Bird Banding

All posts tagged Bird Banding

By Ian Stewart, Bird Bander

Sparrows are an identification challenge for just about all birders, including myself, as most of them are small, streaky and fairly dull in color (hence their nickname of ‘LBJs’, which stands for ‘Little Brown Jobs’). Telling them apart is made even harder by their skulking behavior, especially outside of the breeding season, with many of them only popping up to give you a brief glimpse before they duck back down into a pile of brush or long grass.

If you do spot a mystery sparrow a quick way to reduce the number of species it can be is to look at its breast. As lovers of the ‘Golden’ field guide to birds will know, you can quickly divide sparrows into those with a streaked breast and those with a plain breast. In my opinion, however, the best thing you can do is to try and get a good look at the bird’s head. We caught several species of sparrow during our bird banding pilot project at Ashland Nature Center and Bucktoe Creek Preserve and this provided a great opportunity to see the head differences at close range.

The ubiquitous Song Sparrow is common year-round in this area and is recognized by its heavily streaked head with rich chestnut patches, as well as a faint eye ring. The Savannah Sparrow is usually only found in this area during the winter or on migration and can be told by its brightly streaked paler face, usually with a yellow patch in front of the eye, and a pale eye ring. The swamp sparrow is a darker bird overall with a much more subdued head pattern, and has a broad greenish-cream streak above a gray face. Note that both the Savannah and Swamp sparrows have a proportionately longer, thinner beak than the song sparrow and presumably eat different types of seeds. The field sparrow is found here year-round and is told by its short orangey-pink bill and plain gray face with a dull brown cap. The individual seen here was a juvenile bird which still has a fleshy ‘gape’ at the corner of the beak and only a hint of the eye ring it will possess as an adult.

Get to know the common, year-round Song Sparrow first with its brown and gray colored head and triangular "Elvis" mutton-chop sideburns.

Get to know the common, year-round Song Sparrow first with its brown and gray colored head and triangular “Elvis” mutton-chop sideburns.

Swamp Sparrows are found in Delaware in small numbers outside of the summer, and in the coastal zone year-round, where they breed.  They are confusing, but look like a Song Sparrow head without the mutton chop sideburns.  They also have a clear breast.

Swamp Sparrows are found in Delaware in small numbers outside of the summer, and in the coastal zone year-round, where they breed. They are confusing, but look like a Song Sparrow head without the mutton chop sideburns. They also have a clear breast.

White-throated Sparrows are very common backyard birds in the non-breeding season in Delaware with a very recognizable and beautiful facial pattern.

White-throated Sparrows are very common backyard birds in the non-breeding season in Delaware with a very recognizable and beautiful facial pattern.

White-crowned Sparrows are not common, but sometimes come to bird feeders.  They are found here at the same times of year as White-throated Sparrows, their relative.  This juvenile sports brownish stripes on a gray head.

White-crowned Sparrows are not common, but sometimes come to bird feeders. They are found here at the same times of year as White-throated Sparrows, their relative. This juvenile sports brownish stripes on a gray head.

Field Sparrows are fairly common year-round residents in Delaware.  The cute looking face with a blank gray cheek, and pink bill are a clue to its identity.

Field Sparrows are fairly common year-round residents in Delaware. The cute looking face with a blank gray cheek, and pink bill are a clue to its identity.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a sparrow too!  They are very distinctive and the males have a gray hood.  Females have a brown hood.  All of them have a white bill.  They are very common backyard birds, especially in late fall through early spring.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a sparrow too! They are very distinctive and the males have a gray hood. Females have a brown hood. All of them have a white bill. They are very common backyard birds, especially in late fall through early spring.

This is the time for Christmas Bird Counts.  You are welcome to watch birds at your feeder and report them to the official following counts:

Wilmington, December 19

Bombay Hook, December 20

Middletown, December 27

Milford, December 30

Rehoboth, January 2

Cape Henlopen/Prime Hook, January 3

Seaford, January 4

If you want to know if you live in any of these Christmas Counts, and would like to contribute your sightings from your yard, or would like to participate with a group, contact the Count Compiler, Jim White at jim@delawarenaturesociety.org.

 

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!