Did you know Murfreesboro, North Carolina is a great place to find a mate? Senior Skadi Kylander and Professors Dr. Heather McGuire and Dr. James “Bo” Dame have found this true for the Prothonotary Warbler. These bright yellow birds migrate to Northeastern North Carolina from Central and South America to find a mate, breed, and raise their young. For a third of the year, these birds call this corner of the world home.
In 2017, Dr. McGuire learned that the Prothonotary Warbler was on watch lists with several conservation agencies. Since 1960, the population of these birds has declined by 40%. It so happens that Northeastern North Carolina is one of the top three breeding locations in North America. Through a combination of problem and proximity yielded an ideal opportunity for the biology professors and majors for field site research.
The Town of Murfreesboro has generously given the Chowan Biology Department access to the Meherrin River field site located less than a mile from campus. The NC Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve System has permitted access to a second site in Kitty Hawk Woods. These areas offer prime “real-estate” for these bright yellow birds. The birds nest in tree cavities that have typically been left by other animals. Fortunately for the Chowan researchers, these birds will also dwell in the human-made nest boxes crafted by biology professors and students.
Building nest boxes was one of the first projects Skadi undertook when she started as a student worker in the biology department. In the summer of 2019, Skadi eagerly began fieldwork alongside Drs. McGuire and Dame. The opportunity for hands-on research exceeded Skadi’s expectations. She enjoys the specific research on the Prothonotary Warbler at the field sites, but also unexpected discoveries. Skadi delights when she and her professors collectively “geek-out” over a plant to be identified or an unexpected bat resting in one of the nest boxes.
One of Skadi’s most memorable moments was when Dr. McGuire placed an adult warbler in her hands for the first time. Skadi beams as she describes the bird, “it was so light and soft.” Now Skadi routinely holds the nestlings and the occasional adult to check their weight and take other measurements. Along with the field research, Dr. McGuire and Dr. Dame have introduced Skadi to grant writing and research presentation.
Skadi has had great success in these areas. In 2019, she received research grants from North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU) and the Carolina Bird Club. In 2020 she received a grant from the Eastern Bird Banding Association. Skadi presented her research at the State of North Carolina Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium (SNCURCS) at Duke University in 2019 and won the Alpha Chi National Honor Society Alfred H. Nolle Scholarship for a paper she wrote about her research.
In January 2020, Dr. McGuire and Skadi presented their research findings at the Dr. William Bradley Salon Lecture Series for the Chowan community. Skadi is the first student to present research at the salon. Together they introduced Chowan to the Prothonotary Warbler and their field site discoveries. Flooding and predators were possible challenges to nest viability at the Meherrin River site, and wasps may have impacted nesting at the Kitty Hawk Woods site. Despite these possible issues, Prothonotary Warblers nested at the field sites and the researchers started collecting data.
After compiling and sharing her research from 2019, Skadi prepared for the 2020 Prothonotary Warbler breeding session. “Figuring out solutions to problems, to make things better” energizes Skadi. With that motivation, she found a solution to the “wasp problem.” Wasps dislike slippery surfaces, so Skadi added a new amenity to the top interior of the nest boxes, plastic sheeting covered in Vaseline. It seemed to discourage the pesky wasps, which may have allowed for more viable nests in 2020.
Skadi enjoys all the aspects of studying these beautiful yellow birds, from time spent in the swamp to analyzing the data and content to review video footage of the birds as they feed their young. This has given great insight into the bird’s diet.
Listening to Skadi, you can understand why she and her professors are so engaged with their research. The birds have value in their beauty and their songs, but also in their bellies. They are great at keeping down the insect population, a welcome benefit to the humans who also dwell in this region.
As Skadi undertakes her final semester at Chowan, the bright biology student prepares to pursue higher education and additional research opportunities. She is open to any field of research: birds, plants, or other animals. These lovely yellow birds will always be special for Skadi. Her hope for them is that other students will seek to study with Drs. McGuire and Dame to continue the work of conservation and research. Perhaps, like Skadi and the Prothonotary Warbler, other students will find Murfreesboro their desired destination.
Story expert from our Fall 2020 Chowanoka Alumni and Friends Magazine (page 30)