Jean-Pierre Barry's Diary
Europe-Africa Song Bird Migration

Friday, August 27, 2004
Thursday, August 26, 2004
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
Monday, August 23, 2004
Sunday, August 22, 2004
Saturday, August 21, 2004
Friday, August 20, 2004
Thursday, August 19, 2004
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Monday, August 16, 2004
Sunday, August 15, 2004
Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Related Sites

Friday, August 27, 2004

It can’t be…this is the last day.  I take all opportunities to walk as many runs before we have to go.  I will miss the people, my new friends from Earthwatch, and the birds.  Around noon, Agnès and her husband drive us back to the airport.  Since some of us have to catch a flight, the group rapidly splits up with very limited chance to talk and say goodbye.

I want to thank Alcoa for making this possible.  For my fellow coworkers, I strongly encourage you to participate in this experience.  You will get a lot more than can be imagined.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

This is almost the end of the most wonderful experience I have ever had.  It seems that I just arrived, and already this is the last full day. So…carpe diem.

The birds are not present in huge number, but the quality is there.  We capture a green woodpecker (Picus viridis), a middle-spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos medius), a treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) and, best of all, a kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).  The latter is wonderfully colored, with a steel-blue back and orange belly.  What is amazing is that the bird will lie completely still when Dr Csörgö puts it on its back!  Later, we will catch a spotted crake (Porzana porzana), a very secretive marsh bird similar to birds called rails.

A heavy storm catches us off guard, so we need to close the nets and, for the first time, wait inside. This gives us a chance to discuss our experience together.  We all wish we could live this again.  This has not been a typical vacation, but I feel more refreshed and relaxed than I have ever been.  I haven’t thought about my work since I arrived in Ocsà.

I now wish to see if it is possible to find a banding station close to home!

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Very confident from yesterday’s experience, I get up early and head for the Elderberry Run.  This turn out to be very quiet, so at 7 a.m. I choose the House Run.  Ouch!  It seems that all the birds got tangled especially for me.  There are so many that I do not return before 8 a.m. when a second run is due!  I get a little depressed about my performance, but Peter and others reassure me that the birds I removed from the net were very difficult.

The night runs do not start any better for me.  I decide to take the Reed Run.  Those planks are treacherous, and I strongly suggest that they be replaced before someone gets severely injured (it is actually what I recommended to Dr Csörgö before leaving)!*  So I am halfway in the marsh when I see a bird stuck in the next net.  I keep my eyes on the bird, but not on the planks.  The result?  I am in for a nice bath in the murky water.

I am not injured but rather mad at myself.  Luckily, I get a little prize for my effort as I bring back a tree pipit (Anthus trivialis), a new species.

*Candid reporting of any perceived concerns regarding safety helps support continuous improvement in safety. Alcoa refers any such reports to Earthwatch for investigation and, if required, corrective action.

Monday, August 23, 2004

When we get up this morning, most of the people are gone.  School starts next week, and the big holiday is over.  This means it is up to us to attend to the nets!  I decide to go on the Long Run all by myself.  It turns out to be a great decision since there is a least one bird in every net!  I bring back 17 birds from this run. 

With the passage of a cold front, we get a lot of fresh new birds.  Actually, there is so many that Dr Csörgö cannot leave the banding table until 10 p.m.  I am getting more and more confident, and I really appreciate the close contact with birds.  There is no new species captured, but it is by far the best day for me.

In the afternoon, I take a long walk to an artificial lake about 30 minutes from the camp.  On the lake, I have the chance to see three great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus).

It seems that we forgot to put the cassette in with the swallow’s calls tonight, so there are fewer birds to band.  Overall, there were 221 birds captured from 25 species…not bad.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

It rained last night, and in the morning it’s very windy and overcast.  Around 9 a.m., it is obvious that we will not set up the nets until the weather clears.

