Author’s note: All birds were handled with care and with appropriate state and federal permits.
“Grab a blue can,” Charlotte Catalano said to me as she left the blind. I grabbed the two blue tin cans taped together and followed her toward a hawk trapped under the net she deployed just seconds prior.
“It’s a male Cooper’s hawk,” she said as she picked the bird up from under the net. She placed it headfirst into the can, so that only its feet protruded from the end. I carried the canned bird (haha!) back to the blind while she reset the net.
“Charlotte says it’s a male Cooper’s hawk,” I relayed to Arthur Nelson and Tiffany Kersten as I laid the can on a small shelf inside the blind. Arthur is the banding site operations manager for Cape May Raptor Banding Project, a volunteer nonprofit that has banded raptors for more than 50 years.
The Cape May, New Jersey, peninsula is a pinch point for hawks and other birds during fall migration, making it a great place to count, band and collect data on many types of birds. The group has banded more than 150,000 raptors and is the largest raptor banding project in North America. The project monitors trends of migrating raptors and provides insight into raptor movement and causes of death.
My friend Tiffany knew Arthur and asked if we could band with him. Tiffany is an expert birder. For her, 2021 was “a big year,” when she set the record for most species seen in the lower 48 states with 726.
For birders, a big year is an unofficial contest to see as many species of birds as possible in a calendar year.
Charlotte, the research technician, entered the wooden blind and began writing information in the logbook. Species: Cooper’s hawk. Age: hatch year. Sex: male.
She lifted a circular wire with two dozen bands out of a small wooden box. It reminded me of a bead necklace. She opened the wire and removed a band. After writing the band numbers in the correct column, she bent the band around the hawk’s ankle.
Next, she removed the hawk from the can just enough to measure its wing chord — from the joint of the wing to the tip of the longest flight feather. She placed the can and bird on a scale and recorded its weight, then removed the bird, holding tightly to his wings and feet while she weighed the empty can and subtracted that number from the first.
“Only 300 grams, that’s small,” she said.
Charlotte then felt the bird’s crop (place in a bird’s neck where undigested food is held) and recorded, “empty.” Under “flat flies,” she recorded “zero” because we didn’t see any flies on the bird. And that was it. The whole thing took less than five minutes. We took the bird outside for a few photos and released it.
Arthur explained that last year, they captured a Cooper’s hawk that was already banded. When they looked up the band number, they learned it had been banded in 2020 in Portland.
The hawk had been hanging out at the Portland International Jetport, so in an effort to prevent collisions with planes, the bird was trapped, banded and relocated to Whitefield — 46 miles away — and released. A year later, it was recaptured in New Jersey.
Birders with powerful spotting scopes also can read, record and submit band numbers. Bands provide critical range and movement information. Who knows where it will be spotted next.
Later we watched a merlin dive-bomb the area but avoid the nets. We managed to catch one more bird, a red-tailed hawk. Having never seen one up close, I was shocked by its size, much larger than the Cooper’s hawk. Arthur handled the bird and pointed out the rear-facing barbs on its tongue, which securely hold prey. When he was finished, I got to release the hawk.
In Maine, I thoroughly enjoy banding ornery geese and adorable saw-whet owls. But I revered these hawks, these apex predators, which are able to spot a field mouse from 100 feet and dive at speeds of 120 mph. It was humbling.
Through Oct. 15, the Cape May Raptor Banding Project had already captured and banded 1,131 raptors, including nine different species.
For more information or to donate to the Cape May Raptor Banding Project, visit: capemayraptors.org.