April 27, 2018

A fantail in safe hands

Somewhere out in the great blue yonder a grey fantail is carrying an identification tag which might in time shed new light on the remarkable migration of our birds.

The fantail was given a leg band as part of a banding exercise In the Waterworks Reserve late last year, supervised by banding expert Catherine Young.

Although banding – or ringing as bird researchers describe it in my native Britain – is commonplace on the mainland, banders are few and far between in Tasmania.

Catherine is hoping this situation can be changed, so more birds travelling within, and from without, Tasmania reveal their mysterious movements.

On the day in question, five fantails, a brown thornbill and a crescent honeyeater were caught in mist nets strung up at two locations in thick bush at the southern end of the reserve.

The birds remained remarkably calm as they were disentangled from the fine netting and placed in a pouch so they could be taken to one of the BBQ sites in the reserve to be weighed and measured, and have the bands attached.

It might be stressful and traumatic for the birds at first but they are soon set free and, as I’ve noticed from witnessing previous banding exercises, the experience has no adverse or lasting effects. The tiny band itself is so lightweight and unobtrusive on the leg that the birds do not notice it is there.

The bands are applied by gentle and skilled hands and those birders wanting  to become banders have to undergo intensive training, and be registered. This explains why banders tend to be a rare breed.

The individual bands come in coils issued by the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme and each one has a unique number so birds can be easily identified if and when they are recovered. Anyone recovering a banded bird simply has to notify the banding authority, giving the time and place. This information can be matched with information supplied by the bander and entered into a national data base. Recovered birds might also be weighed and measured,  as in the practice at the banding site.

Banding programs worldwide have traditionally been the main source of information about bird migration but in recent years the fitting of transmitters on migratory birds has enabled birds to be actually tracked during their incredible journeys.

Although the latter method of surveillance has provided headline news about long-distance journeys – the fact, for instance, that bar-tailed godwits can fly more than 7000 kilometres nonstop – banding still remains the bread-and-butter method of plotting the movement of birds.

The problem with the latter, though, is that birds dead or alive have to be recovered and only a tiny fraction of bands are ever found.

I’ve often stood in awe, on four continents, as the banders have gone about their business but it is something I’ve never tried myself.

I’m notoriously ham-fisted and I’d hate to contemplate the fate of, say, a fragile fantail in my grip, pliers in hand. That’s one of the facets of bird study I’ll leave to the nimble-fingered experts.

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