Sunday, July 24, 2011

Banding Wilson's Storm-Petrels

It was at least 8 years ago when Bill Elrick, a fellow bander, got me thinking about banding Wilson Storm-Petrels. (Photos below by Peter Trull and Sue Finnegan).

Bill enjoyed banding European Storm-Petrels in Scotland on their breeding grounds and suggested I try to band Wilson's on their summering grounds (from now on I'll use their species code WISP). WISP's breed in the southern hemisphere in cavities they excavate. Bill and others captured European Storm-Petrels in mist nets using vocalizations in the night and felt it would work for WISP's too.One idea was to set up nets on the beach during the night and call them in with tapes.  He thought it might be best in a rocky area which we don't have on Cape Cod.

A year later, Bill forwarded an email to me from the Frontiers of Field Identification, a listserv with a discussion on molt of WISP's and the lack of knowledge in how first year birds molt. Bingo! We had a reason to go for them. But how?

I got talking with Peter Trull, a teacher, naturalist, and author of numerous books. Peter had experience banding Common and Roseate Terns with Ian Nisbet in the past. Peter felt they could easily be caught by using chum off a boat and a long handled net. It took many years of occasionally talking about it but we finally got our act together, wrote a grant and received one from the Nutthall Ornithological Club, and set out this year to get the job done.

We hired a local hook fisherman out of Chatham, Teddy Ligenza, who agreed to take us out on his fishing boat, the Riena Marie. We would do our research while he fished. 

We had enough money to go out twice. Our first successful attempt was 7 July, but we had to abort the second try a week later due to very dangerous conditions from a sandbar that had developed overnight. Most of the fishermen knew not to cross it, but a large boat belonging to the Chatham Bars Inn had a group of tourists and they tried it anyway. Unfortunately for them the windshield got blown out as they attempted to cross the bar and had to turn around. Never under estimate the power of the sea!  We had another successful day on 22 July but fog was dense again with 3-5 ft seas. It was a challenge collecting measurements and taking pictures of the birds as I was tossed around.

The night before our first day on 7 July I tossed and turned  anticipating this new adventure. I couldn't wait to get out there and see if we would be successful. It was still dark when I left my house at 4:15 am to meet Peter and Teddy at the Chatham Fish Pier. The sun was just starting to rise when we left the dock with fog as thick as pea soup.

It didn't take long to get a few miles off of Chatham where Teddy fishes. He prepared his hooks with bait

and dogfish were biting as soon as he threw out his lines.

They are called dogfish for the barking sounds they make. It took Peter and I awhile to get in the swing of things but soon we had a momentum going. Thankfully Peter (and not me!) retrieved the livers from the fish, which we used as chum to attract the birds.

Chum was spread out on the water.

WISP's showed up in minutes, along with Great, Sooty, Manx, and Cory's Shearwaters. Petrels have a dainty way of lightly stepping on the water as they search for food.

Our next task was capturing the petrels. Not being very good in sports I was also bad at trying to catch the birds. Luckily Peter was on a roll so that became his job too.

Got it!

As soon as he caught one in the padded long-handled net he removed the bird and handed it over to me. 

We rigged up a line and hung the birds in bird bags while they waited to be processed. After capturing between 5-10 birds we would process those and release them before capturing anymore. We had to go through the chumming process all over again. 

It was my job to process the birds. First I banded them with stainless steel bands. You can see what a messy job fishing is! Luckily I was able to ignore the blood and fluid surrounding me.  

I assessed them for molt 
and took photographs of their wings, tail, and claws. 

WISP's have good size claws they use to dig their burrows. The webbing between their toes is yellow and veined. 

After processing Peter clipped a tiny bit of feather from one of the feathers they were about to molt so we could have stable isotope analysis done. We hope to discover where the feather was grown, either in the northern or southern hemisphere. If grown in the southern hemisphere, it would tell us the bird was a juvenile as adults would grow their feathers in the northern hemisphere. After that the bird was released.

Wilson's Storm-Petrels belong to the family of tubenoses, visible above their beak. They drink salt water and the salt is excreted through the tubenose.

