MAPS Banding: Day 8 – Final Session

“All good things must come to an end, even bird banding seasons,”

– Geoffrey Chaucer, 1374

Ok, maybe he didn’t necessarily write that last part. But so it was on August 5th, with the end of 2015 MAPS banding season at Crossways Preserve.

Before you succumb to the eternal sadness of that fact, take heart! Because in just 8 months, 3 weeks, and a few days, it will be time to open the nets again.

HOORAY!!!

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Pink, purple, and blue – colors to herald in a perfect summer day.

The weather was brilliant for the last day, and the sunrise might even have been the season’s most beautiful; a fitting end to the project’s first year.

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We caught 24 birds total – not too shabby for banding in early August!

Here’s what we got:

Species banded New Recaps
House Wren 2
Common Yellowthroat 2 1
American Goldfinch 1
Gray Catbird 13
Song Sparrow 4
Carolina Wren 1
Total 23 1

As usual, the busiest rounds of the day were the first few:

A net full of... you guessed it! Catbirds.
Net o’ Catbirds
And a net with a Common Yellowthroat, a Song Sparrow, and a House Wren. Oh such diversity.
There was a Common Yellowthroat, a Song Sparrow, a House Wren, and a Catbird in this net.  I wonder if maybe they were all going to try to help each other… until the situation escalated.

By the end of a long summer, some of us humans are a little worse-for-wear; the sun exposure, the barbecues that may or may not have led to flame-engulfed pizza dough, the mentally challenging logistics of packing day trip coolers… Not to mention the high expectations of having an awesome time every second before it gets cold and we all become sad and pale again.

It’s kind of the same for birds – they, too, get a little worn out by the end of the season. Their feathers have been out in the sun every day (which causes them to fade), their tails have been scraping on nest edges and branches as they come and go, incubating eggs and feeding nestlings, and have been devoting all of their energy toward successfully breeding before the fall sets in. So by August, it’s time to molt into some sorely-needed new plumage.

Which is why some birds looks like this:

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A molting male Northern Cardinal (aka, Tyrannosaurus Cardinalis). He’s still feeding nestlings – see the nice, juicy caterpillar he’s got in his beak? The size of that food item suggests his nestlings are fairly close to fledgling. So already, he is beginning to replace his body feathers.

And this:

 You might notice that this female Common Yellowthroat looks a little like maybe she had a long time... That's because she's working on replacing all of her feathers. Now that she's no longer nesting, she can devote her energy toward doing so, instead of caring for her young.
EXHAUSTED

At first glance, you might wonder if these birds are simply hobos. But rest assured, they are just working on their post-breeding, pre-basic molts.

Since the above Yellowthroat is not taking care of nestlings anymore, she can work toward replacing all of her old, warn feathers – it’s kind of like when new moms finally have time to paint their toes for the first time after having a kid, except not at all like that because this is a bird.

Bandinggroupphoto
On the last day of banding, we also had a group of visitors come by to see what we’ve been up to all summer.  (Photo by Steve Saffier)

We weren’t catching much by the time the group arrived at 9am (you know… because life) and I have to tell you, there is nothing more painful than having empty nets when people come to see banding!

But it was ok, because my silent prayer of PLEASE GUYS, FLY INTO MY NETS was heard by three birds.

Three birds for the group! (Photo by Ian Brehm)
YAY (Photo by Ian Brehm)
Including this gorgeous AHY, female Northern Cardinal. She had a brood patch of, meaning that she was no longer incubating, and that her nestlings likely just recently fledge. (Photo by Ian Brehm).
One of our three birds for the group: a gorgeous AHY female Northern Cardinal. She had a brood patch (BP) of 4, meaning that the excess fluid and increased vascularization that had developed on her belly to help her incubate and brood her young was receding, and the area was somewhat wrinkled and paler gray (as opposed to the reddish color is was during an earlier stage, when blood flow to the area was increased). A BP of 4 suggests that her nestlings likely just recently fledged. (Photo by Ian Brehm).
 Hatching Year Song Sparrow.
A Hatching-year Song Sparrow. These little guys can look exactly like young Lincoln’s Sparrows – enough to make the line between reality and dreams become blurred. But since we would only catch Songs at Crossways during the summer, there were no confusing species IDs for us. (Photo by Ian Brehm)
Our last avian visitor of the season, an After Second Year, female American Goldfinch.
Our last avian visitor of the season, an After Second Year, female American Goldfinch. (Photo by Ian Brehm)
On the last couple of net runs, we came up empty... except for this cicada. I wanted to band it but I controlled myself.
We came up empty on the last net run… except for this cicada. Which I really wanted to band but I controlled myself. (Photo by Ian Brehm)

Alas, it was time to close and take down the nets one final time…

Alas, it was time to close the nets one final time.
Net 8. Could there be a better woodland napping spot?! No.
Firstm the nets are furled, which means all the lower pockets of the net are rolled into the top pocket. This was nothing gets too tangled. It's also how I would set them up overnight the day before banding, so that no birds could fly in.
The nets are furled first, which means all the lower pockets of the net are rolled into the top pocket, so nothing can get tangled. This is how they were set them up the afternoon before a banding day, so that no birds could fly in and get stuck overnight.
Then I use some pretty fancy equipment - a plastic bag. Which I slip through the trammel loops to keep them in order.
Then out comes the fancy equipment – a plastic bag, which is slipped through the trammel loops to keep them in order.
The net is gathered and rolled into the bag. Voila.
The net is then gathered and carefully rolled into the bag, so it can be slipped off the pole.

I couldn’t take the nets down until the late afternoon, and by the time I got back to Crossways around 5 o’clock, the woods were lit by golden shafts of light, broken up by dark green, leafy shadows; the wind had picked up and rustled through the late-summer grasses, and the cardinals had started their afternoon chorus.

EVERYTHING WAS SO PRETTY.

I almost could not handle life.

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It made me think that to hear the birds singing at Crossways, and to see the native plants and butterflies flourishing there is, in a way, to witness a celebration of the fact that it is a landscape kept safe from human development – development both unfamiliar and unkind to the species that belong in such a place.

Crossways is, like all of WVWA’s preserves, a haven in which wildlife can live and thrive in a world that frequently forgets their importance.

Red-banded Hairstreak
Red-banded Hairstreak – a common June butterfly at the preserve.

And so it was a privilege to spend so much time there. Here’s to a fantastic first season! And to all of the truly awesome people who were so giving of their time and who came out to volunteer and to visit (and whose company I so enjoyed all summer), thank you!!! Already looking forward to next season. 🙂

In the meantime, data must be entered, graphs must be attempted in excel, and final summaries must be created – I will post all of that here in the coming weeks, so keep those eyes peeled.

And hey, keep your eyes peeled for warblers, because GUESS WHAT: fall migration has begun. Now there is something to get excited about.

😀

Happy birding!

