2016 Wrap-Up

Breakfast of Champions

*Excuse me while I dust some cobwebs off my computer*

Why hello, friends. It’s been a while.

I always have the best intentions of keeping up with this and posting fantastic things to keep you informed of how the season is going. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Heh. So, here we are, having already started the third year of banding (we’re halfway through, actually)… and I’m just now going to share what happened the rest of last season!

The last 4 banding days I didn’t get around to posting about¬† when they were relevant brought with them a few more new species, bringing our newbie total for the 2016 season up to 8.

They were: Red-bellied woodpecker, northern flicker, blue-gray gnatcatcher, orchard oriole, cedar waxwing, great-crested flycatcher, willow flycatcher, and red-eyed vireo. Which brought the station’s total species caught up to 31. Pretty sweet, if you ask me. ūüôā

Here are the totals for each species caught last season:

Capture totals
Catbirds win for the most caught of any species (surprised? I am not), with robins and cardinals tying for second, and common yellowthroats coming in third. Well done guys, well done.

And here is a lovely graph to show you how the capture rate fluctuates over the season:

Capture totals by day
Our first day was our biggest day, then there was a bit of a lull period – standard for summer banding, when adults are incubating and there are no young birds around quite yet. By mid July, though, nestlings begin fledging and adults are no longer as tied to their nesting territories. So, everyone is flying around and freaking out and it’s TOTAL CHAOS. Which is what we banders live for.

Our capture number was a little lower than last year overall, with 128 new, 3 unbanded, and 42 recaps, for a total of 173 birds. Our total in 2015 was 194. This difference was likely due in part to the fact that it was a lot hotter Рon average Рthan our first year, which meant that the birds were generally less active. It also meant we had to close the nets a little early on a few banding days.  Despite that, it was truly a great season.

Here are some of my favorite photo highlights from the last days of banding!!

The red feathers on this male ruby-throated hummingbird are not actually red…. they’re iridescent!

Iridescent plumage in birds is caused by complex, microscopic structural features within the feathers, which are composed of layers of tiny air bubbles. When light strikes the feathers, some is reflected off the outer surface of the air bubble, and some passes through and is reflected from the inner surface.

If the wavelengths of light hitting the feather match the thickness of the air bubbles within (as red wavelengths do in the case of hummingbird feathers) they refract similarly from the outer and inner surfaces and are therefore amplified, resulting in that brilliant coloration.

See? They totally look black here, just because of the angle at which the light is hitting the feathers.

One of our banding days was July 2nd – so naturally, we were feeling patriotic.

As was this bluejay, who WOULD NOT let go of his bag, probably because he was excited about his red-white-and-blue look.
It felt a little early in the season for any bird to be undergoing a prebasic molt, but bluejays are one species that can start doing so by June. This was an ASY bird, based on the vibrancy of blue in its primary coverts, which on an SY bird would be browner and duller, and have less or no dark barring. Another characteristic which can be useful (though not reliable) is the width of the white tip on S1. This is the center feather in this photo – the first of the secondary flight feathers. On a bird that hatched the previous year, that white tip would likely be smaller.
We caught this American robin on our 6th banding day, similarly already beginning its prebasic molt. At this point in the season, it had to be aged as an AHY, since it becomes difficult to determine the presence of a molt limit once the feathers are being replaced to this extent.

Last season was our first time catching willow flycatchers (and we caught five!!). We had heard them in 2015, but they tended to hang out just outside the station boundaries, and never ventured far enough from their territories for us to catch them.

Posing with typical flycatcher nonchalance.

Willow flycatchers are a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Pennsylvania; for that reason, we are specifically managing some areas of Crossways Preserve in such a way that we both maintain and enhance their breeding habitat.

Typically, that habitat consists of scrubby meadows with scattered small trees and shrubs in a specific density. Willow flycatchers have been found to prefer alders, hawthorns, and similar native shrubs for nesting – when choosing species for restoration projects we completed with volunteers last fall and early this spring, we took this into account. Hopefully they will make good use of all the lovely new native shrubs and trees we planted!

Flycatchers are not the easiest to ID (understatement of my life), and both birders and banders alike agree about this truth.

Ah yes, such differences between these 5 birds. NOT.

Since it was the first of them we had caught, we kind of freaked out over how sure we were about what was in my hand. We’ve caught Eastern wood-peewees, and while audibly totally different from willow flycatchers, they are visually the most similar species in the tyrannidae family – in the hand especially. But, there are a few helpful characteristics.



It might be hard to see in these photos, but overall, the willow flycatcher has more of a green wash to its back and head feathers, a bit more yellow in the belly, and often have wider and whiter wing bars (on adults, at least). Also, I personally feel that in the hand, peewees just have better posture – willows kind of look hunchy and defensive.

Overall, peewees are just more… chill.

Wide and very bright yellow bill (especially on the inside).

The bill of the peewee isn’t *quite* as wide or heavy-looking as the willow’s, and peewees also have a small darkerish patch on the underside of the bill, toward its tip.¬† Wing length is different as well – peewees tend to have longer wings (though there can be overlap).

