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Migratory Songbirds Call Parker Wildlife Refuge Home - 2002-05-18

The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is home to a complex set of delicate interlocking ecosystems that include this barrier beach, salt marsh and wetland, a large marine estuary and a pine and oak forest.

Just after dawn and a bit inland, it is the sanctuary's role as a resting-stop and sometime breeding ground for migratory songbirds that interests veteran birdwatcher Bill Gette, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's education center near the Refuge.

The thermometer stands at a mere two degrees centigrade, the leaden gray sky hints of snow, and so far, the birds are not cooperating with Mr. Gette's efforts to lure them with his calls.

"You see why this birding is challenge. Because a lot of times, these birds just don't make themselves that obvious!" he exclaimed.

Suddenly, our luck changes.

"We have a Ruby Crowned Kinglet sitting over here about six feet from your finger. Right here. This tiny little pale olive colored bird with a ruby crown on top. Oh! There are about four of five of them. These birds weigh about five grams," Mr. Gette said. "Ooh. Here is a Palm Warbler. This bird that is olive-green on the back with a yellow under-part, and a little rusty crown. It wags its tail. It has that characteristic of wagging its tail as it's flitting among the vegetation."

"We have a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker at the top of this tree. This is a migrant through this area, this bird does not winter here. But they are just beginning to move from their wintering grounds in the south-southeast United States and up into Northern New England. A beautiful bird," Mr. Gette said. "It's about twice the size of your fist, and it has a yellow belly as the name implies - and gets its name because it makes holes in trees and makes the sap bleed out of the tree. And the sapsucker doesn't eat the sap. It eats the insects that come to the sap," he added.

Phillips: "How were you able to tell that was Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker so quickly? I don't see any yellow in it!"

Gette: "No, you can't see any color at all. But the way it flew in, it has the bounding flight of that of a woodpecker. And just by it's general size and shape sitting at the top of the tree, I can just see enough of it to know what it is."

Philips: "What's the draw? Why do people love to watch birds? What do you love about it so much?"

Gette: "For me, it's the spiritual nature of it for one thing. To think that you have a bird that weighs seven or eight grams that can actually fly all the way non-stop from Massachusetts here to the north coast of South America. I think that's fascinating. The various physical adaptations and the behavioral adaptations that they have make them extraordinary to observe."

"For other folks, it's the hunt. People just like to be able to find things. There is a lot of analysis that goes on. You see a bird and you go through a whole process of problem solving to try to figure out what the bird is. And it's not at all unusual for someone to see 300 species of birds - if you work at it in one year," he said.

The migratory birds that rest and breed at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge are identified at a bird banding station run by Bill Gette, where his assistant, Rebecca Schwer, is pounding in a post that identifies the fine black thread nets that catch the birds during the spring and autumn months.

"And the mission of this bird banding station is to capture birds, and analyze them and to then to release them unharmed. The data we collect on these birds of course is the specie[s], its age, its sex, any breeding characteristics that we might see, any molt characteristics," Mr. Gette said.

Schwer: "Some of the things [data] we do take is fat. So we can see how much fat they are putting on."
Gette: "Think of it as fuel going onto an airplane. They need to take this fuel with them in order to power this long-range migration and they also need the fat reserves to make sure they have some protection and won't starve when they get to their destination."
Schwer: "So we take a bird out of the net and we put it in a bag and we bring them back here to the station, we take it out of the bag in what is called a 'Bander's Grip.' The bird's head is between your first two fingers and you're kind of forming a kind of cage around the rest of its body so it can't flap its wings."

Then Ms. Schwer, or one of her trained volunteers, identifies and gently weighs the bird.

Schwer: "…And then we are going to put a band on it on its right leg. It's like a ten-digit number that only that bird will ever have. And we release them back into the wild and there they go!"

So far, about 10,000 birds have been banded and released at this facility. Many are Baltimore Orioles like this one.

In fact, Rebecca Schwer said that one particular Oriole has become almost a friend.

Schwer: "She winters probably down in Central America. Right, Bill? We've caught her three years in a row… Pretty much like clockwork, year after year, without a calendar or anything, she comes back to this area almost on the same day. And she nests right down there, a couple of hundred feet down the road from the banding station in one of the aspen trees. It's just amazing these navigation systems and the timing system that they have."

Phillips: "How do they do it?"

Schwer: "They use a lot of different techniques. First of all, it appears that they have an inbred DNA map of direction and time in their brains, okay? But then they use a number of things: celestial navigation, [and] physical landmarks to migrate. They appear to use the polarized light in the evening time when the sun goes down to re-calibrate their navigation system. These tiny birds that have a brain the size of the end of my smallest finger - absolutely amazing! I think it's part of the mystery and wonder as to why people like birds so much. I learn something new every day. That's kind of what I love about it too. It's not the same thing day after day after day. I see things that are interesting out here. Like we'll get whole flocks of birds that come through. Whole flocks of Yellowrumps, which is a bird that comes through here in masses, or whole flocks of Juncoes."

As if on cue, a Yellow Rump Warbler appears on a branch nearby. Bill Gette and Rebecca Schwer smile in its direction.

"Beautiful male. Yellow on the crown, yellow on the side. And that little "check-note" that is his call. Beautiful! And he's flaring those yellow sides," Mr. Gette observed.

Bill Gette and Rebecca Schwer are staff members at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which maintains an education center and bird banding station for the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge here on the Massachusetts coast. In addition to songbirds, the Refuge also shelters endangered shorebirds such as the Piping Plover, varied mammals and fish.