Just hours after the sun came up, Yolanda Fugelso carefully handles a small cloth bag pinned up on a clothesline.
Reaching inside to take out the contents, Fugelso is grinning, and her hand is steady and deliberate.
Within seconds, Fugelso pulls out a female hairy woodpecker; she could identify the sex easily due to the lack of red on the bird’s head.
Fugelso is just one of many dedicated volunteers who regularly participate in Springbrook Nature Center’s bird banding project.
Every three weeks — that’s 16 Sundays a year — volunteers get to the nature center at 7:30 a.m. or earlier to determine the breed, sex, weight and age of birds in the area. Depending on how many birds they catch, the group could be there until 1 p.m. or later banding birds. The nature center’s next bird banding date is Sunday, March 1, at 7 a.m.
Sunday, Feb. 2, was a slow morning, bird banding coordinator Ron Refsnider said.
By 9:30 a.m., they’d caught only three birds: two chickadees and a woodpecker.
The rest of the day picked up — the volunteers snagged 33 birds from six species, 18 of which were chickadees, Refsnider said.
“That’s pretty typical for mid-winter banding,” he said.
Volunteers set the traps around 7:30 a.m. with seeds or suet — beef fat — to attract different kinds of birds.
During migration the nature center sets out nets for birds to get tangled in. Volunteers catch 80-100 birds per session this way, Refsnider said. During the winter it’s closer to 40 or so per session.
Once birds are caught in a trap, volunteers carefully remove and put them in ventilated cloth bags. The bags calm the birds because the birds can’t see that they’re surrounded by people, Refsnider said.
Refsnider bands the creatures with tiny, aluminum bands around their legs that are completely safe for the birds and won’t slip off their feet, either. Bands have a nine-digit number on them so birds are easily identified through the national banding program.
“It’s like a social security number for birds,” Refsnider said.
The three trapped Sunday morning had been caught before, so they already had bands around their legs.
Refsnider keeps track of which birds are caught more than once. The hairy woodpecker was caught eight times at the nature center in six years. One of the morning’s chickadees had been trapped three times in less than a year.
Birds are frequently caught more than once, Refsnider said, and it’s not uncommon for birds, especially chickadees, to be caught more than once in the same morning.
“They don’t seem to develop a fear of the traps,” Refsnider said. “At least the chickadees don’t.”
The record for most catches goes to a chickadee, of course, at 48 times over eight years.
Volunteers keep track of which traps the birds were found in around the nature center as well.
The hairy woodpecker trapped Feb. 2 was caught five times in one trap before moving to a new one the following three catches.
About 10 days before a banding session, Neil Hayford goes out to the trap areas and puts seed down a few times a week, so birds can expect to find food there in the future.
One time, Hayford recalled, a doe figured out his route and followed behind him waiting to snag the seed before the birds could get to it.
“I had to start scattering the seed so it was less advantageous to deer,” he said.
The birds don’t seem to move around too much, either, Refsnider said.
“Few of our birds ever get found elsewhere,” he said.
After identifying the weight, age and breed, Refsnider tries to figure out the bird’s sex.
With breeds like the hairy woodpecker, that’s easy to determine via coloring. However, with chickadees, he said it’s harder because you can tell only when they are nesting.
Refsnider is certified through the national Bird Banding Laboratory to band birds. He keeps his own records, but he sends records back to the lab so it can keep national data.
“People use this information for research,” Refsnider said. “So we have to be pretty certain. We don’t guess.”
Using the Bird Banding lab’s website, Refsnider can look up information about the different types of birds they find.
Refsnider saw that the oldest reported hairy woodpecker on record was nearly 16 years old. He said there’s one at Springbrook around 14 years old.
Springbrook’s bird banding program started in 1988 after an EF-2 tornado touched down in the nature center in July 1986. The tornado resulted in no serious injuries, but 100-year-old trees were destroyed, along with much of the rest of the forest habitat.
Volunteers began bird banding to track bird populations as the nature center’s habitat grew back, Refsnider said.
The first year the program began in May, and over 500 birds were caught and banded in the nature center’s habitat.
More recently, more than 1,000 different birds of all breeds are caught annually. That’s partially due to getting more nets over the years, Refsnider said.
Fugelso gets to interact with each bird the nature center catches. Some sessions that’s only a few birds, and others there are more than 100 caught in a morning, she said.
Once the birds are in the bags, she lines the bags up on a clothesline with pins to keep track of them all.
“Sometimes we have birds all lined up in two long strands,” Fugelso said. “We don’t like that, because then the birds have to stay in the bags a lot longer.”