A bird banders biggest dream: Banding tropical birds in the Belizean rainforest. Is six weeks enough to get confident in the American bird banding scheme?

My testimonial from my internship at Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education and Society (T.R.E.E.S.).

Birds make me smile. Here I am examining a delicious Summer tanager!

So is six weeks enough to gain confidence in banding exotic, mystery birds and teeny, wiggling warblers from North America, you may ask? Read below about my experience at the bird banding station in Belize in September-October 2018.

I was searching for an internship in Central America after graduating my Masters in Ecology, and my choice fell on a six weeks bird banding internship at T.R.E.E.S. I wanted to gain experience in handling and ringing/banding tropical resident birds of Belize and North American migrant landbirds. Bird banding or bird ringing is the same terminology for catching birds to study their lifecycle, population size, and migration.

At the time I already had three years of ringing experience, so I was not a complete newbie in handling and extracting birds – but oh boy, was I in for a challenge!

Experience does sometimes come with a cost, and I paid of cause the fees to cover housing fees, administration, wages to the field technicians and other staff who worked at the research center. I chose for my own meal plan to save some cash for fun in the weekends.

I had received a local Danish scholarship for ornithological fieldwork, and the scholarship covered the cost of the internship, flights, but excluding weekend activities and my additional traveling before and after the internship.

And off I went! Equipped with my Birds of Belize, a pair of decent bins (slang for binoculars ofc), my best field pants, sunglasses and light summerclothes I was ready to see some colorful birds and snorkel in the Belizean coral reefs.

I was excited to get face to face with these cute hummingbirds aka hummers!

The bird banding internship at T.R.E.E.S.

Personally I woke up every morning at 4:15 in order to get my breakfast before potentially banding for five hours. Net opening started around 5 am, and in case of pouring rain or bad weather forecast we would delay it for one hour each time. Sometimes banding was cancelled due to rainforest being rainforest 🙂

This sometimes caused some distress to me, because I felt a massive FOMO. But you have to understand that working with wildlife, and in a setting like this, you have to work with the weather. And pouring rain is a major danger towards every bird stuck in a net, so while banding you have to be extremely cautious about the weather.

So, on a regular day we caught between zero and maybe 50 birds tops with a ratio of about 40-60 of resident birds to North American (NA) migrant birds.

This meant that on most days we were busy, even with few birds passing through our hands. As a trainee in banding birds in a completely new continent, aging, sexing and sometimes even assigning a species to every bird could pose as quite the challenge. Some days we were struggling with extractions, as some species proved to be more difficult than others (hello whole new world of Hummers!), the situation (the way the bird was caught, level of entanglement etc.). Sometimes birds bounced right out of the net, or were barely caught meaning we could pick them out like ripe blackberries from a bush.

With the manakins we had to take extra care, as they can be prone to wing injuries! As with all birds, you have to take care and read the birds behavior when handling them. Here is a cute White-collared manakin, she’s holding onto my fingers, how cute is that?
Royal flycatcher – the real stunner! All of us interns (or shall I say both of us!) got to band at least one of these miracles. The behavior and crownfeathers of this bird is just mesmerizing. Both male and female have this stunning orange and blue crown, albeit the males’ are more orange-red than the female. Hence, this one is a female! Lovely lady 🙂 See a video of the behavior at the bottom of this post!
The smaller the bird, the more entangled it can get to my opinion!
Plain xenops – one of the cutest birds! Look at the lovely wedged bill. I have never seen any other bird with a bill like this, till date at least 😉

At T.R.E.E.S we were trained in the NA method of extracting birds, handling them and banding them using the extensive litterature on NA landbirds. We learned the names of the different grips (i.e. ways of holding the bird in the hand), and names of the way the bird was trapped. This was amusing to me, as to my experience (so far) in Denmark, we didn’t have specific names for this. So if you had a double back-packed White-collared manakin in the top (or bottom) pocket, you’re in deeeep trouble….

Male American redstart. What a delicate little warbler, full of contrasts.
Still my absolute favorite NA warbler – Protonothary warbler! Every time I draw this bird card in my game of Wingspan, I can’t but keep it because it’s such a lovely favorite of mine. We did unfortunately not catch a ton of them, as they were not numerous in numbers.

So ID’ing NA birds was mostly easy, so was aging and sometimes sexing the bird (hello handsome Black-and -white warbler!). But DON’T get me started on their flycatchers.. The Least flycatchers were sooo similar, that you almost need an engineering degree to solve the equation of what species the bird belonged to. *sigh*. At least there was a lot of pages on wing lengths etc. to cover in order to ID these guys. The resident breeding birds were a completely other story…

Some of the resident breeding birds were only caught ONCE in six weeks. For most of the species, hardly anything is known. Data we usually take for granted such as time of the year they breed, moult strategy, how to age the bird, sex the bird and sometimes even to make a sure ID!

