Mist Netting

This tufted titmouse is snagged in the mist net at Coopers Rock on Oct. 17 during the Discover Life in West Virginia event. Meanwhile, the group in the background is working with a Carolina Chickadee.
The bird group flocks towards the birds snagged in the mist nets to gather the species and sex information of the bird. This information is crucial to the taxonomy of information for Coopers Rock State Forest.

Mornings are only so-so, right?

The Discover Life in West Virginia program shows how that’s so, so wrong.

The basis of this program is to collect scientific data by using citizen science, showing exactly what natural resource scientists do for a living. There’s an article about it here.

There have been two of these sessions to “bio-blitz” Coopers Rock State Forest and identify all the taxa in the forest, but this is the first one I heard about.

It was unseasonably cold on Oct. 17 for the Discover Life in West Virginia event. This is a screenshot from my iPhone that shows just how chilly it was.

It was unusually cold fall day – well, more extreme than that. There was sleet and a constant dampness with the temperatures skirting the edges of 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

That didn’t stop a group of 30 people from doing the science and having fun, too.

Friends Adam Rossi and Jimmy Hartley picked me up around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17, which was way early for me. I was baffled at how joyful these two men were, so I decided to embrace their energy and musical artistry and sang along to a lack of radio on the half-hour winding drive.

But this Saturday morning was more than just being introduced to the critters of Coopers Rock. It was forming a deeper fascination for the winged animals of the world.

Around 9 a.m. everyone grouped at Coopers Rock and separated into the different locations. I went with the bird group because, while trees allow us to breathe and exist, birds get to live in them and fly around to different ones.

Mack removes a female Northern Cardinal from a mist net. The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of West Virginia, so it’s a good sign that it’s present.

About 15 headed down to the campgrounds to meet up with Mack, a graduate student at WVU and bird expert for the day. He pre-set-up the mist nets, a series of mini hammock-like thin nets strung up on 6-foot poles. Birds fly into them and become tangled in the nets, but they’re not injured at all.

Mack first demonstrated how to hold the birds in two ways.

  • The “peace sign” grip – the bird’s head is between your pointer and middle fingers and its body is in your non-dominant hand.

    A participant holds a male Northern Cardinal with the peace sign grip.
    A participant holds a male Northern Cardinal with the peace sign grip.
  • The “photographer’s” grip – the bird’s feet are between your pointer and middle fingers with the bird on top of the non-dominant hand. Hold down the feet with your thumb for extra support, but don’t crush the bird.

    I got to hold this white throated sparrow with the photographer’s grip, which is ironic because I’m taking a photo!

They’re both held with the non-dominant so the dominant can write down the necessary information, like type, sex, and different measurements of wings and other bird parts. The photographer’s grip is used to get the bird from the mist net initially, and the peace sign is used to pass the bird around. Be prepared to get bit, too. Most don’t draw blood, but cardinals usually do (beware!) They’re more “affectionate pinches,” if anything.

Mack hands a female Northern Cardinal off to a participant. It's good she's squawking - that means she's not dead. But she's not afraid of biting, either.
Mack hands a female Northern Cardinal off to a participant. It’s good she’s squawking – that means she’s alive and not frozen.

In order to attract birds at this hour, a mobbing call was used. Mobbing calls are not allowed during breeding season, so it was acceptable for use for the time being. It played a combination of screech owl, chickadee and tufted titmouse calls.

Mack was very knowledgeable about birds and taught us about them and the mist netting process in an interesting manner, making the day out to be more than just exciting. He allowed us to fully participate, which fulfilled a mission of Discover Life, and one citizen recorded the results to fulfill the other.

Mack is fishing out a bird out of the white bag. Birds are held in these cotton bags between retrieving from the net and noting data to make sure they don’t freeze.

From Mack’s information and through these hands-on activities, I fell more in love with birds, even though they act like angst-filled teenagers most of the time. These winged critters are the spunkiest and sassiest I’ve ever met. The Northern Cardinals kept squawking at the handlers, and I even got nipped by the white-throated sparrow that I got to hold (the selfie above was not taken painlessly).

The participant remains rather calm when the male bird is barking at him.
The participant remains rather calm when the male Northern Cardinal is squawking at him. The bird was soon released.

Okay, so these birds are not really evil. The male Northern Cardinal was squawking but didn’t bite any more participants. And it’s a good thing to see the birds wrestle back – we know they’re alive! We did have to heat a few up in the car, but keeping them in cloth bags were usually sufficient.

This cotton bag helped birds stay warm in the frigid weather. If birds stop flying for more than 20 minutes in these temperatures, they can die.
This cotton bag helped birds stay warm in the frigid weather. If birds stop flying for more than 20 minutes in these temperatures, they can die.

Overall, I felt satisfied by the end of the day. Birds became even cooler, and not just because of the weather. Seeing other people with the same interests was great, too, so I can see that there are communities of people with the same common interests and ideologies.

I think the best part was going to the Boston Beanery afterwards and watching the Mountaineer game..while eating chicken fingers. Okay, it was more ironic. And the chicken was good.

Nonetheless, birds are cool, and Discover Life helped that truth sink deeper in my brain.

In total, we netted and checked 13 birds. Since I wasn’t the one writing down all the birds, I don’t have an exhaustive list. However, I do have pictures of the birdies we identified.

A tiny list:

  • White-throated sparrow
  • Tufted titmouse
  • Northern Cardinal, male
  • Northern Cardinal, female
  • Carolina chickadee
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