9 days, 527 birds, 55 species

On a map of the United States, you can barely see the thin strip of land that is Fort Morgan, Ala. But the narrow peninsula — about 20 miles long and, in some places, less than half a mile wide — is immensely important to migratory birds: It’s the last land stop before they fly south across the Gulf of Mexico.

Recently, the Banding Coalition of the Americas they spent nine days in the dense vegetation of Fort Morgan, carefully capturing the birds in mist nets, fitting them with tiny leg bands, and releasing them back into the world to make their long journey across the water.

By the end of the event, Emma Rhodes and Kyle Shepard, the co-founders of BCA, along with a crew of about 10 other trained and federally licensed volunteers, had captured and banded 527 birds of 55 different species.

Seeing birds up close and holding them can be transformative, said Ms. Rhodes, 28, an avian biologist and doctoral student at Auburn University. “It can really change people’s lives and give them new perspectives on why birds are important, why this habitat is important, why this habitat shouldn’t just be apartment buildings,” she said.

Ms. Rhodes and Mr. Shepard were trained in bird banding in Fort Morgan as young men, when their mentors, Bob and Martha Sargent, led a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of hummingbirds and other neotropical migrants . The Sargents are now deceased, and in 2020, Ms. Rhodes and Mr. Shepard founded BCA to continue the work.

Mr. Shepard, 30, started playing in Fort Morgan when he was 12 years old. When people are interested in volunteering, he said, “my first question is: How much time do you have to dedicate to it? Because it will be the rest of your life: training never ends.

However, Rhodes added, offering people the opportunity to volunteer was important to both of them. “We had the benefit and privilege of training at a very young age and we felt like it changed our direction and our path in life for the better,” Ms. Rhodes said.

The data collected by BCA is reported to Bird banding laboratorya program administered by the United States Geological Survey which, in collaboration with the Canadian Bird Banding Office, administers the North American Bird Banding Program.

Of course, birds know no boundaries. The species caught and released by the BCA are simply stopping over in Alabama. “A lot of times we say, oh, North American species, but they’re actually not North American species,” Ms. Rhodes said. “They are all over the Americas and we share them.”

The team often finds some surprises in front of the net. “This year we banded a western tanager, who shouldn’t have been there,” Ms. Rhodes said, laughing; the bird’s typical habitat is further west. She added: “We also tied two Western wooden pewees” – again, not an Eastern species.

The data collected by the BCA will help scientists find broader trends. “We may be seeing an increased presence of western birds every year, and that’s something that needs to be documented,” Ms. Rhodes said.

Ultimately, he added, one of the organization’s goals is to share and exchange data with other regions: “Especially with populations in the tropics, because you have to understand the entire annual cycle to conserve birds,” he said. “You can’t just study them in the winter.”

Ms. Rhodes said she simply enjoyed seeing the birds up close, even the more common species. Among her favorites is the American black redstart, nicknamed the Halloween bird for its black and orange feathers. She associates it with Fort Morgan, especially in the fall. “We blindfolded a lot of them,” she said. They are important for the ecosystem and for the work to which she has dedicated her life, she said. But also: “They are just cute birds.”