Magic

Red-spotted Purple
Red-spotted Purple
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MAPS Banding: Day 7

Opening Scene:

“The Coffee-infused Tank Top”

Crossways Preserve lies in its peaceful, morning silence… until a white SUV pulls into the parking area, where already a Subaru is stationed. The amount and nature of stickers on each car is suggestive of potentially-obnoxious birders. Two women emerge from the SUV, both with a case of the morning stumbles, a third from the Subaru. Sleepy hellos are exchanged, followed by long-winded, we-have-to-carry-so-many-things-to-way-over-there sighs.

One of the women places a thermos of iced coffee, with nonchalance, in the side pocket of her backpack (seemingly securely). A large and unwieldy plastic bin has been removed from the SUV and is sitting on the ground next to her feet, awaiting transport to a yonder field. She places said backpack on her shoulders, with said supposedly secure coffee thermos and bends, in total thoughtlessness, to pick up said bin.

The iced coffee is released from its thermos imprisonment, to flow freely over her $6 Target tank top.

The sun breaks through the trees, and the day officially begins.

End Scene

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Yep.

😛

The 7th day of banding was a slowish one, with only 13 birds caught:

Species New Recap
Eastern Wood-peewee 1
House Wren 2
Common Yellowthroat 1 1
American Goldfinch 1
Gray Catbird 2 3
Northern Cardinal 1
Northern Mockingbird 1
Total 9 4

But, as always, there were some pretty great highlights (including the fact that my tank top did not stain – yay!).

My sister was able to come to this session – so she is responsible for these photo highlights. 🙂

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Like this catbird extraction action shot.
Take a look at this birds' eye color - it's a nice, deep brown. On a HY bird, the eye would be a muddy, grayish color.
Take a look at this birds’ eye color – it’s a nice, deep brown. On a HY bird, the eye would be a more muddy, grayish shade.

Not a lot is known about iris coloration in birds. It is determined by pigmentation and the refraction of light (much like feathers), which in turn is determined by changes in hormone levels and reproductive status (which makes it somewhat seasonal and tied to sexual cycles) and the bird’s age. For example, in Brown Pelicans (did I tell you we caught one of those back in June? …in my dreams?), the iris of the male turns from a shade of dark brown, to a vibrant, gorgeous blue – a sign he is ready to have some little pelicans of his own.

Sometimes eye color is entirely gender-dependant, too: in European Starlings, which are monomorphic – meaning males and females are visually identical – only the female’s iris has a yellow ring around it. Which is only detectable, of course, on a bird in the hand (yet another example of the advantage of banding).

So why a change in eye color with age? Why not just be born with the brown eyes of your parents, instead of weirdo gray ones? It seems that it’s likely one of the ways that birds can differentiate age groups within their species – and that helps when choosing a mate.

Amazingly, I think there is something I haven't told you about Catbirds! It's that there is a huge amount of variation in the rustiness and coloration of their undertail coverts.
Amazingly, I think there’s something I haven’t told you about Catbirds! Which is that there is a huge amount of variation in the rustiness and coloration of their undertail coverts. It’s possible that it relates to the age of the bird; some have observed that on HY/SY year birds, the undertail coverts have more gray mottling, while on AHY/ASY birds, they have more uniformly rusty coloring. Pictured here is an AHY, with not a whole lot of gray.
We cuaght another Mockingbird! They are just cool birds, with a lot of personality, so I am always excited.
Let me just slip this net off your head, señor Mockingbird.

Northern Mockingbirds are such cool birds. Watch them for a few minutes, and you will notice they have a lot of personality.

Back in the day, they were caught and sold as cage birds, because of their repertoire of beautiful songs. They never stop adding to that repertroire, either, and can learn up to 200 (!) different songs in one lifetime (whereas I only know like 2 songs at any given time…).

In the early 1800s, a good singer for sale in Philly could go for as much as 50 bucks.

Sometimes Mockingbirds even sing into the night – typically, just the unpaired males – and they do so more often when there is a full moon.

Their wings are also pretty striking - which is hard to get a look at when they are in flight.
Their outstretched wings are pretty striking, but it can be hard to get a good look at this feature when the birds are in flight unless you can freeze time.
They sometimes flutter their wings, flashing the white patch, pictured here. Though the reason is not surely known, they might do so to startle insects.
Mockingbirds sometimes flutter their wings, flashing the white patch pictured here. Though the reason for this behavior is not surely known, they may do it to startle insects, which they then catch mid-air.

It’s at the point of the season where birds begin to do some confusing things, and for a lot of species, you can no longer say definitively if they are Second Year or After Second Year, because both age classes are replacing the same feathers. And so, lots of things become After Hatch Years – the catch-all for anything not born this season.

 This bird was definitely not a HY (no gape, no fluffy undertail coverts, the feathers were way too beaten-up and it had that nice, crisp, white wing patch). But interestingly, its eye looked pretty hatch-year-esque. Pyle tells us that HY/SY birds have irises which are “grayish to greenish gray,” whereas AHY/ASYs have irises that are “greenish yellow to yellowish orange.” Hmm. This looked greenish yellowish grayish...
So this bird was recorded as AHY, despite its eye looking a little on the younger side. Pyle tells us that HY/SY birds have irises which are “grayish to greenish gray,” whereas AHY/ASYs have irises that are “greenish yellow to yellowish orange.” If you look at the very outer edge of this bird’s iris, it looks like it’s becoming a *little* more yellow. So while I had to call it an AHY based on other criteria, I’d possibly put money on SY, just because that yellow is only just beginning to show. 

Ok wow, you are probably getting sick of Mockingbirds. So I will move on.

Here's a lovely photo of a HY House Wren
Here’s a lovely photo of a HY House Wren, with beautifully aligned wing bars.
And a female Common Yellowthroat, who if you ask me, seemed a little too touchy about the whole being caught and banded thing...
And a female Common Yellowthroat, who had quite the attitude.
See what I mean?
See what I mean?
noca2
A HY Northern Cardinal, also known as “Chief Three Feathers.”

Native Americans have many legends to explain how things in nature came to be as they are now; the Cherokee have a particularly interesting one about Cardinals becoming their beautiful red, and I would like to share it with you, because maybe you will enjoy it as much as I do. 🙂

The legend goes like this:

One day, a raccoon was teasing a wolf (they love to do this, you see) to the point where the wolf became so enraged that it began chasing the raccoon. Of course, being so clever and quick, the raccoon kept ahead of the wolf, and upon reaching a river, climbed up a tree to look down and watch what the wolf would do next. When the wolf got to the river, it saw the raccoon’s reflection in the water and jumped in, searching and searching in vain until the point of exhaustion; finally, it gave up and retreated to the river bank, where it fell into a deep, deep slumber.

The sneaky raccoon came down the tree and while the wolf slept, covered its eyes with mud from the riverbank. When the wolf awoke hours later, it could not see and began to cry out for help, panicked. Just when it seemed no one would hear or answer his cries, a little brown bird appeared, and said to the wolf “I am but a small brown bird, but I will do what I can to help you.” And the wolf answered that in return for the bird’s kindness, he would bring him to a magical rock that flowed with red paint, and make him forever colorful.

