Birding 201: Catching Birds in the Heart of the City

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It really wasn’t that hard getting out of bed; it was to go birding after all – who cares about waking up at five in the morning if birds are the prize. York University’s Department of Biology hosted the first ever Bioblitz at York organized by graduate students from the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Environmental StudiesThese types of events don’t only generate important information about species but are essential to spark the value for nature within individuals.  After all, you only cherish what you know.

The first bioblitz workshop of the day started at 7:30 am in the Boyer’s Woodlot. Having only truly been birding (101) on one other occasion, I was giddy for the theme of the morning workshop; mist netting.

Red-breasted Nuthatch hold by a biologist, students are seen on background

Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) are resident tiny, active birds of north woods and western mountains.

I had never heard of mist netting before this occasion, but it is really quite a simple concept. Two poles about 10 to 12 feet high set up in an area of good foliage with a very fine black net set up in between to catch birds that might be flying through. It is essentially a volleyball net for catching birds. The net is very fine and soft, so birds rarely get hurt when caught; it is the extraction from the net that is the tricky part. Luckily we had some experts amongst us; Professor Alexander Mills, Taylor Brown, Tehmeena Chaudry, and Andrés Jiménez Monge.

Young forest, thin trees with green leaves brown dry leaves on the ground

Boyer’s Woodlot at York University – our mist netting location for the morning.

After setting up the previously tangled nets, we placed a stuffed owl as a lure and played back some enticing bird calls using state-of-the-art tape and stereo technology. The bird calls, contrary to my assumption, were not mating calls, but distress calls. As we were taught, it turns out that birds tend to fly towards distress calls rather than away from them in order to keep an eye on the potential threat. This is because many, if not most, bird predators are ambush predators, and it is usually a better strategy to keep an eye on them if one knows where they are. Once the sounds were playing, we stepped back about 20 feet and waited for birds to fly into the net.

It didn’t take long for the first birds to start flitting around in the foliage surrounding the net; the enthusiastic and angry red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis). After a few had amalgamated in the area and spotted the owl, two of them took their shots at the owl and were promptly caught in the net. This was exciting enough! I didn’t even expect to see many birds on such a clear and still morning.  You see, right now is migration time, and migratory birds typically fly through the night (yes, the night!) before finding a large green space, or “green target” as the event’s ornithologist Dr. Alex Mills would put it, to land in. If the weather is particularly bad the evening before, birds tend to get grounded – great birding sessions are one of the few good things harsh weather leaves behind.

Biologist Alex Mills smiles with a forest in the background

With his grey hair and calm smile, Dr. Alex Mills is one of the most pleasant ornithologists I have met. With precise and simple explanations that made participants awe and a steady hand to untangle birds from the net, he led this outstanding session.

Having caught some tiny birds, some of the larger species started to come around. The first downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) of the day was spotted, followed by an ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) with a high orange mohawk on its crown displaying its anger, and a couple of northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) that flew in to see what all the commotion was about.

A red-breasted nuthatch is banded by a biologist - using metal clippers a metallic band is placed around the leg.

A collaboratively banded nuthatch. This shows how well this teaching session went; 3 hands, 1 band and a happy and unharmed bird.

We were given the opportunity to learn how to identify male and female nuthatches with the birds we caught, and learned how to handle them properly in either a ‘banders grip’ or a ‘photographers grip’. It was a very simple way to hold the birds so that their legs were exposed in a safe way in order to record previously banded birds, and band newly caught birds. Band numbers and hatching years were recorded for ongoing research purposes. Now, this is where things got just a little bit more exciting, and the concentration of the group was suddenly disrupted.

Just after releasing the two nuthatches (one male, one female), we were startled by a big shadow and a stealthy landing. We quickly ducked close to the ground and moved carefully to see our guest through the foliage. An eastern screech owl (Megascops asio), a species apparently rare in the region, silently flew out to perch in a tree directly opposite from our lure owl. Now, if you don’t know much about owl flight, take a look at this video. They are incredibly silent, so listening for flapping wings was never going to result in seeing this elusive creature. But there it was, sitting in a nook in between two tree branches, staring right at us.

