Each year Jan and I usually spend 2 weeks in September volunteering at the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO) on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Plateau in the mountains of West Virginia. We go to bed with the sunset — usually about 8 pm, and rise each morning at 5 am to open the mist nets in the dark for morning bird banding. This year was different due to COVID. AFMO didn’t open. But we decided we would still go to the Dolly Sods Wilderness in September. This year, instead of “early to bed and early to rise”, we sat around the campfire until 10 pm and got up the next morning whenever we wanted to. We had no schedule. Best of all, close friends were camped at sites on either side of us.
For extended visits to the Dolly Sods Wilderness area, we camp at the Red Creek Campground, a primitive campground in the Monongahela National Forest.
I started the first morning by taking some photos.
My first photo was of a White Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata). It is, by far, the most common aster in the Dolly Sods Wilderness.
Just across the road was a goldenrod. Some of the goldenrods are hard to know by sight and I had to key this one. It keyed out to be Elm-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia).
Several butterflies caught my attention. Just across the camp road was a Flowering Dogwood, the only dogwood I saw during our time on Dolly Sods. And drying out on the fall-colored leaves was a Monarch Butterfly.
A Question Mark Butterfly couldn’t resist enjoying a nearby partially-eaten pear.
We noticed Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies on several occasions.
After more than an hour of shooting photos, Jan and I sat down to a nice picnic lunch, and, a short time later, our last homegrown watermelon.
I hiked every day. Sometimes Jan hiked with me and sometimes she followed her own trail. One day, after talking with two campers also staying in the campground, I invited them to join Jan, Lee and me to hike on the Allegheny Front Vista Trail.
It was fun to share with new friends some new sights they had never seen on Dolly Sods.
For several evenings Jan and I set out a mist net and audio lure to attract locally-breeding Northern Saw-whet Owls as part of Project Owl-Net. On most evenings, while the audio lure beeped out the sound of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, we sat around the campfire sharing stories with various friends.
One night we did catch a NSWO. She was a young, local bird, very well-behaved in spite of her razor-sharp talons.
NSWOs are aged by using a UV light to check the porphyrins present on the underside of the wing feathers. New feathers have lots of the chemical, which shows up as bright pink under the ultra-violet light. Since all her feathers show the pink, they are all newly grown this year. That only happens the year a bird is born.
To determine that this bird was a female we had to take 2 measurements. After measuring her longest flight feather in the wing (wing chord) and weighing her, we took those measurements to the chart developed by past NSWO banders. Based on their experience, a bird with her measurements would be a female.
It is always fun to see what a NSWO will do when it is released. Some fly away immediately and are silently out of sight in seconds. Others don’t mind hanging around for a while.
One morning Jan and I explored an open area near the campground. We found some interesting things. Golden Ragwort is a distinctive-looking plant, but at this time of year, only the leaves were present after having bloomed earlier in the spring.
Initially we were unsure of this leaf rosette. Then we noticed the same basal leaves on a plant that was blooming profusely nearby.
A large female Garden Spider was in her orb web as if she were guardian of the meadow we were exploring.
Rock Polypody Ferns (Polypodium virginianum) covered many rocks in shaded areas.
Lots of Many-flowered Gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia) were in full bloom and could be found in several open areas near Forest Service Road 75, but we didn’t see any in the backcountry.
Shrubby St. John’s-wort (Hypericum prolificum) with their seed capsules appeared to be almost everywhere we went.
Indian Cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana), which had already flowered, was easy to notice due to its whorled leaves. Most often the plants have one or two levels of whorled leaves, but this one had four!
On Dolly Sods our camping meals vary from very simple with no cooking, to gourmet, expertly cooked by friends Jeff and Shelia.
One-pan suppers make for the easiest clean-up, which I appreciate since that’s my job. One night Jan cooked salmon steaks with fried potatoes and onions. W.V. peaches Jan had frozen days before completed the feast.
Supper at Jeff and Shelia’s campsite started with fried manchego cheese wrapped in fresh sage leaves (from Jan’s herb garden) as an appetizer.
The main course was sliced rib-eye steak and varieties of Hericium mushrooms, expertly prepared.
And for dessert we had a special treat: fresh-picked apples and cranberries, both from Dolly Sods, in an apple/cranberry galette. Everything was ABSOLUTELY delicious!
We were happy, well-fed Dolly Sods campers!
Captain Morgan, a.k.a. Lee Miller, is my frequent hiking companion on Dolly Sods.
Our hikes are often shorter in miles than we plan, and longer in time than we expect, because we are always stopping to investigate, like here where we are examining a fungus on a dead, fallen Red Spruce.
Lee and I found quite a few interesting fungi, including a highly prized, medicinal Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) mushroom growing on a Yellow Birch Tree.
Among the many kinds of fungus we discovered were the deadly Destroying Angel Mushroom (Amanita bisporigera) and
the Gelatinous Stalked-puffball (Calostoma cinnabarinum).
Each September, when Jan and I are on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO, I invite a small group to accompany me on a 5-mile hike on a trail that does not appear on any Dolly Sods trail maps. This year there were 8 of us, including Dahle, the dog.
In many Dolly Sods rock fields, berry-loaded American Mountainash Trees (Sorbus americana) were obvious.
The “bent” tree is a trail indicator we sometimes use to lead us to our lunch site and is a good place to search for snakes.
Lunch time was at the edge of at the Red Pine Plantation and the High Mountain Meadow.
Although we didn’t see any Black Bears on Dolly Sods this year, we did find several fresh bear scats – always full of Wild Black Cherry seeds.
The midway point of the Bog to Bog Loop Trail is at Fisher Spring Run Bog, probably Dolly Sods’ largest wetland.
Bog Goldenrod (Solidago uliginosa) is probably the most common goldenrod on Dolly Sods. It is often the only goldenrod found in bogs and other wetlands, but is also common in dry habitats.
Crossing Fisher Spring Run Bog can provide some difficult hiking depending on how wet it is. This fall the bog was drier than usual and crossing was less difficult. Still, it took quite a while due to how large it is.
Is Lee: 1) praying we find our way out of the vast wilderness, 2) looking for a contact lens, 3) trying to suck water from moss, or 4) trying to identify some animal by tasting its scat?
And the answer is…
The next day was cold (27 degrees) in the morning, but warmed rapidly. Jan found a warm, comfortable spot to sit and repair her hiking pants.
I decided to go hiking.
On a hike with Lee, I discovered that what I had been previously identifying as “Winterberry” (Ilex verticillata) was actually “Mountain Holly” a.k.a. “Mountain Winterberry” (Ilex montana) … those @^#*! common names can get confusing! Just so I could keep these two deciduous hollies straight in my mind, I collected berries from both, squeezed out the nutlets and photographed them. The “Mountain Holly”/”Mountain Winterberry” has ridges on the nutlets while the “Winterberry” nutlets are smooth.
On clear nights the Milky Way was incredible. Dolly Sods is one of the darkest places east of the Mississippi River. One camper we met explained that it is the standard of darkness for the eastern U.S. — the goal for the rest of the areas to attain. We were lucky to be there while the moon was “new” and the sky was at its most dark.
It was amazing how many friends we encountered during our stay. The wild, mountainous plateau is like a magnet for others who also appreciate its beauty and nature.
How time flies on Dolly Sods. Our 10 days were over much too soon. On our way home we stopped in Davis, WV, to get a Sirianni’s pizza.
While I ordered the pizza, Jan shopped at “Wild Ginger and Spice”. I wandered around Davis for a short time while waiting for the food.
Leaving Dolly Sods is always bittersweet for Jan and me. It is sad to say goodby to close friends and the beautiful mountain plateau we’ve grown to love and respect. But we are also glad to get home to our own special “Almost Heaven” place in West Virginia.
