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My Morning Observing Biologists Band Songbirds

Recently, I enjoyed a wonderful opportunity that I almost didn’t take.

The Grand Teton National Park Foundation (https://www.gtnpf.org), a local non-profit organization that Dave and I support sent out an invitation to join a hands-on research experience banding songbirds. 

From their invitation:

“This program is a cooperative effort and part of the longest running avian monitoring project in North America known as MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship). Bird banding is one of the oldest and most important techniques used for studying wild birds and includes the attachment of a small, individually numbered metal or plastic tag to the leg or wing to help track movements throughout their lifetime.”

The project is one of the longest running research projects in the country. Originally begun by the Teton Science School in 1991, the work is now carried out by the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation (https://jhwildlife.org/monitoring-avian-productivity-and-survivorship-maps-project/) with support from GTNPF.

You probably know from this blog that I do take a fair number <grin> of bird photos. I do enjoy watching birds of all sizes and attempting to capture something of their mannerisms and beauty to share, and, well, they *are* easier to find than bears here in the park. At least on my days off!

How did I almost miss this opportunity? Well, it was scheduled for a morning Dave and I are on duty for our volunteer jobs in the park.

Fortunately, I/we have a very supportive boss. 

Bear activity is beginning to slow down in the park and the animal jams requiring all hands on deck is decreasing. Our boss encouraged me to take the few hours and enjoy the opportunity, and so I signed up. When the first date was rained out, I came up with all the reasons I shouldn’t abandon my colleagues to do something not directly park related, etc., etc., etc. Luckily, our boss didn’t buy any of it and I went to the second date.

I was blown away by what I witnessed and learned. 

First was that the mist nets used to collect the small birds are located in exactly the same location, every year, for the last thirty years. Whether placed in brush within a forest understory or on the edge of a sagebrush meadow, using the same exact location year after year helps make the story of what is happening very clear — there is no comparing apples to oranges by shifting places for the nets. I think they had about ten. 

The banding effort requires federal permits, and the biologists are specially trained to remove the birds from the nets and in handling their fragile bodies during the process of investigating the birds’ physical condition. 

We were encouraged to follow the biologists on their *very brisk* walks to check the mist nets and collect any birds caught therein. The net line was walked every forty minutes to minimize the amount of time a bird would remain in a net. The most fascinating thing to learn is that essentially, the birds fly into the net and drop down into a fold of the net, like a kangaroo pouch, and just wait. One imagines when hearing the word net that the birds are entangled and struggling but our biologist guide said most often they just rest in the pouch of the net until they are collected. 

I was a bit of jinx, as whenever I went on a net run, there wasn’t a bird to be seen! But the other groups had more luck and when the biologist removed the bird, it was gently placed in a cotton draw string bag, and a clothespin with the net number was clipped on. 

The net run culminated in a return to the data collection area (picnic table) where the birds were processed as quickly as possible to minimize stress. 

biologists processing the birds as quickly and gently as possible — you can see one bird awaiting its turn in a white cotton bag hanging from the picnic table
park biologists assisting the foundation biologists recording vital data

As you’d expect, there was a data sheet to record specific data about each bird, from species, sex, and age, to body condition notes such as: length of its wing, is the bird breeding, does it have fat reserves in preparation for migration, is it molting, and similar questions. 

If it was a new bird to the study, then the leg thickness as measured and a tiny aluminum band with a unique identifying number stamped in it was given to the bird.

the bird’s leg width is measured carefully before choosing the appropriate size ID number band to attach
I noticed that every biologist held their bird in exactly the same manner, allowing them to hold the bird securely but still able to observe the wings and feathers to assess the bird’s physical condition and species characteristics — here we are shown how the new band moves loosely upon the bird’s leg

Had the bird been caught before? One bird was caught twice that morning. We knew because of the number on its brand new band. Other birds may have been caught years ago, young in its life, and now after eight years of migrating between Wyoming and South America, it had flown into the net once more to add to the researcher’s knowledge. 

A few of the most interesting / surprising things to learn: 

  • that by gently blowing on the belly of the bird and studying the feather pattern on its tummy (brood patch) the biologists could determine if the bird was sitting on a nest of eggs (at least that is how I understood it.)
  • by understanding what a bird’s feathers look like when they leave the nest, when they typically molt, and what a new set of feathers will look like, the bird’s age can be determined
biologist noting the thickness of the white band on the feathers to help decide what stage of molt the bird is in leading to determining the bird’s age
  • that sometimes the difference between related species comes down to knowing the expected length of the 11th primary feather on a wing
measuring the length of a bird’s wing
  • that the biologists carry much of this information in their head, but have a reference book close at hand — written in dense jargon — I was shocked to see it did not have any color images, was mainly tiny font text, and included a few tiny pen-and-ink diagrams to assist the researcher in properly identifying the bird they were delicately holding in their hand

As observers, we guests were given the opportunity to release a bird. We put our palms out flat and the bird was rested on our hand. For most of us, the instant the biologist placed the feet of the bird on our palm and took their hand away, the bird streaked off into the trees. One lucky volunteer had a Cedar Waxwing just sit there — until the researcher blew a small puff towards it back and off it went. I am super glad I got a picture of that which I could share with her later. I “released” one of my favorite park birds to photograph — the Yellow Warbler. It wasted no time in departing the scene! 

A mist net near the sage meadow collected a mother and fledgling American Robin. As the fledgling’s wings were not up to the flight back to the nest area, they were returned to their bags and carried back to the area where they were caught. The biologists expected both birds to leap to the ground and into sagebrush cover when they let go, and so they prepared us for the sight of birds going into free-fall. Instead, much to our glee, the birds lifted from their hands and flew up and out to the tree cover. 

Several species were caught: American Robin, Yellow Warbler, and Cedar Waxwing as mentioned, plus Western Tanager, Chipping Sparrow, and a couple Ruby Crowned Kinglets (another favorite). I may have missed others. 

female western tanager
male yellow warbler
Cedar Waxwing not sure what to do next

I had such an amazing few hours that I started asking Google (because Google knows all (haha)) how to become a trained technician to help with bird banding. Believe it or not, US Fish and Wildlife has an on-line introductory course!. https://nctc.expertlearning.net/course/view.php?id=51 

In a few days we are moving to a different campsite in the park — which unfortunately will add an hour to the commute to the JHWF’s second bird banding location that I could volunteer at on a day off. Ah well. 

In just three hours, I had my eyes opened to a skillset and process I never thought much about, met several generous, patient, and talented people working with birds, and discovered another organization dedicated to caring for local wildlife. I am grateful to both charities for their invitation and warm welcome. And thank my boss for not letting me talk myself out of this memorable opportunity. I am very lucky. 

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