[Taza Schaming, Part 1: In the Field] Hi, my name is Taza Schaming, and I’m here in Jackson Hole, Wyoming studying Clark’s nutcrackers. [Clark’s Nutcracker] Why should I study this little bird? Well, this bird plays an enormous role in this entire ecosystem. [high alpine] In the high alpine, at the tree line, there’s the species of tree called the whitebark pine, which really holds this entire ecosystem together. [whitebark pine] This is one of the only tree species that can survive up at this highest elevation in this region during the winter. These trees act as a mechanism to capture and trap snow. This means that the water melts slower over the spring and summer, which ensures there’s a steady flow of water into the rivers and into the valley. As the climate is warming, deadly beetles and an invasive fungus called blister rust has been invading these higher elevations, destroying the whitebark pines. [blister rust] So the only way for the whitebark pine to survive is if it can successfully reproduce. Enter the Clark’s nutcracker. The Clark’s nutcracker and the whitebark pines have actually co-evolved for tens of thousands of years. Whitebark pine cones don’t actually open by themselves. Clark’s nutcrackers are really the only animal that efficiently opens the cones, gathers the seeds, and then plants them. If the trees disappear this entire ecosystem will be in jeopardy. The problem is we know almost nothing about the Clark’s nutcracker. That’s what I’m here to find out. To carry out this research, the first thing I need to do is catch nutcrackers, so today we’re off to go catch some birds. [WINTER Field Season] Now that we’ve reached the hills we’re going to head up to that tree at the base of it, and we’re going to take off our skis, stash them, and put on our snowshoes, and hike up to the trapping site. This tree looks like it was probably killed by beetles a couple of years ago. This tree is at least a few hundred years old, but they can live over a thousand years, so it could be a lot older than that, than I think it is. It’s sad, it’s sad to see a tree that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, potentially since the Middle Ages, now dead because of global warming. We have created conditions that are really good for the pine beetles, so the pine beetles have been able to have more young in the summertime because they’ve got a longer growing season and their larvae aren’t dying in the fall, so the beetles are surviving better and moving up into these elevations and killing these trees because of something that we as humans have done. You can pull up the bark and look underneath to see these tunnels, these j-shaped tunnels, which are indicative of the mountain pine beetles. Usually once the beetles hit it, it’s dead within just a couple of years. Great, well here we are. We are in Bridger-Teton National Forest. When I first get here every morning I’m super excited to catch birds, and really hopeful, but always a little bit anxious because some days I sit here all day long and wait for birds to come and never catch a single one. Ok I think that’s good for now, I’m going to go set up the net. So this is a bow net, there’s a little lever right here which holds down this metal middle half circle and I’m going to bring the string up to where I’m sitting but just make sure it works. It works. I leave this beef fat up in these in these cages. This has been hanging here for I’m going to get him to be two weeks now. I use the beef fat just because the birds seem to you love it. I’m definitely a little bit more wary of playing with beef fat when it’s berry season. I’ve never had bears at my trapping sites, but once I was climbing up extra the hill that’s a few miles back over there to one of my survey areas and I was actually following fresh bear tracks, and in some ways I was kind of happy about it because the snow was two feet deep and it was fresh snow, so I was going in above my knees until I hit the bear tracks, and then I was able to follow the bear tracks. But it meant there’s a bear in front of me. It’s a little little scary. Hey so it’s about 9:15 now, definitely nutcrackers around, which is great. Hopefully they’ll be into the suet soon. We’ll be hanging out here for the next seven hours. My mind completely wanders, hey I’ve got a lot of time to think. It’s definitely in a bit of an adrenaline rush every time. So the first thing I’m going to do is put the aluminum band on this bird. When you go to band them, it’s really important to hold the joints of the bird. You have to be really careful with them. It’s really important to not hold them tightly, but hold them very firmly because you wouldn’t want them to break anything. So I just put this on the leg, squeeze it down, let go. He’s got me. Luckily his beak isn’t, he’s not uh that strong, this doesn’t hurt too badly. Birds like Cardinals are terrible, they actually cause blisters, but he doesn’t seem to want to let go. There we go, so now I’m going to put on the radio. This guy’s going to be 151482 to and just goes on like a little bit little backpack goes over his head, which is hard. You’re gonna be very careful because you don’t want to hit their eyes, so