Clay Graham: avian ecologist

Interview conducted by Erin Harrington, science communicator and bird ecologist

I recently interviewed Clay Graham, a Master’s student in the Biological and Environmental Sciences program at URI. He is part of a collaborative research project between URI and RI Department of Environmental Management that has been going on for about a decade now. Researchers are trying to learn all they can about a weird shorebird found in the forest called the American Woodcock. This bird uses young forest habitats for feeding, courting, and rearing its young. In the past, researchers have been studying woodcock movement during mating season, woodcock habitat use, and how those both connect when it comes to forest management. But, Clay’s research will be going a step further – he’ll be studying woodcock movement not only during breeding season, but also during migration. In Clay’s own words:

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“I study what habitats and resources Rhode Island American Woodcock use over the course of a year, how habitat and resource use change for woodcock in different landscapes, and what characterizes Rhode Island woodcock migratory behavior by using radio transmitters and GPS tags.”

-Clay Graham

Photo credit Steve Brenner

 Here is what I asked Clay about his research…

 How and when did you first become interested in birds?
One of my classmates in second grade gave a presentation on penguins, and despite including a range map, I looked for them in my backyard. While searching my backyard I noticed a Red-tailed Hawk in the oak tree behind my house and asked my mom for help in identifying the bird. This was my spark bird! After this, I spent a lot of time as a kid in my backyard and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park identifying trees, wildflowers, and wildlife and loved flipping through my Sibley guide my parents bought me, wondering how many of the species of birds might have passed through my backyard at one point in time. I may or may not have began conversations with friends growing up with, “so, have you seen any wildlife lately”?

American Woodcock wearing a VHF radio transmitter blending in with the forest floor.  Photo credit Josh Cummings

American Woodcock wearing a VHF radio transmitter blending in with the forest floor. Photo credit Josh Cummings

I also loved the hidden knowledge that CVNP [Cuyahoga Valley National Park] rangers, Ted Williams seasonal natural history column in Audubon magazine, and local naturalists had about natural history. They seemingly knew about all these incredible processes and local species distributions, and really knew the story and dynamics of a landscape. I still feel this as a 29 year old Master’s student working with the American Woodcock, a species which is incredibly easy to mistake as being part of the forest floor, and is often overlooked except for those who are familiar with their natural history. 

 When and why did you first become interested in woodcock, and this study specifically?
One of the first woodcock I saw as a kid was a bird migrating between buildings in lower Manhattan on a family trip in eighth grade; a highly unpredictable landscape for any bird to navigate.

For many shorebirds, including woodcock, I’ve always been interested in how shorebirds find suitable stopover habitat, what decisions they make during migration, and how they handle the unpredictable nature of finding suitable stopover.

Although woodcock have been mostly studied from a perspective around habitat selection, woodcock are a really interesting system to study migration especially as there are populations which are migratory, non-migratory, short and long distance migrants, counter to most birds they have a prolonged spring migration in comparison to a rather quick fall migration.

They also are really unique in that they have assumed a migratory behavior by tracking the invasion of non-native earthworms after the glacial retreat extirpated native earthworms from the north, which always blows my mind.

 What interesting things have you found out in your research so far?
Preliminarily, using data from my first field season, it seems that woodcock can make quick migratory leaps often travelling 400 miles in a night, or using one stopover site before arriving at their wintering grounds, as well as woodcock left Rhode Island anywhere from early November to early December.

In addition, it seems that birds from higher quality habitats tended to migrate earlier than birds from lower quality habitats and are mostly wintering along the coast, anywhere from Connecticut to Alabama.

RI caught American Woodcock (circles) and their movements in during fall migration (November-December 15), informed by GPS transmitters.  Map created by Clay Graham

RI caught American Woodcock (circles) and their movements in during fall migration (November-December 15), informed by GPS transmitters. Map created by Clay Graham

What excites you most about your current research? What excites you most about Woodcock?
I think what’s exciting to me is how many unexplored questions there are for something that is seemingly so well studied, and especially how strange woodcock are as a system. For instance, woodcock are a really interesting system to study breeding behavior as they exhibit reverse sexual dimorphism [females are larger than males], are polygynous [1 male mates with multiple females], and fly to fields to perform aerial courtship displays.

Due to woodcock displaying in the evening (making them difficult to see), little is known about the presence or absence of females at each singing ground, male breeding success depending on site quality, the birds condition and, age and how breeding intensity and behaviors change over the course of the breeding season. This has implications in understanding which males are most or least likely to mate, and how females choose which display site to breed at, and there’s a ton of room to look at ethology in these birds. Or the fact that they are shorebirds that spend most of their time in forests.

