By Dr. Ian Stewart, Ornithologist and Naturalist
Thanks to a generous donation, Ashland Nature Center and nearby Bucktoe Creek Preserve are hosting a bird banding project that the public is welcome to visit. Bird banding is an important tool for scientists and conservationists since tagging individuals helps us figure out if they remain in the same site year-round, or in the case of long-distance migrants, where they spend their summers and winters and which routes they take. Basically, birds are caught in fine nets erected along trails then carefully removed and fitted with a uniquely numbered metal band before being released. Because the birds’ welfare is the highest priority, we check the nets every 10-15 minutes and do not operate them on very windy or rainy days. Also, it requires many years of practice with extracting and banding birds before one can be granted a federal license to do so.
A Wood Thrush in a mist-net.
With the help of a crew of volunteer assistants (Steve, Angie, Kelley and Carol), we have caught over 150 birds from 25 species, primarily Gray Catbirds, Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals (and yes, they bite!), but also some really neat birds like Brown Thrasher, Willow Flycatcher and Northern Flicker. We obtain as much data as we can from each bird including its age, sex, body size and molt status to answer questions about how these vary between sites and different habitats. It’s much easier to work out the age or sex of bird species if you are actually holding them, and banding birds helps you notice many things you’ve never seen before. For example, the Tufted Titmouse in the top photo below is an adult, but the one in the bottom photo is a juvenile, as can be told by the yellow eye ring and yellow flanges (the fleshy corners of the beak left over from when it was a nestling).
An adult Tufted Titmouse. Can you see the small tick just above the right side of the eye?
A juvenile Tufted Titmouse.
Also, the male Eastern Towhee in the bottom photo below was likely hatched last year (2014) since it still has some brown juvenile feathers on its head while the one in the top photo was likely hatched in 2013 or even earlier as it has a solid black head. Look at those amazing red eyes!
An older adult Eastern Towhee.
A younger Eastern Towhee.
Some features on certain birds are only evident when you see them up close. For instance, the bright red eye of this Red-eyed Vireo is hard to see in the wild because they usually forage quite high up in the trees. In the hand, the red eye is striking and you can also the see the small hook at the end of the vireo’s bill, a feature that distinguishes them from warblers.
A Red-eyed Vireo up close, where it is easy to see the red eye and the hooked bill.
Note that mist-netting is an unpredictable business and so if you visit the banding station, we can’t guarantee you will see a bird being caught and banded. Cooler mornings can produce over a dozen birds though we catch fewer birds on hot, humid days, probably because the birds are less active. Nevertheless, even on quieter days, several lucky visitors have seen some great birds, including Downy Woodpeckers and a Northern Flicker. Woodpeckers are especially interesting up close, as one can see their unusual toe arrangement with 2 toes pointing forward and 2 pointing backward, unlike the standard arrangement of 3 toes forward and 1 back. This helps woodpeckers climb up tree trunks, as does their stiffened, spiky tail feathers.
The underside of a Flicker showing its distinctive toe arrangement and spiky tail feathers.
In addition to its scientific value, bird banding is a fantastic educational tool, allowing for both adults and children to see birds up close. By providing this experience, the Delaware Nature Society is helping people better appreciate key bird characteristics like their feathers and differences between species in plumage color and the shape of their feet or beak. We are also banding nestlings of a variety of species found breeding in our nest boxes, including Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and House Wrens, but also Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees. If we are lucky some of these may turn up as adults next year! Dozens of children attending our summer camps have enjoyed checking out the nest boxes for eggs and nestlings, and some have been lucky enough to hold a baby bird!
Happy campers at Ashland Nature Center holding baby Eastern Bluebirds.
Banding takes place at Ashland Nature Center on Monday and Tuesday 8am -11 am, and at Bucktoe Creek Preserve 8am – 11am, and will run through September. There is no charge to attend the banding, but for non-DNS members visiting Ashland, a trail fee applies. We hope to see you at the banding station soon! Songbird migration has started, and you never know what will turn up in the nets.