We get the authorization to take the day off and travel to Budapest. After a short train ride, we arrive.  The city is cut in two by the Danube River.  Buda on the west bank is hilly and has many landmarks (Matthias Church, Castle District), while Pest on the east bank is flat and more cosmopolitan.

We wander in Buda before lunch and spend time visiting and shopping.  In the afternoon, the sun comes out as we take a boat ride on the Danube.

At 7 p.m., it is time to take a train back to Ocsà and do the last round since now the weather is very nice again.

I take a chance and go on the Reed Run.  At night, the planks over the marsh are even trickier, and getting the birds out of the net is a challenge.  An incident occurred where a bag containing two swallows fell in the water while waiting to be picked up. Both birds drowned before we realized the situation.  Dr Csörgö is not very happy about this incident.  He takes the safety of the birds very seriously.

Since the nets were up for a very limited time, we have only 159 birds from 17 species.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

This morning a new bander replaced Dr Csörgö at the table.  Since he does not speak any English, I am left on my own to try to figure out the names of the birds that we caught.

My confidence level is rising as I freed five birds by myself on the first morning round.  I did these rounds with two of Dr Csörgö’s graduate students.  During one of the rounds, we captured a male nightjar.  Once again, this spectacular bird attracted the attention of everyone.

The nets are lowered at 10 a.m., and I take a nap.

At dusk when we set the nets back up, clouds appear on the horizon and the wind picks up.  It is decided to set up the nets anyway.  I make the decision to cover the House Run.  The reason is that we are putting on the song call of the bee-eater, and I would like very much to take one out of the net.

My plan works as we catch two of those wonderful birds, which are so colorful with green, brown, blue, and yellow feathers.

As night fell, the weather worsened and Dr Csörgö asked us to close all nets for the night.  If a bird got caught and spent the night tangled with rain wetting it, it would die.

We captured 202 birds from 27 species—a very good day.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Today was a very special day because it is a national holiday.  The day started early, and it was obvious that everyone’s minds were on something else. 

I am getting to know the leaders, and they let me take more and more birds out of the nets.  My bird of the day is a blackbird (Turdus merula).  This is a large bird, but it waits quietly for me to release it.

At 10 a.m., we close the nets and head for the village, where a festival will be held.  The day is very hot—it will reach 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius).  There is a dog show going on.  All the dogs are komodor, a special breed that is typical of Hungary.  It is a large dog that looks a bit like an English shepherd but with long white hair.  Since I am not very comfortable around dogs (and, more specifically, large ones), I head for the other special activity going on:  a cooking contest.

With Agnès as guide, we go from group to group to taste the food.  There is chicken gizzard, wild boar, bull testes, and my favorite, veal tongue.  The last tastes just like what my mother used to prepare, and it brings memories of home that are difficult to control.

At around 4 p.m., I head back to camp.  The nets are set from 6 to 10 p.m.  The heat has exhausted me, and I go to be early.  We had 193 birds and 23 species.  Considering the limited time that the nets were open, it is a remarkable day.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

This is going to be a hot day!  The temperature is already in the low 80s Fahrenheit (high 20s Celsius) when I get up at 6 a.m.  Again, new people have arrived at the station, which means that we will get less chances to help.  Indeed, I can’t get my hands on any birds this morning.  Fortunately I take the opportunity to discuss birds with some of Dr Csörgö’s students.  Some of them have been coming to Ocsà to band bird for 10 years.

In the morning, we catch two barred warblers (Sylvia nisora), the first two of the season.  They are beautiful birds.  The male has bright yellow eyes and a fine barred belly.  This is a treat.

The net is closed early (11 a.m.), and Agnès take us to Ocsà for a visit.  Ocsà has a thirteenth-century church that is still standing.  We have the chance of a private tour that is very informative.  Just like Hungary, the church has seen a lot of change and suffered hardship but survived.  Agnès gives us a beautiful gift when she sings for us.  Her voice fills the building, and when she finishes, everybody remains silent as we do not want to break the charm.