The bird cleared the wolf’s eyes, using his little feet to chip away the mud, and when he could see again, the wolf carried the bird on his back to the red-paint rock. There, the wolf snapped a twig from a nearby branch, chewed its end until it was like a soft paintbrush, and gently painted the small brown bird.

And that is why to this day, cardinals are a beautiful shade of red.

Seems pretty legit, right?

Ok, enough pipe dreams. Unto the next highlights!

An Eastern Wood-peewee, always a peasant guest.
Eastern Wood-peewees: always peasant guests.

Ahem. I obviously meant to type “pLeasant” up there, but I’m leaving that typo because I’m laughing too hard to fix it.

This species is particularly calm in the hand... like, scary calm. Birds seem to know what will freak you out. And peewees apparently realize that acting super chill might make a bander nervous.
This species is particularly calm in the hand. Notice the darker area, on the underside of its bill, near the tip? That’s one nice characteristic for telling this species from other similar ones in the flycatcher family.

It’s time now, methinks, for the best highlight of the day: a male American Goldfinch

I have no caption for this because I just have to stare at the picture
This bird was so pretty… I have no captions for the pictures because I just am staring at them so hard.

Beyond beautiful

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Alright I'm back I can caption this one. SO for Goldfinches, you can look at the carpl covert (I believe I've mentioned this before? my posts are running together...). ANyway, if that feather has a buffy tip, it's an SY or HY bird. THis bird didn't have that.
Alright I’m back. I can caption this one. I think I’ve mentioned before that for Goldfinches, you can look at the carpal covert feather. If that feather has a buffy tip, it’s indicative of an SY or HY bird; no tip, and it’s an ASY or AHY. This was definitely an ASY.
No buffy tips here
No sir, not a buffy tip in sight.
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This bird’s tail feathers (retrices) are fairly blunt and squared off at the ends. On a younger bird, they would be relatively pointed. The amount and brightness of the white on the tail is also another characteristic of an ASY bird, since HY and SY birds tend to have duller, more narrow, white patches.

TIME FOR A GOLDFINCH SPIEL!

They are the state bird of New Jersey (and of Iowa and Washington… but more importantly New Jersey), and breed later in the summer than most birds; part of the reason for their late breeding is their choice of nesting material and the food they predominantly feed their young.

You see, later in the (typical) breeding season – say around late July, early August – thistle and milkweed are beginning to produce seeds, which have soft, thread-like fibers. It is these fibrous gems for which the Goldfinches patiently wait; they incorporate them into their nests, and feed the seeds to their growing young.

Actually, Goldfinches are vegetarians – one of only a few North American species that do not feed their nestlings insects, and live on essentially seed-only diets. And can I tell you a secret?

They smell like maple syrup.

I jest not.

And several people can back me up on it. But anyway, here’s one more cool fact about them: Goldfinch pairs develop identical flight calls (isn’t that beautiful?). Which means they can tell other pairs apart, and who is with who, just by listening.

Maple syrup face, as it's finest.
A syrupy face, if ever there was one.

Alright friends, that’s it for session 7.

There was one last, final banding day after this one, so keep an eye out for those highlights!

🙂

Happy birding,

Magic

Canada Thistle (an invasive, but still pretty!).
Canada Thistle (an invasive species… but those purple flowers ain’t too shabby).

MAPS Banding: Day 6

You know what? You probably won’t even believe how our sixth banding session went. So maybe I just won’t even tell you about it.

PHSYCHE. Of course I will. 😀

It was an amazing day; we caught not just 20, not just 30, not even just 40 birds… but 49. Can you believe that?! I don’t even remember most of the morning – it was a blur of banding and net checks and scarfing down banana muffins at every hands-free-of-birds opportunity.

Here are the (epic) totals:

Species New Recap
Eastern Wood-peewee 1
House Wren 5
Carolina Chickadee 2
Gray Catbird 14 4
Wood Thrush 1
Northern Cardinal 1
House Finch 1
Song Sparrow 1
Tufted Titmouse 2 1
American Robin 16
Total 44 5

As you can see, only 5 were recaptures – so that’s 43 new birds total (one of the House Wrens escaped at the station just before banding – they often become fugitives in this way) in just 6 hours of mist netting. Pretty good capture rate, especially for just 8 nets!

Several net rounds ended in a scene like this:

One of our 16 bird rounds.
INSANITY
Joy.
SO. HAPPY. (photo by Kristy Morley)

Judging by the day, it’s probably safe to say that mid-July is the peak of fledging season for many species at Crossways; take a look at this fancy chart I made (but please, don’t be intimidated by its highly complex, scientific nature):

Age Classes - obviously, lots of very young birds. :D
Age Classes Captured

Of all the young birds (HYs and Ls), most were either Robins or Catbirds. In fact, I’m pretty sure that we caught ALL the robins. Not all the catbirds – there’s an endless supply of those.

I don’t have too many photos from the day, since there was little opportunity for anything but Extreme-focus Speed-banding. But here’s what I do have!

Our only new species for the session; the humble House Wren. This guy was one of our many fledglings. Quick note about House Wrens because it's cool and I love to tell people about this: when they are building their nests (in cavities, boxes, shoes, what have you), they include spider egg sacs. When nest parasites start to become a problem later in the nesting season, those egg sacs hatch, and the spiders aid the House Wrens by preying on the parasites.
Our only new species for the session; the House Wren. This guy (or girl) was one of our many HYs. Quick note about House Wrens because it’s cool and I love to tell people about this: when they’re building their nests (in cavities, boxes, shoes, what have you), they include a few spider egg sacs. The reason for this, it is hypothesized, is that when nest parasites start to become a problem later in the nesting season, those egg sacs hatch, and the spiders prey on the parasites, thereby increasing the likelihood of nestling survival and success. 
Here's a shot of the same bird's tail. I mentioned in my last post that the barring on the flight feathers (which refers to both wing and tail feathers) will line up on young birds. This a a perfect example.
Here’s a shot of the same bird’s tail. I mentioned in my last post that the barring on Wren flight feathers (which refers to both wing and tail feathers) will line up on HY and SY birds; this is a perfect example.
He/she still had a few feathers in pin, including this greater covert.
He/she still had *just a few* feathers in pin, including this tiny greater covert.

What does it mean when feathers are “in pin”?

When birds are either growing in or replacing feathers, the new feathers begin their development inside a keratin sheath, which can look like a pin (I don’t really see it though – they look more like tiny paintbrushes to me, but I suppose “the feathers are in paintbrush” doesn’t have the same ring to it…). The feathers are delicate when first forming, and need the protection of the sheathe. They also need a supply of nutrients for growth, and this they get from a blood vessel that circulates nutrients up to the emerging feathers. That blood supply is also what gives pin feathers their dark color.

Pin feather close-up
Close-up of feathers in pin on a molting Tufted Titmouse. (can you tell I really got into using the drawing tool in Paint for this post?)

As the feathers develop and become stronger, and no longer need as many nutrients for growing, that keratin sheathe will eventually disintegrate and peel away; the blood supply will recede and become centralized at the base of the feather shafts.

