Visiting Forest Service Wildlife Technician, Gwen Baluss carefully loosens the tie of a little sac and slowly reaches in. Delicately grasping the fragile creature within, she reveals the dark eyed junco to a resounding “AWE” echoing across the classroom as students pile on top of one another to get a closer look.
For the third year in a row, Baluss has returned to Sitka to continue studying and teaching the community about bird ecology. While juncos and other songbirds may frequent our feeders and whistle familiar songs during our afternoon strolls, there is still ample mystery to these birds. Scientists and land managers know relatively little about their range, distribution and migration ecology for one. Secondly, very few of us have been lucky enough to encounter our skittish feathered friends up close. As one of the participants ruefully commented, “The closest I’ve ever been to one of these birds has been sweeping away the unfortunate remains the cat dragged in.” “Don’t worry,” she facetiously reassured the bird banding team, “This will be my last cat.”
Last week, Blatchley middle school students, Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary classes, Sitka High students and the Sitka Conservation Society’s (SCS) 4-H program experienced a more pleasant close encounter with our beloved song birds. In the frosted garden behind Blatchley Middle school, Baluss and Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Director with the Sitka Conservation Society carefully and delicately untangle tiny trapped birds from the mist nets. Baluss bands their legs and the team begin taking measurements. Gwen’s enthusiasm for these often overlooked natural wonders peaks as she explains to wide-eyed students how the sheen of a junco’s eyes changes with age from gray to red, how males boast darker plumage atop their heads and how a surprising diversity between individual juncos exists if you just take the time to look carefully. Captivated students edge closer as she starts blowing tenderly on the bird’s belly to reveal yellow fat deposits visible beneath their paper-thin skin. The classroom is fully engaged.
Southeast Alaska offers diverse opportunities for scientific inquiry and exploration just a few yards from the school door. With the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest as our backyard, children here grow up immersed in this outstanding landscape. Experiences like Gwen’s visit, encourage our youth to approach exploring the environment from an academic or potentially career-driven perspective. Students continue to steward this project throughout the year. In the past, a Sitka High School student Naquioa Bautista, working with the Science Mentor Program coordinated by SCS, based her science fair project on studying the banded bird’s movement. From Naquoia’s study, we learned that Sitka’s winter juncos do not stray very far from their banding sites. On the back wall of Ms. Dick’s 6th grade science classroom, a modern twist on the infamous ‘wanted poster’ is displayed, showing each tagged bird and their band color combination. Students, families and all of Sitka’s residents are encouraged to keep a lookout for tagged birds on their feeders or fluttering about on the trails (please report sightings here).
This week, a few lucky students were given a particularly memorable experience. After a bit of fumbling, the student’s tiny hands encapsulated the virtually weightless fragile feathered mess, their tiny heartbeat pumping against the student’s palm. After taking a knee, the top hand would slowly lift and in an instant burst of energy, the birds would return to the trees of our backyards leaving only tiny soft floating feathers in the air and grins of admiration across each onlooker’s face.
This project is supported by the University of Alaska Southeast’s Natural History Seminar Series, the Sitka Charitable Trust, the Sitka Conservation Society and UAS Biology professor Kitty LaBounty. Gwen Baluss is a biologist with the US Forest Service in the Juneau Ranger District and a member of Juneau’s Audobon Society. Please report any banded bird sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org or report to the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network (SALMoN) . To learn more about Sitka’s 4-H program including how to enroll visit our 4-H page.