Notes From the Field: Panola Mountain Bird Banding Station

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"Notes From the Field” are contributed articles that highlight current banding projects and the continued importance of bird banding 100 years after the establishment of the Bird Banding Lab. Our second article in this new series focuses on a long-term banding station near Atlanta, Georgia.

A foggy morning at Panola Banding Station.

A foggy morning at Panola Banding Station. (Credit: Tracey Muise, Panola Banding Station)

“Notes From the Field” news articles highlight the continued importance of bird banding in celebration of the centennial of the Bird Banding Lab. This article was contributed by Charlie Muise, Katie Stumpf, and Alexandra Wickson, who band birds in Panola Mountain State Park, about 20 miles southeast of Atlanta, GA.

Today, banding allows scientists to track birds’ behavior, migration, lifespans, populations, diseases and levels of environmental contaminants. Information gathered through the North American Bird Banding Program helps inform management and conservation decisions of game and non-game species, such as protecting or restoring habitat, setting hunting regulations and determining plans for human development. The North American Bird Banding Program  depends on a network of over 10,000 permitted bird banders working in the United States, Canada and Trust Territories. Each year these banders help us add up to 1.2 million new banding records to our century-long dataset.

Who is involved in your project?

The Panola Mountain Bird Banding station is operated entirely by community volunteers. We work cooperatively with several organizations, including Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, Georgia Department of Natural Resources (Nongame Conservation Section), Georgia College and State University, and Georgia Gwinnett College. The station is also a training site and a number of licensed banders in the U.S. have gained skills here. You can find project updates at the Georgia Important Bird Area Facebook page.  This project will soon fall under the umbrella of a newly-formed non-profit organization called the Georgia Bird Observatory.

What is your bird banding project?

The Panola Mountain Bird Banding station first operated in winter 2007-2008 and began operating year-round in spring 2009. The station staff collect data on passerines and near passerines, following protocols from the Institute for Bird Populations’ Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship program. In addition to banding using federal bands, we conduct projects involving other data collection methods such as color banding, stable radio isotope analysis, genetic sampling, monitoring nest boxes, deploying camera traps, and nest searching. We also keep an eBird list of all species observed at each session and we participate in iNaturalist to document the presence of non-avian animals as well as plants and fungi. 

The banding area at Panola Mountain State Park includes restored grasslands that provide bird habitat.

The banding area at Panola Mountain State Park includes restored grasslands that provide bird habitat. (Credit: Allan Muise, Panola Banding Station)

What questions are you trying to answer through your research?  

The Panola Mountain Bird Banding Station operates in the ”Power of Flight” area, a portion of Panola Mountain State Park currently under native grassland restoration that has been designated as an Important Bird Area. The restoration effort includes suppression of exotic invasive plants, planting of native grasses and conducting prescribed burns. We initiated research to determine if this restoration was reversing the decline of grassland bird species, and to record any changes in the abundance and composition of these species as restoration progresses. These objectives remain our primary focus. In the meantime, we have expanded the station’s activities to address questions related to:

  • Population genetics of migrant Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe)
  • Factors associated with grassland bird nesting success
  • The effect of temperature inside nest boxes on nestling growth rate and health
  • Mist net avoidance behaviors
  • Changes in body size with temperature
  • Natal origin of locally wintering Swamp Sparrows (Melospiza georgiana)
Two eastern bluebird chicks are viewed from above within their nest box.

Two eastern bluebird chicks are viewed from above within their nest box. (Credit: Alexandra Wickson, Panola Banding Station)

How does banding help you answer your research questions? 

A primary means of discerning changes in a population is to track the sex and age class ratios. This type of data cannot be collected without uniquely marked individuals. Because the station has been in operation year-round since 2009, we can also determine ages of many individual birds, as well as site fidelity to nesting and wintering locations. In addition to determining longevity and fluctuations in abundance of each species, we are able to monitor the changes in return rate for migratory species - both those that winter here, and those that nest here.

What have you found so far?

We’ve determined that timing and location with respect to both habitat edges and water are important factors in grassland nesting success. We also used twelve years of capture data to document increases in abundance of several key species at different times of the year, including Field Sparrows (Spizella pusilla) and Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea). We usually capture >200 Swamp Sparrows per year and have documented a between-year return rate of nearly 15%.

We were initially surprised by the large number of captures of Eastern Phoebe in the summer – especially the fact that most of them were hatch-year individuals. Because Eastern Phoebes aren’t common in grassland habitats, we were interested in looking at the genetics to see if we could determine the origin of the hatch year birds. We documented use of the habitat by two genetically-distinct Eastern Phoebe populations, which we attribute to either resident and migratory populations or to two distinct breeding populations moving through the area

Who is involved in your project?

Our station’s master bander, Charlie Muise, took a bird banding class at Shoals Marine Laboratory in 1992 and began volunteering at every opportunity. Charlie began banding just as the need for a statistical plan prior to beginning work was becoming apparent. More stations were focusing on keeping good records of effort expended and maintaining the same net locations for long-term research to enhance data analysis. We learned a lot from our forebears, but leaders in this field during the 1990’s taught us much more. Charlie was fortunate to learn from some of the best, including Sara Morris, David Homes, Dani Kashube, Paul Super, and even long-time BBL biologist Danny Bystrak.

How has bird banding changed over the course of your career?

Our station’s master bander, Charlie Muise, took a bird banding class at Shoals Marine Laboratory in 1992 and began volunteering at every opportunity. Charlie began banding just as the “ring and fling” and “more is better” schools of banding theory were drawing to a close, and it was at this juncture that the need for a statistical plan prior to beginning work was becoming apparent. Some stations did not keep good records of effort expended, and long-term stations often moved nets around from season to season or even week to week in an effort to maximize capture, without regard to the data-analysis problems created. We learned a lot from our forebears, but leaders in this field during the 1990’s taught us much more. Charlie was fortunate to learn from some of the best, including Sara Morris, David Homes, Dani Kashube, Paul Super, and even long-time BBL biologist Danny Bystrak.

A banded Blue Grosbeak rests on a blade of grass near the Panola Banding Station.

A banded Blue Grosbeak rests on a blade of grass near the Panola Banding Station. (Credit: Allan Muise, Panola Banding Station)

Why do you think projects like yours are so important?

Long-term bird banding research is crucial to not only understanding patterns and trends over time but also distinguishing true patterns from confounding factors. In regard to Panola, our long-term research allows us to determine if grassland restoration is effective and how it is affecting bird populations. The stark decline in bird populations in general is well-known but has been especially noted in grassland birds, so we’re hopeful that information gained and data collected will be applicable beyond our study site in other grassland habitats.

 

The “Notes From the Field” series highlights current banding projects and the continued importance of bird banding 100 years after the establishment of the Bird Banding Lab. Want to see your project featured in a future “Notes From the Field” article? Email Jenn Malpass jmalpass@usgs.gov for submission details.