Friday, July 6, 2012

Always Check Your Batteries

My nephew (a budding birder) is a huge fan of the Madagascar films so I'm sure if he was to see the title of this most recent post, he would be laughing. I on the other hand was not laughing at the start of our second survey for the Marsh Monitoring Program (MMP).

This was our second year of participating in the program that was started in 1995 to aid the conservation and rehabilitation of marshes in the United States and Canada. Last year, Jean and I surveyed our assigned marsh for birds only (there is also an amphibian survey). Unfortunately, we did not record any focal species.

For the marsh bird survey, 2 visits are required between May 20 and July 5. Though it was not necessary, we were able to add a third visit during the 2011 survey. This year, our first visit was delayed until the weather was favourable for the bird survey. In May and early June, each day I woke up early to attempt a visit to the Barnesdale Marsh, temperatures below 16 degrees Celsius along with rain and moderate breezes had me rescheduling our count.

On June 16, we were finally graced with a warm, dry day. The marsh can be described as "tiny" (between 1.5 and 2.5 hectares).

Our route consisted of only 1 sample station and during the first 15 minute marsh bird survey, no bitterns, rails, coots, moorhens, sora or Pied-billed Grebes were recorded.

The surveys must be conducted at least 10 days apart so it seemed reasonable to attempt our second survey on one of the days during the Canada Day long weekend. If the first day was not favourable, then one of the next 2 days could be used as a back-up. The morning of June 30 was perfect. The temperature was 25 degrees and there had been no rain for days.

As Jean and I walked down the embankment towards the focal point, the call of a focal species was heard. It was the "kid-dik" call of a Virginia Rail. The rail was well hidden in the dense cattails but there was no doubt that it was close and well within the 100 metre semi-circular sample area. The bird uttered its call 2 more times as I set up the boom box to play the broadcast CD. The disc has a 15 minute running time with prompts to indicate different components of the survey. I turned on the player and pressed play. No double tone to mark the start of the survey and the display screen was blank. The batteries were dead! I had left the player on after completing the first survey.

I rushed off to the nearest variety store, uncertain that there would be the required amount of batteries on the shelf. Luckily, there were sufficient packages and I was back at Richardson's Creek with plenty of time remaining before the 10:00 am cut-off. A minor hiccup. During my absence the Virginia Rail continued to call.

With the batteries replaced, we started the survey and Jean began observing the birds as I assisted to the best of my ability (paperwork). The Virginia Rail did not call during the first 5-minute passive observation period nor did it respond to the pig-like grunts of the rail played during the 7 to 8 minute section of the survey. Secondary species observed within the area included Red-winged Blackbird (4), American Robin (2), Northern Cardinal (1) and American Goldfinch (1). At the end of the survey, I made certain to turn the boom box off before we returned to our vehicle.

The Virginia Rail does get an honourable mention though. There is a column for marking focal species observed "before/after survey period" so it was gratifying to be able to place a pencil-mark in the "Focal Species" section of the survey (it was also a first for our Niagara list). Hopefully this can be bested next year by obtaining a response during the playback period. As for the batteries, they will be checked before and after each of the surveys as suggested in the MMP Participant's Handbook. Or, I should just remember to turn the boom box off.