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Scientists study the mysteries of bird migration in the mountains of Los Angeles

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is really early in the morning here, like, way too early for me. The sun is just starting to peek over the San Gabriel Mountains just north of Los Angeles.

Is it pre- or during or post-sunrise? What is this (laughter)?

You may ask, why am I here at the crack of dawn, standing in the middle of a dirt parking lot in the mountains? Well, I had a date with a Ph.D. student named Kelsey Reckling.

So nice to meet you.

KELSEY RECKLING: Nice to meet you.

CHANG: I extend my mittened hands.

RECKLING: Hey, I feel that.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Reckling is studying bird migration at UCLA. And for the last month and a half, she has been showing up at this parking lot in the wee hours of the morning to count birds.

RECKLING: Like yesterday, I could just hear the wings, like, passing by my ears.

CHANG: Whooshing by your face.

RECKLING: Yeah.

CHANG: Have you ever been whacked by a low-flying bird?

RECKLING: Almost, but not yet.

CHANG: Does it feel like a Hitchcock movie?

RECKLING: No.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: That's what I've been visualizing.

RECKLING: Birds get a bad rap from that, but no.

CHANG: But no, no one's getting attacked here at Bear Divide. This place is one of the only spots in the Western U.S. where you can see bird migration in the daylight because most birds migrate at night. And they choose to navigate through here because Bear Divide is like a passageway through this wall of mountains...

RECKLING: That literally, like, kind of is shaped like a funnel, and then they just come out right through here and go over.

CHANG: And so in moments, we may see birds just zooming through...

RECKLING: Yes.

CHANG: ...This dip. That's so cool. When are they going to get started? I got up early (laughter).

RECKLING: I know. I know.

CHANG: Sometimes in a span of just a few hours, you can see as many as 20,000 birds sail through here. So bird nerds, like Reckling, flock here too. Bear Divide is this incredibly unique place to crack some of the mysteries around bird migration. In fact, Ian Davies of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology flew all the way across the country just for this.

IAN DAVIES: I'm just out here for this week, for these birds at this place.

CHANG: Got it. Got it. Got it.

DAVIES: I'm here for this.

CHANG: Hey, you're migrating too.

DAVIES: There you go.

RECKLING: He's a migration chaser.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CHANG: But a cross-country flight is nothing compared to the journey that so many of these birds make. Some fly thousands and thousands of miles from Central and South America all the way north until they reach Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

CHANG: As the sky begins to brighten here, you can start hearing all the birds that stream through.

RECKLING: So there's been wrentits singing and mountain quail and California quail. I heard some lazuli buntings go over.

CHANG: But something else all through this chirping catches my ear.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAVEN CALLING)

CHANG: What's that croaking?

RECKLING: That's a raven.

CHANG: It is?

RECKLING: Yeah.

CHANG: That's what ravens sound like?

RECKLING: Yeah.

CHANG: And in just a moment, birds start hurdling through the air.

RECKLING: Ooh, a Townsend's warbler - beautiful. And so...

CHANG: Where?

RECKLING: Here comes a hermit warbler.

CHANG: Oh, my God, I'm so blind.

DAVIES: Ooh. Oh, that's a good bird. That's a lark sparrow flying over.

CHANG: I didn't even notice any black speck flying in the sky (laughter).

I realize I only have, like, a split second to spot a bird as it bolts across the sky.

DAVIES: Phainopepla, phainopepla - coolest bird of the day.

CHANG: Really?

RECKLING: Yeah, look right there.

CHANG: Oh, white spots on the wings. Yeah.

RECKLING: See the white wing patches? Yes.

CHANG: Black body, white wings.

DAVIES: The coolest-looking bird and the coolest-named bird.

CHANG: Ooh, he's got a mohawk.

RECKLING: Yeah.

CHANG: That's cool.

RECKLING: They're kind of goth.

