Bird Banding Selfies

Bird Banders in the News Again!

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We caught a kingfisher! And I got to hold it! This is serious stuff. Hence the serious expression on my face.

Last week we had a group from the Martin Meylin Middle School (which is located somewhere in Pennsylvania) visit the banding station. They were such a great group! They were very engaged, and asked great questions. Continue reading

TSS on Wyoming Public Radio

A few weeks ago we had a reporter and photographer from Wyoming Public Radio come out to visit our banding station. They were gathering material for a few different pieces, both about bird banding and also about Teton Science Schools education programs. There might be something more about banding coming out in the future, but for now here’s a radio segment they did about one of the summer camps. You can listen to (or read) the radio segment here: Continue reading

Kids (and Grownups) Say the Darndest Things

I spent last summer in Wyoming, where I was working with the Teton Science Schools to band birds. I won’t go into too much about what that entailed, but see Bird Banding With the Teton Science Schools; What Is A Mist Net?; How To Catch A Bird in A Mist Net; and Feathered Friday Article for more details.

Sometimes we would have visitors to our banding stations, educational groups made up of school-aged children and/or adults. It was great fun, sharing all the birds we caught with them, and hopefully passing on some of the passion that we all have for nature and birds. I’m going back again this May, and am very much looking forward to it. Songbirds and the Tetons, what more could one possibly want in a summer?


Sometimes people say some, shall we say, interesting things.

I’d written down some of these gems, and then forgotten about them. To stumble upon them now brings back all sorts of wonderful memories of summer in the Tetons. I can’t say I dislike winter in Colorado, but it’s not quite the same. There’s a little more snow, for one. And it’s slightly colder. Like, I don’t know, maybe by 50 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit or so (my car told me it was negative 9 here in Boulder last week when I got up to go climbing at 6 a.m. Yeah, I’m not sure why I thought that was a good idea either. At least it was inside. Climbing and birds are two of the only things I’m willing to wake up that early for). Though the snow did stick around up in the mountains fairly late into the summer last year.

The Flatirons are awesome, but it’s hard to beat the Tetons. I mean, come on. They’re the Tetons.

Jackson Wyoming

My first view of the Tetons last May.

People Say the Darndest Things:

Bird Banding Edition

  • The kid who kept insisting that they were “Warbling Videos” and “Cheddar Waxwings.”

I said, it’s “Vir-e-o,” there’s no ‘d,’ and “Ce-dar,” like the tree, not “Ched-dar” like the cheese. He insisted I was wrong. First time it was cute. Second, third, fourth, etc. times, not so much. He just would not let it go, and wasn’t willing to be corrected.

Jackson Wyoming Teton Science School

Cheddar Waxwing… or a Cedar Waxwing. Whichever you prefer.

Yeah, okay kid. You’re right, I probably don’t know what I’m talking about, and probably can’t read properly either. It’s not like I majored in both zoology and English or anything.

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A Warbling Video (not a Warbling Vireo, as the rest of the ornithological community seems to think).

  • “Look, I can make your scale say Error!”

Definitely one of the worst things to hear someone say about your research equipment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was a little boy. We quickly went over (again) the no-touching policy. Again.

And then I said, in that fake-happy tone you quickly learn when working with children,  “Go look at the bird that Sarah has!” (translation: Get Away From My Equipment You Little Cretin).

bird banding scales and weigh tubes

One of the scales and a set of weighing tubes. We stick the birds, head down, in the tubes to weigh them. It’s pretty funny looking. Turns out though that I don’t have any good pictures. Sorry.

  • “So what is there to do around here other than climb and stuff?”

This was a question from a high school student (also male) visiting from Miami, Florida.

I responded to that one with a blank look.

I don’t understand the question. You’re in the Tetons. What else could you possibly want to do?

rock climbing jackson wyoming hoback shield

Bo crushing at Hoback Shield.

  • “Do birds get periods?”

This question came from one of the adult chaperones, because she noticed the rather red stains on some of the bird bags I was holding. A bit of explanation: After we remove the birds from the mist net, we place them in small cotton drawstring bags and securely close them in order to transport the birds safely to the banding station. This keeps the birds from hurting themselves, and from stressing out too much as we carry them back for processing.

