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By Fields Falcone, China Keeper 

The boat that will carry these seedling sub-populations of monarchs and white-eyes to the sanctuary island of Guguan has been delayed. In many ways we are just in a situation of “island time”, which in other circumstances could be a quaint if only slightly irritating reminder to slow down our first world pulses. However, while all birds’ weights and temperaments are checked daily through non-invasive observation (the birds can be weighed without handling through a method built into each individual box), the birds will now be in holding longer than expected, and we all feel anxious as we try to provide the best care we can for these 100 individuals and their future progeny.  

We are beginning to inventory and pack supplies, and with each twine neatly tied and mist-net mended, we remember the oohs and aahs of the intensive field days behind us. No one is missing the midday heat, however... 

Image 1: The nets are furled and packed away now.

Image 2: Herb Roberts, retired West Zone Curator at the Memphis Zoo and co-creator of Pacific Bird Conservation with Peter Luscomb, the non-profit that spearheads the MAC Program in partnership with the CNMI government, readies to release his last catch of the season, a subspecies of the collared kingfisher found only on Saipan and Tinian.

Image 3: A last glimpse of the native fauna as we depart the WWII runway where the field camp was located.

Image 4: With trapping complete, after the 0500 wakeup call for bird husbandry duties there’s time to order our first hot breakfast since arriving. 

Research is an important component of the MAC Program and any translocation, and as the tides of biologists shift and our Marianas work continues over the years, we plan ahead for future scientists and students to concentrate efforts on monitoring the birds on the snake-free islands. We have a new contact at the Saipan CNMI office, an avian biologist who plans to nurture the monitoring phase over the next several years. As the MAC Program grows in resources and networks, we hope to increase our involvement in monitoring, a logistically complex but critical aspect of the long-term plan. These uninhabited islands are expensive and challenging to reach, considering all supplies (and people, and the birds themselves) must be helicoptered or boated on.  

In order to foster more detailed survey work and future research questions, we mark the birds on their legs with unique combinations of color bands and an aluminum band that is numbered. The numbered bands offer bird-in-hand ID if recapture data are collected through mist-netting on the islands, and the color combos offer field-friendly survey IDs with binoculars. This process needs to be rapid and low-impact on the birds, and each takes about 90 seconds from start to finish. 

Image 5: Author (Memphis Zoo) bands a bridled white-eye with 3 colored bands. Together with the aluminum band placed on the bird’s right leg during a health assessment the first day of capture, these create a unique identification observable in the field. Health assessments were conducted on all birds by the MAC 2015 veterinary team: Deidre Fontenot, DVM, and Lydia Castro, Disney’s Animal Kingdom; and Kami Fox, DVM, Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

Image 6: Hannah Bailey (left top, Houston Zoo), keeps detailed records on band numbers and combos during banding and throughout daily care. The bands require a small “spoon” that spreads the tiny plastic ring apart to then slide on the leg of the bird. It can then be gently pinched to create a seamless ring. Each bird takes about a minute and a half to band, at which time a veterinarian can simultaneously assess disposition. Typically two other team members help catch up the birds to streamline the process. 

Trees. I have always felt a deep and kindred reverence. The flame tree in particular here speaks to me, speaks to all. This year we have come later than our usual spring trip to time with calm seas, but we have also hit a peak in flame tree flowering. Their gracefully sloping branches, fire-tipped when in flower, have their own angular growth algorithm that resonates in the eye like a fractal. These trees, native to Madagascar, were first planted in the Marianas in the 1960’s and now inspire festivals, art, love, and faith here in the islands. Large jungle trees such as the banyan are believed by the native Chamorro of the Marianas to be inhabited by taotaomo’na, spirits of the ancient people of the islands. 

Images 7 and 8: Old flame trees shading the remnants of a 1940’s Japanese Shinto shrine.

Image 9: A banyan tree in rarely trekked forest.

Image 10: Coconut palms line many of the beaches in Tinian. 

With this delay in boat departure, the beach beckoned between net repairs and wild fly and papaya collection for the birds. Astounding to the senses, the reef calms oncoming waves into gently lapping rhythms, while the fish inhabiting the corals challenge the visible color spectrum. I borrowed an old snorkel and mismatched goggles, pinched my nose shut with my fingers, and floated into another world.  

Image 11: Taga Beach, Tinian, CNMI.

Image 12: The only traffic in town is this beach pileup for the best siesta spot.

Posted by Zoo Info at 2:46 PM