Ralph Bell, founder of the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO), and I were best friends. When I needed to find two new bird leaders for the West Virginia Wildflower Pilgrimage, I asked Ralph if he could recommend anyone. He said, “How about my daughter Joanie and her husband Don?” Don and Joanie were eager to be leaders, especially since Ralph was also a leader, and I added two excellent, knowledgeable birders to our group.
Soon after that I began to volunteer at the AFMO. Not only did I get to see and handle hundreds of migrating warblers and other kinds of birds, I met some wonderful people. Joanie, Don and I immediately became good friends.
What a wonderful time in my life — sharing a cabin at Blackwater Falls State Park with Joanie, Don and Ralph for several days in early May and then, in September, spending two weeks on Dolly Sods with them each year. When Joanie and Don retired to Florida and eventually stopped coming back to West Virginia, I thought about them often when I was on Dolly Sods at the AFMO.
Yesterday, when I got news that Don had passed away, my memory flood-gates opened and I was back in the mountains walking the Dolly Sods road with him.
Don always had a smile and he laughed a lot. He was special. Many days after the morning bird banding and afternoon hawk watching, Don and I would walk Forest Service Rd. 75 and look at wildflowers. We talked about, well… just about everything. Don was a good listener and had wonderful and valuable advice. There were some times I really needed it, and appreciated and followed it.
Don was a loving, caring person. You could just feel it when you were near him. He made everyone feel welcome. His smile warmed the room (or campsite) like the glow from a campfire. His memory still warms my heart.
Goodbye my friend! Until we meet and walk together again.
Jan and I spent 15 days volunteering at the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO) next to the Dolly Sods Wilderness on the Allegheny Front in the mountains of West Virginia. We net tended at the banding station in the mornings and played in Nature in the afternoons. This is some of what we did.
The early mornings on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Front (the Eastern Continental Divide) are incredible. The station opens while it is still very dark, so we’re there for the sunrise each morning. The following photos are representative of mornings when we see the sun rise along the West Virginia Allegheny Front looking east toward the “ridge and valley” mountains.
The AFMO is open each year from mid-August to early October during the fall migration. The primary focus of the station each morning is catching and banding birds which are then released to continue their migration. There are 30 10-foot high mist nets strung along various sections of the mountain-side and all nets are checked regularly. Net tenders safely remove caught birds from the mist nets and take them to the banders to be banded and released. Net-tending is the most difficult part of the banding process.
Here Jan and several others are carefully removing birds from mist nets.
We catch many different kinds of birds, but the majority of them are songbirds in a category called warblers.
I was away from the station, leading a wilderness hike, when this brilliant Blue-winged Warbler was caught. Fortunately (for me) Jan was there to take this photo.
One of the highlights of our stay on Dolly Sods was showing a good friend one of the rarest plants in West Virginia – the Fringed Gentian. We spent a long time in the meadow where it grows as she absorbed the beauty of the flower and wonder of the special moment.
Each year for the past 40+ years I have led hikes into the Dolly Sods Wilderness. Most hikes are for groups like the West Virginia Wildflower Pilgrimage or Oglebay Institute’s Mountain Nature Camp (for adults). Once each year I invite some friends to hike. This year’s hike was mostly off-trail from Alder Run across open meadows, through small woodlands, and then across upper Red Creek. Eventually we arrived at the confluence of Red Creek and Alder Run. Then we turned upstream on Alder Run to the confluence of Alder Bog Run and Alder Run. We finished the hike via the Beatty Labyrinth, crossing Alder Bog Run 19 times. It was a rugged but spectacular adventure.
Even though most of the Dolly Sods area was very dry this year, we did encounter some wetlands which were still moist and had some interesting plants. Cottongrass was expansive in wet areas and cranberries were common snacks along parts of the hike.
The Bog Goldenrod was in full bloom in the wetlands and open meadows along the path of the hike.
American Mountainash trees were vivid with their bright scarlet berry clusters.
Jan and I were on Dolly Sods during the time when people from the “Leaf Peepers” event in Davis and Canaan Valley visited, hoping to see spectacular fall colors in the West Virginia mountains. However, due to weeks of dry/warm weather, this year’s color was difficult to find. What I did notice was that the already-fallen leaves of the Red Maples formed colorful patterns on the ground beneath the trees.
While at the Red Creek Campground for two weeks we sometimes get together with friends for supper. Jeff and Shelia were the Campground Hosts and the AFMO station managers. AND … Jeff and Shelia are amazing cooks. One evening we had grilled salmon, couscous and French bread.
When great friends each bring a few items to lunch, it turns into a delicious feast.
At the AFMO we often encounter other interesting creatures besides the birds – sometimes even SNAKES!
This Io Moth caterpillar was found in one of the net lanes, but we were careful not to touch it because its body is covered with stinging spines.
This caterpillar will eventually become a beautiful Io Moth.
Monarch Butterflies were still migrating as were Green Darner Dragonflies. One morning I found a dragonfly covered with heavy dew waiting for the sun to find it so it could dry out and continue on its route southward.
Jan found an Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar and I wanted to show her its scent horns. A gentle squeeze causes the hidden scent horns to come out as the caterpillar arches its back to touch the creature that is squeezing it. The smell of the sticky liquid on the scent horns is quite offensive and lasts a long time. It is a great defensive mechanism for an apparently defenseless creature.
One afternoon Jan and I hiked to a favorite lunch spot along the Allegheny Front Vista Trail.
Not all the birds we catch are warblers.
The first week Jan and I were at the AFMO was during a week-long early Black Bear hunting season. One morning at the station we could hear a group of howling bear dogs, not too far away, coming toward the AFMO nets. In the past we have had a bear and/or bear dogs run through and destroy mist nets. This morning we took the precaution of raising the 10 north nets so animals could to go under without touching the nets. Luckily no bear or dog came through our set-up. Soon the barking moved away, the nets were lowered, and it was back to bird-banding-business as normal.
I was fortunate to be able to take one of my favorite birds from a mist net and also to release it after it was banded – a tiny Winter Wren.
Individuals and groups occasionally visit the AFMO and we are happy to show them how the banding station operates as well as telling about the 60+ year history of the station and answer their questions about birds and banding. We have a demonstration net set up outside the regular net lanes to show them how the birds get safely caught in mist nets.
Over the years I have seen how lives can be changed when people see birds close up, hear the bird’s heart beat, see the transparent skin, and hold and release a bird. It is difficult to protect the earth if we don’t have respect for other living things and appreciate them. Helping people experience birds is one way we can change people’s hearts towards living creatures and the planet we all share.
One group from Eastern Mennonite University wanted to know if there was a botanist among our volunteers who could talk to them about the botany of the area, so I met with them later after we had closed the AFMO nets for the day.
One of the plants we talked about was the Many-flowered Gentian, which was in full flower near the road by the campground.
During our 2 week stay, Jan and I took several walks along the road and on Northland Loop Trail to look at plants.
We were pleased to see some new, informative signs along the Northland Loop Trail.
On the busiest day during our time there, 467 birds were caught in about 1 1/2 hours. We knew we had trapped as many birds as we could handle within a reasonable time for the birds’ safety, so after we cleared the birds from each net, we closed it. Each bird was safely “bagged” in individual lunch-sized paper bags, then these individual bags were sorted into larger shopping bags based on the size of the band the bird would get. This sorting makes it more efficient for the banders to band and release the birds quickly.
The birds waiting to be banded are kept in the shade behind the banding shed.
The day was overcast and not warm, so we knew the birds would be fine as multiple banders and the people recording for them worked quickly. But then it began to rain. Our primary concern is always for the birds so we quickly brought all the bags under the waterproof tarp overhang at the front of the shed and continued sorting birds, banding, and recording.