The stains were in fact poop stains, because we had been catching a number of American Robins and Gray Catbirds that had been dining on organic locally fresh berries, and when birds get freaked out (as happens when they suddenly and unexplainedly find themselves caught in a mist net) they tend to void their bowels, either in our hands, or in the bags, or all over our log books, or any combination of those places. Or, if you’re extremely unfortunate, in a projectile way all over your face/in your eyes/mouth. Poor Sarah. I’ve never had bird poop in my eye, but I imagine it wouldn’t feel very good. Or be fun to clean off contacts.

Yes, it’s kinda gross, but you get used to being pooped on. Bird bags make excellent poop-wiping hankies, in case you were wondering. I can personally attest that whatever those berries are, they make an excellent dye, both on clothes and skin.

So no, birds don’t get periods. That’s a mammal thing, and birds, as you (hopefully) know, are not mammals. Those red stains are poop, not blood. Also, those stains are huge, and if a bird lost that much blood during the few minutes it was in the bird bag it’d probably be in trouble and I sure as heck wouldn’t be this nonchalant about it.

We take bird safety very seriously, and if there’s so much as a speck of blood on a bird, we notice and do what we can to stop the bleeding before releasing the bird. However, injuries are very rare, and less than 1% of all the birds we capture in our nets are injured. There have been a number of studies about bird safety, and if you want to read one of them there’s a link on my post What is a mist net?

bird banding Teton Science Schools

Bird bags. These have been freshly laundered, but note the permanent poop stains on the bottoms. After a while, bird poo just doesn’t come out in the laundry anymore.

  • “So who can tell me what this bird is?”

“Oooo, I know, I know, it’s a House Wren!”

“Um… actually, wrens are a little bit smaller, and they’re all brown and kind of mottled looking. This one has a few different colors. It’s actually an American Robin.”

This was an older woman, who was really excited to be out banding with us (she was practically bouncing up and down with excitement). I was worried that she would feel bad that I had to correct her, so I tried to be very nice about it. She didn’t mind at all, because she was just so thrilled to be out with us seeing the birds. It was sweet, and her energy was infectious. I loved having people out to the banding stations who were this excited about everything. Though I tend to be pretty even-keeled, this is how I feel about just about every bird I handle– jump-up-and-down-excited. I just hide it well. That, and it would startle the birds, so I reign it in.

In case you were wondering:

American Robins weigh about 77-85 grams, and are usually 7.9-11 inches long, with a wingspan of 12.2-15.7 inches. House Wrens weigh 10-12 grams, are usually 4.3-5.1 inches long, with a wingspan of 5.9 inches. There’s a bit of a size difference there…

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Hatch Year (aka baby) American Robin. Note the size in relation to my hand. However, this bird is the same size as a full-grown Robin. Once they fledge, or leave the nest, they are fully grown, and won’t get any bigger. They’ll just grown in different feathers.

Jackson Wyoming Teton Science School bird banding

A not-very-good picture of a House Wren. Again, note the size of the bird in relation to the hand (this time, it’s not my hand, because it would be quite a feat to take a picture with both of my hands occupied by bird).

  • “I’ll bet this metal pole will float.”

That gem is from my brother, while helping me take down nets after banding and apparently contemplating throwing one of the poles in the river. He’s got quite a number of these profound comments, which you can see if you follow the link above.

My dad says, “Yeah Eric, I’ll bet they would.”

My mom says, “Don’t encourage him!” to my dad.

I said, “Eric, if you throw that pole in the river you have to go fish it out, and then explain to Keegan (the crew lead) why the poles are all wet.”

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Spreading the mist net out on the pole. See my blog post What Is A Mist Net? for more info.

And one more:

  • “I’ll bet you can’t carry all 20 mist net poles up to the van.”

Said Sarah, the banding educator, to Keegan, the crew lead, because it was the last day of banding and she didn’t want to carry any of the poles.

To which he replied, “I’ll bet I can.”

And he did.

Up from the riparian area down by Blacktail Ponds Overlook, which involves wading through a few streams and then climbing up a pretty steep, though short, embankment to the parking lot. From the banding site to the parking lot is maybe a 10 or 15 minute walk, through uneven terrain, carrying a heavy load of banding equipment in backpacks and these awkward poles.

