A New Generation of “Digital Ornithologists”

By Abby McBride

Students doing field work; sketches by Abby McBride

It was Friday morning in a forest of upstate New York, and Cornell undergraduates Hilary Yu and Jen Goforth had been craning their necks for half an hour, eyes glued on a well-hidden Scarlet Tanager nest. They held a high-definition camera at the ready, though the tanager parents had gone foraging and the nestlings were tucked away out of sight. At one point, “I saw something, a shape, come down,” Yu said. “But I thought it was just a leaf falling.”

Male Scarlet Tanager by Hilary Yu.

Finally the parents returned—a brilliant red male with black wings, and a female of subdued green. But oddly, neither of them flew to the nest. The female just flitted lower and lower to the ground, chirping all the while.

A little gray fluffball appeared out of nowhere and began streaking across the leaf litter. It was a Scarlet Tanager fledgling: a disheveled, half-grown bird whose oversized bill gave it a comically reproachful expression. It had hatched only about 10 days before.

Scarlet Tanager fledgling by Hilary Yu.

The newly liberated fledgling ran and fluttered along the forest floor with its parents trailing behind and the camera-toting students in hot pursuit. Taking care not to come too close, they just barely managed to keep track of the cryptic little figure. “We almost lost it twice,” Yu said.

Finally the runaway came to a halt and the students could carry out their mission: collecting a professional-quality digital record of the fledgling’s first few hours outside the nest. Quickly setting up their camera—borrowed from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab—they captured clip after clip of footage, including the following seldom-seen moment in the lives of tanagers.

Yu, a sophomore from California, and Goforth, a senior from Kansas, are ornithologists-in-training in a program called Cornell Expeditions in Field Ornithology, founded last fall by Dr. David Winkler of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. This summer they and several other students braved bugs, heat, and poison ivy to spend hours every day in the forest, studying Scarlet Tanagers and other members of the cardinal family.

Collecting data on these colorful birds has taught the students many age-old techniques of field ornithology—and some cutting-edge research skills, too. The tools of their trade include not only binoculars, mist-nets, and banding pliers but also digital cameras, recorders, and microphones.  As Winkler puts it, these students represent the first generation of “digital ornithologists”—with tools at their disposal that didn’t exist when he and his colleagues were being trained.

Digital recordings—and the computing power to store and organize them—have only recently become commonplace in fieldwork. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and a single video or audio clip, like the movie of the hungry fledgling, is packed with information. Scientists and nonscientists alike can watch, listen to, and learn from such events, which they might never experience firsthand.

Armed with digital equipment, the students are doing more than just recording data. Rising sophomore Eric Gulson of Veracruz, Mexico, noticed that the Scarlet Tanager fledgling was making an interesting veer sound, similar to the call of a Veery (listen to a Veery call). He recorded the call and found that it has not yet been described in the authoritative Birds of North America Online [update 2/8/22: Birds of North America Online is now part of Birds of the World], nor is it part of the Macaulay Library’s audio collection. The group also recorded the calls of a nesting female tanager, another new find for the Library.

Gulson’s recording of the veer call.

The budding biologists are getting a summer of well-rounded training. They have been up to all sorts of exploits in field ornithology—both traditional and digital—many of which they have written about on their blog. Earlier in the season, the group devised a way to hoist mist nets 50 feet into the canopy, in an attempt to capture and band the high-flying tanagers. With the help of climbing experts from Cornell Outdoor Education, the students even learned to climb into the treetops—cameras in tow—to photograph nests.

Several members of the group were lucky enough to go on a field research trip to Borneo, where they have been exercising the same digital and field skills on the other side of the world.

Now that the breeding season is winding down in upstate New York, the students have been curating their multimedia—which includes dozens of audio recordings, nearly 100 videos, and hundreds of photographs—and organizing all of the data they’ve collected. They have also been writing standard operating procedures so that new students can pick up the research next year.

Not bad for a group of students with little to no previous experience in field research. “Some of these kids had never looked for a nest before,” says Emma Greig, a postdoctoral researcher in the Macaulay Library who has been supervising the group. But over the course of the summer the students have switched over from learning new skills to working independently. “They’ve really become self-sufficient,” Greig says. The young digital ornithologists are nearly ready to strike out on their own.

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