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Chickadees, Children, and Cheese: A Year in the Life of a Manomet Bird Bander
By: Emily Renaud, Communications Coordinator
Banding staff in the Manomet banding lab
With eyes still glued shut from deep sleep, we lug our aching bodies out from the toasty sheets and blankets in our dorm at Manomet HQ. Then in unison, as if on an automated loop, we prepare for the day ahead: long johns, t-shirts, field pants, fleeces, socks (don’t forget to tuck your pants into them), boots. Eyes slowly opening, we tumble down the stairs, down the hall, and into the lab—4:58 a.m.—two minutes to spare, high fives! After checking the net run lineup to note our individually assigned directions, we grab our bird bags and sticks and throw ourselves into the morning air’s frosty sting. Quickly though, our grogginess switches over to involuntary smiles, wide eyes, and eruptive humming and whistling as we rush down each of the four splits across 40 acres of net lanes. We hastily throw all 50 mist nets open (weather permitting) in the hopes of finally catching that Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, or even Black-capped Chickadee #2750-73737 for the 20th time this season. Nothing spreads a goofier smile over my face than looking forward to a 12-hour workday in the banding lab… no kidding!
Manomet’s bird banding program has been in operation for over 50 years, cycling through banders, interns, and volunteers twice a year in the spring and fall. Taking place during peak songbird migration (April 15th – June 15th, August 15th – November 15th), the banding seasons elicit unbridled excitement, curiosity, frustration, and the most intense sense of community.
My first season as a bander was nothing short of a whirlwind—impromptu lectures from director Trevor Lloyd-Evans; bottomless cups of coffee served in the ever-changing cycle of favorite mugs; a wildly vast spectrum of children visiting from area schools; and the extensive cast of volunteers and regular visitors—Jerry on Mondays, Pat with Babybel cheese and crosswords on Fridays. All of this while learning a crazy amount of detailed information on birds—you name it, I (sort of) memorized it: migration timelines, population dynamics, molt patterns, the cloacal protuberance scale, what to do if you’ve got a bird with a nasty skin infection (don’t panic, but don’t touch anything until you’ve scrubbed your hands for ten minutes), and much more.
Trevor Lloyd-Evans and Emily band a bird
Returning in fall 2016 reintroduced all of the above after a dreadfully slow two month hiatus between seasons. Sarah Groendyk and I returned as veteran interns, and strolled onto the scene like absolute pros…of course, we made just as many if not more mistakes the second go-round as the first. Our fingers had become slender and nimble from hundreds of net extractions, our eyes keen and precise in identifying molt limits and skull development, our voices boisterous yet stern in leading tours and talks for children and adults. Completing two seasons in the lab, I began to feel like part of the legacy; like I’d been engraved onto the lab’s hugely extensive family tree.
The sheer number of interns (and birds) who’ve have passed through the banding lab is truly astounding. Starting in 1972, Trevor has trained thousands of young professionals, many of whom have moved into impressive positions in academic and federal research positions. I’ve been lucky enough to encounter a few returning interns, both young and old, visiting “just for one or two net runs.” The look on a banding veteran’s face when they walk into the lab for the first time in years is priceless. Huge smiles, laughs, hugs, and “oh, yeahs!” as they peruse the walls and desks, observe the processing of a titmouse, or get nailed with a quiz from Trevor himself. Returning to the lab after being away for a spell is like walking into the family room of your childhood home. It returns to life, speaks to your memories, like time has stood still since you left. Not much has changed here in the last 50 years--except the advancement of research.
Climate change has a profound impact on bird migration, and banding is one of the most proven effective methods of tracking this. Noting trends in arrival and departure, numbers of birds trapped, and patterns in weather are all crucial in making decisions in management and conservation. We’ve banded over 250,000 birds (I got to handle #250,000, thank you very much) and are breaking records almost every year. What makes all of this instantly gratifying, though, is passing our results on to our visitors and knowing that the data we collect are being used by so many different researchers around the world. Getting a 6-year-old to ask you intelligent questions on why birds migrate or what they eat and how they fly is almost more satisfying than detangling a chickadee rating 8/10 on the net extraction difficulty scale…almost.
By the end of the fall season last year, I experienced the most distinct feeling of belonging and purpose as I ever had. Not only was bird banding an incomparable and magical experience, but Manomet’s palpable sense of family had drawn me in and locked me into the snuggest embrace of any workplace. The rickety yet charming dorms perched atop a bluff, quirky staff, kitschy ornithology-inspired memorabilia, and boundless enthusiasm shared by all are what have kept me here beyond the lab, as a full-time staff member.