Originally posted in the Post and Courier by Diane Knich on Monday, July 13, 2009.
She trudges through the brush and along the edge of Kiawah Island’s marshes almost every day, holding a large metal antennae in the air and listening for the beeps to grow louder from the tracking machine belted to her waist.
If they do, College of Charleston graduate student Sarah Latshaw knows she’s getting closer to a painted bunting she previously equipped with a “mini-backpack” tracking device.
A student in the Master of Environmental Studies program, Latshaw recently landed a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship to continue her studies of the brightly colored birds that are on the National Audubon Society’s watch list. She’s tracking them to learn about the kind of habitats they prefer. She thinks that when her research is complete, she’ll be able to recommend to homeowners how to best landscape their yards to encourage the birds to nest in them.
“The buntings like the areas people like,” Latshaw said. “They’re attracted to the barrier islands.”
But that’s a disadvantage for them as the population on the islands swells, she said.
Citadel biology professor Paul Nolan is Latshaw’s research advisor. Citadel biology professors often advise graduate-student research at the College of Charleston, he said, because graduate-level research in biology is limited at the military college.
Nolan, who studies bird and other animal behavior, said that the number of painted buntings has been declining since the mid-1960s. He thinks that’s probably because of increased development on the east coast, which eliminates places the birds are likely to nest. He also said many of the birds are captured and sold as pets, especially in Mexico where many painted buntings spend the winter. Little research has been done on painted buntings and their habitats, he said. So he was excited to advise Latshaw on her research.
Latshaw said that along the South Carolina coast, the birds nest and have their young from early April to September or October. They spend the winter in Mexico and Cuba.
She will catch about 15 to 20 birds over the summer and attach tiny tracking devices to their backs. The devices are attached with a biodegradable type of thread, she said. She will remove them from the birds once she is done tracking them. But if she’s unable to find a bird, the thread will decay naturally and the bird will be free of the device.
Each day, Latshaw or her technician Will Lemon track the birds with the large metal antennae. When they find one, they mark the spot. Then they note the type of vegetation around and above the spot where the bird was perched.
So far, she said, the birds seem to like vacant lots adjacent to developed lots. She also often finds them along the edge of the woods where it meets the marsh, she said. But those are simply early observations and she doesn’t know what she’ll ultimately find in her research, she said.
After the tracking phase of her research, Latshaw will analyze her data, then decide on her next steps.
As a fellow, she will receive a three-year annual stipend of $30,000 along with a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees, a one-time $1,000 travel allowance and the freedom to conduct their own research.
She said she doesn’t think she would have landed the award had she not done previous research and pilot studies on painted buntings, work that was paid for by the Kiawah Conservancy.
Jim Chitwood, chairman of the conservancy’s environmental science committee, said the group tries to preserve some vacant land on the island and promote environmentally sound development practices.
Most people on Kiawah are going to landscape their yards, he said. Latshaw’s research will help them do it in a way that encourages buntings to nest. “We want to understand what we need under the trees,” he said. “And it’s just really fun to understand what makes them tick.”