Category Archives: Banding

June 20 MAPS banding highlights

The third MAPS banding session at Rollins Savanna this season took place on Sunday, June 20th. Yet again skies threatened rain during the morning, and yet again we were lucky with no drops falling during the time the nets were up.

This time, the nets were slow as the day began. The second half of the morning was very busy and there were almost constant net-runs while some of us remained at the table to process the large amount of birds that were coming in.

I did a lot of paperwork and often left the banding to others. I banded just seven birds in total. When I visited the team last year I was amazed that some people were handling and examining the bird and also doing the paperwork themselves. During the busy moments of the morning, I learned that writing down your own data really isn’t too tough. For two of the birds I banded, a juvenile Orchard Oriole and a Song Sparrow, I also took the data down myself. Additionally I banded two Baltimore Orioles, a Cedar Waxwing, an Eastern Wood-Pewee and a juvenile Eastern Bluebird.

Eastern Wood-Pewee, photo by Janice Sweet

Click to enlarge Releasing a Cedar Waxwing, photos by Janice Sweet

We had a lot of Cedar Waxwings in the nets. Here’s one that someone else banded. Check out those wax tips in the second photo.

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing in the hand, photo by blogger

Cedar Waxwing rear view, photo by Janice Sweet

We had a few more juvenile birds too, including this baby Northern Cardinal.

Juvenile Northern Cardinal, photo by blogger

One of the coolest birds we had was a female Brown-headed Cowbird who was obviously gravid – with egg! She was processed very quickly and sent on her way to do her deed!

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June 11 MAPS banding highlights

The second MAPS banding session at Rollins Savanna this season took place on Friday, June 11. Again we lucked out with the weather; rain was threatening for most of the morning but nothing came down until after the nets were put away.

This session was a bit more relaxed than the first time, with a higher ratio of banders to birds. I banded five birds: COYE [Common Yellowthroat]; AMRO [American Robin]; BRTH [Brown Thrasher]; TRES [Tree Swallow]; and SOSP [Song Sparrow]. Again Janice Sweet was taking photographs of the day’s activities, and I was delighted to find she had captured shots four of the five birds I banded!

Common Yellowthroat, photo by Janice Sweet

We band the birds on their right legs. Here you can see I am holding the bird and controlling the right leg as the pliers approach the leg with the band.

American Robin, photo by Janice Sweet

Brown Thrasher, photo by Janice Sweet

Tree Swallow, photo by Janice Sweet

Here’s an image of me transferring the Tree Swallow from the photographer’s hold to the bander’s hold. See my right index and middle fingers are spread apart, ready to hold the bird’s head and neck gently but firmly.

Tree Swallow, photo by Janice Sweet

By the way, you might notice I’m wearing the same shirt as last week – I Put Out For Birds. It got stained (ruined) the first week, so it’s now my banding shirt forevermore.

We had the first juveniles caught for the season: a WBNU [White-breasted Nuthatch] and a DOWO [Downy Woodpecker]. The DOWO was extremely cute, as you can see:

Baby Downy Woodpecker
Baby Downy Woodpecker, photo by blogger

Since it wasn’t too busy for most of the day, we had more time for photos. I managed to post a picture of the baby Downy Woodpecker to Facebook while in the field.

Shooting a Downy Woodpecker with an iPhone, photo by Janice Sweet

Late in the morning we were treated to a visit by a Great Spangled Fritillary, who posed on all sorts of objects on our banding table.

Great Spangled Fritillary, photo by Janice Sweet

Great Spangled Fritillary, photo by Janice Sweet

Finally, a Blue Jay provided comic relief when it held tightly onto some prized seeds while it was being processed. Those tasty seeds may have saved the bander from a bite or two.

Blue Jay bites seeds while being examined, photo by Janice Sweet

Blue Jay with seeds in beak, photo by Janice Sweet

Many thanks again to Janice Sweet for the use of her photos. The third session took place on June 20th — with highlights coming soon!

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More MAPS bird banding highlights

Shortly after we set up for the second banding session at Rollins Savanna last week, I was handed a CD full of photos from the first week. Janice Sweet took photos of the banding team all morning, and I requested permission to share some of them here on the blog. All of the following photos are from the May 31st session.

The first thing we do when processing a bird is to determine the species. For most birds this is not a problem. Although not all of the bird banders in our group are also birders, there are enough team members that can quickly and confidently identify the birds. When we catch an Empidonax flycatcher, ID can get a bit tricky.

After the bird is identified, a band is placed around the leg. The band sizes for each species are listed in the Pyle guide. For example, a band size of 2 or 3 is mentioned for the Blue Jay. Here the bands are being held up by the bird’s leg to determine the appropriate size for this individual.

