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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
Northern Cardinal, male
Northern Cardinal, female
The mist net is as thin as a crack in your finger. If torn, it’s costly to fix.
Some birds like this tufted titmouse can become extremely entangled, and they take a little more time an attention to remove. It was completely unharmed and flew away after Mack untangled it.
Shortly after this photo was taken, Mack released the bird and it was completely unharmed. This was one of the more difficult birds to untangle.
Mack untangles a bird from the mist net. He’s in charge of the bird taxonomy group for the Discover Life in West Virginia event.
This is a bag that helps keep birds warm in these frigid conditions. Mack is reaching in to retrieve a bird to get its information.
Mack handles and identifies the features of the Carolina Chickadee.
A participant holds a flighty bird. Soon after, the information was recorded and it got to fly away.
After the group in the background was done looking at a Carolina Chickadee, it came over to untangle this tufted titmouse.
A participant gets a close-up of the West Virginia state bird that is being held by another participant. Soon after this was taken, the bird was released due to the bird biting the participant.
The bird taxonomy group for the Discover Life in West Virginia event flocks to attend to a bird. The bird was a Carolina Chickadee.
Mack is handling a bird he just untangled from the mist net.
This sparrow was tricky to identify, and Mack eventually just said it was a sparrow. Even for a bird nerd like Mack, identifications can be difficult.
Mack explains that he doesn’t know what this sparrow is. This is okay because there are not many distinguishable differences between many sparrows.
A participant checks out Mack’s graduation book to learn more about birds in our area.
Mack eases a bird out of the mist net while a participant gets footage of it. The bird was unharmed.
S/O to Adam Rossi for taking this 🙂
Mack cups a bird using the “peace sign” grip to inspect its under-feathers. He is also in the middle of identifying the type of bird.
This is part of Mack’s graduation project, a bird book describing different common birds in the greater Pittsburgh area. Here, he officially warns about the Northern Cardinal. This was given to us after the verbal warning and handling of that bird.
Mack hands over the female bird to a participant. Hopefully, the participant won’t get bit like Mack did.
This is part of Mack’s graduation project, a bird book describing different common birds in the greater Pittsburgh area. He graduated from Point Park University with a B.S. in Biology, and his main focus was on birds.
Participants circle around Mack to have him explain the different types of feathers on a bird.
This is all the equipment needed for the mist netting demonstration. This is also what would be needed if a scientist went out and mist netted for a profession as well, and this event was meant to mimic what a professional did.
Participants gather in to listen to Mack explain the different types of feathers on the bird. This one is unidentified.
Mack is taking a closer look at this unidentified sparrow. He knows it’s a sparrow based on size and its beak, but he isn’t sure of the exact type.
Mack attempts to identify the sparrow. It’s hard to do this sometimes because a lot of sparrows look similar.