Monday, October 28, 2013

A Bird in the Hand……..Is really a wonderful experience!

Early on Sunday morning, Oct 20, a group of citizen scientists converged on the Knox Preserve to join Federal bird banders Bob Dewire and Beth Sullivan for a morning observing the process ornithologists use to study and track songbirds. The process was new to several observers, but has become a rite of the Autumn season for several others present. 
White Throated Sparrow about to be released after banding.
Over two decades of banding records have been compiled for the Knox Preserve where we have studied mainly the migratory birds. Some are just passing through, others arriving for the winter, but of course there are several species that remain year round. During the fall, many species of songbirds fly south following the visual line of the coast line. Many fly by night, and at first light, they seek out a welcoming patch of shrub-land for food, cover and rest. Knox Preserve provides that oasis along a very densely populated coastline.
On several days during October, at the peak of migration, mist nets that are seven feet high and forty feet long are strung up in the pathways through the shrub area of the preserve. These nets are nearly invisible to the birds as they move from area to area in search of food. When they encounter the net, they drop lightly into the mesh pockets and usually remain quite still.
On Sunday we set up five nets at dawn. By the time the group arrived, it was time to make our first rounds of checks. When we approach the nets, it is always a bit like Christmas, eagerly anticipating the treasures we will encounter. We have had some wonderful surprises over the years, from Endangered Species rarities , to hawks and owls. Mostly they are a variety of songbirds that use this habitat for forage. Birds are gently removed from the nets and placed in a special box or small bags and then transported to the station set up with our supplies.
Removing birds from the nets.
Birds in bags waiting for banding.
This Sunday morning was quite successful. In a very short time we captured 26 birds and as all observers were quite quick to note, almost all of them were the same species: Myrtle Warblers, otherwise known as Yellow Rumped Warblers , for the bright yellow patch of feathers on their rump! This is their peak of migration and the big draw for them at Knox is all the berries they can find. Many warblers are purely insect eaters and have had to move farther south as it got colder, but the Yellow Rumps adapt and thrive on berries, some remaining in CT even over the winter. They especially love the Bayberry and waxy Cedar berries that are especially abundant this year.
Yellow Rumped Warbler.
The banding process itself involves placing a light weight metal band on the leg of each bird. Each band has a unique series of numbers, much like our social security number, which will remain with that bird for its life. If it is caught again, or found dead, the band number can be reported and traced. A Gray Catbird, banded here in Stonington was found dead in Guatemala. A small warbler, an American Redstart, was banded here and only several days later was re-caught in the Bahamas! Quite the traveler.
Placing the band.
While we have the bird in hand, it is an opportunity to measure and record other data about the individual birds. All this information is dutifully entered into a USFWS banding database. We determine their gender, when possible, by looking at plumage and sometimes taking certain wing measurements. As on a bell curve, the very smallest of a species of songbirds are often the females, the largest, the males, but there are a lot in the middle and there is just no way to tell male from female, unless you are another bird!
Checking plumage on a Yellow Rumped Warbler.

Measuring the wing chord.
We weigh the birds; every little berry counts for these lightweights. We can also determine if they are the young of this year by checking the skin beneath their feathers on their head. A young bird’s skull bones are not fully fused yet, and the skin will show pink. An adult bird will have full bone cover on their skull and the skin will reveal white beneath.
Weighing a newly banded bird.
Each participant was able to hold and band and do most aspects of the review of these little treasures. Then they were released to the bushes with just a few chirps and mutters, to return to foraging, no worse for the experience.
Song Sparrow about fly away.
In two days this season, we captured and banded over 100 birds. They included Song Sparrows, a White Throated Sparrow, a Red Eyed Vireo, a Common Yellow Throat, a Black Capped Chickadee and over 90 little warblers with the bright yellow rump!
Written by Beth Sullivan.
Photographed by Rick Newton and Al Bach.

For more information about the Federal Bird Banding program visit  USFWS Bird Banding Lab's website here.

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