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The Big Bald Banding Station releases hope into the world

Chestnut-sided Warbler
IN GOOD HANDS: A Chestnut-sided Warbler sits in a bander’s sure grip at a bird-banding station on Big Bald Mountain, on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Photo by Marina Richie

Sunrise on Big Bald Mountain slices through a brooding sky as gray as catbirds. A Chestnut-sided Warbler sings with swift dexterity. Each note enunciates the emerald grassy ridges punctuated by flame azaleas. I stretch my arms, aching from helping lug a box filled with bird-banding gear. The dawn kindles like a flicker feather upon the rolling Appalachian Mountains.

The Big Bald Banding Station sits alongside the Appalachian Trail, on the border of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina and within a globally imperiled ecosystem. I’ve arrived at the intersection of hiking, science, and wonder.

My hand lingers on a wooden post with its white blaze — the signature trail marker for the 2,200-mile continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine. At last, I’d come from Oregon to immerse myself in the birdlife my father enjoyed when he backpacked this section in the 1980s.

In the pre-dawn of a late June day, I’d already heard the chorded serenades of Veery and Hermit Thrush, two of his favorites. Blue-headed Vireos, Canada Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Eastern Towhees, and an uncommon Black-billed Cuckoo also tune the cool air at 5,400 feet above sea level.

Mark Hopey reminds me a bit of my father, Dave Richie, who served as the Appalachian Trail project manager during the trail’s pivotal era of land acquisitions in the 1970s and ’80s. I can imagine them in easy companionship. Hopey, program director for the Southern Appalachian Raptor Research Association, even has a similar twinkle in his eye. Like my father had been in his early 60s, Hopey is strong, capable, and at home among birds in the wild.

After my father became ill in 2001, I asked him where we might go for a last trip. He chose It was here in the southern highlands among the June serenades of warblers, tanagers, vireos, and thrushes. We never got to take that hike. The cancer moved fast. My father died in December 2002 at age 70.

Today, the plan is to capture, take data, band, and release summer songbirds. Our initial team of three includes 22-year-old Jesse Szemkus, a local college student with the exuberance of a puppy and the potential to become a serious bird biologist. Two seasoned banders will join us when the nets are open.

Part of the intrigue of bird banding is the unpredictable. In August 2011, Hopey and his team recaptured a junco with a worn aluminum band that dated to nine years earlier and then recaptured it again in October 2012, making it at least 10 years, 3 months old. It was one of the oldest wild juncos recorded (11 years, 4 months is the record).

Maybe we’d be very lucky and net a Golden-winged Warbler — a rare species experiencing a 98 percent decline in the southern Appalachians. Recently, a reliable birder reported hearing one singing in the vicinity. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (the nonprofit dedicated to preserving and managing the entire trail) is improving the bird’s habitat close to the banding station by cutting back hawthorns encroaching on the open tundra-like meadows that are relicts of the Ice Age. The warblers’ finicky needs for a mosaic of shrubs, openings, and sheltering forests guide the restoration.

Big Bald is part of the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) network of banding stations across North America. The Institute for Bird Populations runs the ambitious program. Since 1989, more than 1,200 MAPS stations have collected more than 2 million bird capture records. Accuracy is a must for researchers seeking to understand and find solutions to severe bird declines in this era of climate chaos and dwindling habitats. The stations run on a strict protocol.

Hopey has his eye on the weather radar and forecasts of severe thunderstorms by noon. If all goes well, we can gather six hours of data. I’d soon find out Hopey is like my father in another way. Everyone pitches in and steps up because Hopey trains and then trusts you to do the job right. As a writer, I’m often on the sidelines scribbling notes. Delving in is important, and sometimes I need the nudge. Putting up the mist nets is step number one.