We continue the visit with a tour of traditional houses built just like they were a hundred years ago.  These houses used to have only three rooms: the kitchen, a main room, and a clean room (for visitors).  It is already 5 p.m., so we have to rush back to the station to help.

There was no need to rush back as more people have arrived and there is not much for us to do.  Again, I sit at the banding station and watch Dr Csörgö identify, measure, and band the birds.  It turns out to be a good day, with 216 birds from 35 species captured.

I go to bed early.  We are told that tomorrow will be special because it is a national holiday in Hungary and we will go to the village to attend the celebration. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

I don’t have much to say about today, which went so fast.  I got up early enough so I could help free the birds caught last night.  When night arrives, we do not free the birds after measuring them.  Dr Csörgö explains that a bird may get injured flying out at night, possibly hitting a tree or not being able to find a suitable resting place for the night.  So, they are put back in the bag and left hanging all night.  When the sun comes up, they are getting anxious to be freed.

It turns out that the day is as hot as yesterday, so the nets are in place from 6 to 10 a.m. only.  I am getting better at freeing birds, but I still require help.  Some leaders are still very nervous seeing me handling the birds.  This does not help, so very often I ask them to finish.

I am getting fond of those lazy afternoon talks with my fellow Earthwatch volunteers.  The discussions are very interesting because we are from such different backgrounds.

The nets are put back up at 6 p.m. and closed at 10 p.m.  Again, I stay behind when the light goes down as I do not feel confident enough to get the birds out in the darkness.

The bird of the day is the long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus). This is a relative of the North American chickadee.  It has a very long tail and pretty black plumage. It is also very aggressive and keeps biting whoever is getting their fingers close to its beak.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The good thing about staying up so late yesterday was that today I do not feel any jetlag.  I show up at the banding station at 5:30 a.m., ready to go.  My first objective is to find the right group leader to follow.  I choose Ferenck (Frank), and this turns out great as he is very patient and willing to help.  He actually asks me to untangle my first bird.

Here is the technique.  First, there is no point in working on the bird immediately; it is going nowhere without our help.  Ferenck explains that it is worth it to look at the bird and try to see how he got tangled. You first see what side of the net it came in on, and then see if there are one or more nets tangled.  Once the situation is clear, we start by working on the legs.  The lower leg is very fragile, so we have to hold the thigh. After both legs are freed, we work on the wing.  It is important to remove the net over the elbow and not from the wing.  Finally, we free the head.  This is the most unnerving part, because the bird has two or three strings around its neck, and I am afraid of injuring it.  The trick is to locate the string under the neck, put a finger between the bird and the net, and then pass the string over the head.  To help, you push gently on the beak.

I freed my first bird.  I must be smiling like a kid because Ferenck is laughing at me.  I quickly put the bird in the bag he gives me.  Then he asks what type it is.  In my excitement, I did not even try to identify the bird. (It turn out it was a sedge warbler, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus, a very common species.)  The rest of the morning I try to untangle a few birds, but not many leaders let us do it, so I get a bit frustrated.  It is clear that they want us to gain more experience before they let us go, and I can appreciate that the well-being of the bird is their priority.

Around noon, Dr Csörgö announces that all net have to be closed.  The temperature is now 95° Fahrenheit (35° Celsius), and there is a danger that birds will die from heat stroke before we can free them.

This gives us the time to relax all afternoon.  It is a great opportunity for me to discuss birds with the people here and also spend some time with the other Earthwatch volunteers.  It is amazing how quickly the bonds are made between us and how comfortable we get.  It seems we’ve known each other for a long time.

Around 6 p.m., we set the nets again.  It is cooler now.  At night, they play tapes with bird sounds to attract different varieties, especially swallows on the Reed Run.  This seems to work well, because we have 84 of them tonight!  I find it very difficult to free a bird at night.  My eyesight is not very good, and I have difficulty seeing the net.  I decided to stay at the banding station, but not going to the nets is a disappoint for me.

