Birds In the News

Oh so ‘tweet’: Effort underway to band, track songbirds at Old Santee Canal Park

This article first appeared in the Berkeley Independent.

An increasingly rare creature inhabits the young swamps near Moncks Corner. It flashes brilliant yellow and sings melodious, a big voice for such a tiny thing. It’s the prothonotary warbler.

Since May, Audubon South Carolina and Old Santee Canal Park have worked together to begin banding adult males of the species to monitor its behaviors and migration habits.

“They catch the bird, they put some unique color band specific to that bird and that way, later on in the year and in the years to come, if we see that specific color band we write that information down and give it back to Audubon,” Park Director Brad Sale said. He added that the park and Audubon are encouraging park goers to help monitor the birds. “Come out to the park to look for these birds and look for the banding and to have them help us out with identifying these birds.”

Each bird has its own unique color combination to make identifying them easy.

“We can learn a lot about their behavior from the visitor information,” Audubon South Carolina Director of bird conservation and engagement Matt Johnson said. “It’s a good way to engage visitors and it’s such an iconic bird and they’re so easy to see and hear.”

The tiny yellow songbirds weigh about half an ounce, and belt out a strong song in the forest of:

Tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet!

“They are a great symbol of swamps. They are heavily tied to this habitat and ecosystem,” Park Education Coordinator Kristin Threet said. “They’re like a swamp ambassador.”

Unfortunately, the prothonotary warbler population has declined by 40 percent since the 1960s as the preferred breeding habitats of swamps and forested wetlands have dwindling due to human development. One-quarter of prothonotary warblers worldwide need South Carolina habitat to survive.

The birds are migratory, and spend April through September at the park. Then they travel thousands of miles to Central and South America.

The South Carolina program to band and track the warblers began at Francis Beidler Forest in Harleyville, in neighboring Dorchester County. Johnson is in his fourth year of banding birds at Beidler.

The effort is called “Project PROTHO,” with the second word being an acronym for “Protecting Resident Ornothologically Tantalizing Hole-Dwelling Occupants.” Go ahead and laugh.

“It has always gotten a chuckle out of it,” Johnson said. But the program has a serious mission: identify local birds and their habits so they can be protected.

Eight warblers were banded and fitted with electronic “backpacks” in 2016 at Beidler Forest. The program was extended to Old Santee Canal Park this year to expand its banded population, Johnson said.

The park has five adult males banded so far. And while the park generally does not name its wild creatures, they’ve made an exception for the five, according to Sale. The names all have an historical edge:

• Johann, after Johann Christian Senf, who supervised canal construction

• Little David, after the first submersible to sink enemy ship, which was built at Stoney Landing

• Julian, after St. Julian Ravenel who supervised construction of Little David

• Buford, after William Buford, who was the first to travel down canal with goods)

• Dawson, after John Dawson, who built Stoney Landing house

Recently, a visitor to the park alerted staff to an unbanded bird. Johnson came out and, with the help of staff, he was able to band the bird.

Johnson is allowed to catch the songbirds by the state and federal governments. The males are captured by a “mist net,” which is strung up along a woodland thoroughfare in a male’s territory. Then, Johnson puts out a decoy warbler and plays a song over Bluetooth. When the male in the territory dive-bombs the intruder, he is captured in the net. Handling and banding the birds lasts less than 20 minutes, and they are no worse for wear after the quick handling.

“We find that these birds are so hardy they go back to doing what they were doing before you banded them,” Johnson said.

Nestlings and females are also banded, but usually while they are on the nest.