Band of Birds

Last Sunday I braved the snowy brick streets of Athens and journeyed out to Vinton County for a visit with bird watching expert, Robert Scott Placier. Bob Scott graciously invited me into his home to learn the art of banding (capturing birds, taking their measurements and setting them free!) and the glory and excitement of bird watching. Yes, I repeat, the excitement of bird watching.

A Blue Jay captured in Bob Scott’s backyard.

As soon as I arrived at Bob Scott’s home I was directed around his house only to find a little Blue Jay in a metal cage, happily pecking at some frozen bird seed. To my surprise (shock and horror) Bob Scott grabbed the jay, dropped it into a mesh sack and walked into his home. Dodging 50-pound bags of seed and towering stacks of ornithology books, all while holding a struggling and petrified bird, Bob Scott led me to his kitchen table slash work space.

While banding the Blue Jay with an aluminum ring, I finally got over my initial shock and was able to ask him a few questions before our formal interview. While talking, I watched as he measured, weighed, blew on (to find fat deposits) and prodded at the bird before finally releasing it outside.

“Are Blue Jays common?” I asked. Holy dumb question, Batman! Of course Blue Jays are common. Shows how much I know about birds.

“Yes, they are very common, although last winter I didn’t have any. Last winter we had a total failure around here of the acorn crop and very few hickory nuts and they are really dependent on acorns in the winter as a food.”

I was then left thinking only of frozen birds. 😥

Before I left his home, Bob Scott would catch another Blue Jay (and yes, I watched again in shock) and record its information in a large notebook to later be entered into a database located in Laurel, Maryland. He explained to me how he would capture birds that had migrated from Louisiana and Canada, and his banded birds were all over the country. This man meant business.

Bob Scott’s passion for bird watching started almost 40 years ago as a college student when he received his first field guide from his parents for Christmas. After setting up a bird feeder outside his kitchen window and feeling less-than-impressed with the birds he saw, he soon ventured out to bigger and better birding locations to track and observe birds. Since then he has traveled to such locations as the Dominican Republic, the Cayman Islands and Trinidad and Tobago. Today, Bob Scott teaches ornithology at Hocking College’s School of Natural Resources and, naturally, bands and birds in his free time.

“It’s a lot of fun. You learn a lot, it gets you outside, keeps you interested in nature and I’m really glad that I took it up as a hobby. It was a hobby before it became my profession and that’s sort of what lead to it in a way.”

Bird watching gained popularity in the early 20th century with the creation of the National Audubon Society in 1905, an organization created to protect birds and educate the public about their importance to ecosystems. As more was learned about birds, more information was released to the public, enticing people to see what lived and flew in their own backyards. More functional binoculars were being invented and the first unofficial field guides were being published.

The sport gained popularity in England and quickly spread throughout the United States. Initially, birding was considered some what of an embarrassing pastime. Although the terms “bird watchers” and “birding” still hold some taboo as a weird and nontraditional sport for old ladies and their crazy Jane Hathaway-like friends, more and more people are bird watching than ever, especially in southeastern Ohio.

According to Lynda Andrews, an avid bird watcher and the Athens Ranger District Wildlife Biologist at Wayne National Forest, Southeast Ohio is the ideal place to go birding.

“I think it’s great because we have a variety of habitat. Some birds only want to use forest, some birds are field or grassland species, some birds are wetland species, some birds like cropland. So we have a variety of habitat in this area and I think that allows for a lot of diversity of species to be here.”

The Hocking Valley Birding Trail was developed in part by The Wayne to connect state forest, trails and metro parks to “encourage people to come out there and see what they have.” The trail, which officially starts just south of Fairfield County and loops down past Athens and back up, is a plethora of trails and public land where new and old birders alike can enjoy nature and birds.

In the past week alone I’ve learned how great birding can be. You can go solo, in groups and travel wherever around Ohio and beyond. If I had a backyard I would already have my very own bird feeder set up. And if I wasn’t already captivated enough by these passionate birders and persuaded to do my own birding, something unobtainable surfaced. The Cerulean Warbler.

No, not another Blue Jay, a Cerulean Warbler. Image courtesy of Enature.com.

According to Lynda, The Wayne boasts 3/4 of the entire Cerulean Warbler population. These tree-top dwellers entice birders from all over the country to visit Southeast Ohio. Just last year a woman from Maine was making an east coast birding trip and desperately needed to see the rare warbler. Lynda was able to lead her down to Wildcat Hollow (stop 14 on the birding trail) so she could have her wish granted. Assuming she saw her Cerulean Warbler, I’m super jealous. Bob Scott has seen many, but has never caught one. Is it too ambitious to say I will catch one before he does?

Next week I hope to travel to Marietta, Ohio and speak with editor-in-chief of Bird Watcher’s Digest, Bill Thompson III. One day this Spring I plan on taking a day trip out to Tansky’s March in Perry to possibly see the ominous Cerulean Warbler. Although I’ve only had a brief experience with bird watching, I know this tranquil yet exciting sport will soon reel me in. Hey, I’m into anything where I can be alone, listen to my iPod, walk around outside and see some pretty little birdies!

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