by James D. Witmer
“He’s a licensed bird-bander. He traps birds and then fits them with a little ID band around one leg. I’m going again tomorrow morning. You can follow me out if you want to see what it’s like,” he says.
“Sure.” I shrug. Why not? I don’t have anything else to do on a Saturday morning.
I find a good reason why not when he nudges me awake the next morning. “It’s 5:40!”
“Yep, we catch lots of birds between dawn and when the sun clears the horizon. Coming?”
I manage to eat a bowl of cereal—it’s too early for anything more. Button a heavy flannel shirt over my sweatshirt. Slip on borrowed rubber boots that smell like old pond water. A knit hat, blaze orange and also one of Dad’s extras. It faintly wafts an odor of…old pond water.
A fifteen-minute drive takes us onto dirt, limited-access roads. Old trees lean out over the embankments, dripping dew that plunks in heavy splotches onto the windshield. Further on, large trees thin and disappear, replaced by denser scrub. We follow a right-hand fork in the road and park near the embankment, near an old pickup truck with its tailgate down and cap door open.
A path winds around young trees and through tall grass. The grass winds in tangles up over my boots and icy dew soaks through my jeans almost immediately. I shiver.
“Good morning!” The Bird Bander greets us in full khakis and early-morning cheer. A pair of binoculars swing from his neck, along with a couple of hat-sized mesh sacks with canvas bottoms and long drawstrings. His boots reach his knees, so his legs are dry.
“Mr. Hauber. How are you?” My father shakes his hand.
“Good! All the nets are set, and I got a Chestnut-sided in the second net while I was setting up the fifth.” He smiles at me. “Hi there.”
They head back towards the truck, so I tag behind. A fallen tree branch ambushes me and I trip. I scramble up quickly and they don’t notice.
Strung across the back of the truck is a length of heavy wire clothesline. On the left, a mesh bag dangles from a clothespin like a dirty sock. On the right hang three spring scales: small, smaller, and smallest. Mr. Hauber opens a clear plastic tool box with rows and rows of compartments. Except for the pliars, which look specialized, everything is tiny, delicate-looking and as foreign to me as the implements in a Klingon operating room.
Mr. Hauber selects a tiny metal band and uses the pliers to pry it into an open “u” shape. He snugs it into the pliers’ metal fingers and sets them on an open notebook. Then he unclips the mesh bag from the clothes line. He holds the top of the bag tight around his arm as he slips his hand inside.
A bird flutters around inside the bag, and Mr. Hauber’s face muscles stretch in empathy with his searching fingers. Then he slips his hand out of the bag. His fingers are split like he’s about to throw a fast ball, and a small feathered head with a rust-colored crown, white “eyebrow” and black eye stripe pokes up between them. One shiny, brown-black eye blinks. The rest of the bird is hidden by Mr. Hauber’s palm.
“This is a Chestnut-sided warbler,” he tells me, turning his hand and lifting his thumb so that I can see an olive-green wing,—the width of a quarter at the broadest point—downy white belly, and an irregular, rusty-colored stripe down its side.
The warbler twists its head from side to side and fans the air with its free wing. Mr. Hauber gently strokes his thumb downward from the bird’s shoulder, holding its wing still. It gives up and blinks slowly, twice. He measures the wing length with a small metal ruler, examines the long flight feathers (called “primaries,” he tells me) for signs of wear, and flips the bird over. With a straw, he blows upwards on the warbler’s belly, against the feathers. They separate, revealing a patch of flushed, bare skin almost as wide as its chest.
“That bare spot is called a brood patch,” He says as he flips the bird back over to examine its tail feathers. “They develop them when they’re nesting, to help keep their eggs warm.” He writes in the open notebook with his free hand—numbers and abbreviations go in blocks on faded green graph paper.
“Is this a female then?” I guess.
“Well, it’s hard to be sure, because both sexes of Chestnut-sided’s look the same, and most kinds of warblers develop brood patches on the male too. But, I think this is a female—the brood patch is a little bigger than a male’s might be and,” he tilts his head, “I think that’s probably her mate singing over there.”
Mr. Hauber scoops up the pliers he’d prepared earlier and clamps the identification band around the warbler’s left leg. The ends meet tightly, with almost enough room left inside the circlet for her other leg. But the band isn’t big enough to slip down over her “ankle”, so it won’t chafe the joint.
Now he tucks the docile bird into a cut-down mesh bag that once held oranges and clips her to the most delicate spring scale. Mr. Hauber records her scant nine grams in his notebook.
“Would you like to hold her?” He asks as he unclips the bag.