On rainy or busy days we also use a rock overhang called the “cave”.
With 4 banders, each with a recorder writing for them, we soon sent all of the birds on their way.
Even with the near drought conditions, we often heard individual Spring Peeper treefrogs singing both day and night.
Along with the night sounds of singing coyotes, hooting owls and night-migrating thrushes, these frogs added a sense of peace to my soul as if saying, “Here on Dolly Sods, all is right with the world.”
Our trip home began, as usual, with lunch at Siriani’s Cafe in Davis, WV.
After 6 more stops to pick up specialty items we can only find in the mountains and for gas, we finally returned to Goldfinch Ridge even before the sun went down. Our 2-week trip had given us a truckload of memories of lots of activities, great birds, good food and wonderful friends.
The AFMO has been operating each fall (mid August to early October) since 1958 and is the oldest continuously operating bird banding station in North America. The AFMO is located along the Allegheny Front (eastern continental divide) near the Red Creek Campground on Dolly Sods in WV. Most of Dolly Sods is a federally designated Wilderness Area comprising 32,000 acres. The banding station is in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area, next to the Wilderness.
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 the AFMO instead of banding, we work as net-tenders removing the birds from the 30 mist nets used for trapping the migratory birds that cross the Allegheny Front in this area.
Shortly after we started our trip to the AFMO in 2018, our adventure was augmented by a fallen tree blocking Rt. 42 just south of Friendsville, MD. It had just happened and we were the first south-bound car to be stopped by the tree. Fortunately I had a pruning saw. Three other gentlemen joined Jan and me and we had the tree off the road in a short time. People in West Virginia and western Maryland are like that — we take care of things.
Saffitickers is always a welcome stop on our way to the Blackwater Falls/Canaan Valley area. Ice cream is a great reward for a tree-moving job well-done. Despite my reputation, I really am a vanilla kind of guy. We arrived at the Red Creek Campground without further interruption and set up our trailer for our 2-week stay.
The sunrises at the eastern-facing AFMO are spectacular, and, since we open the banding station well before sunrise, we are always there to see them. Thrushes like to get an early start, often getting into the nets before the sun rises. Later, all kinds of warblers and other species of birds grace us with their presence.
Some mornings when the banding station is open we can be quite busy. Most of the birds we capture are warblers.
The two birds above are Hooded Warblers. Hooded Warbler males who were born before this year usually show an obvious hood like the one on the left. An older female will usually have a lighter, less-pronounced hood. Hatch-year Hooded Warbler males and females sometimes show no hood whatsoever so we have to use other means to identify the species. The hatch-year Hooded Warbler on the right is being identified by looking at the under-tail coverts and retricies (tail feathers).
In the fall, a Mourning Warbler can be differentiated from a Connecticut Warbler by the Mourning’s broken eye-ring. On an American Redstart, an older male will show deep orange to salmon colored patches on the tail and wings, while younger males look more like females with pale yellow to yellow-orange patches. After examining the throat, breast, head and coverts of this bird, it was determined to be a young male.
We regularly capture many different species of warblers. Some look very different in the fall than they do in the spring when they are in their breeding plumage.
The white wing patch of the Black-throated Blue Warbler stands out vividly from the intense blue and black of the rest of the feathers. Very little of the bay-colored breast shows up on Bay-breasted Warblers in the fall. It can be a tough fall bird to identify as it sits in a tree.
The Magnolia Warbler on the left has a distinctive pattern on the underside of its tail. The Blackburnian Warbler’s brilliant orange springtime throat is much more muted in the fall.
The Cape May Warbler on the left shows much less of the chestnut-colored cheek patch than he had in the spring and summer, but his distinct white wing patch tells us he is a male. Black-and-White Warblers look fairly similar all through the year, but this bird’s darker cheeks indicate that it’s a male.
It is very difficult to tell the age and gender of the nondescript Palm Warbler (western race — Dendroica palmarum).
On the left, Jan is removing a Black-throated Blue Warbler from a mist net. Between net-tending at the AFMO and our own banding at home, she has worked with many thousands of birds. On the right, Jan is teaching Lee about ways to carefully and safely extricate a bird from a net. Lee has been working at several banding stations learning the intricacies of net-tending.
Jan is removing Black-throated Green Warbler from a mist net. Net-tenders know how to hold a bird so it is safe and doesn’t hurt itself. A band on the leg of a bird doesn’t harm the bird or cause it problems. At our home banding station we have had many local banded birds who have stayed around for years and other migratory banded bird who have returned to our nets for several years, sometimes even beyond their “expected” life span.
When we’re on Dolly Sods working at the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO) we do more than just work with birds. On some days the banding station doesn’t open due to high winds, dense fog and/or rain. And since most days we are finished banding by noon, we have plenty of time for other nature/Dolly Sods adventures.
This year we noticed a lot more Monarch Butterflies than in the past several years. Our friend, a young man named Finn, being considerably shorter than the adults, was a master at finding Monarch caterpillars on the undersides of leaves.
There were many wet and foggy days during the two weeks that Jan and I were on Dolly Sods this year. The trail from the road to the AFMO became a stream (left 2 photos) and one of the streams flowing through the north net lanes was gushing over the rocks instead of trickling below them. Of course we had to explore it all.
On the left, Jan is walking through the water flowing across the entrance road to the Red Creek Campground. She was pleased she had remembered to bring her tall boots. The photo on the right shows the foggy, limited scenery observed by some of the visitors to the AFMO overlook.
Although I did some solo hiking on “the sods”, there was one day I led a hike for a group of friends. It rained the entire day, and the water was high everywhere — in the streams, in the bogs and in other usually-dry places. We still had fun. A bad day on Dolly Sods is better than a good day anywhere else.
Five of us hiked the wilderness edges of Alder Run Bog. Some of us stayed dryer than others, who ended up in the hidden channels of deep streams.
At the halfway point of the hike, three hikers opted for the road back to dry vehicles and homes. Only Lee and I finished the hike by taking the Edge of the World Trail along the Allegheny Front.
On some afternoons Jan and I hiked along the road looking for wildflowers and other interesting plants.
While we are there in September, Jan and I always visit out favorite Dolly Sods wetlands to pick and eat fresh cranberries. We often pick a bagful to make into cranberry relish, a fruity treat during the winter.
Birds aren’t the only ones attracted to the AFMO. We have groups that visit to observe the research and see the birds up close.
On the left, Shelia, one of the AFMO station managers, is showing a bird to a group of young boys. On the right, station banders and net-tenders talk with visitors about birds and bird banding as we wait for the fog to lift so the birds will fly.
Visitors are always excited to see woodpeckers up close, especially when I show them something they never expected. Woodpeckers’ tongues are about as long as the bird’s body (not including tail feathers). After woodpeckers peck holes into insect trails in the tree and under the bark, the tongue allows them to “fish” for the insects they eat. Here I am showing the special tongue of a Northern Flicker, a kind of woodpecker.
On the left Jan is showing a warbler to some budding photographers. They knew how to use their equipment and got some great photos. On the right a boy is ready to release a Northern Flicker. This group of home-schooled students represents several nearby states and they visit the AFMO each year. They are all very accomplished birders and hopefully future bird banders.
Jackie showed our friend Andy a Black-throated Blue Warbler, taught her how to hold the bird and then Andy got to release the bird.
Here I am at the demonstration mist net showing a group of students how the birds are captured.
Although warblers are what we capture most often, we also catch other kinds of interesting birds.
On the left is a Wood Thrush and on the right is a Grey-cheeked Thrush. If you look carefully on the Grey-cheeked Thrush, you can see that bird’s legs are not uniformly round, but much thicker from front to back than from side to side.
