Are seabirds in the southern Salish Sea increasing or decreasing in numbers? Which species are changing their range? Help us find out. The Puget Sound Seabird Survey (PSSS) is a community and citizen science project managed by Seattle Audubon that empowers volunteer birdwatchers to gather valuable data on wintering seabird populations across the southern Salish Sea. There are about 7 survey sites within the BHAS chapter territory and PSSS is always looking for new volunteers to conduct surveys.
This season we will be expanding the project, yet again, this time north to the Canadian border and the San Juan Islands. We received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program through the Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife to add 15-30 new survey sites, develop an oil spill plan and train volunteers on how to react to a spill.
You can contribute to this vital seabird science by joining the twelfth season of this exciting project. We are now recruiting enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers to help us monitor the status of our local wintering seabirds. Training on survey methodology will be provided at a location near you in September and early October. Volunteers should ideally be able to identify Puget Sound’s seabird species and be available on the first Saturday of each month, October through April, to conduct a 30-minute survey. But, if determining between Lesser and Greater Scaup is a challenge, we’ll team you up with more knowledgeable surveyors. To help us determine each volunteer’s seabird identification skills, visit www.seabirdsurvey.com to take our quick, fun Seabird ID quiz.
Pictured are Purple Martins on two of the newest boxes #40 and 41 and on three of the oldest boxes H2-H3. Two years ago BHAS arranged for installation of 34 new boxes in addition to the 12 older white boxes already there and built by Peter Hahn. After two years of monitoring we found that the birds did not use the newer boxes for nesting. We believed that the box design did not meet the birds’ needs. This spring we removed the 34 boxes and installed six new boxes built by Hank Henry to meet the design from Washington Fish and Wildlife.
This year, as of May 24 there are 23 purple martins at the Boston Harbor colony. They appear interested in both kinds of boxes though haven’t started nesting. Last year a similar number of adults produced seven fledglings.
January 1, 2018 (from David J. Ringer, National Audubon Society)
Today marks the beginning of an exciting partnership between National Geographic, Audubon, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International, and dozens of other partners to make 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” Let’s use this year to bring tens of thousands of new people to the cause of bird conservation! To honor the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Year of the Bird will be about celebrating the wonder of our feathered friends, examining how our changing environment is driving dramatic losses among bird species, and highlighting what people can do to reverse this trend. National Geographic will be creating new bird content throughout 2018 for their various platforms – magazines, books, maps, TV, digital channels, experience events, lodges, and kids programs. There is a dedicated Year of the Bird website at birdyourworld.org, and during each month of 2018, a themed call-to-action to inspire people to help birds. Audubon is creating specialized Year of the Bird content at audubon.org/yearofthebird to help people learn about the threats birds face today and to inspire them to take action in line with Audubon’s priorities – from creating bird-friendly homes to growing native plants for birds to taking part in community science programs like the GBBC to using their voice to advocate for birds.
Planning Consultations with Erica Guttman and Mike Melton
With about 900 species and a government that supports the eco-tourism economy and reforestation, Costa Rica is a birder’s/naturalist’s paradise—and it offers a safe and comfortable was for North Americans to explore the tropical delights of Latin America!
Erica and Mike have self-arranged multiple trips to bird this beautiful and welcoming country, and will put their experiences and in-country relationships to work to help you plan your own independent birding trip based on your needs and desires.
The consultation will include:
Itinerary recommendations based on time available, wish-list for target species, group size and participants physical abilities.
Best lodging options for your birding style, comfort needs, and food preferences.
Best transportation options(s) for your needs and comfort level.
Best local bird guides for each area targeted.
Overview of eco-systems, seasons, and altitudinal migrants.
How to stay safe and secure.
Flora and fauna apps and field guides you’ll want to prepare and which ones to take with you.
Tips on culture, language, making friends and more!
Fascinated by the clouds overhead? Wish you could identify them and remember their Latin names? Ever wonder how they float or how they rain? Want to learn why birdwatchers are naturally good cloudwatchers? Interested in experiencing clouds through new perspectives?
Join Maria Ruth, author of A Sideways Look at Clouds, and two special guest artists at her Olympia home for an afternoon of cloud appreciation.
Sunday April 8 from 3-5:30 p.m.
