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Powdermill Avian Research Center welcomes bird-banders-in-training

| Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, 4:14 p.m.
Luke DeGroote, bird-banding coordinator for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve, talks with staff and volunteers  on Sept. 1, 2015.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Luke DeGroote, bird-banding coordinator for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve, talks with staff and volunteers on Sept. 1, 2015.
Luke DeGroote, bird-banding coordinator for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve, untangles a bird caught in a mist net on Sept. 1, 2015.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Luke DeGroote, bird-banding coordinator for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve, untangles a bird caught in a mist net on Sept. 1, 2015.
Luke DeGroote, bird-banding coordinator for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve, untangles a bird caught in a mist net on Sept. 1, 2015.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Luke DeGroote, bird-banding coordinator for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve, untangles a bird caught in a mist net on Sept. 1, 2015.

When Bob Leberman came to Powdermill Nature Reserve for the summer more than 50 years ago, he didn't anticipate his bird-banding station to catalyze a massive data set and evolve into a notable learning hub on a global scale.

“I was hoping it might go on for a few years, and then 50-some years later it's a world famous station,” Leberman, 78, of Rector said.

This week, the Powdermill Avian Research Center continues its tradition of training aspiring bird banders from around the world as it holds its fall banding workshop. A group of eight novice and advanced bird banders will hone their skills and learn how to safely handle birds and determine birds' age, sex, size and other information.

“By now, we have trained hundreds of banders all over the world,” Leberman said.

Bird banding involves placing small, lightweight metal bracelets, issued by the United States Geological Survey, to the legs of a bird to monitor its life. The bands are numbered, allowing researchers around the world to track a bird's information if it's recaptured. The data is used for avian and environmental research.

Luke DeGroote, avian ecologist and bird- banding program coordinator, said the practice of bird banding is a little bit like a language — it can be learned slowly over time, or one can immerse themselves in a class that presents a wealth of information in a short time. DeGroote chooses the latter for the workshop.

“This sort of intensive course gives them a really good foundation,” DeGroote, 36, of Ligonier Borough said.

Powdermill's workshops typically attract students and professionals looking to polish their skills.

For beginners, the workshop provides an in-depth introduction to banding and for advanced banders, it can help improve their abilities to determine a bird's age and sex.

DeGroote said there aren't many places in the country to receive the level of training offered at Powdermill, located in Westmoreland County's Cook Township. There are only about half a dozen year-round, long-term migration monitoring stations in the country, “and we're one of them,” he said.

“They've just built this program that amongst banders is really well-known,” he said. “There's only a few stations that have been in operation since the sixties and this is known for being one of the ones to really develop and hone that ability to age and sex birds.”

During the summer, Powdermill staff go out to the center's bird nets half an hour before dawn to collect birds from their 65 nets. They check the nets every 40 minutes, bringing the birds back to the lab in individual cloth bags, where they log data about each bird. The center sees about 125 different species in a year, DeGroote said. Common species captured in September include magnolia warblers and common yellowthroats.

Bird banding and the data collection that comes along with it are important, DeGroote said, because birds are “really good indicators of environmental health.” The data can help determine when there is a problem with a species or its habitat and allows researchers to monitor migration patterns and bird populations.

When the center was created, “climate change wasn't in our jargon,” DeGroote said.

“We had no idea that would be an issue,” he said. “It was, at the time, trying to figure out how long birds live and where they migrate to, where they're coming from and what their populations are like. Gradually over time they saw that there were changes in the habitat.”

In another 50-plus years, “who knows what other questions we'll have,” DeGroote said.

“There very well could be other environmental issues that we're not even aware of, so to have long-term data sets, especially with consistent techniques are incredibly rare,” he said.

The North American Banding Council, of which DeGroote is a member, is working to offer a standardization of ethics and practices for bird banding. Powdermill's workshops are evolving, DeGroote said, because they're trying to tailor their workshops to convey the knowledge needed for bander certification by the council.

Other research at the center includes a flight tunnel study, which staff are using to determine whether birds can see patterned glass. DeGroote said bird-to-building collisions are the second most common direct mortality for birds, and 600 million birds die a year in the U.S. because of it. The research will help develop windows birds can see to decrease collisions.

Additionally, staff band owls in the fall for several countrywide data networks. DeGroote hopes to eventually implement avian nanotag technology at the center, which is like “old school telemetry.”

“The difference is that rather than tuning in your radio to a specific frequency for every single individual, the sounds come out like morse code digitally so that you can identify all of them on the same frequency, which allows you to put up a tower,” and monitor birds' locations, he said.

There are learning opportunities for the general public available at the center, DeGroote said. Banding demonstrations can be scheduled by appointment, and if a person can commit to a day a week of volunteering, they can assist staff with data collection.

Mary Shidel of Irwin started out as a volunteer and is now a banding assistant on the staff.

“It's really exciting,” she said. “It's always a surprise. You never know what's going to be in the nets when you go out, and you never know what's going to be in the bag when you're processing. It's just kind of fun and neat to see all the birds in the hand.”

Bird-banding research is important “for a lot of reasons we don't even know yet,” Shidel said, citing the emergence of climate change since the start of the center.

“Only by monitoring and having a long-term monitoring can you really understand those changes,” she said. “Our data may be looked at for reasons we don't even realize yet.”

“It's kind of like an investment in the future,” she said.

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or nchynoweth@tribweb.com.

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