We could tell that this bird was obviously a flycatcher, but which one? Each bander brings a library of books and notebooks to help with dilemmas like this. The closest we could determine was that it was an Alder or Willow Flycatcher, which are so similar that usually only the song can tell them apart, so it was recorded as a Traill’s type of Flycatcher.
On the left is a beautiful little Red-breasted Nuthatch. On the right, bander Zig is showing a Lincoln’s Sparrow.
Apart from the avian data collected at the station, another great value inherent in the AFMO is exposing people to the love of nature.
Our friend, Finn is holding two different Smooth Green Snakes he found nearby.
Here Finn and I are exploring a Dolly Sods road edge together. He is becoming a great young scientist and a certified Nature nut, like me.
After a morning of banding birds at the AFMO, Jan is walking back to our campsite at the campground. I am getting ready to eat lunch with Jan before I take off for some alone time in the Dolly Sods Wilderness.
Time with special friends at the campground! Every now and then, the banders, net-tenders and other AFMO people get together to share potluck food, stories, laughter and fun. Such wonderful friends!
For Jan and me, Dolly Sods represents so many different kinds of opportunities: helping to protect the earth through scientific avian research; alone time to better understand who we are as individuals and to find clues to age-old questions like “Why am I here?”; alone time together, just Jan and me, in a spectacular place; and group time with some of the best people on the planet, our friends, who also love Dolly Sods and all of nature.
A bad day on Dolly Sods is better than a good day anywhere else.
This is a re-post of our two week stay volunteering at the AFMO in 2017. The 2018 dates for banding at the AFMO are Sunday, August 19 until October 5 (weather permitting). Visitors are welcome.
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.
Dolly Sods looking south from Castle Rock with the Allegheny Front to the left. (photo (c) Bill Beatty)
photos (c) Jan Runyan
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.
Left – Gray-cheeked Thrush just banded; right – Jan releasing a reluctant Swainson’s Thrush (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
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.
Left – Gray-cheeked Thrush; right – Swainson’s Thrush (photo (c) Jan Runyan)
We also caught other thrushes: Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush and Veery.
Veery (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
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.
Dolly Sods sunrises (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
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.
Black-throated Green Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Palm Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Black-and-white Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
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.
Mourning Warbler (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
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.
Chestnut-sided Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
And this Hooded Warbler showed little or no indication of the black hood it will have when it wears its breeding plumage next spring.
Hooded Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Hooded Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Sometimes identification comes down to the color of the soles of the feet or of the lower bill.
Cape May Warbler (photo (c) Jan Runyan)
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.
photos (c) Jan Runyan
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.
photo (c) Jan Runyan
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.
Left – In the Red Spruce woods adjacent to the the west side of the Alder Run Bog dog-leg; right – eating lunch in the Red Pine plantation near the High Mountain Meadow. (left photo (c) Bill Beatty, right photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Left – Fisher Springs Run Bog in background; right – a Christmas-in-September Red Spruce surrounded by Black Chokeberry shrubs. (left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)
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).
Left to right – Narrow-leaved Gentian, Bottle Gentian and Fringed Gentian (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
Due to the dry conditions most wildflowers were in poor condition, but those associated with wetlands seemed unaffected by the lack of rain.
Left to right – Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, Black Knapweed and Orange Hawkweed (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
Left – Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia); right – a mosquito trapped on a fleshy Sundew leaf (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
Oblong-leaved Sundew (Drosera intermedia) (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
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.
Left photo (c) Jan Runyan; right photo (c) Bill Beatty
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.
Left – LeJay talking to a group from the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy; right – Carol showing a bird to a school group (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Bill showing a school group how the birds are captured at the demo mist net. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Left – One of four groups from Marshall County Schools that visited the AFMO; right – other visitors not with any organized group. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Giving people their first personal contact with birds is magical. Young (and old) lives can be changed for all time.
Jan putting a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in this young girl’s hand (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
Left – Chip about to release a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet; right – Jackie holding a bird against a young lady’s ear so she can hear the heartbeat. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Left – Jan with a Black-throated Blue Warbler; right – Lauren with a Common Yellowthroat (left photo (c) Bill Beatty, right photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Left – Apryl releasing a Swainson’s Thrush; right – Jenny and Bill with one of her very favorite birds, a Mourning Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Girl releasing a Black-throated Green Warbler (photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Birds are not the only animals visiting the AFMO.
Clockwise from top left – Red-spotted Purple Butterfly, Steve with a Smooth Green Snake, and Green Darner Dragonfly (photos (c) Jan Runyan
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.
In the beginning at “the Rock” and hiking cross-country between Alder Run and Red Creek (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
Crossing Red Creek and hiking cross-country on the NE side of Blackbird Knob (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
Left – Time for lunch and rest; right – play time at the confluence of Alder Run and Red Creek (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
Hiking upstream along Alder Run and crossing the Beatty Labyrinth rock field (photos (c) Bill Beatty)
The end…the Rock where it all began (photo (c) Jan Runyan)
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.
Amanda explaining her tick research to Bill and removing a tick from a Swainson’s Thrush (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Wetting the underside of the wing to make the vein more visible and piercing the vein (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Taking blood and then applying an anticoagulant (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Each and every morning the bird banding research continued.
photos (c) Jan Runyan
photos (c) Jan Runyan
More and more birds were caught, removed from the mist nets, and taken to the ‘gurus’ in the banding shed.
Bay-breasted Warbler (left) and Blackburnian Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Female (left) and male Black-throated Blue Warblers (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Ovenbird (left) and American Redstart (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Philadelphia Vireo (left) and Red-eyed Vireo (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Left – The reddish iris indicates this Red-eyed Vireo is an adult; right – the brown iris indicates this Red-eyed Vireo was born this year. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
From left – Savanah Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and Lincoln’s Sparrow (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
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.
Left – Venus, the Morning Star; right – Jan beginning our hike on the little known Old Growth Forest Trail (left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)
Left – the verdant Old Growth Forest Trail; right – Jan looking closely at a Red Spruce nursery (left photo (c) Jan Runyan and right photo (c) Bill Beatty)
Bill found this Hen-of-the-woods fungus and took it back to the campground where our good friends and campground neighbors turned it into a delicious meal (which they shared with us). (left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)
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.
Left – the Black-throated Blue Warbler arrived at AFMO with just a plastic band; right – the warbler left AFMO with the additional aluminum numbered band (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Always special at the AFMO are the larger and unusual birds, especially raptors. There were two hawks caught while we were there.
Station Manager Jeff with an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk. Notice the red iris and orange-brown horizontal bars on the breast. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Station Manager Shelia with a young Sharp-shinned Hawk. Notice the yellow iris and brown vertical barring on breast. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)
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!
In 1974 I received my Master Personal Bird Banding Permit. I chose to research the breeding biology of Eastern Screech-owls (EASO). For the next 28 years I was knee-deep in Screech-owls.
I began organizing Screech-owl counts associated with the Wheeling, WV, Christmas Bird Counts. Every year that we counted, we had the highest EASO number in North America.
Later I began a trapping program using bal-chatri traps. Through this I learned much about the secretive EASOs and also about myself: I developed an awareness of nature in a new and peaceful way. I became accustomed to being outside alone in what some would call horrible, unwelcoming weather. It showed me how absolutely wonderful it was to be comfortable in creation in all circumstances. Nothing compares to the quiet of cold, cold temperatures, treacherous roads and early morning hours. It’s a quiet that few ever experience. While everyone else was in bed, I was alone, outside, learning to be in touch with the very essence of life. I would gaze into the starlit sky and think about how I fit into the universe. Then a Screech-owl would arrive and I would think about trapping Screech-owls.