$30 per person
In this 2½ hour class for the curious naturalist you will:
• Learn how to identify the ten main clouds types (plus a few extras)
• Enjoy artwork and insights from local artist Sherry Buckner
• Experience how music affects your perception of clouds with a live violinist
• Get tips on best local cloud-watching spots
• Try your hand at “lifting” a cumulus cloud in watercolor
• Ask all your cloud-related questions
• Take home a luscious 2’ x 4’ full-color cloud poster
• Enjoy light refreshments (and a cloud stroll, weather permitting)
This class is offered by Maria Ruth, author of more than a dozen natural-history books, including A Sideways Look at Clouds and Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet. Maria serves on Black Hills Audubon Society’s Conservation Committee.
On Saturday, March 3, members and friends of Black Hills Audubon streamed into the big room in the Student Union building on the SPSCC campus, ready to enjoy the celebrated speaker John Marzluff, applaud our award winners, and gather with birder friends and revel in the camaraderie of our shared passions and concerns. We heard a stirring report from our regions’ national Audubon representative Art Wang and welcomed our local “mother of Audubon” Helen Engle. And not least, the event was an opportunity to give big to support our Chapter and its educational and outreach programs!
The funds raised at the Annual Dinner will boost our ability to reach out to new or want-to-be birders with backpacks imaginatively stocked with everything needed for successful birding expeditions, and to support Chapter work in conservation, education, and environmental advocacy. Members generously bought raffle tickets and sale items, and gave targeted donations: we raised $875 for the backpack project, $1140 to support critical environmental advocacy work, $810 for educational programs, and $2005 for general support of Chapter work. Our wonderful success buoyed spirits and kindled even more dedication to our mission “for the birds.” The final sums raised will be reported at a later date.
The gracious acceptance speeches from our Award winners only made us prouder of their efforts in our community for the work they do. Davy Clark was honored for his work in Environmental Education at the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge and Daniel Einstein was recognized for his conservation efforts through OlyEcosystems to protect shorelands for Great Blue Herons and other threatened species. John Marzluff then heartened us with highlights from his years of research examining how birds respond to increasing human presence and the resulting changing environment as we move deeper into habitat areas. Many birds are able to adapt and coexist if we only give them a little help and understanding. His work reinforced our campaign to create bird-friendly gardens and other spaces with appropriate plantings, sources of water and shelter and well-stocked birdfeeders.
Profound thanks to all those who worked so hard to make our evening’s success possible. Sally Nole organized the affair with dedicated help from her committee: Kim Adelson, Margery Beeler, Rick Yale, Paul Moody, Craig Merkel, Deb Nickerson and Kathleen Snyder. Many more volunteers put it all together providing hours of set up, selling and serving during the dinner and cleaning up after it was over. We could not have carried it through without you all. A huge Thank You also, to all the donors of items for our sale and raffle and bar. A special thanks for the donation of the duck decoys and to all who transformed them into coveted works of art. The generosity members showed in offering Nature-related items for sale, or trips or experiences, is invaluable. Your support allows us to do more for birds in our area.
A few people mentioned to board members they would like to get more involved in our chapter’s work. Deb Nickerson is hosting a meeting of any members who wish to learn all the ways in which one can become more a part of our work. All interested in becoming more active, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and plan to meet at her house on Wednesday, March 28th at 4pm. She will email you the directions.
According to surveys by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, bird watching is second only to gardening as our favorite outdoor pastime. It even outranks hunting and fishing. These surveys reveal that 47 million of us over the age of 16 are bird watchers. We buy a hundred million tons of bird seed every year. And bird watching as a business generates $107 billion in annual revenues for the U.S. In Washington State alone, wildlife viewing and related photography add nearly $7.5 billion to state and local economies.
As one of America’s fastest growing hobbies, bird watching can be enjoyed by all ages and abilities, from shut-ins to families with small children to those who travel the globe to add new birds to their life lists.
March may seem early for migrating birds, but resourceful males know that the early bird gets not only the worm but also the best nest sites. A prime location, plus gorgeous plumage and a seductive song, can make them irresistible to arriving females. But the siren song of spring is also a signal that it’s time to get those bird houses and feeders ready for the coming waves of northbound birds. With bird houses, it’s important to make sure dimensions such as hole size are suitable for the species you hope to attract. Chickadees don’t want to trust the safety of their families to nest cavities easily invaded by bigger birds, such as European Starlings. The Internet offers many good web sites with tips and detailed plans for selecting, building and placing bird houses. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website allaboutbirds.org is an excellent place to start. It also has a wealth of other information about birds, including recordings of their songs.
