(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) —The catbird — a smoky gray body, with a black stripe of feathers on the top of its head and rusty brown patch at its backside — screeches as it’s pulled out of the sack. It’s loud, as they usually are, but rarely does the everyday Joe get this close to a catbird, and rarely has it been cooped up in a sack, so maybe it’s louder than usual. Laura-Marie Koitsch holds on, considers the situation, and decides the catbird was better not let out of the bag.
Behind Koitsch is an everyday clothes-drying rack. Hanging off each pole of the rack are cloth sacks. The sacks shake and the catbird continues to make a racket for several moments. Koitsch takes another sack from the rack, reaches in, and as she pulls out a yellow warbler, the small gathering at the Erie Bird Observatory bird banding station lets out an audible gasp. They’re enamored with the little, brightly-colored yet common bird.
Among the group is Erin Wells, regional director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). This year, the DEP gave the Erie Bird Observatory a grant of about $46,000. On May 13, Wells was at the banding station to show the DEP’s support for the program.
“I think what Erie Bird Observatory is doing is incredible. The work they’re doing in documenting the migratory birds through the area is very important,” Wells said. “It’s the old canary in the coal mine — we have a lot to learn from the birds, and their migratory patterns, and what that can tell us about our ecology, our environment and our potential climate changes.
“It’s also super important because all those results help form policies and make decisions on how we use the park and how we use resources around us.”
The banding station demonstration and tour is good timing for two reasons: first, there’s an abundance of birds moving to and through the region for their seasonal migration; second — and likely related to the migration — this weekend serves as the Presque Isle Audubon Society’s Festival of the Birds.
Often this past week, Erie Bird Observatory has posted numbers from the “Bird Tracker” website. On Tuesday, May 10, EBO had posted that more than 1.7 million birds flew into Erie County, and then on Wednesday, May 11, nearly 2 million more birds had moved in. EBO executive director Sarah Sargent explained that Bird Tracker uses multiple tools, but primarily weather radar is used to track birds.
“That is a model number… they do that through a combination of things. Primarily weather radar, which does pick up the movement of birds. Of course, the weather people turn on filters to filter out all the birds and the bird people turn off the filters to see all the birds. It is a model — it’s not like somebody’s up there counting all the birds — but it’s done based on really good models of weather factors, interpreting radars, and geomorphology of the land features,” Sargent said.
The Presque Isle Audubon Society’s Festival of the Birds began on May 13 this year, the same day as the DEP tour. It’s an annual festival for birders. Vehicles were parked roadside at the usual birding haunts that morning. People in waders armed with cameras and long lenses could be seen walking out of the swamps. At the banding station and demonstration — which are weather dependent and typically open to the public — birders came and went. A pair of birders with a clipboard stopped and sat to watch for a long while.
The process of banding a bird can be fairly quick. Koitsch — who is the EBO assistant director and the banding program manager — completed the whole process on one bird in less than a minute. The process consists of estimating the age of the bird (Sargent explained that beyond 1 year of age, if a bird hasn’t already been banded, an age estimate isn’t possible), the sex of the bird, the wing length, the fat index and the weight. Koitsch fans out the wings. She turns the bird onto is back and blows at its belly to move the feathers and determine the sex (if it can be determined — some species are dimorphic, Sargent explained). She then puts the bird into a large pill bottle, beak down. The birds squirm and try to fly away nearly the whole time, except when they’re beak down in the pill bottle. The pill bottle is placed on a scale for weighing. The band is attached and the bird is released. It sounds involved, and it may be, but Koitsch is methodical and quick.
They’re also supergluing radio transmitters to some birds. Each transmitter costs about $200. Sargent demonstrated the transmitter at the banding station.
As Koitsch works to band the birds, workers return from the trail with sacks of birds hanging over their shoulders. Out in the forest, several nets are hung. The birds don’t see the netting, they get caught, then they fall into a pocket of netting at the bottom. The workers scoop them up and deliver them to the banding station.
Birds migrate across the area twice per year — in the spring, and in the fall. The Erie Bird Observatory runs a banding program (for which they are permitted and trained) from April to the end of May, and again in September through October. It’s all weather permitting, so the banding tends to not endure through to the end of October most years.
While the DEP may see the project as a canary in the coal mine for ecological issues, Sargent said the observatory’s aims are much narrower.
“Right now, that’s a longer-range type project and bigger picture. It’s something our data is contributing towards, and can be used by anyone who wants to do those types of longer-range analysis. The shorter term is really just looking at bird movements with radio tracking and the use of coastal habitat. Long-term monitoring programs are really the only way to document the types of changes that you need to have to assess things like climate change. There are multiple levels of the timeline of projects,” Sargent said.
Sargent said she’s not a birder and she doesn’t keep a “life list” (many birders keep and ongoing list of each bird they see throughout their lives called a “life list”). Instead, she’s an ecologist interested in the biology of birds. But she’s keenly aware that her close relationship with birders is important to the work the observatory is doing.
Sam Stull is a longtime volunteer at the banding station (off and on, he says). Growing up, his parents had a banding operation of their own. Now, his parents are gone, but he continues to help with bird banding programs.
“I have a love of nature and birds,” Stull said. He’s a birder with a life list. He’s counted more than 300 birds in Pennsylvania, including 264 in Erie County.
The most unexpected bird he’s observed locally was a surf bird.
“It’s a tiny little shorebird that lives in Alaska and the West Coast. Like a sand piper type of bird. Extremely rare in this part of the country. This was in 1979,” Stull said. “But they’re all interesting. A few years ago there was an influx of snowy owls here, which was really cool. I’ve liked them all, I guess.”
His favorite common bird, he said, is the catbird. That wonderful, screeching aforementioned bird (that was eventually released after it was banded).
“They’re so common, but they’re just cool little birds. It’s hard to pick them out,” Stull said. “They have quite a personality.”
Wells, DEP’s regional director, said she’s not much of a birder, but maybe that changed on May 13.
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“I may be inspired today to start a life list — certainly, I’ll start paying more attention to my surroundings,” Wells said.