American Redstart

Bird Banding with Bedford Audubon

For the past nine years, Bedford Audubon – headquarters located in Katonah, NY – has been participating in the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. The program, created by the Institute for Bird Populations in 1989, collects breeding data about birds to discover why and how populations decline. Currently, there are over 1200 stations in the United States and Canada. Scientists, naturalists, and volunteers set up mist nests in June, July, and August. They band the captured birds, and determine attributes such as wing length, weight, age, sex, and whether nor not they have brood patches. Birds that already have bands can further “provide information on survival, reproductive rates, and sometimes, movement patterns.”

Bedford Audubon’s MAPS sessions usually take place on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when I work. Luckily, one session was postponed to a Tuesday. On July 18, I left at 4:15AM to meet with Bedford Audubon’s naturalist Tait Johansson and Krista, their summer field biologist and a college student majoring in general biology. Monday was relatively clear and cool for a summer day. But an intense rain during the night amplified the humidity level. In his first email blast, Tait warned that the banding area can get pretty muddy, and that one should “wear footwear they don’t mind getting wet & muddy, possibly up to above your ankles.” Of all the days to rain like this, it had to be the day before the one time I get my first chance to go bird banding. Summer is my least favorite season for its hot humidity and disease-ridden insects.

At 5:00, Tait, Krista, and I met at Bylane Farm, Bedford Audubn’s headquarters. It would just be the three of us this time, myself as the one volunteer. (The number of volunteers and who shows up vary per session.) Tait drove us to Hunt-Parker Sanctuary down the road. After fifteen minutes of hiking, we departed the publicly established trail to get to the banding station, a small yet spacious plot. Tait pulled a small table from behind a rock. He and Krista set up the banding kit, clipboards of data sheets, and the loaded Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds Part 1.

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The banding table. © S.G. Hansen

Around 5:40, we hiked around the circuit to unravel the nets, which were placed to create a circle with corners. The daylight slowly brightened from pre-dawn dark blue to full-blast summer sunshine. I heard a dawn chorus of American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Yellow Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood-pewee, Eastern Towhee, Common Yellowthroat, Wood Thrush, Veery, etc. More birds than I expected to hear in mid-July.

I was already done with the humidity and also, it seemed, were Tait and Krista. Not  much of our “trail” was muddy, but one particular length – at the very first nets we checked – was so bad we could barely avoid stepping in the the mud. Even the sides of the path were hardly safe. The few planks set on the ground – spread a bit too far a part – were nearly consumed, barely visible like alligators lurking in a swamp. To step on one and then lift up your foot produced an unnervingly loud squelch. We discovered that the first net had a large hole, possibly made by a trapped, furious flying squirrel. The net was declared retired. I supposed it was just as well since the path to this net was the very worst of mud. Still, at other locations, you have to maintain balance carefully as you cross thin logs. It was like playing the child’s game “The Floor is Lava” but with something to avoid literally. Krista remarked that this day was so far the worst in regards to humidity and mud. By session’s end, my pant legs up to my calves were quite dirty. I hosed my boots as soon as I returned home.

All in all, we checked ten nets seven times. The nets – about twenty feet in length – were woven in layers so that birds would be entrapped in pockets. The circuit length measured just less than a mile. So from 5:20AM to 12:40PM, we hiked a little over eight miles. Depending how many birds we caught, each circuit around lasted twenty-five minutes and the data collection roughly the same amount of time. We barely had time to rest between each round.

Since I’m not scientifically trained in ornithology and banding, I merely observed Tait and Krista collect data. There was a lot of new information to take in. I can’t recollect much of it. I was distracted by the excitement of banding for the first time and concentrated on having an opportunity to get so close to birds, actually touching a bird, and watching how Tait and Krista hold the birds.

When collecting data, first they banded the birds if they weren’t already banded. Then they determined age and sex (only if the former were difficult due to the species not being sexually dimorphic) by blowing onto their feathers, which revealed if they had a brood patch (a bald spot on their stomachs), any pin feathers, and so on. Next they measured wing length. Lastly, they measured weight. They dropped the bird upside-down in an old Minute Maid drink canister, which sat on top of a scale. None of the birds struggled in the can. The small space and darkness possibly provided a sort of comfort. Once the bird was weighed, they took a hold of the can, tilted it in mid-air, and jiggled it to get the bird to realize it had an opportunity to escape. And off the bird flew, usually to perch on a branch nearby.

We already caught birds in the initial round: one Veery and one Wood Thrush. The Veery was found in the first net, and the Wood Thrush in the second.

As soon as they saw us, they started squeaking and flapping wildly. Krista first untangled their feet and then their wings and heads. We put them muslin drawstring bags, tightened by a clothespin. I offered to carry the Wood Thrush as we continued the circuit. The thrush was still for most of the time. It floundered intermittently. I held the bag half-an-arm’s length away from my person and stared at it. Krista stated that the birds are fine throughout the process. After release, they continue with their life as if they weren’t captured at all.

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Wood Thrush in the muslin bag. © S.G. Hansen

Second round: two Wood Thrush, one female Northern Cardinal, and one immature male Downy Woodpecker. Since the one of the thrushes and the cardinal were caught in the same net, Krista allowed me to untangle the thrush as she went for the cardinal. I had an OK time with the feet, but the netting was so entwined around the neck and head that I worried I might hurt or strangle the thrush. Krista came over to help. She, too, had some difficulty but managed after some time. Thereafter, I didn’t untangle any more birds. I did help carry them.

Ranking the birds by how much they scrapped for freedom (based on this session alone), woodpeckers take first place, cardinals second. The cardinals squealed shrilly (I had never thought they could make such sounds), but the woodpeckers were boisterously noisy and flapped their wings with such might as if they thought they could cut us. They gave us hell in the bags – they climbed the sides and poked their feet and bills through. Krista told me she tied a bag containing a woodpecker around a belt loop; she could feel the woodpecker’s sharp bill stabbing her thigh.

