On the morning before Halloween, the hedgerows and meadows of Rushton were teeming with migratory birds that had descended on the preserve in the pre-dawn chill. Banders skillfully processed a rush of 60 birds in just the first two hours of opening; the sun was high by the time Alison and I finally had the chance to look at each other and exchange morning greetings after those blurred hours of poring over birds side-by-side behind the banding table. During the lulls in activity, cold banders could be seen standing in the meadow thawing in the morning sun—some dressed in ridiculous (and awesome) bird onesies in the spirit of the holiday.
We could not have picked a better day for Rushton’s first 24-hour long banding big day or bird banding bender as some called it. The purpose of this endeavor was to understand how the bird community shifts throughout the day at Rushton, whether foraging strategies change toward dusk, and if different species are active later in the day. Banders took shifts throughout the 24 hours until dawn of Halloween. The resulting catch was 115 songbirds of 22 species and 12 Northern Saw-whet Owls.
Analysis of the results led to some interesting finds. Most of the activity occurred during the first few hours after sunrise, as we suspected; this is when birds’ energy demands are highest after a long night of traveling or simply resting and metabolizing body fat for warmth. There was a drop in activity mid-day followed by a surge of activity from 4pm until sunset, such that banders had to finish processing the catch with headlamps lighting the feathers.
The top species from the banding bender included sparrows (White-throated, Song, and Swamp), American Robins, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Interestingly, the sparrows were only captured during the morning and evening rushes, whereas the kinglets were captured consistently throughout the day. We suspect this is because the kinglets have such high metabolisms that the mid-day siesta is not an option for them; they must forage all day long to meet their energy demands, gleaning mostly insects and spiders along with some seeds and berries.
Banders were most excited about a White-crowned Sparrow, Brown Creeper, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk (banded at dusk). After operating the owl station through the night, we began catching songbirds again around 5:30 am, well before dawn. These were probably incoming migrants, dropping out of the night sky to rest their wings in the habitat that Rushton offers before the morning feeding frenzy.
After the monumental effort of the big day, banders were back at it on November 1st for what was to be the last day of songbird banding for 2018. However, it didn’t quite feel like the end of the bell curve that we are trying to capture by working the entire season of avian migration. There was no tapering off of migrants, no time for stretching and yawning and reflecting on how great of a season it was. The only quiet moments were stolen during the opening of the station in the pre-dawn—hands reaching up to set the black nets against navy skies under the white moon, as sparrows twinkled and stirred in the hedgerows.
Then it was all hands on deck, bird bags weighing down our rack, nets sagging under the weight of birds, and leaves replaced by wings. Everywhere we looked, small balls of energy were flitting about; kinglets darted and hovered in the shrubs within an arm’s reach, the meadow was alive with sparrows, young White-throats babbled their beginner songs from every corner, robins streamed overhead, and flocks of geese sailed through the blue skies.
There was a palpable migratory energy in the unseasonably warm air. There was plentitude, multiplicity, and joy. Psychologists claim that the human mind derives joy from abundance, round things, and color. I realized that morning why birds bring people so much joy. They are all of these things and more. We’re in this business to try to keep them abundant.
When all was said and done, we processed 97 new birds on November 1st (during the normal banding hours). A total of 14 species were caught including 32 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, 10 Purple Finches, 27 White-throated Sparrows, and 2 White-crowned Sparrows. It was a strange day for the first of November with dragonflies, milkweed bugs, and butterflies active again, taking advantage of the last warm day. “If you can live, LIVE,” Alison said matter-of-factly. That struck me. All any of us creatures have is today, this season, and the beauty of this moment. And so we soldier on.
It didn’t feel right shutting down the station with such a high capture rate and key bookend species missing including the Dark-eyed Juncos and Fox Sparrow. Though we were all tired from a long season, we decided to open the station again last week for one final day. “Can’t stop, won’t stop,” Holly said.
For the love of birds, we operated last Thursday, November 8th. We processed 73 new birds and 14 recaps of 17 species, including the Dark-eyed Juncos and another Brown Creeper. The juncos are our snowbirds, breeding in the western mountains and Appalachians as well as throughout Canada, and gracing us with their white-tailed beauty all winter long. Like other overwintering sparrows, they enjoy feeding on the seeds of native perennials like goldenrod that we have available in the wild meadows of Rushton. For this reason, we do not mow our meadows until spring.
Brown Creepers are one of our favorites as well. These bark-colored birds use their down-curved bills to probe under furrowed bark of large trees for insects and other arthropods. Methodically working their way up from the base of the tree, they use their rigid tail feathers as a kickstand, much like woodpeckers.
We concluded the season appreciating a few of our common residents including a Carolina Wren and a White-breasted Nuthatch.
All in all, it was an extraordinary season, thanks to an exceptional team of licensed banders, ornithologists, volunteers, visitors, students, photographers, and bird lovers. The grand total was 1,010 new birds and 162 recaps of our own. We’ll be out there again next spring, for the love of birds.
There’s a heck of a lot going on in the woods,
P.S. Stay tuned for a special owl report coming to a blog near you.