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VOLUNTEERS GATHER VITAL INFO ON BIRDS' MIGRATION PATTERNS

Twelve miles out to sea, on a spot of land along the great Atlantic flyway, thousands of fledgling songbirds pause to rest and feed before continuing on their great journey south to the Carolinas, the Caribbean and beyond.

No one knows why the young birds, hatched the previous spring, make a pit stop on Block Island. Perhaps they lose their way. Maybe the wind blows them off course, separating them from their parents. Whether through destiny or serendipity, the young birds come to Block Island every fall, and when they arrive, they find a habitat rich in fruit and fresh water.

Elise Lapham has been the steward of this seasonal migration for more than a third of her 89 years.

For several weeks every fall and spring (when the birds head north), Lapham bands hundreds of warblers, finches, robins and wrens. She measures their wings and weight, determines their age and sex, then sends them on their way. She sends the data to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, where it is used to study migration patterns, as well as the health of various species.

Lapham and her friend Kim Gaffett are not scientists. They are that rare breed, the impassioned volunteer who works out of a sense of duty, dedication and, ultimately, love.

Lapham owns one of the stellar pieces of property on Block Island, nearly 100 acres of field, marsh and fallow farmland that the locals call "The Maze," because of the warren-like paths that crisscross the land.

Blue Stone, as the property is officially known, is a birder's paradise. Barn swallows nest in the gutters and swoop and dive above the decks. A turkey vulture rides the thermals along the ridge line.

Here, the click and chatter of songbirds forms a constant background buzz. The air is scented with honeysuckle, oversized and sweet.

With its varied habitat, Blue Stone is the ideal spot to track birds, and Lapham doesn't have to go far to do so. The first net, 40 feet long and 6 1/2 feet tall, stretches across the back yard. Made of fine black nylon, the net is almost invisible.

Birds fly into the net, then fall gently and are held, as if in a hammock, until Lapham or Gaffett collects them.

The three nets are checked hourly, from dawn until dusk.

During the late-morning check, Lapham finds a common yellowthroat cradled by one of the nets. The tiny warbler hangs upside down. She lies there quietly until the humans approach, then begins to wiggle.

With a few deft movements, Lapham untwists the fine mesh and cups the bird in her hands, which are spotted with age. She holds the bird's upper body between her index finger and middle finger, using the rest of her hand to hold the legs still. The bird must feel secure because it stops struggling.

Lapham gently deposits the warbler into a small mesh bag that looks like a woman's drawstring purse, and she walks down the narrow muddy path enclosed by dense viburnum and chokeberry.

Back at the house, Lapham steps into the bird-banding room. A row of mailbox-shaped boxes, which hold the birds for banding, lines one wall. Strands of aluminum-alloy bands in a range of sizes, from small beads to thumb-sized rings, hang from another wall.

A family album of birds, from the rare Phainopepla to personal favorites such as the saw-whet owl, are tacked up next to a map of the East Coast flyway, which is dotted with green pins to mark where Lapham's birds have been found.

Gaffett measures the birds while Lapham records the data. Lifting a plain brown wren from its box, she pulls out a tiny band and gives Lapham the number.

Gaffett slips the band into the grip of a pair of pliers and clips it to the bird's leg. Then she measures the length of the wing from tip to shoulder. "8.6 centimeters," she calls out.

Next, Gaffett blows apart the feathers above the wren's wishbone. Beneath the fuzz, the muscles are red and lightly ridged.

"This one is a 2 on a zero-to-3 scale," she says. "They only keep their fat when they're migrating. On their home ground, they want to be mean and lean."

Gaffett wraps the wren in a bread bag punctured with holes so that it can breathe and places it on a scale. "37.5 grams," she tells Lapham. (About 1 1/3 ounces.)

Then she plucks the wren out of the bag, steps outside, and opens her hand. In a heartbeat, the bird is gone.

It was another woman, also named Elise, who turned Lapham on to bird banding during the early 1960s. A recent arrival to Block Island, Lapham was intrigued by the elegant row of nets strung along the dirt road leading to Blue Stone.

"I heard what she did, and I was absolutely fascinated," Lapham says. "I didn't know the first thing about birds. I couldn't tell a robin from a blue jay."

Today, Lapham can identify any bird from its plumage, plus its attitude and character.

"Last year, we had a flycatcher," Gaffett says to Lapham. "You knew right away what it was."

Birders have a phrase for that kind of intuitive knowledge; they call it knowing the jizz.

Elise Dickerson put Lapham to work recording data from the bandings. Before long, she began catching her own birds, which she carried by hand to Dickerson's birding station.

Finally, Dickerson told Lapham to get her license, a learner's permit for banders. When Dickerson died the following spring, Lapham inherited the only bird-banding station on the island.

Like heirloom china or a string of cultured pearls, banding stations are often handed down from one generation of birders to the next. Two years ago, Lapham suggested that it was time for Gaffett to get her master's license. Lapham wanted to make sure that someone she knew and trusted would carry on her work.

"I was really taken aback," Gaffett says. "I don't like to talk about it. I don't like to think about a time when Elise . . . "

Gaffett makes one last swing by the nets before heading into town to drive the school bus.

The swallows swoop low over the honeysuckle. A pair of turkey buzzards drift high above the treetops. In the net, a robin is caught and cradled, singing a songbird's warning.

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