I also love how dynamic they are. When tracking them over the summer, it would seem that just when you think a particular woodcock has settled into a location, the bird would move to another habitat within a landscape, especially as the water table drops in summer. It’s also really exciting to be working with novel tracking technology, and to hope that information from my research will be able to contribute to broader scientific discussions and management plans for woodcock.

 Could you describe what a typical day in the field is like?

[In the spring Clay catches individuals for the first time]: Depending on cloud cover and the moonphase, right at about 18-25 minutes after sunset, (or often I used when I can’t see details such as hairs on my outstretched hands or the print on a piece of paper), woodcock start ‘peenting’ and flying to fields to perform their aerial displays. I then usually wait until I see the poles wiggle a little bit, or an absence of displays to check the nets indicating that a bird might be in my mist net.  Sometimes we have to use speakers of ‘peent’ calls to catch woodcock as a last resort, as well.

My summers are spent tracking spring caught birds that had radio-transmitters attached to them, through swamps and thickets and scrubby habitat. This is in an effort to identify their diurnal [daytime] foraging locations, in order to build summer home ranges. Woodcock can be anywhere from deep, deep forest to industrial sites and peoples backyard, and some will periodically change their diurnal habitat. Sometimes you are walking through forest and wading through creeks for an hour to reach a bird, while other times the bird is right beside a road and take about two minutes to find and gather a location: each bird seems to have their own story.

Read more about how the McWilliams’ lab uses radio telemetry here

Gerald H. Krausse

What difficulties did you run across in your research? How did you surmount those challenges to reach your current insights?
Fall this year was pretty challenging in that I wasn’t sure I would be able to recatch woodcock I tracked over the summer in order to replace their radio-transmitters with GPS tags. The first two weeks of September I spent trying to catch a female I tracked over the summer, which loved to roost in log landings that had been clear-cut with intact logs  and briars. I never caught this female as it was in too difficult of an area to catch it, but after moving on to other birds I tracked over the summer, I managed to catch 9/12 birds that had transmitters on them.  

We tried all sorts of deigns and tactics, but what eventually worked best was to capture birds on nights with no ambient light where it was raining, using a speaker to make background noise to cover up my footsteps and to have three people tracking the bird to pinpoint it’s exact location and stop the bird. If conditions were right I would stay out all night to catch several birds, especially as September is the driest month, I had to be efficient with the best conditions for catching.

 What happens next? What still needs to be studied, and where will the research go next?
The hard work is done for this field season, with the Argos satellites doing much of the heavy lifting by downloading and sending information from our GPS tags. Winter will consist of entering data into GIS, and beginning some preliminary analysis of homeranges, and habitat selection. Next field season will be much of the same except I would like try to and catch more birds, as well as create a resource selection function for nocturnal roosts.

Anecdotally, it seems that birds are highly selective with roosting locations, and yet incredibly varied. This fall I encountered birds roosting next to rivers in open grassy floodplains, open fields, under holly bushes in clear cuts, along old abandoned roads in pepperbush thickets and in wetlands that were no longer inundated with water. We need to have a better understanding of roost site selection, as the lack of open fields and disturbed locations for roosting and breeding is one of the main reasons woodcock have been in decline.

Why is your research pertinent beyond informing us about the habitat woodcock need?
Woodcock have been found to be representative species of early successional [young forest] habitat, a critical and declining habitat throughout New England. As forests mature and humans limit their disturbance in New England, no longer clear cutting forests to maintain agriculture, the habitat and species associated with early successional habitat have similarly declined. Conservation of woodcock by proxy also conserves declining species like Wood Turtles, New England Cottontail, and many migratory species of birds which use early successional habitat  for both nesting, and providing food for nestlings, as well as adds diversity to a largely monotonous landscape.  

Is there anything else you would like to say? Are there any questions you would have liked to answer that I didn't ask you?
As part of a multi-state collaboration, URI has been working with the Eastern Woodcock Migratory Research Project, to understand eastern woodcock migratory movements.

 

Clay Graham is a master’s student studying the annual cycle movements of Rhode Island breeding American Woodcock, and how body condition affects fall migratory movements in  Scott McWilliams lab  at the University of Rhode Island  Photo credit Patrick Woodward

Clay Graham is a master’s student studying the annual cycle movements of Rhode Island breeding American Woodcock, and how body condition affects fall migratory movements in Scott McWilliams lab at the University of Rhode Island Photo credit Patrick Woodward

Interview conducted by Erin Harrington, a Ph.D. student studying science communication and avian ecology in the  Scott McWilliams lab  at the University of Rhode Island

Interview conducted by Erin Harrington, a Ph.D. student studying science communication and avian ecology in the Scott McWilliams lab at the University of Rhode Island