For a bander, the moment of releasing a bird is bittersweet. After this brief overlap in lives, the bird is now on its way to continue its journey (yea!) but in all likelihood, we'll never (knowingly) see that bird again. If we ever hear anything about it, it will probably be because the bird has died (hopefully some years later).
Continue your journeys safely.
Sometimes we get lucky and someone is able to read the band number on a live bird, thanks to the combination of optics and the occasional digital camera. That's usually limited to larger birds like redtails, whose bands are big enough that the numbers can be seen in the field. Even then it's tough because the number wraps around the leg and you need to see enough of it to make a positive ID.
This year, the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory is making it easier to tell if we're encountering an old friend.
Color bands, also known as Visual ID or VID bands, have long been used to track individual birds. The bands are generally made of plastic, come in a number of colors, and often include a letter/number combination that can be read more easily in the field, especially for larger birds.
Sometimes a bird is given a combination of color bands in addition to its silver BBL band - 2 or 3 color bands on the leg opposite the silver band, and occasionally 1 more color band with the silver. A great explanation, with photos, can be found here. This is most often the case with small birds like songbirds or shorebirds, because it would still be too difficult to read a number on those tiny legs. If you ever spot one of them, you can report them to the bird banding lab. (Note - I like to test my links before including them, but I'm getting an error message that the site is not up due to the government shutdown. Hopefully this one works once they finally get things working again.)
For larger birds, like waterfowl, gulls, cranes and many hawks, the birds might be given a single color band with a large, easy to read letter/number combo. That is what we are doing with a number of redtails and Cooper's Hawks this year. Cooper's Hawks are getting bright green bands, and redtails are getting a dark purple (which they call lavendar, but I personally think it will almost look black in the field).
Color banding gives all of us a chance to be a citizen scientist by reporting something we see in the field.
Color bands are frequently used for breeding birds studies, where a researcher is making regular surveys of birds breeding in a specific area. At a glance, they are able to tell which individuals are using which territories, how far they range for foraging or hunting, etc. Another use of color bands in breeding studies is banding all the chicks in a given year (aka a "cohort") with a specific color or combination. During Christmas Count last year, we saw a gull with color band and one member of our group remarked that it was probably banded on the Farallones and hatched in 2006. That's a lot of information for one little piece of plastic.
VID bands can also be used to study wintering areas and migration routes, including important migratory stopovers. At GGRO, we know that some of the birds we see are local, some are moving through on a long-distance migration, and some are settling in to the Bay Area for the winter. If someone sees (and reports!) a Cooper's Hawk with a color band from a location south of here in a few days or weeks, we can guess that it was a through-migrant. If one is reported multiple times from the same general area between now and sprint, we can guess that it's a wintering location. If that same bird is seen in the same place next summer, then we have a clue about where it's from originally, as most birds are thought to return to roughly the same area where they were born to breed. And if a bird is reported again next fall/winter, we can get some ideas about site fidelity for wintering grounds. Again, a lot of information from that piece of plastic - keep your eyes peeled!
A few other birds from so far this season.
We're off to a little slow of a start this year, but things were picking up when I was out last weekend. And then, wouldn't you know it - the past few days have been absolutely perfect banding conditions and we can't go out because of the shutdown. (I bet Thursday would have been a 70 bird day... I could just feel it in the air that day.) Here's hoping they get their act together in DC before next weekend.