Shorebird Banding At The Midwest Birding Symposium

1 Alvaro Jaramillo A birder scans the dawn for migrants.  What a beautiful morning at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio!  During the Midwest Birding Symposium, I got the opportunity to observe some shorebird banding last Friday (which was a fun change of pace from the usual songbird banding I do on Fridays).  The banding started at dawn and involved two men named Tom.


The nets were set in areas where the shorebirds were feeding. The banders had to be careful to too keep the bottoms of the nets high, so if too many birds were caught, the nets wouldn't droop down into the water. You had to wear some serious waders in order to put the nets up and to retrieve the birds.


Some birds were not buying it, like the above pectoral sandpiper (that's a yellowlegs blurred in the background). Some birds fed right under the nets, while others flew right above and below.  However, many flew into the nets and we got to see quite a large variety of shorebird species in the hand.

o solo mio

Some of the nets were not easy to get to. Shorebird feed on mudflats and that gets messy.  They had to cross a stream to be able to get at the nets in a fast and easy manner.

pectoral sand

Look at this beauty--a pectoral sandpiper.  This is one I can remember, note how far the brown goes down on its body before it meets the white.  The brown goes down much further on this bird than it would on a semipalmated or least--plus it's bigger.  The birds were all smaller in hand than they look in the field, which is what I expected.  According to bird banding guru Peter Pyle, this bird takes a band size of 1A.  You can put a 1A band on a cardinal to give you an idea of size.

pectoral weight

The banders took the usual measurement of wings and tail, but also checked weight. This was done swiftly, by quickly inserting the shorebird into a tube and setting it on a scale (the weight of the tube was already calculated on the scale.  I think the banders had all of their measurements taken, banding and then assessment of age and sex in less than 60 seconds. They were quick, with the shorebird's safety and health a primary concern.

semi palm plover

Here's a cute little bird! It's the sample size version of the killdeer, a semipalmated plover.  Don't you just love that yellow eyering?  These also take a small 1A band like the pectoral (and cardinal).  After this bird was banded, it flew across the nearby creek and began to forage as though nothing had happened.


And if you are wondering what the name "semipalmated" is all about, it refers to the slight webbing between the toes.  See?  Again, a bird named back in the day when they were shot first and identified later.  It's something seen easily in hand and up close to the face, but rarely seen when the bird is running around on a mudflat.  And believe it or not, non birders, this is not the only semipalmated bird out there.

semi palm sand

We also got a semipalmated sandpiper into the nets too.  Above you can see Tom splaying the toes revealing the partial webbing between the toes.  This bird had a slight deformity on its bill, there was a lump in the middle.  Had it flown into a window at some point? Was it just some sort of odd defect it was hatched with? Who can say?

same different-2

If you remember the photo from the previous entry, I asked if these were the same birds or different.  Even in hand, up close it can be a challenge.  Normally, I would point out the bill differences, but the semipalmated has that notch in its beak.  Another way I tell the two apart in Minnesota is also covered up.  Semipalm's bill and feet appear to be the same color, least sandpipers feet look lighter in color than the bill (you'll have to take my word on that since the least's feet are covered up in that photo).  You can see some examples here.

banding snipe

The coolest bird of the day for me was a Wilson's snipe that came into the nets.  What a great bird and what a treat to see up close.  Above is bander Tom Bartlett, reminding me a bit of Hannibal of the A-Team, loving it when a shorebird plan comes together.  And for the record, all we had to do to get this snipe was put up banding nets in the morning, no one was out in the middle of the night with a pillowcase making strange noises.

snipe toes

Here are some snipe toes, remarkably clean for a bird that wanders in mud.

wilsons snipe

Here's a shot of the head and that incredibly long beak it uses to probe in mud.  The bill  of the snipe is so flexible that it can open just the tips without opening the whole bill! Sensory pits at the tip of the bill allow the snipe to feel its prey deep in the mud.  It's bill is also handy for yanking the occasional worm too.

snipe ridges

Tom tried to gently reveal the serrations inside the bill.  There are a couple of different theories as to how the snipe gets food and perhaps it uses both.  Some think that they may suck up food when the bill is probed in soil and others think the serrations pointing back towards its mouth in conjunction with its tongue will help move prey found in mud.  Still something we can learn.


Tom does have to bee quick when getting birds out of the nets.  He showed us this photo from just last month when a young peregrine falcon saw shorebirds struggling in the nets and thought it might be easy prey.  Tom got a little messy, but was able to get the falcon before it got the shorebirds.

This was a fun and educational experience and hands down one of my favorite birding moments at the Midwest Birding Symposium.

Alvaro Jaramillo Counting Snipe Retrices

guess the tail Thanks for all the guesses in the blog and on Twitter.  DC Birding Blog guessed correctly when he wrote Wilson's snipe.  I love that tail, it looks like a mini red-tailed hawk tail. Tai brings up a good point, note how small the feathers are in relation to the fingers--they are small birds.

