2015 Year in Review: Heather Chandler, Front-Desk Coordinator

It’s time to look back on 2015! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2015 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

When I was hired as the newest member of the front desk team in mid-March of this year, I was excited to get to work. Soon, my excitement turned to panic. Would I ever be able to learn the immense amount of information needed to do this job? It was overwhelming. Thankfully, there are a number of resources I could draw from to gain the knowledge needed: Wildlife Center staff! The first few months, I probably averaged about a million questions per day. Now it may only be around a thousand per day. There is always something new to learn.

My first few weeks at the Center were spent cramming as much information as I could into my brain about spring babies so that I would be ready to answer citizens' questions. There were tons of questions about squirrels, cottontails, and opossums! I answered five ringing phone lines all day, almost all with the same question, "What do I do with this baby I found?" I gained more confidence with each phone call until … nestling time! Baby birds were then thrown into the mix of phone calls and incoming patients. I was often unable to complete my intake paperwork, simply writing "bird?" or typing "undetermined bird" for the species.

These poor little birds often suffered my ignorant and bumbling attempts to figure out their names. I relied on my co-workers to help me learn nestling bird species identification. Precocial versus altricial, mouth color, gape flanges, beak contour, down or feathers, eye shape, toe positioning -- these were all clues to help me solve species identification mysteries. Noisy starlings, precocial goslings, so-ugly-they're-cute doves, fluffy black vultures, dinosaur-like chimney swifts and the awkward mockingbirds -- so many birds came through our doors after a wind storm or cat attacks. In between phone calls, I watched our rehabilitation team feed and care for these babies. Even if I couldn't identify them, it was heart-warming to watch them grow and become healthier.

As soon as I felt more confident with nestling identification, nestling season turned to fledgling season. Citizens lined up at the desk with birds I could not identify -- the fledges looked so different from their adult forms. Luckily, there are so many bird watchers and experts on staff, they could guide me through species identification … again. At one point, my days seemed to be a blur of little gray and brown birds. The birds all appeared the same to me but vet team and rehab team knew better. They were amazingly patient in helping me. Many of these fledgling birds were sent back with the citizen, to be returned where they were found. Though the little birds can seem injured when they hop around on the ground, they were actually learning how to fly. The parent birds stayed close by keeping watch over them, feeding them. It was wonderful to have citizens call back to report, after a few days of observation, that the fledglings were able to take off and fly greater and greater distances.

Another season went by, and the case load changed again. Now adult birds were admitted, often victims of cat attacks or vehicle collisions. I was a bit better at species identification this time around. What Virginia state resident can't identify a cardinal, right? Robins, Blue Jays, American Crows, Turkey Vultures, Pileated Woodpeckers … I was feeling pretty good about myself until migrations began. I had never heard of a Red-eyed Vireo, an Eastern Towhee, Dark-eyed Junco, Golden-Crowned Kinglet, or a Scarlet Tanager. I would have never guessed these species without help from everyone else here. And honestly, for a few minutes, I thought the staff was joking when they identified one bird as an Ovenbird. An Ovenbird? I'm happy to report that this was not a trick. The handsome Ovenbird does exist, this particular one was rehabilitated and released.

Raptor migration season began and brought challenges for me as well. Of course, I already knew about Red-tailed Hawks, spotting those frequently in trees beside Virginia interstates. What I didn't realize is the variety of species or that they are split into different families. There’s the Accipiter family, containing the bird-eaters – Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-Shinned Hawks. The Buteo family is made up of the rodent and rabbit eaters -- Red-tails, Broad-winged Hawks, and Red-Shouldered Hawks. My co-workers kept guiding me through identification of these similar-looking species. I enjoy flipping through our Sibley's Guide and searching the 'All About Birds' website from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A terrific help with raptor identification has been WCV's own Classroom Series. Though late in the season, I think I can finally tell a Cooper's from a Red-tailed Hawk from a Sharp-shinned.

It won't be long before spring is here again along with those nestlings. It remains to be seen if I will remember what I learned in spring of 2015. Even if I retained only a smidgen, it is more than what I started with in March. As The Byrds sang, "To everything, turn, turn, turn, There is a season, turn, turn, turn." Year 2016 seasons will indeed turn. I just hope I can keep up!


Keep checking the Wildlife Center's blog for more year-end posts this week!