Notes from the Field

A Flurry of Activity

April 27th, 2017 by Ruthie Oliver, Columbia University/LDEO

Boreal spring can look a lot like winter. Over the past three days the Boreal Centre has gotten snow, snow, and more snow. According to Nicole we’ve gotten more snow in the past few weeks than they got all winter! But snowflakes weren’t alone in the sky; we also witnessed a flurry of robin activity. The snow conditions on Sunday and Monday were harsh enough to prevent the robins from traveling, but not cold enough to discourage them from foraging. We spent both days pacing between the windows in the Boreal Centre watching a flock of about 50 robins flitting around the treetops. To encourage the robins to forage near our nets we did our best robin impressions and kicked snow away to reveal open spots of bare ground.  Luckily for us, with the snowy conditions halting their migration the flock used the opportunity to fuel up. In just two days we caught 14 robins!

The Boreal Centre in a snowstorm on April 23 (top). Robins perched in the bushes near our net. The net is nearly invisible, but extends to the left from the vertical pole (bottom).


Nicole kicking snow to create suitable spots for robins to forage for food (top). Bringing back two successfully caught robins (bottom).

Despite the rising temperatures and sun breaking through the storm clouds as we rolled up our nets on Monday night, we woke up to the largest snowfall we’ve seen on Tuesday morning. The snow was so deep that we knew no robins would be able to forage on our field if we didn’t help them out. We grabbed our shovels and cleared foraging trenches around each of our nets, hoping hungry robins would take advantage of them. Unfortunately, Tuesday’s weather must have been stormy enough to convince the robins to take a true snow day as we only saw a couple of individuals.  We only caught one bird but it turned out to be a relative of the robins, the Hermit Thrush.


Shoveling snow (left) to create foraging tracks around our nets (right).


A sole robin braving the heavy snowfall on April 25th.


A relative of the American Robin, the Hermit Thrush.

We are excited to introduce our Space Robins who braved the snow! Meet Saturn, Falstaff, Mighty Robin, George, Mama Ray Ray, Frightful, Daniela Broccoli, Jerry, Shina, Robert, Red, Twitter, Ariel, and Fluffy.

The robins and hermit thrush weren’t alone in exploring the snowy boreal forest. Plenty of Dark-eyed Juncos were out looking for food and we captured a Rusty Blackbird, Black-capped Chickadee, Fox Sparrow, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. The Rusty Blackbird also breeds in the boreal forest but is one of the most rapidly declining species in North America for reasons that are largely unknown. This particular Rusty Blackbird was the first one ever caught at the Boreal Centre! The Sharp-shinned Hawk follows a similar migration pattern to the robins. Although they are the smallest hawks in North America, they are fierce predators of the robins despite similar sizes. When we released the Sharp-shinned into the forest we learned why. As soon as we let her go, she quickly gained speed while navigating the dense thicket of willows.

Dark-eyed Junco tracks in the snow.


The Rusty Blackbird.


Sharp-shinned Hawk.


Black-capped Chickadee.


Fox Sparrow.


A walk in the snow revealed that I’m not the only one who uses the trails in the park. I found dog-like footprints in the snow and scat nearby, both of which were sure signs of a coyote. Can you guess what this coyote was eating?

Coyote tracks (left) and scat (right). The scat is full of light-colored fur and part of a hoof. This coyote seems to have eaten at least part of a deer!

We currently have 21 Space Robins flying for us—check back as we find our final 9!

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18 Responses to “A Flurry of Activity”

  1. Ms. O'Brien says:


    Thank you for including us in the project. The students enjoyed reading your first blog entry on Friday. I’ll have them check out the other two this week – while taking a break from state testing (math). Nicole seems fearless in that she’s often pictured holding a bird, even hawks. Can you tell us about her background? How did she become so familiar with birds? Does she live up there? How great that your mom has joined you this year! What a unique and special experience. From my perspective, I thoroughly enjoy seeing the pictures of the wild. My few minutes viewing your blog remove me from the stress of my everyday life.

    Ms. O’Brien

  2. Ben says:

    When do you expect to catch all of the robins?

    Also how do you pick the names?

  3. Stephen says:

    Thank you for letting us in the project. I learned so much and i hope that i will get to learn more.

  4. Molly says:

    Thank you so much. It was a lot of fun to learn all about the birds, there routs, and there habitats. It’s amazing how us as kids can be a part of a study on robins and being able to help choose names and more. I am so exited to look on an app and be able to see a bird I NAMED. This was such a great experiance thank you for letting us be a part of your amazing studie.

    PS. can’t wait to see flounder !:-)

  5. alex says:

    It,s great that you caught so many birds.I would be careful around that coyote.

  6. Nicole Figueroa says:

    wow so cool!! All of the birds are so beautiful I wish i was up there and doing all of the amazing things you guys do. I could not imagine how awesome it is to wake up every morning knowing what you do. #awsome

    P.S my name is Nicole too

  7. OLIVIA says:

    The robins are soooo coool!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You must be really cold out there in the snow. The birds are beautiful. I wish
    i was there. I cant wait till you guys name the robin that me and Hannah came up with!

  8. Jake says:

    The Black-capped chickadee is so cool. Also, all the robins you caught were amazing. I wonder how they feel when you catch them. Speaking of catching birds, did you catch all the others like the sharp-shinned hawk, and the fox sparrow? Finally, thanks for using my bird name. Good luck on your next catches, Ruthie!

  9. Patrick says:

    Wow! I am so amazed that you could catch so many robins with so much snowfall.While looking at a picture i noticed that the robins bones look very delicate, are they?

  10. Shayan says:

    Wow, those birds were amazing! It’s fascinating to know that there are so many ways to attract a robin. For example how you guys dug foraging trenches so they would come. I found it really surprising that weather can determine the robins path of migration. Keep on researching, your changing the lives of many animals!

  11. Michael says:

    Wow! I am so surprised that you could catch so many robins. And you got them in the winter to they don’t really ever come out in the winter they almost always stay in hiding.

  12. Daniela says:

    I never knew that Coyote tracks looks like that. That is so cool.

  13. Hannah says:

    Wow! That is amazing how many birds were out in the snow I would think it would be cold for them.That must be amazing being up there with so many birds and catching them.

  14. isabella says:

    I never knew that boreal spring could look a lot like winter. The robins foot prints look really cool!!

  15. Siena says:

    I really like who you chose for Saturn. He looks very brave like a eagle! I never knew you cactch birds in the snow

  16. Bella says:

    There was lots of heavy snows I see.I can’t believe you got 14 robins in two days.The HermitThrush is so cute.My bird Mama Ray Ray is. so cool I love it. The other birds you found were so interasting

  17. Nolan says:

    My bird looks calm and relaxed(Mighty Robin). I saw the Black-capped Chickadee that looks like a fascinating bird! Also is that a real sharp-shinned hawk!?

  18. Hela says:

    Wow you’re strong! You can handle all that snow! The robins fought the snow too! That Blackbird is beautiful looking, and that sharp shined hawk! It is amazing that you caught fourteen birds in just two days, but you only caught one on Tuesday! That Chickadee was adorable! That close up of a robin was fascinating, though! I can’t believe my bird got picked (Falstaff)! Can’t wait to here more about the robins!