MAPS Banding: Day 5

Our fifth banding session began under the dim light of a pink moon, soon to fade away beyond the trees, amidst a layer of low-hanging fog already disappearing into the hazy air.

I stopped to take a few photos on the way to setting up the station – at great personal exhaustion, I must say, because my hands were full of chairs and drying racks and precariously-balanced munchkins and sloshing coffee and my phone was buried deep within the side pocket of my backpack at an awkwardly-reached angle.

But I digress.

It was such a beautiful morning, I wanted to be able to share it with you guys!

Southwestern view, toward Morris Road
In the distance lies net 3, soon to be opened.
Souheastern view, with net 3 in the distance (see the pole?) soon to be opened.

We caught just 15 birds – a smallish number, partly because it was pretty warm and sunny out, but mostly because in early July, many species are still incubating.

But even on days when we don’t catch as many birds as would be nice (you know like 100s would be cool), there never fails to be something new or exciting to keep us entertained, and that was again the case on our fifth day of banding.

Here are the totals:

Species New Recap
Common Yellowthroat 1
Gray Catbird 3
Red-Winged Blackbird 1
Carolina Wren 2
White-Breasted Nuthatch 1
Song Sparrow 1 3
Northern Cardinal 1
Tufted Titmouse 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Total 10 5

We had just a couple of new species, which I’ll get to in a little bit.

BUT FIRST, let me say some things about feathers and plumage.

Northern Cardinals are a very common species that we see pretty much every day (if we are looking), but what we don’t always get a chance to see are their physical details. I’ve mentioned before the subtle beauty of the female’s plumage, but the male’s vibrancy is truly striking…


All those bright red breast feathers are actually tri-colored; the half closer to the body (which is generally hidden) is gray, fading into white at the edges.

How cool is that?!

It’s well-known that plumage is tied to sexual selection and breeding success, generally for two reasons: the brighter, more colorful males tend to pair with fitter females that breed earlier in the season, and they generally possess territories of higher quality. Both translate to more, and healthier, offspring. But take a close look at this bird’s feathers, and those of many other species, and you can also see another example of how every aspect of avian life is geared toward the conservation of energy and resources, both of which are necessary to produce bright plumage. Putting that energy toward bright coloration in only the visible half of the feather is wise resource allocation.

Speaking of feathers, here’s the wing of a Tufted Titmouse, who was beginning a molt we have yet to see much of: the first prebasic molt.

Some Second-Year birds, like the Tufted Titmouse whose wing is pictured here, are beginning their first pre-basic molts into their adult, pre-basic plumage. Tracing the timeline of this bird's molt sequence, we know that it fledged with juvenile plumage, began its pre-formative molt at the end of the summer (in which it replaced body and some coverts)
Note the two flight feathers that are growing in – one secondary and one primary.

Tracing a bird’s feather replacement is a great way to understand their molt cycles. This bird fledged last summer with juvenile plumage (which was quickly grown, and therefore without much structural integrity or quality). At the end of the summer, it started replacing some of that plumage during the pre-formative molt (growing in ‘formative’ feathers). In this species, that molt was partial and included just the body feathers, lesser, median, and greater wing coverts, potentially some tertial and tail feathers, but no flight feathers or primary coverts.

Now that the breeding season is coming to an end and it can switch gears and devote energy to feather replacement, it has begun its first prebasic molt. In this molt, it will replace all body feathers again, but also the last vestiges of that juvenile plumage ( to grow in adult or ‘basic’ feathers). The above photo illustrates the replacement of a few juvenile flight feathers in the right wing, and since he was replacing the same feathers on the opposite wing, his flight feather molt was recorded as being “symmetric.”

I guess you could say he was… molty-tasking.


If we catch him next year, he will have just one generation of feathers, since everything will have been replaced. And we’ll call him an After Second Year.


Hatch-year Carolina wren.

This was our first hatch year of this species, and we caught two before 10am (including the time makes it seem more mission accomplished-y).

