“This route is a lot muddier and there’s lots of thorns. That one is a bit higher ground, so the path is more manageable. You sure you want to come on this one?” asks Cory Elowe, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Ten-year-old Ethan is pensive. He looks at his brother, eight-year-old Evan, with an arched eyebrow.
“Which way is harder?” He needs more information to make his decision. “We want to go that way.”
“For these guys, there’s no such thing as the easy way out,” their dad, Steve, says.
The boys are shadowing biologists in the half-hourly ritual of checking five of the ten mist nets set up at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, MA. They and nearly 15 other volunteers have joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to band birds as part of a continent-wide research project that will help scientists understand where and why birds and declining and how to address the growing threats they face in a changing climate. The day is equal parts a teaching station for community members and students as it is a crucial source data collection for directing avian conservation efforts.
Flocking to Fort River
Ethan and Evan—and the crew awaiting their return—are hoping their romp through the thorns and muck will turn up a songbird or two that’s been safely ensnared in one of the nets.
When they see one, they know the drill. They beckon over one of the biologists responsible for monitoring the nets to assist in freeing the bird and securely slipping it into a cloth bag. From there, the team takes the bagged birds—a good net check will usually bring back one or two—to the central banding station, which is little more than a folding table, but one replete with every supply needed to identify, catalog, and band the small avian specimens. Bands of various sizes, crimps and plyers, reference books, rulers, and a small scale and weigh cups ranging from small to large cover the table.
This small table—and the ten mist nets placed nearby—comprise the foundation of one of nearly 1,200 MAPS stations scattered across the continent. MAPS, or the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship Survey, is an effort to collect demographic data and other “vital rates” on songbirds throughout North America; government agencies, non-profits, and individuals are all invited to apply to contribute to this broad community science effort. Since 2016, a team from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast regional office has set up a station during summer nesting months to collect data on birds and invite staff from the regional office down the road, area college and graduate students, and community members to learn about bird biology and banding. Nearly every summer Friday from June to August, Randy Dettmers and Caleb Spiegel, biologists in the Service’s Northeast Migratory Birds program run the station, leading a slew of community banders in tagging songbirds.
The inclusion of community members, like Ethan and Evan — who spent much of the time at the station running down the trail and back to investigate and report on how many birds subsequent mist-net-checks produced, or inquisitively paging through a copy of Sibley’s bird guide with their 13-year-old sister Emma to narrow down a bird ID—are part of what makes this station so unique.
For Ethan, Evan, and Emma, the refuge is classroom, playground, and backyard. The siblings are homeschooled and visit Fort River often, getting to know the plants, bugs and landscape. Sometimes, Fort River’s Visitor Service Manager, Jen Lapis, will dry-run field activities for educational groups when she sees the siblings on the refuge. They know these trails inside and out, their parents say.
Though not everyone on the refuge has developed the intimacy with the landscape that Emma and her brothers hold, the banding station is a unique opportunity for local community members to get a close-up picture of this slice of their local ecosystem, a mere 10-minute drive from where most of them shop for groceries, go to school, and live.
“It’s helpful to have a community of interested people who you can help train over time if they want to be involved, but also we recognize that the opportunity to have birds in the hand and being able to share that with people is just a great outreach opportunity,” Dettmers said.
Education for Every Level of Expertise
Once the birds are in hand, the banding begins. Dettmers, Spiegel, or a graduate student will handle the bird and relay demographic information according to the MAPS protocol: things like species, sex, wingspan and mass measurements, and estimated age. Spiegel and Dettmers often narrate the process to provide insight into their work for volunteers at the station. For example, sharing that, like human babies, birds’ skulls are not fully formed when they are born, so a researcher might look at skull formation to estimate age; or that banders gently blow feathers back from the bird’s body to glimpse its clear skin underneath and identify its gender by looking for reproductive traits.
They have established the project as a rich educational opportunity for every stage of expertise: the curious minded, like Ethan and Evan, can connect more meaningfully to the environment they live in when they hold a freshly-tagged bird for release; budding birders like Emma, have an opportunity to see a bird up close and watch part of the scientific process in action; summer interns and recent college grads tally demographic data while graduate students practice identifying and handling birds; more senior PhD students take on the role of teacher, sharing insights and tips with the younger birders; and staff from the nearby regional office, who work around the clock to conserve and manage wildlife with few opportunities to get into the field, can see their efforts in action.
“At the highest level, [we try to convey] an appreciation for birds; when you have a bird in the hand and can see it up close is really great. Because we’re catching birds during the breeding season, it’s a great opportunity to talk about some of the basics of bird biology and migration,” Dettmers said. “We try and talk about those big picture items too, like bird declines and how the information that we’re collecting in terms of survival and productivity really help us understand what’s behind some of those declines and can help us inform our conservation efforts.”
He added that collaboration with schools like UMass provides a training grounds for students early in their biological training, who want experience handling nets, banding, aging, and measuring birds.
Isabella Collamati, a fellow who worked in Migratory Birds this summer explained that in addition to providing hands-on training, working at the MAPS banding station showed her the importance of reconnecting to nature. “It can be really easy, especially for those like myself who are new in the conservation field, to get discouraged by a lot of the really big challenges the world is facing, so to just take a moment to get outside, and really focus and listen to the birds is a grounding experience,” she said. “Also, to just be able to look at the faces of seasoned bird experts and young children as they look at a bird in-hand, and see the same, mirrored joy, is just really inspiring and motivating.”
Broad Lessons on the Loss of 3 Billion Birds
But even seasoned professionals stand to gain from MAPS and its data.
For Dettmers, Spiegel, and Lapis, these summer banding days help give a sense of which species are using the refuge and how. For instance, late in the summer, they often find many fledged juveniles, which indicates that many birds are using the site as a good nesting ground to raise their young.
Common species on the Fort River site include catbirds, robins, and song sparrows, but over the seven years the station has been in operation, the project has logged 47 unique species at Fort River. Dettmers said that this is the first year he’ll have enough data to run more in-depth analysis for the site, once the summer’s banding sessions are done.
On July 22, the nets captured a worm-eating warbler, much to the biologists’ great delight. It’s a relatively rare bird in Massachusetts that nests higher up in the Holyoke Range; this was only the third time one has been caught at the station in the seven years it’s been running. Finding one at Fort River indicated the striking yellow-headed bird saw the refuge as a safe place to stopover as it begins its southern migration.
But as biologists address the loss of over 3 billion birds in population size across North America—and race to grasp howwill affect bird populations—this demographic data has even broader lessons to offer. Data from broad, long-term, continent-wide collections like MAPS are crucial in helping scientists understand where and why declines are happening and how to stop them.
Over thirty years, the Institute for Bird Populations, which runs the MAPS program, has been able to draw meaningful conclusions from the data these stations have produced; their website cites over 100 peer-reviewed papers that have been published using MAPS data. Some of those findings include a conclusion that survival of adult and first year birds can be just as important as productivity in driving population declines, which can point conservation efforts to wintering and migration habitats, not just nesting grounds, as scientists look to ebb the decline of 3 billion birds.
“You get some pretty interesting results about what the parameters are driving demographic increases or decreases in bird populations,” Dettmers said, when describing the importance viewing the data in a collective.
“It’s pretty amazing to have all this data,” Spiegel said, “because all that information is in a single location and you can look at wider trends [all across the continent].”