Undergraduates study swallow colony on base

UAA undergraduate and field technician Andi Parrott carefully holds a male tree swallow.
Males are usually recognized by their bluer hues, but gender is more distinctly identified by the amount of exposed belly on the bird. Photo credit: Jay Guzman

This summer several UAA undergraduates have taken their education off campus to on base at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s Otter Lake to study tree swallows. Environmental studies professor Audrey Taylor has been a part of a collaborative research project on swallows with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services since 2013. For the past four years, 10 undergraduate students like Rachel Gingras, natural science major with an emphasis on environmental science, have been working in the field collecting data on swallows. Gingras is the lead field technician for the project this summer, and she said the opportunity to work outside has been awesome.

“It’s my first job in the summer working outside… even on days like this where it’s just overcast, it’s really nice being outside and being in nature and watching these birds and their behavior. It’s been a really cool learning experience for sure,” Gingras said.

Over the past few summers, Taylor has kept the project in action through Faculty Development Grant funding, and Taylor said this research opportunity is important to an undergraduate’s career development.

Andi Parrott catches a female tree swallow visiting her nest after rigging the box hole with a small piece of cardboard. Photo credit: Jay Guzman

“I cannot overstate the importance of undergraduate research in opening students’ eyes to the possibility of a career as a scientist,” Taylor said in an email. “Many students are only vaguely aware of what researchers actually do, or of the role they play in management, conservation or policy setting activities, until they actually get their hands dirty on a research project. I think being involved in research as an undergraduate also teaches valuable life skills such as striving for accuracy and precision, setting goals and protocols for achieving them, and problem solving on the fly.”

Before applying for the research position, Gingras said she knew nothing about swallows. Now, after two months of observing and banding the birds, Gingras can tell you all about their nesting habits.

“It’s our fourth year of having birds in these boxes and the numbers of birds we get back each year keeps increasing,” Gingras said. “We kind of joke around like the word spreads it’s a good place to nest so each year there’s been a larger and larger number of boxes being used.”

Natural sciences major with an emphasis on environmental science, Andi Parrott, is also a field technician at the swallow colony. Parrott said she has enjoyed working with the swallows.

Rachel Gingras, lead field technician of the environmental studies project, bands the newly caught male tree swallow. Each band is carefully placed on a swallow, then logged into a data sheet to keep track of revisiting swallows throughout the years. Photo credit: Jay Guzman
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“I really like it first of all…I don’t think there’s a lot of talk about undergraduate research, so it’s really fortunate that Dr. Taylor was able to voice this in a class and have students know this is happening,” Parrot said.

On an average day this summer two of the field technicians will drive to Otter Lake on base at JBER to trap and band swallows. Around Otter Lake, there are 150 boxes that the swallows use for their nests. It is the job of the field technicians to catch the parents by trapping them in the box. To do this, they prop up a piece of cardboard wrapped in duct tape against the inside of the box. When the parent enters the box through a hole on the side to check up on their eggs or hatchlings, the stick will fall and the parent will be stuck.

That’s when Parrott or another field technician will walk from the spot they were observing to grab the parent and take the bird to a banding station. At the banding station the technicians will weigh the swallow, measure and examine the wings for damage, and eventually put a small silver band on the left leg of newly caught swallows. At this point in the summer, Gingras said they’ve caught most of the female swallows and now their focus is on banding males and hatchlings.

Catching the male is a more tedious process. The field technicians have to catch the female first in order to make the male more interested in checking on the eggs or hatchlings.

Field technician Johah Rothleder observes the area around the tree swallows’ nesting boxes near Otter Lake. Photo credit: Jay Guzman

“Sometimes when we are catching the males, if we throw a white feather into the air, the males will come in and try to grab it and take it back to their nest because they kind of bring these feathers to the females to say, ‘Hey I got this for you, here’s this big white, fluffy feather,’” Gingras said.

The field technicians are waiting not just to catch males, but they’re also waiting for nests to hatch or fledge. Gingras collects data on hatch dates for swallows and when they first begin to fly on their own. Once the swallows are 10 days old Gingras starts trying to band them, but banding chicks has to be down on clear days because the chicks are less able to regulate their body temperature.

The research on the swallow colony started as an outgrowth of the Golondrinas de las Americas, Swallows of the Americas, project fun out of Cornell University. Taylor said the research has the possibility of answering many questions about migratory songbirds and their responses to a changing environment in Alaska. This year, 30 geolocators were put on swallows at Otter Lake, and Taylor is hoping to recover those tags in 2018 to learn where the swallows migrate over the winter season.