Finding the right size band for a Blue Jay; photo by Janice Sweet

Next the band is carefully pulled apart using a special pair of pliers. The band is then transferred to the appropriately-sized hole in another special type of pliers to be placed onto the bird. Here are some photos of bands being applied.

Me banding an American Goldfinch; photo by Janice Sweet

Banding a Song Sparrow; photo by Janice Sweet

Me banding an American Robin; photo by Janice Sweet

Banding a Common Grackle; photo by Janice Sweet

Next we determine the sex and age of the bird. For sexually dichromatic species, like Northern Cardinals, Baltimore Orioles or American Goldfinches, determining sex is easy.

Me holding a male American Goldfinch; photo by Janice Sweet

For other species, we look for things like a brood patch or a cloacal protuberance to determine sex. To view these, we blow gently on the bird’s abdominal area to clear away feathers. You can see that the feathers of this Brown Thrasher are being blown up away from the body.

Thrasher belly check
Checking a Brown Thrasher for brood patch; photo by blogger

Without getting too technical, age is often determined by looking very closely at certain feathers. We also look at the level of bone growth in the skull, viewed by clearing away head feathers with a bit of water. Eye color, other plumage clues and even bill color are also used to help determine age.

Skulling an American Robin; photo by blogger

Next, more measurements may be taken, including wing length, feather wear, feather molt, and fat level.

Measuring wing length of a Common Grackle; photo by Janice Sweet

Examining a Red-winged Blackbird’s wing; photo by Janice Sweet

Throughout the entire process, the safety of the bird is foremost in our minds. Part of this is keeping a firm but gentle grip on the bird during the procedure, and processing the bird quickly for a timely release.

Blue Jay; photo by Janice Sweet

Red-winged Blackbird; photo by Janice Swee

Field Sparrow; photo by Janice Sweet

My heartfelt thanks to Janice Sweet for allowing the use of her photos. Thanks, too, to the rest of the team. I am learning so much and having a lot of fun! Our second session was on June 11, and our third is planned for June 20. I will have more to share about these soon!

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A new MAPS season begins

Last year I kind of invited myself to observe the MAPS banding team at Rollins Savanna during the last part of their season. I guess I wasn’t too annoying, because when I invited myself to be a volunteer this year, no one stopped me. I attended a training session with other new and returning volunteers last Sunday. Today was our first banding day for the MAPS program this year.

The Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program calls for 10 mist nets to be set up in an area of about 20 acres. Since this was the first morning of the banding season, we had to locate the old net locations by finding the rebars in the ground from last year. It was warm and humid, and the mosquitoes were out in full force. I have to admit I was pretty miserable during this part of the day. It was hot, we were sweaty and being eaten alive. Once we had all of the nets up it was already time to start checking the first nets for birds. From then on we were all pretty busy processing birds or extracting birds from the nets. It got 1000x more fun, too. There wasn’t much time for photos! Hopefully in a future post I will be able to share with you a bit more about how we examine the birds and collect data.

The nets had birds in them most every time they were checked. We had a net full of about ten American Goldfinches (AMGO) at one point. We also had multiple Common Yellowthroats (COYE), American Robins (AMRO), Red-winged Blackbirds (RWBL), Common Grackles (COGR), Song Sparrows (SOSP) and Field Sparrows (FISP). Others were a Blue Jay (BLJA), a female Orchard Oriole (OROR), a Brown-headed Cowbird (BHCO), a Traill’s Flycatcher (TRFL), and one Brown Thrasher (BRTH). One Northern Flicker (NOFL) got itself out of the net before we could. Some birds were recaptures from last year’s banding season. Here’s me with the BRTH:

Brown Thrasher in my hand

Those four letter abbreviations, by the way, are shorthand alpha codes used by banders for the data collection paperwork. I have been using them lately when we go birding to keep a list of species we observe, but sometimes I use my own kind of shorthand. I need to break that habit and be sure to use the proper codes for the MAPS paperwork. The usual code is the first two letters of each word for a bird with two names (AMerican RObin). There are different conventions for birds with just one word names (easy: KILLdeer) or three or more word names (Red-winged BLackbird). Some names don’t conform though, because the same code would work for multiple birds. So the Tree Swallow is TRES and the Trumpeter Swan is TRUS, for example.

We were lucky with the weather for most of the morning, but at around 9:30 it started to thunder off in the distance. By the time the nets were closed up, it was getting dark and rain was coming. Several of us got completely drenched when it started pouring down as we were taking down the nets. I got full of mud from taking stakes out of the ground. I was filthy and soaked to the bone but I didn’t really mind! That’s how much fun I had on my first full day volunteering with the MAPS banding team. Till next time!

