North Fork birdwatchers have their day

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | A yellow warbler waits for release after George Rowsom banded its leg.

Deep in Moore’s Woods in Greenport and out along the banks of Dam Pond, Orient resident George Rowsom has spent nearly two decades meticulously documenting the paths of migratory birds.

Mr. Rowsom, the soft-spoken owner of S.T. Preston & Son ship’s chandlery in Greenport, quietly sets up fine-meshed “mist nets” in the middle of the forest and waits for birds, who don’t see the nets, to fly in. He gently lifts their feet from the entangling lines, a nail-biting task that can only be done by master bird banders certified by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. He then clamps a small metal band around the bird’s spindly leg, documents its age, plumage state, weight and sex and, opening his hands, watches the fluttering, frightened collection of feathers take flight.

Few people have had a chance to see Mr. Rowsom at work, but this past Saturday, he set up his banding station behind North Fork Audubon Society headquarters at Inlet Pond in Greenport as part of the group’s second annual international migratory bird day celebration.

The North Fork Audubon chapter’s first such celebration was just two years ago partly because, according to its president, Diana Van Buren, most serious birders spend that day in birding hot-spots such as Ontario or New York’s Central Park, a warbler hotbed this time of year.

According to Ms. Van Buren, most migratory birds eat insects, rather than seeds, and follow the insects on their trips north.

Linda Kedenburg and her husband, Rick, led a bird walk in the preserve Saturday that gave birdwatchers had a chance to see Mr. Rowsom in action. She said that this year, more birds than usual are traveling north along the Hudson River Flyway instead of via eastern Long Island because an air mass along the eastern seaboard is pushing them inland.

“We’ve been sort of skunked here on Long Island,” she said.

But Mr. Rowsom’s three mist nets, set out along the hiking trails, had several birds in them within minutes of the birdwatchers’ arrival. He and assistant Ed Leary quickly rolled up one of the nets to avoid trapping more birds than necessary.

In their nets were yellow- and blue-winged warblers, catbirds and a tiny wren.

Mr. Rowsom, 75, first began banding birds in his early 20s with his biology professor on Seneca Lake. He took workshops and honed his skills under another master bird bander until he received his license decades ago.

In the course of his training, he learned how to hold still while carefully disentangling birds from nets and putting them briefly into small cloth bags, which calm them after the shock of being caught. He learned to hold the birds’ bodies carefully while crimping just the right size band on their legs, and he learned the tell-tale sign of a stressed bird, which begins to close its eyes and must be set free quickly.

“Sometimes, if you shake it a little bit, it helps,” he said.

“I’ve watched when he was bitten by a cardinal,” said Mr. Leary as Mr. Rowsom carefully measured a bird’s wingspan. “It looks like you got hit by a hammer.”

Mr. Rowsom tags about 1,300 birds each year, about 14 percent of them birds he’s caught previously. In just one trip to the nets Saturday morning, he captured three birds he’d tagged earlier this year.

The small metal tags are numbered in sequence and sent to master bird banders at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, a bird-banding laboratory in Maryland, which collects statistics from bird banders throughout the country.

In June and July, Mr. Rowsom catches birds on their way north through Moore’s Woods. On their way south in the fall, he often finds the same birds at Dam Pond in Orient.

2010, Mr. Rowsom’s 17th consecutive year banding birds in Moore’s Woods, was marked by the smallest number of birds he’s captured since the program began.

“Weather could certainly be a factor, but we have had dry periods in the past,” he said. “For the migrating species, other contributing factors could be wintering and or stop-over grounds. I am looking forward to the 2011 breeding season to see if this was a one-time occurrence.”

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