Listen to the Band!

This immature Little Blue Heron, banded in Jamaica Bay (and assigned code “1Z”), was photographed by Brooklyn birder Doug Gochfeld. Photo: Doug Gochfeld


This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of The Urban Audubon.

By Carol Peace Robins

There are many keys to identifying a bird: shape, size, color, and song are among the most useful. And then, there are leg bands. These human-affixed markers aren’t meant to identify the species of bird, however, but to track the bird along its travels and through its lifespan, helping scientists better understand migration patterns and population dynamics.

NYC Bird Alliance Senior Conservation Biologist Kaitlyn Parkins puts it this way: “Banding lets you collect data you could never get any other way.” Currently, the main species banded by NYC Bird Alliance every spring are all waterbirds: Common Terns, Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Double-crested Cormorants, and Great Egrets (along with a few Glossy Ibis, Snowy Egrets, and an occasional Little Blue Heron).

Our top human affixer—a.k.a. master bander—Emilio Tobón (see profile below) earned his master bander permit from the 100-year-old Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL), part of the U.S. Geological Survey, after apprenticing under Conservation Scientist Emerita Dr. Susan Elbin. A BBL master bander permit authorizes bird-safe capture, banding, and release by both the master bander and those overseen by him or her.

The BBL also provides master banders with lightweight metal bands, each engraved with a unique serial number. Banders record the band number and information about each bird they band, including species, sex, age, weight, measurements, and location; carefully place the band on the bird’s lower leg; and then release the bird where it was found. Many research teams, including NYC Bird Alliance, also attach an additional colorful plastic band specific to their research project with a large code called a “field-readable” band, which is easier to see and decipher. Field-readable bands enable the public to read and report banding codes on living, moving birds in the wild.

When observers spot a banded bird, even hundreds or thousands of miles away from its banding site, they can report the band code, time, and location to at the BBL, which compiles the information and sends the data (called an “encounter”) to the appropriate banders two weeks later. NYC Bird Alliance’s band encounter database includes more than 1,100 reports.

The information, Parkins notes, is vital to understanding annual avian visitors to New York City. And sometimes, as in the case of the American Oystercatcher, NYC Bird Alliance’s research contributes to a larger effort like that of the American Oystercatcher Working Group. This group of scientists from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and Latin America meets yearly to compare data on everything from oystercatcher productivity to predator management.

Of course, there’s more to the banding story: from how to catch each bird (by mist net, various sorts of specialized traps, or by hand, depending on the bird), to when (never in the rain), to the sort of band or tag used. (The latest tracking devices include tiny nanotags used for radiotracking, attached with super glue(!), to the bird’s back.) It’s fascinating stuff, but nothing compared to the valuable scientific data that banded birds give to conservation groups such as NYC Bird Alliance.

Left: Emilio Tobón holds a banded young oystercatcher © Debra Kriensky. Right: Emilio holds a Semipalmated Sandpiper © NYC Bird Alliance


Emilio Tobón, born in Mexico City, loved animals as a child, so he decided to study wildlife biology in college and became enamored of seabirds. He researched Elegant Terns in the Gulf of California and Magnificent Frigatebirds off Mexico’s Pacific coast. He also spent five years studying and conserving the seabirds of New Zealand. In 2008, he moved to New York City and began volunteering with Dr. Susan Elbin. Since 2011 he has been NYC Bird Alliance’s conservation field biologist. And now, he’s our master bander.

Most of the time, you’ll find Tobón on the beaches of the Rockaways in Queens—where American Oystercatchers spend the spring and summer breeding and raising their young, after wintering along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, all the way to South America. Banding this species has made him a huge fan (although the Magnificent Frigatebird remains his favorite). He discloses that American Oystercatchers are quite aggressive toward each other while they are defending their territory, But in a bander’s hand, they’re very tranquil. “Not at all like the Northern Cardinal, which never stops fighting. With the oystercatcher, you really need to feel it, to be aware you have a good grip on it all the time.”

Tobón lives near Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan, with his wife, a biologist at The New York Botanical Garden, and their nine-year-old son. “I’m not much of a birdwatcher,” he says—but that depends on your definition of the word. He certainly watches over American Oystercatchers, awaiting the day he can bring his son to the Rockaway beaches to see what exactly his father does all day.

Learn more about NYC Bird Alliance's work with the waterbirds of New York Harbor.