One early June morning, Bomberger Brown from the Tern & Plover Conservation Partnership and Lauren Dinan and Lindsay Brown, nongame bird biologists from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, climb out of their vehicle onto a sparse, sandy landscape dominated by beige and blue. Lauren and Lindsay enthusiastically don their binoculars, take a closer look, and then point over the sand pile to three plover chicks scampering across the sand. They blend in so well it’s difficult to see; it’s the motion that catches the eye. These birds are part of the landscape. The scientists gracefully run after the chicks, gently pick them up and begin to work. One by one, they band the chicks so they can monitor their habits, their movements, their very survival. The entire banding process takes less than five minutes.
Lauren Dinan, Mary Bomberger Brown, and Lindsay Brown scan the beach of a sand and gravel operation searching for interior least terns and piping plovers. Photo by Valerie Cuppens.
Why is it important to monitor these birds? They are a species of concern. Interior least terns are considered endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act; piping plovers are threatened. For this reason, it is important we understand these birds so that we can better protect them. From late April through mid-August biologists monitor and study the birds to ensure their safety. Bomberger Brown says,
“… If we monitor the birds, we know where the birds are nesting, when their eggs are going to hatch, when the babies are going to fledge. We know where they are spending the winter. We can use that information to understand the birds better and answer basic biological questions. We can’t protect a species if we don’t really understand them better. If the species is put on the Endangered Species list, the goal is to get them off [the list].”
A biologist carefully holds a newly banded piping plover. Photo by Mariah Lundgren.
One way of monitoring birds is to place markers on their legs. One marker is consistent and universal among all banded birds: a USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) metal band with a numeric code that identifies an individual bird. A colored flag indicating the general region where the bird was banded, and a unique combination of color bands on the lower legs indicate characteristics such as age, sex, year banded and the particular location the bird was captured. The scientists accurately record this information in their field journals and enter the USGS number in a federal database.
Watch this video to learn more about banding and monitoring birds.
This video describes how and why birds are banded. Video produced by Valerie Cuppens and Peter Stegen.
We know more about piping plovers than least terns simply because they have longer legs that can hold more bands. The plastic, colored bands are lightweight and do not impede the bird’s mobility.
Learn more about banding birds in this fun, interactive logic puzzle:
Activity: Break the Bird Band Code
Every time scientists band a bird they also weigh it, and if it is an adult, they measure the wings, legs, head and bill. All of this information is recorded in the scientist’s field journal. The field journal always includes the date, time and location of the banding, the USGS metal band number, the color band combination, the weight in grams, and other measurements, if available. Sometimes additional data is included such location of the nest or a number of eggs. The more detailed the field notes, the better.
Biologist measure the tail of an adult piping plover. Photo by Michael Forsberg.
This interior least tern is three days old and weighs 6.4 grams. Photo by Mariah Lundgren.
Biologists place an adult piping plover inside a bag, weighing it to ensure the bird doesn’t escape. Photo by Michael Forsberg.
Biologist Lauren Dinan places interior least tern eggs into a container filled with water to determine when the eggs will hatch. Photo by Michael Forsberg.
Bomberger Brown explains,
“… because the birds live in an anthropogenic environment where people are living, working and playing, it is important to understand how humans and birds can coexist. If we can identify individuals, we can follow them. We know where they nest, we know where they go, and we know where they spend the winter.”