Guest Blog by Emma Burke: My field field experience

Emma Burke banding a Savannah Sparrow nestling.
Emma banding a Savannah Sparrow nestling.

              In the summer of 2019 I had the privilege of doing an internship in the field fresh out of my first year of college. I am an Environmental Studies major and I have always wanted to try out field work to see if I liked it. Prior to this I had never lived completely on my own and had almost no idea of what to expect, which made it really exciting and helped mask any apprehension that I felt.

              Because I love camping, I was so pumped to camp for the first 2 weeks on the job before moving into my apartment at the beginning of June. Little did I know how difficult it would be camping while also working full time in the field. It was May when we started so it was still pretty cold and wet at night and in the morning. This spring apparently was much rainier than most, as illustrated when I arrived at the campsite and set my tent up in record time before it down-poured and thundered the first night. We would get out of a long day in the field but not really have a comfy place to crash and relax. Though hard on the body, camping helped bring the birding team close together. We had some great afternoons together chatting, playing cards and making dinner with what we had. I was the youngest on the team, so everyday of the 8 weeks I was in Vermont I was learning something new from my coworkers who were all extremely supportive.

              The first week was by far the most difficult. The only thing I knew for sure was the time I had to wake up: 3am. There was a lot I did not know on the first day: what did Shelbourne Farms look like? Would I be able to find any birds? What would the work day be like? When we arrived on the first day, I still did not know what it looked like because it was dark for the first few hours before the sun rose. We spent the first part of the day stumbling around in the dark setting up the mist-nets. Everyone on the team was very helpful in teaching us how to set up and take down nets. Most of the job was learning by doing and making mistakes on your own. On the first day one of the guys on our team, Tom, took me aside and took me step by step how to extract a bird from a mist-net, which was incredibly helpful. There are few things in this world that I have experienced as exhilarating as seeing a bird caught in a net from across the field and sprinting through the tall grass trying not to trip and finally extracting it and bringing it over to be “processed.”

              Some of the tasks that we were responsible for seemed impossible at first. For example, Emma White, the grad student working with Noah, mentioned “resighting” and identifying the color and metal bands on a bird’s legs from far away. This seemed impossible, as bird bands are tiny as it is and birds can fly very fast. However, as the weeks went on, I figured out the best times to catch a glimpse of their legs, las they were landing and when they were perched in the trees or on grass. Eventually, I found resighting to be very enjoyable and interesting and it helped individualize the birds in my head (though at sometimes maddening when the birds wouldn’t cooperate and let us look at their legs.)

              Another task we were given was nest searching in the tall grass. Throughout the entirety of my time in Vermont, it was a whole different story. It was always a challenge for me. I would identify “nesty” behaviors of a female bird and search in the grass, but it was always so difficult for me to narrow down the exact spot the female bird had the nest. It was so discouraging and always seemed near impossible to find a tiny nest in grass that was up to my shoulders at some times. I always preferred to resight birds over nest searching.

              One great thing about field work and this internship was that no two days were exactly the same. One day I might be off the farm resighting other fields to try and gauge if any of the birds born on Shelburne Farms came back to a field other than the fields on Shelburne Farms. Other days I might be on Shelburne Farms. On a typical day I might be banding chicks or nest searching, resighting or setting up nets and trying to catch “birthday birds” that had been born and banded on Shelburne Farms the previous year.

              You learn so much about yourself while working in the field, as you have plenty of time alone with your thoughts while scanning the field for activity. For one, I learned that I am not a morning person. It was very hard to get myself motivated in the mornings when it was dark, wet and cold before the sun had risen and I felt homesick and discouraged. But as it warmed up, it was a lot easier to be motivated and tenacious in my work. The amazing thing about this kind of work was that the birds don’t care if we are hot, tired, or if it’s pouring and thundering out; they will continue to go about their day, meaning we have to continue monitoring, studying and collecting data. Though difficult at times, I gained really valuable experience and I can’t wait to try different kinds of field work in the future.