A bird banding field trip – how it works.

This post has been a long time coming! It covers several aspects of bird banding as a research tool, and outlines some project work that I have been involved in over the years.

For the TL;DR people amongst you, this post covers:

  • How I got involved in bird banding.
  • Some bird banding basics including equipment used.
  • My involvement in a long term project on the NSW south coast.
  • An examination of how a field trip for that project happened.

There is plenty of ‘how to’ and ‘why’ discussion, and there are many awesome photos of birds in the hand (all photos copyright Anthony Overs or Michael Guppy).

This post is substantial, however, rather than break it up into separate posts, I have simply broken it down into 24 Parts. You can simply come back and continue reading at any point!

So, are you ready to jump in? Let’s go!

Part 1 – Bird banding projects

Bird banding is the application of a band or ring to a wild bird that allows for its individual identification. Banding is used as a research tool to determine basic life history of birds, and the tracking of their movements. The recapture of banded birds by researchers can provide information on longevity, mortality, and ageing and sexing characteristics. Importantly, information can also be discovered about local and regional movements, global migration, population dynamics, territoriality, and behavioural ecology.

The Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme (ABBBS) administers and licenses banding activities.

How did I become interested in bird banding? When I moved to Canberra in 1994, I joined the Canberra Ornithologists Group (COG). Only a few months later, I saw a presentation on a banding project given at a monthly meeting by Mark Clayton. I spoke to him afterwards and he invited me out to the project site at West Wyalong in central NSW, to have a look at what they do. One visit was all it took and I was hooked!

Part 2 – Learning

I commenced my training with Mark, and we visited Charcoal Tank Nature Reserve for a weekend banding trip every six to eight weeks. Mark quickly became my birding and bird banding mentor. I have learnt so much from him over the years, for which I am eternally grateful. Mark has been banding at Charcoal Tank since 1986 and has accumulated an immense set of data. Some of this information has been published in journals and the Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB).

Charcoal Tank was my training ground, I loved going there, and have many fond memories of trips there over the years. A trainee has to band 500 birds, and extract 500 birds out of mist nets, under the supervision of a licensed bander. I managed to get quite a few birds under my belt at Charcoal Tank, however, I also benefitted from visits to other sites such as Barren Grounds Nature Reserve in the Illawarra region, and the Little Desert National Park in Victoria.

It took me two years to get my ‘A’ Class bird banding licence. A lot of time, effort, and energy (and money) went into getting qualified. But the trips didn’t stop there. I continued to visit Charcoal Tank with my friends and colleagues for many years. I worked on other project sites too, getting as much experience as possible.

A banding weekend involved driving the three hours to the reserve on a Friday evening, setting up nets and banding for a day and a half, before driving home again. It was always a fun social weekend too!

Part 3 – All the gear

How do you catch birds?? I’m glad you asked. We catch birds in a fine nylon mesh net called a mist net, which is strung up between two poles. The fine mesh is not immediately visible against the background vegetation, so the majority of birds fly into the net and are caught.

The essential equipment required to capture birds (as per my kit!), includes:

  • 15 pairs of aluminium poles (each pole in three sections), in a custom made canvas bag.
  • 20 mist nets, that measure around 10 feet high and of various lengths between 20 and 60 feet, in an old backpack.
  • Enough guy ropes (made out of venetian blind cord) and tent pegs for the number of nets, plus a mallet, in another old backpack.
  • 100-200 lightweight, white cloth bags with drawstrings, for holding birds
  • Seam ripper (stitch picker), for cutting net strands should that be absolutely necessary.

The 40 foot long mist net pictured below stuffs into a bag measuring 15cm by 25cm. The ten foot high net is divided into four panels or shelves. The top shelf string is white, and the other four black shelf strings tie onto the white string in order. This method makes it so easy to set up a net very quickly, no tangles, no mess!

The essential equipment for operating a bird banding station:

  • Many hundreds of bird bands, of multiple sizes, each of which is uniquely numbered.
  • Colour bands, of multiple colours and sizes.
  • Pliers for applying bands.
  • Pliers and some other bits and pieces for removing bands.
  • Spring balances for measuring weight.
  • Calipers and metal rules for measuring body parts.
  • Hand lens (with integrated LED).
  • Data sheets and writing tools.
  • Manuals (e.g. bird ageing and sexing guide).

All of the gear needed to band birds is packed into a mid size fishing tackle box as shown below. It is a somewhat expensive operation once everything has been purchased, however, all of the bird bands are supplied at no cost by the ABBBS.

Part 4 – Teaching others

I took to bird banding very quickly, picking up the skills required in a very short period of time. Learning soon became proficiency, which in turn led to assisting in the training of others. I enjoy sharing knowledge with others, and teaching trainees became a part of my bird banding journey. New trainees came along, and I helped Mark get those people up to speed.

