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UNH Graduate Student's Bird-Watching Goes High Tech
DURHAM, N.H. -- He still uses binoculars and a field guide, but University of New Hampshire graduate student and bird-watcher Steve Hale also relies on satellite imagery and computer databases.

Bird-watching has gone high tech, and for Hale is more than a hobby. He will spend this summer mapping the habitat of the elusive Bicknell's thrush, a Neotropical migrant songbird that populates the higher elevations of the White Mountains.

Thanks to a $4,000 grant from the Garden Club of America, Hale and a contingent of assistants will visit the region's spruce fir forests, which Bicknell's thrush prefers for nesting. Although the high-elevation spruce fir stands are protected by law from logging and generally are inaccessible to all but the most hardy, they can fall victim to climate change, drastic ozone level changes and acid rain.

Hale, who works in the UNH Complex Systems Research Center, within the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, says past surveys of the White Mountain National Forest will be augmented by data collected on-site this summer. Hale and his team will not only measure forest characteristics -- going so far as to count individual trees in an area -- but also match what they find with existing satellite imagery charts, thereby assessing what changes, if any, can be found in the state's spruce fir regions.

They plan to visit up to 300 sites from mid-June to mid-August, says Hale, who says the birds' overall numbers are naturally small because of the limited area of their preferred habitat.

The result of Hale's work will be maps of suitable Bicknell's thrush habitats, which can be used for research on the bird's reproduction, migration and also as a baseline for future research.

While tromping through the woods this summer, Hale says, he plans to also try to meet up with a few Bicknell's thrushes.

That's not as easy as it sounds. "They're hard to see," Hale, an experienced "birder," admits. And since they live in dense woodlands -- from the Northeast's higher elevations to the maritime Canadian provinces -- they're even harder to sneak up on. Small birds, they are gray to olive in color, with grayish cheeks, less prominent eye-ring and emit a thin, veery-like song.

The males sing mostly in mid to late morning (females don't sing, but emit less musical calls). To hear the male call in very early morning, Hale plans to play a tape recording of their song to trick them into responding.

It's even difficult for Hale to produce a photo of a Bicknell's thrush for a visitor. "It's so infrequent to see this bird, but to have a photo opportunity?" he says, incredulous.

Still, the lure of bird-watching remains. "There are a lot of forest birds you don't get to see very often," he says. "The challenge is to see them, hear them, to experience them any way you can."

Contact: Carmelle Druchniak, 603-862-1462