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Moving on

Updated: Nov 9, 2018

Post and illustration by Megan Massa From time to time I illustrate the woodpeckers at Cedar Creek, usually when something interesting happens that I think warrants a drawing. This digital painting has a bit of a story attached to it.

In the lower left of the image, the fledgling's radio transmitter is visible. The radio transmitters we attach to birds generate a radio frequency alternating current, which is applied to the antenna on the device, and the antenna then radiates radio waves. Using our handheld telemetry receivers, we can hear the signal being emitted from the antenna (as "beeps") during our tracking surveys.

We attempt to relocate fledglings nearly every day as part of our work to estimate post-fledgling survival and movement patterns. Generally after leaving the nest, fledglings stay within close proximity to the nest tree they were born in, making short flights and receiving a lot of attention from their parents. After a few weeks, the fledglings brave the wider world, exploring further and further from the nest until they find a place of their own. This is just a general pattern. Some fledglings are homebodies, staying near their parents' territory long after most would have left. Others make a break for it and set up on the opposite site of Cedar Creek as soon as they can.


This particular fledgling (known to us as 371, its unique radio frequency) was the former. Jerry and Annie 371's parents (named by two donors through a naming campaign this summer), started a new nest in a nearby tree not long after 371 and its siblings fledged. Normally this would mean the fledglings from the first brood get out of dodge quickly, or even get chased away once they no longer need to be fed by their parents. But Jerry and 371 seemed to have a particularly strong bond. When we radio-tracked them, they were often in the same area or even on the same tree. Even as Jerry and Annie's new brood hatched and grew, 371 stuck around.

But on August 1, Jerry and 371 both disappeared. Fledglings sometimes go missing. They explore, disperse, or are taken by predators. Often they turn up a day or two later, whether that's back in their usual location, inside an owl pellet, or somewhere new entirely. But for a radio-tagged adult to go missing is an unusual thing. 371 turned up again a few days later. It perched on the nest tree where it and its siblings were born, eating the finally-ripe acorns from the nearby pin oaks.

Jerry is still missing. Annie continued to incubate the new nest, but the remaining nestling died not long after Jerry went missing (it's unclear what may have been the cause of this nestling's death). To complicate their situation further, an unbanded adult has shown up in Annie's territory. The unbanded bird and Annie have alternated chasing each other and foraging side-by-side. After this new bird showed up, 371 didn't stick around long. It moved north, out of the bison enclosure (the area of Cedar Creek where it was born) and into a woodier area. It hasn't returned home since.

When they first disappeared, I badly wanted to believe that Jerry and 371 went on an exciting father-fledgling journey together. But without a signal for Jerry in almost a month, it's likely that wherever he ended up we won't see him again. As the field season comes to a close, the most dramatic moments seem to have passed. Still, we can find plenty of stories in the day-to-day lives of our woodpeckers!

Check out more of Megan's illustrations here:


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