Banding Birds for Over Six Decades

By LeJay Graffious

Each year, in late summer through early fall, volunteers gather near Red Creek campground on the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, to help with banding efforts of migrating birds.

This year, 2018, has been designated by National Geographic and Audubon as “The Year of the Bird,” in honor of the anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  So, it is especially fitting that we look at the place and people associated with more than six decades of surveying birds as they head south through the mountains of West Virginia.

Banding occurs at the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory. This is an apt and elegant name for an area centered by a uniquely designed three-sided hut, perched on a rocky outcrop and accessed by a short trail east of the campground.  The view is outstanding, especially at sunrise, when one looks out across seven ridges. The observatory is directed by Joan Pattison and Todd Schnop.

Birders originally came to high elevation location to count hawks flapping and soaring overhead.  Then they became aware of, first thrushes, and then warblers, in large numbers.   The spot developed into the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory.

Welfare of the birds is primary.  The nets, finely spun and called “mist nets,” are suspended on metal poles in sections of the ridge area known to be passages for migrants.  Nets are unfurled in pre-dawn hours and wound up each day at noon.  Birds “bounce” into the nets, fall into the flaps of netting, and are quickly extricated. At the hut, banders complete the data for each bird and use special pliers to carefully place a lightweight metal band on one leg; then the birds resume flight.

Experience has shown that birds will mostly be caught before midday; that accounts for the closing at noon.  Also, rain [and yes sometimes snow!] will mean that the nets are closed.

The bird banders must undergo rigorous training and secure a license.

The banding station’s data show the value of high ridges as corridors and the dangers of windmills and other towers. Conservation groups support keeping ridges open, not making them obstacle courses. Environmental groups support the creation and maintenance of young forests, which are much more productive providing food sources than mature forests, to fuel the journey. They support maintaining green undeveloped areas along the routes. They support keeping cats indoors, a safer option for our feline friends and one that does not contribute to the estimated 4.4 billion birds killed annually in North America.

In addition to migration data, banding also provides a window into other scientific work.  With technology taking more of role in birding, a researcher came to AFMO with recording equipment and light-tight enclosures. Since birds migrate at night, they use a series of chip notes to stay in communication. He recorded these notes and developed a program to listen to the night skies and record the number of each species passing overhead. Other studies have occurred at AFMO including birds as vectors of Lyme disease. Birds do not get Lyme, but they carry ticks which move the virus around the country.

Of course, all banding data is reported to the USGS Banding Lab in Laurel, MD. AFMO data, along with the other reports from around North America, give a big picture of environmental health through bird populations. Some reports say the birds have decreased by half in the past forty years. Also, studies on climate change and the effects on migrants have used this data. To me, one of the most valuable assets of the station is the educational component, which gives a personal, up close “look them in the eye” experience to visitors. They can actually hear the racing heartbeat of a bird pressed to their ear. These interactions create lasting impressions and possibly plant the seeds of environmentalism.

The station at Dolly Sods is staffed completely by volunteers, as it has been throughout its long history. This year we have 9 banders cycling through the season from August 18 to October 6. Ten trained net tenders and a few more in training assist throughout the migration.

These include WVHC members such as LeJay Graffious. Jackie Burns, Carol and Fred McCullough, and Tom and Dawn Fox.  They freely donate their time [and some muscle] to assist with hut set-up, net lane maintenance, net tending, bird retrieval, and, when possible, hosting and educating visitors.

Two prominent persons in the early days of the Allegheny Migration Front Observatory were Ralph Bell and Dr. George Hall.  Each brought foresight and enthusiastic action to the idea that much could be learned about the patterns and numbers of passing species through formal study. Their yearly reports were enlightening and one, for 2003 began this way: “The 46thyear of bird banding at the AFMO [Allegheny Front Migration Observatory], Grant County, West Virginia, was another season of modest results.  The number of bandings was only 62% of the long-term average, making this the sixth poorest season since we have had full time coverage.”  Contrastingly, next year’s began, “The 47thyear of bird banding at the AFMO [Allegheny Front Migration Observatory], Grant County, West Virginia, was the best since 1999.”  Reports noted numbers banded, the first date of capture, last date, and peak numbers and dates for all species processed.

In other informal reports, especially stories around campfires at Red Creek, birders do and did recount adventures from the fifties, sixties…and on.   George Hall told of cattle grazing at the Sods; those with horns often got tangled in nets [early nets were at the location of the present campground].  He also told of being alone there, in the 1950’s, with a dead car battery and walking 12 miles to get help.  The second part of that adventure included a ride on the back of a Harley Davidson motorcycle…to Maysville.

Bander Leon Wilson would always ask child visitors, “Which do you think weighs more…a hummingbird or a ping pong ball?”

I first visited the AFMO in 1976 when Elizabeth Zimmerman took me to the station. At first I was attracted to the variety of species that could be seen up close and personal. There have been 127 species recorded at AFMO; the only confirmed record in WV of a Kirtland’s Warbler is from there. Then I was drawn to the skill of the banders and net tenders. After several visits, in 1977 I was taught to extract birds and removed my first bird from the mist nets. I was hooked.

As my net tending continued, Ralph Bell first approached me about becoming a bander in 1996.  As a working school principal, I did not think that I had the time but, through his persistence and wanting the station to continue, I agreed and was his trainee, or sub-bander, from 2000 until his death. Now, I am a Master Bander at AFMO and run my own summer station, Old Hemlock Bird Observatory, near Bruceton Mills, WV, under the Institute of Bird Population, Point Reyes, CA guidelines.

There have been many changes at AFMO over the years. When I first started going to Dolly Sods it was free range for cattle and sheep. When it became a Wilderness area, the livestock were removed. They were maintaining the vegetation at low heights. When the plants were taller than humans and net poles, the number of birds captured dropped off precipitously because they were flying over the nets. Volunteer Tom Fox stepped in and worked with the Forest Service to clear-cut a section to the east of the nets. Now the birds fly up the ridge and, when they encounter the west winds at the Front, they drop down to the protection of the trees and hit our nets. This has helped improve our capture rate of birds.

The birds still hold to their course over that ridge and the volunteers still try to briefly detain them in that flight.  It must be dreadful and glorious to lift off and wend through the starry skies.  It is glorious and wonderful to see them come over our mountains, and to have even a chance to hold one for just a moment. A person may gently cup hands and feel the warm and fiercely beating heart…and be speechless with the joy of that gift of that time and that place.


Cindy Ellis also contributed to this article.