The AFMO has been operating each fall since 1958 and is the oldest continuously operating bird banding station in North America. 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 at AFMO we volunteer as net-tenders removing birds from the 30 mist nets used for trapping migratory birds. The AFMO is located along the Allegheny Front (eastern continental divide) near the Red Creek Campground on Dolly Sods. Most of Dolly Sods is federally designated as Wilderness Area comprising 32,000 acres. The banding station is in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area.
In late September this year, we spent 15 days on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO. We stayed at Red Creek Campground. Our days began at 5 a.m. when it was still dark. Before 6, we walked to the AFMO to help open the mist nets at 6:15 a.m. The thrushes began hitting the nets while it was still dark and we usually needed headlamps to take them from the nets.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish a Gray-cheeked Thrush from a Swainson’s Thrush. Having them side-by-side makes the differences easier to see.
We also caught other thrushes: Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush and Veery.
Being on the Allegheny Front, looking east toward the ridge-and-valley area and the piedmont, the views from the AFMO are spectacular. Each sunrise (or sometimes just sky-lightening) is different.
The following video is from the AFMO. We see something similar almost every morning. (video (c) Jan Runyan)
During and after the sunrise we begin to catch other kinds of birds, especially warblers.
Sometimes we catch a bird that is uncommon at the AFMO and everyone stops what they are doing to get a good look. That was the case this year with this Mourning Warbler. It was only the 34th of its kind banded at the AFMO since 1958.
Many of the warblers we band are referred to as ‘confusing’ fall warblers due to the drastic color and pattern differences from their spring plumage. This Chestnut-sided Warbler showed no signs of the beautiful chestnut colors it had during the spring, however the golden crown is a good indicator for identifying this species in the fall.
And this Hooded Warbler showed little or no indication of the black hood it will have when it wears its breeding plumage next spring.
Sometimes identification comes down to the color of the soles of the feet or of the lower bill.
One of the things the banders record is the age of each bird that’s banded. Among other things, they examine the wear, molt limits and colors of the feathers.
Occasionally there is a bird who is so young that some of his feathers are still emerging from their sheaths. Still, he is already in the middle of his migration flight.
After sunrise there is often fog or mist in the valleys or rising from them. (video (c) Jan Runyan)
Each day after the birds were done with their morning feeding flight, we helped furl the nets to keep them safe and out of the way until the next day when net-tenders would be back to monitor them. The station is usually closed by noon each day which gave Jan and me time to see many of the other wonders of Dolly Sods and other nearby areas. One of the hikes I led was on the Bog-to-Bog Loop Trail with Jan and two friends.
During our 15 days we were fortunate to see three species of gentian in full bloom including the rare Fringed Gentian (found only in one place in West Virginia).
Due to the dry conditions most wildflowers were in poor condition, but those associated with wetlands seemed unaffected by the lack of rain.
One afternoon we went to the beaver dam along Forest Service Road 75 just south of Bear Rocks Nature Preserve to photograph the beavers. Fortunately on this particular day the beavers were quite cooperative.
The following three videos show just how much fun we had watching the beavers. (all three videos (c) Jan Runyan)
The AFMO can be a busy place. Sometimes groups from schools or other organizations visit. Some individuals who know about the banding station stop by to see the birds, the scenery, and familiar faces. Sometimes people just happen upon the banding operation by following the well-traveled trail east of the Blackbird Knob Trail parking lot.
Giving people their first personal contact with birds is magical. Young (and old) lives can be changed for all time.
Birds are not the only animals visiting the AFMO.
On our second Saturday on Dolly Sods, after banding I led a 5 mile hike on some well-known and lesser-known Dolly Sods Wilderness trails.
For two days while we were at the AFMO a tick researcher studying the occurrence of Lyme’s disease was taking ticks from around the eyes and mouth of birds that nest on or near the ground. She was also taking blood samples.
Each and every morning the bird banding research continued.
More and more birds were caught, removed from the mist nets, and taken to the ‘gurus’ in the banding shed.
One day after banding was done, Jan and I decided to check the out-and-back Old Growth Forest Trail to see if we could make it into a loop trail. Anytime we are on this short trail we are mesmerized by the variety of habitats and the beauty, especially of the mosses and the mature oaks at the end of the trail. The magic of the Morning Star (the planet Venus) early that morning had seemed to be a good omen of how wonderful the day would be.
We never did find a way to turn the out-and-back trail into a loop trail, but we had a great time trying.
One day we caught a bird with a bewildering difference. A male Black-throated Blue Warbler had a red plastic band on his leg. Researchers often use various colored plastic bands during research like nesting site studies so they can spot specific individual birds by sight. But we were baffled because this bird did not also have a numbered metal band which would identify the bander and location. That day’s AFMO bander put one of his numbered metal bands on the bird and made note of this anomaly in his records.
Always special at the AFMO are the larger and unusual birds, especially raptors. There were two hawks caught while we were there.
Each year, for many years, I have spent 1 to 3 months on Dolly Sods taking photos, leading wilderness hikes and volunteering at the AFMO. Each time I leave I feel as if I’m leaving a wonderful dear friend…sad to leave but so glad to have been there. What a wonderful place!