Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Into Thin Air

May 20, 2020

Baltimore Magazine — By Lydia Woolever — May 20, 2020

A tufted titmouse held in photographers grip
Tufted titmouse banded at by the BBLFall 2018(Credit: Antonio Celis-Murillo, USGS, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

"Just before dawn on one of the last days of winter, the houses are still dark and the roads are mostly empty as the first peach light begins to break along the horizon of the Eastern Shore. Riding high above switchgrass fields and silhouette tree lines, the moon seems to be the only one out here. That is until you reach the end of a dirt lane and step outside of the car to listen. The sound comes from every angle and consumes the senses—trills and tweets, warbles and whistles—the invisible chorus of birdsong, rising with the morning sun.

Before long, there is also the crunch of muck boots on fallen leaves as Jim Gruber trudges uphill from behind the old Foreman’s Branch field office, a half dozen mesh bags dangling from his hips. He heads inside into a small square room, walls covered in curling maps and stacked ceiling high with faded guidebooks, hanging each fluttering specimen like an ornament from the rafters.

Gruber, director of this Washington College operation in Chestertown, Maryland, along with resident field ecologist Maren Gimpel and their three students, are soon seated at a long table, reaching into the bags and gently pulling out live birds—cardinals, sparrows, a tufted titmouse, all surprisingly calm—between their middle and forefingers. Under the glow of desk lamps, they fasten a tiny metal band stamped with nine digits to each of the birds’ even tinier ankles, determine age and sex, and measure wing length and weight before opening a small windowpane and releasing them back into the open air.

Fear not, they fly off, completely unphased by this alien abduction.

“This is a white-throated sparrow,” says Gimpel, holding a brownish bird with a yellow forehead. “They’re only here in winter, and their song is a really nice clear whistle: ‘Old-sam, pea-body, pea-body, pea-body,’” and off it goes.

At least once an hour, the team treks out across this sprawling countryside, through the woods and along the field edges, toward a labyrinth of some 90 nylon nets that catch birds in their loose pockets. From March through May, they’ll band everything from hawks to hummingbirds, then return again in fall, marking some 15,000 birds each year. At the end of the season, their records will be reported to the federal government and stored for science, much as they have been since the observatory began in the late 1990s.

But over those years, there have also been changes.

“Myrtle warblers are way down, whip-poor-wills are gone,” says Gruber, running down a mental list. “You used to go out in the summer evenings and hear them calling near Tolchester Beach.”

“We’ve all inevitably heard an older birder say, ‘In my day, there used to be…,’” adds Gimpel. “Those stories sound crazy to us now.”

For this crew, the disappearances are concerning, but the importance of their work is not about yesterday, or tomorrow, when they’ll do it all over again. They want to know, like many others: What will things look like in the next 100 years, or 50, or 20? . . ."

Read the full article at Baltimore Magazine


« Return to Chesapeake Bay Activities — News