Current Research

Braddock Bay Bird Observatory  supports research conducted by our own internal staff, as well as by professors and graduate students at various universities.  Here is a list of our current projects and their lead investigators.

Bird flight calling behavior

Researcher:  Dr. Sara Morris, Canisius College

There are many unanswered questions about bird communications, especially during migration. The MARS (Mobile Avian Recording Studio) trailer allows acoustic isolation of birds to study their responses to sound cues to see what factors may be affecting the likelihood and rate of calling by individual birds. Our first study showed that birds responded more to birds than non-birds, that birds are likely to respond when they hear flight calls, and they respond more to their own species than to other species. We are now working on four additional questions: how much variation in flight calling responses exist both within and among species, how does energetic condition of the birds affect their calling rate, is there a difference in the rates and types of responses by season (spring versus fall), and what is the effect of different rates of calls on flight calling behavior. Our study on light is based on several suggestions by Mark Deutschlander and others who have worked with captive birds on orientation and migratory restlessness. Our study on the effect of different rates of calls is investigating whether the birds are responding more when they hear higher or lower numbers of calls (simulating more birds calling or fewer birds calling).

An assessment of the refueling performance of migrating Catharus thrushes during autumn stopover at Braddock Bay Bird Observatory in relation to fruit quality

Researcher:  Dr. Susan Smith Pagano, Rochester Institute of Technology

During autumn, wild fruits are widely consumed by migrating songbirds and may represent an important source of nutrients for refueling birds during brief migration stopovers. However, we know very little about how fattening rates of birds at stopover sites are affected by fruit consumption and whether high-quality (energy dense, high-fat) fruits can enhance refueling performance and body condition of migrating birds.  Previous research in the Nutritional Ecology lab at RIT suggests that native fruits (e.g. dogwoods, Arrowwood Viburnum) have higher fat and energy content than the fruits of invasive shrubs (e.g. Bush Honeysuckles, Common Buckthorn, Multiflora Rose). In addition, birds are likely to experience tremendous oxidative stress during the migratory period, and it is possible that the polyphenolic compounds present in wild fruits may provide a dietary source of antioxidant protection. This project will quantify refueling rates and nutritional status of highly frugivorous Catharus thrushes during autumn, when fruit is abundant at BBBO, and spring, when fruit is unavailable as a food resource.  In doing so, we aim to link variation in the physiological condition of birds with interannual variation in fruit quality at BBBO, and show that the incorporation of fruit in the diet of birds may provide physiological benefits in the fall when fruits represent their main food resource.

Plasma metabolite profiling offers a useful means to evaluate energy metabolism and physiological condition of migrating birds because certain metabolites indicate fat deposition and mass gain (plasma triglyceride), fat catabolism and mass loss (plasma ketone bodies), and dietary protein intake (plasma uric acid) over the previous several hours.  We will measure the concentration of these metabolites in the plasma of migrating thrushes to inform us about instantaneous refueling rates.  We will also measure plasma total antioxidant capacity of these birds, which can then be related to the total phenol content of consumed fruits as a potential source of antioxidant protection.  Results of this project will provide important insight into why songbirds consume specific fruits during migration stopovers and the physiological benefits of seasonal frugivory for migrating birds.

Nutritional value of native and invasive fruits for migratory birds

Researcher:  Dr. Susan Smith Pagano, Rochester Institute of Technology

Since 2010, we have been collecting and analyzing the nutritional content of wild fruits present at BBBO. The main focus of our work has been to compare the quality of fruits producced by our native shrubs and plants with fruits produced by non-native shrubs that have been introduced to the area, some of which are now highly invasive in the habitat. We have discovered that fruits produced by native shrubs are much nigher in energy and ft than the fruits on non-native shrubs in this area. We also found that birds selectively consume native fruits over non-natives during fall migration, which suggests their important role as food resources. Our current research seeks to expand our list of species for which we have nutritional information in hopes of generalizing more broadly across natives and invasives in the future. We are also interested in how these fruits might vary in different nutritional components from year to year in response to changing growing conditions and whether there is local site variation in nutritional traits of particular importance to birds at stopover sites.

Breeding origins of migratory songbirds

Researcher:  Dr. Kristen Covino, Canisius College

The serious challenge to understanding seasonal interactions of migratory species is to follow individuals throughout their annual cycle and trace the impacts of carry-over effects between phases of the annual cycle. Intrinsic markers, including stable isotopes, have emerged as a key tool in migratory connectivity studies, and greatly increase our ability to understand interactions between phases of the annual cycle. Since geographic variation in hydrogen isotopes follows a latitudinal gradient across North America and the majority of temperate breeding songbirds perform a full molt on or near their breeding grounds, the stable hydrogen isotopes signature from their feathers provides an estimate of that individual’s molting site and thus breeding origin. Using probabilistic assignment methods this research will allow me to approximate the breeding origins of individual migratory songbirds as they pass through New York State. Under this project several specific and related questions will be investigated including within species population-specific passage between fall and spring migration, cross species comparisons, and comparisons between migrants at Braddock Bay Bird Observatory and other migratory field sites (e.g. Maine, Louisiana). I have selected several focal species for which I will investigate population-specific migratory patterns at Braddock Bay, Appledore Island (Maine), and Johnson’s Bayou (Louisiana). I will use some species to investigate seasonal (fall/spring) differences in population-specific migratory patterns through Braddock Bay. Additionally, I will investigate whether observed migratory patterns conform to previously stated assumptions (e.g. leap-frog, chain migration) for difference species.

Rusty Blackbird migratory connectivity

Researcher:  Jay Wright under the guidance of Dr. Chris Tonra, The Ohio State University

Migratory connectivity refers to the concept that geographically disparate areas can be of equal importance for migratory animals, and are inextricably linked by way of migratory individuals consistently traveling from one area to another. The purpose of this study is to determine the breeding origin of Rusty Blackbird migrants throughout their migratory range, in order to establish the importance of particular flyways to particular breeding populations of Rusty Blackbirds. By collecting feather samples from Rusty Blackbirds at multiple banding stations across the continent, we will be able to determine the relative importance of certain flyways and stopover sites to Western and Eastern breeding populations of the species. There is mounting evidence that the Eastern breeding population is declining at a faster pace than the Western population, so identifying areas used heavily by the Eastern population will be important for making conservation and management recommendations.

Testing the utility of soundscape recording for quantifying songbird migration

Researcher:  undergraduates, under the guidance of Dr. David Bonter, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has developed a low-cost device that can automatically record soundscapes continuously for several weeks. The overarching goal of the technology, called “Swift”, is to monitor wildlife populations at remote locations. The devices are being tested globally, but no current study is conducting on-the-ground surveys in order to calibrate and assess the utility of the technology. We deployed 5 Swift units at BBBO during spring migration 2017. The sound files will be screened with auto-detection software to quantify the vocalizations of various species (WTSP is the first target). Daily Swift detections will then be compared with daily capture rates of the target species.

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