50 Years of bird banding

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 7:30am

Elise Lapham started the Block Island Bird Banding Station 50 years ago on April 27, 1967. However, beyond the fact of when it started, there are scores of stories and details to be told about the who, what, where, why and how of the banding station’s history.

How and Who?

While David and Elise Lapham were mowing the trails on their property at Clay Head in the mid-1960s, Elise became aware of a woman mist-netting and banding birds on an adjacent property. That woman was Elise Dickerson, a professor connected to the N. J. State Museum, who came to Block Island for a few weeks each September during the 1960s to band birds as part of Operation Recovery. Elise Lapham introduced herself, became interested, and soon became a sub-permitee of Dickerson, who then encouraged Lapham to get her own Master banding permit in 1967. 

Elise Lapham was assisted in her bird banding work at Clay Head by her family: her husband, David; her daughter, Helen, was a consistent partner with the banding during spring and fall migrations. Nowadays, Elise’s daughter, Penny, and granddaughter, Erica, continue to provide much-needed assistance during peak migration periods. (And, the work that Elise Lapham started in 1967, is continued also by me, who first started to help in 1981.)

For 50 years the mist nets for catching birds have been in the same net-lane locations in the Clay Head area of Block Island. Elise Lapham established the three primary lanes around her house in habitats that differ slightly, from grassy or marshy edge, to upland shrubs. Although the locations have not changed, the vegetation has grown over the decades. It is a significant feature of the B.I. Bird Banding Station that the net lanes have remained constant.

The birds that are banded at the banding station are either migrating through, or returning to, Block Island. For the most part, bird banding only happens during the spring and fall migration. Where a bird banded on Block Island is found contributes to knowledge about that species’ population demographics (i.e., where do they spend their winter? where do they breed? what migration route do they take and when? is there a shift over time of population numbers or ranges? etc.). And thus, where birds come from, and go to, becomes the simple answer to why we band birds. 


What has been accomplished at the Block Island Bird Banding Station by Elise Lapham and her legion of volunteers, over the 50-year period of 1967 – 2017, is phenomenal. Over 115,000 individual birds representing 171 species have been banded and released. 

There are several stories to be told that would celebrate the 50-year history of the B.I. Bird Banding station, but one seems particularly instructive as we also celebrate Earth Day, and the role of science and data collection to inform our understanding of our natural environment, and our responsibility to safeguard that environment.

That one story is that the work started by Elise Lapham — learning about the island’s habitats and the related earth biomes (far and near as birds need breeding, wintering, and stopover ecosystems) — started one bird species at a time. By keeping data records over 50 years, ornithologists and other scientists, observing from the distance of time, can see dramatic species demographic changes, and start trying to relate those shifts to changes on the earth (habitat loss, climate changes, etc.).

Consider the myrtle warbler (a.k.a. yellow-rumped warbler): 22,034 individual myrtle warblers have been banded at the B.I. Bird Banding station between 1967 and 2016. But the decline trend of this species is easily seen when the number of myrtle warblers banded is totaled by decade: Myrtle warblers banded: 9,759 (1967-1976); 3,633 (1977-1986); 4,219 (1987-1996); 3,617 (1997-2006); 808 (2007-2016). (Statistics are thanks to the hard work of Steve Rienert, a dedicated volunteer to the B.I. Banding Station.)

Another story that can be told, is that the longer the span of time for the collection of records, the broader, and more complete, the view of the habitat becomes for any moment in time. For instance, in 2011, a Swainson’s warbler was netted and banded on Block Island. This bird species is typically not found outside the southeast U.S., but this first record for both B.I. and Rhode Island, may offer a glimpse of changes spurred by a warming climate.

Elise Lapham’s work has led to the education of thousands of visitors about birds and their habitat needs, near and far; and her (and family’s) belief in active conservation has morphed and inspired an environmental education program that delights and informs the public.

Elise often said that a trip to the mist (banding) nets was like coming down the stairs on Christmas morning — you never know what gift you might find. This remains true: on May 9, 2016, in the 50th year of the Block Island Banding station, a new species was netted, a solitary sandpiper. And so, the work continues to inform and delight.