Undergraduates study swallow colony on base

Several miles north of JBER’s military gates you can find a small body of water tucked away, called Otter Lake. This lake almost felt like a military secret kept away from your average Anchorage resident. For a few undergraduate students, however, being out at Otter Lake was just another day at the office.


After driving past JBER’s stretch of monotonous military buildings, you will eventually start to see warehouses and compounds surrounded by military vehicles and men in uniform. Being a civilian, it felt like I was trespassing. By the time we hit the treeline where concrete turned to dirt, it definitely felt like I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been. A narrow road with only enough room for one car, a convenient parking spot, and a short stroll through mosquito territory later, we had arrived.


The scenery may have just been typical Alaska to some, but it was tranquil. At this point, I had almost forgotten we were within the boundaries of a military base, if not for the roaring jet planes flying over head. Despite the sound barrier breaking above us, the birds didn’t seem to mind.


The field technicians had set up 150 nesting boxes since the start of their collaborative research project with U.S. Fish and Wildlife services four years ago. Since then, it has encouraged the movement and nesting of tree swallows in the area and allowed the field technicians to properly gather data.

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Being in uncharted territory, literately and figuratively, I tried my best to stay low, quiet and out of the way. To capture a swallow the field technicians would first verify the presence of a nest and either eggs or hatchlings in a box. After confirming swallows would have a reason to visit a box, the field techs would rig the entrance with a small piece of cardboard and a stick then we would sit afar until the trap sprung.


Sometimes the wait hovers around an hour, but luckily within 15 minutes, a female tree swallow had entered Box 109 to check up on her eggs. Setting off the cardboard trap gave field technician Andi Parrott the heads up to go collect the trapped tree swallow.


With careful hands, Parrott took the bird from her nesting box and walked the swallow over to the banding station where they band birds and log their physical data like weight and length measurements.


While most of the female swallows had been caught and banded earlier in the nesting season, Rachel Gingras, an undergraduate student and lead field technician of the project, was able to show us the process with a freshly captured male swallow.


Typically when a female swallow is caught, the male mate usually acknowledges his partner’s absence and is inclined to check on the nest. Knowing this, the field techs can reset the trap and wait for the male to enter the nesting box. Though it doesn’t always guarantee the next swallow to fly in is going to be the male partner, males can usually be recognized by their bluer hues.


Taking it a step further to confirm the gender, Parrott flipped the swallow on its back and blew on it’s belly. Doing this would show how much exposed abdomen was present on the swallow. A female swallow would have a large area of exposed abdomen that allows her to better transfer heat to her eggs when incubating. While some males occasionally partake in the incubating process they do not have that much of an exposed abdomen compared to females. Sure enough, this one was a male.


Being a first time catch for this male swallow, Rachel carefully placed a numbered band on the bird so that they could collect and catalog data.


Taking measurements like beak length, wing span and weight help the field technicians get a better grasp on the tree swallow colony’s general health.


Despite the occasional cardboard traps and roaring fighter jets, the tree swallow population at Otter Lake has been growing since the start of the project four years ago. It seems like the tree swallows figured it wasn’t such a bad place to live and for the field technicians, it seems like its a pretty cool place to work.