Fall Break Goes to the Birds

A group of Upper School students join Dr. Noel at TRGT for bird-banding experience.
Biology teacher Dr. Brandon Noel formed a connection to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust upon moving to the area last year due to their conservation efforts in the region, specifically with birds. “The TRGT built their Bird Observatory in 2014 and have a multitude of projects they're working on through the observatory,” he says.
He leveraged this connection last fall, taking a few GPS students from his Environmental Science class to experience bird banding. “The girls thoroughly enjoyed the experience,” Dr. Noel says.
So when an opportunity to return presented itself over fall break, Dr. Noel reached out to see if any students would be interested. Mack Reece, Mary Claire Nimon, Catherine Gray, Aria Cooper, and Mary Kate Kirksey answered the bird-call. Together they drove out to Moccasin Bend the morning of October 6. “Had it not been fall break, we would have had more students able to go,” Dr. Noel says. “But those who did go really enjoyed it.”
The girls witnessed the use of mist nets, made specifically for safely capturing wild birds. Created by the Chinese more than 1,000 years ago, mist nets are strategically placed in the woods and the birds fly into the nets. “We do a ‘net run’ about every 30 minutes and extract the birds from the nests,” Dr. Noel says.
By capturing wild birds, ornithologists are able to take morphological measurements and outfit each bird with a unique identification band. They also document the overall health of the bird and its estimated age.
The information is then uploaded to a database that all bird banders throughout the world can access. “If a banded bird is recaptured somewhere else, its information from the previous capture can be accessed,” Dr. Noel says. This allows ornithologists an opportunity to better understand migratory connectivity or pit-stops, as you will.
“A few of the birds we captured were gray-cheeked thrushes, which are neotropical (long distance) migrants,” Dr. Noel says. “These birds likely bred in the boreal forest of Canada and were in the process of migrating to the northern sections of South America before being captured and assessed in our area.”
“Bird banding was definitely a memorable experience,” says Aria Cooper ’21. “I was hesitant about going because I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m really glad I went. I learned how identification bands are put on birds and how you safely catch birds with mist nets. It was refreshing to be out in nature and learning hands on.”
Dr. Noel plans to return in the spring and bring along more of his Environmental Science students.
TRGT mission is to preserve the Tennessee River Gorge as a healthy and productive resource through land protection, education, community engagement, and good land stewardship practices.

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