The baby shore birds of North Carolina can take a deep breath: Banding season is pretty much done.
From April through early July, state biologists and their volunteers take skiffs to shadeless little islands that are often covered in scrub and that house colonies of herons, egrets, pelicans, oyster catchers and terns. Baby birds are scooped up, one at a time, and banders armed with a string of rust-proof, numbered bands and a pair of pliers attach a band to their legs before they are released to go find their moms.
It briefly stresses the birds, but biologists call the process an important step in studying birds to track their habits, travels, feeding sources and lifespans so that the state can protect and increase their numbers.
John Weske, a Marylander, leads many of the banding excursions, especially among terns and pelicans. He knows what it’s all about — he’s been banding since 1959. One of his last banding sessions was at a pelican colony on New Dump Island, which is located in Core Sound near the Carteret County community of Atlantic.
He detailed the decline of pelicans in the 1950s and 1960s due to DDT, a chemical pesticide that caused their eggs to develop thin shells that were too easily crushed by the weight of the nesting birds.
Now, however, with careful conservation, the North Carolina pelicans are at some record numbers, though still considered endangered. Banding has allowed this growth to be studied and observed, he said.
The New Dump Island banding session took place on July 1, a day when the sun was so hot that State Biolgist Sarah Schweitzer called off the banding after only a couple of hours to keep both banders and birds from overheating.
“We all crawled out of there,” Schweitzer recalled.
Once on the island, string necklaces of bird bands were handed to the banders while the rest of the volunteers served to collect the young, down-covered pelicans and hold them secure until the bands were applied.
Pelican chicks are relatively large and clumsy — the volunteers simply surround them, then move in and pluck the squawking birds from the ground, treating them as gently as possible until they are released in a few minutes.
Schweitzer touts the successes.
“We put a ton of effort into research,” Schweitzer said. “The oyster catcher has been increasing. That’s one of our good stories.”
Egrets and herons are doing well also, she said.
Schweitzer said the state is more cautious about banding the birds, such as tricolor herons, snowy egrets and little blue herons whose populations are in decline. “We don’t want to cause any additional stress to them,” she said.
Carmen Johnson is a water bird technician who works with Schweitzer and was on scene at the New Dump Island banding. She said that everyone can — and should — help in tracking birds by their bands. For one thing, if you see a dead bird with a band, you can report it to a bird banding laboratory.
Johnson said the best way to report a bird band is to Google “report a bird band and info,” which will bring up bird banding labs. Those labs will have an online page on which information can be submitted. Once done, the species, age and other information on the bird will be available to view.
“We have so many birds that pass through here,” Schweitzer said, “and all the water fowl that come down in the winter, and all the terns and egrets and everybody nesting in the summer. We have a lot of neat water-associated birds here: More reasons to protect wetlands and coastlines, to keep all these species viable.”