Tyler Christensen was counting down the hours for his next birding excursion. He would be capturing, banding, and releasing birds that nest and mate in Hopewell’s Sourland Mountains. But on this trip, he wouldn’t be searching anywhere near Hopewell. He was headed for Costa Rica, a winter home for the song birds who migrate from the Sourlands and throughout New Jersey in the fall.
It was early December, 2012, and Christensen’s destination was the Nicoya Peninsula Avian Research Station (NPARS), which he co-founded to protect a species in potential peril and a driving force of his personal nature, curiosity.
Joining Christensen in Costa Rica would be Hopewell film maker Jared Flesher who would be creating a documentary about the adventures and research findings of Christensen and his NPARS co-founding partner Sean Graesser. A Hopewell native, Graesser is a photographer and bander and works for the Connecticut branch of the National Audubon Society. The NPARS team also includes grounds keeper, birder convert and go-to man Dairo Vinasco; and a small group of committed field technicians. The name of the film would become “Field Biologist.”
The documentary, a presentation of both the Yale and Princeton environmental film festivals, marks its New Jersey premiere at Princeton Public Library on Saturday, June 28, at 7 p.m.
Flesher, who produced “Sourlands: Stories from the Fight for Sustainability,” released in 2012, decided to tell Christensen’s story because he saw a connection between Costa Rica and Hopewell’s Sourland mountains.
“Migratory songbirds fly thousands of miles each spring to find habitat, breed, and raise chicks,” Flesher says in his film journal. “Then they fly … to winter places like the Nicoya Peninsula … In Costa Rica, our team has banded Kentucky warbler, ovenbird, wood thrush, chestnut-sided warbler, black-and-white warbler, worm-eating warbler, and yellow warbler. These are all birds found in the Sourlands forest each summer. These birds would cease to exist without intact habitat at each end of the journey.”
NPARS exists to keep these habitats intact, protecting them from commercial development. This ornithological research and conservation project is run by volunteers and receives contributions from several organizations, including the Washington Crossing Audubon Society.
For two months each winter, NPARS operates several bird banding stations along the eastern coast of the peninsula, collecting data from migrant songbirds and resident Central American species. Volunteer workers net the birds, band and release them, and record the information for databases maintained by the Costa Rican government and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
While filming “Field Biologist,” both Flesher and Christensen blogged about their planned endeavors and surprises along the way. Flesher’s posts range from December, 2012, through early February, 2013. Christensen’s posts include two excursions, the first taking place during the filming, and the second during a follow-up visit a year later.
On January 20 of this year Christensen shared an unexpected event on the way home from a grocery store: “Two sounds drifted over the noise of cars. We knew this to be the sound of the enigmatic and renowned three-wattled bellbird, and it was singing from just up the hill from where we stood.”
Christensen then describes a farcical struggle to document the bird and has the team listening to treetop songs, racing along pathways through hotel grounds and vegetation, and, at last, finding the “spot where we could see, at the top of an ylang-ylang tree, a brown-and-white bird about the size of a pigeon” and become mixed-up with complications that involved the need for telephoto lenses and the ensuing stalled vehicles, running, cursing, gate jumping, and an eventual victory. “All in all in under 15 minutes (which, believe us, is very good time),” he says.
But not all of Christensen’s unexpected discoveries resulted in rollicking road trips — like the time he and Flesher came across a butterfly they had never seen before, or better put, had never heard before. “Hovering just over the log were two white and black butterflies. They were, did our ears deceive us, crackling? Neither of us had ever met a butterfly that makes snap/crack/pop sounds as it flutters. We consulted a field guide as soon as we returned to the research gazebo. Our exact butterfly wasn’t listed, but there was a genus that sounded about right: cracker butterfly. The males crack their wings, either to attract females or scare off other males,” writes Flesher.
On one of the team’s side trips, they traveled to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, famous for its biodiverse ecosystems, in Christensen’s words, “a world-renowned birding hotspot.” There they observed a bird he describes as a poster-species for the conservation of the cloud forests, a bird that has brought attention and funding to the region.
“Without doubt, the most iconic bird found at Monteverde is the resplendent quetzal,” notes Christensen. “The quetzal’s beauty (shimmering iridescent green, crimson breast, and long flowing tail) and its secretive demeanor make it one of the most charismatic of the cloud forest avifauna. The quetzal is at the top of the ‘most wanted’ list for most of the thousands of birders who flock to Monteverde each year to enjoy its rich community of highland bird species.”
Christensen has been interested in nature ever since he was a child growing up in Pennington. His parents, who operated a roofing business, took Christensen, his brother and his two sisters on frequent outdoor vacations. His father, who died about five years ago, was fascinated with reptiles and amphibians. “He deserves a lot of credit for my passion for biology and nature,” Christensen says.
When Christensen was about 13, while on one of their family vacations in Costa Rica, he met a tourist guide who could identify birds just by listening to their songs. “He was a good ambassador to the world of birds. He opened my eyes and ears. I was hooked,” Christensen says. Back home, he became a volunteer for Hannah Suthers’ bird banding station in the Sourlands and earned his master’s banding permit from the U.S. Geological Survey.
After graduating from Hopewell Valley Regional High School, Christensen opted to continue his personal research, deferring a college degree. In addition to co-founding NPARS, he has worked for the Mercer County Park Commission as a nature guide, and today raises chickens and works at farm markets on weekends. He will study at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences and work as an ornithology teaching assistant at the school of environmental and biological sciences in the fall.
Upon returning to the states after the 2013-’14 excursion, Christensen published the results of the NPARS research. During this “productive season,” the team processed a grand total of 529 birds, including 72 banded by early NPARS or other researchers.
Christensen is already planning the 2014-’15 excursion to Costa Rica and is hoping to reach agreements with his Rutgers professors to take exams online.
He hopes that people who see “Field Biologist” will be inspired to get involved. “The natural world is full of interesting and exciting things in need of protection,” he says. “To be a conservationist, you need curiosity. You need to follow the scientific method, the way of thinking. But curiosity is the most important thing.”
Field Biologist, New Jersey Premiere, Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Saturday, June 28, 7 p.m. Free and open to the public. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.
Flesher is scheduling additional “Field Biologist” screenings at universities, libraries, environmental organizations, and for any other interested groups. For potential inclusion, fill out a screening request form at www.fieldbiologistmovie.com
Check out Christensen’s and Flesher’s blogs with stories, research findings, and photos. Christensen’s NPARS blog: www.birdsofnicoya.blogspot.com. Flesher’s Production blog: www.fieldbiologistmovie.com/blog.