2013-10-10 / News

Scientists begin banding birds at Beavertail prior to migration

By Ken Shane


Pastor Becky Baumann of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and ornithologist Charlie Clarkson collect data from a bird captured at Beavertail. The bird was measured, banded and freed. 
Photo by Chris Powell Pastor Becky Baumann of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and ornithologist Charlie Clarkson collect data from a bird captured at Beavertail. The bird was measured, banded and freed. Photo by Chris Powell While much of the island is still asleep, birds have already started their day at Beavertail State Park. Since the birds are up, that means scientists who are studying them must be up as well.

That’s why you’ll find ornithologist Charles Clarkson and biologist Chris Powell hard at work capturing, measuring, banding and releasing birds in the early morning at Beavertail.

The banding station at Beavertail is one of four in Rhode Island. Others are located near the University of Rhode Island, in Middletown and on Block Island. Scientists erect nets in order to capture small birds and check the nets every few minutes to make sure the captured animals aren’t overstressed. Once the birds are gently removed from the nets, a series of measurements are taken and the birds are weighed. The statistics are noted, and the bird is banded and then released in the area where it was found.


Charlie Clarkson measures and bands a black-and-white warbler he captured at Beavertail. 
Photos by Chris Powell Charlie Clarkson measures and bands a black-and-white warbler he captured at Beavertail. Photos by Chris Powell Clarkson is a federally approved birdbander, a designation that is required to conduct the operation. The certification takes several years. The purpose of his study in Jamestown is to determine the effect of habitat loss on migrating birds. Southern Rhode Island is a key stopover for birds after they breed in northern regions and begin their migration to Central and South America.

Approximately one-third of birds found in Jamestown in the early fall are migratory, including breeds like the black and white warbler, northern waterthrush, Connecticut warbler, American redstart, eastern phoebe and hooded warbler. At the same time resident birds like cardinals, song sparrows and gray catbirds are also in town.

After breeding, the birds will begin a journey of up to 2,000 miles to an area where they can prepare for the much longer nonstop journey to the south. Some of the birds can achieve airspeeds of 50 mph, and most perish during the process.

Clarkson said one of the most pressing conservation issues is habitat loss. Altering landscapes to meet the needs of a growing human population can have incidental effects on other species. Ecosystems function as a single unit composed of many parts, he said, and each of those parts are necessary for overall system health. When one or more of these ecosystem components becomes disturbed, the entire ecosystem can begin to behave erratically.

“For birds, three important habitats comprise their entire world,” Clarkson said. “Breeding, wintering and stopover sites. These areas provide all of the resources necessary to produce young and obtain the fuel needed to propel them thousands of miles during migration. Migration is a very energetically expensive feat and accounts for the majority of adult mortality in birds.”

According to Clarkson, New England serves as an important location in the lives of many neotropical migrants, which are songbirds that breed in the high latitudes and spend their winters in the tropics. Throughout the deciduous forests of the Northeast, millions of these birds breed every summer. Prior to leaving for their tropical wintering grounds, most of the birds will spend time fueling in areas rich in resources.

“We believe that Jamestown could be one of these very important fueling locations,” Clarkson said. “Situated on the southern end of the Narragansett Bay, this is an ideal location for birds to spend time gathering resources before heading out over the open ocean to take advantage of favorable tailwinds that will push them south.”

Clarkson hopes that by conducting banding studies here, he can better understand which species rely on Jamestown. The data he records will show their relative health prior to migrating. Beavertail in particular has many habitat types that have been modified over the years. By determining where birds are foraging, an understanding of the impacts of habitat change on local bird populations can be gained.

“Over time, we hope to involve volunteers from Jamestown and the surrounding counties in the hopes that everyone can witness the impressive things these little birds do,” Clarkson said.

Chris Powell is known locally as the co-chair of the Conanicut Island Raptor Project. According to Powell, there are two primary reasons for the banding projects. One reason is the data collected will show the importance of the Beavertail peninsula and park as resting and refueling areas before the birds begin their migratory journey south.

The project also has an educational component aimed at demonstrating to students the importance of protecting and preserving habitat for migratory birds on Conanicut Island, Powell said.

The banding operation at Beavertail also required a permit from the state Department of Environmental Management. The banding began on Sept. 24 and will continue two or three days a week, four to five hours a day, into November. Banding will then resume in late March and continue into June as the birds return to the north.

All of the data captured locally is fed to the banding lab in Washington, D.C. Once the information is in the computers, if a particular bird is recaptured, new information can be obtained and compared to what is already known. While Clarkson acknowledged recapturing is a long shot, birds are known to return to the same habitat.

The project is funded by Clarkson’s church, the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Newport, and the Conservation Commission. Powell says anyone wishing to check out the banding process can email him at cpowell7@veri zon.net.

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