When I introduce myself to a new session of beginning birders, I refer to the summer of 1987 as “the summer that changed my life.” I was attending Lewis & Clark College, majoring in biology, and had mostly been interested in studying whales prior to arriving in Portland and finding that maybe that wasn’t the best use of my time at a liberal arts college not located next to the ocean. One of my bio profs told us about summer internships available at California’s Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now known as Point Blue) just north of San Francisco. Sure,
I knew that place! I grew up in Berkeley, about an hour south, and had spent lots of time at Point Reyes as a child. I applied and for some reason they accepted me, even though I could barely tell a sparrow from an eagle.
I had two jobs during my stay at the Palomarin Field Station. One was to run the mist-net system that was spread over several acres. We hoisted the 14 nearly-invisible mist nets like a ship’s sails every morning, checked on them every 30 minutes, untangled caught birds and brought them back to the lab for weighing, measuring, and most importantly, banding. The final step was to clasp a numbered metal ring around the bird’s leg (left or right, I can’t recall). This way, if the bird was recaptured, its trail could be followed through its unique band number. Same if the bird was found dead. All the North American banding data is stored at the Bird Banding Lab at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. If you find a band you can report it online and find out about the bird’s history. Why is this important information? Banding data helps us understand migration patterns and timing, distribution and success of breeding birds, as well as how long birds can live. The oldest known Laysan Albatross, Wisdom, was banded as an adult 63 years ago!
My other job was to survey Grid 2, the area pictured above. The bird observatory has run a breeding bird survey program here, and on 3 other grids, since 1966 and has amassed an extraordinary amount of information about breeding birds of the area. Every morning I traversed the grid, which was thick with dense coyote brush and chaparral, watched for target species singing from perches, and mapped their color bands and location. Any time a target species, like a Song Sparrow, was mist-netted, it was given a unique color band sequence so we could ID it as an individual. Thus, my birds had “names” like MRG/S meaning on its left leg was a Mauve, a Red and a Green plastic band and on its right was a silver metal band. The map pictured is the result of my logging the singing perches of individual males as they patrolled their patches defending them from rivals. G2-1 belongs to MRG/S while G2-11 belongs to S/YYO. Think about this the next time you’re walking through Song Sparrow territory and realize how closely they bump up to each other and even overlap.