So, all those things considered, it becomes easier to confidently differentiate between the two in the hand.

I have to include this photo because I really liked this guy because LOOK AT THAT BEAUTIFUL MOLT LIMIT. Showing that he replaced his greater coverts up to A1 last season, and then was like, k I’m good. Typical warbler.

This was possibly my favorite new species last year:

CEDAR. WAXWING. We caught this amazing bird during our 7th banding session.

If your first thought is that it looks super soft, your first thought is on target. I’ve held lots and lots of birds in my day and they are – after northern saw-whet owls – probably the softest.


There are a few things you can use to correctly age and sex cedar waxwings.

*hem hem hem*

The first indicator is those awesome waxy appendages. These are not grown in the bird’s first year of life and won’t be developed until later on, which means that in the spring and summer, if they have the number and length of waxy tips that this bird had, they can be aged as an After Second Year.

Those tips can also indicate the bird’s sex. Adult females have an average of 3 tips on their secondaries, while males average 6, and on males, those tips are typically longer.

The amount of black under the chin is also a factor – on males, this patch goes down the throat further and is therefore also wider at the base than it would be on a female.
Sunrise on the last day of banding. ūüôā

On our final banding day we caught two brown thrashers – an adult and a hatch year. We couldn’t sex the adult, since they are one of only a few species we catch where males and females can both develop brood patches during the breeding season. If the brood patch is anything but a 3 – the point in the 0-5 scale where the patch is at its most highly vascularized and fluid filled and crazy efficient at heat transfer – then we can’t call the bird a female.

As far as aging, this species can only be aged as After Hatching Year in August (we caught these guys on August 3rd) due to the timing of their prebasic molt.

Adult brown thrashes have yellow eyes that develop in color over time. They’re a deeper tone than a mockingbird’s eye, and a bit richer. It’s not quite like anything else (at least in terms of songbird eyes – raptors have yellow eyes that either become more yellow with age, like in some owls, or more red, like in most hawks).¬†
But when they have just hatched, like this little guy/girl, their eyes are entirely gray. And they match my pants.

Well friends, those are all the most noteworthy and exciting bird highlights of the 2016 MAPS season!

I give you my word I will try to put up some photos and notes from this season, so check back soon.



The crew! Volunteer Caitlin Welsh, WVWA Naturalist Kristy Morley, me, and volunteer/photographer Ian Brehm. 
















MAPS Banding: Day 4

Alternate title for this post: “Woodpeckers!!!¬†and an Orchard Oriole”

Not because we caught a hundred woodpeckers or anything, but because one of them was a new species for us. And orchard orioles are always exciting. ūüėÄ

Here are the totals:

Species New Recap Total
Common Yellowthroat 1 0 1
American Goldfinch 1 0 1
Downy Woodpecker 1 0 1
Tufted Titmouse 1 0 1
Orchard Oriole 1 0 1
Gray Catbird 2 3 5
Northern Mockingbird 2 0 2
Blue Jay 1 0 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1 0 1
Song Sparrow 0 1 1
Total 11 4 15

One of our first birds of the day was a recently-fledged downy woodpecker.

Which of course necessitated some group discussion (you know, cause woodpeckers).


If you haven’t seen too many of them, woodpecker molts can freak you out. They have strategies that, when you first learn about them, are a little bit confusing to wrap your head around. Especially when you are used to passerines and their strategies.

In this bird’s wing you can see molt limits where flight feathers and median and lesser coverts are being replaced.

To quote a friend, it’s all about the primary coverts (ppcovs) with woodpeckers.

You can see pretty clearly that this bird’s primary coverts are juvenile – they’re browner than his newly-replaced lesser, median, and greater coverts (where limits occur between new, formative feathers and juvenile ones), and have a somewhat “see through” quality characteristic only of hatching year birds.

This fall, he’ll replace almost everything but those ppcovs, so if/when we catch this bird again in a year, he’ll have very, very worn coverts and be aged as a second year. Then in the second fall of his life, he’ll replace everything except the inner ppcovs, replacing only 1-2 of the outers. The following spring he’ll be aged a third year (TY) and in the fall during the 2nd adult prebasic molt, will replace either all, or a random selection of the ppcovs. So, while some ASY/AHY birds can have mixed feathers of different generations in the ppcovs, they can also have feathers of the same generation, like hatch year birds will have – Pyle warns banders to be aware of this and that HY and ASY/AHY birds can look surprisingly alike.

That’s not confusing at all though, right?


You can also *kind of* see in the above photo that its eye is more of a brownish color than it is a deep red; this is another feature only a hatch year bird will have, along with pointier retrices (tail feathers) and a buffyish wash on the flanks.

But enough about woodpeckers (for now).


This guy showed up in one of our meadow nets.

Adult orchard oriole

We caught a female orchard oriole (as you may remember from my post so very long ago…), and at the time I had seen her flying with a male a little while after her release.

It could have been any male, but I like to think it was this guy and that they are a pair.¬†In which case, it’s likely that they nested on the preserve (both were in breeding condition when caught).

