Sunday, May 23, 2004

A merry band

Tiny wings propelling big dreams
Bradford L. Miner

Back to Auburn Bird Banding


Auburn High School students Sarah Reich, left, and Jillian Hetel, both 15, and freshmen, examine a tree swallow during a recent demonstration bird banding at the Auburn Sportsmenís Club. (T&G Staff Photos / DAN GOULD)
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Their hair ringed in wildflowers, Jillian Hetel and Sarah Reich smiled with anticipation - no reflection on having two successive days off from freshmen classes at Auburn High School.

Fifty seventh-graders from Auburn Middle School were about to descend on the Auburn Sportsmen's Club on Elm Street, where their mentor, Mark Blazis, Grade 7 science teacher and master bird bander, would soon be introducing students to "jungle jewels."

Jill and Sarah had once been like those seventh-graders - knowing little about birds, bird migration and bird banding - until a defining moment when they embraced banding research wholeheartedly.

At age 15, they are still three years away from meeting the minimum federal requirements for a bird-banding permit.



A Wilsonís warbler is held in the hand of Auburn teacher Mark Blazis, comparing the original to the drawing.
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Nonetheless, both are accustomed to getting up before dawn on weekends in May, June, September and October to meet Mr. Blazis at the sportsmen's club and see what surprises await in the mist nets deployed strategically on the club property.

On this day, the 40-foot-long, 8-foot-high nets would yield 109 birds, eclipsing previous one-day totals during spring migration, Mr. Blazis said.

As students arrived, they assisted as Mr. Blazis removed myriad tiny warblers and red-winged black- birds and a Baltimore oriole from the cloth bags in which they were safely held in captivity, until each could be weighed, measured, examined for deer ticks, and then banded with a nearly weightless, numbered aluminum band, before being walked a hundred feet or so to the point where the lawn met the tall, white pines.

Lying for a second or two on an open, outstretched palm, each bird in turn flew off into the pines, some to find nesting territory on the 200-acre club grounds, others to continue pushing northward to more familiar nesting habitat in the deep forests of Canada.



A Trail's flycatcher is held by Auburn teacher Mark Blazis.
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Sarah said she became interested in birds and bird banding when she was in fifth grade.

At the time, she said, her brother, who was in the eighth grade at Auburn Middle School, ventured into the Amazon rain forest with Mr. Blazis and a cadre of other would-be naturalists.

"I've been actively banding birds with Mr. Blazis for five years now. I really want to become a vet someday, and I think what I enjoy most about banding is the handling of the birds, the excitement of holding a living creature in your hand, and releasing it back into the wild unharmed," she said.

She said she had banded birds under Mr. Blazis' supervision at the Sportsmen's Club in Grafton and in the Amazon.

"I'm very interested in getting a bander's license myself, just as soon as I'm eligible," she said, noting that her favorite bird was not a "jungle jewel," Mr. Blazis' term for warblers, but a swamp sparrow.

Jill traces her interest in birds to her seventh-grade science class at Auburn Middle School.

For her, much of the magic of banding was in finding something that she enjoyed and was good at - something few others knew little, if anything, about.

"Yellow warblers are my favorite," she said, noting that she, too, was anxious to get her own bander's license and possibly pursue a career in ornithology.

Addressing the seventh-graders gathered around a picnic table on the pavilion at the Sportsmen's Club, Mr. Blazis adeptly produced one warbler after another from a cloth bag, making certain that all measurements and pertinent data had been recorded before waiting for a "thank you" - the phrase that indicates the successful transfer of the bird from the person affixing the band to the individual who will be releasing it.

"Among us today, we have two girls who may well be among the youngest to ever get a banding license," Mr. Blazis told his pupils, referring to Jill and Sarah.

According to the Bird Banding Laboratory at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., there are 2,000 master banding permits in the United States, 375 permits for banders in Canada, and 2,900 sub-permittees - people who have a license but work under the supervision of a master bander.

Those applying for a banding permit must be able to show they are qualified to trap, handle and band birds safely. Applicants must be 18 and able to identify all common birds in seasonal plumage.

Mr. Blazis said both Jill and Sarah will be accompanying him to the Amazon in February for bird banding, among a host of other rain-forest adventures, and that he is confident of their skills.

He said both students were initially exposed to the same opportunity as every other seventh-grader at the Auburn Middle School.

"In September, we set up a mist net on the middle school grounds and captured house sparrows, maybe a hundred over the course of a year. They are tough little European immigrants that aren't even supposed to be here. And while a lot of people would like to get rid of house sparrows, they are one of my best teaching tools," Mr. Blazis explained.

