A Bag of Surprises

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Placing a songbird in a breathable, appropiate-sized cloth bag, allows the bird to relax and feel safe until it is time to process it

There are only two ways of bird banding: ordinary banding, and banding with passion and nurturing love. I pick the latter. I don’t just band to put a metal ring on a bird’s foot and let it go, I band because I believe in the future of conservation and because I love all the feathered little creatures of this world. I have fun observing, taking measurements, and simply being close to these carriers of joy and inspiration. Not only that, but I’m surrounded by spectacular sceneries and wonderful people (my crew members) everyday. One of the things I love the most about bird banding is that every cloth bag is a surprise, you don’t know what bird will be inside until you pull it out, and SURPRISE IT”S A KINGLET! or IT’S A VARIED THRUSH! This and the fact you never know what you’ll encounter in the field is  what makes the job thrilling and exciting.

For example this week, Chris (crewmember) and I drove down to our two California banding sites and the drive alone was an adventure. The two sites Antelope Creek and Topsy Grade are the most remote sites, out of seven, and require 4×4. Topsy Grade is a public road, but is neither maintained by the federal nor county governments, so it is an unpaved and rocky. The dangerous part is going up a steep ridge on a very narrow, one-way road. There was loose-falling rock on one side and several boulders on the path, that in order to avoid, we had to come very close to the edge of the cliff. Most of our attention went on maneuvering the stirring wheel, but we couldn’t help to get distracted by the beautiful Klamath River as we looked down to our right. After an hour of driving on this road and a few scares, we finally arrived at the campsite where we dipped our bodies in the river and relaxed. That evening, the air was warm and we birdwatched as the sun went down. We observed a couple of Townsend’s solitaires that were calling from the trees and a great horned owl as it swooped down in front of us to catch a small rodent.

Driving on Topsy Road

Driving on Topsy Road

The next day we saw another Townsend’s solitaire, this time in one of our nets. We were excited to band the bird, as it was the first one of its kind that we had processed. It was a week of many firsts because we also caught a female sharp-shinned hawk during our last net check at Antelope Creek. Catching hawks when monitoring songbirds it’s always a surprise since the nets aren’t designed to catch raptor-size birds. Luckily, when you have a raptor in a net they don’t get badly tangled, but they have strong feet and talons that can tear skin. So, when I saw the sharpie I quickly called Chris to assist me. He jumped with excitement! This raptor was the highlight our day. Together we successfully removed the hawk from the net and while one person had a firm hold of the bird and its feet, the other one took the wing length and looked for molt limits. Another day, we had pileated woodpeckers! These birds were much bigger than I imagined them. When I first saw them in the net, I thought they were crows until I noticed the red crown and quickly realized I was wrong. In these birds, contrary to the hawks, we had to watch for the bill, which can cause serious harm. So we kept their heads far away from our faces to avoid their instinct to peck at us. The woodpeckers were also much more fidgety than the hawk, and even though they don’t have talons, their feet are strong and scratched our hands hard. Among other special catches, we had a varied thrush, which is very common in Oregon, but we hadn’t caught any this season. There was also the swamp sparrow, they’re like the song sparrows in the east coast but here in Oregon, they are a rare sighting.

The sharp-shinned hawk from Antelope Creek

The sharp-shinned hawk from Antelope Creek

As you see, such is my week bird banding. More often than not, it is something new to confront or a “cool bird” that we get fascinated about. In the beginning, new bird species were a hassle and sometimes stressful to process, but at this point not knowing how to age and sex new birds is a fun game of putting all the pieces together to come to a conclusion. Pretty soon, I’ll get a different kind of thrill when everything I have been working on will be tested on the North American Banding Council evaluation. This thought alone makes the hairs in my body pin up and my adrenaline rise, getting my body ready to flee or fight. But I choose to remove worrisome feelings from my body and  fight my fears with will.  I know that as long ad I receive each day with open arms, learn and study as much as I can, I will be alright.

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