It is that time of year again, the end of summer is migration season, and here on Vancouver Island, thousands upon thousands of birds are making their way south along the Pacific flyway. Rocky Point Bird Observatory is located on the tip of southern Vancouver Island, everyday a dedicated group of banders and volunteers band/ring birds on their migration in order to monitor their populations, track migrations and gain a better understanding of the health and life cycle of a number of species.
The past few weeks I have been helping out with their banding and have been lucky enough to see some incredible birds. The bird observatory bands in two locations, one is located in a marina and is a mixture of forest and shrubs, and the other is on a secluded military base, this area is more wild, with forest, open grassland areas and beaches. The view from the banding station is incredible, and species such as orcas, wolves and bears can be spotted. Last week whilst checking one of the nets near the water, we heard the loud unmistakable sound of a whale breathing, a humpback whale was fishing close to shore, and we watched as the whale swam away surfacing just once more in the distance!
The day was a busy one for birds, as we caught and banded a steady number, at that time it was mostly warblers and sparrows that were starting to come into the nets. We mostly banded the beautiful savannah sparrow, these sparrows have neat brown bars down their back, with a black and white speckled front, and a striking yellow smudge on the top of their eye, which looks like they have some eye shadow on! Other highlights included yellow warblers and the brightly coloured Wilson’s warbler. Along with the songbirds, raptors migrate in large numbers, and Rocky Point is a particularly good place to see them. Hundreds of turkey vultures soar overhead, Cooper’s, sharp shinned, red tailed and Swainson’s hawks can be seen within the flock of vultures. Having seen a lot of raptors that day, we managed to get two in the net, both sharp shinned hawks (pictured), one male and one female. The female is noticeably larger, but the species is still small. Up close you can really see how perfectly they are adapted to predate on birds, built for soaring and speed, with large yellow eyes and long sharp talons. They are very light and agile, you have to hold them by their feet in order to avoid getting sliced open by their talons. As I was packing up to leave I heard a shout from across the field, ‘CRANES’ , having never seen cranes, but always wanting to, I grabbed my binoculars and ran, watching two elegant sandhill cranes fly right over my head, you could hear them calling to each other. Humpbacks, hawks and cranes, I could not believe my luck!
This week out at the marina site, Pedder Bay, we saw the scale of migration that is currently taking place. On average, I have found that banding around 50-60 birds is a good and busy day. However on Wednesday, we banded 198 new birds, a record for the site. The day was hectic to say the least, as more and more birds kept entering the nets. Sparrows were the most common by a mile. Often when banding through migration you see birds come in waves, one week one species or type of bird dominates, then the following week another, and that day was definitely a sparrow day. We had a few of the tiny ruby crowned kinglets in the nets, the kinglets (similar to goldcrests, for UK readers), will soon we travelling through in large numbers. Despite banding 198 new birds, we hardly scratched the surface, walking through the area it was clear that there were hundreds of birds, sparrows were flying out of the grass from all directions, we are still relatively early into the migration season, so it is pretty remarkable to have banded such a high number of birds! The migration of birds is happening right across the northern hemisphere, above our heads millions of birds are making long and treacherous journeys south, if you get the chance to get out and see them I would definitely recommend it. A lot of the birds we are seeing on Vancouver Island, have travelled from northern Canada, and are on their way as far south as Costa Rica!