Mark Hopey bird banding
AT HOME AMONG BIRDS: Ornithologist Mark Hopey and his student Jesse Szemkus work at a bird-banding table on the mountain. Photo by Marina Richie

Learning the ropes

Each of the 12 mist nets for catching birds extends 12 meters and rises to a height of 3 meters. Hopey chooses nets with the smallest mesh to catch the highest diversity of birds. The finer nylon mesh means bigger birds like towhees tend to “trampoline” off the net. It’s a compromise, but it assures we will sample birds as small as hummingbirds. He guides Szemkus and me through the steps to erecting the first net, and then he’s off with his net bags, vanishing down a faint trail into a thicket of northern red oak, American beech, yellow birch, and fire cherry.

Szemkus and I head off on another trail to set up a net by ourselves. We exchange nervous smiles. Will we get it right? Find the poles lying down. Put them up. Attach the loops of the net in the right order, or a tangling mess will result. Pull the net out slowly from the bag while walking to the far pole. Don’t ever let the net touch the ground. Use a half-hitch for the anchoring ropes and pull the nets taut. Check for any last tangles among the horizontal pockets designed to catch birds that may lightly strike the net and fall.

We fumble our way through erecting net No. 7 and give each other a high five before heading down the narrow forest trail to find No. 8. The nets are set in mowed narrow runways within the trees.

The nets are up. The banding table is well organized. It’s time to begin the rounds, checking nets on the half-hour. We’re joined by pros Tedi McManus and Kayla Bott. Soon, we’re in a rhythm. I’m not trained to “pick” the birds from the net, but I can help find them.

Some nets have no birds. Others have one or two. When I see a bundle of feathers dangling in the black mesh like a badminton birdie, my heart pounds. I call for help on the two-way radio. As soon as McManus or Bott arrive, their nimble fingers free the birds without harm. I write the net number, time, and species code on a paper bag that will hold the bird. Then, I’m ferrying birds back to the banding table.

When I don’t have birds to carry, I steal a few seconds to admire a male Indigo Bunting perched on the same sentinel branch each time I pass by. Its feathers shimmer electric blue in the sunshine. Tipping back his head, the male sings crisp notes as pitch perfect as the summer solstice.

Back at the banding table, Hopey is teaching Szemkus how to record data. A bottle of whiteout is getting plenty of use. The program director also demonstrates the proper way to hold a junco in his hand. The trick is to grasp the bird’s neck gently between the first two fingers of your cupped hand — firm but never squeezing and not bending the tail. To practice taking a bird unseen from a bag, he holds one thumb up and tells me to close my eyes. Pretend the thumb is the head and neck of a bird, he tells me. I have to find it with my two fingers, even as he moves his thumb like a bird in the bag. The practice works. I’m ready and still worried. But under his tutelage, my confidence grows.

Hopey takes a straw and blows the delicate down away from the junco’s skull. He’s detecting the bird’s age by the patterns of contrasting colors between ossified and less-ossified bone. Years earlier, he dabbed his fingers in water and spread the head feathers. He finds the straw less invasive.

His discerning eyes and confident hands tell the story of decades of bird banding. He’s checking feather wear for age, too. To determine the sex, Hopey looks for a brood patch and studies the vent (the cloacal opening on the tail’s underside).

Szemkus is leaning forward, eager to improve his recording skills. After he weighs the bird by placing the junco headfirst into a tube on the fine scale, it’s time for the numbered band. Later that morning, under Bott’s coaching, I’ll put a band on another junco’s leg, using special pliers for the delicate task.

Two hikers stop by the table. The young couple express interest. Hopey never misses the chance to educate. He shows them the junco, explaining the MAPS station, and after a quick assessment decides the woman will be able to let this bird go safely. Her expression when the bird flies? Pure joy.

“As a birdwatcher, it felt like such a great opportunity when I got involved with banding to know birds a little more intimately and understand how they are put together, rather than in a tree or from a distance,” Hopey says of his desire to share the experience that enriches his own life.

An hour later, I’m alone with two birds and a special task. Hopey gave me instructions to return two Tufted Titmice as close as possible to where they darted into a net, one after another. That way, they could resume their interrupted foray from the lower forests.

I can see the Appalachian Trail meandering through the knee-high, verdant grasses and ferns that shelter nesting songbirds. My father’s spirit feels especially close.