Here is a video of Alvaro Jaramillo counting the snipe's tail feathers (you'll hear me call it a common snipe, I'm still stuck on it's old name, it is a Wilson's snipe).  You may remember Alvaro from a video earlier this year on learning to love gull watching.  Funny guy and would keep you laughing on one of his tours with Field Guides:


In the background you might notice Mike Bergin taking photos off to the left, and the dude with the budding fro is Hugo who was one of my guides in Guatemala.

Midwest Birding Symposium Highlights

fb1 I'm just back from the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium and this was the most insanely busy birding event I have ever been to.  There was so much going on and so many people, my only complaint was that I didn't have the time to have an actual conversation with many people from people I want to meet to old friends I rarely see in person.


The symposium was held in a gated/resort community in northern Ohio, right on Lake Erie (and had a large feral cat population).  It's a small "dry" town with cute houses fitted close together owned by wealthy people--I learned that the cottage I was in is owned by the Windex family so I was blessed with bright shiny windows.  But you could walk/bike all over and it was interesting to walk from the cottage I was staying in to the speaker and vendor areas and pass birder after birder--many well known ones.  "Oh, hey, there's Kenn Kaufman.  And over there is Scott Weidensaul and over there is Sibley."  The small community had totally turned into Birderville: population 1000. I have to say, that Minnesota birder and one of the best speakers on the bird festival circuit, Al Batt, brought down the house with his keynote.  All the speakers were great, but Al as usual stood out and left people sore with laughter the next day--way to represent the Minnesota team, Al!  Speaking of speakers, Jim McCormac has a blog post up and if you scroll down, you can watch a video of Kenn Kaufman behaving like a horny mourning dove (so much for Lakeside being a dry community).

mwbs 3

I didn't take the above photo of ring-billed gulls.  I lovely woman I met named Marilyn took it with my digiscoping set up.  Part of my duties at the symposium was helping out at the Swarovski booth and help people with digiscoping. Even in early morning with low light, she was able to get a great shot with my HD 80 scope, Nikon D40 and DCA digital adaptor.  I did enjoy working one on one with people to help them hone their technique...and explaining how to use Twitter.

mwbs 1

The event was more about information and workshops than it was about birding but there was quite a bit going on.  The bird of the festival was a Kirtland's warbler that was spotted five minutes from the event and many were able to go out and get photos of this accommodating life bird.  Here's one over at 10,000 Birds.  I went to look for it late in the day on Friday and had to chuckle at all the birder litter guiding folks to the spot where it could be seen.  I did not see it, but I wasn't trying all that hard either (as can be seen in this blog entry over at Born Again Bird Watcher.  Although, while a I was laying on the ground avoiding warbler neck, a Cooper's hawk flew low over the group and I had the best view.  I joked that it appeared to have a warbler shaped crop and that was the reason we weren't seeing it.  I left early, I think a Kirtland's is one of those rare birds that I know I'll see one day, I'd like to make it to Michigan.  I actually spent more time watching shorebirds at the symposium--more on that later.


I had a total geek out moment.  I was included in the book signing area for City Birds/Country Birds and it was an honor to be surrounded by the likes of Julie Zickefoose and Scott Weidensaul (above), but the real excitement for me was getting to sit next to Lang Elliot!  He's written several great books, but many people out there know his voice.  If you have any birding cds, chances are good that you have heard his classic, subdued voice narrating the species' names.  I listened to these eight hours a day, five days a week when I worked at the bird store (eight years).  I have to say, he may sound scientific and stuffy based on the narration, but he's hilarious.  I told him that I had heard his voice so long saying bird names, I had always wanted to hear him swear.  So, he swore at me.  Loved it!  Love meeting these hardcore dedicated scientific types and learning that they've got a little freak flag in there and they're not afraid to wave it.

Congratulations to Bird Watcher's Digest and all of their hard working staff who made the event so well attended and so action-packed with great content!

News and Odds and Ends

So, I stumbled upon a really interesting blog called Pete at Midway, written by a man spending six months on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean--who knew they had Internet access there? Anyway, he's got some great shots of the birds around there including albatross, fairy terns (also known as white terns), and tropic birds. He started his blog June 9 and you can easily catch up on his adventures. I love this photo of his front yard covered with albatross in his first entry.

In other news, I can finally get my favorite beer that I've had at birding festivals in the Twin Cities: Fat Tire! Whoot!! It's the best, and quite possibly could be the official birder beer. If you live in the Twin Cities and you have never had it, I highly recommend picking one up.

I got a press release today for the Midwest Birding Symposium that's happening September 13-16, 2007 to be held once again in the Quad Cities. The MBS happens every other year, so the last one was in 2005. It's held in an area twice, so this is the Quad Cities second go at it:

"We hope you enjoyed your time in 2005, and we have a whole new experience to share in 2007!

Highlights for 2007:
New venue - Stoney Creek Inn & Conference Center, Moline, IL. The hotel is a northwoods experience on the Mississippi River!
Keynote speaker: Kenn Kaufman
Expanded field trips
Earlier dates for migrating species.