I found this video someone took of the overlook (see link below). We had nets set in the first clump of willows you see on the right, and then in the willows to the left of the giant open area. Basically, we were scattered around between the camera viewpoint and the pines along the river. Not real sure why the video is 4 minutes long, but if you just watch the first minute or so you can get a good idea of what Blacktail Ponds looks like.

Tetons from the Blacktail Ponds Overlook video

Grand Teton National Park Wyoming

Watch out for the moose!

Mist net poles are metal electrical conduit pipes, which can be bought at Lowes or Home Depot (which I have done). They are 10 feet long, and not particularly heavy if you have only one or two, but they quickly start to hurt the shoulder after walking any sort of distance. My limit is 10, which I can only carry for a max of 15/20 minutes before I have to take a break (after which I have no desire to resume carrying said poles).

Also, it’s not at all easy to keep them all together if you have any more than 10: they start to go all over the place, like giant Pick-Up-Sticks. There’s a reason Pick-Up-Sticks aren’t 10 feet long and made out of metal.

After he successfully carried all the poles up to the van (and proved, definitively, that he is much more of a man than Sarah, Bo, or myself– who are all female), we stopped at Dairy Queen and bought him a Blizzard. It should be noted though that he did this before he knew we were going to buy his Blizzard, from which I have learned that if you start any request with the phrase “I’ll bet you can’t [task you don’t want to complete]” you can probably get a guy to do it for you.

Anyone who wants to be my designated pole-carryer this summer, I’ll pay you in Blizzards.

The King of Drama hiking in Death Canyon.

I’m guessing Eric isn’t going to be volunteering to carry my mist net poles any time soon. Especially considering that this picture was taken about a mile up the trail.

Nest Searching: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Nest Searching

When we’re not banding birds, we’re searching out bird nests and monitoring them. This means that, at three of our banding sites, we also look for nests. We’re targeting four species of birds: Yellow Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, American Robins, and Song Sparrows.

Why do we do this? Well, we’re interested in the productivity of the birds– how many babies are they having, and are those babies fledging, or surviving long enough to leave the nest. One of our research aims is to study as much as we can about the survivorship and productivity of the birds in the area, since birds are an excellent indicator species. What is an indicator species you ask? Something like the indicator light on your car, actually. Birds are highly sensitive to changes in their environment, so if the birds are disappearing it can mean something is up with the ecosystem. The causes of their disappearance can be as mysterious as the reasons for the check engine light to come on, but with greater consequences for the world (see “Silence of the Songbirds” by Bridget Stutchbury).

Up close and personal with a beautiful male Yellow Warbler. His feathers are a little ruffled because of the wind. And yes, those are the Tetons in the background.

Up close and personal with a beautiful male Yellow Warbler. His feathers are a little ruffled because of the wind. And yes, those are the Tetons in the background.

We banders are busy people, setting up mist nets and banding birds for six hours every day, so we have lovely crews of Earthwatch volunteers assist us with nest searching. Earthwatch is an organization that organizes groups of volunteers from around the country to travel to different places around the world to participate in “scientific field research and education in order to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.” It’s a pretty cool group, and so far all of the volunteers we’ve had come visit have been absolutely outstanding.

Here’s their website, if you’d like any additional information: Earthwatch. If you want more about the Earthwatch Expedition that deals specifically with our work here in the Tetons, then check out this link: Spotting Songbirds in the Rockies 2013.

Every week the volunteers search for nests, and then we banders are in charge of monitoring those nests, or nest checking, twice a week (on Mondays and Thursdays). Usually this takes place after we are done banding for the day, and we’ll divide and conquer to check the nests at all three sites in a reasonable amount of time.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts, it still takes a long time. Bird nests are not always easy to find. When a nest is found, we take a GPS coordinate, compass bearing, and also fill out a nest card, with a hand-drawn map and written description on the back. Despite this, some nests can be extremely hard to find. (See The Bad, below).

The good

Finding nests, and having the baby birds fledge successfully. Watching them flop around in the bushes, learning how to fly, can be quite amusing.

