June 30th, 2021  – Alumni In The Field

It’s always a wonderful thing when some of the young people that come to the banding lab with a keen interest in birds and whom you’ve had a chance to tutor continue that passion into their future. Two recently have done that. Alessandra Wilcox, who went on to the University of Guelph, took on the Assistant Bander role at the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. Here she is featured in a mini CBC documentary highlighting concerns around the Spring migration:

Another one of our “young ornithologists”, Tessa Gayer, has gone on to Trent University. This Summer she is helping to do field work in Nunavut (Baker Lake area) studying Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks. Here she outlines what she’s up to.

It’s super neat to see what Alessandra has been up to. We finally started banding a couple of days ago so I have a fresh picture of me with a bird. So far we’ve been doing Lapland longspurs and semipalmated sandpipers, and we’ve been tagging them with colour bands and flags for resighting. It’s pretty neat since some of the birds we’re seeing were banded 2 or even 3 years ago. One female LALO [Lapland Longspur] we resighted is at least 4 years old! We’ve mostly been nest searching and monitoring which is hard work but rewarding. It’s amazing how well camouflaged nests are despite the open environment. The nests we’ve been finding are starting to have chicks hatch, just in time for the yearly bug explosion.

Unfortunately we haven’t seen many snow buntings. They are around, but we’re not quite in the right habitat for them.

Tessa Gayer

Tessa Gayer

When I asked Tessa for a little more detail she got back to me with the following:

For some background, I’m working as a field tech for Sarah Bonnet on her master’s project under Dr Erica Nol of Trent University, and Dr Paul Smith of ECCC. We’re surveying sites to find bird nests, then monitoring the nests. The focus is on Lapland longspurs and how elevation impacts breeding success, although we are monitoring all the nests we find.

We’ve been using a bow net to catch birds while they’re incubating on their nests. So, we’ll set the net up, then wait for the bird to come back and sit before triggering it. It targets a specific bird, so it’s a very different experience from mist netting.

We’re starting to see a huge spike in the mosquito population, but we’ve also been seeing swarms of chironomid midges over the last few days. I was also surprised at how many bumblebees are around, although I don’t think the birds are eating those.

The sites we’re surveying cover a variety of elevations. There are higher, drier, more gravelly areas, which transition to lower, wetter areas with lots of grass hummocks. Horned larks prefer to be high and dry, the longspurs generally seem to prefer the intermediate areas, and the wet areas are where we find least and semipalmated sandpipers. However, the sites lack the extensive rocky areas with cracks and cavities that snow buntings nest in.

If you want me to add anything else, just let me know! ]So if anyone has any further questions let me know and I’ll pass them on….]

On a completely different note: at the end of a banding day, we tightly furl the mist nets and then tie them closed with fabric ties. Every now and again, for no discernible reason, we’re a net tie short, one (or two) have gone missing. If I’m the one closing I’m usually quick to blame (in my mind) the volunteer(s) of the day that opened the net and were supposed to put the ties on the guy lines. But maybe I’ve been too quick…..the other day Marnie was checking on the Wood Duck boxes spread around the pond. In one she found a nest with a few feathers and….two very scraggy white net ties! What’s the story behind this I wondered. Here’s my theory: Great Crested Flycatchers nest in cavities; they have a tendency to line their nests with discarded snake skins. (Don’t ask me how a bird of the treetops finds them.). The bird mistook the ties for snake skins, appropriated them and then worked them into the nest structure. If you’ve got a better idea I would like to hear it. My apologies to all of you that I accused of losing them.

Snakeskin-like net ties


June 12th – A New Baseline

It’s always very exciting to add a new species to the “banded” list of a station. Marnie had the (well-deserved) honour of catching and banding our firs Sora. -KMP

A new beginning in a new environment – a very different environment than I’ve banded in over the past 25 years. We were right on the edge of a wetland studded with old willows, reed beds, open grassy areas, a few areas of scrub, and bordered on the north side by the Grand River and the south side by farm fields. So this was part of an “experimental” year – looking to see the banding possibilities that the area holds. [Many thanks to Bill and Elizabeth Hurkmans for inviting us to use their site and building a state-of-the-art outhouse for us. Also to the Haldimand Stewardship Council for providing us with a banding cabin. It’s a very peaceful place to be. When things open back up we’ll put in a picnic table for people to lounge around and exchange sightings, experiences and…..baked goods.]

