Recently we caught, as bycatch, two birds from two orders that we had never caught before. (Order being a high hierarchical level of organization of species relatedness, as in kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species.) Both were simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, although for different reasons.
Female Calliope Hummingbird (I think?)
This beautiful bird was terrifying to catch because hummingbirds are very fragile. We don’t expect to catch them in our nets—the mesh size is large enough that in most cases a hummingbird could zoom right through—and in fact we hope not to catch them, since they can be especially stressy little creatures. They are also strange birds to handle, not permitting any of the usual bird grips: bander’s grip, a very secure and safe grip, puts your fingers around a bird’s neck, but hummingbirds have too-tiny necks for it; photographer’s grip relies on grasping the bird’s thighs, and hummingbirds’ thighs are much too short.
Fortunately I was able to quickly extract our hummingbird from the net. She rested on my palm for about thirty seconds, then—just after this next picture was taken—zoomed off high into the canopy.
Female Red-breasted Sapsucker
I often fantasize about birds that we might accidentally catch. A Stellar’s Jay would be great but potentially dangerous, large and smart as they are. A small raptor would be really great and really dangerous—but I wouldn’t mind a scar if it was the price of such an encounter. (We won’t catch a large raptor, since anything very big doesn’t get tangled in the net at all. Stellar’s Jays have flown in and bounced off; sometimes even robins bounce. I don’t worry about catching a Bald Eagle.) A woodpecker would be neat, but also worrying: they drive their bills into trees. What would that do to my hand?
Not much, it turns out, although this sapsucker certainly tried her best. Her pecks were powerful but didn’t break the skin. She was absolutely furious, screeching and pecking and grasping with impressively strong feet. The result is a lot of chaotic-and-not-really-in-focus photos. We didn’t insist on keeping her long enough to get a good one: she had a brood patch, meaning she had eggs or chicks to get back to.
No insult to the Western Tanager or the Calliope Hummingbird (or the Fox Sparrow, which while not actually rare is one of my favorite bycatch birds), but this Red-breasted Sapsucker was the most exciting bycatch I’ve had in my life. Large and beautiful and powerful—it’s amazing to hold that, and to let it go.