Yellow warbler nest

A yellow warbler nest with five eggs. To make a nest, a female yellow warbler makes a cup of grasses, bark strips, and other thicker plants, and then lines it with softer materials like animal hair, feathers, and plant fibers. Their nests are usually around 10 feet off the ground, though many that we monitor are not that high up.

The bad

Like I mentioned above, each nest has a nest card with written out directions and a hand-drawn map. I’m not going to mention any names here, but some people are really bad at giving directions. Like really bad. Sometimes I’m pretty sure trying to assemble a TV with only the Korean directions would be easier than trying to find some of these nests using the “directions:”

“Follow compass bearing 5 meters and you will see a pushpin that points to the nest.”

Moose at blacktail ponds

A female moose at Blacktail Ponds. She was not impressed with my thrashing through the willows looking for nests, disrupting her afternoon amble. She posed for a minute, and then slipped away into the willows. For such giant creatures, moose can be surprisingly swift and sneaky. I didn’t see her again.

Right. You try looking for a pushpin in a willow bush, with a “map” that consists of two willow clumps and an arrow pointing to the middle of one of them. I’m standing in a thicket of willows here, surrounded by dense undergrowth, and there are five different willow clumps along the bearing. This is habitat where moose disappear. Eight-hundred pound, six foot tall moose. Hundreds of tourists come here everyday looking for wildlife and they can’t find moose in this habitat, while you expect me to find a pushpin. “Look in the direction of the Grand Teton, and you’ll find a moose.”

How high up is this push pin? What color is it? Is it to the right or left of this cottonwood tree you could have used as a landmark? Do I have to cross this stream, which you also could have used as a landmark?

The fact that we usually don’t start nest checking until after we’ve banded for 8 hours probably doesn’t help much either (my morning coffee has definitely worn off by then). Or the fact that it’s hot, and by that point the mosquitoes have made themselves known. In an attempt to find one particularly frustrating nest, I found a cedar waxing and then a gray catbird nest before I found the black-headed grosbeak nest on the card. At least I knew it wasn’t that I had suddenly lost my ability to locate bird nests.

On the whole, though, most of the nest cards give very good directions, and make it fairly easy to find the nests. There are only a few particularly memorable bad nest cards that make me want to pull out my hair and scream. Which isn’t such a bad thing, the screaming at least, because it lets the moose and bears know where we are so we can’t accidentally surprise them. Which is not something I’d recommend.

Song Sparrow nest

A song sparrow nest. Song sparrows are typically ground nesters, and the female does all the work to build the nest, though the male does help her pick the perfect spot. She makes it out of grass, and will line it with more grass and animal hair. Nests are 4-8 inches across, and 2.5-4 inches deep.

Can you spot the song sparrow nest? I thought not.

Can you spot the song sparrow nest? I thought not. It’s directly underneath the branch on the right, directly under a blue pushpin that you can’t see in this picture. Song sparrow nests are extremely difficult to find, and most are found through a combination of pure luck and many minutes of careful observation of the adults, to watch as they visit the nest.

The ugly

Baby birds are ugly. I don’t care what anyone says, these things are not cute, especially before their feathers grow in. After they are fully feathered, they’re much more attractive.

Black-headed Grosbeak nestlings, about 7 days old.

Black-headed Grosbeak nestlings, about 7 days old. And super ugly. Notice how the feathers on their backs and wings are in tubes, which are called pin feathers. These are their feathers growing in, and have a blood supply flowing through them. As the feathers grow longer, the blood supply will concentrate just in the base of the feather, and the bird will preen off the sheath so the feather can unfurl. Feathers are fascinating, and you can read more about them HERE.

Black-headed Grosbeak nestlings at about day 12. Slightly cuter, but still pretty ugly.

The same black-headed grosbeak nestlings at about day 12. Slightly cuter, but still pretty ugly. Note their gapes, or the lighter corners to their mouths. This is a typical characteristic of baby birds. Gapes are usually brightly colored, and they inform the parent birds about the baby’s level of need, health, and competitiveness, which the parents use to decide who to feed first. The louder, more obnoxious nestlings get fed first, and more often, than the quiet ones. I probably would have starved if I was a baby bird. My siblings were not what one would call demure young children.