I peek into the first paper bag. There’s that perky gray crest. My brown eyes lock with the bird’s shiny black spheres. I reach in, grasp the titmouse as taught, and slowly pull my hand out, cupping the bird with the other. When my fingers open, the bird flies free.

Before I let the second one go, I whisper, “This one’s for you, Dad.” For years, I’ve pictured his spirit soaring with birds, from Red-tailed Hawks to a Brown Pelican leading a peloton skimming the ocean waves. Before my father’s career in the National Park Service, he’d flown Tiger jets for the Marines. Underlying his low-key demeanor were nerves of steel.

Thunderstorms rumble our way right on schedule. Raindrops fall. It’s time to shut the nets, pack up, and hike the A.T. across the open ridge to the intersecting trail down to the parking area — three-quarters of a mile away. Our catch was slim compared to a fall migration day. I savored every bird — a Hooded Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warblers, a Black-throated Green Warbler, lively Gray Catbirds, those ubiquitous Dark-eyed Juncos (Slate-colored), and of course the Tufted Titmouse duo.

Big Bald Mountain at dawn
Dawn breaks over Big Bald Mountain and the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Marina Richie

The wild east

The Appalachian Trail serves birds and long-distance hikers alike. Winds striking the north-south ridges create updrafts that buoy hawks and hummingbirds alike on journeys of thousands of miles. Protected lands buffering the trail are critical for stopover, nesting, wintering, and year-round habitats.

In this era of accelerating climate change and habitat destruction, we’re already living with 3 billion fewer breeding birds in North America than in 1970 — a loss of one in three birds. This largest of all-natural corridors remaining east of the Mississippi is of supreme importance to the future of birds and of the human spirit. Recently, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy dubbed the trail corridor the “Wild East” to draw attention to the need for greater protection across all 14 states.

Stories from the Big Bald Banding Station reveal the significance of the Wild East to birds. During fall migration, banders caught a Tennessee Warbler that flew 2,800 miles in 52 days from northern Alberta, where it was banded, averaging 50 miles per night flight. In 2017, an unbanded, first-year Kirtland’s Warbler showed up en route to the Bahamas from the jack pines of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, or Ontario.

Over the last 11 years during the breeding season, the station has captured an average of 156 songbirds each year, including 37 recaptures, representing anywhere from 20 to 26 species. Each autumn, the banders typically catch about 2,000 songbirds and 100 birds of prey. The related hawk watch project often counts around 3,000 individuals of 15 raptor species migrating overhead. Big Bald is one of the few stations in the U.S. that band songbirds, raptors, and owls.

Raptor trapping is a highly skilled activity that requires luring the birds in with a pigeon, starling, or House Sparrow. Hopey explains that the birds of prey (mostly Sharp-shinned Hawks) come in with a “light touch” and are netted before any contact with the lure. When hikers pass by at the right moment, they may have the good fortune of watching a banded hawk or falcon rise into the air.

“I’m thrilled every time I look a bird of prey in the eye,” he says. “Last year, we caught a beautiful adult Peregrine Falcon. It was like holding a piece of lightning in your hand.”

Dave Richie sits on a rock along the Appalachian Trail
The author’s father, Dave Richie, sits on a rock along the Appalachian Trail. Years ago, he was the trail’s project manager and was instrumental in preserving much of the trail as it is known today. Photo courtesy of Catherine Richie

Again, I think wistfully of my father. If only he could have witnessed that arresting moment with the fastest creature on earth, capable of dives of 200 mph. When scouring his Appalachian Trail journals, I found an entry from May 31, 1988: “We missed the full effect of Big Bald, because of a closure for a Peregrine hacking project. The detour, however, took us past the best display of Indian paintbrush I’ve experienced in the East.”

The Peregrine has come a long way since hacking (releasing captive-raised young birds from artificial eyries) played a vital role in their 1999 removal from the federal endangered species list after near-extinction from DDT exposure back in the 1970s. That’s positive news among the so-often bleak reports about birds. Like my father, I take heart from good news — and from silver linings of Indian paintbrush on the unexpected path.