Although apparently, this one wasn’t particularly worried about trying to hide from us or anyone else – maybe the call in the tape was that of a suitable partner it was trying to impress. After some patience, stillness and cooperation from the owl, Andrés managed to get an incredible piece of photographic proof of this beautiful creature before an audio skip in the sound lure scared it away – we almost missed the shot.

An owl standing on a branch next to a tree trunk, foliage on the background

Apparently, when you play a tape (good old reliable technology) of birds mobbing a screech owl you can also get a visit from a screech owl.

Owl flies away in the middle of a green forest

These two photos are literally 1 second apart. Fortunately, Andrés managed to snap a good photo in the nick of time before we had no photographic evidence!

After we all came down from our adrenaline rush, there were many more species still to be seen. There were transient birds as well as good old residents. The black-and-white warblers (Mniotilta varia), American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) and the northern parula (Setophaga americana)  had started moving down South – unfortunately, our nets did not manage to catch any of these migratory friends. With the next two captured nuthatches we got the chance to learn the ‘photographer’s grip.’ The naming of this grip really does make complete sense, as some beautiful shots of the birds were taken in people’s hands. I was lucky enough to be one of these people! Our morning was thrilling, catching bird after bird and seeing unbelievably surprising species in a city governed by asphalt and steel.

But, why should you care about mist nets, owls in the city and birds flying during the night to migrate? Why should anyone living in the city care about birds? Well, the Fatal Light Awareness program estimates that nine million migratory and resident birds die each year in Toronto due to collisions with windows in an increasingly urban landscape. Across North America, the estimated number of migrating birds killed annually in collisions with buildings ranges from 100 million to 1 billion birds. ONE BILLION BIRDS! Sparking interest in people and advancing our knowledge through events such as these will define how, and if, migratory birds will be seen by future generations.

Biologist holds a red-breasted nuthatch in his hand, the head pocks between his fingers. A group of students is seen in the back. In a small forest in Toronto city.

Having spent 2 whole minutes trying to release this tangled nuthatch, Andrés tells the bird to behave. The bird listens.

Much like myself, it is likely that when you started reading this blog you did not even consider the possibility of finding an owl in the middle of Toronto, or that we were going to find 15+ species in a tiny woodlot. It just goes to show that wilderness is all around; it is just a matter of looking closely enough. On a personal level, this was an incredibly enriching experience that invigorated my love of wildlife once more. I am really excited for another early morning to wake up to do this all over again. Maybe even in Costa Rica one of these days…?

I would highly recommend getting involved in birding, banding and bioblitz projects in your area (check out the iNaturalist app for events around you). They are a wonderful way to gain incredible knowledge about the wilderness around you, meet some people as interested as yourself, and feed your interest in nature. If nothing else, it is a great exercise in appreciating the beauty of every day we take for granted. I have been at York University for almost six years now and stepped into this location on only three other instances. Why? Well, because it is a random woodlot in the middle of a university that holds 50,000 people on a good day. ‘What wildlife could I possibly see?’

Biologist holds a red-breasted nuthatch in his hands, holding both legs of the birds with his index and thumb.

Hah, take that, ecological cynicism.

#WildisAllAround (Don’t forget to use our hashtag, send us some of your pictures from Toronto wildlife and we will feature them!)

Thank you to Amanda Liczner, Alex Filazzola, Jenna Braun, Shelby Gibson, Meagan Tompkins, Doctor Alexander Mills, Doctor Bucking and Doctor Robert Tsushima for organizing this event, and making this an incredible experience.

Check out Birds Canada for Bird Banding volunteering and get involved.

If you like what you read don’t forget to share the joy, leave a comment and get out to find some wildlife.


Until next time RazaVerde! We hope your week is as chill as this raccoon is…

Raccoon sleeps on top of a tree.

Whilst mist netting we spotted one of the most chilled raccoons ever. What a University life!

Bonus photo: just in case you wanted to see a mist net at work.

Bird is seen caught in a fine black mesh, in the background students are seen in the middle of a woodland.

A red-breasted nuthatch is caught in a mist net, in the background the 15 brave participants that commuted to York University at 5 in the morning.

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