While netting for petrels, we also encountered a Great Shearwater 

Sooty Shearwater, 

and Peter even caught a Cory's but it escaped. We also saw numerous whales, both Minke and Humpbacks.

Over the two days, we captured a total of 50 WISP's, all in molt, and felt good about succeeding with that many birds when we weren't really positive if we would catch any!

On our way back I talked with Teddy learning about his life a bit

while PT rested after his grueling bout catching petrels. 

We made our way back to the pier passing by Chatham Light
and many stately homes.
I thought about how I may not have all the money in the world but how lucky I am to be able to be out in the wild, be it field, woods, or sea learning what I can about our avian world.

The icing on the cake was being surrounded by gray seals as we tied up to the dock. A great two days! 

Peter was happy too!

Now if only I could get that dogfish smell out of my clothes.....

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer Babes

2-16 July
Numbers of birds in our nets began to rise during the first week in July compared to June and by the 2nd week, newly fledged birds were everywhere!

Our first adult Baltimore Oriole appeared on the 2nd still singing during the banding process! This doesn't happen very often to me, but a male Eastern Towhee did the same thing earlier in the season. The male oriole was indeed a very handsome looking fellow.

For some reason, orioles (maybe other blackbirds too) will pry open their beak if you put your fingers on either side of it. Their muscles are quite strong!

Our first HY (hatch year) baby Prairie Warblers were captured on 2 July, 3 babies in the same net throughout the morning.  If you don't know the species well some young birds can be difficult to identify before molting into their formative feathers. This youngster was halfway there.

Before molting really young Prairies have grayish plumage, but still have white in their tail feathers.  

Other young birds this day included a cardinal, still too young to sex.

True to form it did what cardinals do best- here it is coming in for the kill 


It doesn't hurt quite as bad as the adult would!

Our first HY robin showed up on the first round and was still in full juvenal plumage. 

To our delight on 10 July we has our first ever baby Hermit Thrush at Wing Island, still in full juvenal plumage, looking very similar to it's robin cousin above. We've had young Hermits in the past when we ran our MAPS station in the Punkhorn Parklands of Brewster, but previously only had them at Wing Island during the latter half of our fall migration monitoring.

 Back on the 5th we captured an older adult Cedar Waxwing

who probably found a fine female to mate with due to the numerous red waxy tips to his secondaries.

Notice all the streaking to this young female Eastern Towhee, again they look very different from their parents.

Have you ever wondered what a bird's ear looks like? They are quite large, almost the size of the eye in this case. They don't have ear flaps as we do, but have protective feathers covering the opening from turbulent air during flight yet still allows them to hear.  

Other babies on the 5th include our first young female Downy Woodpecker, 

a male Northern Cardinal, further along in its molt compared to the one shown earlier

and both male and female White-breasted Nuthatches. First the male with its very black cap

and the female with a gray cap (she seemed a bit younger and a whole lot cuter!)

Not sure what she was trying to accomplish but she kept biting her own wing!

July 10th brought in a HY Tufted Titmouse posing quite nicely for the camera

and a young female oriole.

A young male was captured on the 16th. His wings were much longer and he was starting to develop some nice orange tips to his coverts.

This is about the time of year that we get young starlings as they flock in groups and today was no exception. I kept my fingers crossed that the group circling above would stay there and not all end up in one of the nets! This is probably the best posed starling I've ever had. Usually their mouths are wide open and are squawking at the top of their lungs.

All in all we handled 208 birds of 20 species, 19 of those on the 16th. We went from handling 28 birds on the 2nd to 88 on the 16th! A big thank you to all who helped out- Gretchen Putonen, Jo-Anna Ghadban, Carolyn Kennedy, Judy Keller, and Jessica Rempel. Birds seen, heard, or captured are shown below.