These ridges and summits flow with wildflowers, ferns, azaleas, and mind-expanding vistas. Of all the places Hopey has banded birds — from Cape May, New Jersey, to Alaska — Big Bald Mountain is his favorite for the high elevations, sweeping views, and proximity to the Appalachian Trail, and for a deeper quality.

I wanted to come back to some place over and over again to have a feeling of grounding and investment,” he says. It’s here, too, where he shares the wonder with hikers, volunteers, and fourth through sixth graders from nearby towns as part of a Vacation Bird School.

In the weeks after returning home to Bend, Oregon, waking to the squawks of a raven family in the pines, I’ve reflected on my own pivotal day. There’s a synergy I hadn’t anticipated between MAPS bird banding and my father’s passion for long distances. He’d backpacked the entire Appalachian Trail in sections, ran the Boston Marathon twice, and reveled in 360-degree summit views.

My father had a knack for perseverance and dreaming big. When he took the reins, 600 miles of the trail fell on private lands; another 200 miles were on roads. His belief in the power of trail club volunteers, optimism, and quiet leadership led to a protected 2,200-mile-long public footpath. The Wild East initiative reflects Dave Richie’s vision of an expanded corridor, especially for the birds that sweetened every hike.

Hopey, McManus, Bott, and all banders who rise before dawn to brave darkness, wind, rain, frost, and heat show similar endurance as long-distance hikers and runners. Like Appalachian Trail Clubs, their work takes place in the field and relies on volunteers. The data collected — one bird at a time — will serve conservation at a magnificent scale. Their commitment to monitoring birds and inspiring people continues beyond a lifetime.

The personal reward? To hold a warbler that will soon fly thousands of miles, feel its beating heart, and then open your hand is to release hope into the world.

42 years and counting

The acclaimed Tennessee ornithologist George Mayfield and his wife, Cleo, began bird banding at Big Bald in 1978, establishing the station for science and education. Today Big Bald is part of the Southern Blue Ridge Important Bird Area, renowned for high-altitude sites along the Appalachian Trail.

The nonprofit Southern Appalachian Raptor Research, based in Mars Hill, North Carolina, manages the banding station, along with two lower-elevation MAPS stations (Kituah and Cowee on Cherokee tribal lands), raptor trapping, owl banding, a hawk watch, public education trips, and the week-long Vacation Bird School.

Funding comes from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, and others, including individual donors. For more information and directions to the Big Bald Banding Station, visit its website.

The big picture at Big Bald

Summer banding records at Big Bald Mountain over the past decade show high recapture rates for breeding birds, which indicates that birds tend to return to the same place each year to breed. The records also reveal the hardships of nesting: Birds are regularly thin without fat.

As the season progresses, new birds arrive from lower elevations. Hooded, Swainson’s, and Worm-eating Warblers fly up to feast higher up the mountain in preparation for the rigors of migration.

The autumn migration banding over 20 years shows a wide range of bird diversity, from 53 to 72 species in any given year. The researchers also report sharp fluctuations in the numbers of some neotropical migrants that breed in northern boreal forests. For example, the site averages 143 Cape May Warblers each fall, but in 2016, the banders caught 643 Cape Mays, likely due to excellent conditions on the breeding grounds the previous summer.

Tennessee Warblers that also nest in the far northern woods are clearly on a downward trend, despite remaining the most abundant of fall migrants (with a capture sample mean of 704 birds annually). They move through about a week before Cape May Warblers and two weeks earlier than Bay-breasted Warblers.

Meanwhile, there’s a positive trend to celebrate — visitors. The team keeps track of who comes to the banding station. School classrooms and education group visitation has steadily increased, up more than 26 percent over the past five seasons. In 2018, for example, 18 groups totaling 481 students visited. Dozens of volunteers, too, devote thousands of hours to helping at Big Bald, doing their part to ensure birds survive in a challenging world.

This article was published in the May/June 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

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Marina Richie

Marina Richie is a writer whose work has appeared in National Wildlife and other magazines. She wrote about choosing native plants in our March/April 2017 issue. She lives in Bend, Oregon.

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