At Mark’s recommendation, I was invited to participate as an instructor on an intensive bander training course organised by the Australian Bird Study Association. The five day course was designed to give a prospective bird bander the necessary experience that could often take one to three years to accumulate. The course was held at Barren Grounds Nature Reserve, where many birds could be caught in a short period.

My teaching experience then took me to Indonesia to work on a project being run by the ABBBS. Again on Mark’s recommendation, the manager of the ABBBS invited me to participate as a trainer working with senior ornithologists in Indonesia, as they established their own banding scheme. I wrote a blog post about those two trips. I also wrote a post about seabirds which also discusses banding.

Part 5 – Ballara

Dr Peter Fullagar, a colleague of Mark’s from CSIRO and an active member of COG, came along on a number of banding trips, where we got to know each other. Peter and I were also on the Barren Grounds management committee for a time. Peter was aware of my banding experience and approached me with a proposal. He was looking for someone to manage the bird banding aspect of a long term bird community study about to be undertaken by his friends Michael and Sarah Guppy.

Sarah is the daughter of renowned ornithologist Stephen Marchant. Stephen’s legacy included:

  • Reform of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU) [now known as Birdlife Australia].
  • Key role in the establishment of the ACT Group of the RAOU, which later became COG.
  • Initiated the RAOU Nest Record Scheme.
  • Editor of the RAOU’s journal The Emu (1968-1980), transforming it into an internationally respected scientific journal.
  • Editor-in-chief of the first two volumes of HANZAB.

On his retirement from working life in the early 1970s, Stephen bought a home on a block of forest just north of Moruya on the NSW south coast. It was at this property, called ‘Ballara’, that Stephen completed a ten year study of the breeding bird community. He published a comprehensive report of that study through the Eurobodalla Natural History Society.

On Stephen’s passing, Sarah and her husband Michael moved to Ballara. Not long after arriving, they decided they would repeat Stephen’s study! Peter, a long time friend of Stephen’s, was tasked with finding someone to run the banding side of the study. And that is how our worlds came together.

I met with Sarah and Michael, we came to an arrangement suitable for all, and worked out a plan. And away we went!

Part 6 – The study site

In the image below, the yellow star marks the location of Ballara in a landscape context. The town of Moruya is 6km to the south, on the southern side of the Moruya River. The majority of the landscape is foothills forest, with vegetation communities such as lowland grassy woodland, cycad understorey forest, with some gullies featuring warm temperate rainforest. The fertile valleys have been cleared for agriculture and other uses.

Image taken from Google Maps

Moving in much closer, the image below is an aerial view of Ballara, with the study site boundary in red (dimensions are approximately 500 metres by 200 metres). Michael and Sarah’s home is at bottom right of the image.

The site is on the west side of a ridge which gently slopes to an intermittent small creek in the west, but rises steeply near the eastern ridgetop. The site has at least four distinct habitats:

  • Open woodland – Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis), White and Yellow Stringybarks (E. globoidea and E. muelleriana), Spotted Gum (Corymbia maculata), and lesser content of Grey Ironbark (E. paniculata) and Rough-barked Apple (Angophora floribunda).
  • Thickets of Burrawang (Macrozamia communis) and Black Sheoak (Allocasuarina littoralis).
  • A hectare of Swamp Paperbark (Melaleuca ericifolia).
  • A power-line clearing 30 metres wide running the length of the site consisting of Tick Bush (Kunzea ambigua), Bracken (Pteridium esculentum) and open grassland.

This type of open woodland is widespread immediately inland of the coast for approximately 70 kilometres either side of the site.

A grid of narrow trails and tracks was established across the site. The main grid is a 50 x 50 metre matrix, which includes a narrow vehicle track. That grid is divided again with very narrow paths every 25 metres. This matrix of trails allowed Stephen, and then Michael and Sarah, to traverse the block in sections as they looked for and mapped every nest they could find. Some of the trails would over grow quickly and required a bit of maintenance. Importantly, the trails did not create an edge effect, that is there was little change in the structure of the various habitats on the site.

Part 7 – Managing a banding crew

The key objective for a banding weekend at Ballara was to catch as many birds as we could, given the human resources available, while paying particular regard to target species for colour banding that were to be monitored by Michael and Sarah.

The number one variable that determined what we did is the number of people available. In particular, the number of fully trained/qualified/licensed bird banders is key, as they are the ones that do the bird extraction and processing.

Additional people (such as trainees, spouses, and other visitors) can help in many ways, such as scribing data and assisting on net rounds (adjusting nets, distributing empty bird bags to extractors, carrying bagged birds, acting as a runner back to the banding station).

