Klamath Bird Observatory volunteer Miguel Moreno, of Columbia, examines a spotted towhee before placing a band on its leg to track its movements. - Jamie Lusch

On wings of change

The little bird plucked from the mist net is a spotted towhee, a year-round Rogue Valley resident often found on the forest floor, where it literally scrapes out a living in the leaf litter of tangled thickets.

A bit bigger than a sparrow, she's maybe two years old and has not been captured by the Klamath Bird Observatory before. She appears to be in good shape.

"We're seeing a lot of birds with good fat deposits," says Bob Frey, a KBO biologist.

Although the towhee won't migrate, many birds that do need to feed furiously so as to pack on fat for their long journey south, during which they may fly 100 miles in a night.

KBO is among the groups and individuals gathered for the Jefferson Nature Center's first-ever open house Saturday, a coming-out party for the center's refurbished farmhouse/office on the west side of Bear Creek near the new Harry & David baseball fields.

Volunteers are busy guiding bird walks, trapping bugs and crawdads, clearing brush, planting bulbs, staffing information booths and otherwise making themselves useful. Displays on hand for visitors include animal skulls, bat, snake and frog skeletons, animal hides, insect specimens and more.

A small crowd follows Frey, who leads the KBO's bird-banding programs, down toward Bear Creek, where KBO scientists and interns have set up a system of 10 mist nets.

Scientists use the fine, black, nylon nets to capture wild birds and band them to track populations and their movements.

The first net is set up like a volleyball net. It's 12 meters long and two-and-a-half meters high. KBO erected the nets at about 6:30 a.m. and will leave them up exactly five hours.

"Many birds are calm in the nets," Frey says. "Others, like chickadees, flap and struggle."

It is generally agreed that in the hands of trained researchers, mist netting poses minimal risk to birds. The nets must be checked often to minimize stress on captured birds. These nets are monitored at intervals not to exceed 40 minutes.

Songbirds in riparian zones such as this often flit from branch to branch and keep their eyes on their destination. When they hit a net they typically fall into a net pocket. Disentangling a bird requires training and a careful hand. If a bird is badly tangled up, the net must be cut to release the bird. Federal and state permits are required.

"A lot of data, it isn't possible to get any other way," Frey says.

KBO sends bird data to various agencies and networks.

Phil Nichols, of Central Point, asks whether banded birds resist or peck at their bands.

Some birds do, Frey says, such as the northern cardinal, an Eastern bird not found in Oregon. Scientists use special bands on such birds.

Back at the JNC office, kids are clearing brush and moving rocks, chucking them into wheelbarrows for removal. Emily Hazelton, 12, of Medford, who is planting crocus bulbs, says the kids are from a local Latter-day Saints church group.

"It's to help out our neighborhood," Emily says.

Down at the creek, a tiny fish known as a reticulated sculpin squirms in JNC volunteer Frances Oyung's hand. She places the fish back in a tank and picks up a ringed crayfish, a tiny, invasive crustacean now threatening native crayfish.

"Do you know what a habitat is?" Oyung asks.

"It's where animals live," says 7-year-old Vivian Tauer of Medford, peering intently at the mud-colored creature.

The bulk of JNC programs now focus on nature education and outreach to kids and schools.

"It's what a lot of our grants are for," says JNC Director Susan Cross.

Taking in the beehive-like activity where recently there was little but an old farmhouse and weeds, Cross says she can imagine a future in which the JNC is a regional facility at the center of a network of like-minded groups, much like the High Desert Museum near Bend.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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