by Max Frankenberry, Assistant Bird Bander
After nine weeks of banding birds this summer, JHWF’s first MAPS season has officially come to an end. Every Wednesday and Friday sunrise, from June 6th to August 3rd, was spent setting up nets, collecting data on the birds we caught, and attaching small aluminum USGS-issued bands to their legs. All in all, this season produced 677 total bird captures, with 453 new birds banded this season.
Bird banding is a highly-effective research method used worldwide for tracking bird movement, survival rates, and reproduction success. Banders are trained in specialized bird handling, safety, and data collection, and can only legally band birds if covered under state and federal permits. Each band number is unique to each individual bird. Banders report both new bands placed on previously unbanned birds, and bands that are on birds that they recapture after already being banded before. Other data like age, sex, weight, and various conditions are also collected and reported, forming the massive database of information that USGS and various ornithological groups manage and analyze.
Lead Bird Bander Kate Maley attempts to age this Red-shafter Flicker (Colaptes auratus) by inspecting flight feather characteristics
Assistant Bird Bander Max Frankenberry measures the wing chord length of a Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) Photo credit: David Hopkins
MAPS stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship. It is a specific banding program begun by the Institute for Bird Populations (IBP), with a goal of better understanding survival rate and nesting success while birds are at their summer breeding grounds. JHWF bands birds following IBP protocol — opening nets at sunrise and closing them six hours later — and submits data to the IBP database. This builds on the years of previous data collected on birds in Jackson Hole from Teton Science Schools (TSS) and Teton Raptor Center (TRC), who helped transition the program to us this year. Our two banding locations, Teton Science Schools’ Kelly campus and Boyle’s Hill on their Jackson campus, have been contributing data without a break in observations for 28 and 16 years respectively. Kelly is one of the longest operating MAPS stations in the country! Long-term, uninterrupted data sets are crucial to understanding trends in bird population shifts. Thanks again to TSS and TRC for making the transitions between organizations so smooth!
The 2018 season ended with 180 recaptures (out of 677 total captures) of previously banded birds, with several of these birds having been banded even before the 2017 season. Much like years before and not surprising to those of us that live in Jackson Hole, our most popular species caught were Yellow Warblers and American Robins (AMROs). In total, 109 new Yellow Warblers (or YEWAs in banding code) had bands placed on their legs this year, many of them young birds born this summer. YEWAs are doing just fine in our valley! American Robins were our second most common bird this year, with 57 new birds banded. While we had constant flows of incoming YEWAs and AMROs, we also had a few particularly exciting individuals as well. By far the most unexpected were a pair of Belted Kingfishers, each caught a week apart from each other! While kingfishers are not uncommon here, they are rarely caught in banding stations, mostly due to their preference for flying much higher than the nets and perching on trees overhanging water.
Male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)
Female Belted Kingfishers have a rusty belly band (Megaceryle alcyon)
Belted Kingfishers have detailed white patterns on their flight feathers – we can use these to figure out how old the birds are!
We were excited to say the least. Other species that graced us with their surprising presence were a very vocal Olive-sided Flycatcher and a juvenile Brown Creeper. We also had 40 birds that were captured and released but not banded, including large number of Rufous, Calliope and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds (our banding permit does not allow hummingbird banding – that requires additional specialized training). Overall we captured 45 different species of birds over 9 weeks. This guaranteed that we never had a slow morning at either banding station!
Other wildlife sightings always kept us on our toes throughout the season – early mornings at Kelly and Boyle’s Hill allowed us views of several moose and calves, foxes, a grizzly bear, a family of otters, and even an elusive mountain lion! Sunrise work with birds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem meant bear spray and our favorite badly-sung show tunes had to always be at the ready.
Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi)
Male Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus)
Juvenile Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)
We want to thank all who have made this program possible. This effort to track birds in our valley really does contribute extremely valuable data to a great continent-wide program. The MAPS data has resulted in many highly regarded publications on the state of bird populations in North America and new ways to manage and preserve them. Thanks for being “for the birds”!
Below is a full list of the species we captured and banded this season. Look them up and try to spot some of them in your own backyard!
