Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bird banding at Black Swamp Bird Observatory

One of the coolest events of the Midwest Birding Symposium for me was the bird banding demos that took place at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. The observatory, about a 40-minute drive from our Lakeside location, offered these public banding demos on Friday and Saturday morning, before the 10:00 AM keynote speaker presentations. Located only a few miles from Magee Marsh (dubbed by many as the warbler capital of North America come spring migration), the observatory is no doubt situated along the migratory path of many birds.

During the banding demo that we attended on Saturday morning we saw at least 15 different individual birds, most of whom were migratory species, and quite a few of which were life birds for me! In this post, I'm going to concentrate on the banding process itself and give you an idea of what it entails. This was my first ever banding experience, so it was interesting to observe that it's not just a matter of snapping a little band on the bird's leg.

By the way, I would just like to clarify that I did not handle any of these birds personally. All birds were banded and handled by the trained staff and volunteers of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. This was all part of a public banding demonstration.

First you have to catch the bird. Mist nets that are 40 feet long and 8 feet high are stretched between 2 poles to catch the birds. The nets are virtually invisible to the birds, and when they fly into the net, they fall into a pocket (the several horizontal rows visible in the photo on the left give you an idea where the pockets are), where they will then be pulled out and transferred to a draw-string bag for safe-keeping until it is time to be banded.

In addition to being banded, the bird will be weighed, aged, sexed if possible, have a wing measurement taken, and fat scored (looking at the amount of fat stored in their abdomen). Here we see this hatchling year female Northern Cardinal being banded, weighed and having her wing measurement taken.

After all the measurements have been recorded, the bird will be released back into the wild. You may have heard or read that a Cardinal in the hand can be a memorable experience because they are vicious biters. The gentleman holding this bird (Mark Shieldcastle, Research Director of BSBO) noted that since this young bird didn't fully have a grasp yet on what her beak was capable of, she was fairly harmless. She certainly had some spunk, though, and was not terribly happy at being handled.

Here we have an adult female Brown Thrasher going through the paces: being fitted for a band, having her abdomen fat examined (how many of us would subject ourselves to that?), and being weighed.

I couldn't resist zooming in on this photo. Just look at this amazing bird. Isn't she beautiful? She was pretty docile in the hand, quite the opposite of what I've observed in the field. A breeding female is pretty territorial and will let you know when you've gotten too close to her nest. It was incredible to be able to see one this close.

A male adult American Robin. Based on the looks of his head feathers, I'd say he's in the process of molting. This Robin was special because he was a recapture (meaning he had already been banded by someone else). They didn't recognize it as one of the BSBO bands, so they had no way of knowing at that moment where it had been banded. All relevant measurements were recorded, and I'm sure they will submit the band number and info to U.S. Geological Survey. According to a pamphlet about banding available at the observatory, they only catch about 5 "foreign" birds (birds banded by another bander) per year. Pretty cool that we got to see one, huh?

This is one of my favorite photos of the entire morning. To me it encompasses the whole of the banding operation itself: seeing that data being entered by hand for each of the thousands of birds that pass through there, all the while having the bird in your hand while you capture its details. (For those wondering, that's a Swainson's Thrush in Mark's hand.)

Tomorrow we will look in detail at some of the other birds that were banded at the demo, and examine their field marks (in non-breeding plumage at that!). Stay tuned.

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The Early Birder said...

Interesting post & experience Heather & I can tell how excited you were to get up close and personal with these birds. Not sure I would want to be tipped upside down to be weighed!! FAB.

mick said...

A very interesting post and the close-up details were especially good. I have not yet seen a banding 'session' but it is great to find a banded bird flying through on migration.

Anonymous said...

The birds are reacting better than I would in similar circumstances. Still, that thrasher has a look in its eye ...

Sounds like a terrific event!

Kelly said...

...great post--very interesting. I have to agree with Wren...the look in that thrasher's eye is daggers!

Neil said...

Very interesting post great work.

Heather said...

Frank - Yes, the way the birds are handled, while it is not harmful, certainly must not be comfortable!

Mick - Thanks, glad you liked the post. It was a really great experience.

Wren - Most of these birds were pretty tame, but I have photos of some other birds that were more fiesty!

Kelly (and Wren) - I know what you mean about that look in the thrasher's eye, but I prefer to see it as wisdom rather than the pure evil that it really looks like...!

Neil - Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

A very interesting post with some great pictures. How can anyone write while holding a bird in the same hand as a pen. It was good to see the whole process from start to finish.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! The zoomed Thrasher looks awesome... and writing with a bird that must be fun it definitely looks so.

Heather said...

Martyn & Jill - Yes, doesn't that hand just look totally comfortable holding both the pen AND the bird? Thanks for your comments.

Aluajala - I, too, think it would be fun to write while holding a bird in the same hand (as long as the bird behaves itself!).

Priscilla said...

Thanks for documenting the whole process! I used to do wildlife rehab, so I've handled a lot of birds (but not banded them). But I've never seen this weighing technique--fascinating! Great solution, except for the upside-down thing. They have less of an evil look in their eyes than I would if I were being handled like that! Black Swamp--my birthplace. So good to hear about another of the many bird and land conservation activities going on there. Thanks!

ramblingwoods said...

Hello Heather..what a fantastic opportunity to get to see and handle these birds. Thank you so much for sharing. I had heard that about cardinals..glad there was no blood letting... Michelle

MaineBirder said...

Thanks for the very informative post Heather.... wonderful photos too!

Heather said...

Priscilla - Thanks so much for stopping by. I didn't know that you hail from Ohio! There's lots of good bird and land conservation projects going on throughout the state... makes me proud to be a Buckeye! Regarding the weighing, I do wonder what it must feel like to those birds to be upside down like that!

Michelle - Glad you liked the post. There were a few birds that wanted to nibble, but I don't think anyone got bitten. I appreciate your visit.

John - You are most welcome, glad you liked it!

Larry Jordan said...

An exceptional post Heather. The banding information is great and I love that last photo of the Swainson's Thrush in the hand with the pen working. Awesome!

I have had a brief encounter with banding in California. I got to hold an American Kestrel and I can tell you, those little beaks are strong and they know how to use them.

Just think of what it would be like if some giant picked you up and did all that stuff. I think I would be biting too ;-)

Banding is very important for research purposes and helping birds survive and thrive.