Managing volunteers on such trips is very much like managing people in a workplace. Focus must always be on the health, safety and wellbeing of the people volunteering their time.

Further, volunteers are monitored for fatigue, and, as expected, no one wants to be doing the same task all day. I made sure that people were rotated in tasks, to avoid that feeling of being stuck doing the one thing. Any one person in any given hour might do a net round, sit and process five to ten birds, scribe for 20 minutes, and make a cup of tea!

While the priority is to catch and band as many birds as possible using qualified people, it is also important to ensure that trainees get enough birds to work on under supervision, and that includes extracting and processing. At the end of the weekend, I want volunteers to leave satisfied, that they got what they wanted out of the trip, and that they had a good time!

Once the humans are taken care of, the next most important thing is the wellbeing of the birds. Each individual colour-banded bird on the study site was almost worth its weight in gold!

Some researchers working with wild animals consider there to be an acceptable loss rate of study animals, be it through predation in a net or something similar. In my opinion, no loss is acceptable, but I do understand that losses occur occasionally. Losing less than five individuals out of a couple of thousand birds might be considered acceptable, but if one of those birds is a known individual with a couple of years of breeding history that particular loss can be hard to take. The bottom line is we mitigate risks to avoid loss.

A lot of my time, effort and energy went into banding weekends at Ballara. Some weekends I barely touched a bird, as I was busy managing a dozen people or more. Nothing was more satisfying for me though than, by Sunday afternoon, having a dozen happy volunteers and a couple of hundred banded birds!

Two volunteer trainee banders came along once on a weekend trip. They thought the whole process was “too regimented”, preferring a more laid back approach that they have witnessed in other banding project locations. When given the privilege to work with wild birds, there is no such thing as laid back. Of note, the couple I mention while on a net round, left five birds in bags hanging in a tree near a net. They must have hung the bags there to attend to extracting the birds in the net at that site. Fortunately, the birds were found the next time around the nets. For people that didn’t like a regimented approach, they are the only people I know of that have left extracted and bagged birds out in the bush.

Part 8 – Friday evening

The majority of the crew arrived at Ballara in the late afternoon or early evening. Michael and Sarah graciously put us up in their wonderful home. With a couple of spare rooms for visitors, an enormous lounge room, and a cosy sunroom, there was plenty of space for everyone. Larger groups meant use of swags and campervans.

We would typically unload our personal belongings, and all of the banding gear would be transferred from my vehicle to Michael’s. Then it was time for a quick evening meal, before getting ready to head down to the study site. The next thing to do was to get changed into field clothing!

Ticks can be a significant problem on the south coast. At Ballara, after a day’s work in the bush, everyone changed from field clothing to house clothing, to reduce the chances of bringing ticks into the house. We changed in the carport or the workshop. The carport has a long bench seat and some rope strung up for hanging clothes on.

While on the subject of ticks, there is an essential piece of kit (photo below) that stays in my bird banding box, which is a tick remover called the Tick Twister (I purchased mine from our local veterinarian). It is the easiest way to get ticks out of your skin. Simply slide the twister onto the tick so it is in the twister’s fine groove, and gently twist. The tick will back itself out. Destroy the tick (often done on the banding table with an aluminium rule!). Most of the ticks on the NSW south coast are small, requiring the use of the small twister. I haven’t had to use the large twister yet!

Part 9 – Net set up

Setting up mist nets can be a time consuming exercise. In an ideal situation, a crew would set up at a banding site in the early afternoon, operate those nets that evening and the following morning, then move the nets to new sites in the early afternoon. Of course, nets can stay in the one spot for two mornings in a row, but we’ve found that on the second day the capture rate is lower, the birds just get used to the nets (and the people).

For our operations at Ballara, we wanted to avoid wasting the valuable Saturday morning hours setting up nets, so we set them up in the dark on the Friday night. This was quite straightforward, simply using headlamps.

An experienced crew of three can set up a mist net in just a few minutes. Just two people takes a little longer and requires a good routine. Setting up by yourself is possible, but difficult and time consuming. A crew of four is no more efficient than a group of three. Taking down a net is much quicker and can be easily done by one person.

On the Friday night, we would make our way down to the middle of the site and unload all of the gear. Marking up a printed map, Michael and I would quickly hatch a plan for the placement of nets around the grid of narrow trails.

Michael would advise of target sites where we can get the most birds, based on his observations over the preceding days. We could also aim for specific pairs of birds, or indeed avoid specific pairs that may be nesting and sensitive to regular disruption. My task was to get as many nets up as possible, taking into account the size of the crew present (the number of suitably qualified or experienced bird extractors, bird banders, and scribes), the distance to be covered by a net round, and the variation in terrain.

