June 20, 2016

A day in the life of a National Park Service biotech


It’s a slightly overcast Wednesday afternoon, and National Park Service lead biological science technician William Thompson is stepping into his remarkably clean truck, navigating the big pools of waters that have amassed at Ramp 43, and is heading out to Cape Point to check on the day’s birding activity.

And this time of year, when the nesting season is arguably at its peak, there’s definitely a lot to see. 

45 least terns, who are closely monitoring a collective 53 eggs and 23 chicks, have set up a colony in the heart of The Point closure, and are fully engaged in everyday bird behavior – resting on hidden nests, preening themselves, and scoping out the horizon for any would-be predators.

And as the birds are checking their surroundings to make sure their “safety in numbers” strategy is working, Thompson is also watching through the eyes of a “spotting scope” -- or telescope -- and from a distance of roughly 150 meters away.
It’s a task that is completed routinely by Thompson and the 12 full-time and part-time biological science technicians, or “biotechs,” he supervises, and at this time of year, it occurs at least twice a day.

The role of a biotech is, essentially, to observe. And Thompson’s team of biotechs go out for roughly an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon to conduct daily surveys of the bird activity within the boundaries of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore's Hatteras District, which covers Ramp 30 to Hatteras Inlet.

Armed with a telescope, a pair of binoculars, a GPS unit, and something to write on, they keep track of new developments and behaviors to get a sense of what, essentially, is going on in the local bird community. “Every day, we’re watching so we can tell the story of what’s happening,” explains Thompson. 

And while on the surface it may appear to the untrained eye that what the biotechs are watching are just birds doing traditional bird things, with a little guidance of an expert, the complete story starts to unfold.

On this particular Wednesday afternoon, a trio of oystercatchers are casually hanging out around the edge of the closure. As Thompson stops to answer a beach-goer’s question on what’s happening within the closed area, the trio meander around, seemingly enjoying another day on the beach.

But the real story behind this ménage à trois of oystercatchers is a lot more lurid that one would expect. 

“I know these [birds] really well,” says Thompson, after finishing up his conversation. “This is a pair that nested this year at Cape Point, and up until June 13, they had chicks. At that point, the chicks weren’t identified anymore and were signed off as lost… and this is indirectly due to that third oystercatcher that’s there right now.”

Apparently, the third oystercatcher is, in fact, a homewrecker of sorts, and he has latched onto the pair in a dedicated attempt to steal away a mate after losing his own partner at Ramp 38. On a larger scale, this is part of a domino effect that started with the loss of an oystercatcher several weeks ago to a predator. After that happened, this initial oystercatcher’s partner moved on and stole another bird’s mate, who in turn came south to The Point to bother this current couple.

And at some point soon after the interloper’s arrival, the couple lost their chicks. 

“The pair wasn’t paying attention to the chicks,” says Thompson. “XW, [the name given to the interloper based on his band], wasn’t a direct cause, but at some point while the chicks were unsupervised, they were preyed upon by something.”

Thompson also adds that there is still time to re-nest if the pair is so inclined, but one imagines that nesting and breeding may be awfully hard to do with an uninvited third party that’s constantly tagging along.

“They’re definitely trying to figure out who’s the boss here,” says Thompson.

This lone sighting is just one of the stories that biotechs uncover and outline on a daily basis. By heading to the closure sites and watching the behavior, not only can they pinpoint when a closure should be expanded or even closed, but they also create a database of information that can be instrumental in the years to come. 

“All of the data that we collect this year is extremely helpful,” says Thompson. “It helps us determine where we put the closures next year, and it allows us to cross-reference the historical data with what we’re seeing real time.”

And after seven seasons with the Hatteras District, Thompson attests that the activity and habits of the nesting birds changes every year. Weather, flooding, environmental conditions, and unexpected events, such as the unusual re-pairing of the oystercatchers, all play a role in where the birds nest, the success of the chicks, and the length and placement of the closures.

A slightly submerged metal cage in the barely inland region portion of Cape Point serves as a current reminder of the effects that unusual weather can have. Per federal regulations, when there is a “full clutch” of plover chicks -- which includes the sighting of four chicks and the supervision of one adult -- the NPS puts a sturdy but versatile cage over the nesting area so that the plovers can easily go in and out, but the potential predators can’t reach the newly hatched birds.

