Hummingbird expert has banded thousands

Robert Yunick demonstrates the delicate process of forming a band to be placed on a hummingbird. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)Robert Yunick demonstrates the delicate process of forming a band to be placed on a hummingbird. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — When Robert Yunick travels from his home on Myron Street in Niskayuna to his Adirondack camp on Jenny Lake, his plans usually involve sitting very, very still.

With no distractions, no book in hand, refusing even to swat the black flies that buzz and bite, he waits.

Yunick is one of fewer than 200 master bird banding permittees licensed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the United States. So on Jenny Lake, while he watches patiently for hummingbirds to appear, he sits with only a clear strand of nylon monofilament in his hand.

When a bird does arrive to inspect the sweet incentive Yunick has set up, he’ll release the string, blocking its exit. Then, expertly coaxing it out of the trap, Yunick will pick the bird up with one hand.

The hummingbird requires no sedation. It relaxes, in fact, comfortably secured while Yunick takes its miniature measurements and marks his findings on a special data collection sheet, which he will later send to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Robert Yunick demonstrates the delicate process of forming a band to be placed on a hummingbird. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Robert Yunick demonstrates the delicate process of forming a band to be placed on a hummingbird. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Yunick has been fascinated by birds since watching his neighbor band them in his yard in Schenectady in the 1950s. He earned his own permit in 1962 and started banding in the 1970s.

“I banded my first bird in my yard here,” he said.

He has marked many species, including raptors and even a snowy owl this past winter. Each one gets its own unique band, designed for its size and strength and imprinted with a number.

Yunick loves all kinds of birds. The dining room in the home he shares with his wife, Anne, is adorned with framed illustrations of yellow-breasted chats and Baltimore orioles.

Still, none can surpass his favorite subject: the hummingbird.

After decades of bird observation and research, Yunick is an encyclopedia of hummingbird information. He knows, without checking or hesitating, that Colombia has the highest concentration of hummingbird species, about 150, and Ecuador has the second-highest.

He knows the largest species of hummingbird resides in Peru and weighs about 21 grams. And that’s just trivia; he’s also published numerous research papers and co-published a book on the subject.

He’s authored papers on other species of birds, too; his latest was a 43-year study of chickadees.

“Hummingbird bands are a special situation, as you might imagine,” he said.

One hundred hummingbird bands come on a small metal sheet smaller than a postcard. They have to be meticulously cut with scissors, then formed into rings using a miniscule tools that would look at home in a watch repair shop or at a jeweler’s.

“Hummingbird banding is nothing short of surgery,” Yunick said.

The bands are 3/32 an inch long and a third as tall. Based on the bird, Yunick may cut them even smaller to fi t a particularly narrow tarsus (that’s a leg, for the uninitiated).

Yunick has been on the forefront of a group of banders who have found hummingbirds from the western United States on this coast. He still remembers the day he saw his first one: a Rufous Hummingbird, with brilliant red-orange feathers on its neck.

“This bird appeared at this woman’s feeder in October,” he said. “People beat a path to Cambridge [New York] to see this bird.”

On Dec. 3, 1994, he was the first person to band a Rufous in New York state, and his discovery was marked by a single dot on a map published in 2000. More and more of the birds have come to the area, though, and a map published in 2014 showed a swath of green that indicated they make a habit of visiting the area.

At first, Yunick said, many experts hypothesized that the Rufous hummingbirds in the Eastern United States were lost. Now, it seems some are just adventurous.

“There’s been an enormous amount of new information,” he said.

Flights from California to New York may sound like a big undertaking for such a tiny bird, but Yunick said incredible feats of migration are just one aspect of the species that fascinates him. Some hummingbirds winter in Mexico and summer in Alaska.

He’s also dazzled by the birds’ long lives and site fidelity, which means they return to the same places during each migration.

Yunick’s intense precision is no surprise given his career. After earning his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at RPI in 1961, he went on to work for Union Carbide for two years, then at SI Group on Balltown Road until he retired in 1999.

His obsessive attention to detail never retired, though; he has banded more than 212,000 birds representing 204 species since he began the hobby.

And as he sits very, very still on Jenny Lake in the fading summer, the number continues to grow.