I have been visiting this bird banding station since 1972 and volunteering since 2004. Jan has volunteered since 2007, the year she retired. We are both federally licensed bird banders, but volunteer as net tenders removing birds from the 30 mist nets used for trapping migratory birds. The AFMO is located along the Allegheny Front near the Red Creek Campground on Dolly Sods. Most of Dolly Sods is federally designated wilderness comprising 32,000 acres. The banding station is in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area.
In late September this year, we spent two weeks on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO. At the banding station our days begin at 6 am when it is still dark. Being on the Allegheny Front, looking east toward the ridge-and-valley and the piedmont, the views from the AFMO are spectacular. Each sunrise (or sometimes just sky-lightening) is different. Click on photos to enlarge… use back button to return to blog.
Right away we are busy removing birds from the nets. The earliest birds are mostly thrushes: Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, Hermit, Wood and Veerys. It is usually still dark and head lamps are necessary. Some of the other net tenders are also back-up banders. If the day gets busy, they start banding, too, so that the birds are on their way as soon as possible. As the morning progresses we are mesmerized by the birds as well as the sunrise and other scenery.
Each bird is put into a separate brown paper lunch-sized bag. Those small bags are collected in grocery store bags with handles. Then they are taken to the banding shed where all the banding takes place.
All of the people who work at the station are highly trained volunteers who apprenticed at the station and return year after year to work. They pay for their own training, equipment (except bands) and travel expenses. Some help at the station for one or two weeks during the month and a half it is open (mid-August to early October) and several stay for almost the whole time. The AFMO is funded completely by donations.
Visitors are always welcome and if the day is not too busy, we can teach about birds, bird banding and the science behind what we do.
Most of the birds we catch are warblers (“fairly small, vocal, insectivorous, perching songbirds which vary widely in color and pattern”). Some days we capture many hundreds; other days only a few. The banding is weather dependent. We do not open the station on rainy, foggy or very windy days. Most birds are caught in the early morning hours, often before 10 am. The banding is over by noon except on very busy days. On October 26 of this year we caught and banded 829 birds and the banding (3 banders with several helpers) continued until 2:30.
On days with few birds the station closes earlier and we are able to take more time to appreciate Dolly Sods’ scenic beauty. On slow days I often hike and sometimes Jan joins me.
One day I led a group on a 4.7 mile wilderness hike for some friends. We traversed part of the Beatty Labyrinth, Alder Run Bog, several red spruce forests, a CCC red pine plantation, a high mountain meadow and Fisher Spring Run Bog. Much of the hike involved bushwhacking into beautiful areas most hikers on Dolly Sods never see.
On the hikes we see wonderful kinds of wildlife. During any season there are many beautiful and interesting plants to enjoy. The fall glows with Goldenrods and Asters accented by plants like Joe-Pye weed and different kinds of Gentians.
With the plants we often find an interesting variety of insects and spiders. Some of the spider webs are spectacular, especially when wet with dew or fog.
If we look fast, we might see several kinds of small snakes “running” away from us. Occasionally when the day is warm, we get to watch a Milk Snake sunning itself on a rock.
Because of its geology, the top of the mountain is dotted with bogs. Some are small wet spots; others are huge open areas that take a long time to traverse. In the fall, the Cottongrass spikes speckle the bogs and dance in the wind. In wetter parts, the bogs are filled with insectivorous Sundew plants–both the native Round-leaved Sundew and the invasive Spatulate-leaved Sundew. In the fall the Sundews often have flower stalks above their insect-catching leaves. Dolly Sods’ bogs are a moss lover’s delight. Sphagnum can be found everywhere, but many other kinds entice us to kneel down and look carefully. This year the Reindeer Moss (which isn’t a moss at all, but a complicated lichen) was very dry and crispy in exposed areas, but lush and spongy in the deep, moist woods.