Join us for a great time, free reception, and reconnect with the friends you made in 2005."

I went to the MBS in 2005 and had some fun, I'm not sure if I'm going to go again this year. It's good to see that they listened to feedback from last time and changed when they are having the festival and labeling which trips are boat trips. Although, I did notice that they are still promoting one trip by saying, "Participants may also see the Eurasian tree sparrow." I signed up for that trip last time just for the sparrow and when I was boarding the vehicle, I asked the guides where we were going to see one. They shook there heads and said, "There are no Eurasion tree sparrows where we're going." Hm, I wonder if they will be there this time?

What Really Happens at Birding Symposiums

Who says birders don't know how to get down and party? For those curious, that is Alicia Craig shaking her money maker in the front row.

Well, the Midwest Birding Symposium was a blast. For me that birding wasn't that exciting, most of the birds in and around the Quad Cities I can see easily here, but the workshops were interesting and the opportunity to ham it up with fellow birding nuts from around the country was just loads of fun. A really cool moment for me was getting a hug from Lillian Stokes congratulating me on getting a job with Eagle Optics. I also got to meet Mike and Katie who I will be working with at EO. Mike (of Mike's digiscoping blog) was kind enough to let me sit in on one of his optics talks. We did manage to drag them out for karaoke, but could not get them to sing...I'll have to work on that. Another highlight was getting to meet Julie Zickefoose. I have always been a huge fan of her writing and discovered that she's a mischievous woman who could probably out sing a wood thrush if she tried. When we went out for karaoke, she brought down the house.

Other Symposium Highlights:

Don Kroodsma author of The Singing Life of Birds proves that he's not just a fantastic author, but also isn't a stick in the mud. He was kind enough to let me sit on his lap and give him a kiss. This is a fascinating book on the how and why of bird song and includes a cd that accompanies the text in the appendix.

Bobby Harrison was certainly a popular attraction at the convention, women were lining up for miles. He was like Sting for birders. It was very cute, one woman walked up and said, "I just want to touch you, you've seen an ivory-billed woodpecker."

It was a nature writer's dream, editors of the major birding magazines on a river boat loaded with alcohol--what better time to pitch a story? From left Eldon Greij founding editor of Birder's World, Amy Hooper editor of WildBird Magazine, Bill Thompson III editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, and Chuck Hagner editor of Birder's World.

I discovered a kindred spirit in Eldon Greij. He knows his birds and is quick witted and likes an occasional naught joke. Plus, he likes reading Bent books and I love any guy who loves Bent.

Yes, that's Bill Thompson dressed like Bubbles of the Powerpuff Girls (or is it Penny from in Inspector Gadget?) And of course, that's his lovely wife Julie Zickefoose next to him. Looks like she's the one who wears the hats in the family.

Bill Thompson rocks the crowd at the Commodore Tap's karaoke night. He sang a really rockin' version of I'll Stop the World and Melt with you. This bar was up and ready for karaoke. They had a table of wigs, hats, scarves and percussive instruments for everyone to use. The bar regulars thought our group was a traveling choir. When we revealed we were birders ie people who travel around and watch birds, an older gent next to me nudged my arm and asked, "No sh!t?" When we closed the bar, we were applauded and hugged and told that we rocked the place.

Jeff Bouton of Leica Optics wowed the crowd with My Maria. He also does one heck of a Wicked Game by Chris Isaak. I discovered that not only do Jeff and I share a similar sense of humor, we also shared a job--we used to dress up as Chuck E. Cheese. We both have much better jobs now.

Here's a prey's eye view of the coolest bird to be seen at the symposium! Neil Rettig's education harpy eagle.

Amy Hooper looks to be involved in suspicious activity at an eagle nest. Is she raiding the nest?

More photos will probably come soon. I took 230 this weekend and haven't sifted through them all, but all this weekend has worn me out and I need to sleep. All in all it was a great time.

I don't know where I am

My wireless signal in my hotel room is weak, so blog entries will be few during the weekend, but I will make up for it Sunday night...however that will depend on how many people will pay me not to post the incriminating photos I have from the symposium's river boat event and the karaoke party afterwards. Yes, Bill Thompson III of Bird Watcher's Digest, I'm talkin' to you.

Iowa birding is good; there are quite a few pelicans here and some good ducks. On yesterday's trip to Sloane Slough we found green-winged teal, pintails, blue-winged teal, a redhead, gadwall and wigeon. We found some interesting sparrows including vesper and a first year chipping sparrow going into winter plumage. I heard through the grapevine that some of the field trip descriptions for the symposium were a little vague. So vague in fact that one of the field trips was actually a boat excursion that wasn't included in the original description. When tour participants arrived, a trip leader stepped out and asked, "Are you ready for a boat trip?" The group was not, but it sounds like they saw good birds and it did warm up later in the morning so things turned out okay.

I'm off to see a harpy eagle and meet more people so I can name drop in future entries.