Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
Neither hot weather nor age stops John Weske, 81, from his passion—banding birds—work he has done since he was a young man.
Royal and Sandwich Terns and Brown Pelicans are the species Weske, of Sandy Spring, Md., has focused on for nearly 60 years, having begun banding in North Carolina in 1974.
In July, Weske and two wildlife specialists headed to Big Foot Slough Island, a dredge spoil area just off Ocracoke that the long-route ferries pass.
Their mission: To band young pelicans missed a few weeks earlier.
This was a nighttime venture because it’s easier to quickly band larger birds when they are not moving around.
“We banded our first pelican at 10:10 p.m. and our last at 4 a.m. and a total of 400 young birds,” he said the following day. “By the time we reached the docks of Ocracoke, dawn was breaking.”
Weske’s banding efforts have contributed greatly to the knowledge of these species, including longevity, distribution and how many return to the grounds where they were born to nest their own young.
Banding also can help document if there are declines or increases in populations.
Weske has seen major changes, especially the return of Brown Pelicans in North Carolina, which were nearly extirpated from the region during the 1950s and 60s due to DDT in the environment which caused thin egg shells that prevented birds from hatching.
After the pesticide was banned, the number of pelicans and many other species, including Bald Eagles and Ospreys, rebounded. These days, pelicans are not only in healthy numbers in the state, but they also have expanded their nesting range north into the Chesapeake Bay.
Islands in North Carolina, including dredge spoils created by maintaining sufficient depths for ferry channels, are important nesting locations for several species since they have fewer mammal predators, Weske said.
Although islands are safer, they do have dangers for nesters. A while back, a coyote found its way on to an island near Oregon Inlet that caused a pelican colony to be deserted.
Increasing numbers in North Carolina of Herring and Black-backed Gulls in the summer can also be a detriment since they will eat unprotected eggs and hatchlings. Other avian predators of nesting colonies are Black-crowned Night Herons and Great Horned Owls, which will kill adult birds. One theory is that the owls can hear the nesting birds from their territory, fly over the water and make their kills. Although Great Horned Owls are present on Ocracoke, there is no evidence that they have made it over to Big Foot.
A few years ago on an island in the upper Pamlico Sound, Weske came across 24 dead Royal Terns, mostly banded adults in close proximity, and he suspected a lightning strike caused their demise.
Banding has perils besides the occasional nip from beaks.
In 1974, Weske spent two successive stints amidst the Royal Tern colony on Metompkin Island in Va. At the time, he was oblivious to the high decibel levels of the birds’ calls and their “gakkering” sounds, but later discovered he had suffered a permanent hearing loss.
Weske is a legend among those familiar with coastal water birds, especially for his stamina that is stronger than most people’s regardless of age.
One day in the late 1970s, he and a colleague, Donald Schwab, a biologist at the Great Dismal Swamp, banded 2,900 birds at the nearly disappeared North Rock Island near Portsmouth Island.
“There wasn’t much that stood in John’s way when it came to banding,” said Maria Logan, a former islander who worked with him and helped recruit and transport volunteers to Beacon and Big Foot islands for annual banding. “As long as the colonies were safe, the banding continued.”
Sara Schweitzer, a wildlife diversity expert for the state Wildlife Resources Commission, who has worked with Weske since 2011, said his long-term banding data are “incredibly unique and rare.”
The two oldest known Royal Terns living in the wild–found in Belize and Florida–were 30 years old and had been banded by his projects in North Carolina.
Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist for Audubon North Carolina, noted that his friendliness and willingness to share his knowledge have been paramount in building a cadre of volunteers to assist him over the years.
Highly educated, Weske followed his father’s footsteps and obtained a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in engineering and applied physics. Working briefly in that field, his interests changed and after a two-year stint in the Army, he obtained a master’s degree in vertebrate zoology from Cornell and a Ph.D. in ornithology from the University of Oklahoma. His dissertation was on bird species in the Andes Mountains in Peru where he spent five summers in mountainous wilderness.
In 1959, he got his master banding permit and at the suggestion of renowned ornithologist Chandler Robbins, co-author of Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification (also called the Golden Guide) and founder of the North American Breeding Bird Survey, he banded his first Royal Terns at South Point in 1959, just south of Ocean City, Md., which is the most-northern colony of this species in the country.
In the 1970s, Weske worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in a unit based at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He started as the chief of the Bird Section and later was a staff zoologist. He conducted research on birds, handled avian-related inquiries and served as a curator of the North American collection which consisted of skins, skeletons, “pickles”, eggs, and nests.
In the 1980s, he got interested in computers, left the FWS, and set up a consulting business called Weske Associates that he ran for many years while continuing his banding passion.
Why does he care so much about terns?
“Ecologically they belong here, and there is the aesthetic sense and beauty that visitors appreciate seeing,” he said.
When asked for a good banding story, he came up with this:
“The most interesting find was a Royal Tern with one of my bands inside the belly of a 346-pound tiger shark caught off the waters of Florida.”
How did it end up there? “Probably it was going after a small fish and didn’t see the larger fish,” he explained.
Retiring isn’t a consideration and he also is working on publishing the results of his research.
Birds banded on Big Foot Island:
2015 2016 2017 Total
Brown Pelican 1,988 1,623 1,225 4,836
Royal Tern 4,926 5,265 3,070 13,261
Sandwich Tern 1,029 434 700 2,163
Regarding year-to-year banding numbers: Sara Schweitzer, Wildlife Diversity Biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, points out the number of birds banded on Big Foot Island may differ among years due to several factors: different number of chicks available to band; birds nested on other islands; all chicks were not banded due to personnel, weather or other factors..
So, if anyone is concerned about numbers going up or down, it likely doesn’t reflect a change in population numbers. The islands available for nesting birds differs among years so birds may be at high or low density on Big Foot Island.