It was neat to band alongside waterbirds that were new to us – in this case Virginia Rails -KMP

…and Soras. -CR

One of the first things to come to grips with was the water, especially early in the Spring. The large pond spread across the property running east-west requiring that we do some wading to get to half the nets. This generated a lot more exercise than we had been used to. Obviously good rubber boots were a necessity. For some reason mine always tend to become “semi-permeable” part way through the season – and they did this season as well. [Does anyone have a line on rubber boots that will last more than 2 months?]

We decided that, as we didn’t really know what the site might offer, we would run a limited number of nets but try to position them in such a way that the various habitats would be sampled. We ended up running 9 nets in 8 lanes. This worked very well – more would have required extra person-power to run net rounds – a possibility for the future. We also used a couple of ground traps in the vicinity of a feeder. This proved to be useful and we will put in a better feeder system for the future – one less susceptible to squirrel (and deer) predation.

As we were not running this as a “migration monitoring station” we did not consistently follow a strict protocol of predawn openings and a 6-hour banding period, although on many days we approached this. We kept good track of observations but didn’t do a formal census (although on some days members of the HNC Pipits would come and do this for us). This is something we will aim for when things open back up.

Sometimes the bander-in-charge (Marnie or myself) was there alone but most of the time I was able to schedule volunteers to join in and help with scribing, extracting, observing, etc. The number each day was necessarily strictly limited but it was nice to have the help, continue (in some cases) training, and enjoy some camaraderie – the thing I think we all miss the most in the midst of this pandemic.

(As this is the first season here I have no basis for comparison – these results will provide the baseline.)
In April we banded 200 birds and, in May, 467 for a total of 667. This total was made up of 64 species. We started banding on April 1st and ended on May 31st; however, for a variety of (mostly) manpower issues, we banded on only 47 days (77%) – 20 in April; 27 in May. Our “big day” was may 15th when we banded 41 birds of 21 species.

Frankly, I was fairly disappointed by April’s results. I had expected a lot more birds. But weather paid a huge part in these results, especially the rash of storms and cold, wet weather to the south of us which held migration up – we didn’t start seeing mid-distance migrants in any numbers until the very end of April and then well into May (when you would expect that they would have all passed) numbers tailed off dramatically. Still…..it was exciting. And for next Spring, if we get the help to run them, I am looking forward to placing a few more nets in spots that, through this experience, will be productive.

I always keep track of our net hours (1 x 12m net open for an hour = 1 net hour) and I calculate the rate of capture: the number of birds per 100 net hours. This gives us a basis for comparison between nets, between days, and between years. I wondered how our results would compare with our experience at Ruthven. I was quite surprised. Despite the low number in April our birds/100 net hours was 29.2 (compared with 14.9 at Ruthven the year before). May was 35.0 (compared to 34.0) and our overall total was 33.04 (vs 26.4).

[For those of you that are familiar with the nets/numbering, the most productive net, both in terms of overall numbers caught and in the rate of capture, was #1. This net is in a gray dogwood thicket and right on the edge of the pond. Based on this….we have to concentrate on expanding the amount of dogwood on the site!! Migrants love them and, in the Fall, their fruit, which has a high lipid content, is a necessity for fattening up for the long flight south.]

We have been quite pleasantly surprised lately: first there was an influx of 5 Great Egrets and then, yesterday, they were joined by this Snowy Egret (smaller bird on the left with a black bill, head plume, and yellow feet). We tend to think of these as denizens of the southern United States. -KMP

We tried to keep a good count of birds on or flying over the site (including the river) but negotiating boot-topping ponds and mud holes can sometimes cause one’s attention to flying birds to waver. Still, we managed to record 127 species, the most notable being a Snowy Egret which hung around for a couple of days.