Thinking back on my EASO research, I believe the alone times trapping owls in the winter along remote gravel-dirt roads were my favorite times. I remember one night in particular. The night was cold, about 20 degrees, with 4 inches of snow on the ground. The snow was fresh and still covered the branches of the trees and bushes. Before going about my business of trapping an owl, my mind studied the patterns and images in the dark, snow-covered branches. If I looked for mountains, I saw them. Thinking of animals, I found distorted shapes of animals — perhaps a long snake with contrasting black and white stripes running the length of its body — maybe a small squirrel-shaped stub of broken branch with a massive tail composed of a thick tangle of snow-covered wild grape vines. There were partial faces, some friendly, but most contorted and fearful, as if ravenously protecting the forest from all unwelcome intruders. I valued these alone times immensely. If I had been with someone we would have talked about a multitude of things, not allowing my mind to pause and glory in the wonder of the universe. So often while alone in wild places I never noticed the cold, wind, rain and other elements that keep most people in the superficial comfort and apparent safety of their homes, but I was always sharply aware of the marvels of Nature that surrounded me.
Shortly after I began trapping EASOs I discovered something quite amazing about these little owls. The first few times I wanted to set a trap I would first make Screech-owl calls until I heard a response from a distant EASO. Then I would put the trap in a visible spot off the edge of the road and continue to call as I hid behind the car. Soon the owl came closer and onto the trap.
But soon I discovered that all my careful hiding and trying making the owl think no one was there was totally unnecessary. I found I could just stand in the open when I called the owl in. We could easily see each other. Most of the time the owl perched on a tree branch and watched me as I set the trap just below. Before I could even get back to the car I would hear a “THUMP” as the owl hit the trap.
Sometimes an EASO even hit the trap while it was still in my hands. The first time that happened, the shock seemed to stop my heart. The owls were much more interested in getting the food from the trap than they were worried about my presence.
In 1988 my approach to EASO studies changed significantly. The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Divisions Non-game Program awarded me a grant which allowed me to study EASOs in nesting boxes. With the money I bought climbing equipment to make it possible for me to “easily” get up to the nesting boxes. The state constructed 30 EASO nesting/roosting boxes per my specifications. West Liberty State College granted me permission to mount boxes in their 154 acre arboretum and in a wooded area on campus. I also placed boxes in the 14 acres behind my house. Two years later I left my job at the Brooks Nature Center in Oglebay Park. I had enjoyed working there but I wanted to be in the field more and still make a living at what I loved. Working at the Brooks Center, I had been limited to mostly night-time owl work. Now I was able to spend daytime with the owls. Although the surveys continued, most of the trapping ended.
Using the nest boxes, I was able to monitor the owls’ nests and behavior during breeding season and their roosting activities the rest of the year. Without injuring or disturbing the owls, I was able to watch and photograph many details of EASO life.
For many years I held a Federal Bird Rehabilitation Permit specifically for EASOs. It allowed me legally to keep and work with injured EASOs until the time they could be released back into the wild. Most adult injuries were car-related as the owls seem to be attracted to small mammals crossing roadways. The adult owls were ferocious and capable of significant scratches from their thin, but sturdy, sharp talons. To me, the worst injury was a talon under a fingernail or cuticle. This was painful and healed slowly. The baby owls also had attitude, but they didn’t have the strength or determination to back it up.
My children sometimes argued over who got to care for a young or injured owl. My son, Josh, was too young to care for an owl by himself, so he sometimes helped me. Julie and Kelly were old enough to be assigned the duties of feeding, exercising, and cleaning the cage of a particular owl, most often a young one.
One day I received a call from a lady in Washington, PA. She had been walking in the early morning and saw something unusual which she described as, “A pure white pile of feathers that moved.”
Upon closer examination she saw it was a baby bird unlike any she had ever seen. “It’s bigger, has tiny white feathers covering the body, and long claws on the toes,” she said. I suggested it might be a baby owl.
Once she knew I had permits to keep owls until they could be released, she was happy to bring the bird to me. It was a baby EASO. Unlike most other birds, newly-hatched EASOs have feathers covering their tiny bodies. Attempts to stand the little owl upright caused it to wobble back and forth, then lean to one side, and finally fall over. I guessed it was two days old. My family just adored this tiny baby. All other owls we had kept had been much older by at least by a week. (For baby birds, a week is a very long time. They change and grow up very quickly.) Everyone wanted to be part of this tiny one’s care, but I decided I would be its primary caregiver for the first week. Even so, when I fed or did anything with the baby, the entire family was present. Although the baby owl didn’t realize it, it had five doting parents.
I had always been adamant that we not name the owls we cared for because they would eventually be released. This little guy was different. Secretly, he came to be called, “Archie.” When I first heard the whispered references to “Archie,” I scowled (a little) but said nothing. Soon it was all out in the open and ARCHIE was a major topic of conversation. Unlike the other owls we had cared for, Archie had strongly imprinted on our family, and three young members of our family were strongly imprinted on Archie. After school, I could usually find my children lying on the floor surrounding the tiny feather ball, just watching and laughing, gently touching his soft feathers.
Archie liked having the top of his head lightly scratched, leaning in to get more. But he didn’t like our hands anywhere near his toes and feet. He would become wide-eyed, dance a bit, clack his beak, and backup, with a look that seemed to say, “I don’t like that. You should know better!” Foot sensitivity seems to be typical for owls — other owls we cared for had sometimes reacted hostilely when their feet were bothered, too.
Within 10 days of Archie’s arrival, he could easily have been mistaken for any other EASO his age if not for his uncharacteristic behavior. The door of his cage in the house was kept open and usually he would just sit on top of the cage. It was decided that Julie, my oldest child, would be Archie’s main caretaker, with Kelly’s help when necessary. Josh became the official Archie observer. Soon it was commonplace to see Archie on Julie’s shoulder being chauffeured around the house and yard. Archie spent more time in Julie’s bedroom than at his cage, and so did Kelly. I often saw all three kids playing outside with Archie perched nearby on a picnic table, on a low branch of a cherry tree, or even on a bicycle handlebar. Archie followed their every move as they played and ran around the yard. One day when we were all outside with Archie on the ground among us, a cat ran in and went right for Archie. All five of us lunged for the cat. It finally managed to escape with only a bruise or two and some well-deserved reprimands.
We decided that Archie needed a safer place to stay while outside. I attached a roomy wood duck box to a porch support that faced out into the yard. The box was low enough to allow us to reach it, but high enough to keep daytime marauding cats and dogs at bay. The box had a flat roof so Archie could either sit in the entry hole or stand on the roof top. Most of the time, he sat in the opening contentedly watching the other birds, visitors, and family activities.
Archie was fed commercially formulated food known as “predatory bird diet” for about 3 weeks. Then I announced it was time to introduce him to live mice for food to help him be ready to feed himself when he learned to fly. In a period of 24 hours, we discovered two shocking things about Archie. When I placed him on the floor and put a live mouse in front of him, instead of intently watching the mouse, clawing at it, or pouncing on it like other owls did, Archie became wide-eyed, turned, and ran to the nearest corner of the room. There he remained, cowering. Archie was afraid of mice! After supper that same day, we took Archie into the backyard for a flying lesson, as was our standard procedure. The usual method was to toss an owl gently into the air. Our rehab owls would spread their wings and gracelessly glide a short distance to land awkwardly in the soft grass. After repeating this process several times a day for three or four days, the owls made great progress in learning to fly. When Archie, on the other hand, was gently tossed into the air, he opened his wings, and, in a panic, flew straight into the ground. After several more attempts resulted in nose-dives straight into the ground I thought, “Archie is afraid of heights. Now what?” Now we knew we had an owl who was afraid of mice and afraid of heights.
