I know what you tagged last summer…

11 02 2014

It’s been a few weeks now since I made it back from a winter trip to Sable… but first here’s a little catchup on our August trip in 2013.

In full bloom, a species of sorrel gives colour to the ponds.

Continuing with her Master’s thesis work, Zoe was anxious to get back to Sable and resume her tracking of Ipswich Sparrows.  She’s studying the timing and routes of Ipswich migrations from the island to the mainland.  Our goal this trip was to deploy 64 miniature radio-tags, half on adult sparrows and the others on juveniles, to compare the migration strategies between experienced and first time migrants.  Same drill as last year but this time more automated receiver towers are scattered along the Nova Scotia coastline and the Gulf of Maine so we can better track their movements.

Holly takes notes while Zoe measures, bands and deploys a radio tag on an Ipswich Sparrow.

Holly takes notes while Zoe measures, bands and deploys a radio tag on an Ipswich Sparrow.

During the middle of a sparrow catching and banding session, a group of horses wandered by to check out what we were up to.

A group of horses wandered by during the middle of a sparrow tagging session.

Over the past two years, Zoe has become a master at catching, tagging and banding Ipswich Sparrows.  That means it’s my turn to be the assistant so I stay out of the way and do what I’m told!  We also brought Holly, her first trip to Sable, and Sarah, a veteran of winter trips but her first summer visit to the island.  She was pleased to see that winter balaclavas are replaced with tank tops during summers on Sable.

Sometimes while catching sparrows our mist-nets catch other birds.  Side-by-side with an juvenile Ipswich is a female Yellow Warbler.  During August and September Sable acts acts like a big net "catching" all sorts of vagrant song birds.

Sometimes while catching sparrows our mist-nets catch other birds. Side-by-side with an juvenile Ipswich is a female Yellow Warbler. During August and September Sable acts like a big net “catching” many species of migrant song birds.

Sarah releasing a Semipalmated Plover after it was caught in our mist-nets.  During the fall several species of shorebirds can be found on the island.

Sarah releasing a Semipalmated Plover after it was caught in our mist-nets.

Just another day at the office on Sable Island.  We checked on our automated receiver stations, deployed some radio-tags on Great Black-backed Gulls, and counted terns at the tips of the island.  Oh, and of course we deployed all our Ipswich radio-tags…well all but one which wouldn’t turn on.

Since the installation of our receiver station in June the horses have been using our rig extensively as a scratching post.  The buggers even snapped some of our cables.  Repaired in August, this station recorded the departures of Ipswich leaving the island through the fall.

Since the installation of this radio-tag receiver station in June, the horses have been using our rig as a scratching post.  The buggers even snapped some of our cables. Repaired in August, this station recorded the departures of Ipswich leaving the island through the fall.

As always the trip was fun and awe inspiring, but this time a little bitter sweet too.  Since our project is wrapping up this year, this was our last major field trip to tag birds on the island.  Now it’s time to sit at the computers all winter crunching numbers and writing up results.  In time I’ll start posting some results of our work on this blog so stay tuned.  And there’s always hope for some follow-up studies that might bring us back here next year!

In the mean time, here are a few more of my favourite pictures from the summer season.

Rob Ronconi

Halifax, NS

Near the west tip of the island Harbour Seals dusted with sand lounge near the water's edge.  Photo: Sarah Wong

Near the west tip of the island Harbour Seals dusted with sand lounge near the water’s edge. Photo: Sarah Wong

Heath vegetation covers only 10% of Sable but creates amazing habitat for birds and a nice purple hew when in bloom.

Heath vegetation covers only 10% of Sable but creates amazing habitat for birds and a nice purple hew when in bloom.

One day in August the south beach surf line was littered with tiny little sea stars smaller than dimes.

One day in August the south beach surf line was littered with tiny little sea stars smaller than dimes.

Aerial view of some horses drinking form the freshwater ponds.  Horse trails criss-cross the island along their favourite routes.

Aerial view of some horses drinking form the freshwater ponds. Horse trails criss-cross the island along their favourite routes.

Horses drinking from the ocean?  Apparently when they're thirsty enough, Sable horses will even drink from the "big pond".  Maybe this makes up for a lack of salt licks.

Horses drinking from the ocean? Apparently when they’re thirsty enough, Sable horses will even drink from the “big pond”. Maybe this makes up for a lack of salt licks.

The crew takes a break at the top of bald dune.

The crew takes a break at the top of bald dune.

A sperm whale washed up last winter is still working through the stages of decomposition.  Now a pile of flesh near the head and pile of bones towards the tail.  Check out last winter's photos to see how much has changed in 8 months.

A sperm whale washed up last winter is still working through the stages of decomposition. Now just some rotting flesh near the head and a pile of bones towards the tail. Check out last winter’s photos to see how much has changed in 8 months.

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Seasons of Colour on Sable

20 05 2013

Throughout this project I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure to visit Sable several times and during different seasons.  We’ve been there in May and June for the spring nesting season of gulls and terns, in August to work with Ipswich sparrows before their fall migrations, and in January to download data from our tracking receivers.  Each season seems to have its own mood and colours.  White is the colour of winter with blowing snow, heaping seas and thousands of white coated seal pups.  The spring skies are grey with seemingly perpetual fog when the warm(ish) air blankets the still cold ocean, but a little bit of green starts to poke out as the vegetation comes back to life.  By mid summer Sable Island takes on its lush green grass, blue skies, and golden sand, speckled with flowers of yellow, purple and red.

In preparation for upcoming fieldwork, this year we had a short trip to the island in late March which can only be described as brown; from east to west, winter has sucked the colour from all the vegetation which blankets the brown sand dunes, accented only by brown horses.  As harsh as this sounds, the island somehow retains its beauty through all its seasons and colours.

After winter storms of rain and snow, freshwater ponds on the island are full.

After winter storms of rain and snow, freshwater ponds on the island are full.

The horses are a constant but the other wildlife of Sable come and go with the seasons.  March is well past the pupping season for seals and too soon for breeding birds.  But during our visit there were still plenty of gulls throughout the island.  Some have probably been there all winter and others are returning in anticipation of their breeding season.  Herring Gulls and Iceland Gulls were in the minority and Great Black-back Gulls rule the island at this time of year.  Through our travels over two days that covered only about half of the island’s shoreline, I counted almost 800 Great Black-backed Gulls.  We spotted one with a turquoise wing-tag (tagged January 2012) and one with a green wing-tag (tagged May 2012), so the Black-backs on the island in March are probably a mixture of the winter and summer populations.  No sign of the pink-tagged Herring Gulls.

Great Black-backed Gulls gather around the freshwater ponds.  This mound is a popular roosting and preening spot later in the summer.

Great Black-backed Gulls gather around the freshwater ponds. This mound is a popular roosting and preening spot later in the summer.

Late March brings the early signs of spring to Sable when the breeding Great Black-backed Gulls start to return for their nesting season in May.  As I write this, me and our Acadia crew are anxiously awaiting our return to Sable so we can start our research again.  Our flight has been delayed 5 days (and counting) due to the usual suspects of wind, rain, fog, low clouds, and a flooded runway.  Gulls have it easy when it comes to getting off and on Sable Island.  We wait.

Rob Ronconi

Halifax, NS

An Ipswich Sparrow perched on the top of a whale bone.  Ipswich usually migrate back to Sable Island in April but some spend their whole winter on the island.

An Ipswich Sparrow perched on the top of a whale bone. Ipswich usually migrate back to Sable Island in April but some spend the winter on the island.

A horse yawns...maybe tired from the long winter.

A horse yawns…maybe tired from the long winter.