MUSCATINE — Songbirds can be elusive. Backyard birders may hear the calls of their visitors, but catch only a glimpse of the birds themselves. The 10th annual Bird Festival at Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge in Louisa County will give attendees a chance to see some of those bird species up close.
Saturday morning visitors will get to see staff and volunteers banding birds and releasing them back into the wild, and also participate in guided hikes to see a variety of birds.
Deputy Manager Ron Knopik said 12-meter nets have been staged to catch birds for banding, which will take place the first part of the day. Without any wind, the nets are invisible to birds so they fly into them, getting tangled but not hurt. Staff gently remove birds from the net to record data.
"We like to see a great diversity in birds," he said. "We like to see healthy birds in the landscape."
Staff identify the species of bird then measure and weigh them. They determine the age and sex of the bird, and check for any noticeable abnormalities before banding them. Data is collected and compiled with nationwide data to reveal bird abundance, diversity and migration pattern.
"Migration tells us which birds we're encountering," Knopik said, and "which habitats they're using along the way."
The refuge is just one stop for migrating birds that travel the Mississippi Flyway. According to the National Audubon Society, more than 325 bird species make a round trip along the flyway from their breeding grounds in far north Canadian provinces to wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and Central America.
The refuge was established in the 1940s primarily for migrating waterfowl such as geese, ducks and sandhill cranes but also welcomes many songbirds.
Knopik said wildlife biologist Jessica Bolser will hold birds in her hand for the public to see, and she excels at it.
"She can tell if it's a second- or third-year bird, how much body fat it has and if there's a brood patch indicating it may be sitting on eggs," he said. "And she can collect all that information and still talk about it."
Visitors may see some of the 28 species that visit the refuge including warblers, nuthatches, orioles, cardinals and chickadees. Knopik said indigo buntings are "amazing" to see because of their vibrant blue feathers and the variation in size between a blue jay and a yellow warbler is impressive.
"It's always a surprise what we find in the nets," he said. "It's always something we haven't seen before. That's the mystery of it."
Recent near-record flooding has provided more habitat for the waterfowl, Knopik said, but hasn't noticeably affected songbirds. Flooding has covered portions of nature trails in water, he said, so the nature hikes won't go as far along the paths as in past years.
Local birder David Griffin and Bobbi Provost, a naturalist at Louisa County Conservation will each lead one of the hikes and identify birds by sight and call for participants. Some calls visitors may find familiar are the "witchety-witchety-witchety" of the common yellowthroat and "chickadee-dee-dee" of the black-capped chickadee.
The event provides good photo opportunities for visitors, so Knopik said bring a camera along with binoculars. For those going on hikes or wanting to watch staff collect birds from the nets should wear appropriate clothing such as closed toe shoes and long pants.
Knopik also said visitors should "bring enthusiasm." When they see what life the refuge holds, they may become advocates for conservation, he said.
"We want to engage the public in things that are all around them" he said. "They need an opportunity to slow things down a little bit. That's where bird banding and programs like this really resonate with people."
The entire event is five hours, but Knopik said visitors can see a lot of bird activity no matter how long they stay.
"Spend one hour, three hours or five hours," he said. "You won't be disappointed."