Total Birds: 208                       Total Species: 40
Total Banded Species: 20         Birds/100 net-hours: 47

Canada Goose
Northern Bobwhite
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker- 9
Yellow-shafted Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
Black-capped Chickadee- 22
Tufted Titmouse- 5
White-breasted Nuthatch- 3
Carolina Wren- 10
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush- 1
American Robin- 12
Gray Catbird- 41
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing- 2
European Starling- 1
Yellow Warbler- 2
Pine Warbler
Prairie Warbler- 13
Ovenbird- 2
Common Yellowthroat- 36
Northern Cardinal- 7
Eastern Towhee- 4
Song Sparrow- 26
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole- 7
House Finch-2
American Goldfinch- 2
House Sparrow

Friday, July 8, 2011


As usual, the month of June is very slow birdwise. The majority of migrants have passed through and others are busy nesting. Our last day for monitoring spring migration was 16 June. It proved to be the second worst spring season for us since banding started on Wing Island in 2000. We banded only 260 new birds, compared to a norm of ~ 337. Weather proves to be a challenge on the cape in spring and this year was especially cold, windy, and rainy. I'll be curious to see if our fall will be impacted as well or if the birds will have made up for lost broods. We continue monitoring nets one or two days a week in summer to remove ticks from birds for infection surveillance with the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension.

During the month of June we captured a total of 105 birds; 57 were new. My thoughts were on flycatchers on 3 June and sure enough we caught one, a Traill's Flycatcher, a probable Willow.

Our first Pine Warbler for 2011 was captured on our last net round for the day, a second year female. Her plumage was rather tattered and she had a molt limit in her tail feathers. Pine Warblers generally don't molt their tail as a young bird during their first prebasic molt, so she must have lost some tail feathers adventitiously (accidently) and the new ones replaced come in as adult feathers. She had a brood patch starting and was processed quickly.

A second year male Yellow Warbler but still  brilliantly colored showed up this day.

He had replaced his tertials and secondaries 5,6 during his first prebasic molt.

He even had some chestnut streaking on his crown that I don't often see. According to the Yellow Warbler account in The Birds of North America, the southern forms of this species have variable amounts of streaking on the head.

Our first hatch year birds showed up on 8 June. That is the earliest for us to see hatch years and I was quite surprised considering the cold spring we had. One was a Carolina Wren

and our first baby Song Sparrow.

All our baby birds are quickly processed and brought back to the net area where we captured them.

There were no notable captures again until 26 June when we had our first Great-crested Flycatcher. This bird presented with a non-extensive brood patch and since both sexes incubate the young we were unable to note the sex.

Our first Cedar Waxwings showed up also; a combination of males and females, five in all.

We had one with orange edging to the rectrices where the rest had yellow edging. She was probably munching on a variant honeysuckle species last summer when her tail feathers were growing. Here is a comparision, orange edging on the left, yellow on the right. They weren't too happy being photographed together and it was all we could do to keep the aggressive bird on the right from biting the bird on the left. These second year birds had no red waxy tips to their seconday feathers.

 One of the cutest babies captured on the 26th was our first of the year Barn Swallow!

The lack of extension of the tail feathers compared to adults is easily seen in this photo.

Late in the morning an adult female Ruby-throated Hummingbird showed up, our first one for the season.  
Many thanks to Gretchen Putonen and Judith Bruce for helping out at the banding station during the month of June. Birds seen, heard, or captured are shown below. 

 Total Birds: 105                               Total Species: 52
Total Banded Species: 16                  Birds/100 net-hours: 19

Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Canada Goose
Red-tailed Hawk
Northern Bobwhite
Black-bellied Plover
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Great Horned Owl
Ruby-throated Hummingbird- 1
Belted Kingfisher
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Yellow-shafted Flicker
Traill's Flycatcher- 1
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher- 1
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow- 1
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee- 3
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren- 4
American Robin- 2
Gray Catbird- 23
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing- 5
European Starling
Yellow Warbler- 2
Pine Warbler- 1
Prairie Warbler- 9
Common Yellowthroat- 25
Northern Cardinal- 3
Eastern Towhee
Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow
Song Sparrow- 15
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch- 9
House Sparrow