Of course bird feeders need to be kept clean and safe in every season of the year. Well maintained bird feeders that are kept stocked with fresh, uncontaminated sunflower seed, niger seed or suet can attract a colorful parade of backyard birds, both year-round residents and those that make seasonal appearances along our Pacific flyway. Spring migration can be a visual feast. You never know what you’re going to see next.
Perches and feeding surfaces should be scrubbed and sanitized regularly. You can use a 10% bleach solution and follow it with a clean-water flush. Feeders should be placed close enough to shrubs, trees or other protective cover that birds can quickly dash to safety when they are targeted by predatory hawks. But feeders should not be so close that cats can use the cover to ambush unwary birds. Outdoor cats kill billions of birds every year.
As our most visible and accessible wildlife neighbors, birds can be a source of endless fascination and enjoyment as we watch, feed and listen to their delightful spring chorus.
Article courtesy Gene Bullock. Gene has been writing a monthly column for the past five years that appears in six Kitsap weekly newspapers as a promotion for Kitsap Audubon. He is the Newsletter Editor and Education Chair for the Kitsap Audubon Society. Photos courtesy Carrie Griffis. Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches are among the diverse variety of birds attracted to backyard see and suet feeders. Black-headed Grosbeaks are easily attracted with sunflower seeds.
To celebrate the hundredth birthday of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a coalition of wildlife organizations has named 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” National Audubon, National Geographic, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, BirdLife International, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and dozens of other organizations will celebrate the importance of birds in our lives and the role they play in the web of life.
Bird watching is one of America’s fastest growing hobbies; with some 47 million fans. But in the late 1800s it was more fashionable to wear them than to watch them. Wild bird feathers were the fashion rage in women’s hats. In 1886, a New York ornithologist named Frank Chapman went on an unusual “birdwatching” excursion to uptown Manhattan. Instead of live birds, he set out to count the number of women’s hats adorned with wild bird feathers or body parts of wild birds. Chapman counted 542 hats adorned with 174 whole birds or their disembodied parts. Some had not only feathers, but also the eyes, wings, and in some cases, entire bodies of birds. Chapman counted 40 different bird species among them. Boston socialites Harriet Hemmenway and Minna Hall were outraged when they read how commercial hunters were wiping out entire colonies of egrets, terns and herons to supply plumage for the millenary trade. They organized parlor teas to boycott the use of wild bird feathers in women’s hats, and soon had 900 signers. They formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society, one of the first of many Audubon groups to spring up around the country. Their movement led directly to state and federal legislation that ended the commercial trade in wild bird feathers. In 1905, the various Audubon organizations merged to become the National Audubon Society.
On August 16, 1916, the U.S. signed a treaty with Canada, giving sweeping protection to most migratory birds. In 1918, it became federal law as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). This effectively outlawed the commercial slaughter of wild birds to provide plumage for women’s hats. The law kept bird species like the Snowy Egret and Trumpeter Swan from going the way of the Passenger Pigeon.
Today, birds face unprecedented threats to their existence that the MBTA could have not anticipated, such as wind turbines, illuminated skyscrapers, beacon lights on towers, reflective glass windows, oil pits, and domestic cats, to name a few. The MBTA is in need of expansion and updating. It also needs to be vigorously defended against repeated attempts to undermine enforcement.
Visit the “Year of the Bird” website, BirdYourWorld.org to learn about simple steps you can take to help birds, and how small collective actions, stewardship and citizen science can make a difference for birds and nature. (National Audubon photos: Wild bird feathers were the fashion rage in women’s hats in the late 1890s and early 1900s, prompting the slaughter and near extinction of Trumpeter Swans, Snowy Egrets and other wild birds.)