Once again the last round is at 10 p.m.  The final count is 34 species and 289 birds.  My bird of the day is definitively a wryneck (Jynx torquilla) caught earlier today. This bird, a member of the woodpecker family, is able to turn its neck 270 degrees, hence its name.  It has nice plumage—just like army camouflage.

It is time to go to bed, but not before tasting red Hungarian wine with Dr. Csörgö.  I am starting to wonder how I am going to go back to my previous life.

Monday, August 16, 2004

As it was decided, I met Jody, the other Alcoa volunteer, in Amsterdam. Since we have been exchanging e-mail often, it was interesting meeting her. We also met Karen from British Columbia who will be on the same expedition as us. She works for Starbucks Coffee.

The last leg of the flight was eventless, but I got excited as we approached Budapest. This was really happening!

After a few hours waiting in the Budapest airport lobby, we were finally greeted by Agnes. There are three more volunteers: Jorge from Mexico, Robin from New Jersey, and Sally from Cairo.

After an hour of waiting in vain for two more people, we took off for the camp. Ocsà (pronounce Otcha) is located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Budapest. The camp is just outside the village in a marshy region. The arrival at the camp was complete confusion.  Is it me being tired or is it like that?

The camp is comprised of a main building where the rooms are located (I will be sharing the room with Jorge).  Outside there is a summer kitchen, which is basically a large open place protected with a thatched roof and housing a long table, gas oven, and a sink. This is where all the meals for the next 10 days will be prepared and eaten.  A bit farther away and next to a large tower are the banding table with all the instruments, a scale, and a logbook to record all information on captured birds.  In the field, there are a number of tents where other volunteers, mainly young Hungarians, will sleep.  During our stay, there is a continuous flow of people that will make learning their names impossible.

Dr. Csörgö Tibor (last name first in Hungarian) greets us.  He is the main investigator here and, we later learned, our fabulous cook for our stay.  It is around 4 p.m., and the food is on the table waiting for us.  I can’t say I am very hungry, but it looks great. I am always ready to taste food.

We have just enough time to finish our plate when Dr. Csörgö shouts “control time.” Everyone springs into action, grabbing a bag containing other small bags at the banding table and leaving for the woods.  A bit disoriented, I follow a group.

There are seven distinct routes where the nets are installed.  Each has a special name: Long (Hosszù), Dry Reed (Sáraz Nád), House (Ház), Dam (Gát), Elderberry (Botza), Forest (Erdö), and Reed (Nád).  Every hour, at least seven groups leave with a bag containing smaller bags (each of them with a specific color associated with the route) to bring back the birds.  Each route has between five to 15 mist nests installed.  These nets are 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) high and 46 feet (14 meters) long.  They are divided into six sections of 15.7 inches (40 centimeters) high.  The mesh is about 0.2 square inches (one cubic meter) and made of black string that blends with the environment.  Since the nets are located along a very narrow path, birds will fly from one side to the other and hit the net.  This is where we go into action.

The first round I did was on the Dam (Gát) Run.  I only observe since my guide was not able to speak English and I did not feel ready to untangle a bird.  Once the round is finished, we bring the bags containing the birds back to the station.  Dr. Csörgö takes them out one at the time for identification, measurement, banding, weighing, and finally releasing.  The first night there is no explanation about what we are expected to do or how to do it.  I spent my time trying to figure out who is the best guide.  Very soon I realize that Monika is the person I was looking for.  She is patient, speaks very good English, and is willing to teach.   Later that night, I sit at the banding table and try to identify the birds that have come out of the bags.  I fail miserably, as I have not studied hard enough.  Luckily for me, Dr. Csörgö is very patient.

Another meal is prepared for us at 8 p.m.  I try to enjoy the food, but by now I am exhausted.  There will be other round later, and the final one is at 10  p.m.