And the feathers will unravel into all their majesty.

Actually, that up there is a shot of the same bird’s wing that we caught during the last session, which was exhibiting the first prebasic molt. Look how much happened in two weeks:

7/02
7/02
7/16
7/16

It finished growing several feathers, and began replacing others. That’s a lot of change in a short amount of time!

Since we caught many, many Hatch Year and Local birds, we really had a chance to check out one of the interesting features of fledgling anatomy: the fleshy gape.

Fledgling Gray Catbird
Gray Catbird, with a typical case of “Baby Face.”

The ‘gape’ is where the upper and lower mandibles of the bill join (actually, it can more specifically be called the ‘gape flange’, while gape can refer to the edge of the bill as well as its interior).

Long ago, some young birds realized that since they‘re relying on their parents to feed them – and since their parents have to see their mouths clearly in order to put the food in the right place – having weird, fleshy, brightly colored mouth-corners was advantageous.

Now they all do it.

Exhibit A
I wanted to get a shot of this bird’s mouth lining – shouldn’t have been too hard, since Titmice in the hand have a tendency to make constant high-pitched noises with their mouths wide open. But no, it closed its bill at the precise moment I took each photo…
I was trying to get a shot of the mouth lining,
Until his aggression made him an unwitting volunteer. You can see (kind of) that the inside of his mouth is very light-colored; an adult’s would be almost completely black.

Such gapes of pink, red, orange, and yellow coloration attract a parent bird’s attention, encourage more feeding, and make the mouth more visible in low-light settings, such as might be found at a nest hidden in a dense thicket.

Young birds open their mouths (literally called “gaping”) in response to pretty much any stimulus. Seriously, I’ve monitored a lot of nests and the tiniest sound, the slightest brushing of vegetation near the nest with an errant arm, and they will FREAK. OUT. And insist that whoever or whatever is nearby immediately give them food.

Blowing for fat
Checking for fat on a Tufted Titmouse – there was more fat on this bird than we’ve been seeing. 

Unlike people, birds have very thin skin, which means we can actually see the stored fat beneath by gently blowing their feathers apart. It appears yellow in coloration, unlike their muscle, which appears more reddish-purple. We check for fat in three main places: the furcular hollow (pictured – the hollow at the base of their throat); the wing pit (their armpits, to put it gently); and the base of their abdomens. Fat is scored on a scale of 0-7, where 0 is (can you guess?) nothing, and 7 is excessive or bulging.

*Note: blowing the feathers apart to check for fat doesn’t upset the birds or cause them any discomfort, but it can lead to a case of extreme lightheadedness in banders – the cure for this is quick consumption of some variety of pastry*

Birds have very high metabolisms and burn through fat so quickly that their scores can change throughout a day, depending on their activities. They are typically lower in the morning, after a night of not foraging, and higher in the evening, after a day of incessant foraging.

During the summer, birds tend to have lower fat scores. It’s really not until just before migration that we start seeing some real fatties (affectionately called ‘butterballs’), since they need plenty of stored fat to fuel them through their long flights to southern climes (or for local birds, to supply enough energy to keep them warm once the weather turns cold).

We finally caught a Hatch Year Wood Thrush! Take a look at this bird's greater coverts - see the pale tips along the central vane of each feather? That's one characteristic helpful in aging species of the the thrush family (Turdidae): only HY and SY birds will have such buff-white tips.
We finally caught a Hatch Year Wood Thrush!! Take a look at this bird’s greater coverts – see the pale tips along the central vane of each feather? That’s one characteristic helpful in aging species of the the thrush family (Turdidae): only HY and SY birds will have buffy-white tips like this.

Birds are not the only winged creatures at Crossways; the grasses and wildflowers of the preserve attract an array of gorgeous Lepidoptera species. Red Admirals are one of the most common that we see each banding day:

We were also visited by this inquisitive Red Admiral.
Like this one, who stopped by to lick our table for a strange amount of time. Kristy hypothesized that it had been drawn in by the essence of munchkins, which undoubtedly covers the table.
“Weird Day”

Well, friends, that’s all for now. But let me just reiterate one very important thing before I go:

WE CAUGHT A LOT OF BIRDS.

😀

Our last session was a bit slower, but there were a few gems. So check back soon for those highlights!

Happy birding,

Magic

For lightheaded emergencies only
*for lightheaded emergencies only*

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!

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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…

BRILLIANT
BRILLIANT

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.

YAY!

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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.
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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:

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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.

EVERYTHING ABOUT BIRDS IS SO COOL I CAN’T HANDLE IT.

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

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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:

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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,

Magic

MAPS Banding: Day 4

There comes a time in every nestling’s life when they have to make a choice: stay in the nest, where it’s warm and mom and dad are there and there’s always breakfast and love and you can sleep all day… or venture forth into the scary, unknown fields and forests of possibly-murderous creatures with only your tiny, feathered self to rely on.

We all know it well.

But actually, nestlings are safer out of the nest than they are in it. Because if you think about it, a nest full of helpless baby birds is to a predator what a basket full of unguarded muffins is to me – the best thing in the world to find. Which is why nestlings develop at an astonishing rate, and why parent birds work so tirelessly to get them fed, grown, and out of there.

And so, all the little spotted American Robins, fluffy Song Sparrows, and extra-downy Downy Woodpeckers are taking a leap of faith (literally) and leaving their nests to test out their new wings, their awkwardly-large feet, and their parents’ patience. We had many such first-year birds in the nets for our fourth banding session.

And not only did we have all those youngins, we also had four new species.

Here are the totals:

Species New Recaps
Gray Catbird 7 1
Song Sparrow 4 2
Brown-headed Cowbird 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
American Robin 6
Northern Mockingbird 1
Wood Thrush 1
Common Yellowthroat 1
Blue Jay 1
Northern Cardinal 1
Total 21 6

Among the new species to be banded were Brown-headed Cowbird, Northern Mockingbird, Blue Jay, and Downy Woodpecker.

It was quite an exciting day, with all those new faces!!

Here are some photo highlights:

Trying to act like her entire species are not jerks... but really, we can't blame them for being so clever in their reproductive strategies.
A female Brown-headed Cowbird who, despite being a member of such a selfish and inconsiderate species, was quite a lovely bird.

Cowbirds are the smallest members of the blackbird family (Icteridae), and of all bird species, their reproductive strategy might easily be considered the most evolutionarily advanced… or the most lazy. Female Cowbirds put all of their energy toward producing eggs (sometimes more than three dozen per season – I mean really, you would think they were chickens!!) which they lay in the nests of other species, earning them the name “brood parasites.”

This strategy allows them to save the energy that would have been allocated toward nest building, incubating, brooding, and feeding their nestlings, and also keeps them from the danger of vulnerably sitting on a nest. They can reproduce more, with less risk and resource use, than pretty much any other songbird. And so, one pair of Cowbirds is replaced by 1.2 pairs each year, which means that their population could double in less than a decade.

