This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 edition of The Chicago Birder, COS's bi-monthly member newsletter. For more information about this, other membership benefits, and ways your support makes our work possible, take a look at our membership page.
By Alison Vilag
Asya, Tripp, and I were standing outside my apartment, methodically unfurling a mist net down the sidewalk. Those who live in Uptown Chicago have the privilege of bearing witness to a host of special things; in summer, the neighborhood takes on the identity of a free street theatre of sorts. It is not unheard of to see someone in the middle of Broadway, dressed in underwear and a Burger King crown, yelling conspiracy theories about the pope. Yet, judging from the side-eye directed towards our party, most passers-by had never seen anyone stretch a six-meter net down the sidewalk. I felt accomplished; in Uptown, creating a novel spectacle is no small feat. “Well, if we catch a pedestrian,” Asya, the project’s leader, mused, “that’s more convenient than some bird species we don’t have a permit for.” You can always count on urban fieldwork for its capacity to entertain.
We were prepping the net on the sidewalk as part of a scheme to catch Redheaded Woodpeckers. Up to this point in the season, Asya and I had spent long hours in the field following our quarry through the forest preserves where we conduct our research for the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Urban Biotic Assessment Program. After we’d paid sufficient dues: chasing them through clouds of mosquitoes, thickets of poison ivy, and puddles that were occasionally deeper than our boots were tall, most pairs had divulged to us their nest cavities.
We had designs on these birds—designs we would construct from an array of colorful plastic bands. By placing a unique color sequence on every woodpecker we captured, it would be possible to identify each of these birds to the individual level and, therefore, lessen some of the unknowns about the species’ dispersal and local movements in relation to oak mast. First, though, we had to catch them.
A traditional mist net setup fell considerably short of the height we observed the woodpeckers to travel when they flew around the canopy. While Asya and I brought to the table an intimate knowledge of the woodpeckers, it was Tripp who had the skills to mastermind a mist net we could raise on pulleys until it reached optimal height. Tripp is an industrial climber by trade, and when it comes to the matter of throwing ropes into trees or rigging nets on pulleys, there’s no better man; however, this was his first time applying his abilities to bird banding. Hence, our sidewalk execution of Net-Handling 101.
About a week later, at Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve, we had the opportunity to put our scheming to the test—I’m not certain of the hour, and though we’d been up since long before light, it hadn’t been light for that long. Asya, Tripp and I raised mostly-drained coffee thermoses towards the barely-visible mist net floating over the ravine, indulging in some shameless admiration of our ingenuity. One side of the rig was anchored to the sewer grate, the other to one of those wireless entry keypad posts. You work with what you’ve got, and that’s what we had. The net was deployed and the bird bag was ready. The woodpeckers were beginning to stir, and we were just about to set the audiolure—bluetooth speaker placed on either side of the net.
Then, the gate behind us whirred, opening slowly. A man driving a freshly-washed SUV made his exit. He was dressed for work. I guess we were dressed for work, too, but not in any conventional sense. We appraised each other for a moment. Asya, Tripp, and I were all clad in beat-up work pants and baseball caps, and we smelled strongly of bug spray. At our feet lay several hundred yards of rope, long poles, and a tool box. We were clear outliers in this neighborhood of stately houses and elegant lawns, and that escaped none of us.
Eventually, he spoke, gesturing towards our anchor line. “You all aren’t going to rappel off that post, are you? It would be expensive to replace.” We assured him that indeed we were not going to rappel off the three-foot post and managed somehow to keep straight faces until he was out of sight. Just as we returned to our task, however, a landscaping truck pulled up and disgorged a small army of mowers and blowers. This rendered our audiolure useless, so we conceded temporary loss and lowered the net we’d so painstakingly rigged. Ah, urban fieldwork.
“When I was looking over your application,” Asya said when she interviewed me for the position, “I noticed that you’ve worked in some really interesting places. Why Chicago? It seems a little tame for you.”
It’s true—I have had the good fortune to work in a few far-flung regions. The Bering Sea’s Pribilof Islands, a hike-in village in the Philippine jungle, and even northern Michigan’s jack pine barrens are, in comparison to suburban forest preserves, remote. It is much easier to find a seasonal bird research job that suggests applicants be comfortable with operating four-wheel-drive and solo backcountry camping than one where the optimal hire be unfazed by rush hour traffic. However, I’d never lived in a city before. Chicago was, for me, its own sort of untouched wilderness. When Asya offered the job, I went ahead and took it.
The official title of our project, under the Illinois Natural History Survey through the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, is the “Urban Biotic Assessment Program,” where, in a nutshell, we seek to evaluate the significance of forest preserves in the metropolitan Chicago area to migratory and nesting birds. To achieve this, our work takes several forms: point counts that document each bird observed at the sites; broadcasting recorded bird calls in hopes that cryptic marsh species that might otherwise go unnoticed, like rails and bitterns, respond; the collection of soil and water samples for environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis to evaluate its potential as a further means of detecting these marsh species; trapping and color-banding Red-headed Woodpeckers.
At least, that’s how our permits put it. Accomplishing these goals is rarely so straightforward. By nature, fieldwork is best suited for people who can see the humor when things don’t go as originally planned. And—the Urban Biotic Assessment Program is a liberal supplier of these sorts of moments.
There was the morning at Volo Bog that also happened to be the same morning of an entire elementary school’s field trip. The floating boardwalk shook at their approach, signaling doom for that particular marsh bird playback attempt. Consolation came, though, as the American Bittern segment of the sequence started to boom from my speaker just as the class began filing by. Then there are the many mornings where Asya and I have realized, from outside locked gates, that we observe a different definition of dawn than the Forest Preserves do. Sometimes, their dawn commences a couple of hours later than ours does, which creates another set of urban fieldwork dilemmas, such as “if we park here, will we get towed before we finish our points?” or, in some of the more ambiguously marked preserves, “is this trespassing?”
And, while a lot of my friends in more traditional field settings regale tales of exciting wildlife encounters—hand-to-hand combat with angry macaques or getting treed by moose—I’ve got my own contributions to the genre. They feature the disappointed faces when men cruising my field sites realize that, though my field clothes are androgynous and my figure not particularly voluptuous, I am not also a man; or the horror of tick discoveries at the most inopportune moments, like when I am waiting tables at a bustling Uptown bar.
This is my second year working for the Illinois Natural History Survey. During that time, I’ve logged tens of thousands of individual bird sightings from our points, antagonized dozens of Red-headed Woodpeckers (one of which we captured that morning the universe seemed to conspire against us at Fort Sheridan), gotten almost irreverently excited over King Rail poop, and received one ticket from a speed camera on Irving Park (and probably deserved many more).
When I think back to that first conversation I had with Asya and recall her concern that Chicago might be a little tame for me, I smile. Be it 4:00 AM commutes down Lower Wacker or exalting over watching a Peregrine chase clouds across the troubled sky that comes on a day of northwest winds, I’ve found this position to be many things. Tame is not one of them.