Mad Island Banding

April 18, 2013 by Pete Marra


This week I hosted 8th—12th grade classes with the help of a local volunteer, Julianne Thompson. Almost 200 teenagers visited the banding station to learn about migratory birds and the ecosystem of the Mad Island Marsh Preserve!

The students stayed all day and participated in a variety of activities in addition to the bird banding and bird scavenger hunt.

At the entrance of the preserve are fields of milo (a grain crop grown for cattle feed). These fields are always alive with birds including Eastern Meadowlark, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, and even Buff-breasted Sandpiper. As they entered the preserve, I asked the students to look out the bus windows and count the number of species of birds they could see. Most students thought this was a pointless task since they only saw "grass." I was not as surprised by this response after learning that some students had never seen or noticed birds before. One student saw a Turkey Vulture for the first time during the visit and exclaimed "I've never seen a vulture before today, except in a zoo!" As they left the Preserve, I asked them to look at the same milo fields and tell me what they saw. As I got off the bus and said goodbye the kids were shouting, "I see a blackbird." "I see some sparrows!" "I see a vulture." "I don't know what they are, but I see a lot of birds!"

Because water is such an integral part of this ecosystem that supports so many migratory birds, we talked about watersheds. I helped the students use dip nets in the slough to look for other species in the watershed. They found various aquatic invertebrates, such as water scorpions and crayfish as well as various beetles and shrimp. I gave them materials to identify these organisms for themselves as well as use a scale to determine the quality of the water and surrounding area based on what lived there.

Almost every day, at least one student asked me "what IS a watershed?!" I explained that it is a large piece of land where all of the water in an area will eventually drain into a larger and larger body of water until it reaches the ocean. This means that a rain drop will eventually make its way to a creek which feeds into a river which runs into the ocean. This is an important concept not only because of the environmental importance but also because everyone influences and is dependent upon the watershed where they live. Watersheds should matter to the students because the area they live in has strong ties to water, whether it is the proximity to Matagorda Bay and the Gulf Of Mexico or the water needed to grow crops such as rice in that area. Litter, fertilizers, and anything else that water can move eventually gets carried off into the storm drain and ends up going through the watershed until it reaches the ocean. Many students did not know that they have an impact on places such as Mad Island Preserve from their home or school even if they had never been to these wildlife areas before.

In the saltwater marsh near the Inter-coastal Canal the students were given the opportunity to observe fiddler crabs. If they were fast enough, some students were even able to catch one and hold these small crustaceans in their hands. The saltwater marsh is the only area on the preserve to find fiddler crabs and a variety of other wildlife. This point was emphasized to help emphasize the importance of conserving this habitat so that the fiddler crabs have a place to live. Marshes hold water and help with flooding during major storms. These habitats also are the most important filters in the world as they are the final area between land and sea.

Students were happy that they got to see and learn about different parts of the preserve. A number of them told me that they would like to visit other natural places to see if they could catch more fiddler crabs, see how healthy the water was, and just see more wildlife. I had a blast these last 2 weeks being able to share the birds of Mad Island Marsh Preserve with so many of the local kids! It was a great experience and I hope to get to go back next year.

Written by Jordan Rutter, Bird Educator, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

Number of Captures: 626
Number of Species Captured: 57
Number of Species Seen: 210