Klamath Bird Observatory does the hands-on work of tracking bird populations

The only part of the sleek yellow bird protruding from Bob Frey's big hand is the head, with its Lone Ranger mask, its frightened eyes and its pointed bill. The bird is a common yellowthroat ' a misnomer since they are not that abundant ' a summer visitor in the Rogue Valley.

Frey turns the little bird upside down, bands it and checks it for body fat and signs of molting, the process in which birds renew their feathers. He fans out the primaries, the bird's long flight feathers, and with a puff of breath blows back belly fluff to check the cloaca, the bird's sex organ.

Looks like a second-year bird, he says.

Here on former ranch land being rehabilitated just minutes from downtown Ashland, Frey is a project leader with the Klamath Bird Observatory, a nonprofit research organization which with its partners monitors songbird populations at some 50 monitoring stations in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

In recognition of the observatory's work to understand wetland and habitat relationships as they affect migratory birds, KBO has been awarded, along with the Redwood Science Laboratory in Arcata, Calif., the U.S. Forest Service's National Taking Wing Award.
Taking Wing is a Forest Service partnership program dedicated to wetland-dependent wildlife, especially migratory birds. It is the first time the Taking Wing Award has been given to a research group that specializes in land birds.

John Kemper, the secretary of the Audubon group that compiles distribution and abundance information on the birds of Jackson County, says the kind of data KBO collects is important to the extent we want to understand our world.

It's along the lines of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory but not as big, Kemper says. They've been quite successful with it.

Frey opens his hand, and the little male takes a moment to recover its wits, then flits smartly into the brush on the other side of the creek. Native willows are now growing where cattle long trod. Male blackbirds call Canada geese honk.

A new arrival from as far away as Panama, where it spent the winter, the yellowthroat will claim a little patch of wetland and try to attract a female by belting out its song: witchety-witchety-witchety!

We're trying to keep common birds common, says observatory Executive Director John Alexander.

It's a challenge. The yellowthroat needs wetlands to live, and most of the wetlands on the West Coast have been drained and converted to agriculture or development. From Louisiana to Canada, the loss of wetlands continues.

The observatory, in a break with custom, monitors birds not just in breeding season but during migration seasons as well. It works with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Southern Oregon University, the U.S. Park Service, area schools, landowners and others, collecting and providing data. It is part of the Partners In Flight International Landbird Conservation Program, which is aimed at studying and conserving wild bird populations.

KBO was incorporated as an Oregon nonprofit in 2000, by which time Alexander had been monitoring birds in partnerships with others for about eight years.

Some observatory monitoring sites are seasonal. In mid-May, the observatory will open its eight mist-netting stations in the Klamath Basin, which will operate through October.

All the sites are run according to an international protocol calling for nets to be put out 15 minutes after sunrise and left up for five hours.

The hair-like nylon nets are checked each half-hour, and any captured birds examined (which takes about two minutes) and released. In the event of conditions that could be dangerous to birds, like rain or high winds, nets are taken down.

Nets like the observatory's can capture birds from tiny hummingbirds to jays. Staffers take care to handle birds gently and will summarily release a bird that acts stressed.

Studies have found that many songbird species are in serious decline in both Eastern and Western North America and elsewhere. Many are neotropical migrants, like the common yellowthroat, that winter in Mexico, South or Central America or the Caribbean and follow the sun north to nest and raise their young.

Systematic monitoring efforts are needed to measure management and conservation efforts.

Maybe we can catch some species before they become endangered, Alexander says. When that happens it's not good for anybody.

One of the goals of Partners In Flight, an international bird conservation program (), is to conserve wild bird populations in the hemisphere.

Birds don't pay attention to state or agency boundaries, Alexander says.

But they pay very close attention to the seasons, and it's early yet for spring migration in Southern Oregon. That means warblers and swallows and vireos and flycatchers and many other migrating songbirds are still south of here, although Alexander has already spotted a house wren and a Bullock's oriole.

The nets have caught a ruby-crowned kinglet this morning, a bird that winters on the valley floor but will soon depart for the mountain forest. Frey blows back the head feathers, revealing the shocking red patch the tiny males can raise when they are excited. After the full exam and the weighing (5 grams), accomplished by gently stuffing the kinglet head-first into a 35-millimeter film can, the bird takes off none the worse for wear.

Another guest this morning is a strapping little American goldfinch, the familiar, bright yellow backyard bird with the black cap and white wing bars.

Getting reliable, up-close information about a tiny creature that moves swiftly through the air, often for thousands of miles, and then seeks a secluded spot to nest and raise its young, is a daunting challenge.

Alexander says banding studies are vital in helping scientists understand bird populations, migration patterns, the age structure of bird populations and much more. Only a small fraction of banded birds is ever recaptured or recovered.

Much of the impetus for early banding efforts stemmed from the need to understand the populations of game birds and set hunting limits.

Alexander says netting gets information that can't be had any other way, such as the age of individual birds and their amount of body fat.

According to The Birder's Handbook, (Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye, Simon and Schuster) mist nets were invented by the Japanese, who called them suicide nets and cooked any unfortunate birds captured.

Scientists sometimes shoot huge cannon nets over whole flocks of waterfowl to capture and study them before releasing them.

Movement toward networks of bird-monitoring stations has been building for decades. In the view of KBO chief Alexander, for the observatory to be recognized with a prestigious award is a step in the direction of all-bird conservation under the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, and away from a traditional split among those working on land birds, waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds and seabirds.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

About the Klamath Bird Observatory

The Klamath Bird Observatory provides data to scientists, land managers and the public. It is working to tie its network of bird-monitoring stations, which is among the densest in the world, into similar efforts around North America.

The group is working with Jackson County schools on after-school programs about birds. It also does riparian research and research on the importance of fire in the forest ecosystem.

Contact the observatory at P.O. Box 758, Ashland, OR 97520, call 201-0866, visit or e-mail kbo@klamathbird.org.

For more on the Taking Wing program, visit .

Observatory to share Spring Fair booth

Klamath Bird Observatory will join the Rogue Valley Audubon Society in an educational booth April 24 and 25 at the Master Gardener Spring Fair at the Jackson County Exposition Park.

The observatory also will take part in International Migratory Bird Day celebrations May 8at North Mountain Park in Ashland, Veteran's Park in Klamath Falls and Greenhorn Park in Yreka.