Orchard orioles belong to the genus Icterus,¬†New World orioles, of which there are five species. The genus name comes from the Greek word for ‘yellow’ – makes sense, since each species is largely or partially yellow- or orange-plumaged.

Young male orchard orioles are yellow like females, becoming more darkly colored as they age. This was an adult bird, so he was already well on his way to a nice, rusty orange.

By now, this bird likely already left and began his long-distance migration; he’ll fly all the way down to either Central America or northern South America. He might end up in Panama, Columbia, or Venezuela – a¬†reminder that birds connect the world. ¬†In the words of Aldo Leopold, “Hemisphere solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky.”

They are a shared resource, acting as pollinators, pest controllers, and bioindicators for us all. And, of course, giving us something beautiful and inspiring to see every day.

We tend to think of neotropical migrants as our birds, since they breed in North America. But really, they spend far more time in a single year of their life in other countries (flying north to us in the summer because they need to go somewhere where there is less competition for resources, including food and breeding territory).

Perhaps that’s partly what makes birds, and birdwatching, so enchanting – when you’re looking through your binoculars at a species like an orchard oriole, you’re seeing a being that has traveled thousands and thousands of miles in its life, that sees more of the world than many of us ever will. That realization can fill you with awe.


*hem hem*

Anyway. Let me get back to other things.

Like this new species for us: a Red-bellied Woodpecker!!

This was a male – a female’s red cap would not extend beyond the back of the head, as it does in males.
The tongues of red-bellied woodpeckers are at least three times the length of their bills, and while it’s a little out of focus, you can sort of see the tongue’s barbs. After drilling into deadwood, red-bellies will use that super long tongue (which is also highly sensitive and sticky) to find invertebrates, and then use those barbs to grab them and pull them out. Males have slightly wider tongue tips than females, which means they can forage in slightly different places on the same tree.

Based on my really confusing explanation of woodpecker molts a couple minutes ago, how old would you say this bird is???

Mixed feather ages among the ppcovs
With a couple of retained, very old feathers, and some nice new ones.

After second year!!! ūüôā

If you’ve ever wondered why they’re called red-bellied woodpeckers (since it looks like they have red only on their heads), here’s why:

It’s not visible in the field, but the belly is suffused with¬†a brilliant scarlet. In females, this area is paler and more washed out.
Also they don’t discriminate between wood and hands, fyi.

Here was a nice, calm bird to end the day on. ūüôā


Happy birding!

































MAPS Banding: Day 3


Day 3 was, just like days 1 and 2, full of some nice surprises. ūüôā

We caught 20 birds, including 2 new species. Check it out:

Species New Recap Total
Common Yellowthroat 1 0 1
Red-eyed Vireo 1 0 2
Carolina Wren 1 0 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 2 0 2
Downy Woodpecker 2 0 2
Orchard Oriole 1 0 1
Northern Cardinal 1 2 3
Gray Catbird 1 5 6
American Robin 0 1 1
Tufted Timouse 0 1 1
Total 10 9 20

To begin, allow me to ramble for a second about Northern Cardinals.

*hem hem*

They have the strong, stout, cone-shaped bills characteristic of seed-eating species- think grosbeaks, finches, and even sparrows. The bill strength of these birds is incredible – imagine trying to crack open a tiny, round, stone-solid millet seed – you probably couldn’t without some sort of tool.

For Cardinals, that tool is their face, and for people handling them, that face is dangerous.

I am often asked if it hurts when cardinals bite – allow me to answer graphically:


And so:

We find ways to prevent this occurrence.
Of course, this presents its own problems…
Tufted Titmice bite, too.

Anyway, now you know. So, moving on!

We’ve been taking photos of catbird eyes this year to document the visible difference in iris coloration between SY and ASY birds. The Pyle Guide notes that HY/SY birds have gray-brown to reddish brown irises, while adults have dark maroon irises. Basically, in younger birds, the pupil stands out, and in adult birds, it’s harder to distinguish from the rest of the eye. Of course, it’s not a characteristic to use on its own, but from what we’ve seen this year, it’s possible to age them just by looking at their eyes! Not that I’d never go by that alone.

But I think it’s pretty cool. ūüôā

SY gray catird – you can really differentiate the pupil from the iris.
While on this ASY, it’s much, much harder to distinguish the pupil. How cool is that?!

We caught our first hatch years (HYs) this session! Meaning that they hatched this very summer and are just now venturing forth in the world with their new wings, like this little Carolina Wren.

 Wrens can be aged, partly, by whether or not the barring on their wings lines up (as well as the barring on their tails).

Alright, lets get to our two new species CAN YOU TELL I’M EXCITED!!?!!?!

Red-eyed Vireo!

Red-eyed vireos are common breeders in northeastern forests; their song is characteristic of a summer day in the woods.

And that makes sense, because males can sing more than 20,000 times in a single day.

Seriously if you spend a day hiking in the right place you’ll probably go a little insane from it.

