Mad Island Banding

March 7, 2014 by Emily Cohen


It's that time again! We have been gearing up here at the Migratory Bird Center through the last few months of this snowy winter—ordering equipment, hiring and coordinating the crew, and updating permits. Now we are ready to head down to the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico to catch some spring migrants!

Thousands of individuals of 84 species of birds were captured at Mad Island. Blue-headed vireo, blackburnian warbler, scarlet tanager, and chestnut-sided warbler are pictured above.

In 2012 the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center established a bird banding station at The Nature Conservancy's Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve (Mad Island) in Matagorda County, Texas (28°37'52.6"N 96°05'47.9"W). During the springs of 2012 and 2013, we banded thousands of migratory birds on their northward journey to breeding areas. At the same time, we introduced the phenomenon of migration to hundreds of school children.

Mad Island provides one of the first resting and refueling points for northward migrants after hundreds of miles of non-stop flight. In addition to having several unique and rare habitats, Mad Island is situated in the middle of the Central and Mississippi Migration Flyways. This makes it an ideal place to observe and study songbird migration.

Migratory birds spend up to 4 months of the year in spring and fall migrations. Energetically demanding nocturnal flights fueled primarily by stored fat reserves characterize both of these migrations.

Most small songbirds require frequent resting periods at stopover sites on their migratory path to replenish fat and protein reserves. During these stopovers, they must quickly overcome the challenges of acquiring food in unfamiliar habitats, sometimes in merely a matter of days, before continuing migration. Therefore, understanding the factors that affect the condition of birds during migration can inform managers and scientists about the most important conservation priorities that may prevent future declines.

To gain this understanding, we need additional information on distribution, abundance, habitat use and the condition of these birds, especially along the Gulf coast where there is a significant migration of birds into North America.

Teaching local school children about their natural environment, and the importance of natural resources of the Gulf Coast region was a primary objective of this project. Helen DuBois helped the Smithsonian generate supplementary funding from the Trull Foundation. With that funding, we were able to hire an environmental education intern, Jordan Rutter, who is helping develop an online curriculum for teachers in the classroom all centered on the biology of birds and the larger Mad Island ecosystem.

During the first half of April, Jordan is heading back down to Mad Island from the Migratory Bird Center to share her passion for birds with classes from local schools. We hope to have 10 elementary to high school age groups visit during the 2 weeks she is there. Jordan has been busy coordinating with teachers over the past month. Last year the kids really loved the amazing experiences she facilitated for them.

Unfortunately, budgets are tight and there are not that many opportunities for these kids to go on field trips or to experience the amazing natural areas in the region. So, these are really special excursions for them. We look forward to reading Jordan's posts about her experiences with these classes!

The 2013 Mad Island banding crew had a great season. Pictured are Trischa Thorne, Tim Guida, Emily Cohen, and Jordan Rutter hard at work. We are all back for more excitement in 2014!

We are really lucky to have 2 of the 3 banding interns returning from last year. Tim Guida is driving from the Bird Center next week with a car full of equipment. Trischa Thorne and Sean McElaney will be joining him. I will also go down to help during peak migration, which is usually the second half of April.

We are especially grateful to Helen Runnells DuBois and to The Nature Conservancy and Steven Goertz, the Preserve Manager, in particular for hosting us again this year.

We will be posting this blog every week so check in to hear more about the data we are collecting, exciting collaborations, and most of all what we are catching!