- Calliope Hummingbird
- Broad-tailed Hummingbird
- Rufous Hummingbird
- Belted Kingfisher
- Red-naped Sapsucker
- Downy Woodpecker
- Red-shafted Flicker
- Olive-Sided Flycatcher
- Western Wood-Pewee
- Willow Flycatcher
- Dusky Flycatcher
- Warbling Vireo
- Violet-Green Swallow
- Black-Capped Chickadee
- Mountain Chickadee
- Red-breasted Nuthatch
- White-breasted Nuthatch
- Brown Creeper
- House Wren
- Golden-crowned Kinglet
- Ruby-crowned Kinglet
- American Robin
- Swainson’s Thrush
- Hermit Thrush
- Gray Catbird
- Cedar Waxwing
- Orange-crowned Warbler
- Yellow Warbler
- Audubon’s Warbler
- MacGillivray’s Warbler
- Wilson’s Warbler
- Western Tanager
- Black-headed Grosbeak
- Green-tailed Towhee
- Brewer’s Sparrow
- Chipping Sparrow
- Mountain White-Crowned Sparrow
- Fox Sparrow
- Song Sparrow
- Dark-eyed Junco
- Brown-headed Cowbird
- Bullock’s Oriole
- Cassin’s Finch
- Pine Siskin
- American Goldfinch
by Kate Maley, Lead Bird Bander
Since Chuck Schneebeck started the Bluebird Trail in 2003, members of the Jackson community have endeavored to create nesting habitat for Mountain Bluebirds and other native cavity-nesters along the southwestern edge of the National Elk Refuge. After many years of observation and data collection, at least one thing is clear: the birds are definitely using the nestboxes! But what effect are the boxes having on the population?
While we focus on Mountain Bluebirds, we are equally pleased to see other native cavity nesters using the nestboxes! Tree Swallows are the most abundant nesters along the Bluebird Trail, though they arrive after most bluebirds have settled into their territories for the season.
In 2017, JHWF began expanding upon the existing data and investigating new questions when our previous bander Allison Swan and monitoring volunteers started placing USGS aluminum bands and a unique series of color bands on Mountain Bluebird nestlings and one adult female. These color bands, or “bling,” allow us to identify each individual bird as it disperses from its nest and, hopefully, returns to a similar area the following year to raise some little bluebirds of its own!
Still in the early stages of the banding project, we don’t have many definitive answers yet, but we are learning lots! Of the 98 bluebird nestlings that were banded in 2017, only a handful have been resighted this year. This isn’t as surprising as it may initially sound, however. The first year of a bird’s life is the hardest as they learn to fend for themselves and navigate migration. Optimistically, we estimate that around 50% or fewer birds make it back to their breeding grounds in their second year. Once back in Jackson Hole, they disperse from their original nest site to independently begin a family of their own. Where do they go? That’s one of the things we’re hoping to discover!
Max Frankenberry, Assistant Bander, secures the color bands on a nestling to help ensure they will stay on and be able to be spotted next year.
While migration is still a taxing journey for adult bluebirds, they do benefit from experience. In addition, adult bluebirds tend to have higher site fidelity, meaning they are more likely to return to the same site to breed for multiple years. So far, the one banded adult mountain bluebird did, in fact, return to the exact same nestbox where she was banded in 2017!
Admittedly, 2018 was a tough year for nestbox inhabitants as almost half of the nestboxes were within a stretch affected by predation events. (Exact numbers are still being determined as we close out the season and compile the data.) In response, we placed a number of predator guards that are recommended by the North American Bluebird Society. Fortunately, most of the guards did seem to effectively prevent the depredation of a second nesting attempt. Even with the challenge of a predator, nearly all of the 112 available nestboxes were occupied by native cavity nesters (Mountain Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and House Wrens). Of the Mountain Bluebird nests, about 75% successfully fledged young. In total, 72 nestlings were banded in 13 nestboxes (some had two broods throughout the season).
Now, we’ve reached the point in the season when bluebirds of all ages disperse from their nest sites and seem to gather into groups by age to take advantage of the last of summer’s bounty and fatten up before migration. So, if you keep an eye out for “Bluebirds with Bling,” you’re likely to see some from the 2018 cohort (indicated by a peach color band on the bird’s right leg, closest to the body) and possibly some from 2017 as they group up prior to beginning journey south.