Below is a diagram of the site (50 metre grid squares), with Saturday details marked in red, Sunday in black. Net sites (X) are numbered on the on the net round path (- – -). Net sites are officially labelled with the nearest trail intersection letter-number designation. The hatched rectangle in pencil near E2 is the very small clearing where we set up the banding station. From memory, the weekend plan depicted below was a smaller operation, with a small crew. A larger crew would see a dozen or more nets operating.

Part 10 – Saturday morning

The alarm goes off early in the morning, just as the dawn chorus begins. Everybody gets up, dressed and out the door, and down to the site just prior to sunrise. We get every net open as quickly as possible, which requires all crew members. We take the bird bags with us in case we have early captures. Net opening times are recorded and teams begin net checking rounds every 20 minutes.

Below, Michael checks a net situated on one of the grid trails through the open forest.

Below, an open mist net, situated on a trail on the edge of the paperbark swamp part of the site.

Part 11 – Fuelling the crew

I have worked on multiple projects involving field work in tough conditions. The best thing to boost the morale of workers, especially volunteers, is good quality food!

Starting on site at dawn essentially means getting up and flying out the door. There is time for crew members to have breakfast once the nets are open and catching birds.

The truck is packed the night before with everything we need for the day. The cold stuff is bundled into an esky as we roll out the door. Believe me, we do not go without! There is plenty of fresh water, most of which goes into making cups of tea. Homemade bread and spreads, cereals and hot beverages for breakfast. Lunch is often simple with fresh bread, avocado, cheese, tomato. Plenty of fruit (and fruit cake) at any time. Leftovers from dinner are popular, especially wedges of cold beef pie, or the remains of a takeaway meal from the local “chew & spew”! Michael rigged up a stand for the large umbrella to keep everything shaded. We’ve fed breakfast and lunch to up to 15 people out of the back of Michael’s ute!

Below, is Julian looking for a snack or grabbing his binoculars from his pack??

Part 12 – Capturing the birds

Ok, the nets are open, the crew is allocated tasks and the staggered breakfast consumption is underway. Time for a team to check the nets. Just how does that happen? Here is a brief rundown.

  • On approaching a net site, silence is key, with the aim of not disrupting birds in the area.
  • Blend in, by wearing clothing that matches the habitat.
  • Work quickly, without rushing, so you are at that net for as little time as possible.
  • Have bird bags for each bird out of the carry bag and ready to be used.
  • Start extracting birds in the bottom shelf first, they may be hanging to the ground and be badly tangled with forest litter, vegetation or even subject to ant attack.
  • Extract other vulnerable birds, such as those hanging in direct sunlight.
  • For each bird, assess the way it went into the net, as it’s only going to come back out that way.
  • Bag the bird, pull the drawstring tight and tie a single knot around the neck of the bag so the bird can’t muscle out through any small gap.
  • Bagged birds hang in a nearby tree or shrub in the shade, or are placed in a net pocket if that doesn’t interfere with other extractions; the golden rule is a bird in a bag never goes on the ground.
  • Reset the net so it is ready to catch more birds.
  • Collect the bagged birds and move to the next net.

Extracting very tangled birds takes patience and dexterity. A bird might hit a net, tumble down into the pocket created by the shelf string, flip itself around that string and into the pocket a second time. A nightmare! However, with practice, even a messy bird can come out in a few seconds.

Below, Julian and John work to extract a small flock of Silvereyes captured in a mist net.

It is vitally important to operate mist nets according to the weather conditions and the load captured.

Some species like thornbills don’t cope well with cold hands and can get stressed if they are captured early on before they have had a chance to forage for food. It was not unusual to see a member of the crew return from a net round with a bundle of birds in bags, with one or two birds in bags down the front of their jacket for warmth. These were treated as priority birds, being processed and released quickly.

If quite a lot of birds are caught in the first net or two, they are bagged and sent back to the station immediately before completing the net round. If in my opinion there were too many birds to process before the next net round, consideration would be given to closing nets. Birds hanging in nets for too long means they could be subject to suboptimal conditions (e.g. predation by kookaburras, currawongs, etc.)

An example of catching too many birds at once occurred on my very first trip to Ballara back in 2006, when I began training Michael and Sarah. We set up four nets, in the hope of getting enough birds for me to be able to teach two trainees, but not get overwhelmed. On the first round we found 14 birds in the first net! We quickly closed the other nets, extracted the birds and spent some time processing them. Once we were through with those we reopened a couple of nets.

Below, a male Superb Fairy-wren in his spectacular breeding plumage is extracted from a mist net. The photo shows just how fine the nylon mesh is. It is also a good example of how a bird can grab hold of a lot of net with its feet!

