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Change is in the Air

Audubon’s Kingston Wildlife Research Station
Records Bird Population and Migration Data

By Hugh Markey

The paths through the woods and grass are littered with yellow leaves. After a few unusually warm days at the 80 degree mark, the October temperature has returned to the 50s and a cool breeze removes any doubt that fall has arrived. Making her way from net to net, lead bird bander Julie Shieldcastle carries cloth bags in which she will carefully place the captured birds. This is a routine she has maintained seven mornings a week since August 7 and one that will end on October 31, when the nets will be taken down and stored for another season. Shieldcastle is the most recent in a line of bird banders that reaches back to the early 1960s at one of the oldest banding stations in eastern North America. It is a hidden gem inherited by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island from long-time supporter and Board Member Doug Kraus: the Kingston Wildlife Research Station in Kingston, Rhode Island.

The banding schedule has remained the same since the 1950s, when University of Rhode Island professor of chemistry Doug Kraus balanced a full time teaching position with daily bird captures and banding. An avid birder and naturalist, Kraus used the 86-acre parcel of land surrounding his home as a banding station. When Kraus passed away in 2000, he left his property and an endowment to Audubon with the intent to conserve the natural habitat found on his property as well as to continue his bird-banding operation. That same year, Audubon entered into a partnership with URI to manage the station, and for seventeen years URI professor Peter Paton and a team of students have worked together to carry on the work that Kraus began. “Peter Paton was instrumental in ironing out the agreement between URI and Audubon,” explained Audubon Executive Director Lawrence Taft. “We both recognized the value of the Kingston Station and worked together to form a partnership that benefited the objectives of both organizations. Audubon continues to manage the fields and orchard on the property to help reduce invasive plants and improve the habitat for birds.”

“There are a number of banding stations in the region, including one on Block Island and the Kingston station,” explained Paton. “Both ¬locations have shown a similar story about migration patterns. There are also a number of long established banding stations that occur across America. The advantage of the Kingston station is that it is one of the longest running in eastern North America. Kraus began banding in about 1958 and began keeping regular, long term data in 1960. He officially began a breeding bird survey there in 1966, which gave a good indication of what was happening in terms of bird populations in the 1960s. We compare those figures to what we see now.”

“The birds don’t take a day off.”

Bird banding involves the use of mist nets, so named because of their gossamer appearance. Rising some ten feet in the air and stretching forty feet or more, they look a bit like oversized badminton nets. Each one is placed in an assigned location, which remains the same year after year for the sake of consistency. Nets are unfurled about a half hour before sunrise. When a bird flies into the net, the thin material flexes and gent¬ly wraps itself around the bird, safely trapping it. The bird will remain there until the bander comes to remove it, which is the way the process has gone for years.

“Every fall we hire a bander to run the station,” said Paton. “That’s to mimic what Doug did. He was a chemistry professor at URI and he taught classes, but still was able to band every day of the week. Back then, because of the abundance of the birds in the 60s, he could only run four nets. When we started the operation with student helpers, we added six more for a total of ten. We still maintained his four original locations. To maintain that record, that’s what we do.”

Professor Paton feels lucky to have this year’s bander on the job. “Nowadays we advertise nationally and we get very skilled banders to run the banding station,” Paton says. “Julie’s banded about 500,000 birds and has tons of experience.” Shieldcastle, who traveled from Ohio for the season, brings 28 years of banding experience to the job.

The process goes on seven days a week, with only rain interrupting banding. Although she could request a day off, Shieldcastle rarely does. “What would I do?” she asks. “Besides, birds don’t take a day off.”

Change is in the Air

In the seventeen years that Audubon has partnered with URI, Paton has noted two major changes in bird records: a reduction in the abundance of birds and changes in migration patterns. Neither trend is a good one.

Although the variety of species is roughly the same, the sheer number of captures has dropped drastically. Paton points to another long time banding station on Block Island to illustrate his point. “You talk to older birders about Block Island, and they’ll say that you used to be able to go out and there were birds all over the place. Now you can still find the species but there are far fewer birds.” The data recorded at both Block Island and the Kingston Station support what had only been anecdotal evidence. “The number of species captured per year has not changed much over time, but total abundance (the actual number of birds caught per day) has really declined dramatically. Even a decade ago, a really good day would capture 80 to 100 individual birds. These days you’re doing well to get 20 to 30 birds. It’s amazing how quickly something like that can take place.”

