Monday, February 19, 2018

Bird banding in T&T


exam time: Certified bird bander Carl Fitzjames holds a bird he's about to examine.

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close-up view: Carl Fitzjames, left, and Vishnu Debie closely analyse one of their catches through magnifying goggles.

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IN the forests of the Northern Range, among the thick, lush vegetation where strong gusts of wind send showers of leaves floating toward the earth, and where wasps and mosquitoes as large as wasps hover in clusters above anything that moves, two men sit huddled on the ground carpeted with brown foliage, their attention fixed on an object.

The men, Carl Fitzjames and Vishnu Debie, work calmly to free a bananaquit from entanglement in a fine mist net that stands about seven feet off the ground. Fitzjames and Debie hardly mutter a word to each other, but their hands move in tandem, so experienced they are working with birds. The small bird barely moves an inch, as if it recognises that moving at all will tie him up further. In the few minutes it takes to free the bird from the net, it stares up at the men as they speak calmly to it.

It's after midday on a Sunday, and Fitzjames and Debie have already gone through this routine several times for the day. It's all part of the job of a bird bander. Twice a month, and as early as

6 a.m., the men trek into the woods and set up tall mist nets at strategic locations. Between short intervals they return to scour the nets for birds which unsuspectingly fly into the black nylon mesh.

Upon freeing the birds from the nets, Fitzjames and Debie place the birds into thin pouches before making the trip back on foot to the Simla Research Station, where the real work—that of analysing the birds—gets underway.

To watch these men at work is like observing surgeons in action. Expertly gripping a bird in his hands, as only a certified bird bander would, Fitzjames holds the bird's head between his index and middle finger, while his hand is placed on the bird's back.

Then he carefully examines the bird from the crown of its head to its tail. Everything is accounted for: its wing length, tail length, weight, body molt, body fat, plumage and sex. Fitzjames also inspects the birds for parasites. Each bit of data is recorded by Debie, who documents every single finding in his log book.

"It will take us a long while to sift through this data. It will then be entered into the computer systems and then over the number of years that we hope to carry out this exercise, we'll be able to analyse and see what's happening," said Debie, who is pursuing his master's degree in science and management of tropical biodiversity at the University of the West Indies.

The majority of birds caught on this day are "recaps"—22 of them: a miniscule metal band with a specific number has already been fitted onto the bird on previous bird-banding exercises. For birds without a band, Fitzjames uses banding pliers to place the band—made out of a light material, aluminium alloy—on the bird's tiny leg.

The setting-up of the nets and the banding of the birds is all done in the name of science and conservation. It's a job that Fitzjames and Debie are trained and well qualified to perform because of the complex nature of the process. Not only must the nets be monitored frequently, but the bird bander must know exactly how to apply the band onto the bird's fragile leg. The band must move freely around the bird's leg, but not so much that it risks getting snagged on branches. Most importantly, perhaps, the bird bander must know all there is to know about birds.

The bird-banding exercise is only successful if the data is accurate and so Fitzjames looks over the birds using magnifying goggles so that at the end of the examination, nothing, not even the tiniest parasite, goes unnoticed. After his inspection, the bird is released with a new accessory. On this day, the men have caught, examined and banded dozens of birds—from the exotic green honeycreeper and feisty silver-beaked tanager to the ochre-bellied flycatcher, Northern waterthrush, bananaquits and golden-headed manakin. The men exclaim when they come across a female ochre-bellied flycatcher with a smooth, dark red, almost glossy-looking, brood patch. It means she is getting ready to breed—and that's good news. It's the first of its kind Fitzjames and Debie have seen for the day.

Bird banding is essential if we are to understand the birds endemic to our country. It is also essential if we're serious about the conservation of our birds.

"If we want to understand our bird population, we need to do constant mist netting and bird banding and, after a while, by taking data, we will be able to tell a lot of stuff like survivorship and population trends, and it will help us make more informed decisions in terms of our bird populations," said Fitzjames, who is a certified bird bander, trained in the US, and is also an integral part of the Brasso Seco Tourism Action Committee.

The educational value of bird banding is undeniable.

"We look around and see all these beautiful birds and yet we know nothing about them. Bird banding helps us understand these birds," he said.

There are three areas where bird banding is currently conducted—Simla, above Asa Wright and at Morne Bleu. Fitzjames hopes to add Brasso Seco to that list soon. Until then, doing as much bird banding as possible in other areas, will do.

After the men spend two additional hours in the field and back at Simla analysing and recording, they gather their nets and pack up and clear out.

It's been a long and fruitful day; now the task of understanding the data and using it to strengthen conservation efforts still awaits.