voyageurs.

A: And there’s really no other people around either so we are pretty alone. But at the same time, it’s great because I think a lot of people are jealous because there are coworkers that haven’t been to some of these places that we’ve been to here that have been working here longer than us. So, it’s pretty cool.

J: It’s been a pretty good tour of the whole park, like the peninsula, all the lakes, these different islands, and especially with the historical sites, I’ve seen most of the historical sites throughout the park.

S: I’m pretty jealous, honestly [laughs].

A: Taking a flashlight into all the old cabins and looking around for guano was actually pretty fun.

S: Can you explain what guano is?

A: Oh, it’s bat poop.

S: Now you know.

A: It looks like mouse poop, but you’ll find it on the side of the building and obviously a mouse isn’t…

S: On the side of the building?

A: Yeah, so that’s how you know.

S: Okay so you’ve talked about how your two projects work together, but can you explain what they are? What’s the goal of your work?

A: So, my project is basically bat box rehabilitation. I’ve been going around the park to different historical sites and checking the bat boxes that the park has put up near them to draw the bats away from the historical buildings. We don’t want bats living in the buildings because the guano they produce becomes strongly acidic over time and can be damaging to the buildings. The current boxes that we have up were installed 10 years ago and haven’t been looked at since. They haven’t been maintained or anything. I’ve been going to other sites also that don’t have bat boxes that might need bat boxes depending upon, like I said, how much guano they have in them. We would walk in and take a look around pretty thoroughly. But, yeah with the boxes I’ve replaced a couple already and plan to replace more in the fall when the bats leave.

S: Okay, were they in pretty bad shape?

A: They were really bad, yeah. They were falling apart. So, it feels nice to put new ones up for sure.

S: Cool.

J: Yeah, and the acoustic monitoring project is actually a part of a larger project throughout all of the Great Lakes and the National Parks in that area, looking at assessing the bat populations. As a lot of people may know or may not know, white nose syndrome is a pretty awful thing happening right now to bat populations in North America. It’s a fungus that is very drastically affects a lot of the species here in North America. So, the main part of this project is assessing the population health of these bats and through this the parks are using this

to get a baseline on what the data is for the bat populations and their activity. Then, over time they can assess it and they can see the changes that happened. Especially with bats being, one, a critical, ecological role in the ecosystem everywhere from pollinating to pest management. They actually provide millions of dollars to the US economy by managing pests.

S: Wow, that’s awesome. It’s cool that you’re looking at bats through different lenses. You’re looking at building places that they can live and you’re looking at white nose syndrome and ecological value type of stuff. I just think it’s cool that you guys are working together on something but using different methods to do that. Since the two projects assess different things, do they use different equipment? What kind of equipment do you both use for this?

A: So, my main thing is just the bat box itself. It’s a really good roosting spot for bats. It’s designed to be the perfect home for them. The ones we use are about 24 inches high and 14 inches wide. They’re painted with black, outdoor latex paint. It keeps the bats warm and absorbs heat during the day. They’re made of wood and they have an opening at the bottom that allows the bats to get up inside the box. There’s this grip-like type of material inside the box on the wood panel that extends down. Its interesting how to explain this because I now exactly how it looks, but its hard to describe. It extends down past the opening and the bats land on the material, and it makes it easy for them to attach to it and climb up. There are two vertical chambers inside the box. They’re very narrow and cramped, which the bats actually prefer. They don’t really like wide open areas; they really like the close quarters. When we monitor the boxes, we just shine a spotlight up inside them. You might find up to 10-12 or more bats all crammed in there, hanging upside down. They really don’t like that light when you shine it up there, they get kind if upset with you. Its pretty funny, I think.

S: I mean I’d get upset of somebody shined a light on me while I was sleeping. [laughs]

J: Yeah, they let us know one day.

S: Oh, really?

A: Yeah, they started squeaking at us.

