Our fifteenth season of MAPS (monitoring avian productivity and survivorship) is well underway and it is as exciting as the first day we ventured onto the Kettle Creek Wildlife Sanctuary in May of 2000. Back then our sons Jordan and Jacob were as integral a part of experience for me and Jackie as the birds. Sounds crazy, I know, but having just returned from our 2 year adventure birding across America with them- we couldn’t image doing it without the boys. When we started that trip they were just 3 and 1 years old, last week Jordan graduated from High School, while his brother played in the band. Next year is Jake’s turn to get his diploma.
As the boys grew older it became less and less practical to bring them with us as we conducted our research. They are young men now and have their own interests and we’re proud of them. In fact it has been quite a while since either of them got out of bed an hour or so before dawn to join us at a MAPS station. Hey they’re teenagers! That’s what made last Friday such an exciting day for me. Not only would we band a charismatic bird species for the first time at any of our MAPS stations, and the boys were there to share it with us.
Many of these missives I write for the website chronicle the serendipitous nature of the birding experience. They either comment on an unexpected sighting while looking for something else or take place in our yard. Not often are they recollections of what’s occurred during our field work with birds. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve noticed it. So this month I’ve got a doosey of a tale that takes place in period number seven of our fifteenth season of MAPS at the Kettle Creek Wildlife Sanctuary. It even has a bit of serendipity, which is word I just like writing.
I arrived at Kettle Creek Wildlife Sanctuary alone, on time, and opened the nets at 5:30 am. Jordan is spending the summer as a member of the Conservation District’s work crew, which means he didn’t need to get to Kettle Creek until 8:30, so that’s when Jackie came. She had Jacob with her so he could go to the DMV and get his learner’s permit.
The morning got off to a wonderful start when I banded a male indigo bunting. When Jackie arrived with Jacob it was a treat. Jordan was inside with the work crew but at least Jake was back out at the banding station with us. Sometimes I like being alone while running a station but on this day I was delighted to be in the company of my family.
Jackie joined me for the next net check and we reminisced about MAPS seasons past and banding with the boys. Each station has its own personality, nets that are highly productive and those that are not. It adds excitement to the day when a net that stays devoid of birds all day catches one or two. There are also birds that are recorded breeding at a sight every year but always seem to avoid getting banded.
We had hardly started our rounds when there was a catbird in net #2. This was not a surprise. The catbird is the most commonly banded bird at Kettle Creek and net #2 one of the most productive nets. About the only astonishing thing about this is that there are any adult catbirds left at Kettle Creek that haven’t been banded. When we passed net #7 without any more birds I figured we wouldn’t get any others on this run. Net #8 is one of the least productive nets at Kettle Creek.
Net #8 is out in the open, under a canopy of deciduous trees and a witch hazel understory. In the past fifteen years there has been an occasional red-eyed vireo in the net, but for the most part we just pass it by. But it was not empty on the 8:50 am check today. About twenty meters from the net I stopped dead in my tracks and made some kind of sound that startled Jackie (who must not have noticed the net yet) because in the very top pocket of net #8 was something big!
My first thought was that we had caught a raptor of some sort, perhaps a Cooper’s hawk; a predator that had been chasing after something else and found the net instead. As we got closer the bird's identity became clear – a pileated woodpecker. The pileated is the largest woodpecker in North America (now that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct) and a bird that has avoided being netted at any of our banding stations over the last fifteen years.
When we got back to the banding station I went inside to tell the staff. Almost everyone joined us as we banded this impressive bird, including the work crew. Through our banding effort we discovered that it was a third year female. After collecting the data we needed I held her up for the group to take pictures. She took this opportunity to get a few good hammer strokes with her formidable beak on my hand. Needless to say the photography session didn’t last long and she was released to rejoin her family.
As I look at the pictures taken that day one of my favorites is a shot of Jacob holding the bird as we ready everything else for banding. It caused quite a stir around the office and I was glad to share it with all of them but most of all - I got to share it with the boys.
We have logged many hours in pursuit of building our knowledge of the breeding birds here in the Poconos. There have been many memorable experiences and some remarkable birds. Of all those experiences this one was best. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the old proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush.” We’ll on this day a bird in the hand was worth a live affirming family experience.
Perhaps in the next fifteen years my sons will bring theirchildren to visit the banding station and I’ll get the thrill of not only sharing my love of birds with them, but tell them the story of the pileated woodpecker.