His vulnerability made this young owl all the more endearing. Another discovery that really surprised me was the range of foods he would eat. One evening during supper, Archie was perched on a nearby cage while we were busily eating and talking about the events of the day. One of the kids accidentally dropped a piece of a beet on the floor. Archie jumped from the cage, ran over, picked up the beet, and swallowed it.
“Archie likes beets!” Kelly said excitedly.
All of a sudden another small piece of beet was on the floor and Archie ate it, too. “That’s enough,” I reprimanded. “He may eat beets, but that doesn’t mean they are good for him.”
“Well, if beets aren’t good for us, why do we have to eat them?” Josh asked, thinking he had found a chink in the family rule that everyone ate anything we grew in the garden.
“Archie is not an us,” I answered, but someone quickly rebuked me: “Archie IS one of us!”
The beet incident sparked a discussion which brought up a point that everyone needed to remember: Archie, like every other owl we had helped, would one day be released back into the wild. That sobering truth calmed everyone and we resumed eating. Later we discovered that Archie would also eat green beans and watermelon.
Unfortunately Archie was not making good progress toward becoming releasable. We were quickly approaching the 90 day point at which time, according to my rehabilitation permit, “Any owl not rehabilitated within 90 days is to be destroyed.”
Did Archie fit into this category? Well, Archie had never been injured, so he wasn’t being rehabilitated from some kind of injury that prevented him from surviving in the wild. So did that sentence apply to him? I had never believed in keeping owls as pets, so I knew he would eventually need to be released when he had learned the skills to survive. I didn’t want my children to view Archie as a pet and be emotionally crushed when the time came to release him. I thought of this dilemma daily as we continued his survival skill training.
After a time, Archie would eat a dead mouse if it was offered in pieces. Of course, it was my job to slice up the mouse. Eventually, he learned to tear a dead mouse apart by himself, but he still ran away at the sight of a live mouse. One morning I made a unilateral decision concerning Archie’s hunting skills. Each morning before work I placed Archie outside in the wood duck box. Most days when I returned, he was just as I left him, comfortably sitting peering from the box. I decided that this day would be different. It was time for Archie to learn to deal with living prey. One of my live traps had captured a short-tailed shrew, so I put the shrew in the bottom of the outdoor box, pushed Archie inside, and nailed a square piece of paneling over the entrance. I told my wife what I had done and then left for work. When I returned home that evening and saw the box with the covered entry hole, I remembered that this was Archie’s living prey day. I put my ear near the box and even tapped the box several times. There was no sound at all. I was a bit concerned as I pried out the nails to remove the board. The instant I removed the cover, a feathered ball of orange shot from the box as if fired from a cannon — it was Archie. I picked him up and lifted him so he could sit in the entry hole, but he kept jumping to the ground. I was certain he had eaten the shrew, but when I opened the front of the box, the shrew was running around inside, alive and well.
In a shocking moment of enlightenment I thought, “What have I done? I put this poor owl through eight hours of its worst nightmare.” Imagining myself locked in a darkened room for eight hours with a black mamba snake, I regretted what I had done. More than a week passed before Archie would go into that box again.
Archie never cooperated in our attempted flight training exercises, but eventually he did begin gliding from his box to the ground every day about dusk. He didn’t seem to mind when Bev scooped him up and brought him inside for the night. Then he began to leave his box during the day and someone would find him on a nearby tree branch. Bev called me at work one day and asked, “Archie’s on the neighbor’s porch roof. What should I do?”
I replied, “Get a ladder and get him down or keep an eye on him and I will get him when I come home.”
Soon I regularly heard, “Dad, Archie’s up in the tree,” or “Dad, Archie’s on the roof.” Each time, I would retrieve him and place him back in the box. Even though Archie frequently left the comfort of his box for a nearby lofty perch, we never did see him fly.
One day when we were all home, Julie said, “Archie’s out of the box again but I can’t see where he went.” We all went out to search for him. Finally, he was spotted high up in an 80-foot Norway spruce tree.
Kelly asked, “How are we going to get him down from there?”
“We aren’t,” I answered. “He’s on his own. We are going to have to say our goodbyes from here.”
Josh reacted by crying and yelling in despair over losing his companion. We all were sad but had to accept the situation. We were also glad, knowing that he was fulfilling the purpose for which he was created. He had been with us for two years. That was the last we would see of Archie.
Except, maybe, for me. One day while checking owl boxes in the 14-acre woods, I was climbing a tree when a red phase EASO popped its head out and looked at me.
“That’s odd,” I thought, “That’s never happened before.”
Never before had an owl inside the box peered out at me. As I climbed closer, the owl looked out at me again, then nervously looked around and flew out. This happened one other time at a different box in the same woods. Although I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure this owl was Archie, I thought, “Of course, it’s Archie. He’s always been different. He’s his own owl.” I was able to reassure the family that Archie was alive and well, hunting and surviving on his own.
I studied these interesting and secretive birds for 28 years. I learned many things about them and ended up with more questions to wonder about . Now I monitor two nest boxes, occasionally do EASO surveys, and very rarely trap an EASO. Eastern Screech-owls are my favorite bird.
In 2010 Jan and I did a Christmas Bird Count survey from midnight to dawn and found 27 EASOs in part of the count area. In 2014 we were able to band our first EASO from one of the two nest boxes on our property and Jan was able to experience first-hand the amazingly soft feathers and the feeling of sharpened pins from the talons of an Eastern Screech-owl.
When I teach, I tell stories about birds I’ve met and many of you have asked me to share my stories in writing. I also am asked how I could manage to learn so much about birds. Well, let me tell you a story…..
In Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads I share my favorite memories and stories about birds and how they changed my life. You’ll meet the rainbow birds that started it all and some amazing people who helped me when I was a fledgling. Midnight owl surveys…an avalanche of birds…Ralph-ael…bare-handing birds…pileated prowess…and so much more.
Finally I have answered your requests and am excited to share many of my birding life stories with you.
6X9 inches 312 pages
Autographed copies are available for $18.95 — includes shipping. Not available outside the continental United States. Mail check or money order to: Bill Beatty, 540 Genteel Ridge Road, Wellsburg, WV 26070 Please make sure you include your shipping address.
Some may think, “If I see an Eastern Bluebird, I certainly see blue.” Well, yes you do… and no you don’t. It’s complicated!
Eastern Bluebirds nest on our property. We trap, band and release them. (c) Bill Beatty
My daughter, Julie, was active in Science Fair when she was in school. In ninth grade her project was “Pigment and Structural Colors in Bird Feathers”. Most birds’ feathers get their color from chemicals in the foods the birds eat. Those foods provide different birds with different kinds of pigments in their feathers. The pigments show color by absorbing some of the colors of the light spectrum and reflecting the other colors…we see the reflected colors. Northern cardinals reflect red, therefore we see red; American goldfinches reflect yellow, Baltimore orioles reflect orange and so on. The color blue is different, however. Bluebirds do not reflect blue, yet we see blue. There are truly no blue colored birds…anywhere. The blue we see is not a reflective color from a blue pigment, rather a refractive color. It’s physics and light playing tricks with our eyes. For blue birds, instead of the light reflecting off the feathers and showing the color of the pigment, the light enters into the feather and bends (refracts). This refracted (not reflected) light is what we see.
Can you identify these ‘not really blue birds’ by their feathers? All are native to the United States. Answers are at the bottom of this page. Click on the feathers to enlarge and then click again. (c) Bill Beatty
To study this, Julie gathered feathers from different kinds of dead birds we found along roadways. Certain federal laws forbid collecting birds or any parts of birds, including feathers, but my Bird Banding Permit allowed me to salvage dead birds. I already had several in our freezer. With mortar and pestle Julie ground the red feathers of a cardinal with the resulting powder being a red color. After grinding the feathers of a goldfinch, the powder was yellow. The color resulting from oriole feathers was orange. She destroyed the structure of the feathers but the pigments were still there and their respective colors did not change. This showed that these birds’ colors resulted from the pigments in their feathers. When she ground the eastern bluebird feathers into a powder, however, the powder was black. This demonstrated that the bluebird’s color comes from the feather’s structure, not its pigment: destroy the structure and the blue color disappears.
