Prairie to the Peaks

Boise, ID from atop Lucky Peak
An abrupt transition.  After a seemingly quick field season searching for raptor nests in the lowlands, I headed straight to the highlands above Boise to start my next field job.  I remain working for the Idaho Bird Observatory (IBO), but I am now a bird bander, replacing my former title of nest searcher.  IBO has managed a banding operation at the top of Lucky Peak (just outside of Boise, above Lucky Peak Reservoir) for about 17 years, capturing and banding all the fall migrating birds, everything from small, perching birds (technically termed Passerines or "LBJ's"-Little Brown Jobbies- for all nonbirders) to owls to large raptors.  I have been hired for the capture and banding of the small dudes.

Moon setting over Boise

So how do we capture the birds? least to the birds.  We set up fine, mesh nets (we have ten total scattered around the top of Lucky Peak) which the birds cannot see.  When they fly into the nets (mist-nets, as we call them), they usually get all tangled up and can't escape (insert evil laugh here).  Then, dudes (like myself) and dudettes come bopping along every half hour and untangle them, trying not to lose them as they flap and wiggle around (when they do escape, we call it "flubbing" a bird.  The boss is not happy when we flub birds.  Minimizing flubbing is a priority.  I have only flubbed one bird so far...and, luckily, I at least got the band on it before it got away).

The mist-nets...note the near invisibility (there is mist-net stretched across the entire upper-right corner of the photo)  
The crew untangling a capture of eleven birds.
Unwittingly stuck.  (Nashville Warbler)

Sometimes, the untangle process takes seconds.  Sometimes, minutes.  Sometimes (mostly coming from me), yelling for "HELP!" from the more advanced bird untanglers.
Advanced untangler Heidi...often my untangling savior.
I always wonder what is going on in their little heads at these moments.
Once untangled, they are transfered into small bags so as to minimize injury and transported to the banding station, where they are processed (ie banded, ID'd, sexed, aged, measured, checked for muscle and fat, and weighed).
Using banding pliers (specifically made for banding birds) to place a small metal band on the right leg.  The band has a unique set of numbers that will identify that bird if ever caught again. (Yellow-breasted Chat)
Weighing sequence:

(Nashville Warbler)

Weighing a larger bird 
Measuring wing chord length (Yellow-breasted Chat)
Measuring tail length (Yellow-breasted Chat)
The blowing technique...used to push aside the feathers to see the amount of muscle and fat on the bird. (Yellow-breasted Chat)
The band. (Brown-headed cowbird)

Getting to handle these birds is a great privilege.  It's one thing to see birds flying around, which is very cool in itself, but getting to hold them in your hand, feel their quivering wings, reptilian feet, and soft feathers, hear them squeak and squawk as they try to escape, and look into their tiny but infinitely deep eyes is quite another thing.  There is much to be learned from these little birds.  If you are ever in Boise, you would never regret a visit to the top of Lucky Peak to witness the banding operations.  We'll even let you handle the birds!!  Let me know if you want to come up...and I hope you do!

For all birders...expect bird ID quizzes in the future!


  1. Great entry Jesse! It is fun to see the science behind what you're doing.

  2. I have always loved b-h grosbeaks and now, after being chomped on, I appreciate them much more.


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