ROCK CREEK — About 20 miles southeast of Missoula, the cold, clear waters of the Rock Creek merge with the Clark Fork River and flow through open meadows and dense forests.
Various species of birds that flutter from tree to tree in a wooded area of the Rock Creek Confluence indicate a healthy ecosystem, as a class of middle schoolers observed on Friday.
The Clinton seventh-graders spent the morning exploring the bird habitat through the eyes of a scientist. The students watched researchers from the University of Montana’s Bird Ecology Lab (UMBEL) collect birds from nets and tag them with small identifying bands.
Tracking and studying various species helps researchers understand the health of riparian zones (areas bordering rivers and streams) and the lasting ecological effects of mining.
Mike Krzywicki, UMBEL’s Bird’s-eye View education program coordinator, demonstrated the banding process to students.
Krzywicki measured the bird’s leg and placed a tiny aluminum tracking band around it as he held the bird gently between his index and middle finger in a “bander’s grip.”
“One of the first things we want to do when we get a bird out of the net and bring it back to the banding table is put an individual marking band on it,” explained Boo Curry, a seasonal field biologist for Bird’s-eye View at UMBEL.
The students identified the bird as an Oregon junco using field guide books their teacher, Brandon Styles, purchased with a grant this year.
It wasn’t the students’ first time identifying birds. Before visiting the Rock Creek confluence, each student studied a different bird species.
“They learned about identifiable characteristics and sounds, identifiable behaviors, and then did a mini-presentation on it so they’re all mini-scientists about at least one species of birds,” Styles said.
The students expanded their areas of expertise on Friday as they learned the ins and outs of how researchers collect data and watched them do it in real time.
Curry asked the students what kind of things researchers record.
“The size,” said McKayla McFarland.
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“Exactly,” Curry said. “Mike will weigh the bird and measure the wing to get overall proxy for body length and height.”
Curry explained that researchers also look at the bird’s physical condition, specifically how much fat the bird has and if it has any breeding characteristics.
“Another thing you might want to think about is where you found the bird,” Nora Myers, another seventh-grader said.
Curry explained that researchers record in which net the bird is found and the habitat with which the net is associated.
Krzywicki released the Oregon junco and moved on to band the next bird, which he asked students to again help him identify while he put on goggles to get a closer look at the bird’s feathers.
Students quickly determined the bird was a Cassin’s vireo, an olive and grey colored bird with bold white wing bars. It’s common in coniferous and mixed woodlands.
The age of the bird, however, is more difficult to determine, Krzywicki explained.
Researchers look at a variety of things such as bar density, featherweight and skull density to help determine age, although it can be difficult to be certain with birds over a year old unless they’ve been previously banded.
Students watched eagerly as Krzywicki held a bird and blew lightly to ruffle the feathers on its belly, which helped him determine it was a female
“This bird had a breeding characteristic called a brood patch,” he said. “Some species lose a bunch of feathers on their belly and they get something that looks like a blister and that helps them incubate.”
Krzywicki let the bird go so it could get back to its nest. As it flew away, another Cassin’s vireo the group previously banded sang to it.
“There wasn't anything on that other bird that let me know it was a male but the fact that it was singing after we let it go, I bet that’s her mate and they got caught in the net together,” Krzywicki said.
The students responded with a resounding “Awwww.”