Hold a Chestnut-sided warbler? Of course I would.
Mr. Hauber coaches me as I slide my fingers down over his. He slips his fingers out, and I am gingerly holding the warbler’s neck between the bases of my index and middle fingers. It’s mostly feathers. He slides the rest of his hand out from under mine so that I’m cradling the bird’s body in my fingers with my palm covering her back. The skin on my palm is too thick to feel the texture of her wing feathers, but she is warm and her breathing is fluttery.
Her downy sides are the softest things I’ve ever touched. I can feel her rib cage moving under my fingers. She’s twisting her head around again, and her feet scurry in mid air. I slide my ring finger to gently touch her legs, and her delicate feet close reflexively round it like a baby’s hand. She calms down.
After a few long minutes, I open my hand. The warbler sits still, perched on my ring finger, unaware that she is free to go. Mr. Hauber has gone to check the nets again.
“They do that a lot. Bounce your hand gently, and she’ll get the idea.” Dad advises.
I do, and she skitters into the air, banks crazily through a hole in the brush, and spirals out of site.
I’m a convert.
“Did we catch any more?” I start for the trail.
“I don’t know. Let’s wait for Mr. Hauber, unless he calls for help. We don’t want to scare other birds away from the nets.” Dad grins at my sudden enthusiasm.
Mr. Hauber returns empty-handed. Six or seven minutes later, Dad walks the nets. He comes back without a bird. After almost an hour of waiting, I ask my father, “How long has it been since we caught the Chestnut-sided?”
He looks at his watch. “Fifteen minutes.”
Just then, a high keening swells from the further nets. Dad hustles towards the sound and I follow—after snatching a bag to hang around my neck, just in case. As I rush down the line of nets, something grabs my sleeve and won’t let go. I’m caught in the net. Shaking my hand only makes things worse. The nets—called mist nets—are black nylon and so fine that you can look through them and not see them, even if you know where they are. As I untangle the button on my flannel cuff, I see that the threads are actually very tightly twisted strands of hair-thin filaments—both stronger and less likely to cut the birds than fishing line would be.
By the time I’m free, the bird is shrieking as if my father is pulling its tail feathers out one by one. When I get there, I see a mottled-brown bird about the size of my fist, with a long, pointy beak. It’s not very tangled—only its head went through the mesh when it hit the net, and it should be resting in a pocket of slack caused by its own weight. But it has grabbed two bunchy fistfuls of mesh, making it impossible for Dad to pull its head back through.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Immature hairy woodpecker.” Dad mumbles around a pencil clamped in his teeth. “Here, you!” He growls at the bird.
In between shrieks, the little woody snaps at him, the slender halves of its beak clicking together like playing cards. Its tongue is yellow.
Dad uses the dull pencil point to coax one foot open—it grabs the pencil instead of the net, as if it were perching. Then he slips his fingers up over the bird’s shoulders and slides the net back over its head.
“Now, if you’d just let go, you’d be fine,” he wheedles. He takes his pencil back from the bird and tries to open its other foot.
Still screaming frantically, little woody snaps at his hand with its skinny beak. Dad chuckles. “It almost tickles.”
I shake my head and look over to see Mr. Hauber working on a bird in the third net. Abruptly, the woodpecker goes silent.
“Ow!” Dad yells.
“What?” Mr. Hauber and I both spin to look.
“He pecked me.” Dad sounds sheepish. “He did let go, though.”
Back at the truck, Mr. Hauber processes his bird (another Chestnut-sided) before he deals with the woodpecker. It starts to cry again when he pulls it out of the bag, but calms down when he lets it sink its claws into his shirt sleeve. The band he clamps around its leg is a size larger than the warbler’s, and he doesn’t even try to pull it out of the mesh orange bag. He just turns the bag over slowly so that the bird can wiggle right-side up, and shakes it out. The woody catches itself in midair and bobs into the trees across the road.
Not much later, a horde of little birds scramble through the clearing and into our nets. I find a bright yellow one in the furthest net, near the bottom.
“Can I take this one out?” I ask.
“Go ahead, but be careful with its wings. They’re awfully delicate.” Dad calls back.
I bend over to scrutinize my patient. It’s built like the other warblers, but is yellow except for some rusty streaks down its breast like misplaced racing stripes. Its head and one wingtip are poked through the mesh, but otherwise its just sitting in a pocket built into the bottom of the net. Taking the bird’s neck between the fingers of my right hand, I carefully tug the wing back toward its body. The primaries flex a little and—boink—it’s free. The loosed wing begins fanning wildly and I panic for a second. What if I drop the bird? Will it get hurt, or will it get away?
