Touch the Sky: Bird Banding with RI Natural History Survey

Master Bander Kim Gaffett holds a bluebird as part of her banding demonstration.

Master Bander Kim Gaffett holds a bluebird as part of her banding demonstration.

 

For even the most casual birder, spring is an exciting time. The warm temperatures mean the return of birds not seen during the long dreary months of winter. Even feathers of the goldfinch, who lingers all winter, bear a dreary greenish color during the cold months. But that all changes come April. Suddenly, there are songs and brilliant feathers everywhere. Feeders fill with the newly returned, and many people dash for binoculars and dust off bird guides in order to identify the latest visitor. But they fly off so quickly. We sometimes hardly have time to make a broad identification before they vanish into the skies again. Details like age or (sometimes) sex or weight are virtually impossible to determine. If only we could hold them there for a few moments.
On a Saturday that truly felt like spring, members and friends of Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RINHS) were able to do exactly that. Under the guidance of Master Bander Kim Gaffett, some sixty people gathered to measure, weigh, and band common birds like black-capped chickadees and robins, as well as more unusual visitors like bluebirds. (“Banding” refers to the placement of an aluminum alloy band around the leg of a bird.) The “Bird Banding Breakfast” was part of RINHS’ series, “Twenty Events for Twenty Memorable Years”, and was hosted by RINHS executive director David Gregg.

The crowd rings Gaffett as she displays a bird.

The crowd rings Gaffett as she displays a bird.

“I’ve been a bander on Block Island for thirty years,” Gaffett told the crowd. Though Gaffett squinted a bit in the morning sun, the morning chill kept the crowd in winter garb. “Block Island is part of the Eastern Flyway, which is the name of the route many coastal birds follow as they migrate up and down the east coast.” Banding birds, she explains, provides ornithologists with important data about population and shifts in migration patterns.

Gaffett collects a tree swallow from a mist net.

Gaffett collects a tree swallow from a mist net.

 

“Normally, a songbird in the wild will live roughly four years,” she explains, “but I’ve had a common yellowthroat (warbler) that has returned four or five times over the past eleven years. That’s pretty exciting.” As many as 95% never make it past the first year, she explains, so when she reunites with one that’s been banded, “It’s so happy to be found!”
As the introduction ends, a group of visitors follow Gaffett to an open field edged by woods. Here, she has set a series of mist nets to capture birds. Mist nets are a tool favored for capturing flying critters. Looking a bit like a volleyball net, the mesh is thin, small, and highly flexible. Those qualities make it difficult for birds to spot, and they become entangled when they make contact.

 

A tree sparrow waiting to be plucked from the net.

 

A white throated sparrow waiting to be plucked from the net.

 

 

 

 

 

As the group approaches, several feathery bundles are tangled in the web.
Despite the awkward appearance of the trapped birds, the net captures them unharmed. It flexes like a spider’s web, quickly wrapping the bird and preventing it from struggling, which could otherwise result in broken bones. Instead, they wait, if impatiently, for Gaffett to come along and free them. As she does, she quickly deposits them into one of several cloth bags she carries, which will hold them until she returns to the temporary banding station.

The nets are each roughly eight feet high and extend 20 feet, and there are several to check. Birds dot the nets, suspended as if frozen in a photograph.  Once the birds are freed from the nets, Gaffett leads the line of people across the grassy field back to the banding station. By this time, the sun has finally begun to warm the crowd, and jackets and hats are doffed in rapid succession. The station is fortified with a variety of instruments and guides to aid in the recording of data.

The crowd returns from checking on the mist nets.

The crowd returns from checking on the mist nets.

Tools of the trade: bird bands, pliers specially designed to apply the bands, and the wooden boxes that hold birds while they wait to be banded.

Tools of the trade: bird bands, pliers specially designed to apply the bands, and the wooden boxes that hold birds while they wait to be banded.

She deposits the birds in a series of wooden boxes, which look like the old card catalogues of library days gone by. One of the first birds from that batch is a tree swallow.

A tree sparrow in the mist net.

A tree swallow in the mist net.

Gaffett dictates information to budding young ornithologist Sam Gregg, the record keeper for the day. One of the first steps is to select a band from the many she has strung on several wires. Each row of bands is a different size to accommodate different species of birds, and each contains a unique code. The code will identify the bird should it be caught again or found dead. That, in turn will enable scientists to get an idea of where the animal has been, along with its health and approximate age. She measures the wing from a middle joint to the end, which will aid in determining sex. Turning the bird on its back, she blows at the feathers on its belly. “One of the things we need to do is get an idea of how much fat the bird has on it,” she says. “Some birds will swell up to twice their weight in anticipation of migration. Others, like this little guy, will have very little, but even those that stay here all winter will need some extra fat to get them through the cold.” The translucent skin on the belly will reveal fat deposits once the feathers are blown aside.
“Here’s where we use our most technical piece of equipment,” Gaffett says, as she smiles and unravels an onion bag from her pocket. She places the bird into the bag and weighs it. “And now for the best part,” she says. Information successfully recorded and bird banded, Gaffett takes the bird and holds it in her open palm. It takes the bird a moment to regain its orientation, then it flies off, to the sounds of oohs and ahhs from the audience.

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With the help of a young volunteer, Gaffett peers at the scale that holds a banded bird.

By late morning, the process has been repeated dozens of times. The visitors, many of them children, have had the amazing opportunity to be the person doing the releasing. One or two have found out the hard way just how strong the beaks that can crack open a sunflower seed can be, but there’s no blood spilled and the kids grin and bear it. Though the temperatures have warmed things considerably, the wind has picked up. That will billow the mist nets, meaning the birds will be more likely to see and avoid them.

The smaller breakfast before the large breakfast.

The smaller breakfast before the large breakfast.

Before the morning ends, there is a sumptuous breakfast buffet prepared by volunteers and enjoyed by the group. A woman walking by with a full plate quips, “I’m so glad that this group loves to eat!” It isn’t a replacement for the rare thrill of being able to hold the birds they so often only watch from a distance, but it still makes for a good way to end the morning.

The Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s “Twenty Events for Twenty Memorable Years” event information can be found by visiting the Survey on Facebook, or on their website, www.rinhs.org .

These two scans are from a list of birds seen and heard compiled by one of the event participants.

These two scans are from a list of birds seen and heard compiled by one of the event participants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scan_20140421 (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An American Goldfinch, not quite into full mating colors.

An American Goldfinch, not quite into full mating colors.

5 Comments

  • Nice report Hugh, thank you.

    • Thank YOU for a terrific morning, Kim! It was a wonderful time, and I envy your work! Check back from time to time, as I try to post new pieces about every other week.
      Hugh

  • Tovarich, your blogs have made many a cold Russian Winter pleasant for me (And here in Siberia, it is always Winter), anu cheeki breeki iv damki my comrade!

    • Hmmm… well, wherever you may be, I’m glad you like the blog. Dasvidaniya, tovarich.
      – H

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