Open Mic: A Young Birder in the Field

At the mic: Kai Victor
Bio photoKai Victor is a sixteen-year-old birder from New York City. He is a member of his state birding club and is the head and founder of his high school’s birding club. In the past, Kai has worked at an avian rehabilitation organization, conducted an independent research project on mist netting, and helped reintroduce Bobwhite to Long Island. He enjoys birding in Central Park, especially during spring migration, and hopes to go into an ornithology-related field. In addition to birding Kai enjoys breeding tropical fish and is working to learn falconry. His favorite birds are the Peregrine Falcon, Hoopoe, and domestic chicken.

This year I was lucky enough to get an internship with the New York City Parks Department. Officially, I worked with the Natural Resources group, which involved a lot more than birds. Much of our work focused on surveying New York City parks quality by looking at indicators of habitat health (such as fauna and flora diversity). For this reason, there were few days totally devoted to birds, but I had many opportunities to learn and conduct research about ecosystems in general.
I began my internship during the early months of 2015, on days when I didn’t have school. My first day is still one of my favorites, for it consisted of conducting wintering bird surveys at two small parks with marshes in the Bronx. While standing in the bitter cold for hours was not exactly amazing, what we saw was. At a time when any sane person would be sitting in front of a roaring fire, we were able to witness birds at very close range. While snow swirled around my head, one of the highlights was seeing my first Canvasback swimming in the creek beside us. Writing down our observations, my advisor and I followed faint trails along the marsh to try and find as many bird species as we could. Along the way, I was also able to pick up another lifer: a Snow Goose hitchhiking with some Canada Geese!

Painted skimmer

Painted skimmer (Photo: Kai Victor)


As school came to a close, I continued to help with bird surveys (now focused on breeding populations) at parks all around New York City. At every location there were plenty of breeding birds, but there were also reminders that we were getting a real dose of nature, one that did not include cushy bird blinds or paved trails.  I soon found how hard it is to identify juvenile night-herons in flight while hanging onto a tree branch over a mud flat! Though these days were extremely fun, the real reward was organizing our data at the end of the summer. By combining observations from each survey, we were able to create each breeding bird’s individual territory. This was amazing because I could finally see how territories work and why we kept seeing the same birds in the same places (its always nice to have a near guaranteed male Baltimore Oriole).
Because my advisor’s primary project focused on the use of salamanders as prime indicators of habitat quality, the biggest part of my internship actually didn’t involve birds. Through the placement of cover boards (wooden boards left in the forest which creatures hide under), we were able to monitor the health and number of salamanders in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Prior to my first day with salamanders, I thought that it was going to be easy. How hard is it to drop a board on the ground? It turned out that the answer was very hard. Especially since the forest seemed to be composed of only two plants: poison ivy and brambles. However, there were rewards all the same, from a close up view of battling Veerys to the discovery of a Great Horned Owl feather. It was great to be in nature as opposed to near it. Though wooded trails were never more than 100 meters from me at any time, I felt that I could be in the middle of the wilderness.
A baby Saltmarsh Sparrow gets measured (Photo: Kai Victor)

A baby Saltmarsh Sparrow gets measured (Photo: Kai Victor)


Twice I had the wonderful opportunity to work with researchers from the State University of New York to study Seaside and Saltmarsh sparrows. The main goal of the project was to look at population changes in these two sparrow species over a period of multiple years. During the first survey I helped search for sparrow nests hidden in marsh grass. Though the searching required eight hours in the hot muddy marsh, I was well rewarded with multiple nests and the chance to hold Seaside Sparrow chicks and eggs. In addition, I got to see my lifer Marsh Wren and a Clapper Rail nest (they have semi-waterproof eggs!) at close range. My second day with the researchers focused on mist netting adult sparrows to band them and take feather, blood, and weight measurements. As becoming proficient in mist netting has always been one of my personal goals, this was a fantastic opportunity to learn from professionals. By the end of the day, I was able to remove my first bird from the net (a Barn Swallow) by myself!
Seaside Sparrow captured for banding

Banding a Seaside Sparrow (Photo: Kai Victor)


Over the course of my summer internship I learned more than just basic field skills. I think that one of my greatest accomplishments was learning to endure unpleasant conditions (trying to identify a bird call while waist deep in a 100° F mosquito-filled forest of poison ivy was not exactly easy). No matter what we were doing, there were always annoying insects  and dense brush to make it challenging. However, by the end of the summer, I really didn’t care about these inconveniences as much. In truth, I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to see what a real bird-centered field job requires and to learn to tough it out.
A Clapper Rail nest hidden in the marsh

A Clapper Rail nest hidden in the marsh (Photo: Kai Victor)


So if I have any conclusion after my summer, its that all young birders should get out and try and get an internship. Aside from having a really cool time in nature, I’ve become much better at bird song identification, mist netting, and field skills. My best advice for getting an internship is to not give up. Getting my internship happened only after being rejected from ten others. However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many nature-related organizations, from museums to parks to zoos, have some form of internship available to high school students. Many will actually be really enthusiastic to have someone on their team who is a birder and can tell the difference between a pigeon and a peregrine!

2015-09-28T10:30:20+00:00