Last week we had an ornithologist from the National Aviary in Pittsburgh come to our property (for the 2nd year in a row) to do some bird surveys for the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Neighborhood Nestwatch. This is an amazing program that helps to connect people with the birds that coinhabit their outdoor living space. I am always hopeful that when they come we will get such a large number of birds that they will need to bring more volunteers next year, and we will set records because this place is so amazing! We have the perfect bird habitat, lots of space, open meadows, streams, and lots of forest for them to hide. So it’s a no brainier, right??? Ugh … Every year I am disappointed with the number of birds that we are able to collect data from but I always look forward to and enjoy the experience. (I have come to think that the birds here are just too smart to be caught!)
They arrive early in the morning, usually at dawn or shortly thereafter, and right off the bat they take some time to listen to the birds and get a better feel for what we may be able to catch (I mean collect data from). He was able to hear some amazing birds, some of which I knew, and others that I didn’t (like a Raven!) that I will store in some random place in my brain for later use. Mist nets are set up in the prime locations – usually near a feeder – and then you wait. But you see, at our place it is never that easy. Putting up mist nets efficiently would mean that we have to find some ground that is not completely full of rocks or debris. Debris … We were putting up an extra net and ran out of stakes, but we really wanted this extra net to go up (I have a record to beat you know!). We grabbed a stick, wrapped the string around it, and started to put it into the ground when it hits something. I spot the obstruction close to the surface and give it a pull. It came out of the ground easily and revealed it’s true identity – It’s the rusty bottom of a pitchfork! I said some pleasantries to Uncle Dick, just like I always do when I find his treasures buried and scattered all over this property, and then we put the pitchfork to use as an additional mist net stake. McGuyver would have been proud.
Immediately we catch one! I didn’t even see it! A hummingbird! She was so precious and just perfect. Ornithologist Bob held her up close to my ear so I could hear her heartbeat – a moment I will never forget – it sounded like she had a tiny little cat purring inside of her it was beating so fast. This is normal for the hummers, and it was a wonderful intimate moment. He laid her in my hand on her back and she remained almost frozen until he told me to “make a wish”. He blew on her, like blowing out candles on a birthday cake, ever so gently, and off she went. Be still my heart.
Next was a catbird, red eyed vireo and some song sparrows and a poor titmouse – twice (grumpy little thing). Each bird is weighed, sexed,aged, and some wing and tail measurements are recorded. Some are banded (this program is specifically looking at the patterns of the American Robin, Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, Gray Catbird, Carolina Wren, House Wren, Mockingbird and Song Sparrow) and others are left unscathed, other than getting caught briefly in the net. The bands will help me keep tabs on “my birds” and then I will submit that data to the Smithsonian as part of this Citizen Science project. (The other portion of this project is to monitor the nests on the property. I can submit data on beginning of nest construction, incubation, how many eggs, fledge date, etc. See the post “And just like that” for a little bit more on this.)
And now we wait. And wait. An hour goes by and the birds are singing and calling. A towhee bounces in, and then right back out of the net. Poor Ornithologist Bob is feeling frustrated, I can see it. He knows this place is awesome and we should be catching birds non stop! Another hour goes by and friends arrive to participate in the activity. Except there is no activity. Birds are singing and calling all over the place. Yet another net goes up, held very creatively to some trees and shrubs with bungee cords. Indigo bunting is calling, Cardinal is calling, scarlet tanager is now just messing with him. Robin even swoops down near the net. But nothing. Bob looks defeated and I remind him (and myself) that today is a GOOD day. Beautiful weather, amazing location, perfect company and you are outside studying BIRDS! I think he humors me by smiling politely, and reminds me that we have only 10 more minutes before it is time to pack up.
And there it is, within minutes of needing to finish up, the last catch of the day. I know it is a good one just by the look on his face. When he won’t tell me the call so I can take a guess at which bird it is, I know it is REALLY GOOD. He opens his hand to show my friends and family the most handsome male Hooded Warbler you will ever see. Just Absolutely Stunning.
Look at him – he was certainly worth the wait!