How to Catch a Woodpecker

A UBC undergraduate heads for the wilderness armed with a giant net, a plumbing camera, and gallons of bug spray.

Anyone rummaging through Jamie Clarke’s kitchen in search of a snack might encounter a crunchy surprise: there are insects in the freezer. The 22-year-old biology major began collecting bugs after an entomology course at UBC -- not to eat them, but to examine and identify them. Clarke finds the prized samples around her family’s Vancouver apartment, which (to the mild chagrin of her parents) often doubles as both home and lab storage. Like the freezer, the patio has been commandeered for science: lounge chairs vie for space with bags of seaweed for a project and the carcass of a beached bird carried home to identify for a survey.

UBC biology student Jamie Clarke holds a sapsucker during her field studies in Prince George, BC.

Clarke’s scientific inclinations admittedly present some challenges to the creeds of Martha Stewart Living, but her intrepid love for biology is a lifestyle in its own right. “I have a lot of questions about the natural world,” says Clarke. “I want to know the names of the living things I see, how they came to be, how they’re related to one another, how they depend on one another, how they work. Biology is just really cool; I think I’ve always wanted to study it.” Taking her curiosity beyond the classroom, Clarke looks for jobs that feed her fascination.

As part of the science co-op program, she has spent months scanning rat jaw bones with a micro-CT machine to learn about osteonecrosis (a disorder of the bone), or working with honey bees, hoping to understand more about why bee colonies are dying. Most recently, Clarke spent May and June in the wilderness around Prince George, BC, researching woodpeckers: red-breasted, red-naped, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

According to Clarke, these three distinct species of sapsuckers sometimes interbreed to form hybrid offspring. But how successfully do hybrid parents, parents of the same species, and parents of different species reproduce? We don’t know, because catching a glimpse of sapsucker offspring in the wild is notoriously difficult. Sapsuckers nest inside small cavities they drill in trees, and the openings to the nest cavities are so tiny -- only a few centimetres in diameter -- that the hatchlings are hidden away inside the tree trunks.

Scientists have long wanted to know more about sapsucker nestlings, but their methods -- such as scaling tree trunks in order to saw into them and expose nests -- have often been intrusive and dangerous. To glimpse sapsucker hatchlings without disturbing them, Clarke designed her own camera system: a plumbing camera, usually used to inspect sewage systems, rigged to a 40-foot pole. Peeking into nests allows her to compare the reproductive success of different types of sapsucker parents without harming the birds. Her innovative project has been funded by two grants: an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award and the Hesse Undergraduate Research Award in Ornithology.

To glimpse sapsucker hatchlings without disturbing them, Clarke designed her own camera system: a plumbing camera, usually used to inspect sewage systems, rigged to a 40-foot pole.

While in Prince George, Clarke also worked on a separate but complementary project, assisting PhD student Libby Natola from UBC’s Darren Irwin lab. Natola researches sapsucker evolution and hybridization, so the duo caught woodpeckers in order to take the birds’ measurements and collect blood samples.

Here, Clarke shares some stories from her summer in the field:

April 30

Libby and I set out on the 10-hour drive from Vancouver to Prince George – a really beautiful route. The views remind me of model railroad scenery. We agree that on the way back, we’ll stop at one of the highway-side cafes for “the best homemade soup” and a big piece of pie, but for now we keep rolling along the highway. When we finally arrive in Prince George, we set up our new apartment – two camp chairs and a folding table in the living room, Therm-a-Rests and sleeping bags in each of the two rooms, one pot and pan for the kitchen. Not much, but just enough! Libby’s cat, Maeby, and dog, Ludo, are settling in well, too.

Our goals for the next two months: get the camera system working, figure out the distribution of sapsuckers around Prince George, and collect blood samples and measurements from as many of them as possible.

May 1

Our first day in the field. We “sleep in” until 5:00 am on account of yesterday’s long and tiring drive. I learn to spot sapwells – rows of small holes that sapsuckers peck into tree trunks to “tap” them for sap.

Libby and I practice setting up the equipment we’ll be using every day. We put up the enormous mist net – ending up with a mess of tangled ropes the first time around, but eventually getting the hang of it. The net is made of very fine mesh that’s difficult for the birds to see, so they’ll (hopefully) fly into it and get a bit tangled up.

We use 3D-printed flapping sapsucker decoys to lure in the birds. Last year, Libby used taxidermic sapsuckers as decoys but found the birds weren't very responsive to them. One of her Instagram followers offered to make her some 3D-printed decoys that can flap. These are great because they’re sturdy, and it’s easy to make them move and look realistic.

