Trapped in a net, a bird frantically beats its wings in a futile attempt to escape. A man with large, gentle hands slowly untangles the bird, which immediately quiets as he holds the tiny creature. “A black-headed grosbeak,” he says with a smile.
This bird will be one of nearly 50 avians banded, catalogued and then freed on Saturday in Solstice Canyon in Malibu.
Since last month, Solstice Canyon is the site of a new bird banding MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) station, one of nearly 500 stations in the U.S. and Canada. Every 10 days, beginning May 1 until early August, a team of assistants and volunteers led by Walter Sakai, master bird bander and professor of Biology at Santa Monica College, will capture and band birds by setting up 10 mist nets strategically placed in the canyon. In the coming years, by recapturing adult birds and banding their offspring, the project can track the productivity (number of offspring) and survivorship of the resident avian population, which will help resource managers assess the health of Solstice Canyon.
On Saturday, from 6 a.m. until noon, four bird banders worked the area, checking the nearly invisible, 8-foot high by 40-foot long nets every half-hour. When a bird was caught, it was carefully extracted from the net and carried in a soft net bag to a truck that held banding equipment. The bird was weighed, examined for sex and approximate age, and the wings were measured and feathers counted. The banders also checked for a brood patch, which is a bald spot on the belly of females that indicates she is preparing to nest, or is currently sitting on a nest of eggs. Before being released, a numbered band was placed around the bird’s leg, which will identify it if captured at a later date. According to Sakai, an average of 60 birds are banded in a six-hour period. About 200 birds have been banded in Solstice Canyon since May.
The sultry day brought nature lovers to the lush green canyon. A group of children saw a bird caught in one of the nets and watched with fascination as Sakai rescued it. One woman, who said she has been birding in the area for 25 years, stopped by the truck to watch the proceedings. “This is very interesting,” she said. “But I have mixed feelings about it, the handling of birds. It’s obviously a good thing to monitor bird activity, but I wish it wasn’t necessary.”
Sakai said that banding is a safe procedure overall, and the banders are well trained. But occasionally, a mishap occurs. “Every once in a while, a bird gets caught and tries to get out and a leg gets broken,” he said. “But it’s very rare. How else are you going to gain knowledge of this [bird productivity]?”
Jim Serikawa works in the Life Science Department at Santa Monica College and has been banding birds for four years. “Once people see what we’re doing, they’re usually supportive,” he said. “They want to see the birds up close.”
The MAPS program was created by the Institute of Bird Populations in 1989 and is supported by the Audubon Society and the National Park Service, among other organizations. Sakai said he received approximately $3,500 in financial and equipment donations for the Solstice Canyon MAPS station from the Santa Monica Bay and Los Angeles Audubon Societies and from Avinet, a New York-based company that sells banding equipment.
Sakai received his master bird bander license in 1997 and has been banding birds for 10 years. He also maintains MAPS stations in Zuma Canyon (since 1995), Zuma Creek, Joshua Tree and in the San Jacinto Mountains.
According to Sakai, the most common bird they band in the Malibu area is the wrentit. Other birds banded on Saturday included the common yellowthroat, orange-crowned warbler, black phoebe and black-headed grosbeak. Several hummingbirds were weighed and measured but released unbanded, as it takes a special license to band these tiny birds. Cause for excitement for the banders is the capture of birds that don’t often fly into the nets, such as red-tailed hawks and owls that are caught during all-night banding sessions.
Sakai told of a hard-to-catch bird that recently delighted his crew. “There was a roadrunner at Zuma Canyon last week that we banded,” he said, laughing. “It was a rush for everyone.”