Fat bird season

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It’s the time of year when migrants come through the banding station on their way from their breeding grounds in the north to their wintering grounds in the south. We see a greater variety of species now—not just those who like to breed here, but everyone who thinks our patch of forest looks like a good place to stop for a snack. It isn’t just that these are different species, though: these birds have a different feel to them. These are travelers on a genuinely long and perilous journey. We banders are, I hope, just a blip in any bird’s day—a frightening moment to be shaken off by mid-afternoon—but the days we interrupt for these migrating birds are epic days.

This is physically manifested, on the birds, as fat.

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Baby season at the bird banding station

The birds are having babies, those babies are learning to fly, and they are flying into our nets at the banding station. They’re not really babies by this point: most of them are independent of their parents. They may have been out of the nest for a month or more, and are technically “juveniles” or “immatures.”

At the banding station we collect data on each bird we catch, including that bird’s age. It’s important to record the age if we can, because the more accurate we are with the age the first time we catch a bird, the more accurate we can be later. If we caught a bird in 2014 and recorded that it was a juvenile, then when we catch it in 2016, we’ll know it’s exactly 2 years old. If we didn’t bother to age it back in 2014, then in 2016 we would only know that it was at least 2. That maybe seems like a small distinction, but the lifespans of wild birds are still an area in which we lack a lot of information, so knowing exact ages is valuable.

How do you tell if a bird is a juvenile or an adult? In some species, the juveniles are dramatically different colors than the adults. Juvenile juncos, brown and streaky, look distinct from adults even from a distance—until they molt, at least. But the differences can be a lot more subtle.

Here is a Common Yellowthroat from the banding station:

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How old is it?

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Color bands: check

Last year, I waited to order color leg bands (for banding the juncos) until spring. This turned out to be a mistake, since everyone else ordered their leg bands at the same time, so all the good colors got backordered and I spent the first half of the field season banding my birds in just orange, lime, green, light blue, brown, and grey. If you’re wondering whether brown or grey bands show up on a junco leg: well, no, they don’t.

I learned my lesson. I’ll have a full arsenal of colors for this field season:

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I think this is the least dignified photo of Limpet I have ever taken

I think this is the least dignified photo of Limpet I have ever taken