A bird in the hand and two in the field
I've written before about the prevalence of Snow Buntings in our area. It turns out I didn't know the half of it. My wife recently connected with a neighbour who bands them. Each morning during the winter, whatever the weather, he goes out to a road a few over from ours, and parks his trunk between two corn fields. The wind moves through the clearing opened up at this spot, and with it, carries Snow Buntings, great flocks of them. "Would you like to bring your daughters, and help me band some birds?" he asked. Indeed, we all would.
So a week and a half ago, on one of the coldest winter days I can remember, we bundled up and drove over to meet him. On the drive over my eldest asked how he caught the birds in order to band them. "I think they use nets," I said. When we pulled up alongside his truck, we could see a series of ground cages instead. "I use confusion traps," he explained, stepping out of the idling truck and into the cold. The wire traps sit on the ground, and seed lures these ground feeders inside. Reaching into the traps with giant hands, he very carefully pulled out a bird, a female, and explains to us that one has to use great care when holding a bird, since they don't have a diaphragm, and you can can kill them if you squeeze. "By the shoulders, you put your fingers around the shoulders like this."
Now, as he talks to the girls, and without looking at us anymore, he starts to pop the birds into small cloth bags--"did you know that men can sew, too?" We follow him back to the truck with his first group of birds for the morning. In the truck he opens a black 3-ring binder, and starts to record measurements. He weighs each bird, measures fat, takes a feather sample, and a half-dozen other things, all with such rapidity you can see that he doesn't even have to think to make his hands move any more. "Since January I've banded 5,500 Snow Buntings at this location. Last season I got 15,000. That's the most anyone has banded at one site anywhere in the world."
The girls take turns using special pliers to attach bands around the legs of the birds, and then alternate getting to hold and finally release them back into the blizzard outside. They sit in your hand for a while, and it's an amazing moment to be so close to a bird, but more, to a bird that is otherwise completely unapproachable.
There were many things he told us as we worked, but the one that has stayed with me above the others is what he had to say about his status as an amateur. "The only science where amateurs can still make a contribution are astronomy and ornithology. All those comets, they don't get found by research labs, but by people willing to spend a lot of time looking into the sky. It's the same with birds. No one wants to do what I do and spend this much time in the field. But it's important work. If you're willing to do it, you can."
In this case the work is about trying to understand why there are so few male birds coming through this area. On the day when we were there, only one male was caught among many, many females. "I can tell you the last 3 digits of this bird's band number without even looking, I've caught him so many times this season." The data he's collecting is being shared with other amateur banders and researchers around the world. "Once, a bird I banded here was found by another guy in Greenland."
Watching him toil in very unpleasant conditions, and knowing that he does it every day, that he's devoted a piece of himself to it, and listening to how his community is scattered around the world, an odd bunch willing to do what no one else will, motivated beyond gaining credits in the right journals, that from this plot of farm land in the middle of nowhere he is looking into a global issue, that he has tremendous pride in his work, and takes great care to see that it gets done well, I understood him. The amatore is driven by nothing other than love.