An Interview with Sara Scott

What do bluebirds, puffins, and raptors have in common? Sara Scott!

Over the past several years, I have been involved with Missoula’s Audubon chapter in a variety of ways. I have gone on field trips, served on the board, and written articles for the newsletter.

More recently, I was fortunate to become acquainted with Sarah Scott – a scientist who has studied bluebirds in western Montana for the last several years. I thought I would interview Sarah about her research both here in Missoula and recently in Greenland for this month’s contribution to the Audubon newsletter!

So Sarah, what is the focus of your bluebird field work in Missoula? What are you trying to find out?
I have been a seasonal banding assistant on Renee Duckworth’s (University of Arizona) long-term field study since 2019. The focal species are Western and Mountain Bluebirds. There are several sites in and around Missoula, comprising over one hundred nest boxes, all of which are monitored for breeding activity during the spring and summer. Nestlings and many adults are banded each year. Tracking the development of the nestlings from egg to fledgling is one of my favorite parts of this field work.

The questions we try to answer change frequently with each graduate student, but the broad topics of investigation for the study have to do with competition between the two bluebird species and the inheritance of behavior, specifically aggression which has some interesting playback on movement and population density.

Because conditions in the natural world (e.g. weather) are always flexing and changing on different timescales and vary from season to season, long-term data is crucial to having an accurate portrait of how things are and how things have changed. Dr. Duckworth has banded bluebirds in Montana for 22 years and plans to continue for many years to come.

What, in your opinion, it the most interesting thing about bluebirds? What sets them apart?
I think the most interesting thing about bluebirds is the variation in personality! One bird can behave so differently from another under seemingly similar circumstances and that is always fascinating to watch. These populations are also special due to the range overlap between the Western and Mountain species in this part of the country. The interactions between the two species can be very different at sites that are quite close together and seem very similar to the human eye.

Several of the observations that have been the most surprising and interesting to me during my seasons on the project have been related to territories and competition over nest boxes. For example, this past season a Mountain Bluebird male was hanging out near a nest box that was occupied by an active Western Bluebird pair with a full clutch of eggs and there was an unusual absence of aggression. One other highlight from this past season that comes to mind is the return of an eight-year-old female Western Bluebird!

How did your interest in bird research begin what got you hooked to this field?
I was in my last year of undergraduate studies in Biology at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. I was completely unsure of what area I wanted to specialize in, when I got an email about an opportunity to travel to Greenland and study Peregrine Falcons with Dr. Robert Rosenfield. I applied, was accepted to the program, and fell head over heels for birds that summer. Quite the introduction!

I know you recently got to return to Greenland! What was it like to study birds in such a remote location?
I did! I was lucky enough to be able to return to Greenland with The High Arctic Institute. It was incredible. The landscape is unlike any other and the visual human presence is so different from what we are accustomed to. I was assisting with breeding bird surveys of several species.

The High Arctic Institute has been doing these surveys in northwest Greenland, specifically in and around Thule, for several decades. They study 25-30 species in one capacity or another, with some short-term projects and some long- term. For many of these species, the Thule area is the northernmost edge of their breeding range. The arctic is warming significantly faster than the rest of the planet, so changes are more likely to be observed in these populations. The Peregrines in this area, for example, did not breed this far north until about 50 years ago, but their numbers in the region have been increasing over the last 30 years. Monitoring species in extremely remote areas is logistically challenging, so they are often under-studied.

Having long-term data on these arctic populations is vital, especially as environmental conditions grow unstable.

The project focused on a variety of species. Many birds we worked with, I had never seen in-person before! We surveyed several species of seabirds that were “lifers” for me. Dovekie, Black Guillemot, and Atlantic Puffin, to name a few! Seeing the enormous cliffside nesting colonies of Thick-billed Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes was one of the most amazing field experiences I’ve had. We also caught and banded two Northern Wheatear fledglings, which was a wonderful surprise.

How do you think climate change and the loss of glacial ice will impact these birds?
Birds, like other animals, are being tasked with adapting to an increasingly erratic set of environmental conditions. Some seem to be able to adjust to unexpected changes better than others and we are seeing the effects of this already. One issue of note for the arctic breeders we were monitoring this summer is the change in the type of precipitation they experience when raising young. As conditions warm, there has been a change from snow to rain during the summer and its increasingly common to see heavier rainfalls, which can all be very difficult to cope with for small, downy young birds.

As this community knows, birds in general are struggling. I have seen in the field how tough they are, but things have not been made easy for them and they need our help, however we can manage to give it.

So, you are back in Missoula working on a research project with Raptorview. What are you trying to learn?
Yes, I am back in Montana to help monitor the fall raptor migration! Migration allows us to see how various species of birds are doing (e.g. are there more or less of a certain species flying along a particular migration route this year?). There are many migration stations at various locations in the US that conduct species counts as raptors fly overhead. Some, including Raptorview, conduct banding operations as well. I spent a season at Lucky Peak in Idaho previously and am very excited to observe this epic movement of birds from Montana this year!

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