Bird Banding at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Science Center Objects

The USGS Bird Banding Lab (BBL), not only supplies bands and manages the banding data on a national level, but also has a bird banding station of its very own. The fall migration monitoring station has a long history at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge. Since 1979, a small area has been utilized as a mist net site and banding station in a unique habitat under the power lines that transect the refuge. 

An open mist net in a transect under the power lines at Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge

An open mist net in a transect under the power lines at Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge (Credit: Jenn Malpass, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Public domain.)

In 1920, the BBL was established after ratification of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. During World War II, the BBL was moved from Washington, D.C., to what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Patuxent Research Refuge (PRR).

Around 1959, power lines were installed on the PRR property under the condition that this corridor would not be mowed as is the common practice. Instead, this right-of-way is managed through the removal or basal spraying of trees that could attain a sufficient height to interfere with power transmission along the wires. The result is a permanent dense shrub canopy approximately two to three meters in height.

In 1979, BBL biologist Danny Bystrak recognized the potential of this shrub canopy habitat to be used as a banding station and began experimenting with mist net placement on the right-of-way. The vegetation height conforms to the height of the standard mist nets used by bird banders, causing bird activity to be concentrated at heights that can be readily sampled by these nets. Thanks to the vision and leadership of Danny Bystrak, this right-of-way became an established long-term fall migration monitoring station.  Danny was lead bander of the station from 1979-1994. From 1995-2003, the station was headed by Deanna Dawson. The monitoring station did not operate during 2004-2006 but Danny resumed banding operations there in 2007.

As of 2018, the BBL operates 26 mist nets three days a week from mid-August to mid-November under Matt Rogosky, the current lead bander.  The nets are opened before dawn, operated for approximately 3.5 hours, and checked every 40 minutes. The birds are removed from the nets and transported in cloth bags to a centralized location where each is banded, identified, measured, and weighed. Approximately 1,500-1,800 birds of 70-75 species are normally banded each year at the station.

These efforts have shown that the shrub canopy habitats along the powerlines are routinely used by a diverse bird community as a stop-over site during migration, for nesting, and to over-winter. This bird diversity results from a combination of factors along the right-of-way including abundant fruit production, a high density of leaf surfaces for gleaning insects, and dense cover that provides protection from predators. The results from the BBL banding program ensure that the powerline corridor continues to be maintained in dense shrub canopy habitat that will benefit the bird communities on the refuge for many years to come.