Banding station highlights are small and fuzzy

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The sun rising behind the mist nets at the banding station.

‘Tis the season for year-end “Best of” lists, so I thought I’d do something of the sort for my 2017 banding station birds. Except it turns out that we had too many cool birds this year to fit in one blog post, so I’ll be doing a series of banding station highlights posts. First up: the small and fuzzy.

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Female Golden-crowned Kinglet

We don’t get many Golden-crowned Kinglets, so this bird was a treat.

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This is my good side.

We do get a lot of her relative, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

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Female Ruby-crowned Kinglet

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Not nearly as flashy as the golden-crowns, but understated and delicate. Their four-letter code is RCKI, so they get called “Ricky”. The males will hide their red crowns, the red feathers sleeked back and concealed under green-grey head feathers—unless you make them mad.

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Uh-oh.

Then there was this fellow.

Hutton's Vireo

I had trouble finding this photo because this bird looks so much like all of the Ruby-crowned Kinglets. But unlike the ruby-crown, it lacks a black bar on the wing behind the second white bar; and it is much bigger. (Scroll up a few photos and look at the size of the birds compared to the fingers in each photo.)  Pulling it out of the bag sparked a moment of real confusion: it’s a ruby-crowned, but huge! In fact this deceptively-dressed bird is a Hutton’s Vireo, quite rare for our station. He caused much excitement in the banding trailer.

I would have said Lesser Goldfinches were fairly rare for us too, before this fall. But we have had an uncharacteristic flood of them.

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Lesser Goldfinch

Even when the novelty has worn off, they are fun: each individual has a different amount of black on the head and white on the wing. They are small but quite solid in the hand, stocky with surprisingly stubby legs.

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Lesser Goldfinches with different amounts of black on the head.

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As the season grows colder, the birds get fuzzier. Fluffed-up feathers trap warm air next to the bird’s body, a down coat that they grow themselves. This is particularly important for the smallest birds: it’s hard to keep a tiny thing warm in a cold world. (Think about how quickly your fingers and ears get cold; some of these birds aren’t much bigger than a finger.)

It doesn’t snow at the banding station—or it hasn’t, yet—but it does get below freezing at night, so we have temperature guidelines to make sure that the birds stay safe. We don’t catch birds when it is too cold, or wet, or very windy. We pay extra attention to the smallest birds, making sure they stay warm and get banded quickly.

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Cold mist hanging over the banding station as the sun rises.

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Fluff.

If a bird gets cold, it may close its eyes and sit still. When it came time to release this Bushtit, he was too cold to fly. I put him back in his soft cloth bag and put the bag under my coat, next to the warmth of my skin. When I took him out a few minutes later he sat on my hand, looked around once, then flew off.

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I worry about our birds getting cold; it’s easy to forget that in other places, birds are enduring much more severe weather than we ever see in the ocean-buffered Bay Area. The chickadees in my hometown of Chicago will take below-zero nights in stride as long as they can find enough to eat.

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Then I’m glad I live here. (Chestnut-backed Chickadee.)

Chickadees and Bushtits are both “grippy”—their feet are built for holding on while the bird forages upside-down, sideways, and any other way you can imagine. While you are trying to band and measure them, they will be trying to grip all of your fingers. The easiest solution is to give them something to hold.

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My straw now.

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