Their eyes are brown when they’re born and remain so until their first winter. It’s hypothesized that this difference in eye color between age classes in birds helps them differentiate one another when choosing mates.

This day was also WVWA’s members only group visit to the station – they came on a pretty good day, birdwise (and weather wise, actually!).

Chattin’ (photo by David Freed)
Extractin’ (photo by David Freed)
Showing the group our smallest band size, 0A (don’t worry, I wasn’t about to band a blue jay with a band 4 sizes too small). (photo by David Freed)
For a second, this bird threw me for a loop. He was clearly a second year (see the molt limit in the greater coverts, near the end of my thumb), and despite the fact that it was only June 11th, had already begun his first adult pre-basic molt. Also known as the “I’m done with this breeding nonsense and I am moving on with life” molt. So, it’s likely that he was a breeder whose nest or young did not survive early on in the breeding season – sometimes when this happens, a bird will consign themselves to it and move on, beginning their adult pre-basic a little early, rather than renesting.
Underwing shot, showing two flight feathers in pin (just beginning to molt in). Flight feather molt in blue jays only occurs in the adult pre-basic.
He was a nice example to help explain molting to the group. (photo by David Freed)
There’s nothing like touching a living bird for the first time ūüôā (photo by David Freed)

And now, our second new species of the day which came as a total shock.

Like to the point where I got to the net and I’m 100% sure that I heard angels singing.

Orchard Oriole!



She was a surprise because in all of my many, many hours both working and birding at Crossways, I had never once seen or heard this species there, and neither had anyone else.

Sadly, orchard orioles have have been declining in recent decades in many parts their range, except in some areas, like the Great Plains. No one is sure why, though we can make guesses – the case with many songbirds (and the reason for the creation of the MAPS project).

They forage mostly on insects but also visit flowers, probing them for nectar with their thin, adept bills.  They are a graceful, secretive species.


Well, I think that’s a good note to end things on, don’t you?

Happy birding!


2016 MAPS Banding: Day 2


The second banding day was a little slow,¬†with just 15 birds.¬†But the weather was beautiful! And we enjoyed a visit from a birding class with Morris Arboretum’s Continuing Education Program. Plus,¬†we caught some very cool birds and yet another new species.

We’re on a roll.

Here are the totals:

Species New Recap Total
Eastern Wood-peewee 0 2 2
Barn Swallow 2 0 2
Common Yellowthroat 1 0 1
Brown-headed Cowbird 1 0 1
Song Sparrow 0 2 2
Gray Catbird 2 0 2
American Robin 1 0 1
Wood Thrush 1 0 1
Northern Cardinal 1 1 2
Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker 1 0 1
Total 10 5 15

You know what?! Let’s just dive right in with some photo highlights. ūüôā

First off… barn swallows!! The most abundant swallow in North America – spend a few minutes looking out over a meadow, field, or body of water, and you’ll likely see these aerial insectivores swooping around gracefully. They are very net wary, however, so it’s pretty exciting to catch them (we caught just one female last year).

Interestingly, they had flown into the net from¬†opposite directions. Probably because they were being¬†territorial, as they are inclined to be, and were in the middle of¬†flying at each other’s faces when the net got in the way.

They seemed to be at peace with one another once caught, though.

Adversity brings people together.

Barn swallow can be sexed based on coloration – males have a more deeply-toned rust color on their foreheads than do females, and rustier chests and bellies. Overall, they simply look more striking (but please don’t tell the females I said that).
It only takes a glance to distinguish them from other swallows, like tree or rough-wingeds, even in flight and poor lighting, since they are the only species with such deeply forked tails.
In the spring/summer, they are impossible to age more specifically than after hatching year, since as juveniles they can do a complete molt and replace all their body, flight, and tail feathers – just as adult birds would do.¬†To help be sure of¬†the¬†bird’s age, though, a tail measurement can also be taken (and it’s always good to do it¬†anyway because it’s fun, heh). This is a measure of¬†the distance between r6, the outer tail feather (or retrix) and r1, the innermost tail feather. Basically, it’s a measure of how deeply forked the tail is. AHY/ASY tails¬†are more deeply forked than HY/SY¬†birds.

Despite not catching too many birds, the day felt like it went by quickly.

Probably because I was talking a lot.
We caught two Eastern Wood -peewees, which were first banded last year. Yay recaps! At that time, both were aged AHY since…
…Pyle, the Identification Guide to North American Birds, which tell us where to look for molt limits in different species, literally has question marks in place of a percentage for the likelihood that Peewees¬†can accurately be aged at this time of year.
Because we know that we banded them last year and they were NOT hatch year birds (we double checked with last year’s data sheets), we were able to say definitively that they are now ASY birds. And with that information in mind, it was nice to really take in the appearance of the wing and tail feathers – which, by the way,¬†matched Pyle’s account of an ASY wing.
Every so often we catch a bird with something a little… off, like this Gray Catbird. This kind of bill deformity doesn’t have an exact known cause. Research has pointed to several possible reasons it can happen, including disease, parasites, a nutrient deficiency during development, genetic defects, and in some cases, exposure to a contaminant or even conditions of extreme heat. Life can be hard for birds.
Our new species for the day (which we caught, in the typical fashion, right after the group had left), Northern flicker. Talk about a noisy, flappy, overly-dramatic handful of bird. 
The molt strategies of birds within Picidae, the woodpecker family, are a little more complicated to age than others – both younger and older birds can have molt limits, but¬†they vary in where the limit occurs and in how many generations of feathers are present. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around. I aged it as a SY, and double checked with more woodpecker-experienced and ever-wise banders (you know who you are ;)).¬†
Woodpeckers always necessitate Pyle consultations.

