District Bird Monitoring Program Longest Running in Illinois

Brian Kraskiewicz and Glenn Gabanski trudge through oak woodlands in search of an elusive scarlet tanager they hear on a recent sunny day at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien.

Kraskiewicz, an ecologist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, and Gabanski, a longtime volunteer, monitor and band birds as part of Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS), a continent-wide program coordinated through the Institute for Bird Populations in Point Reyes, Calif. Beginning in 1989 with 16 stations, the MAPS program has grown to more than 1,200 stations, including one started in 1991 at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien.

Started by the volunteer Chicagoland Bird Observatory in 1991, the Waterfall Glen station is the longest-running station in Illinois and one of the longest-running stations in the continent-wide MAPS program. 

Kraskiewicz and Gabanski monitor 10 mist nets at least once an hour from 6 a.m. to noon during eight 10-day periods during the breeding season from late May to early August. They fit captured birds with numbered metal leg bands issued by the Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey and record species, gender, weight, age, feather condition and breeding evidence before releasing each bird. They also record all birds seen and heard onsite throughout the day.

On a recent day, they captured four indigo buntings (one new and three recaptures), two new gray catbirds, one field sparrow, five new black-capped chickadees, one new red-eyed vireo and three ruby-throated hummingbirds. It was the first time they caught a red-eyed vireo since 2008, Kraskiewicz said.

Two of the longest living birds caught at the Waterfall Glen station are a pair of indigo buntings they have encountered several times. A female banded in 2009 when it was more than two years old was recaptured twice in 2013 and again in 2014, making it at least seven years old, Kraskiewicz said. 

“All the times we’ve captured her in nets that are about 50 meters apart,” Kraskiewicz said. “So this bird would fly down to Central America in the winter and then fly back to the same nets year after year.” 

A male indigo bunting was captured new in 2005 as a second-year bird and was recaptured in 2008, 2009 and 2011, once in net 1A and all the other times in net 1B — two nets that are connected by a center pole. “So again this bird travels to Central America and flies back year after year to the same piece of land,” Kraskiewicz said. “I think it’s really amazing that these little birds fly all that way year after year and come back and survive.”

“The fascinating part is that they come back here,” said Forest Preserve District of DuPage County President Joe Cantore. “They must like it here.”

Since 1992, researchers at Waterfall Glen have captured 1,695 birds from 64 species. Of the total number, 1,365 birds were new and 330 were recaptured. The 10 most frequently caught species are indigo bunting, gray catbird, black-capped chickadee, American robin, downy woodpecker, northern cardinal, field sparrow, house wren, American goldfinch and red-eyed vireo.

Kraskiewicz and Gabanski have noticed a change in the type of birds attracted to the area since District staff cleared the area of invasive and nonnative plants such as honeysuckle and buckthorn during the 2004-05 winter as part of an ongoing habitat management program.

Since the restoration, there has been an increase in indigo buntings, eastern wood-pewees and American goldfinches, which the number of northern cardinal and black-capped chickadee captures has decreased. 

Other interesting findings of the MAPS program to date:
• Survival of adults and first-year birds is important in driving population declines over productivity.
• Conditions on wintering grounds and migration routes affects the survival rates and reproductive output in the summer.
• It’s important to continue restoration work in order to ensure bird species have high-quality habitat for breeding areas, migration stopovers and wintering grounds.

“Post-restoration the data shows that there’s a significant benefit to some of those species that prefer the open woodlands,” Kraskiewicz said. 

Brian Kraskiewicz (left) records data while Glenn Gabanski (right) checks an indigo bunting during a recent MAPS bird monitoring outing at Waterfall Glen.

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