CHANG: And then Reckling starts punching her finger into a tablet screen. She's entering every bird sighting into a huge database. And this is important because tracking migration at this level of detail allows scientists to answer much larger questions, not just about birds but about the wider natural world.

DAVIES: You know, the canary in the coal mine saying - if we understand what's happening to birds, we might be able to understand broader changes in the environment, in climate and things like that. So they're almost, like, sensors of our world around us all the time that tell us all sorts of things.

CHANG: And all the while, as Reckling and Davies train their eyeballs skyward, another group of scientists here is actually capturing the birds that fly just slow enough to gracefully swoop into soft, almost invisible nets.

LAUREN HILL: So we have a little hummingbird in here. I'm not quite sure of the species yet until we get it out.

CHANG: Lauren Hill is a graduate student at Cal State LA, and she co-leads what's called a banding station where researchers catch the bird so they can tag and measure them. Right now, she's trying to gently untangle the hummingbird, but this little guy's an escape artist.

HILL: Oh, bye. That sometimes...

CHANG: He just flew away.

HILL: That happens, yeah.

CHANG: The bird wriggled through a hole in the net and disappeared. But, you know, it's all good. The team has already caught plenty of birds. And back at the banding station, Hill starts doing an up-close exam on one of them.

HILL: This is a house wren.

CHANG: She clamps a tiny bracelet around its ankle.

HILL: They get a very special, sort of like nine-digit, almost like their social security number.

CHANG: And if the bird is ever caught again, that number connects it to all the other data the scientists are gathering about the bird's health, like wing size.

HILL: Forty-nine for wing length.

CHANG: ...And weight...

HILL: Ten-point-two.

CHANG: ...And how fat the bird is.

HILL: So you can actually see the fat through the skin.

CHANG: And then she will always take another important measurement. To do that, she blows the bird's belly feathers aside...

(SOUNDBITE OF BREATHS BLOWING)

CHANG: ...To reveal his manhood...

HILL: The cloaca - did you see that?

CHANG: I saw it. He was swollen.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: ...Which is a possible sign that this bird is ready to breed. After the team takes down all of this health data, it is time to let the bird fly free.

HILL: All right, now it's time to release this bird. Do you want to release him?

CHANG: Oh, my God, can I really?

HILL: Yeah, yeah.

CHANG: OK.

HILL: All right, so...

CHANG: Going down and then release. Whoo (ph), fly away, little bird.

HILL: There he goes.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: As they watch the house wren flit away, I spin around and suddenly realize that I am surrounded by a small crowd - hikers, families, anyone who wants to make the half hour drive from LA. And the bird scientists here say that is also an important part of their work at Bear Divide.

TANIA ROMERO: I think that that's what makes it very unique from that accessibility standpoint is that you can really connect.

CHANG: Tania Romero co-leads this banding station with Hill. And, you know, when she was growing up in South LA, she wishes she had this kind of access to scientists because she had no idea back then that science was a career option for city kids like herself.

ROMERO: I didn't really figure this out until, like, my last year in undergrad - that I could even study birds for a living 'cause I think for the longest time, I felt that I was not a part of this. I couldn't be a part of this.

CHANG: This banding station, she says, it's not just about catching birds. It's also about inviting more people in to experience science and the natural world. And I see that because even people like me, a total bird novice, can get sucked into the drama of the day. So much so, I make sure to scurry back to Reckling to check in on the day's final bird tally.

RECKLING: Lots of different warblers, some buntings, a few orioles - we have counted now over 850 birds this morning. I'm happy with today.

CHANG: But really, there was only one bird that meant anything personal to me by the end of the day because from the get-go, this one bird never hid from me, a bird that was too big, too loud, too obvious to evade my untrained eye. And before I left Bear Divide, he came back for me.

Over there - big wingspan, that's a croaking raven.

DAVIES: There you are. You're a birder.

CHANG: I'm a birder (laughter).

And if I'm a birder now, that is proof that anyone can be one, too, if you just stop and look up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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