Meet one of the members of 2018’s cohort of bluebirds! The location of the peach color band (top right) will allow us to easily identify it as having hatched and been banded this year. Left: Black over Green, Right: Peach over Silver
Last year was also the first year of the Dubois Community Bluebird Trail. The project continued in 2018 with 35 nestboxes monitored by 9 volunteers. We’re still waiting to finalize the data prior to analyzing the results from the season, but we’re looking forward to what we find out!
Thank you to all our hardworking volunteers and partners in both Jackson and Dubois who make this project possible!
Nancy and Blair Butterfield were kind enough to give us an update and tour of their nestboxes when we visited Dubois in July.
While the saying has had many applications over the years (its first recorded use dates back to the 16th century!), “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” can be taken quite literally when it comes to bird banding. Having a bird in the hand allows researchers to take quantitative measurements and make up-close, detailed observations that, in most other contexts, would be difficult, if not impossible. What’s more, after multiple years of collecting such data, we can start to observe changes and trends within an avian population and, eventually, to make deductions about the health of the ecosystem.
This is largely the goal of the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. Begun in 1989 by the Institute for Bird Populations (IBP), the program is a cooperative effort to collect standardized data on North American landbirds. By increasing understanding of the factors that affect avian populations and their relationships, from a local to a continental scale, ecologists are able to make informed conservation and management decisions. Furthermore, the effectiveness of those decisions will be able to be measured once they have been put into action.
Beginning in June 2018, JHWF staff and volunteers will be leading banding efforts at two MAPS stations in the Jackson area. Both sites were started by the Teton Science School’s Teton Research Institute in 1991 and 2003 and were run by the Teton Raptor Center from 2014-2017. We hope to be able to contribute ongoing data for many years to come!
JHWF Associate Director Kate Gersh (left) records data provided by Teton Raptor Center’s Allison Swan (right) at a banding station in 2017. The two organizations worked closely during a transition year to ensure that the essential program would continue smoothly.
How does MAPS work?
MAPS stations use mist nets, placed at permanent locations within a designated study area, to safely capture birds. Banders extract the birds from the nests and bring them back to a centralized location, where they take various measurements and place a USGS-issued aluminum band on each bird’s leg prior to releasing it. Banding begins around sunrise and the nets are open for six hours during one day of every 10-day period. The season begins in May or early June, depending on latitude (that’s the first week of June for us, in Jackson Hole!) and runs through early August.
So what sort of data does one take from a bird in the hand?
After the species identification and band number (whether it is a newly banded bird or recaptured), the most important data we collect is the age and sex of the bird. Is it a young bird or an adult? Male or female? How exactly we deduce this depends on the species; however, many species of songbirds exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning the males are visibly different from the females. During the breeding season, this is often most apparent in the bird’s plumage—males have on their “sexy plumage,” to help them attract a mate, while the females’ feathers are more subtle and subdued, to provide camouflage while they are on the nest.
A juvenile American Robin gets banded with a USGS-issued aluminum band with a unique number sequence. This will allow anyone who recaptures the bird in the future to identify it as the same bird!
Alternatively, by blowing on the bird’s abdomen to part the feathers, we can observe less obvious signs. In preparation for incubation, females will develop a bare patch on their breast and abdomen, called a brood patch, which allows efficient heat transfer to keep eggs and nestlings warm. In contrast, a male will develop a cloacal protuberance. A cloaca is the opening for the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts of all vertebrate animals, regardless of sex, with the exception of most mammals. This orifice will swell as the breeding season approaches, allowing us to identify the bird as an adult male. In some cases, detail as subtle as wing or tail length is required to differentiate between males and females!
As with determining a bird’s sex, it is sometimes possible to figure out the age from the bird’s plumage, from the feather coloration and pattern and/or the shape and quality. The specifics depend on each individual species, but the basic idea is that a bird will have plumage distinctions as a juvenile (only recently having left the nest), a young bird still in its first year of life, and as an adult. Some species will retain certain feathers, usually in the wing feathers, that allow more detailed aging assessments to be made. The Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1, by Peter Pyle, is an invaluable tool that details information about individual species’ molt patterns and feather characteristics that assist in differentiating between ages and sexes.