I stroke my thumb downwards from its shoulder like Mr. Hauber did, and the wing tucks neatly against the bird’s side.
“Now… just hold still a second…” I beg, working its head back through the mesh. The thread stands all its head-feathers on end and the bird scrunches up its face as much as a bird can.
“There you go.” I grin at my captive and smooth its ruffled crown with a finger. “A quick check up, complementary bracelet, and you’re all done.”
I pop it into the bag around my neck and walk back to where Dad and Mr. Hauber have four other birds cornered.
“What do you have?” I ask.
“Chickadees.” Dad grunts.
Peeking over Dad’s shoulder reveals a very tangled, very active and very ticked-off bird that might look like a Chickadee if it didn’t look so vicious. Every feather on its black-capped head is standing up like the hackles on a dog and it twists its head around like an owl, pecking and snapping at Dad’s fingers. Its feet clench great wads of netting.
As I watch, Dad manages to get one foot loose, and almost unsnarls a wing. The Chickadee abruptly goes berserk, flailing wildly with every limb. By the time he gets it back under control it is tangled like bubble gum in a pony tail.
I take my warbler back to the truck and clip its bag to the clothesline. Then I amuse myself by poking around in Mr. Hauber’s notebook. In addition to the graph paper he has a stack of forms, regulations, and notices from Cornell Ornithological Institute. Most of them seem to be memos about banded birds recaptured in unexpected places or new guidelines for estimating the sex and age of certain birds.
When Mr. Hauber returns to the truck, I ask, “How many birds do you re-catch?”
“Well, I get around a hundred repeats every year—that’s birds caught twice or more within 90 days. And every year I catch from thirty to fifty birds that I have banded in previous years. We call them returns.”
He sees my bag, bouncing on the clothesline. “What do you have there?”
“It looks like a yellow warbler.” I shrug.
“Well, then it probably is.” He grins sideways at me before explaining, “They’re actually named that. Like Red-winged Blackbirds or Blue Jays.”
“So the birds come back every year to the same place they hatched?” I ask.
“Actually, no. They don’t ever seem to return to where they hatch—or fledge, for that matter. Aww…” The yellow warbler looses a fat white dropping onto the notebook. Mr. Hauber holds it at arms length while he dabs at the graph paper with a tissue.
“I did have one male Mourning Warbler—my focus species, by the way—who came back four years.” Mr. Hauber talks around the straw as he checks for a brood patch.
“I banded him in 1989, and re-caught him in 1990, 91, 93, and 94.” He continues.
“What’s a focus species?” I ask.
“To get licensed as a bird bander, you have to go through a recognized institution, like Cornell University, and you need to have a specific study focus,” he explains.
“You mean they don’t want people out just catching birds for fun. So you’re studying Mourning Warblers.” I nod.
“Technically, yes. I submit information about all the birds we band, and it goes toward helping other people with their studies, just like I get information about Mourning warblers that are banded elsewhere.” He gives the Yellow warbler a gentle toss into the air and leaves the Chickadees in their bags while he digs into a plastic milk crate filled with books and notebooks.
“Mourning warblers nest in specific types of habitat, normally shrubby forest openings or in regenerating areas like clear-cuts. In Pennsylvania, they’ve nested mostly in the northwest and north-east, but recently they’ve been expanding their range.
“Since they’re moving towards north central PA, I originally hoped to document their arrival here in Potter County,” he tells me.
He hands me a mangled Peterson’s Bird Guide. It falls open to a wrinkled and spattered page depicting the Mourning warbler. The female is a drab olive-green all over, but the male has a bright yellow belly, with a slate-gray color over the top of its head and down its neck.
“They named it ‘Mourning Warbler’ because they thought the gray markings on the male looked like an old-fashioned hood for mourning the dead,” he says.
I look at if for a minute. “How has your study gone then? Did you document them moving in?”
“Well,” he sighs, “In the ten years from 1989 I’ve caught 325 of them. But it’s very irregular. Some years I have as few as twelve, others as many as 53.”
Dad returns with another Chestnut-sided, and the Yellow warbler we just released. After verifying by the band number that it’s the same bird, Mr. Hauber tosses it in a different direction.
“And don’t come back.” Dad calls.
I ask to hold a chickadee once it is banded, but hanging upside-down from the scale hasn’t improved his (Mr. Hauber says it’s a male) mood. He pecks me and gets away.
“You think we’ll see him again?” I ask.
“Well, we won’t, unless you’re planning on coming back again.” Dad grins.
“I sure am.” I grin back.