Kathy Molina,

Kathy Molina,

A weeklong electronic journal.
June 24 1998 3:30 AM

Kathy Molina,

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       Today was my first full day of observation in this, the second and final season of my study of gull-billed terns and black skimmers. I soon discovered I was quite unprepared. Yes, I begged for a heat wave and got it, but I had forgotten all about the explosive population growth of flies and other assorted nuisances that accompany it. I'd also forgotten my apparel routine of long pants, long sleeve shirts, and socks. And so earlier in the day, as I observed two conveniently located tern nests on islets across a small expanse of water, I tried very hard to ignore the hordes of flies congregating on my exposed skin.
       Shooing them is not an effective option. First I pretended my legs and feet had no feeling, and then, if I didn't look at them, I could imagine the flies really didn't exist. I was moderately and only temporarily successful with this strategy. A small consolation--these flies aren't the large biting type. When doing these systematic nest observations, I must commit to a single location for the duration of the period, and so I was also thankful I hadn't positioned myself atop an ant colony as I've had the occasion (and misfortune) to do in the past. Later, during my evening session, the wind kicked up and just ripped along the earthen levees, literally whipping me with alkali silt. I tucked in behind my truck and was able to salvage the entire period. Needless to say the fly problem had abated. In these really stiff winds, the nesting birds just hunch down even lower and put their heads into it, or simply tuck their bills into their back feathers and sleep, I suppose.
       So, the lessons of the day: 1) Always, always wear a cap when visiting a nesting colony. I suffered a small but painful scrape to the scalp, inflicted by a defending tern. 2) Tadpoles, in various stages of development, seemed to be the prey item of choice earlier in the day, while fish seemed to predominate in the evening. 3) Terns readily accepted the thermistor probes, small probes that record and store continuous temperature data, that I had placed at their nests early this morning. Initially, I had worried that the thin black leads might be perceived as snakes, preventing parents from returning to their eggs. And 4) is probably the most significant lesson of all, that of a returning 4-year-old male identified by his colored leg bands and paired with an unbanded female at nest No. R50. A small feat such as documenting natal site fidelity, as I did today for this bird via his unique combination of color bands, contributes much over time to our understanding of the life histories of birds.

Kathy Molina is a research biologist studying the breeding ecology of water birds at the Salton Sea, a saline lake in the Colorado Desert of southeastern California. She is currently completing an M.S. degree at California State University, Northridge.