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Krista unravels the immature male Downy Woodpecker. © S.G. Hansen

As the more experienced bander, Tait got the tougher birds. I didn’t get a chance to see him deal with the male downy since Krista and I went to make another round by ourselves. (We did most of the most of the rounds without Tait, who hung around the station to collect data.)

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Female Northern Cardinal © S.G. Hansen

The third round captured a more subdued group: warblers. One immature Ovenbird (its crown was striped and not a solid buffy color) and one female Common Yellowthroat. The yellowthroat was hard to hold because it was so small.

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Female Common Yellowthroat © S.G. Hansen

The fourth round produced a male Northern Cardinal (as resistant as you can imagine) and a female American Redstart.

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Tail of the Female American Redstart. © S.G. Hansen

Like the female, this male cardinal was poised to bite a finger as Tait held him, his bill slightly open. To pacify the crimson embodiment of pure fury, Tait gave him a clump of paper to chomp on. When the time came to weigh him, I tried taking the paper away. We ended up playing tog-o’-war. When Tait tried, he tore a bit off the clump. Finally, the cardinal simply dropped it on his own.

The fifth round: an immature female Downy Woodpecker, an immature male Northern Flicker, and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

The female downy and the flicker were caught in the same net. The female downy, as expected, vocally struggled as much as the male downy. But the flicker cried out so deafeningly that I cringed and covered my ears. Krista cringed as well while she untangled him. A couple other flickers came to investigate. I saw their silhouettes flutter above and around the foliage. They disappeared when Krista and I left the net. I noted that the flicker was the only species to respond to cries of one of their own.

Krista carried the bags in either hand. She commented on the weight difference, how the downy was light and the flicker so heavy. She handed me the bags to see for myself. It was certainly a difference. The former felt weightless, the latter actually felt like it had mass.

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Krista prepares to band this immature female Downy Woodpecker, which does indeed look downy. © S.G. Hansen

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Tait holds the immature Northern Flicker as he reads through the banding guide. The flicker, amusingly, was a doozy to weigh. © S.G. Hansen

Tait hiked with us during this round and had gone ahead while we untangled the woodpeckers. We rejoined before the last net, where we found a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. MAPS doesn’t collect data on hummingbirds, so Tait released her immediately. She was more difficult to handle than the warblers – so small and flighty that he had to wait for her to stop wriggling for a second. Her ceaseless cries resembled a baby chicken’s vocalization – pew pew pew pew. It sounded heart-wrenching. I briefly wondered if hummingbirds make that sound when their being eaten by praying mantises…. Once she was free, she flew into the net and got herself tangled again. After the second attempt to release her, she flew away for good.

Sixth round: We thought we would have nothing for this round. Caught in the final net, though, we found an immature Gray Catbird and a Carolina Wren. Tait untangled the catbird, Krista the wren. When the wren was fully untangled, it teared off, leaving Krista startled still for a second. This was the second or third that this happened thus far during the summer. If it happens, it happens – with an oops.

The catbird didn’t vocalize much, but it did struggle quite a bit physically because it was a larger bird. Of all the birds we captured that day, this catbird pooped the most. Other birds stained the bags with fecal matter of varying shades of brown. The catbird had clearly eaten blueberries. The stains resulted in an indigo-violet tye-dye job.

Seventh round: One Wood Thrush, our fourth for the session and our last bird, caught in the final net. While checking the nets during this round, Krista and I also raveled the nets. Such an act is harder than it sounds. You have to mind loose areas as you grasp the top and quickly whirl it around. We were relieved to go through the ankle-deep mud one last time for the day and looked forward to showers and naps upon coming home. By the time we returned to the station, the time was past noon. I felt exhausted and fatigued. I couldn’t wait to shower and shuck my outfit. It would be impossible to do this every day.

Krista banded the thrush. While recording the number, she held the thrush under the table (she and Tait often held the birds under the table while writing down data – a natural pose of rest). Somehow, it loosened from her grip. It disappeared. The three of us were fooled by an illusion that made it look like it remained under the table, but it wasn’t there. We chuckled. Then we packed and went home.

Overall, we caught and collected data from 9 species and 15 individuals.

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To the Rescue

One day in April, during my first spring as a birder, as I read on my front steps enjoying the sun’s light and warmth, I heard a muted thud.

I perked up. It sounded like a bird hit a window. Weeks before, I’d read how the frequency of birds flying into windows increases during migration, and what you can do for the bird – if still alive – when you are faced with the situation at your own home. So, I imagined what I would do to care for the bird when the moment arrived. This wouldn’t be like the time I tried to “save” a Black-capped Chickadee fledgling the summer before. Granted, I was not yet a birder and didn’t even know what a chickadee was, let alone understand that I should have left it.

I designed and replayed a scenario with the least amount of incidence. Create a safe space: grab a cardboard box, small towels, and, if applicable, some feeder seeds. Approach the possibly stunned and exhausted creature gingerly. Make it so your presence suggests, I’m not a predator. Ensure its comfort as it rests. Watch it with reassurance as it flies away from your hand with ease.

Ready but nervous to get at it, I slowly walked down the steps. On the driveway sat a motionless male American Redstart. (My first redstart! It’s smaller in real life…) I crept towards him with lowered arms and outstretched hands. It looked like he was staring into space. His head was cocked to the right, his eyes unblinking. When I was less a foot away, he turned to look up at me, squeaked in surprise, clumsily fluttered into my left armpit, and soared away out of sight.

After blankly gaping after him a bit, I went back to reading.