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A fall fairytale: Scientists hang 500 birdhouses to study boreal chickadees

Steve Kolbe, NRRI research scientist, nails a bird house to a tamarack tree in the Sax-Zim bog Wednesday afternoon to encourage boreal chickadees to nest. Their numbers are down due to climate change. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 10
Boreal chickadees like this one are increasingly threatened by climate change. Photo by Laura Erickson2 / 10
t10.17.18 Bob King -- 101918.N.DNT.BOREALCHICKc3 -- From left: Research scientists Josh Bednar and Nick Walton, along with Alexis Grinde, research program manager, plan their route through a section of the Sax-Zim bog Wednesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 10
A red Russula mushroom stands out in the sunshine from a hummock of sphagnum moss in the Sax-Zim bog Wednesday. Bob King / Forum News Service4 / 10
Chase Lindenfelser, field technician, adds sawdust to the inside of the boreal chickadee bird houses for the birds to use as nesting material. Bob King / Forum News Service5 / 10
Alexis Grinde, research program manager at the NRRI, plans the route to where the next bird house will be placed using a numbered map. Bob King / Forum News Service6 / 10
When the boreal chickadee project is complete, the NRRI crew will put up 250 bird houses in the Sax-Zim bog. Of this number, the scientists hope that 20 chickadees will nest. Bob King / Forum News Service7 / 10
t10.17.18 Bob King -- 101918.N.DNT.BOREALCHICKc9 -- Hummocks of cushy sphagnum moss and black spruce and tamarack trees characterize a section of the Sax-Zim bog where boreal chickadees would nest. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com8 / 10
Sawdust is placed in each boreal chickadee bird house to serve as nesting material. Bob King / Forum News Service9 / 10
t10.17.18 Bob King -- 101918.N.DNT.BOREALCHICKc5 -- Josh Bednar, NRRI research scientist, uses GPS to find the right location to place a bird house for boreal chickadees in the Sax-Zim bog Wednesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com10 / 10

FORBES, Minn. — It was a fairytale in the Sax-Zim bog on Wednesday, Oct. 17.

A beautiful solitude held still, with rolling mounds of moss and vegetation snuggled into the ground. Shooting out of the earth were trees decades older than the animals that called the bog home. Century-old trunks of tamarack, black spruce and balsam fir reached to the sky in this unmoving environment.

Josh Bednar trudged through this world, picking each next step carefully. While some mounds could support the weight of a person, others veiled deep puddles that would swallow an adult's leg whole. After roughly 70 meters of bobbing and weaving, he found the perfect tree.

"It's got that boreal chickadee feel," said Alexis Grinde, a research program manager with the Natural Resources Research Institute.

Bednar hammered two nails into the tree and hung a birdhouse about five feet off the ground. One down, 399 more to go.

Bednar and Grinde are out in the Sax-Zim Bog hoping to catch a boreal-chickadee, the northern cousin of the black-capped chickadee. Because the bird is rarely seen in this woodland, they don't have a lot of data on where to find one. However, the team of scientists has a plan.

"The goal is to find a nest, so that we can get juvenile birds and see where the adults go when they start flying," Grinde said. "The question is, do they hang out here? Or do they spread out?"

The NRRI already hung up 100 birdhouses last spring. They plan to quadruple that number this fall and winter, with half going up in the Sax-Zim Bog and half going in a big bog area north of Bemidji. The team hopes 40 boreal chickadees will make these nests their home.

"We're going to learn a ton of stuff about birds anyways in this ecosystem, and we're just hoping that some of those birds will be boreal chickadees," said Grinde.

Then, they'll revisit these nests during the breeding season in March and April, and place transmitters on the birds.

Even with so little known about the species, the team does have reason to believe their numbers may be diminishing. Grinde said it has been designated as a species of greatest conservation need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. While unsure, researchers believe that decline may be related to issues with habitat.

"Those issues are going to be exasperated over time as climate change has more impact on the southern edge of the lowland forest," said Grinde.

Typically, this species of chickadee makes its home in the cavities of tamarack trees, after they had been carved out by woodpeckers that also live in the area. Because those nests are higher up in the trees, it's harder for researchers to safely access them. With these 500 birdhouses closer to the ground, it should make it easier to capture a bird.

When the birdhouses are hung, they'll hold sawdust to make the houses look more like the natural cavities where the bird would live.

"We're just trying to mimic the interior of the cavity to make it more appealing to them," said Grinde.

Despite the Sax-Zim bog's 3,000 square miles being one of the favorite spots countrywide for bird watchers, it's not the easiest landscape to trek, which is why scientists haven't had much luck studying some of its species, like the boreal chickadee. Because researchers don't know how close the bird likes to live near roads, scientists are placing nests between 50 and 300 meters inland.

After a birdhouse is hammered into the tree, the researchers mark its coordinates with a GPS and note its ID number.

"It doesn't make sense to put them all on the road because of heavy vehicle traffic, so we don't want to put all our eggs in one basket near the road," said Bednar.

The project is part of a $600,000 grant for the Peatland Forest Management project. Funded through the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the project is divided into three areas of study: forestry, wildlife and hydrology over the next three years. The boreal chickadee study falls under the umbrella of wildlife research.

Further east about an hour after Josh Bednar had put up his birdhouse, another scientist, Steve Kolbe, walked about 150 meters off the road, through a clearing with Alexis Grinde. They turned right and breached the first layer of brush, with another viable tree insight.

Noting the number written on the box, Grinde declared "233, I'm feeling good about this one."