Elevating Experiences: Bird Surveys & Bird Banding

During my training to become a Texas Master Naturalist, one of my goals was to volunteer with many organizations in different capacities to see what I most enjoyed. I spent some of my first 40 volunteer service hours toward certification doing habitat restoration and rehabilitation work to remove non-native invasive species of plants from area public lands. These activities are immensely gratifying and educational—they are one of the best ways to learn how to identify common trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants.

Male golden-cheeked warbler. Photograph © 2015 John Prentice.
Male golden-cheeked warbler. Photograph © 2015 John Prentice.

Early in my training, I also discovered ample opportunities to take part in research-gathering projects. Some survey projects require additional training before volunteering. One such project was the golden-cheeked warbler survey at
Guadalupe River State Park in Spring Branch, Texas. The 1.5 hour training session familiarized prospective volunteers with the history of the survey, its rules and processes, and introduced volunteers to the golden-cheeked warbler via photographs and birdsong.

Among the many resources available to modern birders and naturalists is Audubon’s Guide to North American Birds website, a stellar resource with a companion web app, Audubon Bird Guide (iOS | Android). While apps can’t replace traditional field guides, they can serve as excellent training and reference tools, particularly for learning bird calls.

During that survey season, I participated in four golden-cheeked warbler survey sessions at the park. Survey sessions lasted between 3.5 and 4 hours. I began as someone who had never visited the 661-acre Bauer Unit of Guadalupe River State Park and neither seen nor heard the endangered golden-cheeked warbler in the wild. Now, I can not only identify their calls, I can track them up and down steep slopes through thick brush, and help others spot them in a tree. In addition to working with Craig Hensley, Guadalupe River State Park’s incredible resource specialist and park ranger, I also worked side-by-side with fellow Master Naturalists and veteran birders Linda Gindler and John Prentice. John taught the ichthyology session of my Alamo Area Texas Master Naturalist class, and he is also an avid photographer. It is thanks to John that I have a photo of my “lifer” bird—the very first golden-cheeked warbler I ever observed with my own eyes on March 15, 2015.

“On a bird” and waiting for it to call again
Texas click beetle (Alaus lusciosus)

Volunteering with more experienced birders and naturalists is invaluable. I find myself pleasantly  challenged to broaden my perception and awareness of the world around me. Veteran birders like Ranger Craig can pick out birdsong while hiking or talking; meanwhile, all I hear is the crackle of gravel underfoot or voices. It takes time, patience, and most of all, practice, to train one’s ears and brain to operate as skilled birders do!

Ranger Craig shows field marks of the Chipping sparrow to my daughter & other attendees of the “Bird in Hand” bird banding workshop

Bird banding is another research project I am getting more involved in. My first exposure to bird banding was bringing my 8-year-old daughter to Guadalupe River State Park’s “Bird in Hand” bird banding workshop. The workshop allows children and adults to get “nose to beak” with native birds while Ranger Craig, a licensed bird bander, identifies and bands the birds. We arrived early enough to watch the volunteers setup the mist nets and gingerly remove the first catch of birds for banding. Even with bird feeders in our yard, we had never been so close to wild birds before, and Ranger Craig explains every nuance and detail of the birds and bird banding process. Each child in attendance released at least one banded bird during the workshop. My daughter released a Chipping sparrowLesser goldfinch, and Carolina wren.

I considered signing up as a volunteer for the next bird banding workshop to gain experience working with the nets; however, I knew my daughter wanted to join me so I attended as a member of the public. Since Ranger Craig was short-handed on volunteers, though, I stepped in and logged bird banding data while Linda Gindler and John Prentice ran the nets throughout the morning. To her glee, my daughter again released banded birds—a male Northern cardinal and a female House finch—as well as a dragonfly that made its way into the mist net.

My daughter demonstrates the “dragonfly hold” Ranger Craig taught her
Delicate dragonfly
Dragonfly after release, before flying away

Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Ranger Craig leads a bird banding outreach session at Guadalupe River State Park in 2015.

As the park’s bird banding workshop and field trip schedule cools down for the summer, the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) Program bird banding survey schedule heats up. These surveys can last over 6 hours depending on weather conditions such as wind and temperature, and they involve net setup, the monitoring of all 10 nets at frequent intervals, banding of all birds, and detailed data logging on each bird. Our first survey session was a very slow day, netting only 8 birds—1 Painted bunting, 2 Ladder-backed woodpecker, 1 Northern mockingbird, 1 Lesser goldfinch, 1 Common ground-dove, 1 Blue grosbeak, 1 Bewick’s wren. Since there were only three of us monitoring the ten nets, and two of us are brand new to working around the nets and birds, a slow day was a merciful start to the MAPS survey. We do look forward to a more exciting second survey session, though! The highlight of my day was getting to hold my first bird, one of the ladder-backed woodpeckers. He was warm, strong, feisty, and so incredibly beautiful. Staring at that bird in my hand, I wanted to tell everyone in the world to look at every bird they see in the future just a bit longer, and a bit harder, to appreciate its unique characteristics and beauty. I know I will!

Ladder-backed woodpecker
Painted bunting
Blue grosbeak
Lesser goldfinch


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