As with any rule, there are, of course, exceptions. Generally, though, these are all pretty good indicators. That said, just as it’s good to use multiple clues when identifying a bird or any other animal in the field, so too is it good to use multiple measures when making age and sex determinations in the hand.
Plumage characteristics such as the red patch on the face, tail feather shape, and relative age of the wing feathers help identify this Northern Flicker as an adult male.
Additional measurements taken in the hand:
- Skull ossification – birds have hollow bones and their skulls are no exceptions. The skull develops in two layers, which are ultimately connected by small columns of bone, or “struts.” Upon leaving the nest, only the outer layer is completely formed and the inner layer progressively develops over the subsequent 3-12 months, leaving visible “windows” in the meantime. We are able to monitor this development and potentially use it or its completion to assist in aging the bird.
- Fat – birds’ fat stores are constantly fluctuating. While, during the breeding season, we wouldn’t expect a bird to be carrying much excess fat due to the constant flurry of activity, birds are able to increase their weight 75-100% by storing up fat in preparation for migration.
- Feather characteristics – is the bird actively molting? Is there wear to the flight feathers (wings and tail)? Does the bird have multiple generations of feathers?
- Wing chord – birds’ wings have a natural curvature to them that helps generate lift and allows them to be such effective fliers. We take this unflattened wing length measurement, which is a good indicator of the bird’s size, similar to height in humans.
- Body mass – we weigh the bird using a digital scale, recording the mass to the nearest 0.1 gram.
When able, we aim to take all of these measurements prior to releasing the bird. However, the safety of each and every bird is our priority and we are constantly checking in on the bird’s condition during the banding process. If the bird starts to exhibit signs of stress, we will let it go.
We are thankful for all the time and effort TSS and TRC have invested in continuing this long-term study and are excited to be able to contribute to this impressive data set. To learn more about the MAPS program and importance of long-term research, check out the MAPS project webpage. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact Kate Maley, the lead bird bander this season, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kate Gersh at email@example.com. Happy birding!
A Cedar Waxwing perches nearby after being banded and released.
As one leaves the town of Jackson and heads north on HWY 89, a trail of nestboxes lines the fencing of the National Elk Refuge. These nestboxes are part of JHWF’s Mountain Bluebird Nestbox Monitoring Project, which is designed to mitigate for extreme habitat loss that has negatively impacted the breeding success of this species. Monitoring work has been conducted for the past 13 years, but this summer we added a new element to the project by hiring bird bander Allison Swan. With help from our volunteers, Allison has banded 98 chicks and 1 female adult since May.
With data collected through banding and the re-sighting of individuals, we will be able to evaluate survival rates of young, dispersal patterns, re-nesting rates, productivity by age, site fidelity, and other measures of population dynamics. This type of information will allow us to understand population status in Jackson Hole and to better inform land management decisions with respect to the Mountain Bluebird.
Almost all chicks born this summer have fledged their nests and now is the time to begin searching for our color-banded birds — 99 in total.
Already several banded birds have been re-sighted through the use of binoculars and spotting scopes. Our first sighting was a juvenile Mountain Bluebird who crossed the highway and was seen in the parking lot of the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Fledglings can fly quite well, but many are still being fed by the adults, which means they will often stay in place long enough to get a good look at colored-bands on their legs.
All Nature Mappers, we need your help re-sighting banded bluebirds! The most important data we need collected is location data and the color band scheme for each bird. Ideally, we would also like to collect additional data on behavior, substrate and plumage.
The color bands are noticeable and folks have been reporting that it is easy to read the colors, especially with use of binoculars. If you do not have binoculars, please stop by the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation office and borrow a pair! We have three scopes and two pair of binoculars for volunteers to borrow while conducting observations.
Download our Re-sighting Datasheet here. As you observe and record sightings of this year’s birds note each ones unique color combination. Datasheets should be given to our Associate Director, Kate Gersh at: Kate@jhwildlife.org. We also encourage the sharing of verbal reports by calling our office at: (307) 739-0968.
Thanks for the help!