Sunday, October 23, 2011

Birding Up Close and Personal -- Bird Banding 101 -- Part 1

Fall migration here on the coast proves to be a rather bird rich experience as well as, sometimes, a frustrating one.  This seems particularly true when you read about your fellow birders seeing a rare and wonderful species.  And yet, every time you show up at that particular wood pile, the much touted Clay-Colored Sparrow is a no-show!  Perhaps those fabulous rare migrants were there and I just missed them because, as a relative novice, I still cannot recognize them.  My solution in these cases is to pair up with a more expert birding buddy to help me see the birds.  This Fall, I have determined an even better solution -- volunteer to help an expert birding buddy to band birds in what is normally an off-limits bird-rich environment!  Hello Aaron, I am here to help!

My friend, Aaron Given is a wildlife biologist for the Town of Kiawah Island which partners with the Kiawah Conservancy, a Land Trust Alliance member, working to preserve natural habitat areas of Kiawah Island.  They have supplied funding for his bird banding activities on Kiawah Island.  He has been banding birds on Kiawah for the past 3 years.  My recent volunteer banding activity with Aaron on Kiawah has inspired this 2 Part Series on banding.  Part 1 will give you an overview of bird banding research.  Then in Part 2, I will share specifically the wonderful Fall migrants I have seen up close and personal as well as the details of the banding activity at Aaron's bird banding station.

So what is bird banding all about?  The best place to find answers to that question is The Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL), a program of the US Geological Survey (USGS) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.  First, historically, bird banding has been occurring for hundreds of years and the BBL site gives a good overview with interesting tidbits into that history.  For example, I learned that Henri IV's (of France, bien sûr) banded Peregrine Falcon flew off in pursuit of a Bustard and was found 24 hours later on the island of Malta -- a distance of approximately 1350 miles away!

The next and perhaps most important question is why?  For the detailed answer, I suggest you study the information in this link (and for even more details, this one) to the BBL site.  And I will try to summarize to give you the short and sweet and also show you some of the prior banding efforts for which I have volunteered on occasion.

First we learn about migration routes and the dispersal of species.  For example, through bird banding data, scientists have been able to establish that the Arctic Tern has the longest, and perhaps most amazing, migration -- 25,000 miles round trip from the North Arctic to the South Arctic.

Map copied from the BBL site showing migration corridors determined in part through banding data.

Also, researchers may have a specific population study to conduct for which they may be trying to determine a species' behavior and social structure.  This is the type of study being conducted in SC Audubon's Project Protho in the Francis Beidler Forest.  In this citizen science project, Prothonotary Warblers have been banded with the usual federal metal band with their own unique ID number as well as with a unique combination of plastic colored bands which makes each bird identifiable without the need to recapture the bird.  Now by observing the individual birds in their habitat, they are learning about site fidelity, mate fidelity, reproductive behaviors, territory size of this species, etc.

Prothonotary Warbler in Francis Beidler Forest -- June 2009

Prothonotary Warbler in the Francies Beidler Forest just after banding -- April 2009

Banding also allows scientists to determine life spans of different species.  You can see some particularly interesting longevity records published on the BBL site.

The survival and productivity of species are also studied through the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS), a cooperative effort, banding program of the Institute for Bird Populations and banders throughout North America.  Banders at The Avian Conservation Center and The Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC participate in this effort every summer by setting up mist nets, banding, collecting physical data on captured birds before releasing them.  Analyses of the data provide critical information on the ecology of land bird populations, as well as factors responsible for changes in their populations.  Using  this data, conservation and management decisions are made.  On a few of occasions over the past 2 summers, I have volunteered in that effort.

Carolina Wren's wing being measured -- June 2010

Eastern Towhee being measured for his band -- June 2010

Eastern Towhee receiving his "bling!" -- June 2010

Banding data also helps scientists to conduct toxicology and disease researchAdditionally, an annual analysis of banded game birds is conducted to determine the best land management and best hunting regulations for sustaining viable populations.  

So how many birds have been banded?  The BBL has data going back to 1914 but they only have data in electronic format back to 1960.  Since 1960 up to January 2011, the lab has received over 64 million banding records.  And in the past decade, the lab has received on average 1.2 million banding and 87,000 encounter records per year.  You can see more details and retrieve specific data by visiting this link as well as this one on the BBL site.

I hope you will take the opportunity to explore some of the links above to the BBL site.  What we can learn from bird banding data is extensive and fascinating.   And it has the ultimate goal of supporting bird life!  

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