By Gene Bullock, Kitsap Audubon Kingfisher, Feb. 2018
Bird Banding: An Interview with BHAS Scholarship Recipient Michael Szetela
by Anne Kilgannon
What brings someone to study birds? And not just casually, but to apply for a scholarship from Black Hills Audubon to attend bird banding camp and aspire to become a fully-accredited ornithologist? Jim Wilson and I met with Michael Szetela, one of the two successful candidates for BHAS’s annual scholarship award, in the Rare Book Room at Evergreen State College where he is a fourth-year student. Thanks to Michael for his outstanding video submissions seen below in Part Two: Bird Banding. (Michael welcomes inquiries and project collaborations, and can be reached at email@example.com)
Part One: Introduction
When we began the interview, I asked if he had become interested in birds as a kid and, eyes sparkling, he answered,
“Not so much.” He explained, “I have had an unconventional trajectory. I didn’t start my post secondary education until I was 27, when I came to Evergreen primarily pursuing an interest in anthropology. The study of cultural evolution led me to evolutionary theory, thence to biology, along with just a broad interest in the natural world. Going from evolutionary theory to ornithology was the intuitive step. I started at Evergreen doing Latin American Studies programs; I’m still pursuing a BAS with the humanities side in Latin American studies and Spanish, and the science side in biology with a focus in field ornithology. The reason I got into birds was because I took a course in ornithology program with Alison Styring here in my sophomore year.”
“Birds are a great organism to focus on if you’re looking at evolutionary phenomena, especially behavioral stuff: sociobiology. Birds have really intricate behaviors. And besides, on another level, there is the bird/dinosaur connection—the fact that birds are the surviving dinosaurs, essentially, and wondering about the evolution of flight, the mechanics of it and the selective pressures that led to it. As an evolutionary theorist, you can find that in anything—but birds, birds are everywhere! You don’t have to use camera traps all night to get a look at them, like little mammals scurrying in the darkness. So I had that developed interest. I felt, ‘Birds are really cool!’ I was reading about them in books that are more largely about evolutionary biology, where birds were used as case examples. Like why does the Bird of Paradise have this enormous trailing tail that is actually a hindrance to its survival? But gives it an edge in terms of finding a mate. That’s just one of the many ways in which different birds exemplify evolutionary principles.”
“I took this program in the Fall of the first quarter of my sophomore year with Alison—and it was revelatory! I think that any learning experience that really has impact opens you up to a daily awareness of a different dimension of your experience—specifically a spatial dimension with birds, for instance—I never really paid attention to what was going on ten or twenty feet above my head. We bipedal primates are always scanning the horizon all the time. The hallmark of a real learning experience is that you take away this continuing awareness of something. I’ve had the same experience with social sciences classes where I’ve become aware of the undercurrents of injustice in interpersonal relationships that you didn’t realize were there; basically, any heightened awareness of your situation. That’s one of the defining characteristics of education. That program specifically taught me spatial awareness. And that different birds have different characteristics; not only do they look different, they are only distinct “ones” because of adaptative radiation into niche specialties. If there are different forms it is because they fulfill different functions within the community and in the ecology in which they arose.”
“I did that program, but it was just one quarter. I did a bunch of field stuff and really got into it. I did a project on the American Robin. I was living on a farm at the time. One thing she [Alison] focused on that was super important, was bird song analysis and following birds around with tape recorders and making little sonographs that show visual representations of the different qualities of the songs. I got a digital recorder from the media loan room here and a big boom mike and I would follow around the robins on the farm where I lived, making little sonographs. That was really my introduction to ornithology.”
Anne: I was charmed that studying what to some is an “ordinary” bird, the robin, led to such a commitment. I asked, “So, now you find yourself on this path and suddenly: birds become important, become visible, particular birds. Your resume now is huge, then you began to build on your experiences and go a little further in your studies of birds…” Michael was quick to reply,
“But this was only half of my course of study. After the bird class with Alison, I didn’t do birds for a while. That’s been a big challenge for me in my academic trajectory: bouncing back and forth between sciences and the humanities.”
“It did stick with me, though. Now I had a bird book and binoculars. When I went on a road trip or went out just anywhere, I would bring them along. And now: ‘I know what that bird is!’”
“But I went back to Latin American studies for a couple of quarters with the intention of going to Argentina for the Biodiversity Studies in Argentina Program. I was developing an idea of what my trajectory as a researcher would be…what I would like to do. I have always enjoyed travel and adventure and I was looking for opportunities to broaden my skill set and get more field experience. At that point I was just a sophomore….I didn’t have a whole lot more than: ‘I’ve recorded some robins…’”
“So I got into that program where I went down to Argentina for 5 months and it had a really strong ornithology component to it. One of the biggest things I did down there— and we did all kinds of different things down there, the program involved study of plants, marine mammals and birds—I did a couple of weeks-long solo survey of the Manso River valley in the Andean foothills of Argentina. I was trying to assess the bird biodiversity to get a sense of whether or not there was a greater species diversity on the one side of the river that was protected national park, from the other side that was more developed for tourism infrastructure. It was interesting and was definitely a learning experience. I didn’t come away with real results, or answers to my research question. But I did learn some techniques; it was all about learning different research techniques, like learning to do line transepts and sit spots, point counts and the like. And since I coming back I did this bird banding program.”