Every time I see a blue bird I’m thankful that nature has made a way for me to see the blue color that is not really there. Nature is AMAZING!
Many kinds of birds have a special word to designate their flock, often a word that is appropriate in a subtle (or not so subtle) way. But for the species of bird Bill and I almost always see in flocks, there appears to be no group name. That’s a shame because on our property Pine Siskins are the ultimate flocking birds. There is never just one. If we think we only see one it’s just because we haven’t checked the bushes or trees nearby.
Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)
Siskins have been especially prevalent this late fall and early winter. We hear their rising “eeeeeeep” and chatters in the tops of the spruces along the driveway. We see the flock occupying every small perch in the top of the Black Locust. We futilely try to count the number of tiny black dots as they zip across the open sky. The count sometimes reaches two or three dozen before they are out of sight.
Pine Siskin’s yellow wing patch (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)
Pine Siskin’s yellow tail flash (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)
But we see the flocking compulsion most when we have the bird banding nets open. Just as they do everything else, Pine Siskins feed together. At times they almost cover our sunflower feeders. And they don’t seem to be net wary at all. So as the flock flies in to feed, many bounce off the nets and a few get caught. After a few moments in a tree or bush, the rest of the flock returns.
Pine Siskin in net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)
Some of the birds eat, but others just perch near their netted brothers and sisters. “I’m here for you,” the free birds seem to say. Some balance on the top string of the net. Others alight on the strings which run the length of the net forming the pockets. A few even grab hold of the netting near a captured friend and just hang there. Sometimes the net sitters will fly over to feed and then return again to sit watch near their buddies.
As the free Pine Siskins remain near the flock members who can’t fly away, it is inevitable that little by little more of the birds hit the net and fall into the pockets. So we also rarely band just one siskin. Sometimes the nets have more than a dozen at one time.
Pine Siskins in mist net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)
If you are a Pine Siskin, it’s a group thing. Fly together, perch together, eat together, watch over each other, get banded together! Like the three Musketeers, it’s one for all and all for one!
So for loyalty above and beyond just the usual hanging out near each other, I think Pine Siskins deserve to have a special name for their flocks. I have searched the thesaurus extensively to find the word that truly conveys the level of closeness and concern evidenced by these birds. A word that goes beyond “acquaintance”, “familiarity” or “relationship”. I would like to make two suggestions for consideration by those who are fascinated with birds and who would like to see Pine Siskins get their own appropriate group name:
a Friendship of Pine Siskins an Alliance of Pine Siskins
This morning as we were banding, Bill showed me just the head of a bird he was about to band and asked, “What is it?”
(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
This is one of the tests a “sub” bander gets from time to time. I could tell it was in the Thrush family, but I had to admit in the dim light of the garage I couldn’t tell which one. Then he revealed the tail. The bold sapphire color made it clear he was holding an Eastern Bluebird.
(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
“Male or female?” was his next query. I smiled because that’s not hard to determine.
Then he showed me the back. Yes, the tail and rump were in-your-face azure like a male, but the back and wings….so much brown, so dull like a female.
(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
He definitely had me scratching my head over this ID. I felt pretty uneducated until Bill finally said, “I don’t know which it is, either!”
We dove into the bird banders’ guides. The differences they wrote about sounded pretty clear for older birds—maybe this could be a young one? The key seemed to be working pretty well until we came to these two entries for young birds:
“5A Wings, tail, head and back bright blue or, in winter, tinged with brown…..Male*.”
“5B Wings, tail, head and back bright blue, or, in winter, tinged brown…..Female*.”
Yes, the difference is just the word “with” and a comma.
The asterisks took us to a note below: “Some birds may be difficult to sex and should be sexed U if plumage characters are doubtful.”
Side-by-side seems pretty obvious, but a female by herself can sometimes be confusing. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)
I had to smile. We know so much information about birds. Sometimes the color of one tiny feather or subtle wear of feathers can speak volumes about a bird’s age. Sometimes the difference between deep black and brownish-black or between white and buffy-white tells the gender.
But yet there is still so much we don’t know. I am truly glad to live in a world where we don’t have all the answers and where there are still things to be searched for, studied and just plain wondered about. There is also happiness in not knowing…just enjoying the mystery.
Post Script: We finally labeled the bird as unknown sex, unknown age, which later caused the software which receives our bird banding data to say the electronic equivalent of, “What?! I don’t think so! Do you want to rethink this entry?”
“That bird doesn’t really look goldfinchy,” said a perplexed Bill. “But I can’t tell what it is.” Bill had been keeping watch on the mist net near the back feeders as we swam and splashed in the pool with family members. Normally we just band birds in winter, so this was a trial to see what, if anything, we could discover by summer banding. It had been a good way to learn the looks of young birds and to get some practice at skulling—looking at the development of the skull bone as a way to identify hatch-year birds. Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Titmice, occasional Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, lots of House Finches (banded and transported as part of our homing research), and Goldfinches had graced our nets and each one but the “hummers” left with a tiny numbered band on one leg.
All birders know the feeling of being able to identify some bird, not by seeing all the specific field marks, but by more of a gestalt–it just looks like that kind of bird. And more often than not, if we chase the bird to get a good look, we find we are right. Male American Goldfinches in their brilliant gold and black breeding plumage are some of the most beautiful and easily identifiable birds.
American Goldfinch in mist net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)
But this bird in the net, while it was a dazzling yellow and about the right size, just did not look “goldfinchy” to Bill. He left the pool-yard, dripping, to retrieve our puzzle.
“So what is it?” I asked when he had the bird in hand. “I don’t know!” This was not the answer I expected. Bill doesn’t know what it is??? I made a towel-wrapped dash through the house to get Peterson’s Warblers and Sibley’s. We had to ID the bird correctly before Bill could band it.
We turned page after warbler page in Sibley’s looking for a warbler-sized bird with plain yellow on the belly from beak to the tip of the tail and a darker “greenish” color on top from the bill to the tip of the tail.
Yellow underside, greenish top (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
The flight feathers of the wings and the tail feathers had multiple colors: pale black, yellow and “greenish”.
Wing and tail colors (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
It was strikingly colorful and plain at the same time. Looking back and forth between several possibilities, we finally made a preliminary identification as a female Yellow Warbler although we could not see even faint rusty streaks on the breast.
Plain yellow breast (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Then I remembered—under-tail coverts! Looking at the color of feathers that cover the base of the tail on the underside of a bird and looking at the color, pattern and shape of tail feathers is one way to differentiate warbler species. And the Peterson Warblers guide has two pages showing all of the possibilities.
Undertail coverts and tail (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Scanning the 52 tail and covert feather options, it was clear that our preliminary identification was, indeed, correct. There wasn’t anything else with undertail coverts that looked like the bird in Bill’s hand.
Yellow Warbler female (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
So we formally said “Hello” to our female Yellow Warbler—the first Yellow Warbler ever banded on our property, in fact, the first Yellow Warbler Bill or I had ever held or banded.
She got her tiny band, posed for some photos and soon was on her way. And as she departed, she left us a little something which, thankfully, landed just outside the edge of the pool.