In woodpeckers, juveniles often begin flight-feather replacement before they even leave the nest, and can replace a variable number of secondaries and greater coverts. While it might be a little hard to tell from the photos, this bird replaced its primaries, several greater coverts (more than most Northern Flickers would during their pre-formative molt, actually), no primary coverts, and judging by their wear, no secondaries. These characteristics point to a Second Year bird.

The primary coverts may be the most reliable and useful characteristic – in HY/SY birds, there will be only one generation of juvenile feathers, in SY/TY birds, there are usually both juvenile and formative feathers (outer 1-5 pp covs will be replaced, typically), and in ASY/ATY birds, there is either complete replacement of primary coverts leading to no presence of a molt limit, or replacement of some feathers. The key thing, then, is that the replacement pattern will be different than in an SY/TY bird in that it is not symetrical, and that it may result in three generations of feathers.

Can you see how this might be a little mentally taxing? Especially when you woke up at 3:45 and have been standing in the sun squinting at feathers for FIVE. HOURS.

But every bird is a puzzle, and every feather is just a piece you have to place so that it makes sense and doesn’t look like a blind hamster put it together.


This was a female flicker, since she lacked the malar stripe (or, mustache) characteristic of males.
And check out her undertail coverts… this is one of the COOLEST things about Northern Flickers – the dark spots on each feather are shaped like hearts!! Can you even? I can’t.
This song sparrow was our other fun catch. Not because it was a song sparrow (as much as I love them) but because this guy was the very FIRST bird banded at Crossways last season. His band number ends in 601 (which for some reason totally stuck in my mind). 
He had the most truncate, glossy, dark-toned primary coverts you’ll ever see in a song sparrow. Hopefully we’ll catch him for years to come! And all his children. And all his children’s children.¬†

I think that about wraps it up. We’ve had two more banding days, and MORE new species, (if you can believe it) so I’ll be putting those highlights up soon!

Happy birding,




2016 MAPS Banding: Day 1

Last Thursday was the (long-awaited) first day of the 2016 MAPS banding season!

The sun rising at Crossways Preserve (photo by Ian Brehm)

The first session was pretty fantastic – we beat last year’s total number of birds caught on the first day by 6, and the total number of species caught by 1.

I’d say we’re off to a good start.


Here are the totals:

Species New Recap Total
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1 0 1
Common Yellowthroat 2 0 2
American Goldfinch 2 0 2
Tufted Titmouse 1 0 1
Song Sparrow 2 1 3
Gray Catbird 6 1 7
American Robin 8 1 9
Northern Mockingbird 1 0 1
Blue Jay 1 0 1
Northern Cardinal 4 1 5
Great-crested Flycatcher 1 0 1
Total 29 4 33

Mostly, it was our regulars who came around – catbirds, robins, cardinals – but we also had two new and super exciting species (which you may have noticed, and which I’ll get to soon, I promise).

Besides the new birds, what else made it a fantastic first day?!  We have a wagon!! Which means that gone are the days of plodding down the trail, bearing the unwieldy burden of an equipment-filled plastic storage tub.


WVWA Stewardship Intern, Kristy Morley, in early morning wagon bliss.

Alright, let’s get to some photo highlights!

First net check = one tufted titmouse, one common yellowthroat, and definitely more than one tick. (photo by Ian Brehm)
Not only do we now have a wagon to conveniently transport our many banding accoutrements, but we also have an umbrella this year to shade birds as they await banding. Plus, it has palm trees on it so like it blends in well.
This Common Yellowthroat probably had no idea how many calories are in her favorite Pringles. Nor did I. (photo by Ian Brehm)
Molt limits in¬†Common Yellowthroats can be a little challenging (true of a lot of the greenish-plumaged birds). On this female, though, it was pretty easy to see that she had replaced all of her greater coverts and one alula feather (A1), but¬†no primary coverts. This is based on differences in color, edging, and quality of the feathers, which can be quite subtle. If’n you look close at this photo, though, you can see these differences, and they mean she is a Second Year bird. (photo by Ian Brehm)
The majority of the species we catch are banded with size 1A or 1B bands – opening them (and anything larger than a size 1), takes using these pliers, which are specifically made for the job.
“The Last Unbanded Seconds” (photo by Ian Brehm)
A Second Year American Robin, as indicated by the incredibly blatant molt limit within its greater coverts. (photo by Ian Brehm)
Ah, here we have yet another fine molt limit. The brown, secondary flight feathers in this young male Northern Cardinal’s wing are the juvenile feathers he grew hastily in the nest. Since fewer resources were devoted to synthesizing these feathers (in order for him to grow them quickly and escape the dangerous nestling period), they also degrade faster than adult feathers. For that reason, and because¬†they have also seen quite a bit more sun and general exposure to the elements than his newer, formative feathers grown months later, we can see this molt limit from across the room. (photo by Ian Brehm)
We only caught ONE Blue Jay at the station all of last year, and not until several weeks in, so it was pretty awesome to catch one on the first day (he was less excited, but still very accommodating). (photo by Ian Brehm)
TRIUMPH. (photo by Ian Brehm)