Anne: “Are your Latin America studies and your study of birds, are they going on parallel tracks or are they coming together?”
Michael: “It comes down to a broader philosophical question about generalization and specialization. I hope to remain a generalist in so far as it’s possible. Economically, professionally, it’s difficult and it’s also even suspicious not to commit to just do that one thing. I hope to work in neo-tropical ornithology, which puts me at the intersection of my interests.”
“I study Spanish language and I study Latin American history and a big thing that I’ve perceived in the sciences and academia generally, and also in field biology especially, is sometimes a lack of awareness about the history of the places that researchers are going to. And there are a lot of folks involved and invested in conservation efforts in the tropics who don’t know about the social and political history and the repercussions of colonialism that are reverberating throughout every social interaction they have in those places. I want to do it all and focus on everything.”
Anne: “It sounds very useful to me to be able to speak the language of the people who live there and understand what’s happened to them, why they do what they do…their context. They live with those birds. Those people are part of that world too. Putting them together makes good sense.”
Jim: “In your study of culture, did the people there have birds actively in their history? Could you see any influence of birding in the evolution of their culture? Or are they separate tracks going along?”
Michael: “They can’t help but cross-pollinate. Those are lots of important questions and fewer answers. Some of them are very controversial, like about how to think about evolution and culture. In terms of birds, they’re ubiquitous, that’s one of their major characteristics is that they are everywhere. Any human culture has a deep relationship to the natural environment in which they arise. I don’t know this, but I would be shocked if you could find any culture—not just indigenous cultures, I am talking about our culture as well – that doesn’t have deep connections and signifiers attached to different bird species. When I say Crow or Raven, you have an association; likewise any culture that is involved in one place would have a relationship with the entities in the surrounding landscape, including all of the individual, recognizable, distinct members of that community. I’ve seen specifics of that reflected in different cultures that I’ve visited. In the United States, you can talk about the Bald Eagle; likewise in a lot of Andean states you can talk about the Andean Condor, which is mythologized and symbolic of lots of different things for lots of different peoples whose associations are going to be as diverse as the people you encounter. In a nutshell, birds have meant a lot to humans, I imagine, for as long as humans have been around to meet birds.”
Jim: “You’ve made a comment you don’t see in the sciences as much of a recognition of culture, that a lot of the research seems to get done in a vacuum in terms of culture. When ornithologists are looking for a certain bird do they understand how important it is to the local culture? Do they miss this lens?”
Michael:“It would be hard to generalize across all the experiences of ornithologists, but one thing that would be representative of how institutional or academic ornithology interacts with traditional cultures is whether or not the bird names are known in the English common form or the Latin binominal, or in any of the many different indigenous languages that have the same bird but with different descriptions. For example, in Argentina, the main bird guide that you carry around with you includes the names of the birds in a number of different indigenous languages as well as the American common name and Latin binominal. I think we are speaking under the assumption that what we’re talking about is fieldwork in places where there are traditional communities rather than fieldwork in the many parts of Argentina or South America, or really anywhere, where we have industrial western civilization. So if you’re talking about doing fieldwork in the Amazon, then one must assume folks there know what’s up there, too. In terms of tourism and infrastructure, the parts of the Amazon I was in, the locals know the birds and they can tell you its Latin name and show you where they are in the book. Because there is an enormous and thriving tourist industry which it is to their advantage to be able to engage with.”
Jim:“That’s our question, the ways these cultures have adapted to birders coming to see birds now, making it commerce, when maybe they had a different meaning before, like as food, or in rituals, I don’t know…it’s interesting. I really hadn’t thought about this before you brought it up. There are intersections that maybe both sides miss. By doing both your disciplines maybe you can get some insights into that…”
Michael: “It’s rough to think about where one’s place is in scientific research when you go into places that have been colonized, and are still often times used as colonial playgrounds such as tourist attractions and destinations. It is really complex, what you’re talking about; the idea that local people—like in Peru, indigenous people engaging with outside commerce that comes seeking knowledge. There has just been such a history of extraction from these places.”
