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Conservator, Science, Wildlife

Bird Banding at Oak Hammock Marsh

A songbird banding station outside of Ducks Unlimited Canada’s national offices in Manitoba nets a fraction of the thousands of birds that rely on the surrounding wetland every spring and fall.

December 30, 2019
Lit by the first rays of morning, a Tennessee warbler is nabbed during a songbird banding session in September.
Lit by the first rays of morning, a Tennessee warbler is nabbed during a songbird banding session in September. © DUC

I’m sitting in a sunlit cabin, my camera trained on a petite yellow bird. It’s delicately held and raised to the light as I snap photos so intimate and crisp, I can see my reflection in the bird’s inky black eye.

It’s a face-to-face encounter any bird enthusiast longs for — no bugs, binoculars or bushwhacking required. A dazzling male yellow warbler, so astounding to see and inspect at such close range, is a marvel of art and avian engineering.

Lightweight aluminum anklets are placed on each netted bird. Year-over-year recaptures are rare, but earlier this fall, a common yellowthroat was caught with a band fitted at Oak Hammock Marsh in 2015.
Lightweight aluminum anklets are placed on each netted bird. Year-over-year recaptures are rare, but earlier this fall, a common yellowthroat was caught with a band fitted at Oak Hammock Marsh in 2015. © DUC

Songbird banders at Manitoba’s Oak Hammock Marsh capture a variety of songbirds during spring and fall migration — a record 60 species this year — as they stop to flit and feed in the wetland’s willow fringes. Mist nets are deployed, with mesh knit so fine that swooping birds softly tangle in them like flies in a web. They’re carefully extracted, placed into small cotton sacks and, once inside the cabin, given keen-eyed once-overs to determine age, gender and breeding status. With quick nips, some birds pinch and strike at their captors. Fighting, biting blackbirds notwithstanding, most subjects stay silent and compliant.

A noisy male bobolink chastises his captors as he awaits release. Listed as a species of concern in parts of Canada, bobolinks nest in fields and uplands surrounding Oak Hammock Marsh and other DUC wetland projects.
A noisy male bobolink chastises his captors as he awaits release. Listed as a species of concern in parts of Canada, bobolinks nest in fields and uplands surrounding Oak Hammock Marsh and other DUC wetland projects. © DUC

With the precision of a surgeon, a small aluminum anklet is positioned around each bird’s leg. Then the moment I’m waiting for: a second or two in the sun as the warbler is held up like a trophy. The hold is referred to as the “photographer’s grip”— and I comply. For a photographer it represents a glorious opportunity. For a bird lover, it’s a breathless moment.

Sporting the vibrant patterns and colours of spring breeding plumage, birds captured during May and June are dressed to impress. Four of the 60 species caught and banded in 2019 include (clockwise from top left) Baltimore oriole, grey catbird, yellow warbler and swamp sparrow.
Sporting the vibrant patterns and colours of spring breeding plumage, birds captured during May and June are dressed to impress. Four of the 60 species caught and banded in 2019 include (clockwise from top left) Baltimore oriole, grey catbird, yellow warbler and swamp sparrow. © DUC

The warbler is slid into a small envelope and weighed on a scale. Data is entered into a logbook and the bird is released back into the wild. It launches from captivity and momentarily alights in a nearby willow tree to gather its wits. The warbler returns to routine, as I await the next prize.

A moment of Zen, as a marsh wren closes its eyes and prepares for takeoff. True to its name, marsh wrens thrive in wetlands across much of Canada, their vociferous, chattering calls a staple of the marsh chorus.
A moment of Zen, as a marsh wren closes its eyes and prepares for takeoff. True to its name, marsh wrens thrive in wetlands across much of Canada, their vociferous, chattering calls a staple of the marsh chorus. © DUC