Bird Banding

All posts tagged Bird Banding

By Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

Some of the coolest birds we have been catching at the banding stations at Ashland Nature Center and Bucktoe Creek Preserve are the ‘tree-dwellers’: the woodpeckers and nuthatches. These birds aren’t always easy to see during the summertime as they spend most of their day deep in the forest, hugging trunks or branches. However, once you learn to recognize the high-pitched ‘peenk’ of the Downy Woodpecker and the nasal ‘honk-honk-honk’ of the White-breasted Nuthatch you soon realize that both of these birds are quite common year-round.

We have caught and banded 11 Downy Woodpeckers since June and they are a treat to handle. Their bill is thin but strong and they have distinctive tufts of stiff bristles over their nostrils which probably stop chips of wood flying up their nose when they are hammering on trees!

Like several woodpeckers, you can tell what sex adult Downies are by checking out how many red feathers they have on their head – males have a red square at the back of their head but females do not. In most birds you cannot tell what sex juvenile birds are but in Downy Woodpeckers you can – the males have a spotted red cap but the females have a spotted white cap. Try to see if you can spot this next time you are out birdwatching!

Woodpecker collage

In this collage, the Downy Woodpecker in the main image is an adult male. In the lower left corner is a juvenile male, low center is an adult female, and the lower right is a juvenile female.

One morning at Ashland a group of lucky visitors were present when a Downy Woodpecker was captured in the same net as a Hairy Woodpecker! The Hairy Woodpecker is a larger version of the Downy but is much less commonly seen or heard, and the two can easily be confused as they look very similar. If you happen to be holding them both however, the difference is obvious – the Hairy is a bulky, powerful bird that is over twice the size of the dainty Downy.

A Hairy Woodpecker is above, and a Downy Woodpecker is below. Notice the beak of the Hairy...it is about as long as the head is wide. On the Downy, the beak is shorter than the head is wide.

A Hairy Woodpecker is above, and a Downy Woodpecker is below. Notice the beak of the Hairy…it is about as long as the head is wide. On the Downy, the beak is shorter than the head is wide.

We have caught 7 White-breasted Nuthatches so far and one of the first things you notice about them is their long thin, uptilted bill, which they use to pry up pieces of bark to get at the juicy insects beneath. Nuthatches can also be sexed according to their crown color, with males having a black crown and females having a paler, gray crown.

A male White-breasted Nuthatch. The black crown and uptilted bill is easy to see.

A male White-breasted Nuthatch. The black crown and uptilted bill is easy to see.

Even though nuthatches are striking birds at any distance they are even more stunning up close, with a sublime mix of black, white and blue-gray feathers and a distinctive patch of pale brown feathers underneath their tail. Interestingly, even though nuthatches spend a lot of their time climbing up tree trunks in the same way as woodpeckers, their toes are arranged like those of most birds, with three toes forward and one back (although the back toe has a long claw, as seen in the photo below). Unlike woodpeckers however, nuthatches will also climb down trunks and branches, and maybe they need three forward-pointing toes to brace themselves on these downward trips?

Note the underside of the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the very long claw on the hind toe.

Note the underside of the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the very long claw on the hind toe.

If you want to see either of these amazing birds, please visit one of our banding stations and you may get lucky. Alternatively, both of them can easily be attracted to bird feeders filled with black oil sunflower seed, especially during the wintertime.

Ian Stewart will be conducting a Bird Banding Demonstration on Saturday, October 10 as part of our programming at the Big Sit.  The Big Sit is an international competition to find as many species of birds from one location, a 17-foot-diameter circle, during the day this Saturday.  The Big Sit will be held at the Ashland Nature Center Hawk Watch, and we will also be offering nature walks at 10am and 2pm, a 1pm lecture on the Raptors of Fall Migration, and food to keep you going!

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.

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.

An adult Tufted Titmouse.  Can you see the small tick just above the right side of the eye?

A juvenile Tufted Titmouse.

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 adult Eastern Towhee.

An older adult Eastern Towhee.

A juvenile 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.

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.

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.

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.

By: Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Last week, we held our annual bird banding program with Doris McGovern at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve.  Doris is a master bird bander from Media, PA.  We set the nets up early and had feeders stocked to bring in the birds.  7 adults and 10 Teen Naturalists attended the banding session.  Why are we doing this?  Education and science. 

The group assembles at the annual banding station at Bucktoe Creek Preserve. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Educationally, by watching a bander work, you learn about feather molt, how to age a bird, migration, feeding and fat (put on for migration), comparative weights of birds, and bird conservation.  There is also nothing like holding and releasing a bird that can get someone excited and more interested in birds.  For photographers, it is a great opportunity for bird close-ups.

Scientifically, we are contributing to the understanding of bird sizes, migration patterns, age, and distribution.  This year, we recaptured a Tufted Titmouse that had been banded at the location two years prior. 

Doris McGovern prepares to band a Tufted Titmouse.

Each bird is carefully extracted from the mist net, which is so fine and thin, that the birds can’t see it.  Next, they are aged, measured, fitted with a band with a unique number, and weighed.  They are also checked for fat level, which is graded on a scale from 1 to 3.  The fattest birds have plenty of energy for their upcoming migration.  Most local, non-migratory birds have no extra fat at all.  The unique number is catalogued with the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab.  This is where the data is kept that was collected for each bird.  If you ever find a band, or see a bird with a wing tag, neck collar, or other identifying marker, this is where you report your sighting for science.

Air is blown through a straw to separate the breast feathers in order to examine the fat reserves on this American Goldfinch. This bird had no fat, which is typical for birds that are not storing it for long-distance migration. Photo by Hank Davis.

In the course of our banding session, we had a steady stream of birds.  Goldfinches, Carolina Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice made up the bulk of the birds caught.  Other birds we netted included an Ovenbird, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, and White-breasted Nuthatch. 

A beautiful Black-and-white Warbler was a great surprise. Photo by Hank Davis.

Doris measures the wing length of a Chestnut-sided Warbler. Check out the cool shade of green on the birds head and back. Photo by Hank Davis

Bird banding exists not for recreation, but for science.  Master Bird Banders like Doris McGovern train for thousands of hours before they are given the reins at a banding station.  This is done so that birds are not injured and that everything is done to preserve their well-being, and that information is gathered in the correct way.  In visiting the banding station, we got up-close looks at birds, and had the thrill of learning how to hold one correctly and release them.  This is the educational part.  Perhaps one of our participants was inspired enough to enter the field of science, or at least appreciate birds that much more.

Joe, one of the Delaware Nature Society Teen Naturalists, releases a White-breasted Nuthatch after the banding process. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

If you like eating a good diner-style breakfast and watching birds afterwards, you may enjoy the program next Wednesday.  We hope to see you there.  Register here.

Birding and Breakfast at Ashland
Program #: F10-015-AS       Max: 20
Wednesday, October 6, 8 -11 am
Member/Non-Member: $20/$30
Leader: Joe Sebastiani

Enjoy a diner-style, full-plate breakfast at Ashland to start your day. Afterwards, take a walk to look for fall migrant songbirds like warblers, vireos, thrushes, and sparrows. Spend some time gazing skyward. It is the height of falcon migration after all!