S: Oh, that’s funny. [laughs]

J: Yeah, for acoustic monitoring we use two different models of monitors made by Wildlife Acoustics. The monitors are similar to trail cameras. You set them up and you can leave them. The one cool thing about these, actually, is that they have set times. They have a pre-recorded time that they’ll be on. So, say that its six o’clock at night, they’ll turn on automatically and they’ll run till another pre-set time. For us, that’s eight in the morning and it turns off. This way it saves battery life during the day and they’re only on during peak activity time for bats. Also, there’s an external microphone that you put on that’s calibrated for the frequencies because we can’t actually hear bats. So, it picks up that and the microphones that we use are omnidirectional so they can take in recordings from all different directions, and we have them in more open areas where bats forage.

S: Very cool. So, I was going to ask what species of bats live in Voyageurs National Park. Have you seen any or detected any certain species or do you know which bat species can be found in the park?

J: Yeah. So, before the project started in 2015, they had previously documented 3 species of bats here. The silver-haired bat, the little brown bat, and the northern long-eared bat. Since the start of the project, they’ve actually added four additional species to this park: the big brown bat, eastern red bat, the hoary bat, and the tri-colored bat, which is pretty cool because this is actually north of the tri-colored’s range. So, there’s seven bats total in Voyageurs.

S: Okay, awesome. I didn’t know there were that many bat species in this area, honestly. I would’ve thought there were maybe one or two. You both have already talked about this, but you guys have to put song meters up in pretty remote areas. Can you describe some of the areas a little bit more, like some of the cooler areas you’ve been to in the park for either the bat boxes or the song meters?

J: Yeah. For this project its kind of tricky with bats because they like open areas for foraging and you also can’t be too close to the water because the echolocation calls will actually bounce off the water and can cause some different issues with the audio recording. So, its kind of a fine line where you put it. So, we put it different places. We’ve had openings in the forest over small streams that aren’t going to have a lot of reflection of the waves but are going to capture a lot of the prime foraging just because of the insects that are there. When we put them by streams it looks like we actually have more recording data. Tens of gigabytes more recording data. We’ve also done mature aspen forests, they’re more open. We’ve also done trails, snowmobile trails and, not here but other places, you can use roads and cutlines. So, even places where humans are more common, bats also can be around as long as its open, close to water, because they do forage over the water, but still far enough that we aren’t going to get that reflection.

A: We’ve been to some pretty cool spots and they’re all pretty different. I think my favorites ones are the rock outcroppings. They’re near the water, but because the monitor is placed in a spot on this rock where its in an open area, but that open area is then surrounded by a line of trees and then there’s the water. So, its like a guard from the water, but its still open enough for the bats to fly around and everything and those spots are really neat to go to. The views are really great. For the bat boxes, like I said, its just any historical site, which is again, pretty cool. Just to have the opportunity to look around and see. A lot of them have been on islands and some of them are just near the visitor’s center. We have two in Kabetogama right across from the maintenance garage in an open area. So, yeah, they’re pretty much everywhere for the most part. [laughs]

S: It sounds like you guys get to explore a lot of the park and I already said this, but I’m super jealous of you guys. [laughs] Since you work in such fun places with such an interesting species, do you have any cool stories about an experience that happened or a place you visited?

J: Yeah. I think it’s interesting, but with Voyageurs being mostly kind of a mixed boreal and hardwood, its kind of dominated by spruce, aspen, birch and that mixture. One of the spots we went to, when we beached the boat it was conifers, but when we walked up the hill it was actually a grassy oak and ash little forest so, it was really different. So, I thought that was

really interesting because it was hidden, and you would never suspect till you get up and you’re there and there’s a bunch of oak trees and a very deciduous forest up there. Other than that, me and Abby both really like wolves and finding kill sites and we’ve both found a lot of remains, deer remains, throughout different locations, bear sign and a lot of otter sign. [laughs] A lot of otters here.