Anne: “Were you able to break through that mold and meet people there on a different level?”
Michael:“I don’t think so. I wouldn’t claim to have broken through… though I like to think I had certain experiences and interactions that were more authentic.”
Anne: “But maybe glimmers, that there is something more there? If you were there, say, ten years rather than weeks or months?”
Michael: “Yes, the question is, what you can contribute. Recognizing the history of extractive processes and seeing if what you’re doing is something other than just for your benefit. That been something to strive for, a goal. I can’t say I’ve reached that. I’d like to learn to contribute.”
Anne:“Well, you’re just starting out, but you’re asking good questions and you are sensitive to context; you’re going to make progress. You’ll probably go into it differently. There is room, and must be a terrible need to approach things differently…”
Michael: “As much as I’d like to work in neo-tropical ornithology, there are plenty of excellent neo-tropical ornithologists from Latin America. So the question is, why should one from here do that work?”
Anne: “There is a value in translating that experience and making it accessible for the those of us who aren’t going to be able to get there…a person who is trained in the Arts and Humanities who then gets into Science helps bring those two branches together. If we all stay in our little boxes, we won’t learn the languages of each discipline…we miss whole worlds. That’s my sense of what you might be doing, putting those two approaches together, and only good things could come of that because we’ve been in our boxes for a long time! It would be a good idea to cross-fertilize and speak to each other in ways that are not as common as they ought to be. So I am very cheered by your ambition.”
Part Two: Bird Banding
Anne: “And now we should ask, where does bird banding fit in this process? What does it like to do this, where did you go out to do this?”
Jim: “And can you tell us about the purpose of bird banding?”
Michael: “That’s good start: why put a band on a bird? MAPS stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship. The only real reason to put a band on a bird is to be able to identify that individual bird, as an individual bird, not just by species. To be able to trace its history from the moment you band it through its arrival at a different station that year or the following year, if it returns that year over consecutive years to the same station. And to get a sense in that way of what populations are doing through the movements of individuals.”
“So in order to do that, you have to catch birds, know how to handle the birds—put little bitty bands on the bird’s leg. [gestures] ‘Oh, I’m going to break it!’ And also know how to assess information: assess the bird’s condition, because otherwise it’s just: ‘Saw Bird 3 again, saw Bird 3 again.’ Then you would know survivorship, that it continued to exist as a living bird for several years, but nothing more.”
“You measure the wings and other characters and weigh the bird. So the way that we learned about it was through the bird banding camp put on by the BNLM—the Bureau for Natural Lands Management—the person who is the instructor is Dan Froehlich. This was over two long weekends, maybe 50 total hours of training at the end of my school quarter. It was held at Glacial Prairie Heritage Preserve. And that’s where the MAPS station is located too.”
“So we’d wake up and get there at 6:30 for the trainings. (not pre-dawn) Later, during MAPS we’d get there at 4:45, as MAPS is done pre-dawn.”
“The first step is learning to deploy mist nets, which are these very fine mesh nets that are strung up. They are about 10 feet tall by 20 or 30 feet long—big nets, basically—that have runners that are layered in a way that creates pouches. When a bird hits the net and kind of falls down in this trough area created by the net, it gets all tangled up. There are different mesh sizes for different-sized birds: small songbirds. Though we got a Cooper’s Hawk last week!”
Anne: “Wow, that would be a little more startling!”
Michael: “Yes! So you deploy the nets, set them up and wait. You go check them at 40 minute intervals. We learned how to extract the birds which is probably, possibly, the hardest part of the process, because you don’t want to hurt them. And you have to do it in a timely fashion so they don’t get too much sun. And you’ve got to hang the nets just right because if the birds dangle onto the ground and get cold, they can die. Yes. So you’ve got to get in there and really delicately extract them. You get these really tiny birds: I got a Bewick’s Wren. And we extract hummingbirds. They look like tiny little bullets. When someone is holding one—I haven’t held one—the hummingbirds are handled by the birder in charge—they’re special and delicate. But we don’t band hummingbirds.”
Jim: “Are the bands micro-chipped?”
Michael: “No, they have unique numbers on them. But they’re entered into a database that is shared across the country. Onsite, we have a computer that must have a satellite hook-up or is hooked up to someone’s cell phone so we can access any given recapture’s history. So sometimes the guys who are more savvy than me will say, ‘Oh, I want to know something more about this bird we just recaptured,’ so they’ll just look it up.”