Angry Robin is Angry
Angry Robin is Angry

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BWIAB Banding @ BSBO

We returned home yesterday from spending five days in northwest Ohio, birding at Magee Marsh and Ottawa NWR, and enjoying programs during the Biggest Week in American Birding. We had heard from many birding friends that Magee Marsh was amazing, but we still managed to underestimate the birding there… it was truly PHENOMENAL. We can’t wait to go back! This is the first of several posts on our time there… starting with some bird banding.

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

On Saturday morning we spent some time at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory banding station (which we also visited last fall) and got to see some beautiful birds in the hand.

Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting

Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler

The audience was large and several banders and volunteers showed the birds while explaining the process and what we learn from bird banding.

Alder or Willow Flycatcher
Traill’s Flycatcher

Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler

BSBO director Kim Kaufman explained that birds have a preen gland which secretes oil used in preening. And then she showed it to us, using a Gray Catbird she had in the hand, which was very cool.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler

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Banding demonstration @ BSBO

In addition to the great speakers and the interesting workshops, other special activities were offered to attendees of the Midwest Birding Symposium. On Saturday morning we went to one of these, a songbird banding demonstration at Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

A good variety of birds were captured in the mist nets, and we got to see lots of birds in the hand.

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal female with wispy crest

See the orange feathers on the Ovenbird’s head?

American Robin in the hand
American Robin

One neat thing was to see a House Wren and a Winter Wren side by side. Do you know which is which?

Two wrens
(ʇɥbıɹ ǝɥʇ uo sı uǝɹʍ ɹǝʇuıʍ ǝɥʇ)

Another cool thing was to see how they weigh the birds. At the MAPS banding station at Rollins Savanna, the birds are weighed by hanging the bird, still in the bag, on a hanging scale. At BSBO the birds were placed into a cone and then weighed in a cup standing on a scale.

Brown Thrasher being weighed
Brown Thrashed being weighed

At one point several different thrush species were being banded, and we were shown three of the birds up close to see distinguishing markings that are difficult to spot in the field.

Learning about a Wood Thrush by examining its tail feathers

The best part of this demonstration, for me, was releasing a bird. I was minding my own business, taking photos of birds in the hand, when suddenly Dana Bollin was standing next to me, instructing me to hold my fingers just so – in order to take a bird to be released. Well, it all happened very fast and I don’t even remember which thrush it was, but it was pretty awesome.

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Hummingbird groupies

After learning about hummingbirds, watching how they are captured for banding, and learning about the process and tools involved, we finally got to see a hummingbird in the hand, being banded. While we were at the Hummingbird Festival at Camp Sagawau, nine different Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were banded.

The bander, Vern Kleen, handled every bird with care and speed. You could tell he has banded many thousands of hummingbirds throughout the years.

In the Hand

Banding a Hummer

In this short video, Vern bands a hummingbird and measures its wings.

After the bird was banded and the measurements were recorded, Vern allowed spectators to feel the birds heartbeat. A hummingbird’s heart can beat up to 1200 times per minute! The hummingbird groupies stood and held their hands out, hoping to have a chance to feel the precious bird’s heartbeat. Vern took each visitor’s hand and placed it gently on the chest of the little bird.

Hummingbird Groupies

At first I thought this was a rather charming part of the festival. However, after a while I felt uncomfortable on behalf of the poor bird being passed around and felt up by dozens of groupies. I know Vern has been doing these festivals for many years and I believe in the work he is doing to educate the public about these birds, but the fact is that one of the birds banded that day at the festival died. This was discovered when the spectator who was allowed to release the bird was still holding the lifeless bird in her open hand several minutes after it was given to her. Vern tapped under her hand, fully expecting the bird to awaken and fly off, but instead it fell lifeless to the ground. This was rather a shock to see and I wasn’t keen to see any more birds being passed around so everyone could feel a hummingbird’s heartbeat.

Later we learned from other (non-hummingbird) banders at the festival that it was typical to lose about 1 bird in every 1000 that is banded. I am not sure what Vern’s record is but I imagine losing a bird at a festival must not happen too often, or he wouldn’t do it.

To end on a happier note, here is another of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds being released.

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Tools for banding a hummingbird

Here’s a bit more on the Hummingbird Festival we attended on Saturday (previous posts are here and here). The tools used for banding hummingbirds are similar to those used for banding passerines, only smaller. A lot smaller.