That is bad news for the many birds that fall victim to their parasitism. Those species’ eggs are often damaged by the female Cowbird (on purpose… can you imagine such a travesty?!), or are kicked out of the nest completely. The host species’ nestlings are also typically smaller and cannot compete with the larger Cowbird nestling(s) for resources, so they often don’t develop well and can starve. In some cases, the host species will recognize a foreign egg or nestling, and either kick it out or simply neglect it. But sadly, that’s not always how it goes.

Birds in the blackbird family always seem to be more fun to age than others, just because of slight details. The pale tips on this bird's inner primary flight feathers, for example, are characteristic of only Second-Year birds.
The pale tips on this bird’s inner primary flight feathers are characteristic only of Second-Year birds and, therefore, she could be aged with confidence.
Pretty cool.
Pretty cool.
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A very handsome, After Second-Year male Common Yellowthroat.
He posed so beautifully, I took 17 million pictures. But I'll just put up these two. :D
He posed so beautifully, I took 17 million pictures. But I’ll just put up these two…

We’ve been hearing Common Yellowthroats singing like crazy at Crossways, but they are sneaky, and this was only third one to be caught. If you look closely, you’ll notice a few ticks attached to him; it’s not uncommon for birds to have such ‘ectoparasites,’ especially those that tend to forage and nest lower in the understory.

Understanding how avian populations are affected by ticks, and whether or not they may contribute to the spread of tick-borne illnesses (including Lyme disease), is a pretty popular topic of field research, and has been for several years. The most common tick to target birds is not the deer tick, however, but the bird tick, Ixodes brunneus (another fine example of putting a lot of thought into naming things… not).

The bird tick can transmit what is known as ‘avian tick paralysism’ by introducing a chemical through the saliva, which causes paralysis to spread from the bird’s feet up. Of course, they cannot long survive in the wild once it progresses. Fortunately though, bird ticks are primarily found along the coast, and the disease doesn’t seem to be a considerable problem in our area (as far as we know, that is).

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An SY, male Northern Mockingbird. This guy built a nest not too far from net 5, so we were all (impatiently) waiting for this moment.
Volunteer Steve Saffier, holding the Mockingbird. From Pennsylvania Audubon, Steve is the Audubon at Home Coordinator, and works with conservation organizations, universities,  municipalities, and individuals and neighborhoods to create more bird-friendly, and help the public understand the importance of their properties to wildlife and the entire ecosystem.
Volunteer Steve Saffier, from Pennsylvania Audubon. Steve is the Audubon at Home Coordinator, and works with conservation organizations, universities, municipalities, and individuals and neighborhoods to create more bird-friendly, sustainable landscapes and habitats, and help the public understand the importance of their properties to both birds and the ecosystem as a whole.

Here’s a close-up of the Mockingbird’s eye, indicating the nictitating membrane because it’s super weird and I want to tell you all about it.

nictitatingmembrane

The nictitating membrane is a strange and magical thing. Effectively a third, translucent eyelid, it slides horizontally across the bird’s eye (rather than up or down), and serves many purposes.

It provides extra protection to the bird’s eye – particularly useful for birds that forage under water (built in goggles!!), and for lack of a better way to put it… for birds who forage with their faces in carcasses (you know, like those creepy roadside turkey vultures). It also moisturizes the eye each time it glides over the eyeball, which is great for birds of prey that fly at very fast speeds, high up, where winds are stronger and more drying.

Since it’s clear, the birds are still able to see while getting all of those benefits. When you spend a lot of time flying up to 60 miles per hour toward dense objects (trees, buildings… people) and have to use your eyes to spot caterpillars and flies extremely far away, while remaining constantly alert and aware of your surroundings because EVERYTHING WANTS TO EAT YOU, it is important to be able to see at all times.

And while birds are admittedly less-susceptible to eye injuries than other species which have nictitating membranes (snakes, lizards, voles and other creatures that burrow and can easily get dust and dirt in their eyes), they are perhaps more negatively affected by any injury that does occur, since they depend so heavily on sight.

So it’s good that they have them.

Even this hatch-year Song Sparrow has a fine nictitating membrane
Another glimpse at the elusive nictitating membrane, this time on a HY Song Sparrow.
And here's a shot of the same Song Sparrow's tail, which exhibits characteristics of juvenile plumage.
And here’s a shot of the same Song Sparrow’s tail, which exhibits ‘growth bars,’ a characteristic of juvenile plumage.

There are two kinds of ‘bars’ which can be found on feathers: fault bars and growth bars.

Growth bars occur normally in growing birds, and are light and dark bands that stretch across a feather. The dark bands are grown during the day, when the bird’s metabolism is higher (and therefore more melanin is being produced), while the light bands are grown during the night. Together, the light and dark bands represent 24 hours of feather growth. These bands don’t impact the feather’s structural integrity, whereas fault bars do…

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A fault bar on the wing feathers of a Hatch Year Blue Jay (another one of our new species for the station!).
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More fault bars suggest that this young bird likely had a few stressful moments in the nest. Things got busy, mom and dad maybe forgot they had nestlings for a little while… things happen.

Fault bars are translucent, and can go partly or fully across the feather shaft. They represent the occurrence of some kind of environmental or physical stress, be it malnutrition, predator escape, etc., that occurred in a particular moment in time when that feathers was being grown (when the bird had to devote energy to something other than the feather’s growth, essentially). Since young birds are devoting energy toward physical growth, they produce fault bars more easily than adults. Eventually, fault bars can lead to complete feather breakage.

Birds in fragmented forests produce more fault bars than those in a healthy forest, due to the amount of stress that occurs when good spots of cover are few and far between. Some have even suggested that a high occurance of fault bars in wild birds in a given habitat signals poor environmental conditions, and can therefore alert conservationists to threatened ecosystems.

Despite some fault bars in the wing feathers, this bird was still gorgeous and in great condition.
Even though it had a few fault bars, this Blue Jay was a beautiful and healthy bird.
The lack of barring in the primary coverts is typical of first- and second-year Blue Jays; an adult with have barring across all the wing coverts.
The lack of black barring in the greater and primary coverts is typical of first- and second-year Blue Jays; an adult with have barring all the way across.

Not all hatch-year birds have major differences in plumage from their adult counterparts, but some do. Like American Robins.

Here's a particularly beautiful Hatch-Year American Robbin, with all the dainty spotting of youth.
Spots and speckles, buffy feather edges, and randomly colored plumage help camouflage young birds – important for surviving until they become skilled flyers more capable of escaping predators.
The disarray of colors in this Robin's back make it that much harder for predators to detect.
The disarray of colors in this Robin’s back make it that much harder for predators to detect in the shade-dappled forest.
If you look closely, you'll see that its eye is a sort of dull gray color. That's 100% a hatch-year characteristic. Adult Downy Woodpeckers have gorgeous, blood-red eyes.
Our other new species, a Downy Woodpecker. Take a look at this bird’s eye color – sort of dull, muddy gray, which is a hatch-year characteristic. Adult Downy Woodpeckers have deep, blood-red eyes. Over time, this bird’s eye will become redder and darker from the pupil outward.

