French Creek State Park is the center of bird study

You know things aren’t going well when autocorrect won’t allow you to spell the subject of your story — in this case, the veery, a medium-sized, russet-backed and buff-breasted woodland thrush with a haunting song.

The computer keeps changing the singular to the adverb very and the plural to the noun berries.

Todd Underwood has to hope that the technology he is using to track the movements of veeries is a bit more discerning than autocorrect.

The 50-year-old Kutztown University biology professor teamed up to study veeries for the past four years with his friend and colleague Christopher “Kitt” Hecksher of Delaware State University in Dover, who has studied the species at White Clay Creek in Delaware for over 20 years

As with all great collaborations, the deal was closed over a beer. In Alaska.

They both were at a 2019 ornithology conference in the state, and Underwood had reached a dead-end in Berks with his previous long-term topic research.

“Kitt was also talking about how his research has gotten more challenging,” Underwood said as he sat within his French Creek State Park study plot in southern Berks County. “The population declined, and he had been working on some migration patterns on the veeries and identifying their winter habitat and range and sort of lamenting the more challenging it has gotten to work with them and how expensive some of these tracking devices are.”

Underwood saw an opening.

“Well, we have veeries in Pennsylvania,” Underwood recalled telling him, “and I’ve got a grant program that I’ve been successful with that we might want to cooperate.”

The original plan was to set up study plots on state game lands along the Kittatinny Ridge near Hawk Mountain.

The plan changed when while out birding one day he ran into Rudy Keller, a District Township naturalist and undoubtedly the most knowledgeable individual on Berks birds.

“Oh, there’s a better place to study veeries,” Keller said. “Go to French Creek.”

Keller showed him several spots, and they picked a few promising areas.

“They are amazing spots for veeries,” Underwood said. “They’re really dense in here. It’s a perfect place to study veeries.”

As it turned out, the collaborator needed another collaborator, and Keller, 78, has helped him with his research the last two years.

During the first spring of his study in 2020, Underwood could rely only on his daughter Sadie, who was 15 at the time, for help due to the university’s COVID restrictions.

Why study veeries?

“Veeries are a bit unusual in that they are one of our songbirds that migrates all the way to South America for the winter,” Underwood said. “We don’t know a whole lot about what they do in the winter because there aren’t that many ornithologists in South America, and the area is really vast.”

Twenty years ago, ornithologists didn’t know where exactly veeries overwintered and started piecing together their wintering ranges based on minimal sight and banding records, Underwood said.

The range was narrowed down to the Amazon basin, which is a pretty broad area, he said.

With the advent of smaller, lighter and more sophisticated electronic tracking devices, Hecksher began placing tracking devices on veeries they netted and banded on the study plots.

He was able to track the veeries to South America.

“The cool thing he learned from this work is that veeries actually settle in the lower Amazon basin in the beginning of winter and undergo an intertropical migration,” Underwood said. “They spend December until February in the lower Amazon, and then they migrate north to a second site somewhere in the north — Brazil or somewhere around there.”

The birds are going to a really unusual threatened habitat in the lower Amazon basin — stunted forest patches on very nutrient-poor soils, Underwood said. Some of them are white sand habitat in the lower Amazon basin in Brazil, a couple in Bolivia, and this habitat is threatened by deforestation and agriculture and forest fires.

“This is where a lot of the bad stuff is happening in the Amazon basin,” Underwood said.

With the newer tracking technology, they were able to narrow down some of the secondary wintering locations.

“The technology now has improved enough that you can put a GPS datalogger on them,” Underwood said. “It’s only a receiver that stores data; it can’t transmit.

“So this is the challenge. You have to put a little backpack with one of these on it, and our veery flies to South America, and if all goes well and it encounters no predators, wind turbines, windows and comes back, you have to catch it again, take this off, hope the antenna is intact. If nothing went wrong, you download the data and you found out where it went, but you can only get so many data points.”

To capture the birds within the forest, Underwood uses a series of mist nets, which resemble badminton nets that run the length of their poles, along the birds’ flyways.

Kutztown University biology professor Todd Underwood, right, weighs a captured veery that is placed in a cloth bag in French Creek State Park with help from Rudy Keller, left, and student Megan Johnson. (BILL UHRICH — READING EAGLE)

Underwood, Keller, and a student — this spring KU senior Megan Johnson, 22, of Ashland, Schuylkill County — free the birds caught in the nets and take them back to the banding table set up along a trail, where the birds are weighed, measured, checked for parasites and then banded. When a good candidate veery is captured, one that weighs 30 grams or more, the team will fasten a harness to its back that contains the 1-gram datalogger.

Kutztown University biology professor Todd Underwood places colored bands on a captured veery Wednesday, June 8, 2022, to help with identifying individual birds by sight.  (BILL UHRICH ??
Kutztown University biology professor Todd Underwood places colored bands on a captured veery to help with identifying individual birds by sight. (BILL UHRICH — READING EAGLE).

In 2020, Underwood attached 11 of the backpacks to veeries.

“The challenge last year was to find them and capture them again,” Underwood said.

They recaptured six of them.

“That suggested that we weren’t impacting their survival in any way,” Underwood said.

Ah, but the autocorrect syndrome reared its head.

Of those six, two of the backpacks fell off because the harness somehow failed along the 10,000-kilometer journey. One of them had a broken antenna, and some of the tags just plain malfunctioned.

Added to that, one bird Hecksher captured in Delaware escaped before the tag could be removed.

“It was a challenging and frustrating time,” Underwood said, “but you get these incredible bits of data when you do get them back.”

From the two birds with usable data recaptured at French Creek and one in Delaware, Underwood and Hecksher were able to determine that two of the birds during the secondary migration in March were in northern Brazil in lowland tropical forest, and one of them was in southern Venezuela.

The birds from French Creek were around 300 km apart in Brazil.

“So far it looks like they are in a much more secure second wintering habitat compared to the first,” Underwood said. “It’s tropical forest, and there are lots of reserves and parks in this area with very little human impact. It’s in a pretty remote area of ​​Brazil and Venezuea. That’s the good news. Their southern part is still an area of ​​conservation concern, but at least in the northern part there’s a lot more protection of their habitat, and it’s much more intact.”

The study season this year at French Creek ran from the predawn to midday in early May until the end of June.

The team captured 38 veeries and put GPS tags on 11 of them.

Kutztown University biology professor Todd Underwood places an electronic locator on a captured veery places Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (BILL UHRICH ??
Kutztown University biology professor Todd Underwood places an electronic locator on a captured veery. (BILL UHRICH — READING EAGLE)

“Hoping to learn more, I helped strap backpacks onto scant handfuls of bright-eyed, complaining feathers, watched them flutter off into the understory and wished them safe journeys,” Keller said. “I hope they come back, and I meet them again.”

Kutztown University biology professor Todd Underwood releases a veery he captured and banded after recording information about the bird Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (BILL UHRICH ??
Kutztown University biology professor Todd Underwood releases a veery he captured and banded after recording information about the bird. (BILL UHRICH — READING EAGLE)

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