“If I tell you to…run as fast as you can out to the net and hold the net around the bird until I get there!!” Well, first I’d better give you some background: On May 5 we decided to end our “winter” mist net bird banding season. The next morning we left for the WV Wildflower Pilgrimage at Blackwater Falls State Park, followed immediately by a birding trip to Magee Marsh along Lake Erie near Oak Harbor, OH and then on to the Ralph Bell Birding Extravaganza near Waynesburg, PA. Between Pilgrimage and Magee Marsh, I banded five baby Eastern Bluebirds from one of the nest boxes on our property. After these trips Jan and I had two and a half weeks off before our next major trip. While we gardened and did other outdoor jobs, we watched about a dozen House Finches visit the last sunflower seeds remaining in some of our feeders. For the past five years we have been studying the House Finches’ homing skills by banding and relocating birds to different locations and distances from our home. I decided to put up a mist net to catch as many of the House Finches as I could. Ten were trapped, banded and added to the study. The next day I left the net up thinking, “I’ll be working nearby and can check the net regularly. By day’s end the seeds will be eaten and, who knows, perhaps we’ll catch something interesting.” With most of the House Finches gone, it was a slow banding day. But just after lunch I looked out back towards the net and said to Jan, “If I tell you to…run as fast as you can out to the net and hold the net around the bird until I get there!!” Out the back door I ran screaming like a banshee toward the bird on the other side of the fence. The Pileated Woodpecker feeding on a nearby stump flew right into the net and was caught.
Pileated Woodpecker on the stump between the house and a mist net. (c) Jan Runyan
SIDEBAR:The reason Jan had to run to the net was because she was dressed and ready to go;I, on the other hand, was in my underwear and bare feet. Taking a bird like this out of a mist net can take awhile and cause quite a commotion. Even though our neighbors aren’t all that close, in the past a screaming woodpecker has brought a neighbor to the net to see what we were doing. Net-tending in my skivvies probably wouldn’t make for good neighbor relations.
Jan was fast and was able to gather the net around the large bird until I could arrive (dressed) and help extricate him.
(c) Jan Runyan
Bill with Pileated Woodpecker
That Velociraptor look (c) Bill Beatty
Jan’s feathered dinosaur (c) Bill Beatty
This was only the second Pileated Woodpecker I have ever banded and it was Jan’s first. It took both of us to control the bird for the banding process and photos afterwards. As we marveled at the bird Jan said, “Doesn’t it just remind you of a tiny dinosaur?” The Pileated has a remarkably long neck compared to all our other woodpeckers. The regal head and crest, constantly moving lengthy neck, long-clawed legs and piercing stare reminded me of a miniature, colorful Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame. Unlike the first one I had caught and banded which produced a constant series of sharp calls and screams, this bird was very quiet. The ear protectors I had brought as I hurried to the net were soon removed. Jan and I were in awe of this creature; studying every detail and taking many photos. The only photo I didn’t take was a shot of its extended tongue. Because of the Pileated’s persistently moving, long, powerful neck and head I thought it might injure the bird if I attempted to pull the tongue out to full length.
The Pileated’s long, stiff tail feathers (c) Bill Beatty
The Pileated’s long, sharp claws (c) Bill Beatty
Photos accomplished, it was time to release the “tiny dinosaur”. Jan coached me on how to use the video feature of her camera to record the occasion, then she opened her hands. Our new friend flew high on the trunk of the nearest Black Locust tree. The last we saw him, he was hopping his way around to the back side of the trunk.
Later that day, from the mature woodlands behind our house, we could hear the familiar “jungle” bird call of the male Pileated we banded. Click for the call…
People often ask us how many years songbirds can live. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure…is the Northern Cardinal you see at your feeder this year the exact same bird as the one you saw last year? Unless there is something distinctive about the look or actions of the bird, it’s hard to tell. The bird banding we do on our property is beginning to give us some data about this question, however. Shortly after noon today Bill arrived in the sunporch with a bird in hand and he (Bill) was grinning from ear to ear. “You know what’s special about this Black-capped Chickadee?” he asked me. Although I thought most of the Black-caps had already traveled to their more northern breeding grounds, I could not spot anything out of the ordinary about this little guy. So I admitted I had no clue.
Bill grins at an old friend (c) Jan Runyan
Bill announced, “We banded him on the very first day we ever banded here—December 10, 2010!” So that little bird is at least 5 years old…more if he was born before 2010! Although our place will not be his (or her?) summer home, it felt great to know that he had survived so long and that our feeders were part of his migration path…again. UPDATE: Shortly after 3 on the same day, Bill again arrived in the sunporch with the same grin and a different bird. He was holding a Tufted Titmouse, all pecks and bites and tough-guy yelling (the bird, not Bill). We had also banded him on the first day we ever banded here, Dec. 10, 2010. This male is the first bird listed on the page of size 1B bands, so he might even have been the very first bird ever banded here! He is at least 5 years old, if not more. Titmice don’t migrate so he is one that we have been hearing year-round. And judging by the number of other Titmice we hear nearby, he is doing quite well at finding mates and providing new generations.
Jan with a Tufted Titmouse who shares their yard (c) Bill Beatty
Every year at this time we are quite busy banding the spring migrants that come through. Jan and I often refer to our property as “Goldfinch Ridge”. For about two weeks the goldfinches are by far the most common birds in our mist nets.
Jan removing an American Goldfinch from a mist net. (c) Bill Beatty
However we are delighted at the surprise birds we also catch like yesterday’s (April 25) Ruby-crowned Kinglets , the first we have caught since moving here in 2010.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (c) Bill Beatty
Since bird banding is weather dependent, when we have high winds and/or rainy days we can’t put out the nets and the birds at our feeders don’t get banded. So far this spring the weather has cooperated. Last Thursday, April 23, we trapped and banded 121 new birds. Ninety-three were American Goldfinches. As of today we have banded 344 goldfinches. Our spring banding operations will end soon as we will be traveling to idyllic scenic areas in WV to lead bird walks and wilderness hikes, teach about wildflowers and speak at nature-related events. As I write this Jan is playing in the gardens planting future meals in the raised beds and sunflowers (future meals for birds) in various places on the property…and keeping a watchful eye on the two mist nets set up to catch the birds migrating through toward their northern breeding grounds.
American Goldfinch males are starting to look at bit like clowns!
Splotches of black feathers on the head…a bright yellow feather here and there among the tan. Did they lose at paintball?
Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan
Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan
Am Goldfinch female (c) Jan Runyan
After last summer’s breeding, all Goldfinches gradually lost and replaced all their feathers. The new male feathers were not the bright “gold” of breeding season, but a more “understated” look similar to females– “basic plumage” in human words.
American Goldfinch showing new pin feathers (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Now, in response to complex hormonal changes triggered by seasonal changes, one-by-one the body feathers (not tail or flight feathers) are being replaced. So going through these gradual changes, the males have some pretty strange looks before all of their breeding “gold” returns. (See photo with tiny “pin feathers” just beginning to grow.)
In the past 3 days we have banded 40+ Goldfinches…none in their full breeding plumage. It won’t be too long, though, until our Goldfinches are back in all their gilded glory. This is just the beginning!
Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty
3 Am Goldfinches in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty
If you want to see month by month pictures of the male Goldfinch’s year, check out:
American Goldfinches on thistle feeder (c) Bill Beatty
So far this year Jan and I have banded 198 birds. Soon the American Goldfinches will begin moving through our area en masse. Some will eventually nest nearby while most will nest farther north all the way into Canada. Although I can’t be sure, I expect to band 500+ (in 2013 we banded 543 and in 2014 the number was 557). We have already noticed the males getting their new, bright yellow/black-capped spring plumage. Soon their migration will begin and, weather permitting, we will be able to trap the goldfinches visiting our feeders. Other seed eaters will also be caught and a few strict insect eaters will hit our mist nets and be banded, too. But it will be the goldfinches that will highlight our spring banding season.