“Rare” is context-dependent. My Collins Bird Guide lists the Dark-eyed Junco as a “rare vagrant,” but that is, of course, because Collins is a bird guide to Europe. Common birds where you don’t expect to find them are exciting. We have our own rarities at the banding station, birds that may be common in the general region but rarely grace our nets; and although no one else would consider them remotely remarkable, we still get excited.
Juncos flock in huge numbers all around the area, but for whatever reason, they do not like the specific patch of riparian land that the banding station monitors. The banding station catches only around five juncos every year, making them rare by our very particular standards.
Today was my first day volunteering at a local bird banding station. This place is great: they have been banding birds for decades, recording population changes and individual measurements, and they care a lot about both the birds and the data.
More importantly, though: I finally got my hands on some birds again.
Lincoln’s Sparrow, obviously delighted to be involved.
It’s been a while. I had an abbreviated field season this summer, so I haven’t held a bird since July. Since then I’ve been applying for postdocs and writing my dissertation, both of which involve a lot of sitting inside and staring at a computer screen. I need some bird time. That is, after all, the whole reason why I’m applying for postdocs and writing a dissertation: because I love these guys.
It’s rare that I have photos of the process of banding a nest, since usually everyone is holding a chick and we don’t have any extra hands for photographic documentation. For a few nests, however, I was lucky enough to have my father with us, and boy does he like to photograph things! Thanks to him I can show you what it looks like when we band a nest.
EDIT: If you click on these (or any photos on this blog) you can see them bigger.
The nest, tucked next to the clump of plants in the center. If you look closely you can see Mom sitting on it.
Me taking the chicks from the nest, with Kyle ready to catch any runners. Photo by M. LaBarbera
Often when you approach the nest, the female will flare her tail and spread her wings and run around on the ground to try to draw your attention away from the nest. This is a tail-on view of Mom doing that. Photo by M. LaBarbera
Mom, angrily chipping at us. Photo by M. LaBarbera
For this next trip, I’m in the strange position of having to hope not to catch more than 23 juncos.
This has to do with those colored leg bands we put on the juncos in order to tell them apart. It seems that there is a general shortage of these: many colors are either entirely unavailable or backordered for an unknown amount of time. For the field season so far I have been limited to fewer colors than I expected, and I have been catching juncos faster than anticipated. By the end of our last trip, I was nearly out of color bands, not to mention distinguishable color combinations.
We band it with the uniquely numbered US Fish & Wildlife band. This is the first priority because once the bird has this on, we can identify it later even if it escapes. Then we add the three colored leg bands so that we can identify it later even from a distance.
I just got confirmation that one of my permits – to put colored leg bands on the juncos – is approved! This is awesome. Putting colored leg bands on birds allows researchers to tell individuals apart, since we can put unique combinations of colors on each bird. For example, here are the color bands of RROA, a male House Wren who lived in Ithaca:
RROA = Red Red Orange Aluminum, with the aluminum band being the official US Fish & Wildlife band; this band has a unique number engraved on it, and all information about the bird is associated with that number. However, you have to be holding the bird in your hand to read its USF&W number, so researchers use color bands to be able to tell who is who without capturing the bird. We could identify RROA just by looking at his color bands with our binoculars – we didn’t even have to disturb him. RROA bred in our field site for three years, the longest of any House Wren there. (And yes, we called him RROA – pronounced Roe-uh.)