Kaitlin Erpestad entered the banding shack with at least a half-dozen cloth bags dangling from her neck.
“It’s Christmas,” she announced to her fellow bird banders.
In each of the bags fluttered one songbird that Erpestad had just plucked from delicate nets in the woods at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory.
The birds might have been ruby-crowned kinglets or palm warblers or magnolia warblers or common yellow-throats.
She hung the bags from nails at on the shack’s wall, and the banding crew went to work on them. While Hawk Ridge is well-known as one of the best places in the country for counting and banding raptors, a pilot songbird banding program also is being conducted this fall. Erpestad and her husband, Matti Erpestad, are leading the project.
Since mid-August, when songbirds began migrating, banders have banded nearly 2,000 songbirds. For each bird, banders determine its age, sex, wing length, weight and amount of fat. Its band number is recorded and sent to the Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel, Md.
The birds are captured in gossamer thin “mist” nets stretched between poles in the woods. The birds fly into the nets and become entangled without being injured. Early-morning hours are most productive.
“One morning we had 80 birds in one net run,” Kaitlin Erpestad said. “In one hour, we had 140 birds. We had to shut the nets down.”
The nets had to be shut down to allow banders time to process all the birds they had captured.
Once banded, the birds are released to continue their migration. They are typically detained for no more than about 15 minutes.
This year’s pilot program is funded by a $7,000 grant from the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation. As part of the grant, volunteers are being trained so that the program can be conducted completely by volunteers in future years, said Janelle Long, executive director of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. The organization had hoped to attract train up to five volunteers, but so far, 13 volunteers have given more than 200 hours of time to the project.
From 1996 to 2006, Dave Grosshuesch banded songbirds at Hawk Ridge. He banded more than 50,000 birds in that time, nearly 5,000 each fall.
On weekends, the Erpestads band songbirds near the main overlook at Hawk Ridge and teach visitors about birds and their migration.
“It is amazing to see how people of all ages, and especially young children, flock to see the songbirds,” Kaitlin Erpestad said.
Banding information is valuable to researchers because they can learn about where birds breed and spend winters, where they migrate and how well species are faring.
For more information on Hawk Ridge, go to www.hawkridge.org.