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Julia holding a male painted bunting.

Julia holds a male painted bunting on Bald Head Island.

Have you ever been yelled at by a Painted Bunting or dive bombed by an angry Least Tern? This summer I had the opportunity to experience both of those things first hand—and for .54 and 1.5 ounces respectively those birds can tell you exactly what they think about your presence.

I spent my summer working as a research technician for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences studying the painted buntings on Bald Head Island. My job included capturing and banding the buntings, taking measurements, attaching transmitters, and subsequently tracking a few of the individual birds. While doing so, I had the opportunity to learn proper techniques for handling, banding, and taking measurements on the buntings. I observed what they do on their normal routines and learned the benefits of being .54 ounces and sporting wings while traveling through the dense maritime forest.

The goal of the project is to estimate the population size of the buntings on Bald Head Island in order to extrapolate the size of the eastern populations of buntings as a whole. The buntings will then be used as an indicator species of habitat fragmentation and overall habitat quality in the eastern maritime forests.

Bald Head Island is believed to have the largest population of buntings on the East Coast. They travel as far north as Morehead City in the summertime to breed and down to Mexico and Puerto Rico in the winter. Many people travel to the island in the hopes of spotting one of the elusive buntings. The birds have a distinctive call and bright plumage but are very fast and can be hard to spot. During the time that I was on the island the birds were in mid-breeding season and at dawn and dusk the bright red, blue and green colored males do a mating dance on the road, with the olive green females watching.

While working on Bald Head Island the Painted Bunting Ornithological Team—or PBOTS—stayed at the nature conservancy on the island. Since we were staying with the conservancy, I participated in some of the events that the staff and interns lead on the island. I helped to lead birding tours in which we traveled around the island to different types of habitat and identified many species for the public to observe. While on the tours I was able to give a short presentation about the buntings and what the project entailed and then pointed out any bunting I spotted while on the tour.  This experience allowed me to improve my knowledge of birds and ability to spot birds quickly as well as gaining experience educating the public. The experiences working with the public helped me solidify my desire to work in an educational capacity as well as a field that allows me to do research in the natural world.

Julia follows tagged bun

The project involved telemetry work on select buntings. These buntings had transmitter backpacks. Each bird had its own frequency and we would track the signal with the antennas in order to find and then record the buntings’ location on the island.

To successfully do research on painted buntings you must be able to speak their language. You had to know basic information about them including their songs, when they like to feed, and what they eat, but you also learn to recognize the more subtle things about them. For example, we had a female bunting with a transmitter who was not yet sitting on a nest, but was in the process of building one. We learned that she was building her nest in a tree on the edge of the golf course and that when she was in the woods across the street she was gathering nest material. She also would fly across the golf course and feed on the grass seed and grasshoppers there. An adult male that we were tracking had a much broader range. While the birds do have behavioral patterns that are followed by the population as a whole, there are behaviors and appearances that make each bird unique.

Imagine literally walking on eggshells—or in our case being very careful not to—scanning for tern nests all the while getting dive bombed by angry mama terns when you get close to a nest. Working with the conservancy also allowed me to work with the conservation interns and get broader experiences in the wildlife field. We found and photographed as many nests as we could and then staked and roped off the area to protect the nests and parents. In addition, we responded to calls about stranded or injured wildlife. If we could not treat it on Bald Head, someone would take it to the bird rehabilitation center on Oak Island. All of the extra opportunities helped to broaden my learning experience.

Overall, I found this learning experience exceptional. I learned a great deal about the coastal environment I was living in. I learned from a great role model and mentor. She spent a great deal of time working with and teaching me, but she also encouraged me to work independently. I also made great connections and was able to spend time with a group of students who all share similar interests in nature, but each have their own perspective on how best to help protect our natural world. My experiences this summer in both research and public education solidified my future career goals. I hope to have a career that allows me to do research in the field, but also allows me to work with the public to advocate for and teach about some of the wonders of our natural world.