All conferences should end with bird banding! Up semi early after an intensive day of continuous conference papers, the EBBA (Eastern Bird Banding Association) meeting concluded with two banding choices. I preferred to do both.
So I went to the forested area along the woodland trail to set up nets with Richard Roberts. It was still quite windy, although the night's rain had stopped. The nets however were quite wet and took some time to unravel. After setting up 6 and listening to hundreds off Myrtle chip notes, I left to get back to meet others for Sharp-Tailed Sparrow banding.
With the wind still blowing fairly, Fletcher Smith elected to use the marsh just at the refuge border. His original thoughts were for a site that was even more exposed and subject to even higher wind. Never the less he was concerned that we would not catch any birds.
From Fletcher's talk on the Salt-Marsh Sparrow "complex" yesterday we could appreciate that these birds are quite cryptic. They prefer not to fly, walking between grass reeds very much like rails, and blending in with the grass both in value and chroma. They can be hard to see and thus also difficult to identify.
They were no sounds from the marsh as we began. Redwings, Doves, Fish Crow flocks, T.V's, one Black Vulture and a Bald Eagle flew over as we walked. Parallel to the road at first we stretched out a line of about 50m. With me being foolishly in the lead....I've never in in this marsh and did not know the details of the soft places and fall in holes, yet within 80m my skepticism was thwarted as I flushed the first sparrow of the day. It did not fly far, but once back in the reeds it was impossible to see.
So we stretched the rope about 25m further past the grass patch where I thought the bird was. Then 2-12m nets were set, about 15m past the same grass patch and parallel to the rope. We evenly distributed ourselves along the rope, and with a person in the end gap between the rope and the nets we started walking forward. We flushed two sparrows within 15m. They flew right into the nets. Duck Soup, I thought!
Fletcher and Michael ran quickly. The birds were in the bottom panels of the respective nets and looked perfectly positioned and secure. Extraction, knees in the marsh mud was simple. But....the birds were fast! The first bird was under the trammel line and gone as soon as Fletcher's hand touched the net. What seemed so easy quickly became "bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!"
We were luckier with the second bird. It was slighly more secure in the net and despite the same gap below the net-thanks to the grass stubble-we did capture the second bird. We tried again. And again failed with the first bird, only to catch the second. We tried again........this time we caught 4 out of 5!
We banded in the lee of the pickup truck (just like Richard Roberts above ;) Sexing sparrows at that time of year is not really possible. Ageing must be done with care. With the first bird, a Salt-Marsh Sparrow it was quickly clear that the primary coverts were not diagnostic. Nor worn that much, nor exactly narrow or broad, they were puzzling as sparrow pc's can sometimes be. Clue #1, however, was the alulae. Number 3 (A3) was old, A2 was in between but A1 was fresh, new and margined with yellowish/greenish/brownish. This indicates a second year (SY) bird at this time of year. In addition the growth bars in the tail were clear, lined up, and worn (although this last factor means little for a species that forages on the ground in such rough stubble) Finally the carpal covert was found to be fresh against the pc's and I could conclude the SY designation. I went through the entire group, after each of the banders got a chance to band (as none of us volunteers had banded, let alone gotten such a good look at these species before) All were born the previous summer. Several had cc's that had not been molted. A1 and A2 seemed fresh in all but one individual. Tails varied: one with only 4 retrices, another with fresh r4 & 5's and symmetrical. But the species were not all the same.
Four were Salt Marsh Sharp-Tailed Sparrows. One was a Nelson's Sharp Tailed Sparrow and the last was a Seaside Sparrow.
When the photos are scanned I will add them to this post. Quite exciting!
Somewhere in the sequence of the morning, I heard a Hudsonian Curlew (Whimbrel). Fletcher noted that they were hoping to band several of these species during this spring migration and equip them with transmitters. As their northward route seems to track just west of Colonel Sam Smith park on Lake Ontario, it could be rather interesting to see if Chincoteague individuals fly the route to Toronto, where that route branches away from the Atlantic coast, and then where do the birds stopover as the breed in the Hudson Bay Lowlands (including in the Churchill area) and might be trackable for their entire migration....
Quite an interesting prospect. International co-operation, intermediate technological applications, stopover ecology, and conservation implications for a species group, shorebirds, that are under increasing pressures from anthropogenic development.