Conserve Wildlife Blog

Banding Together: When the Shorebird Met the Biologist

September 6th, 2015

Celebrating World Shorebirds Day, Sunday, September 6

by Lindsay McNamara, Communications Manager

Red Knot Photo by: Jan van der Kam

Red Knot Photo by: Jan van der Kam

As a bird nerd, I’d often look on enviously at photos of biologists posted online holding shorebirds in their “bander’s grip” – the bird’s head in between their index and middle finger, using their thumb and pinky to steady the bird, while allowing its feet to dangle freely.

 
I always wondered: I wish I could do that! Hold a bird in my hands. Yet I never once thought: Wait, how did the bird end up in their hands in the first place?

 
I certainly hadn’t thought biologists run all over the beach chasing after shorebirds like a farmer chasing chickens – I just never thought the process all the way through.

 
This past summer, I was fortunate enough to become part of that process and learned exactly how a shorebird ends up in a biologist’s bander’s grip. The system may surprise you, but the steps have been mastered over nineteen years of practice, each one with shorebird safety as the top priority.

 

Conserve Wildlife Foundation (CWF)’s Delaware Bay Shorebird Project celebrated its 19th year this summer. The team members, led by Drs. Larry Niles of CWF working with Amanda Dey of New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, are all extremely passionate about what they do and care deeply for the shorebirds they are studying and protecting.

 
I arrived at the team’s house on Reeds Beach, along the Delaware Bayshore, early in the morning. Dr. Niles was concerned about the wind and had scoped out the safest beach for the banding that day. Our group of scientists, volunteers, supporters, interns and staff caravanned to Villas and joined our partner, American Littoral Society, at the site. We all picked up large, colorful plastic tubs, which had cloth covers that fit securely over the top of the box. The cloth cover had a Velcro pocket. We were told that these boxes would help in the shorebird “catch” that day. Larry and Mandy gave us instructions for how the banding day would go, safety tips and background information on the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project. We all listened intently and couldn’t wait for the day to begin!

The team waiting with our bins. Photo by Lindsay McNamara

The team waiting with our bins. Photo by Lindsay McNamara.

Well, we waited a bit before the day truly started. Dr. Niles and his team had binoculars with them and sat down in the sand, watching the shorebirds from afar for about an hour and a half. We waited by the cars up near the houses along the beach. The reason for the long wait? Dr. Niles and his team were waiting for the perfect moment to fire the net over top of the shorebirds along the coastline.

Biologists rolling away the net to reveal more shorebirds. Photo by Lindsay McNamara.

Biologists rolling away the net to reveal more shorebirds. Photo by Lindsay McNamara.

Cannons with gun powder charges fire heavy projectiles that carry the net over the birds only at the perfect moment – when birds are catchable and none in danger. Luckily, it was not a “wet catch,” that day, as the net did not go into the water. As soon as the cannon was shot, we all spirited single file carrying our tubs down the beach, following the biologists. The biologists immediately knelt at the base of the net and started picking up birds and shouting their identification and passing them to us, as they went they rolled the net away to reveal more birds.

 
It was very exciting! The idea was to get the birds out from under the net and into our carrying boxes and sealed in with a Velcro flap, as fast as possible, for the safety of everyone involved.

 
Each bin became devoted to the same bird species, so if the first bird that was handed to us was a sanderling, we kept putting only sanderlings in our bin. Once we had several birds in our bin, our pace completely changed. We walked very slowly away from the net, keeping the bin level at all times, towards the path in the sand at the beginning of the beach, to make the journey as safe for the birds as possible. There, biologists had burlap “keeping cages” for the birds to wait in. Birds were also sorted by species into these cages.

 
When every bird was taken out from under the net, and sitting in their temporary burlap enclosure, we formed “circles.” Each circle was composed of about 6 volunteers led by a core banding team member. Once formed birds were handed to us and finally, I learned how to safely hold a shorebird in my very own bander’s grip!

My very own bander's grip! Lindsay McNamara holding a sanderling.

My very own bander’s grip! Lindsay McNamara holding a sanderling.

Each bird received a metal band with a federal identification number, and a green tag with a three letter code. One person in the circle put the band on the bird and passed the bird to the next person, who placed the green tag on each birds’ leg and glued them shut. A recorder took notes on the band number and tag letters. Next, the birds’ wingspan and other data points were measured by other members in the circle. Lastly, the bird was weighed before it was released. During my trip with the banding team, we caught a large number of sanderlings and a few ruddy turnstones, federally listed red knots, and semipalmated plovers.

Banding team supplies. Photo by Lindsay McNamara.

Banding team supplies. Photo by Lindsay McNamara.

Holding a shorebird in my bander’s grip was an amazing experience, but what I enjoyed most of all was taking part in the science of shorebird conservation. I placed the green tags on the shorebirds, which will tell other scientists who may recapture the birds that they once traveled to New Jersey. Our circle helped collect valuable data points, which will be combined with the data from the other years of the Shorebird Project, to assess the health of shorebird populations.

 
I wasn’t just holding a bird, I was helping the bird have a brighter future – and that is the best feeling any bird nerd can have.

 
Today is World Shorebirds Day! You can help shorebirds have a brighter future today by participating in the Global Counting Day Program. Join the hundreds of participants at over 93 locations that will count shorebirds and share their sightings online. Register today!

 

Learn more:

 

Lindsay McNamara is the Communications Manager for Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

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