Bird in hand: Studying birds and avoiding snakes on Casper Mountain (Photo Gallery)

Audubon Rockies community naturalist Zach Hutchinson examines a green-tailed towhee during a bird banding operation on Casper Mountain on July 18, 2019. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

There are snakes and there are bears. Probably multiple snakes, but at least one bear.

These are the two casual warnings given by Audubon Rockies community naturalist Zach Hutchinson one early, warm morning on Casper Mountain recently.

Hutchinson has been running two bird banding stations in Casper for three years. One on the mountain, and the other at Edness Kimball Wilkins State Park. They’re two of the four located in Wyoming.

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On the mountain, 10 fine “mist” nets resembling overgrown volleyball nets are placed in designated areas before sunrise. Volunteers on this morning were told more than once about bears and snakes, so tapping a walking stick and keeping eyes and ears open would be important.

In a flash that warning was blatantly ignored by Hutchinson himself as he yelped, darted through the brush and approached a net, walking stick abandoned.

Zach Hutchinson examines a three-toed woodpecker before removing it from the net. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

“It’s a three-toed woodpecker,” said Hutchinson. “Not common in this area at all.”

It’s the first such species in this area he’s seen since the count began.

“They depend on dying trees, whether from burn, disease or insects.”

The significance of this area for study is its proximity to a fire that roared through Casper Mountain in 2006. Firefighters were able to save a generations-old family cabin. That family now allows the Audubon to use the area for its bird count, where 10 nets are evenly divided between the burn and old forest area.

The burn area, which is in the process of naturally regenerating, attracts different bird activity than mature forests. That dramatic contrast in such a compact area makes bird research here even more valuable, according to Hutchinson.

Burned trees are silhouetted against the morning sky on Casper Mountain. Part of the area was burned during the 2006 Jackson Canyon Fire and is now regenerating. The area is close in proximity to non-burn forest where nets are also set up. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

“It’s a way to mark individual birds, it’s like putting a name tag on a bird,” said Hutchinson. “When you put that name tag on, you record information. So we can learn about individuals…we can learn about demographics, vital reads.”

Tracking individual birds allows researchers to see how they are surviving within the population, and how the population is doing overall.

The Casper stations are two of 1,200 in the United States that are part of the MAPS program, which stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship.

Audubon Rockies is a partner in the program, according to Hutchinson, which sets data and collecting guidelines everyone follows. All that data from all the stations are collected in a centralized database, and it helps researchers track population declines, successes and other trends.

Hutchinson says it takes at least five years of banding in an area to get a good baseline for analyzing population trends. He’s waiting for government approval to start another study soon focusing specifically on hummingbirds.

In Casper, Audubon bird banding usually attracts up to 10 volunteers to help with nets, birds and collecting data, according to Hutchinson. On this morning only two arrive, with summer vacations and other obligations competing with people’s time during this season.

Ellis Hein, a retiree, has been volunteering with bird banding since 2010, after one of his children introduced him to it.

Another volunteer, Sienna Hawk, became hooked after participating in an owl count last fall.

A hummingbird takes flight from Sienna Hawk’s hand after it has been examined and documented. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

“Holding little owls the size of a soda can…it was amazing,” Hawk said. “Tears were shed.”

Birds that are trapped are carefully removed from the net, placed into a cloth bag and brought back to a makeshift station set up on the cabin’s back porch. With a stunning view that includes Medicine Bow and Laramie Peak, volunteers carefully check the bird for age, weight and other signs of wear before attaching a tiny band with a unique number to its leg.

Most birds appear healthy, but a small finch caught this morning was drastically underweight.

“Aw sweetheart, you’re not eating very well,” Hutchinson told the bird as he examined her. “Poor baby.”

The woodpecker was less meek, aggressively squawking and pecking the hand of each volunteer. Hawk received claw marks as a souvenir. Hein opened his hand to set the bird free, but not before getting a couple of hard pecks as a final “goodbye.”

Wind is an issue, since it can potentially harm a captured bird and the nets themselves. As the morning turned gusty, the team wrapped up the nets early. It’s been an unusually windy year according to Hutchinson. Still, it was a productive morning with a total of 16 birds examined in all, some new and some recaptures.

On her way to pack up nets, Hawk saw that snake she’d been warned about as it reared its head when she walked by. She was a large rattler that recently had babies, which Hutchinson said he at times could hear.

“It got real hardcore real quick up here,” said Hawk, adrenaline still running.

“No one got bit today,” said Hutchinson. There was also no close encounter with that bear, and another successful outing was over on Casper Mountain.

Anyone interested in volunteering or participating in the Audubon bird banding operation can visit rockies.audubon.org for more information, or email Zach Hutchinson at zhutchinson@audubon.org.

Zach Hutchinson and Sienna Hawk set up a temporary banding station on the porch of a family cabin in the early morning on Casper Mountain. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Net kits are carefully organized and numbered before being deployed in designated areas around the cabin. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Zach Hutchinson assembles one of ten bird nets. The “mist” nets are very fine and usually invisible to birds. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
A hummingbird is caught in one of the nets. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Zach Hutchinson stands among snowbrush that has covered the burn area on Casper Mountain. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Volunteer Ellis Hein attempts to capture a bird caught in one of the nets. The bird was able to escape. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Ellis Hein radios the team after checking the nets. Nets are checked for captured birds roughly every half hour. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Data is recorded on every bird, including weight, size, distinguishing marks, age, etc. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
A band is applied to the bird’s leg. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Ellis Hein, Sienna Hawk and Zach Hutchinson sit at a makeshift workstation while banding birds. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
(Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
(Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
(Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
(Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Sienna Hawk holds a hummingbird. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Sienna Hawk holds a hummingbird as Zach Hutchinson takes photos after the bird is examined and documented. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
Zach Hutchinson, Ellis Hein and Sienna Hawk react as Hutchinson shows the three-toed woodpecker they captured. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)
The three-toed woodpecker is released. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)