by Nicole Carlozo -- July 1st, 2011
This week I added bird banding to my list of field skills as I joined U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on two field excursions to locate newly hatched royal terns, sandwich terns, and brown pelicans. Some of them, unfortunately for us, weren’t as newly hatched as I had hoped.
Day 1: Tern Banding
It felt early as I boarded the small U.S. Coast Guard boat, wrapped in a life jacket and carrying field equipment for the day’s work. Our destination: Pelican Island (at least, that’s what the locals call it). As we approached the small island located within Pamlico Sound, a stench drifted over the water towards us. It was going to be a smelly day.
After coming ashore, we began our trek across the sandy island, passing by hundreds of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) who watched us warily from afar. Some took to the sky, and we ducked our heads in hopes of a clean journey across the island. Some of the interns weren’t so lucky as gulls and pelicans swept overhead. Walking across the island felt surreal and I immediately acknowledged my position as an outsider. The birds ruled this island, and as trespassers we were causing quite a stir. Adult gulls flew overhead and pelicans retreated to the sound. Although this island was deserted of human life, it was by no means empty. Bird calls filled the air, carrying over the desert-like vegetation and sandy hills towards us. Finally, we reached a flat sandy stretch not far from the tern hatchlings. With the help of a dozen interns and volunteers, a corral was constructed and we herded the baby terns.
With a deep breath, I began handling the terns. After a while I hit my stride, banding relatively quickly while cooing over the hatchlings and grumbling at the older, more rambunctious individuals. We came in contact with two types of terns: royal terns (Sterna maxima) and sandwich terns (Sterna sandvicensis). Eventually, I was able to differentiate between the two and help separate them to receive different bands. Although they differ quite a bit as adults, the juveniles looked almost identical.
As we collected our field equipment at the end of the day, I noticed flocks of pelicans sitting on the ridge, watching us curiously. I imagined them laughing at our corral of birds, the tern parents flying overhead in an attempt to feed their children and the gulls watching nearby in hopes of picking off a lone chick. “It’s your turn tomorrow!” someone called in their direction, but they gave no sign of understanding.
Day 2: Pelican Banding
We returned the next day with over 30 volunteers for the difficult task of pelican banding. By this point, I’d heard horror stories of being covered in bird poop and vomit; tales of destroying field clothes and smelling for weeks on end (it wasn’t really that bad). The smell of the nests alone was enough to make me want to turn around. But I didn’t. As a Coastal Studies student, I’ve always wanted experience handling coastal bird species, and this was my chance. As we circled the first group of nests, my heart pounded. These little guys weren’t so little, and definitely not as cute and fuzzy as the baby terns. They grouped together in bushes, issuing warning cries and snapping at our approaching hands. I shivered despite the heat of the day, wondering if this was where filmmakers had found the typical pterodactyl cry that rings out in every dinosaur movie. Did I mention I have an irrational fear of dinosaurs? I blame Jurassic Park…
Grabbing a pelican is no easy feat when the whole flock is snapping at you, but grab them we did. I listened as an experienced bird bander demonstrated how to go about the whole business. He easily picked one bird up by the beak (preventing both snapping and vomiting) and then used his right hand to secure the wings. About six people were designated as banders with large metal rings and pliers in hand. The rest of us were instructed to round up the birds. And so, I spent my day chasing pelicans and trying to get over my fear each and every time I grabbed for a bird. The most difficult birds to handle were the bruisers – juveniles with some flight feathers who could not yet fly. Despite their inability to lift off the ground, they tried.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service bands these species on an annual basis with the help of interns, volunteers, and experienced birders. Bands are reported to the Bird Banding Lab in Maryland, allowing environmental managers and scientists to determine migration patterns as well as lifespans. Most of the birds reported are game birds, which are banded to aid population estimates. Pelican populations are also of interest since this species was once endangered due to reproductive failure. Pesticides such as DDT caused eggshell thinning, and at one point the North Carolina population dwindled to dangerously low numbers of less than 100 breeding pairs. With the ban of DDT in the 1970s, the species began its road to recovery.
In two days’ time, we banded more than 2,100 royal terns and 1,000 brown pelicans. I’d say both species are doing just fine.