The Superb Fairy-wren pictured above is a retrap, i.e. it was banded on a previous trip. The colour banded birds on site were very important or valuable in terms of the observational study conducted by Michael and Sarah. Therefore, to minimise our interference, such as transport away from the territory in a bag, and handling and processing at the banding station, we took its ‘vital statistics’ on the spot and released it.

With the use of two way UHF radios (there is a small radio pinned to the jacket in the above photo), the extractor called in to the banding station and provided all of the retrap information to the scribe, as if it were being processed at the station. That information is the species, the band number, the colour band combination, age and sex, and presence of a brood patch.

The condition of the bands was examined closely when the band number was read out to the scribe. If any bands were in need of attention (e.g. partially open, or excessively worn and needed replacing) then the bird would be bagged for processing and sent to the station as a priority bird. This bird would then be processed immediately, and possibly returned to where it was captured (depending on how far away from the station that was). Likewise, any brand new juvenile bird was returned to its territory, rather than simply being released at the station.

We tried as much as possible to avoid interfering with breeding activity. If we caught a breeding bird two or three times, we would close and move the net. However, this was rare because Michael and Sarah knew where every bird was breeding, and our brief meeting on the Friday night prior to set up usually catered for this issue.

Part 13 – The banding station

The banding station was at a central point on the site, and is obviously the start and end point of a circuit of net sites. Ideally, the banding station would have:

  • Shelter from sun and rain, for humans as well as birds waiting in bags or being processed.
  • Enough space for a couple of tables and several chairs, for the people doing the bird processing.
  • A rope strung between two star pickets (metal fence posts) for birds in bags to be pegged on to.
  • A bucket, for dirty bird bags that should not be used again.
  • All necessary equipment and paperwork.
  • Extra space for resting/relaxing, eating, and socialising.

Note that the socialising must be far enough away from the banding table so that it doesn’t interfere with the concentration of those people processing birds!

We would typically have two or three banders working with two scribes, with plenty of other people swapping in and out so everyone gets a break.

The Ballara banding station, pictured below, was a modest affair, yet comfortable enough, and largely sheltered from the elements thanks to a large tarp. Comfortable chairs are essential so that a person may sit for extended periods during busy processing times.

Various requests were put to Michael and Sarah for added comforts, such as running power to the site that would allow us to run a refrigerator and a misting fan unit. The request for a spa was rejected outright.

Part 14 – The colour banding process

The main objective of colour banding a bird is to be able to identify a specific individual in the field by sight, eliminating the need to recapture it to read its metal identification band. Many behavioural ecology studies rely on the marking of individuals in the field, so researchers can observe behaviour (usually, who is doing what to whom!)

Below is an Eastern Spinebill which has just been colour banded. It has a uniquely numbered metal identification on its right leg (just visible) and an orange colour band above that, with two colour bands on the left leg. So, this bird’s unique colour combination (read top to bottom right to left) is Orange – Dark Blue – Dark Green.

There are quite a few different colour combination schemes, e.g. metal and master colour on the left, metal and master colour on the right. The different schemes extends the number of unique combinations available. The Variegated Fairy-wren below, has the metal identification band on the right leg with no master colour above it, and a dual coloured single band on the left leg.

The photo below shows Michael applying an orange colour band to a fairy-wren. The split ring plastic band is gently pushed up the small aluminium ‘spoon’ so that it opens enough to be placed over the bird’s leg. The spoon is removed and the band goes back to looking like a solid band. A few squeezes with the fingers, and that band is not going to come off. Larger species, particularly those with strong bills, require the bander to glue the bands shut so they cannot be removed. Many of the colour bands are made of PVC, so a plumber’s glue (that only sticks PVC to PVC) is used to seal the bands, ensuring that the bands cannot be removed by their new owner. Avoiding the use of other types of glue means we are not sticking bands to our fingers or indeed glueing the bands to the bird’s leg.

Below, a small tackle box full of colour bands, in four sizes that fit most small to medium birds. Plenty of orange bands as that was the master colour for our site. There are three application ‘spoons’ to the right. The guide to ageing and sexing bush birds is underneath!

Another box of larger bands, and a collection of anodised aluminium bands (a couple of species have had issues with plastic bands, so metal bands are being trialled). The large bands to the right are wrap around rather than split ring bands, making it very difficult for the birds to get them off (and we glue those as well!).

Part 15 – Banders at work

Right, time for some humans to make another appearance. Below we have bird banders at work. In this photo, Kelly and Julian are processing birds while Charani scribes, and Barb oversees the allocation of colour combinations. Number one scribe, Sarah, takes the opportunity the brief lull in activity presents to have some breakfast.

Our main scribes, below, catch a five minute break for a cup of tea and a chat about something other than birds!

