Flight delay: Capturing and banding raptors on the North Shore is delicate work
Oct 06, 2017 09:35AM ● Published by Editor
By Jack Hennessy Special to the Star Tribune
NEAR TWO HARBORS, Minn. – Several minutes after 10 in the morning on a recent Sunday, Frank Taylor heard the word from his spotter that he had been waiting to hear since sunrise: “Freeze.”
At a hayfield’s tree line, from inside a blind, a collection of spotters and bird banders scanned the horizon, focused on the tiny silhouette of a falcon against the clear, blue sky. Visitors who had huddled outside the blind remained motionless, stooping low and out of sight.
A light wind from the south stirred 14 acres of prairie grass and forbs. Beyond the field, Lake Superior sparkled with midmorning sunshine.
A live lure bird — commonly used by those who band raptors — was next to the blind, surrounded by netting and secured in a harness made of Kevlar. The bird danced and fluttered, aware of the falcon’s impending arrival.
Within seconds, the falcon flashed past a metal owl decoy situated at the field’s northern edge, and then circled and dove into the front netting. Taylor and his banding assistants, Rick Dupont and Chuck Schotzko, rushed from the blind and gently collected the bird. It was a young male Merlin, a smaller falcon.
Every year, thousands of raptors — birds of prey such as eagles, hawks and falcons — migrate from breeding areas as far north as the Arctic to destinations as far the other direction as South America. Because they cannot cross large bodies of water, the birds are funneled along Minnesota’s North Shore, congregating in large numbers at the western tip of Lake Superior where bird-banders and researchers like Taylor and his crew wait, hoping for success in furthering the study of the majestic creatures.
This fall marks Taylor’s 48th year banding birds on these acres. Taylor, 68, who carries the title of master falconer and master bander, and his wife, Trudi, have captured and banded more than 4,000 birds. They’ve had help from friends, too, and every year they host upward of 200 guests to educate and inspire them about their pursuit.
The bird data collected by Taylor and his team is submitted to the North American Bird Banding Program run by the U.S. Geological Survey and added to research from hundreds of other banders. This information is accessible to anyone conducting research on migrating birds, for example, looking into flight patterns during certain seasons.
“I always try to do something to give back,” Taylor said, “to get people to appreciate raptors, to realize that they’re not mean or vicious. They’ve got that brow over their eye, which makes them look mean — and good on a quarter — but they’re an integral part of the whole ecology.”
Hawks coming in
From the beginning of September through October, Taylor and his crew spend every weekend at the blind on his property halfway between Duluth and Two Harbors. Some days they catch as many as 14 birds, others maybe just one or two, or none.
“You got to entertain all these people with no hawks coming in,” said Taylor, who travels to the blind from his home in White Bear Lake. “That is why I talk so much. I figure if I keep talking they won’t notice we don’t have any birds.”
At his banding station, Taylor employs two nets: on the backside, a five-pocket version of what’s called a mist net with a mesh that is almost invisible. Stringers run across at different levels, so the net drops down and the bird stays in a pocket. On the front side, he equips a modified popular falconer net called a dho-gaza. No matter the incoming flight speed of a bird, the net will always fall without harming the bird.
“Nets are never left up unattended,” Taylor said. “We miss a lot of birds because of that, but we would rather miss a bird than have something happen to it.”
Handlers and banders do not use gloves. They don’t want to bend feathers or impair the bird in any way.
“Over the years, we never bent a feather,” said Taylor. “After all, they got to use those to go all the way to South America in some cases.”
Most of birds that Taylor and his team capture arrive without a band, so they are assigned them. Metal bands are secured on a raptor’s leg, but loosely so they don’t hinder flight. Bird-banding in the United States is controlled under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and requires a federal permit. Only 2,000 people, like Taylor, have master permits.
Within minutes of capture, too, data are recorded: species, age and sex, band information, time and date, wing and tail measurements, and wind direction.
Should the bird be recaptured, such individual identification makes it possible to study raptors’ flight patterns, behavior and social structure, life span and survival rate, reproductive success and population growth.
During his time banding, Taylor has recaptured 37 raptors banded elsewhere. Fifty-three of his own birds have been recaptured in the Duluth area, and 37 more in the U.S. and Canada.
Pulling in others
While sharing his research and educating people about the importance of raptors remain an integral part of Taylor’s mission, an equal goal is motivating people to want to protect rapture populations.
Taylor and his friends accept no money, but encourage visitors to make a tax-deductible donation to the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota or the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn.
Every year since 2008, Chad Heins, 43, an assistant professor of biology at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, has taken a group of students to Taylor’s blind.
Many students have returned home with a new interest in raptors, and birds in general.
“Several of my students have gotten a little more into birds and what we do on Bethany’s campus, where we actually have a hawk watch site, helping count raptors themselves,” Heins said.
Others have remained in contact with Taylor over social media, and some have expressed interest in falconry apprenticeship.
“The cool thing that Frank does is he helps people understand raptor migration,” Heins said, “but also gives them a direct connection to these things, which makes it a little more real.
“Any time you get to do something like this, you end up caring more.”
Jack Hennessy is a freelance writer from St. Louis Park. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @WildGameJack.