Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: New bird banding project builds on years of research

Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: New bird banding project builds on years of research
A Northern Waterthrush is banded. (Photo Ken Hare)
A Northern Waterthrush is banded. (Photo Ken Hare)
The wing is measured as part of the record-keeping that accompanies banding. (Photo Ken Hare)
The wing is measured as part of the record-keeping that accompanies banding. (Photo Ken Hare)
A Northern Waterthrush just before being released after banding. (Photo Ken Hare)
A Northern Waterthrush just before being released after banding. (Photo Ken Hare)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - For more than two decades starting in 1989, ornithologists captured and banded thousands of birds migrating through the Fort Morgan peninsula on Alabama's coastline. Over time they built up an impressive set of data on migrating birds.

That ended in 2014 with the death of Bob Sargent, who with his wife Martha started and served as the impetus for the banding project.

However, when Dr. Scott Rush of Mississippi State University was doing research using the Sargents' data, he realized how important it would be to have current data to compare with the findings from the earlier Fort Morgan research.

So Rush joined with fellow bird-bander Eric Soehren of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to revive bird banding at Fort Morgan. (Note: It takes years of training to become a licensed bird-bander.) The project received support from the Birmingham and Mobile Audubon societies, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Alabama Department of Conservation, and Mississippi State University.

Rush and Soehren just completed five days of banding at Fort Morgan, and Soehren told me that he considers it a success and hopes to continue it next year.

In addition to the data collected, Soehren said he and Rush "wanted to honor the legacy the Sargents built operating for so many years" and to build on the impact they had in teaching the public about the wonder of bird migration and the importance of protecting the stopover habitat for the birds. He said he hopes the research they are doing will help scientists and the public make better informed decisions about protecting the migrating birds and their habitats.

Soehren and Rush and their team of graduate student assistants actively banded from April 18 to 22 at the stables area of Fort Morgan. It was not a particularly great week for migrant birds, but the group still managed to band more than 100 birds.

The group staked "mist nets" -- so named because they are almost invisible to the birds -- at several locations in the woods near the former Fort Morgan stables. When birds flew into the nets, trained volunteers retrieved them and brought them to the banding station. There, Soehren and Rush placed tiny bands on their legs, weighed them, measured wing length, and checked the condition of their feathers. Then, only minutes after they were caught, the birds were released unharmed. (See photos.)

I've written about the wonders of migration several times before -- tiny hummingbirds that fly nonstop for hundreds of miles across the Gulf of Mexico, seabirds that fly more than 40,000 miles each year migrating from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

For the dozens of species that fly from wintering grounds in South America across the Gulf of Mexico to breeding territories in North America, having welcoming habitat in places like Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island is crucial. These birds often arrive exhausted, with their stores of fat used up. Many birds do not survive. Without places to land and feed and rebuild reserves for the next legs of their journeys, thousands more would die each year.

It is crucial that Alabamians do all they can to protect such places as Fort Morgan and key spots on Dauphin Island to ensure that the magic of migration for so many species of birds can continue.

Birds and Barbecue Blitz

The Alabama Ornithological Society plans an all-day birding blitz in Fayette County on Saturday, May 20, led by Greg Harber, one of Alabama's leading birders. Non-members are invited, and there is no cost. Birders are responsible for their own meals.

AOS has undertaken a multi-year project in cooperation with Cornell Lab of Ornithology to boost Alabama's records of bird occurrences in the eBird database. eBird is Cornell Lab's citizen science project that tracks bird population dynamics using input from birders.

As I have written about before, several counties in Alabama are seriously lacking in eBird reports, and AOS is targeting these areas for special attention.  For background, see:

AOS plans include a series of field trips to the under-reported areas to help collect additional data.    Birders who participate in the first of these all-day field trips also will have a chance to explore the barbecue at Sam's Smokehouse in Fayette, named by as Fayette County's Best Barbecue.

The meeting place is the Chick-fil-A at 215 Howell St., Fultondale, which is off I-65 at exit 267. The group will leave at 7 a.m. (arrive early for pre-trip instructions) and caravan via I-22 to Jasper, then AL Hwy 124/102 and U.S. Hwy 43 to Fayette, where the group will reconvene at approximately 8:30 a.m. at the McDonald's (1421 Temple Ave. N).

Van Gravlee, the group's local host, will guide the group to several birding locations.  The goal is to visit several habitat types in order to maximize the species count.  This will be an all-day trip, so bring a picnic lunch, drinks and snacks. Have a full tank of gas and bring binoculars and spotting scopes.  Those who wish can have an early supper at Sam's Smokehouse.

Trip leader: Greg Harber, 205-251-2133, home/evenings, or 205-807-8055, day of field trip only.


-- Birmingham Audubon Mountain Workshop: This respected and wide-ranging nature workshop will turn 40 years old when it is held May 11-14 in Mentone. Classes will explore the ecology, wildlife, and culture of northeastern Alabama. Knowledgeable faculty members will lead classes and field trips on such things as animal ecology, stream biology, beginning and advanced bird identification, mammal identification, insect collection, geology, Native American culture, canoeing and more. There is also a program aimed at youth. Participants will stay at either Mentone's Alpine Camp or at nearby DeSoto State Park. For information, go to:

-- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has developed a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at:


Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for Feedback appreciated at To see other columns, go to:

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