This bird stumped me at first. Woodpeckers are a little unusual in that they can be aged more specifically than many species; as opposed to simply saying “After Second Year” for an adult, you can say “After Third Year,” and so on. Hatch Year and After Second Year birds also have some overlapping characteristics, so when I first looked at this bird, I called it an ASY.

But then later, when I thought about it more in the wee hours of the night, I realized I hadn’t remembered to check its eye color… and that maybe its undertail coverts were a little too downy and its tail was a little too pointy for it to be an adult…

So I sent photos to a fellow MAPS bander, who is operating a station in western PA, for advice (and reassurance), and she helped me confirm it as an HY (thanks, Gigi!!).

Another characteristic of a Hatch Year wing (you see, now I know all of them ;D) is that the primary coverts - the feathers under my pointer finger in this photo - are a bit browner and more see-through than an adult's would be.
Another characteristic of a Hatch Year wing (you see, now I know all of them ;D) is that the primary coverts – the feathers under my pointer finger in this photo – are a bit browner and more see-through than an adult’s would be.
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I lied here’s another photo of the Common Yellowthroat because LOOK HOW AWESOME.

Alright friends, that’s it for day 4 highlights. 🙂

We’ve had a couple more sessions since, so come back to visit again soon!

Happy Birding,

Magic

A non-avian visitor, who apparently was napping just a few feet away for most of the morning.
Our non-avian visitor, who apparently was napping just a few feet away for most of the morning…

MAPS Banding: Day 3

“It was a dark and humid morning; the birds sang in unison – except at occasional intervals, when checked by the sound of our boots as we swept up the forest path (for it is in the heart of Crossways Preserve that our scene lies), snapping little twigs, and speaking in hushed voices as we passed from net to net, alarmed at the unsettling reality of our already-forming 6AM forehead sweat.”

And so began June 11th, our third day of banding.

Beautiful sunrise at Crossways
Sunrise at Crossways

It was a bit of a slow day in terms of captures, with just 11 birds in 5.5 hours of netting. But that’s alright, because we caught a couple of exciting things, including one new species and our first — well, you’ll have to keep reading to find out. 😀

Our totals for the day:

Species New Recaps
Eastern Wood-Peewee 1
Red-winged Blackbird 1
Northern Cardinal 2 1
Gray Catbird 1 3
American Robin 1
Wood Thrush 1
Total 6 5

These numbers were not too surprising, since the temperature approached 80 degrees as early as 11am – like us, birds tend to become less active in such conditions. Actually, their methods of keeping cool in the heat are not very different from our own.

I’ve made a table to illustrate this fact, not only for your reading please, but also because everything is more sciencey in a table.

Bird adaptation Human adaptation
Pant to dissipate heat *Ok, humans don’t exactly pant… but make me run in 80 degree weather and yes, yes I do
Take a dip in the water Jump into your neighbor’s pool without permission; run through a sprinkler
Seek shade and become less active Hammock naps, anyone?!
Flutter wings to circulate more air over skin TURN ALL THE FANS ON HIGH
Spread feathers during breezes to expose more skin to cooling air Break out the tank tops

So you see, we are not much different. If they had electricity and thumbs and an affinity for Mexican food, we’d pretty much be the same.

And now that you understand the complex behavioral processes of temperature regulation in birds and humans, I’ll get back to the banding.

We ended up closing the nets just a little early due to the heat, but we still had a great time, and caught some good birds before we had to close up shop. Here are some photo highlights (and I’ll start with the best because I know you are in extreme suspense and I don’t want to take years off your life).

Eastern Wood-Peewee!!! A new species for us, and really a cool bird to catch. We had been hearing one sing in the woods where two nets are set up, and were hoping for one.
Our new species for the station, an Eastern Wood-Peewee!!! This is a bird often heard before it is seen, its refrain of ‘pee-a-wee? pee-wee’ echoing from the mid-to-upper story of the canopy. Like other birds, they sing most at dawn and dusk, but Peewees often sing later into the evening, after the other voices of the forest have fallen silent. 
They are another one of those have-to-go-AHY birds, since they can replace all their feathers during the preformative molt. They tend to stay a bit little higher in the trees - generally mid- to upper-canopy, and we'd been hearing the characteristic
Peewees are another one of those have-to-go-AHY species, since they can have complete preformative molts. All the feathers of this bird’s wing were uniform in quality, shape, and wear 
Check out those rictal bristles.
Here’s a good shot of rictal bristles. The purpose of these extra-stiff feathers, which grow at the base of many species’ bills, is two-fold. First, they protect the eyes of the bird as they acrobatically catch insects mid-flight (which is why species that have evolved to catch insects in such a way often have more prominent, thicker, and longer rictal bristles). Second, they may also serve the same purpose as whiskers, essentially allowing the bird to sense its environment (the intricacies of how exactly they do so is not *totally* understood).

And the other awesome bird for the day… OUR FIRST FLEDGLING!!! A Northern Cardinal.

Who had quite a lot of swagger for someone so young and inexperienced… I feel like it will probably grow up to be a rapper.

I mean look at this stare.

A fluffy and spirited little Northern Cardinal. Birds hatched in the current calendar year are either aged as Locals (L) or Hatch Years (HY), the difference being that L birds are incapable of sustained flight, while HY birds are. This bird was young enough to be called a Local. HY and L birds are carried back to the net where they were caught and released there, since their parents are generally still in that area, and since they should not be made to fly a great distance.
Birds hatched in the current calendar year are either aged as Local (L) or Hatch Year (HY), the difference being that Locals are incapable of sustained flight, while HYs are (this bird was young enough to be called a Local). Since sex cannot be determined on a bird this young, it was simply recorded as an Unknown (U). HY and L birds are carried back to the net where they were caught to be released. Often to a fanfare of parental relief.

A primary purpose of the MAPS project is to collect data on the survival of both adult and juvenile birds from year to year, which we hope will tell us at which life-cycle stage bird populations are being limited; essentially, which of the primary demographic parameters of productivity, recruitment, or survival, are having the greatest impact on their numbers over time.

Catching our first fledgling at Crossways means we are beginning to capture another aspect of the avian life-cycle on the preserve, and are starting to build a data set that can be used in future years.

Ba
Closing its new band/rapper bling. (photo by Kaite Bartling).
SO. FLUFFY. (photo by Katie Bartling)
So much attitude. (photo by Katie Bartling)
Opening a band for a new female Red-Winged Blackbird.
Opening a band for another new female Red-Winged Blackbird. A cool shot because you can see how small the band is – it’s a size 1A, the most commonly used size for this site so far. (photo by Todd Hansell)
Looking for molt limits in her underwing coverts. For some reason turning my head at awkward angles seems to help. (photo by Todd Hansell).
Looking for molt limits in her underwing coverts. Turning my head at awkward angles seems to help with this. (photo by Todd Hansell).
Good lighting is essential to accurately aging birds. On cloudy days, it’s tricky to see differences in the color, wear, quality, and sheen of feathers; larger-scale banding operations with indoor spaces often use special lights under which they can examine wings. But sunlight on a clear morning is reliable, too. (photo by Katie Bartling)
Good lighting is also essential for accurately aging birds. On cloudy days, it’s tricky to see differences in the color, wear, quality, and sheen of feathers; larger-scale banding operations with indoor spaces often use special lights under which they can examine wings. But sunlight on a clear morning is reliable, too. (photo by Katie Bartling)

In addition to our feathered friends, we also had some other visitors to the station. 

