One of the unique activities provided by the Midwest Birding Symposium is the opportunity to see a bird banding demonstration at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. This station is one of the busiest and productive banding station on the continent, with over 1/2 million birds banded!
Ken Keffer, Mark Shieldcastle, and volunteer Dan had a bag of birds waiting for us as we arrived. First out of the bag was a Gray Catbird, which was caught in the mist net and soon donned the metal band numbered 189166278. We all had a look in the catbird's mouth, and the dark interior helped identify it as an adult (a young bird's mouth will be lighter in color.) Banders will blow on birds' belly feathers to tell a number of things. On this catbird, it revealed a number of pin feathers, meaning the bird was molting.
Ken holds a Gray Catbird
Bird number 2, 3, and 4 were Swainson's Thrushes and number 5 was another thrush, a Veery.
While the birds are being banded, they are also weighed and their wings are measured. The first Swainson's they measured was huge, with a 108mm wing measurement (elbow to wingtip). In comparison, the second Swainson's they measured was only 94mm!
Another thing banders can determine when they blow apart the feathers on the birds' belly is to assess body fat. They look at the fat on the belly as well as on the throat, and grade each bird on a scale from 0-6. Migrating birds need to pack on weight for each segment of their journey. A number of the birds banded today had fat levels 0-2, meaning they had probably just arrived, and would be relying on this key stopover to add crucial weight for the next leg of their trip.
The 3rd Swainson's that came in now wears a special band: one that I got to squeeze shut. While Ken held the bird and its leg, I held the plyers and on Ken's instruction, I closed the band around the leg. Pretty cool!
The next two birds were Magnolia Warblers, one of the most abundant warblers the BSBO bands during the spring. Fall migration, compared to spring migration, is a more drawn out affair, with many juvenile birds making the journey for the first time.
The next bird banded was a young male House Finch. As the group narrowed it down to house vs. Purple Finch, Mark put his finger near the beak of the bird. Why? If it had been a Purple Finch, the bird would've bitten him.
The 9th bird was a beautiful Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, which would've qualified as a life bird for me if it hadn't been mist netted and in the process of being banded! Mark commented that flycatchers are a tough tough identification, even in hand. I was amazed by just how small this bird was, as the yellow-bellied is one of the smaller flycatchers.
The demonstation ended with a familiar bird, a young female Northern Cardinal. She was a feisty little girl, nipping at Mark's finger (painfully) with the tip of her bill.
Another banding demonstration will take place Saturday morning starting at 8:00am at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. I love this stuff and just might go back for more!