It’s not too often that you catch a pair of birds in the same net, but it certainly does happen, especially since males of many species tend to practice “mate guarding.” Mate guarding is exactly what is sounds like – male birds will literally follow the female they are paired with around while she forages, makes trips for nesting material, goes to Giant to pick up some thistle seeds, etc.,¬†to prevent her from coming into contact with another male.

Which is probably what led to this situation:

They were caught just a few feet from one another. FOR ONCE we remembered to get a nice side-by-side shot. American Goldfinches are a great example of a sexually dimorphic species, wherein males and females are easily differentiated by appearance, and generally males are showier than females. Non-sexually dimorphic species are virtually indistinguishable (think Gray Catbirds), and their sex can only be determined by breeding characteristics, like a brood patch. (photo by Ian Brehm)
This is one of the most perfect adult song sparrow wings I have ever beheld. The primary coverts are broad, glossy, darkly colored, and of high quality. All of the Second Year song sparrows out there should strive for this. (photo by Ian Brehm).

Ok, I think you have shown remarkable patience by reading all of this and not skipping ahead to see photos of our two new species. So, here you go:


That’s right, we caught a Great-Crested Flycatcher. Which doesn’t happen all that often. They are¬†cavity nesters (which seems weird, doesn’t it?), and¬†tend to stay very high up in the canopy, so to find one in the lower pocket of a net was an incredibly cool surprise.

STRANGE FACT: they use snake skins in their nest cavities, if they are available. And also other similarly textured scraps, like paper, cellophane, and… onion skins.

If they were humans, they’d definitely¬†be into composting.

Males and females both elicit a “wee-eep!” call, which makes them hard to miss if they’re around. It’s sort of a loud, nasaly, whistley, ringing call that rises at the end (it kind of sounds like they suddenly came upon a most shocking seen, and couldn’t help but exclaim).

We had heard them at the beginning of last season, but they didn’t seem as conspicuous then as they have been this year. And yet, I didn’t really expect to catch one. But, that’s one of the BEST things about banding – you really never know what you’ll get.

Since the general view we have of these birds is of their undersides while looking up at them, it’s easy to miss out on seeing their rusty, ochre-toned flight and tail feathers.
Which in combination with their gorgeous, lemon-yellow bellies and charcoal gray heads and throats, makes for some truly striking plumage.
Like most fly-catching birds, Great-crested Flycatchers have extra-noticeable rictal bristles. These are the small, stiff feathers at the base of the bill, thought to help protect the bird’s eyes from insects.
Volunteer Caitlin Welsh, who was an *extremely* welcome pair of hands for our first day.

One cool new species down, one to go…

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher!! A female – a male of this species would have a black “V” on the forehead, extending over the eyes.
She was a Second Year bird, as evidenced by her molt limit. (photo by Ian Brehm)
And also by the fact that no self-respecting After Second Year¬†Blue-gray Gnatcatcher would have so many brown feathers. No, they would have feathers that are uniformly… blue-gray.
These guys make some of the coolest nests. Using spider webs and lichens, they carefully shape them into perfect little cups that mimic the knots of tree branches. They re-use nest material, too, and since this saves them some time, they can build up to 7 nests in a single breeding season (should their first 6 nests fail for any reason). Their breeding range has been shifting north in recent years Рby a shocking 200 miles Рdue, of course, to our shifting climate. (photo by Ian Brehm)

She was our last bird of the day, and we couldn’t have asked for more.


Banding day 2 was last Thursday, so come back soon for those highlights!

Happy birding,




Bluebird Color Banding

Let me begin by saying that I’m an equal-opportunity nest box enthusiast, so it‚Äôs great that there are Carolina chickadees, tree swallows, and house wrens using the boxes at WVWA’s preserves. That said, I‚Äôm particularly interested in bluebirds.¬†Why?


But also because while out at Crossways a few times over the winter, hearing and seeing bluebirds, I realized we really have no idea whether or not the individuals that winter on our preserves are the same as those that nest or were born there. Or if they are stranger bluebirds that replace our breeders if and when they move a little south.

From what information exists, bluebird movements depend on what part of their range you’re looking at; northern populations are medium-distance migrants who move south for the winter, while¬†those in our part of Pennsylvania seem to stay year-round. But there appears to be variability – spend a few minutes looking at range maps, and you’ll notice this.

