Bird Banding in Big Sur
with the Ventana Wildlife Society

at the Big Sur Ornithology Lab
Molera Beach State Park

Photos and Story by Margie Whitnah

Back in 1992, the Big Sur Ornithology Lab (BSOL) program was born through the Ventana Wildlife Society’s desire to establish a “long-term songbird monitoring station on the Big Sur River.”

This untangling of the birds from the nets is slow-going…some women might liken it to having to untangle necklaces that have gotten all tangled in their jewelry box! Looking carefully at the photos of Mike and Nellie working at the nets, you may discover a few birds still caught in the unlowered nets above them. Several photos also show close-ups of how the birds are very gently untangled from the fine netting.

The Big Sur Ornithnology Lab biologists, staff, interns, and volunteers recognize what a unique place Andrew Molera State Park is for the hundreds of species of migratory bird populations who rest and breed there. These people are profoundly dedicated to monitoring and researching the birds’ health and distribution of not only the migratory birds, but most importantly, the common birds in the area. The on-going mist netting station where bird banding is performed at the lab is a primary method in carrying out the BSOL team’s efforts toward bird, wildlife, and habitat conservation.

The nets have a clever design which enables them to be lowered gradually as the birds are able to be taken out of the nets – carefully, one by one, so as not to hurt them or increase the trauma or stress to them.


The staff do get occasional pecks on their hands from the little birds, though I imagine that the larger ones can be more of a problem.

According to Nellie Thorngate, the Lab’s Interim Assistant Coordinator, the Lab has captured for identification some “77,000 birds of 182 species” since it began in 1992. The BSOL monitoring program helps the biologists understand regional bird health and diversity trends and concerns. They also collaborate with Central Coast resource management agencies on habitat restoration and conservation projects, which are as vital in bird conservation as is the bird population monitoring. “Keeping common birds common” is the goal of Jessica Griffiths, the Lab’s Interim Coordinator, and the other biologists who carry out the on-going monitoring and habitat conservation efforts. They devote themselves so that the common species that they identify today, don’t land on the Threatened or Endangered Species lists tomorrow.

To the right is the “not-so-dignified” method of weighing the birds on the scale. When the staff blows apart the feathers, they can tell how much fat the bird is storing. The birds store more fat, of course, when they are ready to take off for migrations.

A lot can be told about the bird by gently blowing the feathers apart on different areas of the body. Blowing on the body feathers, Jessica reveals cranberry-colored bird skin, and by blowing on the skull she may expose lines and dots which help determine the age of younger birds, for example.


By close examination, the staff can learn about the bird’s age by the configuration of feathers, by little fine white lines in feathers, and by other observations.

The Big Sur Ornithology Lab hopes that by sharing in the learning, visitors will be inspired to increase their support for wildlife conservation, respect for Nature’s wonders, and protection of our environment’s biological diversity. The Lab welcomes visitors to their bird banding demonstrations (see details at end of this web page).


Mike Tyner began interning for the BSOL in Spring 2005. Working with the bird banding program is something Mike was passionate about doing, after four years of serious birding and even an internship last year with the VWS Condor Reintroduction Program. Mike recently graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, earning his B.S. degree in Ecology and Systematic Biology.

any of these soft, cloth bird bags that Mike holds in this photo came from the nets on the other side of the river — from nets which are raised at 6:45 am, weather-permitting. One bird is carried per bag. The bags in the field are hung with color-coded clothes pins, in a sort of “triage-method,” to denote priorities to the staff for examining the birds. Back at the tiny lab, the bags are hung on certain numbered hooks until the staff/interns can bring the birds through the banding process. This process includes a very detailed exam of different aspects: fat, weight, age, sex, etc. It seems to take 5-10 minutes per bird. Notes are recorded on each factor. It seems to be a challenging process for new interns as they use the charts on the wall, pages in books, discussions with staff members, observations in the sunlight outside the lab, and many specialized techniques to record information on the birds. While Jessica is carrying out all this, she is able to generously educate visitors about exactly what she is doing at each step of the process and why. However, that can only be done if the number of birds is not overwhelming at the time.

Nellie Thorngate, Interim Assistant Coordinator for the BSOL, was called to help by Jessica Griffiths, when she heard from Mike that there were seven birds in one of the nets near the lab as he was doing another of the morning net checks. The nets are checked every forty minutes from about 7 a.m. to Noon. There are three nets on the lab side of the river and eighteen on the other. Mike had waded across the swift, chilly river crossing over to do the first earliest net checks on that side. One morning in mid-April 2005, the BSOL had 92 birds caught in the nets!

Then, in each of the following weeks, the number of migrating birds lessens in numbers by about 15 per week.

Big Sur Ornithology Lab Crew:

Jessica Griffiths – Interim Coordinator (in photos)

Nellie Thorngate – Interim Assistant Coordinator (in photos)

Mike Tyner – Intern (in photos)
Brett Tryon – Intern (not shown)
Ann Graham – Intern (not shown)


Jessica is so gentle and loving with the birds, but she also is very effective in doing what she has to do to quickly; checking them thoroughly using her knowledge, experience, and handy resources, while assuring that the birds aren’t stressed any longer than necessary. A bird that is recaptured in three hours isn’t re-checked, but I think they might be re-checked if the time period is longer. So, some birds do get checked more than once – – if time elapses, it is good for researching comparisons.

Saturday Mornings from Memorial Day to Labor Day:
Every Saturday morning between 7 a.m. and 12 noon.
Come visit our Big Sur Ornithology Lab for bird banding demonstrations.
Free to the public.

Back to Big Sur Birding

Pelican Network

Note from Ventana Wilderness Society’s Big Sur Ornithology Lab:

We are open to the public for morning banding demonstrations 5 days per week from Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Because the banding days remain weather dependent, we recommend that visitors call or email BSOL’s Program Coordinator, Jessica Griffiths, ahead of time to confirm that we are here to welcome you. Jessica can be reached by phone at (831) 624-1202, or e-mail at

See you soon, and don’t forget your binoculars!


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