Today we have captured 26 species and 251 birds (some recaptured from previous banding days).  The most spectacular one is indeed the European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus).  This is a night bird that catches insects.  Its mouth is very large, and stiff bristles around the beak detect insects.  It turns its head rapidly and catches them.  The Latin name (which by now I use in my conversation with the people here since most of them know only Hungarian bird names and I know only the French ones) means “goat sucker.” People in the past thought that the birds, which stay on the ground during the day, would suck a goat with it huge mouth.

It is finally time to go to bed, and I have been up 36 hours straight.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Travel day.

I will never understand why someone would choose not to sit by the window on a flight. Of course, I am only five-foot-six-inches (1.68 meters) tall, and legroom is not an issue for me!

Flying over the St. Lawrence Gulf and looking down at the Saguenay Fjord is always an experience.  But this is only the first part of my journey, as I have to cross the Atlantic Ocean and land in the old continent.

As I travel effortlessly, I can take some time to think of bird migration. It will always amaze me that a bird weighing less than 0.3 ounces (10 grams) can travel over such distance. What is it that would make them travel so far?

Hypotheses suggest this is a remnant of the last glaciations 10,000 years ago, when most of the northern region was covered with ice. This, they suggest, forced birds to retreat to more suitable habitat in the tropics and imprinted them with what would become a migration pattern. I find that difficult to believe since glaciations is a very long process compared to a bird’s life span. It is obvious that birds had to retreat during glaciations—a winter in Quebec will convince you of that—but how could a glacier’s retreat that lasts over 1,000 years induce migration?

I prefer to think that migration evolved from the fact that a source of food and an ecological niche was available in the northern region, and that adventurous birds discovered them. Those birds had the advantage of having food and habitat favorable to raise a family, but only if they learned to leave for winter!

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Less than two weeks left before my adventure begins! I can't believe it.

I know I will not be traveling to untamed territory, cutting vines with a machete and discovering unknown creatures. If I could have chosen an expedition, it would certainly have been this one. Let me explain. For years, I have wanted to travel to Hungary. Twice, actually, I booked a flight and made arrangements only to cancel the trip at the last minute because of work. Add this to the fact that I have been bird watching since my teenage years, waking up with the sun, and going to odd places just to see my little feathered friends. Imagine my reaction in January when I received an e-mail informing me that I was going to spend 10 days banding birds about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Budapest.

I will be helping a team catch birds just before they start their migration to southern Europe and Africa. I will be holding the birds—no hard work trying to get a glimpse in a bush or the frustration of missing by a few hours the bird that everybody else saw. And all this will be happening in Hungary. Yes, I am getting all excited.

I could not go unprepared. So, first I ordered a field guide of European birds to replace an old one that got damaged during one of my travels. I have very little experience in European birds, so I've tried to get to know them. It is not as easy as it may look. European bird families (especially passerine) are different from the ones I am used to in North America. Luckily, I have the list of the birds that were captured at Ocsa (the location at which I will be posted) in the previous years.

I also bought a self-learning Hungarian language book. Magyar, as it is called, is not an easy language. Since it's not part of the Indo-European language group, there seems to be no common ground to French or English (languages that I know best) or even German. After a couple months struggling, I am still at the "greeting" and "ordering a meal" lessons. All I hope is that there is chicken goulash on the menu every night!

I will be meeting with Jody Warner, another Alcoa employee on this trip, in Amsterdam, and we will fly together to Budapest to meet the rest of the team. We have been exchanging e-mails and sharing ideas on what to expect. I don't think this trip is going to be like anything I have experienced before.

Related Sites

An Introduction to Bird Migration
This article about bird migration from Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, also contains useful links.

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
This center is dedicated to fostering greater understanding, appreciation, and protection of the "grand phenomenon" of bird migration.

The Mystery of Bird Migration
Why birds migrate, how they find their way, how they strategize their flights, and more. Includes links to useful information about birds.

Migration Facts
Interesting facts about the migration of butterflies, birds, and marine mammals.

Earthwatch Institute

Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.

Europe-Africa Song Bird Migration

Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.