S: Good to hear there’s a healthy population of otters. [laughs]

A: There’s a lot of them. They kind of smell, too. Their little latrine areas are kind of stinky. [laughs] Something I’ve noticed. I had a really cool experience earlier on in the season. A coworker and I were repairing a bat box that had been mounted on a cabin next to the Kabetogama Visitor’s Center. We were using a drill; it was kind of loud and it caused some vibrations in the bat box. We could not get underneath the box good enough to see if the bats were in it or not. We didn’t think they were based on the condition. [laughs] So, as we were drilling two bats flew right out and they flew above us in circles really quickly for about 15-20 seconds. Then, they flew right back into the box, which was really cool to see too, because they attached themselves to that grippy material I was talking about and they climbed right up with their, I forget the name of what they are, but on their wings they have little claws. They used the claws to climb up the wood panel. So, it was neat because I had never seen a bat that clearly before. I’ve seen them at night, but they’re just silhouettes. So, it was neat to see the color and the size really clearly. It was col to see the box function so perfectly like it should. We didn’t want to disturb them anymore after that, so we just stopped drilling and left them to sleep. It was really cool, though.

S: That does sound really cool. I was there and I got to see it, too. It was awesome to see these bats flying around because, like Abby said, you don’t get to see them very often, especially in the day so, that was a pretty unique experience. I’m glad you both have had such cool experiences and seen cool places. I’m curious, have you always liked bats? You seem pretty excited about your projects now, bit I was wondering if your view of bats changed since working with them or of you’ve always just liked them. [laughs] A lot of people are scared of them, and they tend to have a stigma surrounding them. Has your view of bats changed since working with them?

J: Yeah, I’ve always thought bats were really cool. Definitely liked batman as a kid, still do. But even then, just going outside as kid and watching the bats catching mosquitos and stuff at night and in the evening hours, thought it was fascinating. Now its really that I’ve got more of a passion for them from a mammalogy class in college and le3arning about their evolutionary history and how bats are the most specious mammal, which means that they have the most species per order. So, there’s more bat species than rodents and carnivores and all of that. Also, too just that bats are the only mammal that has true flight, as well. So, they are kind of like their own part of Mammalia. They’re really cool and they do that a lot of really neat things throughout their range, which is everywhere but Antarctica.

A: I think, also, there’s a stigma around bats, for some people anyway. It can be pretty inaccurate and unfair. I’m not a bat expert, I have to say that. [laughs]

J: Neither am I. [laughs]

A: Some of the things I’ve learned about them from this project have really enlightened me, I think. My view on bats has definitely changed because of it. I used to be kind of wary of them, like a lot of people are. They weirded me out a little bit, but after seeing them all huddled together in the boxes, hearing them squeak [laughs], it kind of changed my mind slowly. They’re pretty neat. Like I said, Josh and I kind of mentioned it earlier, recently we were checking a box and we shined the light in there and they all started squeaking and, to me, it reminded me of when I was a teenager and my mom would come into my room and turn on the lights if I slept in too late, you know? [laughs] It kind of remined me of that and I was just like, oh its just a crabby bat. [laughs] Yeah, it was funny. They’re pretty cool.

S: Well, I’m glad you’ve had a change of heart when it comes to bats and learned to relate to them a little, and Josh, I’m glad this job has strengthened your interest in bats. Thank you both so much for sharing your experiences with the bat monitoring projects here at Voyageurs, it was a pleasure talking with you guys and hearing about your jobs.

J: Yeah, thank you for having us.

A: Thank you.

S: Alright, that wraps up our interview, thanks once again for the work you do, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in to this episode of “Science Snapshot”.

In this episode Sheridan speaks to seasonal wildlife techs Josh and Abby to learn about these incredible little mammals that inspire both awe and fear.

Science Snapshot: Forest Breeding Bird Surveys


*inspiring introductory music*

S: Hi and welcome to the Voyageurs National Park podcast miniseries “Science Snapshot”! My name is Sheridan Noll, and I’m a seasonal wildlife technician working in the park during the summer of 2021. In this miniseries, we’ll explore the different wildlife monitoring programs run by the park and speak with other technicians to gain insight into their jobs.

Voyageurs National Park is a fairly large park, encompassing about 218,000 acres of forests, rocky islands, tranquil wetlands, and large lakes. In order to monitor and protect all of the natural resources in this unique park, the National Park Service implements many different programs designed to keep an eye on the local flora and fauna. These programs range from wetland restoration to marsh bird surveys to bat box installation.

In this episode, we’ll talk with a friend and colleague of mine, Atlee Hargis, and dive into the world of forest breeding bird surveys. He’ll answer questions about the work he does and about his background as a wildlife technician.