go over one eye first and I hold it and then I can always hold their beak together. Oh he’s definitely got my finger bleeding, yeah he got me ,you got me, with his claws. So once I put this radio on and let him go we’re going to follow him around for the next several months and we really want to figure out how big his home range is and what habitats are they using. We really wanted to know that because if the whitebark pines decline we want to know how we can help preserve these these birds in this area. There we go. Through the winter into early summer I continue to trap as many birds as possible. [SUMMER Field Season] The summer is a really exciting time. I continue radio tracking and try to discover what the birds are doing. We are at Shadow Mountain right now. You can hear the beeping sound. When it’s stronger it means it’s pointing at the bird and the strongest signal is coming from this direction, so we’re just going to head straight, straight towards the signal. It is definitely in this direction. I don’t really know how far. We keep going in that direction, so it’s that way. I get tired sometimes, and I usually just walk a little slower. Okay so we just came from that other hill and it was telling us the strongest signal was this way, and now we just came down and back up to this hill and the strongest signal is back in that valley, so I think we’re circling him right now. Found him. There he is, you can see him up at the top of that dead tree. Right at the top there. So for the next two hours we’re going to follow him around and document his behavior. So right now i’m watching and he’s pounding on the limber pine cone that’s right at the top of the tree. Yep right now 15 is pounding on the cone. What he’s doing, he’s pulling the cone scales away from the cone itself and he’s taking the seed out. He’s totally taking seeds out of his sublingual pouch, like lift his head up it kind of to take the seed up and then he’s putting them at the end of his beak and he’s hiding them in a tree. He’s hiding them in this dead tree. It’s always so exciting. I feel like the more time I spend watching nutcrackers, just the more exciting behavior I see, and it’s pretty cool because I’ve been following regularly since March, so I see where they go and what they do on an individual basis. And these these two are especially cool because we have both of the pair radioed. It’s kind of amazing how much time they spend with each other. It’s exciting, I love it, I love what I do. I feel pretty, pretty lucky to be able to spend my days right here. We’re up at about eighty six hundred feet right now and this place is really unique because it’s full of whitebark pine. Whitebark pines are really interesting in that they often grow in clumps. If you look at this tree right here, it’s actually three trunks growing from the same base, and scientists attribute that to nutcracker caches. Nutcracker caches are usually between one and seven seeds, most often two, three, four seeds in a hole, which means that often more than one seed grows up. And one of the ways that these trees have evolved to entice the nutcrackers to come eat their seeds is all of the cones are found at the top of the tree, so when a nutcracker flies over top of the tree it looks down and sees a feast ready to be eaten. The biggest problem is that the whitebark pines are declining really fast. You can, if you look around all the whitebark pines, most of the whitebark pines are dying or dead. It’s crazy to see how many of these trees are actually dead. If you look around there’s a dead whitebark, there’s a dead whitebark, there’s a dead one, there’s a dead one, there’s a dead one. The dead in every direction all the trees that are this big seem to be dead. Um this has been killed by beetles. You pull apart the bark and you look underneath, you can see all of these galleries. It’s so sad, it’s so sad especially because so many of them are dead. You tell people the trees are dying, but people don’t really realize until they get out here and look around, and realize that almost one hundred percent of the whitebark pine trees are either dead already or they’re sick. It’s, it’s heartbreaking. We are all done for today. We’re heading back down from the top of the top of the ridge near Toby. Tomorrow we will go look for more birds. [Produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Hobart and William Smith Colleges through the Crossing Boundaries Project]End of transcript
Taza Schaming, a Cornell graduate student, studies the impacts of climate change and an invasive species on whitebark pine trees and Clark’s Nutcracker populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Whitebark pine trees recently started dying, and without their seeds the nutcrackers—a species that has coevolved with these trees as their main food source—may not find enough food. Tramping through snow at 9,000 feet, she bands, radio-tracks and surveys Clark’s Nutcrackers to study what they eat, how much they move around to collect food, and how they relate to each other socially. This is an ambitious research project, but you might be surprised how often it requires waiting in the snow for the birds to show up.