Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Big Bald Bird Banding Station, October 2010

Bird banding on Big Bald has been going on for 32 years. Data about migration, habitat, mating, has been collected from Big Bald and hundreds of other locations, gathered by thousands of dedicated and professional volunteers, who spend days out in the weather, usually in remote spots, without much momentary connection to the world.

The Big Bald Bird Banding Station is located along the AT, north bound from Sam's Gap, on the Tenn./N.C. state line above the Wolf Laurel Resort (http://www.bigbaldbanding.org/index.html). You have to have permission from the owners of Wolf Laurel to cross their property and then park on edge of AT right-of-way. A short hike (towards the photographer) and you come an opening where, in this case, the banding station was already in full swing by eight o'clock in the morning. It was coolish sunrise and warm afternoon. The weather along the ridge can change hourly so be prepared.

Operated entirely by volunteers who haul up the furniture, do the measuring, record an incredibly difficult data set, and make a million decisions. They're not in a locality where you can just call or look up information.

The data set includes: age, how age is determined, wing length, weight, sex, how sex is determined, ID, tail feathers, fat, and molt. (And probably more but I'm doing this from memory!). All this knowledge comes from an identification guide that is about the size of the Collegiate paperback dictionary. They have rulers, magnifying glasses, scales, water, paper bags, nets, posts, pliers, bands, records books, and what not. Just to measure one bird. We measured 120 in just one day.

The process is simple enough. An established net pattern is set up (we used 8 nets this day.) Routinely all the nets are checked for captured birds. Someone has to "pick" (the precise term for rescuing a bird from the net. Maybe un-net or de-net instead?) each, noting on a paper sack certain vital information, and then place the bird in the sack. Sounds like a game. The birds bite, claw, poop. They don't like being netted and they are only become quiet because they're too tired to resist any further.

Back at the banding station, someone measures the various lengths and maturity, weight, confirms the ID, when and who's doing the measuring, and attaches an aluminum leg band. Thoroughly traumatized, the bird is released to go tell the folks where he's been for the last 25 minutes. Like their gonna believe this tale and the unlikely story about where the band came from!

Eventually all the records from all the stations make there way to a collection at Cornell University, N.Y. The tally of records so far must be in the millions.

Everything is carried in. If you want to eat, bring it, and take it back. All the instruments make the daily trip but the heavy tables and chairs and the like stay there over the summer (if not the winter.) I think most avid bird watchers are also outdoors people, too. We'll invest in good packs, warm clothes, good rain gear, and extras like hiking sticks, cameras, and tripods. And lug it where it has to go for those good shots and one-of-a-kind views. From our vantage you can see northerly towards Erwin, Tenn. but the southern view is mostly forest interspersed with farms, modern mountain homes, and the ubiquitous cell tower

Our day was capped off by the capture (in another net complex) of a Sharp shin hawk! There was a second net complex set up just up-trail with spring loaded nets, live bait, and a blind. Our group leader, Kathy Gunther, for the day, caught and banded a Sharp-shin hawk. This would be one of the those events you see only on Nature on PBS. He posed quietly but you only get one chance to see it hit the wing! In Kathy's left hand is a small, chip can. While working on the measurements the sharpie is tucked head first in the can to keep him under control and not only to be not feisty but to prevent an opportunistic chunk out of your hand.

Each net has it's own problems of "picking" birds. Sometimes they get themselves so tangled it'll take a second or third person to get them out. They wrap themselves in there fairly tightly, hooked around the claw, and even caught in the barbs of the tongue. The last requires gentle care and the job is done bare-handed meaning poop and cold and sensitivity all come into play. Gloves are forbidden as they dull the tactile senses. And the bigger the bird (bluejay, towhee, robin) the larger the beak and the larger the "ouch" factor. In this photo it didn't take all three to pick the towhee. But, notice, the net is invisible in the photo. The brown-green-brown striping off to the left is the run of the net and the net itself is over the green stripe.  ###

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