Banding Top Ten:
1. Red-winged blackbird – 81
2. American Goldfinch – 54
3. Song Sparrow – 47
4. Swamp Sparrow – 38 (one of the pluses of banding in a wetland)
5. Common Yellowthroat – 32
6. Tree Swallow – 27
7. Yellow Warbler – 24

Female Yellow Warbler -DG

8. American Robin – 23
9. Brown-headed Cowbird – 22
10. White-throated Sparrow – 20


Canada Geese in the early morning mist. The young ones have fledged and are growing quickly. A new generation is on the way.,

Little wood nymph – KMP

Female Hooded Merganser – maybe the one that used a pond-side nest box. -MMG

There are at least 2 pairs of bluebirds around the immediate area. -DG

There are at least 2 pairs of Sandhill Cranes with young within a few k9ilometers of the banding area. -KMP

Slender Spreadwing Damselfly. -KMP

Tiger Swallowtail. -KMP

Turkey Vulture taking in the early morning sun. -DG

Wild Turkey running through the furloughs… -KMP

[Food for thought: I was wondering how other banders were finding their season – especially when I thought about how dismal April seemed to be. Here’s a comment from Pelee Island BO (where alumnus Alessandra Wilcox was the assistant bander: It was the quietest banding season which I had experienced in the past fifteen years – we banded less than a half of previous spring seasons. Especially the large volume of migratory warblers was missed during both census and netting period.
Rob Tymstra]

And speaking of alumni: I got a note from Tessa Gayer who now is at Trent University. She has been hired this Spring/Summer to study Horned larks and Lapland Longspurs in Nunavut – Baker Lake to be exact. That’s exciting news!

Tessa, seen here releasing a myrtle Warbler, is now in Nunavut studying Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks. -HG

And while we were trying to sort out “the Farm”, Ben Oldfield was running his fine station just outside of Lowville. Here’s his report:
Hello Everyone,
This is a brief summary of the banding that took place in the Lowville area, more specifically some land on the Bruce trail (Burlington, Halton region). In total we banded 557 birds of 53 species. This number is decent considering banding only took place 2-3 times a week and not for the full 6 hours as it did at Ruthven. David Brewer, Marnie, Catherine, and Rick played a huge role in keeping the station operational this spring! This station saw many highlights including banding a Golden Winged Warbler, Connecticut Warbler and White Eyed Vireo. These are all rare in this part of the province!

The top 5 banded birds for the season and their % of the total are as follows:
1. American Goldfinch – 101 (18.1%)
2. White Throated Sparrow – 75 (13.4%)
3. Ruby Crowned Kinglet – 69 (12.3%)
4. Slate Coloured Junco – 41 (7.3%)
5. Black Capped Chickadee – 22 (3.9%)

As you can see the top 5 accounted for 55% of all birds banded. Overall, the season was successful except for the lack of volunteers and visitors. Hopefully this Fall will allow for more visitors and some hands-on learning experience.
Ben Oldfield

May 22nd – Boot-sucking Goop

Braving the boot-sucking goop….. -DOL

Wow! We seem to have jumped right into Summer….again. The sun and heat have been rapidly evaporating the pond and associated wet spots. The water is leaving and in its stead is…goop. Messy, deep, boot-sucking goop. I prefer wading through shallow water courses to getting mired in this stuff. [I can’t imagine how troops during the the First World War lived with this stuff daily – and all the time – in the trenches. No wonder “trench foot” was such a problem….to say nothing of exploding shells and bullets.]

Hauntingly beautiful – early morning mist at the Farm. -MMG

As the Spring migration winds down, we have pushed to try and reach a banding goal for the farm site: 600 birds. We reached that today! We were using only 9 nets (half of the number used at Ruthven) so it’s quite an accomplishment. Any birds banded between now and May 31st are gravy.