Gosh, was I challenged. All these new species and new moult strategies. But this was what I came for! Getting my hands dirty in tropical bird poo and admiring gorgeous hummingbirds and tiny passerines in the hand.

All the same time we were getting eaten alive by Black flies that made our hands itch like we had small pox (note for you: Bring enough longsleeves!)

Most of these books were about NA birds, as little is known about the tropical resident birds.

I still dream about the time Dani, my fellow intern, and I were closing nets in my last week, and we spot the double net ‘full’ of birds (full for a tropical ringing site, if I may!). In the net, two GORGEOUS Collared Araracaris were caught, just barely stuck in the net and clinging their strong claws into the net! My heart was racing as I jolted to get my hands around the huge beak. While Dani rang the others for help, I was bitten with blunt force by the Aracari. And it was love at first bite.

Collared aracari with that HUGE bill! And yes, it did hurt being bitten by it! Lessons were learned, as here I am showing how to correctly hold a bird with a massive bill like this 🙂

The Collared Aracari looks like a Toucan, and is a canopy dwelling species. It was rare to catch them in such low nets, I was thinking they were coming closer to the ground for a drink of water in the nearby creek!

My internship ended just before the NABC certification course, so I ended up staying six weeks at the banding station and leaving without an official paper of certification. This was a big regret for me at first, but since it has been two years already since banding in Central America, and I have not been in need of this certification, and you need to keep your knowledge up to date. Since then, I have been ringing in Denmark at a Constant Effort Site and a migratory Bird station, meaning I have been keeping my extractions and handling experience.

Orange-billed sparrow being processed in the firm hands of Dani! Here the wing length is being measured with a special ruler.

Manakin breeding bird survey, point count census and owl survey

Twice a week, Dani and I would go on an ecological survey to study the Manakin population in the nearby forest.

I will not get into details about the method, but we were equipped with a notebook and binoculars and listened out for Manakins at known lekking sites. I never got to see the actual dancing part where multiple males of Red-capped manakins do a moonwalk, but lekking males of White-collared manakins were regularly observed! Lekking is a way of courtship or display of strength towards one or multiple females, it is also seen in some species of game bird around the World.

We also did several point count censuses, and I was always extremely overwhelmed by the number of bird species, that the volunteer birdwatcher at T.R.E.E.S could identify, always giving me at least 5 lifers on each forest transect! THAT tells you something about the mouth-watering species diversity that we find in the tropics of Central and South America.

Two nights a week we also went on nocturnal owl surveys, where we would use playback to listen if any of the bird species replied. After many ‘quiet night’ (trust me, it’s never quiet in a rainforest!), we had one of the owl species replying instantly! That was a cool experience, even if we didn’t see it on that night. I was however lucky to see an owl during daytime, right in the path while we were doing the manakin survey 🙂

In relation to my current job, I am glad I had this experience, as it is part of my job sometimes to perform bird surveys, i.e. migratory bird counts or breeding bird surveys.

Epilogue and a green gem

So I left T.R.E.E.S with a lot of new experience in my luggage, and a lot of amazing bird encounters, both beautiful species in hand, and through my binoculars. The knowledge that I gained was to my full satisfaction, but I had expected a more lively stay at the research station. When we were not busy at the nets or entering data, a lot of my time was spent relaxing in the hammocks and watching Netflix before falling asleep. Nature definitely had a big part in this, as the rainy season was making sure we could not spend all our waken ours outside. We did fortunately have a lovely porch outside our cabin, where we could rest in these long rains.

Because we were only two bird banding interns, I did get a lot of birds through my hands. But when many days were canceled due to rain, you do lose a lot of opportunities to learn. Even if you study the books, you cannot learn everything if you don’t have the birds in your hand. Next time I would love to dedicate a few months or longer of my life to study these resident birds more closely, and in a different setting and country. Costa Rica, Peru and Ecuador are ranking very high on my wish list!

Mine or yours? I liked the part at T.R.E.E.S where we caught a rare or unusual bird, it was the person to extract it, who got to band it. When this green gem of Lesson’s Motmot was extracted by the volunteer, he got to band it while we could appreciate it from the sideline, maybe drooling a bit at the blue-green plumage.. I mean, just look at how striking and handsome this bird is! The red eye, and the bit-off appendix on the tail feather. Motmots are awesome birds, and I was always delighted whenever I spotted them, also in Guatemala.

Belize was definitely amazing, and T.R.E.E.S is a great place to get your hands on expecience with a ton of different species. Dani went back another time for the following spring season and had tons of species I only got to see through my bins!

If you want to read about my weekend getaways and my detour to nothern Guatemala (where I volunteered at an Animal Rescue Center), you may find related posts below.

// Rie

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