After our hikes or cranberry picking or photo expeditions or visits with friends, we savor an early dinner and fall asleep as the sun goes down. Each morning while it’s still dark we are back at the banding station looking in awe at the Milky Way, watching the sunrise and, of course, catching more birds.
One of the very special things about being involved with bird banding is experiencing and examining the birds so closely. We can see the subtle differences which give clues to the age and gender of each bird.
Of the 44 species of warblers listed in Peterson’s East/Central guide, the AFMO has banded 38 species. The real challenge for fall banders comes because, of those 44 possible species, 24 species change their plumage, sometimes radically, after the summer breeding season. In the species that do change, both the young and mature birds look very different in the fall than they do in the spring when most of us see them. Of Peterson’s 24 “confusing fall warblers”, the station has caught all but one species.
In the spring most warblers look very different from each other. In the fall their different and muted colors can make us search for hints of washed-out color, faint streaks, a couple of different colored feathers or even the color of the feet to tell them apart. Although we are sometimes left scratching our heads for a while, we relish the challenge.
Although warblers are the most frequently banded birds at the AFMO, many other types of birds are also caught and banded. From tiny Kinglets (both kinds) and Brown Creepers to Blue Jays, Hawks and even Northern Saw-Whet Owls, birds of all sizes leave the Allegheny Front with numbered aluminum bands on their legs.
No matter what we catch, it is always a thrill to release a bird. Sometimes when the station is not too busy and we have the right kind of birds, we can teach a visitor how to hold and release a bird. Usually the bird flies away almost before the person holding it opens their hand. But occasionally a bird will stay on a hand for a few moments, not realizing that the covering hand has been removed. That is always magical.
Field markings which may be hard to see on a bird in the field become very obvious when the bird is in hand. Even the almost-indistinguishable Flycatchers can be identified with the help of expert books (and expert banders).
Hawks are always a rare and exciting event. Because their feet and wings are so much larger than those of most perching birds, hawks have an easy time getting out of a net. Most of our captures occur on the rare occasion when a hawk tries to go after a bird that is already in the net. When a hawk hits the net, it usually bounces off and flies away. But if it hits just right, it falls into the pocket of the net. If there is a net tender close enough, he or she can gather the net around the hawk before it has a chance to fly away. One morning Jeff was net tending on a nearby south net when some of us saw a hawk hit a net near the far end. People yelled, “Run, Jeff, run!” and he took off running toward the far nets, not knowing exactly where he was headed, but knowing exactly why we told him to run.
One day I was fortunate to remove a hawk that hit near where I was removing another bird. I was able to reach it before it could fly away. He was a beauty!
Note the difference in eye color between the young male Sharp-shinned Hawk above and the older female “Sharpy” below. The iris color changes from grayish-yellow and yellow to orange and reddish during the first couple years of life.
Some sparrows can still be difficult to identify, even in hand. But being able to turn the bird around and see both the top and bottom makes it easier to see the finer points of identification.
Jan and I always collect Dolly Sods spring water the day before we leave for home. Because everything was so dry this year, the spring was running much slower than most years. We usually bring home enough water to last us the entire year, but we didn’t think we would have the time or patience to fill all of our containers this year. With the help of an old coffee pot and a beautiful day to distract us while we waited, it only took a couple of hours to gather a year’s worth (we hope) of water. In the middle of winter, the taste takes us right back to the sunny, green warmth of the Wilderness.
There is always something new and special to discover when we are on Dolly Sods and at the AFMO. At night, the stars or moon are so bright and close it seems that if you climbed to the top of a spruce tree you could reach out and touch them. Bushwhacking in the forests, meadows and bogs brings unexpected discoveries, both natural and, occasionally, human-made.
On our last day on the Sods, we were pleased to realize that we had helped add a significant number of birds to the AFMO tally for the year. We feel very satisfied to be able to help with such an important scientific endeavor and very happy to be able to spend time with such good friends in a place as incredible as Dolly Sods.