To achieve this we have been banding daily at the farm but only intermittently at the Lowville site. It’s simply a person-power issue: not enough qualified banders to go around. Too bad because that site gets some interesting birds. On Thursday when we banded only 10 birds they did 52 (of 20 spp) at Lowville, almost all of them long-distance migrants. I think that birds that have been held up in their flight north due to poor weather conditions in the southern States are simply pushing through, in this case jumping Lakes Erie and Ontario in a single flight in order to be closer to their nesting area. [And today they did a Connecticut Warbler!]
Pictures from the last couple of days:

Eastern Kingbird. Today Dave found one sitting on a nest! These birds don’t waste time. -KMP

We have been seeing Eastern Meadowlarks since the beginning of April. I’m curious to see what happens when the fields they have been frequenting have been tilled for soybeans. -KMP

Great Crested Flycatchers are common here now – their raucous call giving away their location high in the willows. -KMP

The black “saddle” of a male Magnolia Warbler. Most migrant warblers have blown through. -KMP

Patience pays off – Virginia Rail….after a long time waiting silently at the edge of the reeds. -KMP

Painted Turtles – a few days ago. Didn’t see ANY on the sunning platforms today; I think it’s too hot for them. -KMP

Male Bay-breasted Warbler from a few days ago. Most have passed through. -MMG

A beaver has been checking out the pond. He will have to dam the outlet end if he wants to make it his home. -MMG

Up to 3 Green Herons have been seen regularly along the river. -RG

Hmmm…..how to get a long stick into a small hole…..House Wren with a problem (which it ended up solving). –MMG

Always a treat: male Indigo Bunting. -DOL

We were getting Myrtle Warblers unusually late into May…but they’re all gone now. -RG

Local Sandhill Cranes are busy with recently hatched young. -KMP

Yellow-billed Cuckoo. -MMG

Pearl Crescent. -KMP

Painted Skimmer. -KMP


May 15th – The Dam Burst!

One of two Virginia Rails seen today at the Farm. At one point they were….umm….copulating, which is a good record for the Breeding Bird Atlas. -CR

It’s been a cold, slow Spring and most “bird people” have been waiting for this day with keen anticipation. Benign temperatures and light southerly winds were a boon to long-distance migrants that have been held up by a spate of bad conditions south of us. They poured into southern Ontario during the night.

Virginia Rail. -CR

Migrants were everywhere at the farm site. We counted 78 species (17 of which were warblers) and banded 41 birds of 21 species – both new records for this site:
1 Downy Woodpecker
1 Least Flycatcher
1 White-breasted Nuthatch
1 Veery
2 Hermit Thrushes
1 American Robin
2 Gray Catbirds
3 Swamp Sparrows
1 White-crowned Sparrow
2 Red-winged Blackbirds
1 Common Grackle
1 Nashville Warbler
1 Northern Parula
4 Yellow Warblers
3 Magnolia Warblers
1 Bay-breasted Warbler
4 Black and White Warblers
3 American Redstarts
2 Ovenbirds
3 Common Yellowthroats
3 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
ET’s: 78 spp.

At the Lowville Station Marnie was even busier banding 52 birds of 15 spp,:
1 Black-capped Chickadee
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglets

Rare in Ontario: White-eyed Vireo. -MMG

1 White-eyed Vireo
4 Gray Catbirds

Once relatively common in southern Ontario, now just a rare treat: Golden-winged Warbler. MMG

1 Golden-winged Warbler
5 Nashville Warblers
1 American Redstart
1 Magnolia Warbler
3 Common Yellowthroats
1 Black & White Warbler
1 Ovenbird
12 American Goldfinches
10 White-throated Sparrows
4 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
5 Indigo Buntings
ET’s: 51 spp.

And at Pelee Island Bird Observatory (where Alessandra is the assistant bander), a Yellow-breasted Chat. -AAW

And as an added treat…..I’m sure most of you remember Alessandra Wilcox who was one of our contingent of “young birders” for several years before heading off to university. She is working this Spring as the assistant bander at Pelee Island Bird Observatory. She sent me an early morning text with a picture of this Yellow-breasted Chat they had just banded.