But first, I invite you to take a trip with me.

Imagine you’ve just woken up from a good night’s rest. It’s early in the morning, about 5am, and the sun is just starting to send a few rays up above the horizon. You get dressed, fix some coffee, and head out to your car. The engine roars to life, and the headlights cut through the darkness as you drive to a forest on the southern side of Voyageurs National Park.

Spruces, red pines, maples, and aspens stand along either side of the road, and the tires of your car crunch in the gravel when you turn off of the main highway and make your way down a less travelled road. You glance down at your GPS to make sure you’re at the right spot before pulling off to the side of the road.

Once you arrive, you grab your clipboard, backpack, and bug net from the trunk and head out into the dusky woods. Mosquitos and flies hover near your ears, whispering tales of the damp forest. The leaves and pine needles on the forest floor crunch under your feet, and you carefully climb over a fallen log in your path. You look at the GPS in your hand; it’s taking you to a point about a half mile into the trees.

Soon you reach your destination, and it doesn’t take long to get your datasheet ready. You start your timer and begin listening to the dawn chorus. Birds flit in the trees above you and call from the underbrush, and your pencil scratches on the paper as you write down what species you hear and where they’re singing from.

Ten minutes later, the survey is complete, and on the page in front of you is a small snapshot into which breeding forest birds are in the area. You check your GPS, plug in the next point, and head out to repeat the process at another location.

This is similar to what Atlee Hargis would do when he did the FBBS for Voyageurs National Park, and I have him here today to talk about his work.

S: Hi Atlee, thank you so much for being here today, I’m really excited to talk about birds! Are you excited to talk about birds?

A: Sheridan, I’m always excited to talk about birds.

S: Alright, so to start off I’ll have you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your position here at Voyageurs National Park.

A: Sure. Well, my name is Atlee Hargis. I am a biological science technician here at Voyageurs. That’s a seasonal position that’s assigned with tasks relating to ongoing studies of the wildlife in the park. This includes the annual forest bird survey, as well as other wildlife related programs like marsh bird surveys, beaver trapping and tracking, and historical data analysis like that related to the bald eagle diet study from 2009 to 2012 conducted in the park. I also assist with other programs like air quality monitoring and vegetation surveys.

S: Wow, it sounds like you’re involved in a lot of different programs here at the park. Before we dive into the nitty gritty of the forest breeding bird survey itself, I’m curious as to what sparked your interest in the wildlife field?

A: Well, working with wildlife has been something I’ve had at the back of my mind my entire life, but it really kicked into gear during my time with the Conservation Corps. At a wildlife refuge in South Dakota, I saw dozens of species of birds at the height of their breeding season, ranging in size from the shorebirds to the mighty trumpeter swan. That variety excited me, and it has led to me pursuing the conservation and study of birds as a passion in both hobby and profession.

S: Wow, that sounds really incredible, I love hearing about the “origin stories” of other wildlife technicians because they vary so much. I know some of our listeners may be interested in getting into this field or doing work like this. There are a lot of different ways to become a wildlife tech, but can you explain how you got your start or what education or job experiences you had before coming here to work at Voyageurs?

A: Certainly. Well, I’ve made an effort to always be in a new place each season—sometimes more than one place—to maximize the diversity of my experience. That’s been true for the past four years. I’ve worked with the Conservation Corps in the Midwest, the BLM in Alaska, the Nature Conservancy in Georgia, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in South Carolina, Florida, and Hawaii, Utah State University in Nevada, and now the NPS in Minnesota. Much of my work has been related to either scientific study of wildlife, the management of their habitat, or the removal of invasive species. I’ve recently gained a significant amount of experience surveying for birds with both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

S: That’s really cool that you’ve had a lot of experiences with birds recently. It sounds like you’ve definitely had a lot of cool experiences in a lot of interesting places. That being said, what drew you to Voyageurs specifically for work?

A: The upper Midwest and in particular Voyageurs National Park is home to a diverse array of breeding birds. Many of them are not found elsewhere in the Midwest. Warblers in particular are prominent breeding birds in this area and the opportunity to work with and enjoy their presence was something that definitely stuck out to me. Additionally, as a park with a lot of ongoing studies, I believed I would have a diverse assortment of projects to work on that

would be fulfilling from a personal perspective as well as provide a great addition to my resume.

