Notes from the Field

Early Birds and Night Owls

May 5th, 2017 by Ruthie Oliver, Columbia University/LDEO

Spring has finally arrived in northern Alberta! The snow has melted, the skies are clear, and migration is in full swing. After several days of heavy snows and cold temperatures, the robins, and many other species, were in a big hurry to make their way north to their breeding grounds. Early in the mornings we saw huge numbers of birds flying overhead. In thirty minutes Nicole counted almost 5000 robins flying north! Because the robins were in such a rush to find a suitable place to set up a breeding territory they were not interested in stopping on our field to forage. This meant our best shot at catching robins was to catch them at sunrise or sunset when they were fueling up just before their daytime or nighttime travels.

A flock of robins at sunrise.

At the peak of summer, the sun hardly goes down in the boreal forest and there are only a few hours of darkness at night. As summer grew closer over the course of our trip, sunrise got earlier and earlier and sunset got later and later. As a result, the robins, and Nicole and I, were waking up earlier and going to bed later. We found 6 Space Robins first thing in the morning: Lightning Bolt, Lincoln, the Maguffin, Pongo, Sunny, and Bolt. We found one of our Space Robins just as we were going to close our nets for the night and we very appropriately named him Midnight. Here are our final Space Robins!

As the boreal forest transitioned to spring, we got the chance to catch a glimpse of some more tracks in the remaining snow. These tracks were bigger than the coyote tracks we spotted before. Can you guess who might have made these tracks?

Wolf tracks! These paw prints were about the size of my palm.

Nicole told us that a wolf had been spotted nearby and that a pack is known to live in the area. In the winter, the wolves like to use the frozen lake as a highway for covering ground quickly. Hoping to catch the wolves in action we set up a wildlife camera on the walking trail near the lake. Unfortunately we did not capture the wolf, but we did see a coyote!

Setting up the wildlife camera.


Dan, a friendly sasquatch, in front of the frozen lake.


Possibly because of the heavy spring snows, migration happened very quickly this year. The largest groups of robins moved through the area in just two days and very few decided to forage on our field. The large flocks of robins flying overhead were amazing to watch, but it meant that we were not able to capture our final two robins. We did see plenty of other species migrating, and so I would like to introduce two honorary Space Robins. Even though they won’t be wearing backpacks we did spot two Bald Eagles who seemed worthy of Space Robin names. Meet Soarin and Flounder Jr.!

We had a blast finding our 28 Space Robins, but now that they are flying for us the real fun begins. Each of our robins will provide valuable information on their migration route and how they respond to the environment. I’m excited to start untangling this migration mystery. Thanks so much for following along!

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17 Responses to “Early Birds and Night Owls”

  1. Michael says:

    Wow! I never knew that there could be 5000 robins flying all at the same time. I only thought that there was only 100 in each flock not 5000! I was very surprised with this blog.

  2. Emma says:

    The robins are so cute. I believe that lightning bolt is the cutest. It is so cool that you got to see coyote and wolf tracks to compare them. I want to study birds and other animals when I get older. It looks like so much fun!:)

  3. willUSA says:

    That is so cool how the robins get ready for day/night flights. Kind of like humans. I love the names that you gave the bald eagles.

  4. Olivia says:

    Its so cool how you use the wildlife camera to catch coyotes and wolves. Also I can’t believe the wolf tracks were so big they were the size of your palm!!!!!!

  5. Clare says:

    I wish this wasn’t your last post. I enjoy reading these posts. I hope that you will do this again next year.

  6. Hannah says:

    WOW! That is amazing how many robens were flying north 5000 robens! That is so cool how you took a wildlife camera and tried to catch a wolf, even though you caught a coyote it is still amazing. Are the pictures very detailed on the wildlife camera?

  7. bella says:

    I love the new robins you found were so cute. I can’t believe the all snow melted. It so awesome you found a coyote. I wish I had that camera it looks so cool. I’m happy you’re coming back to NY.I hope you had a fun time and thanks for posting everything you see!

  8. isabella says:

    I found it really interesting that the largest groups of robins moved through the area in just two days. Midnight looks so cute.

  9. Daniela says:

    I have never seen wolf tracks! They look so cool! They look like dog tracks.

  10. ciara says:

    I bet it was very cool to find the wolf foot prints

  11. isabella says:

    I found it really interesting that the largest groups of robins moved through the area in just two days. All the birds looks so cute.

  12. Jake says:

    Great job on catching all 28 robins! I can’t wait to see how far they go, and their migration patterns. I wonder how cold it was when you first started catching robins, compared to when you finished. I remember you showing us the wildlife camera when you came to our class, so it was cool to see it put up. Did you get any photos with it? Great job with all your hard work!

  13. Nolan says:

    The frozen lake is fascinating! Did the whole lake freeze over or was it a small part of it? The birds look awesome. It’s so cool how you and found wolf tracks. I have seen my cousins with those wildlife cameras, they are awesome!

  14. Sam says:

    That was so cool that you saw wolf tracks in the snow. It’s nice that you gave two bald eagles names and the title of Space Robins even though they didn’t have tags. It’s too bad that you only found 28 Space Robins instead of 30 but I hope they will still get the information you need.

  15. Arpi says:

    Wow! I really found it interesting that all the robins were not stopping in the area. I also thought it was cool that there were 2 bald eagles who were named instead of robins.

  16. Daniel says:

    Great job on catching your last space robin. I can’t believe that 500 robins were heading north and seeing 2 bald eagles you are lucky! congrats on catching all your space robins.

  17. Gabe says:

    Wow! That was really cool how you were able to see all those fancistising animals! DId you capture any animals with the wildlife camera? It’s really sad how you weren’t able to find all the birds. But the eagles looked really cool! All the birds looks really nice! I hope they make it!