"They provide an opportunity for every student to hold a bird for the first time before we move on and do a fall migration study at the Auburn Sportsmen's Club," he said.

"`For some, it's a magical experience that captivates them, and becomes the catalyst for a lifelong interest in birds and banding," he said. Mr. Blazis characterized Jill as one of those students who from the very first day was keenly interested in birds.

"She would get up at 4 a.m. and come to all of our spring and fall banding research days at the Sportsmen's Club - even if it meant missing soccer games - and this is a girl who's an all-star soccer player. One day after working with us for a couple of years on tough birds, like catbirds and cowbirds and grackles, we gave her a chance to take a yellow warbler out of the net," he said.

"This turned out to be a magical experience for her. She just couldn't believe the color of the bird, the fragility of the bird, and the fact that it had traveled 3,000 miles from the Amazon to get here. She felt the privilege of making an intimate contact with that bird, and from that point on she's been hooked," Mr. Blazis said.

The story is much the same with Sarah, he said, noting that each had become invaluable teaching assistants.

One who can appreciate a youngster's enthusiasm for birds and banding is Trevor Lloyd-Evans, ornithologist and avian conservation senior scientist for more than three decades at the Manomet Center for Conservation Services on the South Shore of Massachusetts.

"If you want enthusiasm, get the kids in the elementary grades involved. We have a strong feeling that building an appreciation for birds early on does an awful lot of good. What we need more than anything is public cooperation in terms of protecting habitat, whether it be forests or coastline. Making a difference in protecting nesting habitat for any number of species is all a matter of reaching folks early on," he said.

"I can say from experience, and from seeing the expression on countless faces, there's nothing quite like holding a banded bird in your hand ... releasing it and watching it fly away," Mr. Lloyd-Evans said.

James Baird of Petersham, retired vice president for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, still enjoys the migrating birds that visit the historic hilltop Negus farm, where he lives on Gay Road.

But he admits to being pessimistic, citing several studies that point to an overall decline in the number of migratory birds.

Mr. Baird said the hazards of migration - running into transmission towers and windows, loss of "stopover" habitat, and loss of breeding habitat in North America and wintering habitat in South America - are possible explanations for the decline.

"Something as simple as the early cutting of hayfields here in Central Massachusetts has a significant impact on the populations of meadowlark, bobolink, Savannah sparrow and grasshopper sparrow and other field-nesting birds," Mr. Baird said.

"Every farmer who has hayfields wants two or three cuttings over the course of the summer, and that means when the hay is up in June, coincidental with these birds nesting, the fields are cut, the nests are destroyed and the net result is obvious," he said.

"That's why you'll find Massachusetts Audubon sanctuaries like Wachusett Meadows in Princeton, and the state wildlife management areas with large, open fields are so important. These fields, if they are cut, aren't cut until after the young birds have fledged and left the nest," he added. In 2001, 1,049,646 birds were banded in the United States and Canada, and 97,204 recoveries were reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory. Of that number, 689,019 non-game birds were banded and 8,057 recovered.

Mr. Blazis said that aside from netting 109 birds on May 12 at the Sportsmen's Club, three of the birds netted that day, common yellowthroat warblers, were found to have deer ticks on the skin near their eyes.

"We've been working cooperatively with Dr. Stephen M. Rich at the Tufts (University) School of Veterinary Medicine on a Lyme disease project," Mr. Blazis said. "He needs someone who can capture birds that might be carrying ticks, and we need someone who can microscopically examine the viscera of the ticks that we find to further the study of the spread of Lyme disease."

Mr. Blazis said Dr. Rich was also looking for assistance in studying West Nile virus in living birds.

"Virtually everything we know about West Nile virus in birds comes from the study of dead crows," Mr. Blazis said. "Dr. Rich would like us to help him find out about West Nile in living birds. We never catch any crows in our mist nets, but we do catch other corvidae, blue jays, from the same family, and we'll be taking cloacal smears and sending them to Tufts."

If there is positive news about local bird populations, it comes from Bradford G. Blodget, retired state ornithologist. He has done a songbird breeding survey at the Hiram Fox wildlife management area in the eastern Berkshires for two decades and is about to publish the results.

"I have to say I'm encouraged by what we've found," he said.

"To be sure, there have been changes, and some of the numbers are down, but in large tracts of forest in Central Massachusetts and in the Berkshires we've seen relatively few declines in species numbers," Mr. Blodget said.

The declines, he said, can be attributed directly to natural changes in habitat during the past two decades.

"There's no mystery, but some species come and others move on when the forest matures," he said.

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