(It should be noted that, while this story was being written, Shieldcastle reported a one day total of 55 birds, six of which were recaptures. However, that number is unusually high.) “A bird like the Myrtle Warbler (sometimes called a Yellow-rumped Warbler) used to be captured at the rate of 50 to 60 per day. They’re just much less common than they were a decade ago. If I were to speculate about what’s driving that, it’s possibly the result of changes in the forests of their Canadian habitat, but even that may not be enough to account for the decline in numbers. I can only speculate, but I suspect that development along the coast may be what’s driving the decline.” He compares the trend to that of the monarch butterfly. “We’re down from thousands to a trickle. That can change pretty quickly. We have a better handle on that cause, but the whole phenomenon (of abundance decline) is very similar.”

Paton blames the decline on “… a whole host of factors: cat mortality (domestic cats that are allowed outdoors and end up killing migratory birds); birds striking buildings, windows, cars. Also, there are habitat conditions that have changed, either on their breeding grounds or their wintering grounds. More important are changes in migration stopover habitat.” Birds often stop to rest and feed as they make their journey to and from their breeding grounds. Eastern birds often fly over water for much of their migration, making stops along the coastal areas. The human influx to the coast has not made life easier for migratory birds. “As people flooded to the east coast, there has been a decline of habitat availability.”
Paton notes another major change in the trends at the station: records indicate that the birds are migrating later and later each year as a result of global warming and changes in the climate of the region. “New England is becoming milder and milder, and it means that birds are sticking around longer. That’s one of the signals of climate change.”

Records from the Kingston Wildlife Research Station augment the hunches of experienced birders with hard facts when it comes to migration departure times. “You talk to the old time birders and they say, ‘Oh, I think the birds used to depart earlier,’ and this just puts data to the feeling they had in their bones. It’s showing that what people are saying is true.” Paton points to one record, that of the Red-eyed Vireo, as an example. “If you look at the average date for the Red-eyed Vireo, when the peak numbers were captured in the 1960s ¬versus now, the migration changes about 3 days per decade. The fact is that they’re now departing ten days later than they were in the 60s. It’s pretty amazing that these kinds of changes have taken place in such a short period of time.”

Clothespins and cloth bags

Back at the station, Shieldcastle removes the first capture from the net on this round, a Tufted Titmouse. Shieldcastle says that uninformed people on social media platforms have been causing a bit of a stir around the practice of bird banding. They see pictures of the birds caught in the nets, being handled by humans, even simply with their mouths open, as signs that the animals are being harmed. In reality, the use of mist nets for any purpose other than scientific is against the law. Would-be banders must undergo rigorous training under the watchful eye of a master bander, a process that may take several years. These rules are designed to minimize the chance of harm to any bird. Still, controversy like this worries her. “It would be a shame to shut down this scientific tool.”

Each bird is removed carefully from the net and placed in a cloth bag and an old style clothespin is attached to it. The clothespin has a number on it, a low tech but effective method of keeping track of which of the ten nets captured the bird. She brings this round of captures to a tiny wooden shed that serves as the banding station. Joanne Riccitelli, the land protection director of the South Kingstown Land Trust, is in her second year of volunteering at the station and records the information that Shieldcastle quickly gleans from examining the bird. The pair stand at a wooden shelf built into the shed, working quietly and efficiently. One bird, a Gold Crowned Kinglet, is in his first year. Shieldcastle measures the wing and ascertains the fat content (and thereby its health) by blowing aside the feathers covering its lower breast. Each bird is examined in less than two minutes, and is soon released. Some birds are more cooperative than others, and the banders groan a bit when the time comes to examine a Cardinal. The same beak that is so impressive to look at and so efficient at cracking open sunflower seeds also packs a nasty bite.

History in the Making

Throughout the seventeen years of the official working relationship between Audubon and URI, as well as before the agreement was in place, the Kingston Wildlife Research Station has been a valuable educational resource. Peter Paton’s ornithology classes have visited twice every year for 21 years. Paton estimates that over 100 students have had a chance to actually gain experience with banding. Scott McWilliams, professor of wildlife ecology and physiology, supervised a student who used the facility for part of a doctorate and Rhode Island’s current Deputy Chief of Wildlife for DEM, Jay Osenkowski, produced a paper focused on the station as part of his master’s degree.

Paton puts it this way: “The Kingston Wildlife Research Station is definitely making contributions to the education of students at URI.”