As I stared through my frosty December binoculars, I thought, “hey, it’d be cool to know who you people are.” So, in addition to our Nest Box Project, we’re also color banding nestling and adult eastern bluebirds.

Color bands are exactly what they sound like, and they make it possible for us to identify individual birds at a distance, known as ‚Äúresighting.” By resighting, we can determine exactly what bird we’re seeing without have to re-catch it to read its band number. A combination of banding and resighting data allows us to gain a greater understanding of a bird‚Äôs life ‚Äď things like how they interact with others of their species, where they spend their time, and their movements within a landscape.

Color¬†bands come closed like aluminum bands, and are opened and made ready by slipping them onto these little ‘shoes.’ The shoe is then placed over the bird’s leg in such a way that the color band can be slid right unto the leg, then closed with pliers.

Color banding allows us to identify which birds are on site and when, their site occupancy across seasons, their social behavior during the winter and the breeding season, whether there are local or migratory movements in a population and, of course, whether a breeding pair stays together and returns to the same breeding place each year.

By color banding nestlings,¬†we have the opportunity to determine if¬†they stick around over the winter, and¬†whether or not they return next year to the same site where they were born (their ‚Äúnatal philopatry‚ÄĚ). We can also look into whether or not they help their parents feed next year’s nestling (cooperative breeding, which has been documented in bluebirds and is an extremely interesting evolutionary life choice).

These are all important aspects of bluebird life history; knowing the answers and better understanding bluebirds¬†means we will also better understand their needs across a season, and therefore manage our lands more effectively, both for them and similar species. What if our bluebirds don’t stick around? That could mean that their survival depends on having quality habitat not only where they breed, but also elsewhere. And if they stay, we will know their survival is dependent on our preserves and what food and cover we provide for them over the winter.

And all of that brings me to telling you about the fantastic day I had a couple of weeks ago, when this happened:

The adult male nesting at Crossways. He had something on his bill but I didn’t even notice cause I was blind with excitement.

Can you even? I can’t.

An after-second year male – on a second year bird, at least a few juvenile feathers would have been retained following the pre-formative molt in the fall, and they would be more drab and not so brilliantly blue. The deep, uniform indigo across this bird’s feathers mean he has been around a while. This ain’t his first rodeo.

Catching specific adult birds usually involves target mist netting. Different from passive mist netting (like during MAPS banding, where you catch whatever passes through), target netting involves strategy, stealth, and cunning. Or so I tell myself and others.

In this case, I watched the adults visiting the nest beforehand to get a sense of their angle of approach, then set up a net a day in advance to acclimate the birds to its presence and trick them into a false sense of security (which I did only after reading several papers about the safest capture method for nesting adults).

Despite their seemingly calm, peaceful demeanor, Bluebirds are surprisingly confrontational. And, I might add, 100% fearless. Because the second I approached the net/nest box area, both parents came out of nowhere to hover threateningly over my head like little, blue helicopters fueled by aggression and rage.

So I opened the net and slipped away to my mini banding station…

A nice shady spot beside a cedar tree.

After just a few high-octane minutes of reading the Pyle Guide and¬†waiting, I looked up to see the male attempt a flight toward the box and get caught¬†in the net’s top pocket.

*a moment of silence for this absolute success*

I sprinted over with my adrenaline legs to quickly extract him, which of course made the female extra-determined to attack my face Рand she blindly hit the net, too.


Look at those lovely, colorful legs.

With color banding comes the fantastic opportunity to name each bird based on colors or personality. And so, the male is hereafter known as Gisby.

Green over silver, blue over yellow.

And his wife, Whibl:

Green over silver, white over black.

To read and record color bands, we look from the bird‚Äôs left leg to its right leg, and from top to bottom. For example, the bands on Gisby (jizz-bee – for pronunciation clarity)¬†are read ‚Äúgreen over silver, blue over yellow,‚Äô and on¬†Whibl¬†(why-bull) as ‚Äúgreen over silver, white over black.‚Ä̬†In short form, these can be recorded at GS/BY and GS/WBK… Can you guess how I thought of their names?


The day after this seamlessly-executed adult capture, I banded all five nestlings, who were about 10 days old.

At this point, the vocalizations made by Gisby and Whibl as they took turns dive-bombing me were undoubtedly just a string of profanities. But anyway, the nestlings were also given color combos and identifies.



Clover (cause look at those Irish colors)

Even though they’re still just tiny little birds¬†and recorded as ‘unknown’ on the banding data sheet, you can make a guess about each nestling’s sex based on the vibrancy of the blue on their emerging feathers. This I learned from a fellow bluebird bander and go-to nest box advisor (thanks, Gigi!!). Clover, for example, has some pretty bright blue feathers coming out, so is likely a male, while Sunshine has more brown-looking feathers and is likely female.

Hopefully, the nestlings will stick around and we’ll be able to say with more certainty once their feathers fully emerge!

Speaking of which, any time you visit Crossways Preserve, keep an eye out for these birds and report sightings by email. The more we learn about who’s where when, the more¬†information we have¬†to¬†help¬†us answer some of the questions I mentioned earlier.

