Thursday, March 3, 2011

Seining for Birds: Missouri River Bird Observatory

It's late summer. The crisp chill of fall morning is weeks away and the heat of summer still lingers.  Along the river the forest offers a dark and comfortable haven from mid morning heat.  There is movement all around.  The Missouri river visible through the trees and brush flows constantly south.  Even when you can't see it you can sense its presence, its pull, its rush to the sea.  Fall migrants pick their way through the forest canopy and the low brush with their contact calls of chips and tseets.

Along an opening in the forest is an all but invisible mesh from knee to head height, strung between two poles seining treasures from the air.  In one net is a struggling heartbeat of feathers.  Quietly a figure approaches and cupping the bird in one hand carefully weaves the net from around his prize and slips the bird into a cotton sack and hangs the sack from his belt.

White-breasted Nuthatch
The young man moves to a nearby table and retrieves his bundle of feathers turning it over in his hands.  He works with a sense of purpose first identifying the species and sex then taking measurements of wing and tail, and checks for body fat.  He carefully records each precious fact.  Finally he selects a small silver band which contains a number and slips it on the bird's leg crimping it carefully into place.  Then he releases this little stranger to join the river in its journey southward to the sea.

The young man is Ethan Duke.  Along with his partner Dana Ripper they run the Missouri River Bird Observatory near Marshall.  They are bird banders and work tirelessly conducting a host of surveys.  Along with monitoring migrants, they also monitor the comings and goings of marsh birds, saw-whet owls and even manage to do some backyard banding. The work that they do is important because it gives us a better picture of our avian friends, their growth and health, the impact of habitat change and an idea of their numbers.

Dana and Ethan always welcome visitors and volunteers.  They are on the web at Missouri River Bird Observatory.

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