Today’s post was written by David Bree, Natural Heritage Education Leader at Presqu’ile Provincial Park.
It’s a windy day in late May on Presqu’ile Beach and some birders are out watching the shorebirds. The birds turn and land for a few minutes of feeding frenzy before taking off again and disappearing over Popham Bay.
One cannot help but be amazed by their ability to fly and be amazed. Where are they going? Where have they come from? Questions no doubt asked by people as questions could be formed.
It is also worth asking: “where does the wind go?” since it seems impossible to follow the wind and the birds that ride it. But of course we now know where many of these birds go thanks to bird banding.
The beginning of the bands.
Bird banding, the science of putting a numbered ring on a bird’s leg for later identification, has been practiced for a long time. There are records from the Middle Ages in Europe and China of banding falcons, mainly to identify them as someone’s property if they escaped. Thus was born the concept of bird banding.
Science embraces bird banding
In the early 20th century, several scientists independently began banding programs to learn about bird movements, particularly migration. They would put a number and their address on the bracelet and ask to return it if they found it (almost inevitably on a dead bird).
This resulted in a hodgepodge of systems. In North America, these were organized quite quickly into a single system with a single clearinghouse, where all gang information was sent as it was found.
To encourage participation, the finder was sent a certificate of recognition informing them where their bird had been banded. This system has been managed by the United States Geological Survey for decades.
Technology and practices always improve
Band yields are traditionally less than 1%. This doesn’t sound very efficient, but with millions of bands used over more than 100 years, bird movement patterns have been accumulating, giving us the knowledge we have today.
Sometimes, with luck and good optics, metal bands can be read in a photograph.
Like many things, the pace of knowledge accumulation has increased exponentially over the past 20 years and continues to increase.
Electronic tags and satellite trackers can now be used on birds and there are many websites that show the movements of individual birds.
Keep an eye out for the gangs!
Despite new tools, old gangs (with the participation of ordinary citizens) are still valuable.
With the increase in bird watchers with telescopes and telephoto digital cameras, more bird tags can be read without capturing them or finding them dead.
Scientists have also made things easier for some projects by putting larger colored bands on the birds, which are much easier to read from a distance.
The birds that come to Presqu’ile
It’s always exciting to see birds and find out where else they have been. This August, we saw a Sanderling in the park with a green tag on its paw that said “EHV.”
Sanderling in August 2018. Ringed in Louisiana in April 2017
It turns out that it was ringed in Louisiana in April 2017. It would then have headed to the Arctic to nest. Now, two summers later, he was returning to the south.
Results like this help scientists reconstruct the migratory movements of shorebirds. A Caspian Tern with a white mark was also seen this year, also in August. Turns out it was ringed as a chick in a nest on our own Gull Island in July 2008.
Caspian Tern at Presqu’ile in August 2018. Ringed 10 years earlier on Gull Island
This type of information shows us the ages of birds and how some species have site fidelity, returning to the same place each year to nest.
the wind riders
Shorebirds are great riders of the wind. Other banded birds seen at Presqu’ile include:
- a semipalmated sandpiper in June 2011, ringed in French Guiana in January 2009
- to Ruddy Turnstone in June 2013, formed in Brazil earlier that year.
Semipalmated Sandpiper in Presqu’ile Provincial Park. Ringed in South America in 2009
For all bird watchers
You can help track the wind and the birds that ride it.
Many of our parks are great places to look for birds and if you can see a number on a metal band or plastic tag, that information can be reported to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center’s Bird Banding Laboratory.
If they can find a match, you will receive an electronic certificate via email telling you where your bird was banded. This can take seconds or months, so patience is imperative!