An eagle eye on the birds: Fish & Wildlife experts banding feathered friends to track populations

  • A worm-eating warbler.  —PHOTO BY CALEB SPIEGEL

  • Collected birds wait in bags to be banded and get data collected and recorded during a bird banding session at the Silvio O. Conte Nature Trail in Hadley. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hannah Waits, a volunteer who recently graduated from the Mass College of Liberal Arts with a degree in environmental studies, learns from Caleb Spiegel, a biologist with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, how to free a gray catbird that was caught in a net for banding and data collection at the Silvio O. Conte Nature Trail in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Randy Dettmers bands a wood thrush Friday at the Silvio O. Conte nature trail. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Laura Pickering writes down data as Randy Dettmers, a biologist with the the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Hadley, checks the feathers and other vitals of a wood thrush during a bird-banding session at the Silvio O. Conte nature trail in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hannah Waits a volunteer who recently graduated from the Mass College of Liberal arts in environmental studies, learns how to free a Gary Catbird that was caught in a net for banding and data collection at the Silvio O. Conte Nature Trail in Hadley. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Laura Pickering writes down data as Randy Dettmers, a biologist with the US fish and Wildlife, check the feathers and other vitals of a Wood Thrush during a bird banding session collecting data on the local birds at the Silvio O. Conte nature Trail in Hadley. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hannah Waits a volunteer who recently graduated from the Mass College of Liberal arts in environmental studies, learns how to free a Gray Catbird that was caught in a net for banding and data collection at the Silvio O. Conte Nature Trail in Hadley. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A Gray Catbird recently banded for data collection at the Silvio O. Conte Nature Trail in Hadley. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2022 7:03:12 AM
Modified: 7/23/2022 7:00:09 AM

HADLEY — A chorus of gasps resonated from deep inside the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge early Friday morning as a small crowd of people witnessed the banding of a worm-eating warbler.

“This is a rock star of a bird,” said Caleb Spiegel, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service based at the Hadley regional office. “He’s a bit of a celebrity. … I’ve never seen one here.”

With a black eyeline and crown stripes and varying shades of olive across its body, the worm-eating warbler tends to be a less frequent sighting at the agency’s bird-banding site, according to Randy Detmers, another wildlife biologist for Fish & Wildlife. Typically, the species of bird breeds in the Holyoke range and then migrates down to the area to molt their feathers, he said.

“We’re at the northern extent of its breeding range, so they’re not as commonly seen around here,” Detmers said. “It’s pretty remarkable. It’s pretty unusual to catch him.”

The worm-eating warbler was one of approximately 25 songbirds that had a tracking band applied to it Friday at what’s known as a “MAPS” station set up in the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

MAPS stands for the North American Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship Survey, and is coordinated by the Institute for Bird Populations, which is a nonprofit dedicated to the study of bird population declines.

Spiegel and Detmers, both members of the migratory bird program at the Hadley regional office, welcomed nature enthusiasts and birders as well as recent college graduates from area colleges and interns to witness the banding process.

The Hadley station is one of more than 1,200 stations throughout the U.S. and Canada that collects data on the survival and productivity of individual birds.

The data collected is critical, as North America has lost nearly 3 billion of its bird population since 1970, Spiegel said. In addition to habitat loss and invasive species, birds are also now facing increased threats amid a changing climate.

Since 1989, the MAPS program has collected more than 2.5 million bird capture records.

Banding together

The Hadley MAPS station was established seven years ago by Detmers.

Between May and August every year, Detmers and Spiegel will band birds through their MAPS station. First, 10 mist nets, or nylon mesh nets, are set up early in the morning when it’s still cool throughout the refuge to capture songbirds. Birds fly in and get caught, and researchers like Detmers and Spiegel then safely retrieve them from the netting and place them in pouches before bringing them back to the MAPS station to collect data.

To ensure that the birds aren’t stuck in the netting for too long, the mist nets are checked every half-hour, Spiegel said.

At the MAPS station, Detmers and Spiegel will look up and measure the appropriate size of a band with a leg gauge tool and a bird identification guidebook, and apply a band with specialized banding pliers.

With the bird being captured, researchers will also collect other data, including its weight, wingspan and whether it has all of its feathers, and attempt to determine the bird’s sex if possible. Spiegel noted that it can be difficult to determine the sex of members of some bird species, especially if they’re recently hatched.

The collected data can help provide information about what’s driving avian population declines, what acute problems may exist in breeding and non-breeding grounds, and the relationships between population change and weather, climate or habitat loss, he said.

“All that information is collected in a single location, and then you can look at wider trends as well and see if a species is doing well or if there are not as many … with a really large set of data you’re not just looking at the life history, but the status of a species,” he said.

On Friday, Detmers and Spiegel collected around five species of birds.

Among them were wood thrushes, which are closely related to the American robin. They are reddish-brown and have black spots underneath.

“I appreciate that we are catching a fair number of wood thrushes here, because they’re one of the species that’s kind of high on our list of species of concern, because of the population declines that they’ve had,” Detmers said. “And so, you know, knowing that they’re breeding.”

In addition to the data collected, Spiegel said the site also provides an educational opportunity and a memorable experience for area students and the public, as most people have never held a wild bird before.

Having met Spiegel through a hiking group, Jeff Nissenbaum of Amherst joined the crowd at the MAPS station early that morning. After visiting a few empty mist nets with Spiegel, Nissenbaum spotted one of his favorite birds — a song sparrow — tangled in the net.

After Spiegel retrieved the bird, Nissenbaum assisted Spiegel in bringing the bird back to the MAPS station and collecting data. Once they were through, Nissenbaum released the bird.

“It was pretty emotional, honestly,” he said, noting that he had never held a wild bird before. “Song sparrows are my favorite. Their song is just so beautiful. I’m really, really happy.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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