The birds seemed to be sleeping in. The first four hours of trying to catch birds for banding yielded only two catbirds — which complained loudly — and a wood thrush. But after the 10 o’clock net check, Al Eibel came back encircled with a double layer of lunch bags fastened to his belt with clothespins. In each paper bag, was a bird that would receive a tiny silver band around its leg — if it didn’t have one already.
Eibel, who taught AP biology and other sciences at Alliance High School before retiring in 2015, is the official bird bander for a project at the University of Mount Union’s Huston-Brumbaugh Nature Center. He’s assisted by Adam Zorn, program director at the center.
The nature center’s 162 acres south of Alliance are bisected by FirstEnergy Corp. power lines. Beneath them is a “corridor” about 1,600 feet long and 40 feet wide that nature center staff and Mount Union students have filled with flowers and grasses designed to make good habitat for pollinators, like native bees and birds. The birds use that open area for foraging, and some for nesting.
The center has been working closely with FirstEnergy since 2016, Zorn explained.
“They manage the trees alongside the corridor to make sure none knock out the power,” he said. “We manage the vegetation in the right-of-way beneath the power lines. It cuts down on their maintenance costs, and we can avoid having herbicide sprayed.”
The right-of-way was sprayed accidentally in 2015, killing all the grass, plants and trees in that 40-foot span. After working with Bob Kehres, of the Ohio Prairie Nursery, in Hiram, to come up with the perfect mixture of grasses and native wildflowers, Zorn and other nature center staff broadcast seed mixed with sand over a light layer of snow in January 2017.
The ROW project, short for right-of-way, started with the hypothesis that both the number of birds and the number of bird species would drop drastically because of the spraying — which they did — but would recover after replanting. So far, the numbers seem to be proving the hypothesis correct. Eibel and Zorn obtain those numbers in two ways.
One is banding birds every Thursday from Memorial Day through the second week of August. They start before sunrise, erecting eight “mist” nets that are about 12 feet high and 40 feet long. They check the nets at least every hour until noon. When birds are captured in the nets, they must be carefully extracted from the fine mesh — a process that takes a delicate touch and endless patience.
Endless patience is also required when banding the birds. Some of them, like the warblers and the house wren, are very tiny. In addition to recording the species and its approximate age, Eibel weighs each bird — subtracting the weight of the lunch bag, of course — to calculate its mass, then measures its wing. He uses a metal straw to blow the feathers on its abdomen aside to determine its sex. He can also tell whether it’s breeding or sitting on eggs.
Some birds they catch already have a band. In that case, Eibel employs an eyepiece used by watchmakers or jewelers to read the microscopic numbers on it. On a recent Thursday, Eibel recaptured a female American redstart. Its band showed that he originally caught it in almost the exact same place on June 6 of last year.
Birds usually return to the same sites to nest year after year, he said. Which is why, in 18 years banding thousands of birds, he’s only had five recaptured birds that were banded by someone else.
“She spends her winters in the Caribbean,” Zorn said of the American redstart, showing off the yellow markings on her back, wings and tail. “She’s pretty special.”
Counting by ear
The other way that Eibel and Zorn determine the numbers of birds and species in the right-of-way is by doing a point count. They count the birds they see — and hear — during the times they’re banding. Some birds can’t be seen in the thick forests that line the corridor, but they can be recognized by their song. Or their squawk.
“That might be our red-tailed hawk,” Zorn said as a ruckus erupted.
It was the hawk, and it was being mobbed by seven crows. Mobbing is what birds do when they perceive a threat and want it to go away.
Each time they see or hear a bird, Zorn uses his phone to create a list on eBird, an app of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell uses the data on its All About Birds website, which includes range maps showing how common a species is in a particular area, what seasons it can be seen there, and where it migrates — in actual time.
Anyone anywhere in the world can request a data download from eBird. That includes Zorn, who can download his checklists and put the data on spreadsheets. He’s been making checklists at the nature center for seven years, but has been doing so at home and elsewhere for 15.
“I’m not an ornithologist by trade, it’s just a passion of mine,” he said. “I’ve always liked watching birds.”
Early data show the ROW project is succeeding in bringing back birds of diverse species to the right-of-way. Bird banding counts showed only 17 species in the first year after the spraying, compared to 34 species — double that amount — last year.
More complex calculations are needed to determine how many of each species are in the area. But so far the bird population seems to be pretty diverse in that it is not dominated by one or two species, like sparrows and starlings may dominate an urban population, Zorn said.
“By and large, a better habitat supports a more diverse collection of species,” he said. “Only if there is abundant food and other necessities can that happen.”
And diversity of species isn’t limited to birds, in this case. The project has shown an increase in pollinators, which are also counted and studied. Since the planting of the prairie-meadow species, more than 10 groups of native bees have been identified in the corridor, Zorn said. These range from the large bumble bee to the tiny sweat bee. But unlike the honeybee, which was imported from Europe, native bees are solitary souls that work and live alone, not in hives.
Eibel said that bird banding “is a small part of my much larger interest in nature, ecology and biology,” but he enjoys the challenge of identifying individual birds in a “quiet, scenic setting.”
As they are banding and counting, Eibel and Zorn are often joined by other bird fans, including Eibel’s wife, Lucy. “I’m not fueled by some great avian mission,” Eibel said. “I simply want to learn more about what’s going on in Stark County with the birds.”
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