Wrens can be aged, in part, by how well the barring across their flight feathers lines up. On HY birds, like this one, the barring will be straight across and relatively in line - that is because the feathers all grew in at the same time. In an ASY bird, the barring would not line up on every feather, since they would have been replaced at different times.
Wrens can be aged, in part, by how the barring across their flight feathers lines up. On HY birds, like this one, the barring will be  relatively in-line and straight across, because the feathers all grew in at the same time. In an ASY bird, the barring would not line up and would be more zig-zagged, since the feathers grew in at somewhat different times.
Each species has a particular posture when being photographed, I’ve noticed; Wrens, for example, always look like a piano is falling out of the sky right above their heads.

Since this bird’s feathers were quite fine and fluffy (as is the case with juveniles) it was particularly easy to see its ear – not often the case with birds. And why is that, you ask? Because bird ears are a morphological wonder requiring a certain amount hidden-ness.

Here’s a close up:


Birds’ ears are recessed and inconspicuous for many reasons. Think about the life of a bird – most of their time is spent flying at fairly to extremely quick speeds. Since their ears are flush with their skull, they don’t create drag or wind resistance that might slow the bird down (like would be created by ours at great speeds… a weird concern, but probably something Lance Armstrong has thought about it).

They also depend on their hearing for hunting (think Barn Owls in the night, listening for tiny mouse feet scampering by) and of course, for hearing one another’s voices. Their ears essentially funnel sound in, and are surrounded by small, fine, specialized feathers, which deaden the sound of wind passing over them (much like the soft covering on a microphone).

The benefits of these characteristics are that birds can hear better, and in more extreme conditions, than we ever could.


But anyway. Here’s one of our two new species for the day!

A very unassuming, male White-breasted Nuthatch. A female of this species would have a soft gray patch on the crown stripe of the head, unlike the fully dark patch of the male. Their tones of slate and blue gray, pure white, and jet black make nuthatches one of the most aesthetically pleasing species.

White-breasted Nuthatches got their name from their method of jamming nuts and seeds into bark crevices and breaking them open with their thick, strong bills.

The next time you hear their nasal calling, keep an eye out and you might get to see them... hatchin' nuts.
Keep an eye out, and you might just get to see a one… hatchin’ nuts.

These birds are particularly excellent tree climbers, partly because they have a pretty special hind claw:

That's functional toe right there.
Only species in their Genus, Sitta, can climb down trees head-first, and they do so with the help of that special, elongated claw. Most other tree climbing species move left, right, or up, and either hop or fly downward. 

What else made this banding day fun? All the people that came!!

My awesome friend Kittie Yang, who also worked at Powdermill Avian Research Center last fall, with an HY Carolina Wren.
Kittie Yang, one of my best friends and a fellow alumna of Powdermill’s 2014 fall crew, with one of our HY Carolina Wrens. 
And Kristy's wife, Barb, who is an avid birder, but had never held a bird... until this day. :D
And Kristy’s wife, Barb, who is an avid birder, but had never held a bird… until this day!!
And WVWA's Events and Communications Coordinator, Maddy Neff, pictured here with a Song Sparrow.
WVWA’s Events and Communications Coordinator, Maddy Neff, pictured here with a Song Sparrow. 
WVWA's Executive Director, Dennis Miranda (aka the Madman Birder), with a male Common Yellowthroat.
And WVWA’s Executive Director, Dennis Miranda (aka the Madman Birder), with a Common Yellowthroat.

At the end of the day, as we lazily strolled up the net lanes on our last round, closing up as we went (and sleepily walking into branches with our faces), we came across this awesome surprise hanging out in net 4:

A female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird!!!!!!!!!!!
We know it was a female, because a male would have the species namesake: a ruby throat.
There are a few characteristics used to age and sex Hummingbirds. One is, of course, whether or not they have the ruby throat that is the species’ namesake; males will, females will not. But very young males might not have any red feathers yet, which is why we also look at their bills…
One characteristic used in aging Hummingbirds is the presence or absence of striations in the bill.
The presence or absence of striations in the bill is indicative of a Hummingbird’s age, too, because young birds have little corrugations, or growth marks, along the upper mandible. Over time, these will smooth out, like they have on the bill of this adult female. Such tiny details are only visible on a bird in the hand. 

Banding Hummingbirds requires special training and authorization from the Bird Banding Laboratory, so sadly, I couldn’t band her. But still! We could not have asked for a better end to the fifth banding session; needless to say, our day was made.

Like… super a lot extremely made.


We’ve got two more banding days under our belts, so I’ll be getting those highlights up soon!

Happy birding,



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