Jim: “Is it like a bar code?”
Michael: “No, it’s a stamped number. So you have to read it. So we go out to the net and — this was incredible and the most fun I’ve had since I got back from South America! –we go to the nets and extract the birds by delicately pulling individual strands of super-fine mesh. Sometimes they will have spun and twisted: like a tiny frail bird that weighs 9 grams gets all constricted and you have to pull the net off it and hold it like this.”
Anne: “Do you talk to it and try to calm it? Or am I anthropomorphizing!”
Michael: “I don’t think there is anything you can do to calm a bird down at that point. It’s interesting, different species react differently. Spotted towhees struggle like crazy and lose feathers, but most of them think they’re dead; they’re just (gestures) at least until you get them out of there. Then you put them in a little cloth bag and carry them that way. Keep them safe and relatively warm. You get them back to the banding station.”
“Extraction is the technically difficult part and the assessment is the cognitively difficult part because it’s basically only through experience that you can begin to recognize patterns like feather wear. It’s wild stuff and only experienced banders like Dan can say, ‘Oh, it’s got replaced tertials…and it’s got the primary—see the edge on the primary?’ I’m only starting to recognize the patterns.”
“So you pull the bird out of the bag with the bander’s grip (gesture) with the head and neck popping up between your fingers and you do a certain kind of grip that will enable you to work with the bird. You assess its brood patch, which on many species of bird is an area where feathers are lost on the breast in order to enable contact with an egg when brooding. So that’s going to give you an idea of its sex, although some males brood too and get brood patches.”
“It’s one clue, and you’re looking for all these different clues so you can put them together to guess the sex and the age of the bird. You check its fat deposition and you do that by holding it and blowing (softly) on its feathers so they frill out and you can see this naked brood patch. And you lift its leg up and check its derriere, so you can see its cloacal protuberance; if it has it it’s a boy. Although not having it doesn’t automatically mean it’s a female because they become enlarged only during certain stages in its reproductive cycle.”
“You check for molt patterns to see if any feathers have been lost, and if there are new feathers coming in which are visible as little pins or as sheaths at the base of certain feathers. You check its skull by peeling away its tiny little scalp feathers with water and then exposing the skin on the top of its head. It is translucent. You kind of move this patch of skin you’ve created around to look through the skin to the skull to assess it; one of the developmental processes that occur in birds after they hatch is their skulls develop a second layer and you can see the ossification process and use it to assess the age of the bird.”
“And you look for molting: you spread its wing out—you’re still holding it—and look for molt patterns. You assess the wear on the feathers of the wing by looking at the edges and seeing if they have little chips broken out, seeing if they look ruffled in very particular ways and whether you can tell the difference in between certain tracks of feathers. There are way more little different areas of feathers than you have ever imagined—they’ve got primaries and secondaries and greater coverts and primary coverts. You get to know pretty quickly which they are, and eventually you don’t have to struggle to know which ones are greater coverts and whether you can discern a slight sheen on some of them and not others. It’s all about developing pattern recognition through experience.”
“And to weigh them you put them in a little film canister or cardboard tube like a toilet paper roll, upside down to weigh them. It is quite comical.”
“Although, I didn’t say the very first thing that you do, the most important thing, which is if they are a recapture you read the number on their band and put it down and if you do in the process what I just did, and don’t do that first then you’ve done a bad job! And if they don’t have one, you put a new band on. We use the Pyle guide to assess all these characteristics, sort of like if you’ve got your Sibley’s, then your Pyle guide is the extra super-duper bird guide. The only pictures in it are drawings of feather characteristics.”
“And then you release and let them go.”
Anne: “How many birds would you have handled doing this?”
Michael: “Not that many. A couple dozen at this point, maybe up to 3 dozen.”
Anne: “And what was your range of species?”
Michael: “A Towhee; a wren; I did a Red-breasted Sapsucker; a Bewick’s Wren; a lot of Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, a Cedar Waxwing—well, I didn’t do one, but I saw one; a bunch of Black headed Grosbeaks which bite like crazy, they have strong big bills!”
Anne: “Is there anything unusual out there on the prairie that we wouldn’t get here in town?”
Michael: “I don’t know…we saw a lot of warblers, Common Yellow-throats, and there was the Cooper’s Hawk, and we got a Flicker.”
Anne: “Flickers are big! How do you get hold of a Flicker?”