Another photo, below, of a crew hard at work processing birds. This particular group features a few important people, several of whom were mentioned earlier in this post. From left to right:

  • Mark Clayton.
  • Sarah Guppy.
  • Margaret Blakers (seated); the editor of the first ‘Atlas of Australian Birds’, published in 1980 by the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union.
  • Yours truly.
  • My great friend Carole Elliott, she moved in to the house next door to me when she came over from WA to do her PhD at the ANU with David Lindenmayer. I’d worked on a couple of David’s projects. What are the odds of a bird bander moving in next door to another bander?? And my son’s name is Elliott … (cue the ‘Twilight Zone’ theme).
  • Peter Fullagar.

At this particular point, Carole and I are doing the banding, Margaret is the scribe (and her first time, so Mark guided her), and Peter is managing the allocation of colour band combinations.

Part 16 – The birds

We kick off the first batch of bird photos with a Grey Fantail. It was a cool morning so the fantail took a minute or two to sit on my knee, collect its thoughts, and fluff up to keep warm.

Next, a Satin Bowerbird adult male, with an adult female below him. The Satin Bowerbird is a classic example of the value of a bird banding study. Through the banding of nestlings, and the repeated recapture of some of those individuals, it was discovered that the male obtains the satin blue plumage in its seventh year. Immature males look like females, with male traits such as the pale bill beginning to show in the fourth year.

Satin Bowerbird female

Below, an Eastern Whipbird, a vocal forest bird that is often heard but not seen.

Below, the spectacular White-cheeked Honeyeater.

Hey, it’s not always about the birds. The open forest is home to all sorts of cool beasties. Below is an immature or nymph stage Children’s Stick Insect (Tropidoderus childrenii), which is native to eastern Australia.

The Rufous Fantail, below, with the stunning rufous-coloured back, rump and tail. My favourite bit though is the white ‘eye liner’ feathers!

Another rich rufous-coloured bird, below, is the Black-faced Monarch. The two-tone grey head and back, and the black face, make this a striking looking bird. Love the huge flycatcher bill!

Below, the coastal race of the Variegated Fairy-wren, and an adult male in breeding plumage.

Below is a set of four photos of Scarlet Honeyeaters. The first photo is of an adult male.

The second photo, below, is the same adult male, with a view of his back. One thing I had not noticed in this species, until I’d seen it in the hand, was that the tail coverts are black with red tips!

The next photo is of an immature male, with the mottled red and brown through the head and back and the brown wing coverts. He already has the red-tipped tail coverts.

A female Scarlet Honeyeater, below.

The next two birds definitely took us by surprise. The first is an Azure Kingfisher, one of our two species of true kingfishers that dive into water (the other is the Little Kingfisher – all of the other eight Australian Kingfishers are terrestrial). The study site has a small creek at the western end, and there are larger creeks not too much further down the valley. It was quite intriguing to catch this one away from permanent water.

The second intriguing species is the Tawny Grassbird, below. This is a bird of coastal heath and grassy swamps. Somehow, it has managed to find itself in the swampy paperbarks in the study site. It also happened to be the first record for the Eurobodalla Shire on the NSW south coast. Field guides describe its distribution as reaching as far south as the Shoalhaven River region, some 130km to the north.

Part 17 – Saturday afternoon

With potentially a couple of hundred birds ‘in the bag’ during the first half of the day, bird activity slows down marginally in the afternoon. A very hot day can see bird activity reduced to almost zero, as they rest in the heat. However, in the breeding season, young birds must be fed, therefore activity can still be quite high in the warmest part of the day.

As activity and subsequent capture rate slowed, we took the opportunity to close up and move some nets. Just how many nets we moved depended on individual net capture rate, potential interference with breeding birds, and the recapture of individual birds too often. Importantly though was the need to target birds whose territories are in other areas of the site.

In mid to late afternoon we returned to the house. The necessary gear was unloaded, and we all changed into clean clothes. We then spent a couple of more relaxed hours operating a small number of nets near the house, particularly at a bird bath in the front ‘garden’. Positioned on the veranda overlooking the study site, we sat and chatted, processed a few birds, and partook of the pre-dinner snacks and drinks which were brought out by our wonderful hosts. Most people took the opportunity to have a shower or even chuck a few Zs out of a comfy chair.

Michael and Sarah put out a little bit of food for some of the local birds. Below, the resident male Australian King Parrots have been keenly awaiting the return of the humans on the off chance some seed might be forthcoming.

Below, Carole feeds a couple of said King Parrots! This is the view from the western end of the house overlooking the site. Just to the right of Carole’s leg, you can see the white top shelf string of a mist net on an aluminium pole; that’s the net set up in front of the bird bath!

Some days the weather didn’t play fair for us. Below is a photo of a storm that rolled in during the late afternoon. Again, looking north-west over the site to the coast range.

