6 Oct 2015

Volunteer to Help Bird Banders

by Helen Mason

You don't have to be an ornithologist to help with bird banding. Last fall, I volunteered at Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory. This is a volunteer-run research station located on the eastern tip of Prince Edward County where it extends south into Lake Ontario. It's the first landfall for migrating birds coming across from the south in the spring and the last for those heading to warmer climes each fall.

As well as people who recognize the difference between a hermit thrush and a Swainson's thrush, the observatory needs willing hands to put up the nets at dawn, take them down six hours later, hold the collecting bags, and record information provided by the experts. It's easy to do the recording for inexperienced banders who take five minutes to process a bird, but some people know the species so well they can identify, sex, age, and weigh a bird in less than a minute. New scribes need to focus when volunteers such as this man from the United Kingdom examine a gray-cheeked thrush.

Experienced volunteers identify, sex, age, and weigh each bird before banding it.
While volunteers are watching, they learn a lot about familiar species. Note the orangey red on this golden-crowned kinglet, for example. This colouring differentiates it from the ruby-crowned kinglet, which has red without any yellow.

Golden-crowned kinglet
Banders constantly check their bird books as even something as minor as white around the eye can differentiate between this Nashville warbler and a similar species. Fortunately, the head bander is always around to double-check identifications.

Nashville warbler
 Interestingly, it isn't just humans who look out for migrating birds. This sharp-shinned hawk got caught in a net while chasing a smaller bird.

Sharp-shinned hawk
 This barred owl was sitting on a tree in the net lanes where they trap saw-whet owls in the evening. To protect the saw-whets, banders trapped this female, banded her, and then relocated her. Take a look at that beak. No wonder people were so cautious handling the two-year-old.

Barred owl
Are you still wondering how to tell a Swainson's thrush from a hermit thrush? The Swainson's has a brown tail. The hermit's tail is red. They both have speckled breasts, as do all members of the thrush family, including the robin. Learn more by volunteering at or visiting your local banding station.

Hermit thrush

Swainson's thrush
Like all members of the thrush family, this Swainson's thrush has a speckled breast.

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