I think the reason I enjoy attending a bird-banding session—and I bet this is true for any visitor who stops by—is that it’s a rare chance to see birds very close-up. They’re not a distant speck in your binoculars or your camera lens. They’re also not hopping or flying around from branch to branch, flitting in and out of view. They’re right in front of you, holding more or less still, in the gentle grip of some volunteer who’s weighing and measuring them and examining them. You get to see tiny details on their face and beak and wings.
For a photographer, that close proximity also offers a chance to get some half-decent pictures of the birds. In fact, bird-banding volunteers usually know how to hold a bird in what’s called the “photographer’s grip,” which allows you to actually see and photograph more of the bird’s body than the “banding grip.”
About a half-dozen volunteers—mostly Penn State undergraduates—worked at yesterday’s banding session at the Arboretum at Penn State. They set up “mist nets” at various locations near the Overlook Pavilion and in the fields behind it, and over the course of the morning they snared 11 gray catbirds, two northern cardinals, two downy woodpeckers, two tufted titmice, two goldfinches, a house finch, and—the best bird of the morning—a Swainson’s thrush. Each bird got fitted with a metal band for tracking its migration, and the volunteers took measurements and assessed the bird’s age and sex. The data get combined with information from other bird-banders nationwide, as a way of understanding the overall health of the species’ population.
The volunteers, and bander-in-charge Nick Kerlin, are really accommodating of visitors—if a family with kids strolls by and shows interest, Nick will typically ask the kid if he’d like to release the bird. Kids are usually pretty excited to do that. Similarly, Nick and the volunteers are always nice about letting me take a few photos of the bird before they release it.
The cardinal at the top of the page was one of yesterday’s captures, as was the tufted titmouse above. (Titmice are feisty little birds that do not like to hold still for photos.) Below is one of the downy woodpeckers; this one was deemed a female because of the lack of red on or behind its crown:
And here is the Swainson’s thrush, which according to the range maps is somewhat common in Pennsylvania in the summer, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one:
Finally, here’s a goldfinch, looking a little more drab than the bright-yellow guys you see in spring and summer:
I can’t remember if that’s because it’s a youngster (or, in bird-banding parlance, a “hatch year” bird), or if it’s molting into its more drab winter plumage.
If you’re interested, seven bird-banding sessions remain this season at the Arboretum: Sept. 26, Sept. 28, Oct. 4, Oct. 7, Oct. 10, Oct. 12, Oct. 16, and Oct. 18. I can’t seem to find a link to the banding schedule online, but you can go to the Arboretum’s events calendar to find the sessions. Most of the sessions are not near the visitors’ center as yesterday’s was, so check the calendar for time and location.