Part 18 – More birds

Below is a collection of birds that are found across the site, with these particular individuals caught at or very near the house on a Saturday afternoon.

First up, an Eastern Spinebill. This one is a male, with the glossy green-black crown (the female’s is matte grey).

Below is an adorable Striated Thornbill.

Below, the ubiquitous, yet utterly charming Red-browed Finch.

Below, a Wonga Pigeon. A huge chunk of a pigeon, almost like holding a football, and yes, I have a very firm grip on this bird’s legs. I’m holding the wing open to show the wonderful speckled pattern on the underwing and undertail coverts and the flank. It still amazes me that this strong, powerful flyer would much prefer to walk everywhere!

One of my favourite birds that I have banded, the Southern Boobook. We were closing the last net near the house just on sunset when the owl leapt into it.

Despite being our smallest owl, those talons are sharp and powerful. Many dangerous birds are banded with two people doing the job, or, as pictured below, leaving the bird in the bag and extracting a leg. Of course, I checked both legs for bands first!

Part 19 – Saturday evening

After a very busy day capturing and banding birds, and moving nets, it sure was a treat to hang around on the veranda, fresh from a shower, with a thirst quenching drink in hand. However, once the house nets were closed and are we were truly done for the day, it was time to move inside for dinner!

There is no denying that the social aspect of a banding trip is a huge drawcard for us. It is a lot of fun to get the job done during the day, however the time spent chatting, joking and laughing around a communal meal is priceless. Much great conversation is had around the dinner table, and it is a time to get to know people a little more.

Below is a fabulous photo, quickly snapped by Michael, of the crew still in the ‘snacking hour’, and enjoying some photos being shown by Lee. Around the table, going from top left to top right: Kelly, Lee, Julian, Sarah, yours truly, Peter, John, Catherine, Charani, Barb.

Of course, no home cooked meal is complete without dessert. Below is one of Sarah’s superb bread and butter puddings.

One evening after dinner, Michael decided to show off this amazing specimen, a complete shed skin from an Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis), measuring approximately eight feet long. The average size is around five feet.

After a few hours of frivolities and refortifying food it is usually time for an early night. However, the forest is just as compelling in the night as it is in the day. We would sometimes go for a spotlight walk up the road to look for nocturnal beasties in the surrounding forest. One particular evening, along a 400 metre stretch of road just south from the house, we saw Common Brush-tailed Possum, Common Ring-tailed Possum, Greater Glider, Sugar Glider, Yellow-bellied Glider and Feather-tailed Glider! It was not uncommon to hear Southern Boobook, Tawny Frogmouth and Powerful Owl.

Finally, time to hit the hay for a decent sleep!

Part 20 – Sunday morning

The sound of the alarm on the second morning is brutal. But it is time to do it all again! Up, dress, quickly pack various bits and pieces, then straight down to the site to open the nets at sunrise. Then, obviously, it is time for a cup of tea!

Sometimes, day two can be quite slow, and even having moved some/many/all nets, the bird traffic is much quieter. However, there are exceptions, and occasionally, the second day can be very busy, even frantic!

How the capture rate progresses for the day determines pack up time. Some trips we’ve packed up on day two after only a couple of hours, while on other trips, we’ve packed up in early to mid afternoon, and only because we have to head home.

Once the call was made to pull the plug on the day’s work, it was time to pack everything up, making sure that everything is double checked. All nets are counted twice and each net site is checked to make sure there is no gear left there. The banding station is packed up, and everything returns to the house in the truck.

Back at the house, gear was transferred to our vehicles. We all changed into something clean and comfortable (and tick free), and quickly packed our personal belongings and loaded them on board.

Depending on how we are going for time, we would usually take some time out at the house for a brief rest, having rushed around madly packing up all of the gear! We also took the opportunity to have a quick bite to eat and one last cup of tea before saying our goodbyes and hitting the road.

Part 21 – Even more birds

Before this post wraps up, here is another suite of birds for you to admire. This time we’re starting with the Golden Whistler. The first photo is an adult male, at least three years old. Once again, recapturing known age (nestling) birds multiple times determined that males gained this plumage in their third year.

The photo below is of a young male ‘changeling’ Golden Whistler, actively moulting into his adult plumage. Black replaces grey in the head and tail, while olive-green replaces grey in the body feathers. You can just see the first hint of yellow breast feathers.

Next up, a handsome larger bird, the Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike.

Below, a photo of the cuckoo-shrike, with its wings held open gently, to show the grey-edged secondary flight feathers and wing coverts.

An immature Olive-backed Oriole, below, has yet to attain the olive back and the deep pink bill of a three-year-old adult.

Another whistler, below, this time the Rufous Whistler. Similar to the Golden Whistler, the Rufous attains the adult male plumage in it’s third year.

