By Beth Sullivan
The nets were raised just after dawn. They were heavy with dew and needed to stretch and dry. It was really quiet. The birds were totally silent in the fields and thickets last Sunday when a small group of us gathered for an annual ritual-Bird Banding at Avalonia’s Knox Preserve.
As the sky brightened, we could sense a stirring. Some fluttering in the bushes, the chip notes of Sparrows in the grasses , different chips from Warblers , single notes from some, double notes from Chickadees.
We have been doing this for almost 30 years but the anticipation never changes; we are always excited to think of what may be in store for us on this first day of banding.
The nets are set up along the trails of the preserve. The perfect site is one with thicket rising on both sides of the trail. The dense vegetation is where the birds hide, and rest and feed. The nets are dark filament, and so fine, that they become almost invisible when one stares through them into the bushes on the other side. That’s what happens to the birds. They decide to fly from one side to the other, do not see the net, and get lightly caught in the mesh. Each bird species seems to react to this differently. The little Yellow Rumped Warblers, which are the most abundant birds at this time of the year, seem to just lay quietly; they don’t struggle and rarely get terribly tangled. Chickadees, on the other hand, are little dynamos. They fuss and fidget and grab the net with their feet. When we start to remove them, they peck mercilessly on our fingers.
Our first trip around the circuit always seems to produce the most birds. They are intent on finding food in the morning after a long cool night. A flock of about a dozen Yellow Rumped Warblers, flying generally together, all landed in the first set of nets. It was a promising start. There were several Chickadees requiring patience and gentle fingers, a Song Sparrow and, the big catch - a Blue Jay. When these big fellows hit the net, they often bounce right out. You have to get to it quickly and prevent escape if you want it on your list for the day.
Each bird is placed in a cotton bag or in compartment in a special box for transport back to our station set up with supplies.
|Birds are trapped by fine mist nets.|
|Chickadees stay busy pecking through the whole process.|
|Removal from the net requires very patient fingers.|
The actual process of banding itself is simple - the placement of an aluminum band on the bird’s leg, that will remain with it for life. It does not hurt; it will not impede, and it is like having a social security number on a bracelet. The bird is identified for life with a unique series of numbers. If it is caught again, or found dead, that number can be traced to the very place and date when it was first banded.
While we have the bird in our hands though, there is so much else to learn. We can determine a lot by looking at the plumage. Some young birds have different markings or coloration than older, adult birds. On the warblers, we look at the brightness of yellow patches and intensity of the markings. We also count the spots on the tail feathers.
Sometimes eye color is important. An adult Downy Woodpecker will have red eyes. We also measure wing length as it can sometimes tell us gender, but not always. To determine age, a small drop of plain water is used to spread the feathers on the bird's head to determine the amount of solid bone present. Like a newborn human, the young birds have a soft spot, a place where the bone in the skull is not closed yet, and it shows as a pink patch of skin, not white bone. We also weigh the birds. The weight is quite variable depending on recent food intake, or recent excretion. But it is all important data. It is a lot to keep in one’s head, but we have books with charts and guidance, and lots of practice.
Tally for the day
At the end of the day we had caught and banded 13 Yellow Rumped Warblers, 7 Chickadees, 2 Blue Jays, 1 Song Sparrow and a Downy Woodpecker. We did have a few escapees.
We also caught a Chickadee that already had a band on it. By looking back into the record book, we found that we banded that little bird on Oct 22, 2014. It was also caught again on November 4, 2015. To be recaptured on Sunday Oct. 22 2017 was quite a record!
For me, sharing the wonder of birds with others, especially children, is as much fun as handling the birds myself. To let a child hold a bird for the first time, to feel its light warmth and energy, to look in its eyes and make contact. It is something that child will hold onto forever.
|The Blue Jay is the catch of the day.|
|This young male Downy Woodpecker shows off his colors.|
|To be able to hold a small wild birds is something she will likely remember for a long time.|
Photographs by Rick Newton.