From Maine to Florida: Tracking Long-Distance Recaptures

By: Alyssa Borowske @ UConn

From the moment a bird hits a mist-net, it becomes a series of data points: sex, age, species, location, wing, leg, bill and head lengths, amounts of fat, conditions of feathers, etc.  Each of these facts and values join values from countless other birds to estimate average values for populations. These averages help answer questions such as “do males return to the breeding grounds earlier than females?” or “does a bird with poor feather condition also have poor body condition?” Yet, when a bird is in my hand, it is more than a contribution to an interesting dataset: it is an individual.  An individual that I admire, measure thoroughly in the name of science, carefully fit with a unique identifying leg band, and release—with the hope that I, or someone else, will see that individual again.

Of all the thousands of birds that are banded in the U.S. every year, the vast majority are never caught again. Of those that are caught recurrently, most are in scenarios such as ours: repeated captures within a single location and a single season. Very few birds are recaptured in dramatically different times or places than where they were banded.

But, it does happen. And those moments are, by far, the most exciting of my banding career:

The red band on this Saltmarsh Sparrow indicates it was banded at a site in southern Maine. Photo by Alyssa Borowske.

A roadside, near Little Talbot State Park, northern Florida. This site isn’t much to look at: after miles of woods, the road crosses a creek, along which is a moderate expanse of tidal marsh. It’s a high lunar tide, so the marsh is completely flooded. All of the birds that were dispersed throughout the marsh are now congregated at high points, hopefully including the narrow strip of salt-tolerant bushes between the marsh and the road. It looks deserted, but, sure enough, as we begin walking toward the net, dozens of birds flush in front of us. Among the birds that hit the net is one with a flash of red and silver on its leg: a banded bird! I know that the only person to ever band tidal marsh sparrows at this site is me, a year previous. On that day, I caught a Saltmarsh Sparrow that had been banded by Jen Walsh, in Southern Maine.  Odds are good that this is the same bird, and a quick check with my records confirms my assumption.


A Nelson’s Sparrow, originally banded in Maine. Photo by Alyssa Borowske.

A shrubby island within the Timucuan Preserve in northern Florida, one day later and a few miles away from the site of my two-time long-distance recap Saltmarsh Sparrow.  I am the first person to ever band tidal marsh sparrows at this precise location. The numbers of birds are absolutely astounding: literally hundreds of Saltmarsh, Seaside, and Nelson’s sparrows. Again, it is a high tide, and the marsh is flooded except for these high islands within the inter-coastal waterway. Today, conditions are perfect, and we end up trying to not catch birds rather than trying to catch them—there are just too many for three banders. There, among the birds that we do catch, is the unmistakable glint of an aluminum band, coupled with an orange color band.  Later, I confirm that this Nelson’s Sparrow was also banded by collaborators in Maine. Two long-distance recaptures, Maine-to-Florida in two days!  It turns out that the next day brings me a third: a second Nelson’s Sparrow!

A small, shrubby “island” within the flooded marsh at Huntington State Park, Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina. This is one of my primary South Carolina


This Seaside Sparrow has been captured 10 times from 2010 to 2013 in both Connecticut and South Carolina. Photo by Alyssa Borowske.

field sites, so I know it well. I know that if I don’t time my arrival quite right, I’ll end up topping my hip waders as I walk to the island. I know that the small size and oblong shape of the island make placing nets a strategic challenge. And, I know that as soon as the tide begins receding, my chance of catching more sparrows is just about zilch.  Right now, however, the timing is ideal. The tide is still rising, and we have two nets set up. After catching a few birds in one of the nets, I walk over to check the second one. There, in the bottom pocket, on the side facing the marsh (meaning the bird hit the net as it came to the island to escape the rising tide), is my favorite sparrow.  I don’t generally pick favorites, but this is a worthy exception: I have caught this individual male Seaside Sparrow on 10 separate occasions!  We originally banded him at Barn Island Wildlife

Barn Island Wildlife Management Area

Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in Stonington, Connecticut. Photo by Alyssa Borowske.

and Management area in Stonington, Connecticut in 2010. In summer 2011, we did not catch him again. In fact, his next human contact was with me, in South Carolina, in January 2012. My lab-mates and I proceeded to catch him multiple times in Connecticut during summer 2012, again in South Carolina in January 2013, several more times in Connecticut during summer 2013, and the 10th and final time, on this day in South Carolina. Now, that was a satisfying moment for the final field season of my dissertation!

Huntington Beach State park. This is the location where we caught the Seaside Sparrow for the 10th time, but at low tide. At high tide, everything in view is submerged up until the shift in vegetation at the edge of the marsh “island” on the right.

Huntington Beach State park. This is the location where we caught the Seaside Sparrow for the 10th time, but at low tide. At high tide, everything in view is submerged up until the shift in vegetation at the edge of the marsh “island” on the right. Photo by Alyssa Borowske.  

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