My first day banding birds at CATIE

PMA (Programa Monitoreo de Aves)  This is the name of the admirable research and education programme conducted by CATIE in Turrialba.  For me it’s a wonderful opportunity to see local bird species up close, to learn and, at the same time, to make some small contribution, as a volunteer, to our knowledge of the status of birds in Costa Rica.  I could kick myself for not having volunteered earlier.

The monitoring location within the beautiful CATIE grounds varies from day to day.  This blog addresses, very cursorily, my first week of experience with the programme.  Please access the PMA website for detailed information.  The list of species for this first week is at the end of this post.

Up at the crack of dawn on the first day (shifted from Monday to Tuesday for logistical reasons), I drove down the hill in the dark to arrive just on time for the setting of the nets.  Alejandra Martínez and Fabrice De Clerck are in charge; they are both ornithological experts, although Fabrice really specialises in plant and community ecology.  But this first day Alejandra was by herself.  We were joined by just one more volunteer, Carlos, a CATIE student from Mexico.  I wasn’t able to help much this first day, and I struggled with the nets and poles, both setting them up and, later, taking them down.

A controlled set of steps, without variation, seems to be the best way of dealing with it.  First you set up the first ‘paral‘ to support the net.  Mostly these are of light aluminium but sometimes they are simply bamboo poles.  The pole is supported by ‘mecates‘ that are already tied in place, usually to two nearby trees or tree stumps.   As a boy, I had refused to join the Boy Scouts.   This organisation, I do believe, mostly teaches the tying of complicated knots in the dark, but because membership in it required an oath of allegiance to the Queen, I stayed in the dark as far as tying knots is concerned.   What you don’t learn when young doesn’t come easily with advancing age, and Carlos thus got stuck with attaching the ‘mecates‘ to the ‘parales‘.
When you take the first end of the net out of the white plastic bag, you find that there are five loops that are attached to that end, and the sole white one is going to be at the top of the pole.  Of the remaining four black ones, two, together with the white one, will support the upper part of the net, and the remaining two will hold taut the lower part.  They must be kept in strict order by keeping your fingers in careful position through the loops.  My unpractised fingers quite naturally dropped and confused the order several times.  Next, you step away from the first pole towards the location of the second, unravelling the net as you go.  Of course, when you drop it onto the profusion of plant remnants that form the tropical ground, it gets tangled and covered in bits of vegetation.  This requires a half hour of picking the bits out of the net, during which time, Alejandra has, unaided and with machine-like precision, set up all the remaining nets.

Finally, Carlos and I get the five loops attached to the second post.  You push the highest loop up to the top of the pole by picking up any long stick that’s lying around and poking at the loop on the pole.  You always do this if you are Alejandra and don’t measure much more than five feet in height.  Of course, if you are Carlos and play basketball, it’s no problem.

Unfamiliar with nets, knots and and their locations, I managed to do most things wrong, not just this first day, but all week.  Alejandra and Fabrice always smoothed things out, however, and this first day, as subsequently, we were ready for the first customers shortly after sunrise.

The nets are checked about every 45 minutes until the birds get fewer as they become increasingly full from breakfast.  Hummingbirds are ‘processed’ first, because they stress more easily, I think.  The common resident is the Rufous-tailed, but we also had a very pretty female White-necked jacobin.  Actually, the first three birds of that first morning were an Ovenbird, a Black-throated wren and a Bright-rumped attila.  I was in seventh heaven, because all three were new for me.  You don’t see many Ovenbirds in Texas and California, and the two Tico residents had always managed to hide from me before, singing sweetly all the while.  All three are really beautiful birds, especially when you have them in the hand.  Attila (the Hun, says Alejandra) has a large head and a formidable-looking beak, but he delivers a puny bite compared to the most common capture in the nets, the Variable seedeater.  This guy crunches down on fingers in vengeful fashion as you try to extricate him from the net.

Before banding and releasing the captures, lots of data is meticulously entered on a laptop. This sits on a folding table at the work station that Alejandra and Fabrice set up close to the nets.  I can’t pretend to remember it all, but the birds have their wings measured, with a little ruler, and inspected for wear.  Then you blow on their feathers while squinting at breast, skull and private parts to determine age, sex (if possible) and physical condition.  I’m going to get my glasses fitted with a microscope so that I can be sure of what I’m looking at.  The birds squirm around a bit and sometimes squawk, as you would too under similar circumstances.  They can’t get away, because Alejandra and Fabrice have shown you how to hold them securely with their head between your index and middle finger.  Tanagers and saltators, both provided with impressively strong bills, try to take chunks of any finger that strays within biting range.  Birds of all species defecate freely during all these inspections; this can warm the hand if not the heart.  The last step is to band them, in accordance with a well-established coding or numbering system, before release.

Breakfast is just a few quick bites of cookies or bananas with a swig of coffee.  Hey, there’s an important job to do here, and Alejandra tolerates no slacking.

After my initiation into the programme, I enjoyed two more great days this week, and it may well be that I am forgetting a couple of species on the week’s list.  Friday’s Ruddy quail-dove was yet another life-bird for me, and I also added on that day a woodcreeper or two.   I’ll explain that in a separate post.  By the end of the week, setting up and taking down the nets was still not easy but I’m hoping I’ll get the hang of it soon.  A big thank you to everyone at CATIE for helping make my week a very happy one.

Here’s the list of netted bird species (several consist of more than one individual):

1.  Ruddy quail-dove

2. Stripe-throated hermit

3. Long-billed hermit

4. White-necked jacobin

5. Rufous-tailed hummingbird

6. Streak-headed woodcreeper

7. Spot-crowned woodcreeper

8. Paltry tyrannulet

9. Ochre-bellied flycatcher

10. Bright-rumped attila

11. Black-throated wren

12. Yellow warbler

13. Chestnut-sided warbler

14. American redstart

15. Ovenbird

16. Bananaquit

17. White-lined tanager

18. Summer tanager

19. Variable seedeater

20. Yellow-faced grassquit

21. Buff-throated saltator

22. Black-headed saltator

4 thoughts on “My first day banding birds at CATIE

  1. Hi Paul, I love the blog. I’m coming to CATIE with a school group in March. Our trip is focussing on tropical forest management, but as an obsessed birder I’m hoping to squeeze in a few lifers while we’re down there. Maybe I’ll run into you at CATIE? Keep up the blogging – I’ll be following with anticipation of birds to come!


    • Hi Ryan, thanks for the encouraging words. I never thought I’d be a blogger, but my daughter insisted I do it. Will this be your first visit? If you’ve not been to CATIE before, you’re in for a real treat. I’m sure you’ll meet Fabrice De Clerck, who is a forest management expert, among other things. I’ll be at CATIE three days a week in March, helping with the banding, so I hope to see you there.


  2. Hi Paul: I think there are eight of us in the group – I’m not sure whether that includes the two leaders. This will be my first visit to Costa Rica. We should get our final itinerary in a couple of weeks, and then I’ll know exactly where we’ll be, when, and who we’ll be meeting. I can’t stop googling pictures of Costa Rican birds!


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