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Bounding & banding, sortie #4, banding

            Banders band the fourth Sunday of every month in the Jardín Etnobotánica, the extraordinary 2.3 hectare (nearly 6 acres) botanical garden behind the Convento de Santo Domingo. The Dominican convent was the home office of the evangelization effort in Oaxaca in colonial times, and it is without question one of the most spectacular churches and monastery complexes in southern Mexico. Maybe even arguably the most. Like all monasteries of its day, the complex included a large walled garden where the friars grew their fruit and vegetables and salad greens. It held a laundry, too, and a kiln for firing ceramics. Regular physical labor was part of most orders’ contemplative routines: it was seen as a means of communing with the deity’s glorious creation, and of acknowledging his bounty. It was also a way of keeping the friars physically fit in the dark ages before the invention of Zumba. One suspects that in the garden it was the novices who did most of the heavy digging.


            The Mexican government expropriated the monastery in the mid-19th century as part of the great desamortización, the seizure of the Church’s extensive land holdings. After that, the monastery garden served as a military barracks, with its attendant stables, sports fields, and exercise grounds. In its later years it devolved into a convenient downtown garbage dump. The conversion of the garbage-strewn ruins to the botanical showplace it is today was an initiative of Oaxaca’s emblematic artist-activist Francisco de Toledo in 1993. Today the Jardín Etnobotánica is home to more than 1,300 species of plants, some of them sprouted from ancient seeds recovered in archaeological excavations in the state. Its collection of cactuses —recall that much of central Oaxaca is high desert— is spectacular, and the whole shebang is commonly referred to as the Cactus Garden.


            The birdbanding program in the Jardín Etnobotánico is 17 years old. Edgar del Valle, Manuel Grosselet, and Georgita Ruiz,— who are probably the best, and certainly the best-known, professional birders in the State of Oaxaca, all of them with prior banding experience— launched the program in 2001.  Pretty much ever since then, early in the morning on the fourth Sunday of every month, they hang eleven long mist nets in the same eleven areas of the garden. All during the morning and the early afternoon they circulate among the eleven nets.

They carefully extract each netted bird, place it in a small cloth bag, and carry it back to the worktable in the shade by the former army barracks. A troupe of volunteers, limited in number and carefully supervised so as not to risk trampling the garden’s collections, aid in the process. This Sunday the volunteers included me, Matt, Abby and a handful of other folks whom I had met birding or at the Oaxaca Lending Library.


            We circulated and extracted, bagged and carried, and among us snapped a zillion photos.

The experts measured each bird, weighed it, puffed up its feather so as to be able to estimate how much fat it was carrying, and entered all of that information in a logbook and then onto a computer. Next they clipped on a tiny band with a discrete serial number that indicated where and when it had been identified. Some of the birds already carried bands: they’d been netted here at the Etnobotá

nico 3 or 5 years previously. One wore a band that had been put on years before in New Brunswick, Canada. All that information helps determine the birds’ longevity, migration patterns, the general health of the avian stock, and so forth. As with all such efforts, each bit produces a smidgen of facts that form part of a Big Data archive that one hopes will inform governments and the like in their planning and conservation efforts. Lastly one of the volunteers carried the prisoner back into the garden, opened his hand, and tossed the bird into the air.



            Of course, we were not the only bipeds to patrol the mist nets. Far above us a Cooper’s hawk swooped lower and lower toward what must have seemed to him to be a downtown replica of the Hacienda Santa Martha* buffet line. All those tasty little feathered morsels lined up and waiting for him decide where he was going to begin his lunch. And then, of a sudden, the decision made, a rapid plummet, talons first, whap!


            From which we all learned that, yes, a mist net is strong enough to ensnare an angry Cooper’s hawk. Edgar rushed out, threaded his way between the cactuses, and carefully, but with a nonchalance obviously born of years of practice, gripped the hawk in such a way that neither beak nor talons could do him damage , and gently extracted it from the net. He carried it back to the processing table trailing a rapt amateurs, cellphone cameras held high to document every moment.


            As before, the hawk was measured, length, wing length, head and beak, or at least so it seemed. To weigh him Edgar slipped the hawk’s head into a cloth bag, which instantly, and in my view miraculously, calmed him down enough so that he would lie motionless, briefly, on the scale. He and Manuel took lots of pictures, while the rest of us took pictures of them taking pictures. They explained that while the hawk’s beak is dangerous, it is mainly for ripping the prey’s flesh apart so that the hawk can devour it. The killing organ is the talons, that penetrate like daggers and hold like super glue. Manuel and Edgar did not invite any of us to hold the hawk, as they had with the kiskadees, warblers, vireos, and flycatchers. And none of us pressed the for a chance.


            If you think this is exciting, or would be fun, you might time your trip to visit me here in the Santa Cruz Etla casita to include a last Sunday in the month. The mist nets will be up and waiting.






*Santa Martha, blog readers will recall, is the 200-dish buffet restaurant with the DC3 on the grass just beyond the drinks table.