Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory has been running bird banding stations in the Nebraska panhandle for the past four years at Chadron State Park and five years at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area. We set up nets in the same locations year after year in order to study the local and migratory bird populations and to provide up-close and personal looks at birds to schoolchildren and members of the general public. This year, all is well at the Wildcat Hills station, but things were looking very grim for Chadron State Park at the beginning of the banding season.
Wildfires burned across much of the western United States this summer, including across the northern Nebraska panhandle. In a lightning-ignited fire that raged over Labor Day weekend, much of Chadron State Park burned, including the location of our northern banding station. The forest where we had been catching birds for the past four years was reduced to burnt undergrowth and charred trees – not much left for the birds, or for us.
So we relocated. The week following the blaze, our Nebraska education crew met up with the Chadron State Park bander to determine if any suitable banding sites remained at the park, or if we would need to find other options. Thankfully, for us and for the park, the core area where the cabins, swimming pool and fishing lagoon are located was saved from the blaze due to the efforts of local and national firefighting teams. We chose a new location for our banding station on the northwest side of the fishing lagoon, set up nets and began rescheduling schools to come out for banding programs.
Now, three weeks into full-time banding at our new location, things are looking brighter than they were over Labor Day weekend. Bird catch rates are holding steady, species diversity is higher than in previous years, and our nature hike path takes students through the edge of the burn, introducing them to fire ecology and forest regrowth post-fire.
The most frequently asked question is, “Are you seeing differences in what birds you’re catching because of the fires?” The answer we have to give them is simply, “We don’t know.” Our new banding site has a creek with running water, cottonwoods and green shrubs lining the banks and plenty of grass, whereas our old banding site was in a ponderosa pine forest with no constant water source that we knew of. There’s just no way of telling whether the changes in bird numbers and species is due to the fire or the change in location or both.
~ Maggie Vinson, Nebraska Education Coordinator