Warblers do it. Vireos do it. Even tiny hummingbirds do it. They cross the Gulf of Mexico in one fell swoop, a flight lasting more than 20 hours. The destination airport for many is the Alabama coast.
Since 1987, Bob and Martha Sargent have been netting and banding birds at Fort Morgan State Park, a few miles east of Dauphin Island, and just west of Gulf Shores. Along with a team of volunteers, their Hummer Bird Study Group catches the birds in mist nets for a week or two each April and October during the height of songbird migration.
In April, during a “fallout,” birds sometimes drop out of the sky, audibly landing on the trees and undergrowth, hungry, tired, and thin. In October, the peninsula is the last fuel stop before a long flight over open water, so birds congregate like a crowd along a parade route. A relatively fat crowd, according to the data collected there.
I had the privilege of watching the bird banding operation on April 11, 2014. In the two hours I was there, a steady stream of birds hit the nets, keeping the banders plenty occupied. But the day before had seen a fallout, with more than 400 birds snagged during the daylight hours, pushing the limits of what the researchers could process: weighing, aging, sexing, measuring, jotting down the species and snapping a tiny, uniquely numbered band on each bird’s leg, recording every detail in a database that will be sent to Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, home to hundreds of thousands of records of banded birds.
The day I visited was slow enough for Bob to pull up a chair and talk about the bird-in-hand before allowing someone in the gathered throng of visitors to release it back into the wilds of the park.
A hooded warbler. An indigo bunting. A prothonotary warbler. Male and female common yellowthroats. A Kentucky warbler. All brilliantly colored, making great subjects for photos against Bob’s red sweatshirt and blue apron. No hummingbirds while I was there, unfortunately.
Bob is a master storyteller, with a slow, Alabama drawl, Southern charm that seeps out through his pores, and an obvious, heart-felt passion for wild birds, hummingbirds especially. The crowd couldn’t help but be enthralled, and the chance to hold a tiny, wild, living being was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for many. On occasion, he’d hold a tiny bird up to the ear of a child.
“Do you hear its heartbeat?” Bob asked. The kids nodded, wide-eyed.
Bob’s chair at the center of the crowd serves as a pulpit, but not a bully pulpit. His message of habitat conservation is powerful, but he cautions against being judgmental about others, about anthropomorphizing and about time. Changes he’s seen in his decades of bird banding don’t amount to a hill of beans. These birds have been crossing the Gulf of Mexico for tens of thousands of years. The effects of habitat loss, global climate change, disease and other factors might be recorded in his data, but 27 years isn’t enough to draw conclusions.
He encouraged his listeners to support The Nature Conservancy and other habitat-protecting organizations, to pay attention to environmental issues, to attend public meetings with elected officials, to listen to and learn politicians’ positions, and politely make a case for wildlife protection. And vote, he urged.
For more information on the long-term bird banding project on the Alabama coast, visit http://www.hummingbirdsplus.org/FortMorganBanding.html. The website says fall bird banding will be Oct. 4-12, 2014.
I sure hope I can get there then. Next April, too.
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.