S: It sounds like this job was a good fit for you then, you’ve gotten to work on a lot of different projects including ones that involve warblers, which I know you’re interested in seeing. I want to dive into the Forest Breeding Bird Survey a little more, could you explain what it is and what it entails?

A: Of course! The Forest Breeding Bird Survey is an annual program that occurs from June into early July and involves the surveying of birds on defined routes in the park with the intent of capturing a snapshot of the species that are likely to be breeding in the park. It is overseen by an organization called the Great Lakes Monitoring Network. They’ll take the data that we collect this year and compile it with data from past years at Voyageurs as well as other National Park Service units in the Midwest region. This provides scientists and decision makers with info on how to figure out population trends, diversity of birds in the region, and where certain bird species are in this region.

S: Okay, so you mentioned that part of this study was to see what birds are breeding in the park. Can you give us a short list of some of the common birds that you saw while you were out in the field?

A: Sure. Certainly plenty of warblers, and occasionally things like a random female mallard in the middle of a forest. Sometimes you’d hear a common loon off in the distance, or maybe have a crow or a raven flying overhead, a flock of blue jays every now and then, and sometimes, strangely enough, marsh birds would show up in our survey points. There’s a lot of diversity, and you know, it’s interesting to at least see some of the abundance, certainly, in species like the red-eyed vireo which is pretty much everywhere here at Voyageurs.

S: That’s really interesting. I know you mentioned a mallard and some marsh birds. Those are typically not birds I would think you would find in the middle of a forest. Were there any other interesting or notable birds that you encountered?

A: Well, because the surveys take place in the middle of the nesting season, it’s always a treat to see those birds that are actually breeding successfully. An example of that occurred on my second to last survey when I heard what sounded like begging calls from just off the trail. I looked up to where they seemed to be emanating from to find a hole in a tree. Moments later, a yellow-bellied sapsucker landed on the tree and stuck its head into the hole, presumably to feed its nestlings. Like I mentioned before, that female mallard I found in the middle of the forest was a very interesting example. She flushed further up the trail, and I ended up running into her again on my way to the next point. Most people think of ducks as water birds, for good reason, but mallards in the boreal forest region actually utilize a more diverse assortment of habitats in the breeding season that those found in the prairie pothole region.

S: I gotcha. I’d imagine it’s hard to keep track of all those bird species you just mentioned. Did you face any challenges like that when doing this survey?

A: Well, the difficulties of bird surveying can be broken into two categories: the known and unknown. I know that I’ll be waking up pretty early in the morning and traveling to remote areas to conduct some of these surveys. I also know that there is likely to be a lot of annoying

wildlife like mosquitos and ticks. I usually know how the weather is going to turn out. What I don’t know is how bad those bugs are going to be, whether the weather forecast will be accurate, if the wind is going to pick up and make the birds harder to hear or go quiet. I don’t know exactly what kind of habitat my survey points are at until I get to them. Some will be on exposed rock outcroppings, others are down in the hardwood sloughs or at the edge of a bog. Dealing with these challenges is part and parcel of surveying for wildlife. Overcoming them is usually just a matter of preparation and perseverance. The biggest challenge is encountering a bird song or call that I can’t immediately identify. That usually requires referencing other material. That’s also why I try to record each survey point so I can go back and listen to the bird if I can’t figure it out in the field.

S: I think that’s a good use of technology and a creative way to deal with that challenge in the field. On the flip side of that, what was rewarding about this survey, or what was your favorite part about doing them?

A: For the most part I worked independently, planning and conducting that survey by myself. That proved to be a valuable new experience. Having to rely on my own ability to identify the birds, find my points, and endure those challenges is fortifying. Additionally, seeing the progress in my own knowledge of the birds, especially the warblers, grow over the past few months and culminating during the survey was reaffirming. It’s also humbling to be a part of a large-scale project that is happening all over the country with the goal of improving our knowledge of how and where we need to act to conserve the diversity of wild birds in the United States.