Now get out there and find some bird nests of your own to monitor!
Happy Birding!

Bird Banding with the Teton Science Schools

So here I am in the Tetons, about to start a three month stint working for the Conservation Research Center of the Teton Science Schools (TSS). I am working with the bird banding crew, and our job is to catch birds at five different sites; three around the town of Jackson, Wyoming, and two in the Grand Teton National Park.

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Our sites are in both developed and undeveloped areas (the ones in downtown Jackson are interesting, as we sometimes get homeless people hanging out in our net lanes). One goal of the project is to see how songbirds respond to different levels of development, by comparing our data from site in the park (which are undeveloped) and those in downtown Jackson (located in the middle of housing developments and surrounded by busy roads). There have been 21 years of banding going on through the TSS, and it’s exciting to be contributing to such long-term research.

I’m still learning about our particular project, but if you follow the link above it will take you to the CRC website, which has a nice little description of our research. I will also be sharing more as the season goes on, so stay tuned!

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One of our volunteers, Anya, with the male sharp-shinned hawk.

We’re still in training at the moment, but official banding starts on Friday. I’m excited. Our first day is at one of our sites in the park, and Jenny, our boss, has said they typically see the most wildlife at that site, including moose, bison, bear (black and grizzly), and white-tailed deer. But don’t worry Mom, we were all issued bear spray yesterday and trained in its use. I’m hoping never to get close enough to spray down a grizzly, but it’s good to know the spray cannister works.

During our most recent practice banding session, we caught a couple of exciting birds (all birds are exciting, but these were especially so. They also might have been the only ones I remembered to take pictures of…):

First was this male Sharp-shinned Hawk


And this older male Lazuli Bunting, who was absolutely gorgeous:

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(links in green will take you to more information about these species)

Can’t wait to see what else we catch in our nets this summer!

Don’t Say Don’t Go

Peace Boulder, I’m heading to Wyoming for the summer!

For those who don’t know, I’ll be spending the next few months working with the Teton Science Schools, mucking around in the forest playing with birds (more details on that later). Literally mucking, or so I hear from my boss, who told us to bring rubber boots. Good thing I brought mine from home. In the part of Ohio where I’m from, not having a pair of mud boots is unheard of. Mud season lasts a good long while, and if you want to go out in the woods (which I do quite frequently) you need a pair of boots. As a result, rubber boots, like a coat (because the weather will be changing in about 5 minutes), are one of the many things I can’t leave home without. The list also includes a journal and pen, binoculars, bird book, camera, and climbing gear. You never know when the muse will overtake you, a cool bird that needs iding and photographing will be spotted, or when you’ll find a rock that needs climbing.

The car is packed, I’ve got western bird calls on my iPod, a giant jug of Bhakti Chai and a baggie of pickles. Let’s hit the open road! Wyoming, here I come!

road in Colorado



I shall leave you with this song: I Can Breathe Again, by Baywood (which is also on the iPod, along with the bird calls).


Baywood – “I Can Breathe Again” from Consequence of Sound on Vimeo.

Lyrics (for those of you who don’t listen to the words, which I’m suprised to find is a large number of my acquaintances. I guess I’m just a wordy person, I listen to the lyrics):


One of these slow weeks when, you don’t know where the time will go
I could just give in and send my self back to this world
Don’t say don’t go
Don’t say don’t you go


I lost myself to the snow and then
I found my way back home again
But I can only stay for awhile
Hey hey hey hey!

Now that I’m on my own I can
Finally I can breathe again
So I can only stay for awhile
Hey hey!


Step after step I jump in and step off the beaten path
As the long journey begins I walk the wild at last
Don’t say don’t go
Don’t say don’t you go


I lost myself to the snow and then
I found my way back home again
But I can only stay for awhile
Hey hey hey hey!
Now that I’m on my own I can
Finally I can breathe again
So I can only stay for awhile
Hey hey!

In addition to having some fantastic facial hair, Baywood also have an amusing bio, which can be perused on the Kick Kick Snare webpage here:

Baywood Bio on Kick Kick Snare