Jerry Farrell's Bird Banding

(This column first appeared in the October 12, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Each year on October 14 Jerry Farrell changes roles.

    Last Wednesday he once again folded up his bird banding nets and got out his gun to join his comrades for the start of hunting season the next morning.

    To me Jerry represents the very best of the hunting community. Deeply committed to conservation and the environment, he spends most of each summer in the prairie provinces banding waterfowl for the Canadian government. (This year when he completed his hitch, his flight plans were cancelled by an air strike and he had to make the three day, 2000 mile return trip in Fish and Wildlife Service trucks.)

    More important to us on the Niagara Frontier is Jerry's spring and fall mist netting of bird migrants in a Lewiston woodlot. His accumulated records over 22 years give us some of the most interesting data available about the movements of birds thro ugh this area.

    I have known of Jerry's banding for many years but first visited his station only last spring. This fall I spent several days with him.

    The spring banding was a disappointment. Banders across the northeastern United States agree that this spring was the worst season they ever experienced. That does not mean that no birds passed through. Rather, the conditions were wrong for banders to capture them. Most bird migrants fly long distances at night and, barring some weather phenomenon like an early morning rain shower, they spread out widely across the landscape to feed quietly during the day. The ideal time for banders and other birde rs is when the birds accumulate in an area. On those rare occasions dozens of species may be found in a single tree. Last spring provided none of those days and most birds slipped through unrecorded -- and unbanded.

    On that spring day when I joined Jerry, he banded less than a dozen birds in six hours.

    This fall has been different, happily confirming that last spring was only an unusual blip in migration history. Each morning found scores of birds in the mist nets.

    Bird identification in the fall is much more difficult than in the spring. Males that were so strikingly marked in spring have molted and now look like the less colorful females. And first year birds -- still not in adult plumage -- further complic ate identification. Because of those problems, many birders -- like me, I admit -- simply give up and don't bother looking for them in autumn.

    But when you band, you have the bird in your hand. It is not flitting about the treetops obscured by leaves or skittering off through the undergrowth. You have a chance to examine each one closely, to spread its wing and tail feathers to look for d istinguishing marks and to take appropriate measurements for comparison with identification guides.

    A case in point. Even in spring the Empidonax flycatchers -- least, willow, alder, Acadian and yellow-bellied -- are difficult to identify. These small gray birds look so much alike that you usually have to hear them sing in order to differentiate them -- and in fall they don't sing at all. One of the rarest of these birds is the yellow-bellied flycatcher. When I was with Jerry, he trapped more of them than I had recorded before in a lifetime of birding. I had almost certainly seen them but I could categorize them only to their Empidonax genus. In the hand, however, the distinguishing characteristics were evident.

    I wish Jerry a good outdoor experience this hunting season and I look forward to visiting his banding station again when he resumes that role next spring. -- Gerry Rising