Blåstrupe, bluethroat

The bluethroat is a migratory insect-eating species. It weighs around 18 grams and is approximately 14 cm long. Photo: Colourbox

How not to catch a bird

A story of birds, sheep dung and two very amused biologists.

I'm in the mountains of Norway. I'm doing field work, and my supervisor and I are just about getting ready to catch a female bluethroat. Bluethroats are beautiful birds with a blue and orange throat, and a wonderful song. As it is the breeding season, the female birds are laying on top of the nest, warming the eggs. The females rarely move around at this time, so to catch them, we have to get creative.

Camilla Lo Cascio Sætre
Camilla Lo Cascio Sætre is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Biosciences. 

To catch birds, we use a large net strapped between two poles which we fasten to the ground. When the net is placed in front of trees or bushes, the birds can't see it, and they fly in and get stuck. Since the bluethroat's nest is out in the open on the ground, our plan is to run towards the nest, making a lot of sound, to get the female to fly into the net.

With a silent cue, my supervisor and I start running together downhill towards the nest, clapping and screaming. Suddenly, I lose control of my feet. I'm pummeling towards the ground, and time seems to slow down. I'm terrified of smashing the tiny eggs, or crushing their mother, so I leap away as far as I can.

I end up doing a not-so-elegant front flip, and I land upside down with my whole body inside the net. I know I'm clear of the eggs, and I see that my supervisor has even caught the female. I get up to see how much damage I have done to the delicate net, but it's miraculously intact. Even I'm unharmed, at least physically.

After making sure I'm fine, my supervisor starts laughing. There is a huge pile of sheep dung about 2 cm away from where I landed. A potential disaster had been prevented by a series of lucky events. The female secure in hand, my supervisor passes her to me, so I can actually get to work.

Preparing her to be caught again

The first thing I do is fasten a small metal ring around her leg, so she can be recognized if she is caught again. I then measure the length of her wing and her leg, and weigh her. Finally, I take a small blood sample from under her wing. When I draw blood, it's important to have a good grip, so there is no way she can wiggle around.

I'm holding her in my left hand, her head sticks up between my index and middle finger, and my palm and the rest of my fingers are securing her body. She looks quite calm, and I wonder who was more stressed about getting caught in the net – me or her? Oh god, my fall! But it wasn't that embarrassing, was it?

Is it gone?

On our way back to the camp site across the lake, in a row boat, we had met up with our colleague, and I'm sharing the story of my little tumble. I end with: "and I even missed a huge pile of sheep dung!" My colleague points to my cheek, and says: "Oh, is that what that is?"

I freak out, screaming at my supervisor: "What? Why didn't you tell me??", all the while splashing water on my face, shouting: "Is it gone? Is it gone?" They both cannot get a word out from laughing too hard, until my colleague finally admits: it was never there.