This is what the Lafayette at Prospect Park West and 9th Street looks like at 5:45am. The park was dark and the sky only a little less so, a very dark blue still timidly heralding the dawn. I’d never been in the park this late/this early, so I was more than usually alert. After preemptively saucing myself with mosquito repellent, I followed in a jogger who had emerged from the apartment house across the street. It turns out there is life in the dark, for there were several people already running around the Drive. As I descended the Long Meadow towards the Pools, I caught something swooping low to the ground out of the corner of my eye. Definitely not a bat; perhaps a nighthawk. A group of half a dozen people were walking their dogs along the path by the Pools, and several of the dogs had lights on their collars, so they bobbed like bouys in a sea of deep blue. Fated always to the first to arrive, I was there when a car pulled up to the entrance to the Ravine. This was Eric, co-leader of a study looking at how the city parks help or hinder migrating birds. Abe, a gypsy field study worker between undergraduate and graduate schools, soon joined us on his bicycle.
I was the recording secretary of the day’s trapping and banding. Six mists nets are set up behind the fences for the project, which runs through the fall (this is the last of a multi-season study). For five hours, they are unrolled to see what flies into them. Catbirds and robins, of course, but these resident species weren’t of interest and were let go. The birds can tangle themselves pretty well in the fine mesh netting, but it doesn’t seem to do any damage. We banded about 40 birds, lots of veery and common yellowthroats, with Swainson’s thrush, wood thrush, black-throated blue warbler, black and white warbler, American redstart, and northern waterthrush. For the banding, species-sized bands are opened with a special pair of pliers and then cinched around the leg using the same tool. Here’s what I recorded besides the band number: where and when they were netted, their age and sex, (and how these were determined; by plumage if at all), as well as body fat, wing length, and weight. Some of the birds had blood taken from them. Eric pricked the birds at a major vein along the belly under the wing, then caught the blood in little tubes which were sealed in vials and put on ice. The Swainson’s were also tapped for another blood sample for another study being conducted on mercury levels. The bled birds were given more attention before being released, to make sure that they weren’t bleeding.
I already know how little there is to a bird, because I’ve had catbirds take raisins from my hand. Galway Kinnell writes, “Think of the wren/and how little flesh is need to make a song.” So true. The smallest birds we weighed were under 10 grams, the largest, in the mid 30s. Nothing at all, really, and yet some of these birds will fly to South America on the food they eat here in Prospect Park. The fat check entails blowing the breast and belly feathers out of the way, then basing the amount seen on a 0-5 scale. One fat thrush topped out at the max, but most were in the middle range.
The best part of the morning was seeing the birds in such detail. American redstarts, unlike the other warblers, have little whiskers around the beak like flycatchers, and it turns out they hunt like flycatchers too, hawking insects around trees. The tail feathers of a black-throated blue warbler are just over two inches long. The head of the Swainson’s I held is rather rectangular, and the eyes are liquid black. Legs, feet, and claws, especially the claws, look extremely reptilian.