WVWA's Water Quality Outreach Coordinator, Lindsay Blanton (far left) and Dave Froehlich, the Head Miller of WVWA's Evans Mumbower Mill (center), came out to take some videos of banding. (photo by Todd Hansell).
WVWA’s Water Quality Outreach Coordinator, Lindsay Blanton (left) and David Froehlich, the Head Miller of WVWA’s Evans Mumbower Mill (center), came out to take some video footage.  Little did the birds know they should have showered this morning. And little did I know I sometimes have two chins. (photo by Todd Hansell).
Lindsay, holding her first bird, a Wood Thrush. As Outreach Coordinator, Lindsay speaks to local conservation and advocacy groups throughout the municipalities of the watershed about the importance of water quality and what we can do to improve it. She also educates the public on rain barrel use and maintenance and coordinates many, many volunteers who monitor the Wissahickon Creek. And she also always has fabulous earrings.
Lindsay, holding her first bird, a Wood Thrush. As Outreach Coordinator, Lindsay speaks to local conservation and advocacy groups throughout the municipalities of the watershed about the importance of water quality and what we can do to improve it. She also educates the public on rain barrel use and maintenance and coordinates many, many volunteers who monitor the Wissahickon Creek. And she also always has fabulous earrings.
Volunteer Katie Bartling, with another Wood Thrush. Katie is an environmental scientist in the Philly area – we met at Powdermill last fall when I was working there as a Banding Assistant, and she was participating in their banding workshop (it seriously is a small world!). She has a lot of experience handling birds from her time at Tri State Bird Rescue in Newark, DE, is involved with local shorebird monitoring (JEALOUS), and is working toward her Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture at Temple University.
Volunteer Katie Bartling, with another Wood Thrush. Katie is an environmental scientist in the Philly area – we met at Powdermill last fall when I was working there as a Banding Assistant, and she was participating in their banding workshop. She has a lot of experience handling birds from her time at Tri State Bird Rescue in Newark, DE, is involved with local shorebird monitoring (JEALOUS), and is working toward her Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture at Temple University.
WVWA's Stewardship Intern, Caitlin Morrissey, holding a Catbird. Caitlin is a student at Temple University, working toward a Master's degree in Landscape Architecture! (photo by Katie Bartling)
WVWA’s Stewardship Intern, Caitlin Morrissey, holding a Catbird. Caitlin is also a Master’s student at Temple University in the same Landscape Architecture program (seems like that’s what all the cool people do). She’s been monitoring WVWA’s deer exclosures, caring for our native and rain gardens, doing general habitat management and invasive plant control, and working on management plans for three of our preserves – needless to say, she is a font of botanical and biological knowledge. (photo by Katie Bartling).

Notice how there is a very particular ‘oh-my-goodness-I’m-holding-a-bird’ smile? There’s just nothing like it. 🙂 And possibly the best part of holding birds is releasing them afterward, to watch them fly off into the sunrise.

Knowing they will now go and spread the word about how we are giving away free bracelets.

FREEEEEEDOOOOOMMMMMM!!!!!
FREEEEEEDOOOOOMMMMMM!!!!! (photo by Katie Bartling)

In spite of the lower capture rates and the lethargy-inducing temperatures for this third banding session, getting out and catching birds absolutely never disappoints, and it was another fantastic day at Crossways. A huge thanks to everyone who came out to help, and to Katie and Todd for your awesome photos!

We banded again on the 24th, so come back soon to see highlights of all the amazing birds we caught – and I promise, there were some pretty cool ones.

😀

Happy birding!

Magic

View from the banding station, looking North toward the scrub-shrub and riparian habitats. A message to the Towhees that sing there: your days of eluding me are numbered.
View from the banding station, looking North toward the scrub-shrub and riparian habitats. A message to the Towhees that sing there: your days of eluding me are numbered.

MAPS Banding: Day 2

Last Thursday marked the second day of banding for WVWA’s MAPS station. With cool temperatures, a fair amount of cloud cover, and little wind, the conditions were nearly perfect for mist-netting.

But perhaps more essential to success was the fact that I brought munchkins.

dunkin

How could it not be a great day?!

Our numbers were very similar to the first time around, with 28 birds caught across 11 species (that’s one more bird and one more species than last time! Hooray!). And while it’s always great to catch new birds, this time it was also fun to catch a few that were banded during the last session.

Old friends, you might call them. 🙂

Here’s what we caught:

Species New Recaps
American Goldfinch 1
Carolina Chickadee 2
Northern Cardinal 3
Red-winged blackbird 1
Gray Catbird 6 4
Wood Thrush 0 2
Song Sparrow 3 1
House Finch 1
Tufted Titmouse 1
American Robin 2
Barn Swallow 1
Total 21 7

The Brown Thrashers and Common Yellowthroats may have eluded us this time, but we had three new species that were not caught before: American Goldfinch, House Finch, and *prepare yourself* Barn Swallow. After getting used to seeing mostly Catbirds and Song Sparrows, finding something new in the net is a magical thing. And a Barn Swallow?!

WEEK. MADE.

Alright enough excitement. Time for pictures.