Michael: “I didn’t do that one, the instructor did the Flicker. You hold it the same way. But you don’t do that with raptors, like with the Cooper’s Hawk, you slide your hand up under its belly and hold its leg and hold its wings down.”
Jim:“Are your hands gloved?”
Michael: “No, you’re just kind of careful. I didn’t extract it. There was somebody there who had raptor handling experience.”
Anne: “Did you camp out there or drive out each day?”
Michael: “No, we drove out there every morning. With MAPS, banding dates fall within a ten-day cycle for a certain duration in the summer time.”
Anne: “From early to late?”
Michael: “No, just from the peak bird activity time, from dawn for about 5 hours, every forty minutes. Usually, we end up getting out of there about 12:30.”
Anne:“But it’s busy, an intense time, though?”
Michael:“Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. It’s surprisingly variable. A couple of times we got so many birds that the instructor said, ‘Just give them to me and let me doing them really fast,’ because less-experienced people take forever. The previous session I think I personally banded 7 or 8 birds and then last weekend we got a total of forty birds, which is not much. I banded maybe 3. There were 10 people banding. It’s really funny how it differs.”
Anne: “Well, the weather has been all over the place. And do you write that down, too, what kind of day it is?”
Michael: “I don’t. We have these sheets for the actual birds and maybe somebody takes down all the weather conditions, like the birder in charge. Maybe we should…but I don’t know how we’d use that data.”
Anne: “I was just wondering if different kinds of days would produce different kinds of birds.”
Michael: “I think that’s true. But we don’t get into that.”
Jim:“Is bird banding a universal way to document migration? Is it used around the world?”
Michael: “I believe so. I know that researchers use it around the world. I know that there are major programs like MAPS, at least in Europe and I’m sure, but I don‘t know how, they communicate nationally and internationally.”
Anne:“Birds migrate. Wouldn’t you need someone on both ends of the route?”
Michael: “Not necessarily. If you wanted to know exactly where each one ended up—we’d all love that. I’m not sure how widespread it is except that it is very popular in western Europe. People do it even more than here. There, you literally document them in order to submit your list for your next certificate up the ladder. It’s more controlled because there is that much more interest.”
Part Three: Future Plans
Jim: “How does bird banding training help you with your plans and goals?”
Michael: “It definitely is a great resume builder. I would like to do more bird banding training, not just as a means of getting me somewhere but as an end in itself. It’s something I like to do. For the lucky and talented few, you can support yourself as an itinerant bird-bander and researcher and technician. Dan, for example, does it professionally and that includes doing trainings, not just bird banding. He is involved in a lot of research, but not ALWAYS as the primary researcher, and that appeals to me.”
“It’s hard to say what my academic trajectory will be after leaving Evergreen. Pursuing a post-graduate degree in ornithology means first doing someone else’s research and then eventually getting to do your own research, but also having to accommodate a lot of academic maneuvering in order to do so, and worry about publishing, and worrying about whether you’ve published enough to get a job, and then tenure, and academic institutions and teaching… If there is work to be had as just somebody out in the field getting data and not so much navigating the vagaries of grant writing, application processes, I’d like that. You could continue to develop the skill set; you become a more valuable researcher the more stuff you can do. “
Jim: “Bird banding is a marketable skill on its own…”
Michael: “Not to sound like…but you’ve got to live. And doing something one loves, it’s definitely something! Even just doing the training, you may meet some other Audubon people. Dan is doing some research, going down to Peru this winter to do some bird banding. That’s exactly what I’d like to do. But it remains to be seen….”
Jim: “It could turn into something. If they were looking for people, you’re beginning to have that skill set…”
Anne: “You would meet more people, network. I have no idea how people put this together to make a livelihood.”
Michael: “You do it by being an itinerant researcher and being able to pack up and go to where the job is. Sounds good to me! Go somewhere nice!”
“I was fortunate enough to get a number of scholarships to fund my education next year. I hope to work in some respect in under-graduate research in ornithology, hopefully here at Evergreen. I’ll see what my schedule is in my other programs, if it will coincide with the needs of Alison, the ornithology professor. And I’m going to bounce back to my studies in the Humanities and, probably this year, go to work in Tucson on the border and on immigration justice.”
Anne:“You are going down a path combining your two areas of study that can only be enriching for all of us as you progress and have all these insights. Thank you very much for talking with us today. And all the best!”