The next two photos feature Leaden Flycatchers, first is the female with the rufous throat.

Then it’s the male Leaden Flycatcher with the lead grey head and throat.

Last, but certainly not least, a Fan-tailed Cuckoo!

Part 22 – Departure

Right, we’ve rested at the house for a while, and we were fed and watered. It was time to head home.

It is a two hour and twenty minute drive from Ballara to my home in Canberra. That is a long drive after a big weekend. Sharing the driving is essential, and car pooling is sensible and makes it economical. A stop at one of the bakeries in Braidwood on the way home is also essential!

When one arrived home, all clothing and footwear was quarantined to ensure that free loading ticks that may have made the journey with you go straight into the wash. Then it was straight into the shower, followed by an essential full body inspection for ticks (with a significant other looking at the spots you cannot see – yes, everywhere!). I neglected to do this inspection after a particular trip, and found a tick on my arm while at work two days later!

Part 23 – Follow up

One of the exciting parts of the Ballara banding trips was the follow up we received from Michael and Sarah. During their observation periods over the few days following a banding trip, they were often very pleased (and excited) to be able to report that many nests where no birds were colour banded, now have one or even both of the adults colour banded! These reports went to everyone present on that trip, as a way of providing feedback on their efforts.

Part 24 – Project complete

This significant research project was in operation from 2006 to 2016. The first year was essentially a trial year, to get birds banded, get Michael trained as a bander, and allow Michael and Sarah to develop the necessary expertise or practice in finding and observing nests.

Then we went at it hard. Many birds were banded, and Michael and Sarah spent hundreds of hours searching for nests and keeping tabs on breeding progress.

To give you an idea of the incredible amount of work Michael and Sarah completed during the study, here are some details of the methodology:

  • Observations and nest searches by two persons (always Michael and Sarah, always together) took place while walking the tracks in a 25 x 25 metre grid.
  • Walks were boustrophedon, mostly on the north-south tracks, but not always, 25 metres apart. [Raise your hand if you had to google boustrophedon!]
  • Walks were undertaken on 80–90 per cent of days during eight breeding seasons, August–January inclusive (2007-08 to 2014-15).
  • Daily average search/observation period was 2.9 hours.
  • Walks covered 1.5–2.5 kilometres, and the direction in which the tracks were walked varied each day.

That is a monumental effort, and an enormous commitment of time and energy. And that effort produced an astounding amount of data!

I’ll leave it to you to check out the breeding season summary paper we published in Australian Zoologist. The abstract is here. Or you can contact me for a copy of the full paper.

However, some of the key numbers from that paper include:

  • 44 species bred on the site at least once during the study.
  • 13 species bred every season.
  • 18 species bred in at least seven seasons.
  • All nests were found for at least 17 species each season.
  • Colour banding was used to recognise different breeding pairs within a group of 11 species.

Now for some banding totals. We conducted 19 weekend banding trips between 2006-2016. There were a few additional sessions conducted outside those weekends, and occasionally a single pair was targeted at a nest. A total of 2,381 birds were banded during that time, with 1,368 birds receiving the colour band treatment. That 1,368 total is broken down to:

  • White-throated Treecreeper – 18
  • Superb Fairy-wren – 162
  • Variagated Fairy-wren – 19
  • White-browed Scrubwren – 60
  • Brown Thornbill – 172
  • Striated Thornbill – 82
  • Lewin’s Honeyeater – 31
  • New Holland Honeyeater – 96
  • Yellow-faced Honeyeater – 288
  • Eastern Spinebill – 139
  • Eastern Yellow Robin – 117
  • Golden Whistler – 67
  • Rufous Whistler – 27
  • Grey Shrike-thrush – 15
  • Eastern Whipbird – 3
  • Grey Fantail – 72

My heartfelt thanks goes to my friends Michael and Sarah for getting me involved through the entire project. It was an honour to be able to contribute to this work. And a big thank you to Peter for connecting us in the first instance!

And, I know I speak for Michael and Sarah when I say thank you to the many banders, spouses, special guests, and other hangers-on that made the banding weekends so valuable and so much fun. We could not have done it without your assistance.

Anthony Overs
Canberra, Australia

4 thoughts on “A bird banding field trip – how it works.

  1. Great post mate.


  2. Anthony, thank you for sharing your incredible banding story and beautiful bird pictures. Both very much appreciated and your banding practices match up very well with ours. Good luck with your continued efforts.


  3. An excellent synopsis thanks Anthony – a lot of work went into that post! As ever I learnt a lot, though I was an A-class bander in a universe far away and long ago.


  4. A very interesting read. I have been a bander for almost 30 years so I could relate. I am in Canada but brings back wonderful memories of a birding trip to Australia in 2008.

    Liked by 1 person

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