3x more birds than usual

Chelsea Powrie

It's a good year at the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory in the South Okanagan — their annual bird counting and banding process is off to an incredible start, seeing around three times the average number of birds coming through their area. 

"We're already at about 1,400 birds this season," said Matthias Bieber, bander-in-charge. "Typically it takes us until mid-September to get to that point."

Half an hour before dawn each day from Aug. 1 to Oct. 15, Bieber and his fellow workers and volunteers are out on the trails at Vaseux Lake, setting up 14 special nets designed to temporarily snag small migratory birds.

The nets, which are specially designed not to harm the birds, are checked once every 30 minutes for six hours each morning, and any captured birds are taken for weighing, measuring and, if it hasn't already been done, banding. 

This year, they have been overwhelmed by the numbers of birds caught and counted, more than triple the normal amount they would expect for August. 

"We're catching a lot of young birds that were born this year, so we know for sure they had a really good year with their breeding season here at this site, and probably the Okanagan in general," Bieber said. 

The tracking process has been going on for approximately 20 years, allowing researchers to track migratory bird behaviour in the area.

Previously banded birds are noted, and any birds without bands are outfitted with a harmless, lightweight, numbered aluminum band around one of their legs. The whole process takes just a few minutes, and the birds are released back into the wild. 

"Then we can learn about their site fidelity, so if they are coming back to the same site over and over, and their timing of the visit every year, if it's changing," Bieber said. 

The project can be an indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem. Bieber said the boost in birds this year is good news, but he doesn't yet know how to explain it. 

"There are so many factors involved," Bieber said. "We know something's happening, we don't know exactly why. So there's always more research that's required to figure that out."

Highlights this year so far have been captures of rare species like Tennessee warblers, kingfishers and grey flycatchers. And expected birds have seen higher than average numbers. 

"We're actually very close to beating the record we set last year for most willow flycatchers ever banded in one season," Bieber said, as he banded another of the species on Thursday. "We only need, I think, three or four more."

The data collected all goes to a province-wide database which includes information from a network of 25 different stations. 

The public can learn more about what the observatory does on Sept. 22 at their annual open house starting at 9 a.m. For more information on how to participate or donate to the organization, click here

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