A 4 am alarm is not the most welcome noise on a damp and chilly Saturday morning, however it was bird ringing (also called banding in North America) day, and as the saying goes, ‘the early bird catches the worm’ (or bird in this case). So I ventured off, slightly cursing the birds for getting up at such unsocial hours, to Witty’s Lagoon, about a half an hour drive from Victoria. To be fair there are definitely positives to getting up so early in the morning. The roads were quiet, the birds were singing, and once you get over the tiredness it does feel nice to be up and out the door early, also most importantly it is the best time for bird ringing.
Once at Witty’s Lagoon, myself and the group of hardy birders hiked down to the ringing site. An area closed off to the public, located within an orchard. After reaching the ringing site, the first job was to open the nets. The nets used are called mist nets, they are attached to two poles, and spread across an area, the best example I can give is like a volleyball net, but with slightly more netting.
The site was set up with all the equipment, ready to begin ringing the birds. Each ring has a unique I.D number on it, and birds that are recaptured can be identified by their ring number. The data from bird ringing is shared throughout North America; it is a crucial way of tracking bird movement and health. As well as being ringed the birds are weighed, their fat levels are recorded, age and sex are noted and any health issues are also uploaded into the database. The group that ring birds in and around Victoria are the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, they have been doing this for many years, so have a huge amount of data and records; from this they are able to see trends and patterns such as population changes, migration times and other data. The rings are tiny and sit on the birds’ right leg; each ring has very little weight and has no affect on the bird.
The first round of net checks, (a net check is conducted every half an hour to ensure no bird is left in the net for too long), brought us over ten birds, which indicated it was going to be a busy morning. Chesnut- backed chickadee; Pacific slope flycatcher and the beautiful Wilson’s warbler were the first species to be caught. These birds are all common at Witty’s Lagoon, so it was no real surprise that they were the most numerous birds caught in the nets.
During each net check, 2 or 3 people, who are experienced in extracting birds, go to each net on the site (there were 12 at Witty’s Lagoon). Once a bird has been sighted in the net, it is gently extracted and placed in a small flannel bag, this dark and soft bag keeps the birds calm whilst being moved to the ringing station. Once there the birds wait to be processed, when it is their turn they are removed from the bags and dealt with quickly, as mentioned above and released once all the information is gathered. They are released in the same spot they were caught, (although a little further from the nets to avoid recapture). It is actually quite interesting at how calm most birds are; no bird was overly stressed, although many did like to bite the handlers (including me!).
Chesnut- backed chickadee
A female western tanager was captured in the second round of net checks, along with more chickadees. Chickadees group together in small flocks, so it is common to catch many in one go. More and more Wilson’s warblers and Pacific slope flycatchers were caught. As the morning progressed, some new species were coming in, including a Cassin’s vireo, a bird not often caught at Witty’s Lagoon. One of my favourite birds to see up close was a northern rough-winged swallow. The smallest to be ringed, a rufous hummingbird; because hummingbirds have such high metabolisms they need to be processed very quickly. The rings on hummingbirds are so tiny, they can only have 2 numbers on them and the bird has to be wrapped in a small piece of material which is clipped, almost like a hummingbird straitjacket. A feisty American robin came in and was set on biting everyone, flapping constantly and generally causing as much chaos as possible. Two brown creepers on the other hand were very patient and timid, these tiny birds called treecreepers in the UK, spend their lives flitting between the trees and are perfectly camouflaged with the tree bark.
Northern roughed winged swallow
Pacific slope flycatcher
Hummingbird rings, with my finger tip as comparison
We closed the nets at noon after catching 60 individual birds. I just wanted to give a shout-out to the Rocky Point Bird Observatory (http://rpbo.org/) for letting me volunteer with them. I have got a number of other bird ringing sessions lined up with them including owls, which is very exciting! It was an amazing morning, seeing so many different birds up close and learning about all sorts of bird facts and tips. If you are interested in bird ringing around Victoria, they are always looking for volunteers. If you are interested in the UK the British Trust for Ornithology is where I have volunteered in the past.