S: That sounds great, I’m glad you had that experience and were able to grow in your skills as a technician. Okay, now this may be an assumption, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m getting the feeling that you’re a fan of birds, would you agree?

A: That’s probably a safe bet, Sheridan.

S: I thought so. Since you like birds so much, why do you think monitoring bird species—particularly forest bird species—is important?

A: Well, it was recently determined that 25% of birds, 1 in every 4 individuals, for a total of about 3 billion birds, have been lost since 1970. Most people have probably heard about the Dodo or the Passenger Pigeon. Those species are almost regarded as stories rather than actual animals that used to be found in seemingly limitless quantities. Monitoring forest birds is important because it can help us to avoid turning more of those commonplace birds into fairytales and stories. As habitats are continuously fragmented and old-growth forests are cut down, the amount of space for certain species to breed becomes smaller and smaller. By counting them each year the idea is that we might be able to figure out which species need more specific study or which areas needs to be conserved to prevent the loss of that critical nesting and breeding habitat. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” may have dealt with a more immediate issue like pesticides, but the loss of habitat is just as probable of a cause for the annual spring migration of hundreds of bird species to become quieter and less diverse.

S: I agree with you, it’s discouraging to see the decline in bird populations but I’m glad that there’s people like you out there who are willing to put in the work to monitor the health

of bird populations and keep an eye on their habitats. On a lighter note, what is a misconception people might have about forest birds, and why is it untrue?

A: Well, when people think about birds it’s understandable to think of them in terms of where you find them. Ducks are in the water and songbirds are in the trees or grasses. Everything seems to have its own spot and that’s that. The reality is that a single tree can provide the ideal habitat for a half-dozen species. The Ruffed Grouse and White-throated Sparrow can feed on or near the base of the tree in its shaded cover, a Black-backed Woodpecker may nest low on the trunk or forage around the bottom limbs, a male Magnolia Warbler will sing from the midstory, trying to attract a mate, while a Blackburnian Warbler or Nashville Warbler forages in the canopy, barely visible from the ground. A passing American Crow or Bald Eagle might perch briefly in a prominent branch before continuing on its way. This is true for grasslands, marshes, and the water. That’s sort of the magic of evolution, each species figures out its niche and everyone can co-exist reasonably well.

S: I’ve honestly never thought of it that way, thanks for providing that insight to myself and our listeners. Speaking of our listeners, if there’s someone tuning into this podcast that wants to visit the park and see some of the forest birds that you’ve talked about, what would be the best time of year to visit? Do you have any other tips for birdwatchers who want to visit the park?

A: It of course depends on what they want to see, but if warblers are the target then April to May is probably the best time. The birds will be arriving in large numbers, singing males will be heard trying to attract mates and establish their territory, their feathers will be bright and clean after having just molted them before arriving. The weather will still be pleasant, and the mosquitoes and ticks will likely be less of an issue. Fortunately too, some of the best birding is in the most accessible places. The Oberhaltzer Trail at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center offers a great chance to see a variety of birds including warblers, woodpeckers, waterfowl, and maybe even some marsh birds. The Blind-Ash Bay Trail is also a good one, especially for warblers and some of the more elusive forest species, while also offering a nice view of Lake Kabetogama. All you really need is a good pair of binoculars and good boots. A camera can help to make identifying birds easier along with one of the popular guidebooks or even an app like Cornell Lab’s Merlin Bird ID.

S: That’s some good advice. I’ve been on some of those same trails myself and I’ve been able to see a good variety of bird species there. That’s all the questions I have for you, do you have anything you’d like to add or any last comments to make?

A: Well Sheridan, I just wanted to say it’s so fantastic of you to put together a project like this. I think it’s a really good showing of how the work we do is affecting the wildlife and how that ultimately affects the enjoyment of the national parks that we manage for the wildlife and the public.

S: Thanks, that’s really nice of you. And once again thanks for talking with me about forest birds, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in to this episode of “Scientist Snapshot”.

*inspiring music that fades into silence*

In this episode, Sheridan will talk with friend and colleague, Atlee Hargis, and dive into the world of forest breeding bird surveys.

Want to learn more about long-term monitoring efforts at Voyageurs and other National Parks in the great lakes region? Check out