Humans band together to help feathered friends
The small cloth bag hanging from the shady side of a gambel oak rustles and flutters briefly.
Pitkin County Wildlife Biologist Jonathan Lowsky holds a tiny flycatcher in his left hand, the bird’s head protruding between his first two fingers and its twig-like legs between his third and fourth fingers. He measures the length and width of the bird’s beak with a micrometer in his right hand, and reads the measurements to ornithologist Linda Vidal, who records the data in a notebook.
When Lowsky finishes the measurements, he uses specially-made pliers to attach a small metal band to the bird’s leg.
The two are sitting at a folding table somewhere in the middle of the 5,000-acre Wildcat Ranch, a rolling expanse of shrubland extending from near Snowmass Village to Highway 82. They are working at a bird-banding station, collecting data on songbirds that frequent the oaks, sage and serviceberry bushes at Wildcat.
In the bag hanging from the oak, another flycatcher has only a short time to wait before it’s examined, banded, weighed and set free. Birds are never held longer than what’s considered a safe period of time, Lowsky said.
Occasionally, the captured birds receive a bit of first aid – Vidal applies antiseptic to a sore on the cheek of a green-tailed towhee. Ground-feeding birds such as the towhee may pick up ticks or other skin parasites, she explained.
Work done at the bird-banding station at Wildcat is part of a nationwide effort to determine what must be done to stop the decline of migratory bird populations before it’s too late.
Habitat loss due to deforestation in the birds’ winter range in Mexico and Central America is often blamed for the disappearance of many of the birds, but more work is needed to find ways to stop the decline of songbird numbers, Lowsky said.
“The more we know, the more we can do toward conservation,” he said. Banding sessions are done every week, weather permitting, during the late spring and early summer.
Bird banders trap their quarry in “mist nets” – so dubbed because they are so fine, they’re difficult to see. The Wildcat station has 10 such nets, deployed in small openings in the brush. The nets measure 7 by 40 feet with a three-quarter-inch mesh made of fine, soft, black nylon. They stand upright on metal poles.
The banding crew – which on this occasion also includes Kristine Crandall of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, botanist Janis Huggins and graduate student Eric O’Dell – checks each of the nets every few minutes, removing birds that have been caught and placing them in soft cloth bags.
As she begins to disentangle a warbling vireo from a net, Vidal explained that the local efforts are part of a national project known as Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship, or MAPS. In all, about 500 banding stations are dedicated to the MAPS project, she said.
Lowsky and Vidal send the data collected at Wildcat to the Colorado Bird Observatory in Brighton. Copies also go to the Institute for Bird Populations, or IBP, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of changes in bird populations, in Point Reyes, Calif. Both agencies combine the data with information from other stations in an attempt to view the overall picture of population changes.
The only information recorded on the metal band placed around the leg of each captured bird is a number. But when a bird is banded, the bird’s species, gender, age, reproductive status and weight are recorded – and connected to that number in a database.
“It’s their social security number,” Lowsky said.
“Without the band, a bird has no history,” added Vidal.
Recording data on birds in their first year of life is especially important, because the young birds are very vulnerable during migration. As many as 80 or 90 percent of young birds don’t make it back north after their first migration, according to Lowsky.
The workers at the Wildcat banding station are all volunteers except Lowsky, who lends a hand courtesy of Pitkin County. The Wildcat project is also supported by a grant from the Aspen Skiing Co. Wildcat Ranch has also been extremely helpful, Vidal noted.
Vidal founded the local project seven years ago. She originally funded the work and equipment out of her own pocket, with the help of a few private donations, said Lowsky.
According to Vidal, the station recorded birds of as many as 38 different species last year. Lowsky said the list has grown by about five new species this year.
Previously banded birds are frequently caught at the station. Vidal said nearly half of the birds netted this year have already been banded – many at Wildcat – and some as many as four or five years ago.
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Development plans could move forward for about 400 homes in the Lakota Canyon area after the Basalt-based Romero Group acquired the property for $1.5 million, about half its appraised value.