Making a Difference, One Bird at a Time

by Kathy Felkar

Volunteer at the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory

Slowly removing my head from my pillow in the dead dark of pre-dawn, I wonder what was I thinking when I agreed to volunteer every Friday at Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory for the next two and a half months. As I slowly put my arthritic feet to the floor, I remind myself that getting up this early has its benefits and I just have to get moving. My husband is already up and is brewing Peptbo ‘s Shade Tree coffee, so, I pull on my oldest jeans, a warm sweater and quickly organize my life so I can get to the car and head to the ” The Point” for dawn Net Opening.

I ask Mike to drive as I am only half awake and he is better at dodging the flocks of sparrows, robins and thrushes that often dart out as we head south along County Road 13 towards Prince Edward Point in the dark. Making our way along the narrow, curvy road, we are often greeted with a glorious rose sunrise over Lake Ontario that rivals any art show, anywhere, anytime. Once we drive into the parking area at this southeastern tip of Prince Edward County, we see that the Bander’s cottage, “The Obs” (Observatory) or “The Van Cott” (the cottage was named after an early occupant who was a commercial fisherman), is just starting to wake up. Generally, two or three young biologists are staying at The Obs for the season, volunteering their time so that they can learn from our Head Bander, Matt Iles, everything one needs to know about identifying Canadian migratory species of birds. They are sleepily, getting their warm jackets and binoculars on, grabbing a piece of toast, and a mug of coffee and meet us in front of the Banding Lab.

The “Lab” was once a small, wooden shack situated beside “The Obs” where trained banders (or “ringers” if you are from the UK) put an individual numbered band on every bird that we will catch in the mist nets and then release so they can continue their foraging before they migrate across Lake Ontario and much further south. Now it is a state of the art banding lab erected this year by CWS (Canadian Wildlife Services) We head out as a team, at sunrise to open the 19 nets that have been erected in strategically placed net lanes that have been cut out of the undergrowth at Prince Edward Point.  These lanes have been opened every spring and fall migration since 1994.

While we unfurl the nets, we can already hear many songbirds raising their voices to be part of the Morning Chorus and we hear little rustles of birds beginning their morning hunt for insects so they will have enough fat on their bodies to make the trip across the lake. The nets are specially made to capture birds without injury and as we open each net, we wonder what kind of morning it will be. Will we catch a new species? Will there be a fallout of birds and we will be incredibly busy extracting birds from the nets or will it be a slow day and as we walk the net lanes, we may only extract a few birds each trip?

Once all the nets are open, we return to the benches by the Banding Lab and wait for the Head Bander to return from his morning census. Matt will walk the trails and record all birds he sees and hears so that he can document what is flying about The Point. We do not catch every species that is migrating in the nets, so it is very important we have this data to monitor what is actually flying over and around the Observatory. For example, Golden Eagles in the fall fly over The Point but never come low enough to be actually caught in a net. That would be quite the day, if one did!

Chit-chatting about what was seen and banded the day before, we make sure out Data Binder is organized for the day so that we can record all the scientific information that is required. Every bird is recorded with its band number by species, sex, age, wing length, weight and fat content. After the bander has affixed the tiny band on the bird’s leg with a pair of specialized pliers, he or she, then blows on the breast of the bird to see how big the fat patch is. It could be empty or on a scale of 1 to 6. Yellow fat will appear just under the transparent skin of the bird which helps indicate if the bird has eaten enough to power itself across the dangerous distance of Lake Ontario.

As soon as the Census taker returns, we head out to the nets for the first net round. We carry a satchel of clean, cotton bags that will carry the birds safely back to the banding lab. We begin extracting at net lane 8 and work back towards the lab. This way, no bird is trapped in the net for any length of time. We are delighted to see the birds are “moving” and in almost every net, there are tiny birds resting in the net pockets. It is interesting, that most birds do not struggle, once captured, but reserve their energy for their chance to escape. Trained volunteers and the Assistant Banders extract each bird gently, with great respect and skill so that few birds are ever injured. I am excited as I easily extract a Golden Crowned Kinglet who flashes his yellow and red crown as I tenderly place him in the cotton bag. We continue down each net lane until we are back at the lab where we hang our bags up on the wall so that the banding can begin. I, also, scribe the data from each bird in the binder so the six hours of “nets open” flies by.

I enjoy every bird as it is taken out of the bag. It feels a little bit like Christmas each time the bander, professionally takes a bird out for processing. We revel in the beauty of an American Redstart or the grand beak of a Northern Flicker. We learn so much about each bird as we look carefully at their wing growth or their feather colour to determine its age. As it is released through the window of the lab, it often flies to a nearby tree so we get one last glimpse of this beautiful bird before it continues on its way.

We walk the lanes every half hour, so not only is there some exercise involved but we get to see some of our favourite birds up close. If there is a bird that has been tangled in the nets, we call upon the experts to come and release the bird so that every bird is stressed as little as possible.

As the morning, wears on, friendly banter with like-minded people makes the getting-out-of-bed-at-a ridiculously- early- hour so worth it. We share our knowledge with visitors who have either come for the first time or drive down each migration to see incredible birds in the area. Photographers arrive as well to take pictures of the birds and the natural beauty of The Point. The old lighthouse at the very end of Point Traverse (the north corner of the property) may be decaying but it still holds photogenic interest to many.

Six hours later, our team goes out and ties up the nets for another day. Every bird is processed before anyone thinks of lunch and an afternoon nap. The banders work 7 days a week, up at dawn every morning and live in the cottage isolated from town, friends and family. Many come from England, and Europe but we have had Canadian students as well. We also have hosted overnight guests who help out banding and extracting as a “working holiday”. In the fall, these young enthusiasts also are responsible for the Saw Whet Owl banding that begins about 8pm and continues for four hours! In other words, these young people work very hard for little recompense but leave with such a depth of knowledge, their experience at Peptbo is well worth it. They often use this experience to apply for great jobs in the scientific job market.

On the drive home, I feel honoured to have made the acquaintance of these young people who care about birds and the natural world that they have inherited. They will spread the message that bird populations are being affected by climate change and a myriad of other practices that us, humans, have afflicted upon them. They know as I do, that the scientific data that we have helped collect will be sent to Bird Studies Canada and beyond so that our governments will make better decisions to protect our natural world. As Peptbo celebrates over 24 years of operation, I know that every early morning has made a difference and by volunteering my time I hope to leave this world a better place for my children.

At the end of this fall migration, we will hope to band at least 400 Northern Saw-whet Owls and 5600 passerines (smaller birds) and hawks. This would be an average year but as our climate changes, I am sure we will begin to see new trends that will dictate how we look at our bird species. Only time will tell.

For more information on Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, please visit www.peptbo.ca . Or just come on down during the migration and say hello!