Here is a very organized bander’s toolbox. These are the tools an ‘ordinary’ bander uses – these are not the tools used on hummingbirds. The second photo is zoomed in on a container of bands from the first image.

Banding Tools

Bird Bands

Those number 2 bands are about 7mm tall and would be used on a bird like an American Robin or a Mockingbird. Here’s a hummingbird band:

Hummingbird Band

That speck in the middle of the card I’m holding is a band for a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. It is about one and a half millimeters tall. Here are some of the tools Vern used during the banding demonstration.


The pliers are used to open the bands in order to place them around the bird’s ankle and close it again once it is in place. The magnifying glass is used to read the bands, while the ruler is for measuring the bird’s wings. The sheet of aluminum on the left of the photo is an uncut sheet of hummingbird bands. Hummingbird bands don’t come from the USGS already assembled like other bird bands – the hummingbird bander has to prepare the bands himself.

Sheet of Bands

This means cutting the bands to the proper size (different species require slightly different cuts) and sanding the rough metal edges. Once the bands are ready Vern placed them on a safety pin, in the right numerical order, until they were needed. There are 20 bands on the safety pin pictured below.

Safety Pin

safety pin with hummingbird bands

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Capturing fast fliers

As we were migrating to Camp Sagawau, we heard that Vern Kleen was starting his talk on hummingbirds. When we arrived, there was already a crowd of hummfans listening to Vern.

Vern Kleen speaks

Vern Kleen is one of two licensed hummingbird banders in Illinois. Throughout the summer he has conducted banding demonstrations – after the last fest on September 5th he will have done sixteen hummingbird festivals throughout Illinois!

Vern told us all about hummingbirds, from banding and how to attract hummingbirds to back yard feeders to facts & figures and all about hummingbird behavior, as well as taking questions from the crowd. We learned that there are approximately 340 species of hummingbird. 25 of these have been seen in the United States, but just the Ruby-throated is a regular in eastern North America. Ecuador is home to over 160 different species!

As Vern was speaking, members of Illinois Audubon were busy with two hummingbird traps. Normally there are 10+ hummingbird feeders set up at Camp Sagawau, but during the festival they were all removed except for two which were used for trapping the hummingbirds for banding. Spectators watched the feeders, waiting for a bird to fly inside. The traps are hanging on either side of the large tree just left of center:

Waiting at the traps

The doors on the mesh traps were rigged to close on a remote control similar to remote lock devices for cars. Here’s a closer look at an open trap:

Open hummingbird trap

Because there were normally so many feeders at the preserve, there was no shortage of hummer activity. However, the trappers had to be careful and not trip the door until the bird perched on the feeder. Hummingbirds flap their wings up to 100 times per second and fly 25-30 miles per hour on average. Male birds can reach speeds of nearly 60 mph during courtship display dives!

Once the bird entered the trap and was actually perched on the feeder inside, the chance of them flying into the trap door as it was closing was greatly reduced. Here’s a male bird (notice the ruby throat) caught in one of the traps:

Trapped hummingbird

After capturing a bird in the trap, the next step was to remove the bird from the trap. A net ‘sleeve’ allows the trapper to get his or her hand into the cage without the bird escaping. Still, it’s a delicate procedure and patience is needed in order to avoid extra stress on the bird. Here’s a video of a bird being removed from the trap:

Next, banding a hummingbird!

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Mad Cedar Waxwing won’t leave

Keeping with the waxwing theme today… Yesterday I observed the bird banding team again at Rollins Savanna. It was the last MAPS session for the season. Like last time, it was quite busy when I arrived, with over a dozen birds having been pulled from just one net.


Most captures were Common Yellowthroats. They were pretty calm while being handled for the most part. The mosquitoes were flying all over and once a yellowthroat tried to grab a mosquito in its beak while it was being processed, which was extremely cute.

Common Yellowthroat

Many of birds were going through molt and were missing head feathers. They were very difficult to age and sex. The bird books were consulted for each bird and there was a lot of discussion among the team.

Two Cedar Waxwings were also caught in the nets. They were both juveniles who did not yet have the red wingtips for which the species is named. Neither bird was happy to be there.

Waxwings In Hand

Waxwing In Hand

The bird above was especially feisty, locking its feet together to make the bander’s job extremely difficult. It was biting the pliers, the bander’s hands, everything in sight during the entire process. When it came time to be released, it was so intent on biting the bander’s finger it didn’t realize it was time to go, until it got a tap on the rear:

MAPS will start up again in the spring and I hope to join the team as a volunteer. So hopefully that was my last visit to the team as an awkward bystander. 😉

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