If you do see them, include as many details on what you saw in your message as possible ‚Äď time and date, location on the preserve, habitat type the bird was seen in, its behavior/what you might have seen it eating, etc. The same goes for seeing a color banded bluebird anywhere in the area, not just at Crossways.

Here are the color codes for recording their band combinations:

G = Green           B = Blue          R = Red          BK = Black           W = White         Y = Yellow

Pretty straightforward. ;D

Alright, stay tuned for highlights from our first banding day, coming soon!

Happy birding,




Back in Action

Hi friends!!

Man, it’s been a while. My last post covered highlights from the last banding day of the first season of WVWA’s MAPS¬† station and now, we‚Äôre just DAYS from the start of the second.

Which is why my resting heart rate has gone from 45 to 107.

This is a phenomenon known as ‚ÄúPre-banding Tachycardia,‚ÄĚ (PBT) a physiological state not yet accepted by the medical community, but which I believe effects 4 in 4 banders.

The closeness of the start of the MAPS season is not the only thing that has brought on my PBT, however ‚Äď I actually started banding a bit last week at nest boxes along WVWA‚Äôs monitoring trail. So this year, the excitement started early. ūüôā

Time for a little background, perhaps.

You may know that populations of some cavity nesting birds have declined in recent decades, mostly due to habitat loss and competition with non-native species (I’m looking at you, European starlings and house sparrows). Eastern bluebirds took a particularly bad hit. They and other species have specific requirements for nesting, and when changes to land use occur and dead trees are cleared, not only do they lose their places to live and raise young, but starling and house sparrow populations are more likely to move in and compete with them for resources.

People realized this unfortunate truth and started making and installing nest boxes in the early 1930s Рwith a more national, concerted effort starting in about the mid-1950s, bluebird populations began to rise again.

BUT they still need our help.

DSC_0019 (2)
The adult male bringing a tasty caterpillar to his young at Crossways Preserve (circa 2015).

A primary goal of our management of WVWA lands is to increase wildlife habitat, including nesting space, a resource in itself. So, since 2015 we’ve been putting out nest boxes and now have a monitoring trail that includes boxes at Crossways, Armentrout, and Willow Lake Farm Preserves. They are monitored by some¬†very¬†awesome, reliable, and dedicated volunteers. Who send me exciting updates and great pictures, like these:

Carolina chickadee eggs… (photo by Jack and Ali Feldman).
…and nestlings. They only look weird like this for about a week. After that, around day 8-9, they begin to develop feathers and stop looking like creepy ¬†little aliens. (photo by Jack and Ali Feldman)
Last year’s bluebird chicks. What a strange life, when you live in a box and people open it to stare at you.

Monitoring the boxes provides us with an excellent opportunity to collect valuable data on our resident birds and to track their population trends. Plus, the data we collect will be entered online at the end of the season through NestWatch, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science project, and can then be used in conjunction with information collected nationwide.

Now, as you already know from my ramblings, banding birds adds greatly to our data on their populations. So naturally, it follows that all the nestlings should be banded. RIGHT? Right.

And thus, the early onset of my PBT.

So far this season, three nests have been banded – two chickadee and one bluebird. Banding nestlings is pretty simple, and far less complicated than banding adult birds. They don’t have to be aged based on almost-invisible differences in feather quality and wear, and with the exception of some young bluebirds, you can’t yet determine their sex.¬†All that’s¬†involved is carefully taking them out of the box, weighing and banding each, and gently returning them.

Here are some shots of chickadee banding from last week:

Six nestlings, cozily packed together in their country home at Willow Lake Farm.
This guy/girl is about 10 days old. At this age, the nestling’s legs are already fully grown, so it’s safe to band them. Even though it looks COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS.
The rest of their bodies, however, will take several more days to develop. At this age, the feathers are only just beginning to emerge from their protective keratin sheathes. During development, each feather is nourished by a blood supply that runs from the feather’s base up the length of its shaft. Once the feather is fully formed, that blood supply will recede.
The best photo I have ever taken.

It’s always a good idea to be careful when opening nest boxes, and to proceed with slow movements.

Like, really.

Because when I started to cautiously open the next nest box (say that five times fast), I caught a glimpse not of nestlings inside, but of¬†the shadowed form of an adult bird, peering¬†at me from atop said nestlings. She didn’t flush, so I managed¬†to slip my hand in and get a secure hold of her (I’m stealthy like that).

A pleasant surprise
Here’s a great example of a receding brood patch on a nesting bird. Only recently, this area was heavily vascularized to allow the female to transfer more heat more effectively to her eggs during incubation, as well as to keep her young nestlings warm. Since she¬†no longer needs to worry about either of these things, the patch has begun to return to its normal state. Soon, she’ll start regrowing feathers.
Super relaxed, ‘cuz that’s how chickadees roll.

All in all, ’twas a good day of nest box banding. ūüôā

There’s more to tell about this and another¬†exciting side project with our nesting bluebirds… but perhaps I’ll let the suspense build a little, and save that for next time.


Happy birding!