Today we’d only planned to practice setting up, but a red-breasted sapsucker ends up flying right into the net. I get to hold my first sapsucker! Having a bird in hand is so special. Birds are beautiful, elusive creatures. More often than not you’re watching them at a distance, or through binoculars, or you’re hearing them but not seeing them. To hold one is really something else.

May 5

By now, we’re settled into our routine. We wake up at 4:00 am, eat overnight oats, and head out into the field. The sunrises are beautiful.

We usually do a point-count survey on a forest service road. This involves stopping every kilometre for five to 10 kilometres, playing sapsucker sounds at full volume from the car and, if we attract a bird, setting up our net and decoys. The playbacks of drums and squawks that we blast attract sapsuckers, because they are very territorial and will defend their area if they think another bird is encroaching on it. Once a bird is in the vicinity, Libby plays the sounds from the car again while I sit, camouflaged, underneath the decoy, flapping its wings and playing more sapsucker sounds from my phone through a speaker.

After a bird has flown into the net, Libby extracts it. She first figures out from which direction it flew in, and then carefully disentangles the feet, wings, and head. Sapsuckers are difficult to remove from the net because they tend to grab onto it tightly with their feet. Once untangled, some are quiet and cooperative, while some are feisty and loud – they’ll peck at you and screech until your ears ring!

Some are feisty and loud – they’ll peck at you and screech until your ears ring!

Libby then takes measurements, scores plumage, and collects a small sample of blood. We also take pictures of the bird for future photo analysis. After we've collected the data, the bird gets a sip of sugar water, and we release it.

We drive along a road north of the city, and find sapsuckers at nearly every kilometre mark. We catch a bird in record time, too – 28 seconds.

May 22

Day off! When we’re not in the field, we mostly run errands – taking the recycling in, getting groceries, doing laundry. Today we also go to the yarn store to pick up materials for new knitting projects. Libby is an amazing knitter, and she’s teaching me over the field season. We knit together while watching a movie, one of our favourite things to do.

Rashika, another grad student from the Irwin Lab, flies in today. She studies flame-backed woodpeckers in Sri Lanka, but her field season was cancelled this year, so she’s come up to Prince George to help us for a few weeks.

May 28

We catch our 50th bird! Last year, Libby caught only 31 birds over a longer field season, so 50 is an exciting number. The bigger the sample size, the more we can say about our data and the stronger the research conclusions. We celebrate by having a beer and going to bed early.

June 1

We’re having a harder time calling in birds with the sapsucker sounds and catching them in the mist net. This is likely because sapsuckers quiet down when they’re incubating their eggs. Males and females split their time at the nest and are less territorial. Sapsuckers are one of the few truly socially monogamous birds -- extra-pair copulations are common in most bird species, but sapsuckers only mate with one partner. Both parents take turns sitting on the clutch, and both take care of the young, so they’re too occupied to come near our net.

We don’t see any birds today until the very last point of our survey. A bit discouraging, but there’s not much we can do when birds aren't responding.

June 7

After a week of struggling to net birds, we switch tactics. We start nest-searching – wading through the forest, trying to follow sapsuckers back to their nests, and looking for suitable cavities in tree trunks. This, too, proves difficult. We spend three hours trying to find a nest without any luck, and finally decide to head home early, since we’re all drenched from last night’s rain. Boots full of water! I will not forget to bring rain pants tomorrow.

June 8

Finally, our first successful look inside a sapsucker nest. The camera set-up – a plumbing camera on a 40-foot telescoping pole – works. I cry a little. We see four tiny hatchlings that are completely featherless. (Usually, baby birds grow down feathers first, then true feathers, but woodpeckers skip the down feathers altogether.) Being able to see the nestlings is something else.

June 9

Eggs are hatching, making it easier to find nests. The hatchlings are very loud, so we find several nests just by following their cries. Today we catch three sapsuckers at their nests using a dip net on top of the telescoping pole.

The mosquitoes are bonkers. To keep them out: raincoat, rain pants, gators, baseball hat, mosquito net, everything tucked in. But they can still bite our hands, and they do. I’m no longer convinced bug spray works. But we’ve caught 65 birds! Three weeks to go.

June 28

Last day in the field. We don’t catch any birds today, though we come close – one bounces right out of the net. The worst feeling. We have, however, caught 92 birds in total.

Tomorrow we pack and clean, and the next day we’ll drive back to Vancouver. I’ll miss the intense routine of field work – waking up early, wearing the same pair of work pants every day, the solitude. And I’ll miss hearing the birds every morning and spending time with the sapsuckers. I might even miss the bugs.

Libby and I will spend the fall working in the lab, analysing the recordings, photos, and blood samples we’ve collected. But first, I’ll be heading for the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, where I’m taking a course on coastal biodiversity and conservation.  I’m so excited to spend time in another beautiful place with a bunch of people who are just as jazzed about biology as I am.