This cage was installed after such a sighting, but by June 6 – when the area was under 18 inches of water after two coastal storms – the nest was clearly abandoned and the cage was no longer useful. 

The piping plover activity is not diminished in the region, however. And a view from the telescope reveals that there’s still at least one plover in the area on this particular afternoon that has no trouble preening and hanging out with the local tern crowd.

And while it may seem on the surface that all a biotech has to do is sit back and find a good vantage point of the local colonies or nests, it’s a much more involved process than just admiring the view. 

Thompson’s team of biotechs traditionally have a bachelor's degree in biology, and if they’re new to the area, they go through an in-depth crash course on the different species that frequent the region, as well as the environment itself. From there, they head out to conduct surveys with an established supervisor to make sure they are on the right track, and adhere to a delicate balance of finding a vantage point that has a good perspective of the nests, while keeping a safe distance. 

The biotechs do two “walk-throughs” of a nesting area per year, so they can accurately identify the number of nests, birds, and chicks, but otherwise, they do their very best to stay in the background and not interrupt the activity
“We also try to double up our tasks so we’re not in the closure all the time,” says Thompson. “So, for example, we’ll combine turtle patrol and bird surveys.”

“Only when we see breeding activity do we approach to do a GPS of the scrape, [or potential nesting site] to ensure that we’re in compliance with the buffers. Otherwise, we keep as much distance as possible.”

Proving the point, Thompson steps into the closure a little further and sets up the telescope to keep an eye on the big tern colony that’s stationed a good 150 meters away. From this distance, the view to the naked eye looks simply like a cluster of birds, but through the eye of the lens, the assortment of different types of terns, skimmers, and even a plover or two, is abundantly clear.

This is the largest colony of terns in the Hatteras District, and the terns have a story of their own too – which boils down to a unified philosophy of “safety in numbers.”

According to Thompson, if you get too close to the colony, the terns will respond in kind by taking to the skies and swooping down to eye level to give you a threatening shock, a la Alfred Hitchcock’s "The Birds." If you continue to cause them concern, they might even upgrade their defensive maneuvers to include defecating on your head.

And with this mass-effort of intimidation, the colony as a whole is better able to scare off any potential predators – such as fish crows, gulls, feral cats, or foxes – all of which have been spotted this year, and which can devastate a nest.

Thompson and his crew have a keen eye for this kind of activity, and are familiar with the birds that have nested and re-nested in the area for years. But this year, the NPS biotechs also have a new ally when it comes to monitoring which helps make their data even more accurate. 

Starting in 2015, researchers with Virginia Tech have partnered with the National Park Service to “band” the adult birds and chicks with small bands around their legs. A tricky but harmless process that involves a box trap over the nest for catching the adults, the banding allows VT scientists to continue research on the movement of our local coastal birds, and also allows the NPS to do a more thorough job of identifying and monitoring the activity of specific bird pairs. 

“Now I can ID [a bird] and confidently say this is a new nest, or this is a re-nest of a pair that has nested before,” says Thompson. “Banding information is priceless. You can make an educated guess of what’s going on without bands, but you can get definitive data with them.”

After all, bands are part of the reason why Thompson recognized the aforementioned oystercatcher trio by sight – and they’re also how “XW” got his name.

June 1 through June 15 is the peak nesting season, and it’s when the biotechs are at their busiest. The season then begins slowing down, and by July 31, it’s possible that most of the activity will wane, and some closures will re-open to the human beach lovers.

But for now, Thompson and his crew will continue to watch, jot down the new chapters of this season’s story, and use this invaluable data to create future management plans that will best serve both the human and avian visitors to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

And for Thompson, one of the biggest benefits of the job is sharing his unique seashore perspective with the public. 

“I enjoy being able to interact with people and let them know what’s going on in the area. Everyone learns by seeing, and not just by hearing,” he says. “I run into a lot of folks who might walk over a recent turtle track and not know what it is.

When you tell them that it’s the path of a 250-pound turtle that just laid 100 eggs in the sand, you can see the lights pop off in their heads.”

“We want to make our appearance known, and wave [to folks on the beach], and be available to talk,” adds Thompson. “I value everyone’s opinion here, and I’m eager to answer any questions that people may have.

“The knowledge of what we’re doing, and why we’re out here, is very useful to everyone.”

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