A female Northern Cardinal. Though far duller and more brown in coloration than males, female Cardinals are equally beautiful for the subtlety and range of tones in their plumage.
Here’s one of our three female Northern Cardinals for the day. Though far duller and browner in coloration than males, female Cardinals are equally beautiful for the range of  hues in their plumage; the next time you see one of these easily over-looked backyard birds, take note of her sandy beige, steely grey, and dusky rose-toned feathers.
Northern Cardinals are among the few North American species in which the females sing as well as the males. They do so only during the breeding season, while on the nest - likely to communicate to males about when to bring some food by.
Northern Cardinals are among the few North American species in which both sexes sing – female Cardinals do so during the breeding season while on the nest, likely to communicate feeding needs to their mates. Probably something like, “RANDY PLEASE BRING ME SEEDS OR I WILL ABANDON YOUR UNBORN CHILDREN OK THANKS.” Then he will bring her a seed or two, practicing what is known as  “mate-feeding,” helping to build a bond between the pair and showing her that, when they hatch, he will take good care of their young. 
Cardinals can undergo a complete preformative molt, meaning that unless you see a molt limit, you cannot definitely know the bird's age (since all the feathers would be the same age in both SY and ASY birds). But if you DO see a limit, like in this female's secondary flight feathers, you can safely say it is a Second Year bird, hatched last breeding season.
Hatching Year (HY) Cardinals undergo what is known as a presupplemental (PS) molt, replacing all body feathers once from June to September. They then replace those feathers yet again, as well as some, or all (an important differentiation), flight feathers during the preformative (PF) molt, from July through November.  During the same time period,  adult Cardinals similarly replace all body and flight feathers during complete prebasic molts. For that reason, it is impossible to definitively age a bird if its feathers are of the same generation. But if you DO see a molt limit in the spring, like in this female’s wing, you can safely say call it an SY bird (meaning that it hatched the previous breeding season). Look closely, and you can see the difference between her juvenal feathers (browner and more ragged), and her formative feathers (redder, fresher, and more tightly-barbed).
If you see a streaky brown bird, flying low through the brush while pumping its tail, or up on a perch singing in the open, you are likely seeing a Song Sparrow. As sparrows go, this species has a fairly thick and short bill, and a rounder head. Look for the diagnostic dark patch right in the center of the chest.
If you see a streaky brown bird flying low through the brush while pumping its tail, or singing on a perch out in the open, you are likely seeing one of these guys – a Song Sparrow. As sparrows go, this species has a fairly thick, short bill, and round head.
If you're not sure you're seeing a Song Sparrow, look for the diagnostic a dark patch right in the center of the bird's chest: it is very diagnostic for this species.
If you still aren’t sure what you’re seeing (because let’s face it… sparrows), look for a dark patch right in the center of the bird’s chest, which is diagnostic for this species.
A female House Finch, one of our 3 new species for the station. These birds are actually a recent introduction from western North America - they were captured in California by pet dealers, who then released them on Long Island, NY, in 1940 (so as not to be arrested...). The species then spread throughout the east.
A female House Finch, one of our new species for the station. House Finches have a scandalous history… originally they were only found in the west, but in the 1900s they were illegally captured in California by pet dealers and imported to the east. Following passage of the Migratory Bird Act and other similar legislation, pet shop owners became nervous of prosecution and released their captive House Finches on Long Island, NY in 1940. The species has since spread throughout the east. Nice job guys, nice job.
Ah look, another Catbird.
Ah look, another Gray Catbird. Who would ever get sick of them?! Not me. They can teach us many things.
Here’s a great shot of a female Catbird in breeding condition. Female birds lose their belly feathers prior to beginning incubation, the result of which is an exposed patch of skin called a
Here’s a shot of a female in breeding condition. Female birds lose their belly feathers prior to beginning incubation, the result of which is an exposed patch of skin called a “brood patch.” Why lose the feathers in order to incubate? Because one of their main functions is to insulate the bird – losing them means the female can now transfer her body heat to the eggs much more effectively, and they need that heat to begin maturing. The brood patch also develops extra vessels to bring even more blood near the skin’s surface and, therefore, even more heat. To check for a brood patch, the bird’s feathers are gently blown aside, allowing for a good look at the belly, as pictured here.
And they provide perfect examples of molt limits in the greater coverts.
And Catbirds can provide perfect examples of molt limits within the greater coverts (gr covs). This individual has replaced the four on the left, and retained the four on the right, following the typical pattern of this species’ prefomative molt (which makes this a Second Year bird). 
Volunteer and future Master Naturalist, Kristy Morley, with a mystery species (not).
Volunteer and future PA Master Naturalist, Kristy Morley, holding an antsy female.
They are just so much fun.
Taking revenge? Or just sad to part ways? It’s hard to say.
Our first Tufted Titmouse. There is more to these small gray birds than meets the eye - they are perhaps one of the most daring species, pulling the fur from living animals, from squirrels, woodchucks, and rabbits, to pets and - get this - humans, to use in lining their nests. They mate for life, and use the nest cavities of woodpeckers, since they cannot excavate nest holes themselves.
Our first Tufted Titmouse! There is more to these small gray birds than meets the eye. Perhaps one of the most daring species, Titmice pull the fur from living animals, including squirrels, woodchucks, rabbits, pets, and – get this – humans, to use as lining in their nests. Pretty bold, no?
All of that confidence comes, of course, from having excellent mohawks.
Of course, all of that confidence comes from having excellent mohawks.

To break up the day around mid-morning (always welcome), we had a visit from WVWA’s Trail Stewards, Gwen and Steve Bryant. As the Trail Stewards for Crossways Preserve, Gwen and Steve volunteer their time and often walk the trails at Crossways, pruning and keeping things in shipshape, and letting us know of anything that needs attention (for more info on our Trail Stewards program, click here). They also monitored the Bluebird nest boxes we have on the preserve, checking them weekly (the nestlings from one box have recently successfully fledged!).

Gwen, holding her first bird ever!
Gwen, holding her first bird ever.
And Steve holding his! A nice, calm Wood Thrush. :)
And Steve, holding his – a lovely Wood Thrush.

And here is probably – wait, what am I saying?! – definitely the best capture of the day: a vibrantly-colored Barn Swallow!!

Simply awesome.
Simply awesome.
Opening its shiny new band with very excited hands.
Opening its shiny new band. You’re looking at some pretty ecstatic hands right there.
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Taking her wing measurement – an impressive 112mm.
Barn Swallows are also a little more complicated in terms of again - or, more fun. I took a few extra measurements to confirm her age (AHY).
Barn Swallows are also a little more fun to process – you can take a few tail measurements to help confirm their age and sex.
And referenced the Pyle Guide, of course, which has a lot of info about the variation in this species tail, as it relates to age.
The Pyle Guide, of course, provides all the necessary information about what the extent of tail-forked-ness means. Based on this bird’s wing length, tail measurements, and the presence of a brood patch (which must be trusted with caution, since males can sometimes incubate as well),  it was an AHY female. She did have somewhat more orange coloration on the breast and sides than many females of this species, which gave me pause, but a male would have a longer wing, more deeply-forked tail, and even rustier underparts.
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THE BEST.
And finally, a lovely  and photogenic female goldfinch.
And finally, a lovely and photogenic female goldfinch.
As mentioned before, this species undergoes a prealternate molt and, therefore, SY birds can have three generations of feathers. It may be difficult to see in this photo, but that was the case with this bird. Perhaps the most useful characteristic to look for when aging this species, however, is the tip of the carpal covert - if it's buffy, then you can safely age the bird as an SY. If there is no tip (or a very crisp-looking, white tip), then you can almost always go ASY.
As mentioned before, this species undergoes a prealternate molt and, therefore, SY birds can have three generations of feathers. It may be difficult to see in this photo, but that was the case with this bird. Perhaps the most useful characteristic to look for when aging this species, however, is the tip of the carpal covert (shown) – if it’s buffy, then you can safely age the bird as an SY. If there is no tip (or a very crisp-looking, white tip), then you can almost always go ASY.
Her poise also suggested a level of maturity attained only by After Second Year birds.
Her poise belied a level of maturity attained only by After Second Year birds… but her carpal covert and replaced feathers gave her away in the end.

And so another successful day of banding had come to a close. 🙂

Hopefully this week we’ll catch the Eastern Towhees, Yellow Warblers, and male Red-winged Blackbirds that have been taunting us from every corner of the station! Fingers crossed.

Stay tuned for highlights from our next session.

Happy birding!

Margaret