Canada’s northernmost bird observatories fighting to stay afloat

One morning earlier this week, a Blackburnian warbler flew into a net at the Teslin Lake Bird Observatory. This might not seem like a big deal.

One morning earlier this week, a Blackburnian warbler flew into a net at the Teslin Lake Bird Observatory.

This might not seem like a big deal. It was small bird, a young male, with a bright yellow throat and white streaks on its wings.

It didn’t look all that different, really, from some of the other warblers that fly through the bird observatory on their southward migration this time of year. The volunteers even mistook it for a Townsend’s warbler at first glance.

But this was no mere Townsend’s warbler. This was no common, everyday, run-of-the-mill warbler. This was a Blackburnian. The first Blackburnian ever recorded in the Yukon, to be precise.

“It’s almost like you’ve won the lottery,” explained Ted Murphy-Kelly. “It’s the element of surprise and discovery.”

This might not be easy to understand, for those of us who don’t value small yellow birds quite as highly as we would a $30-million jackpot.

But for birders like Murphy-Kelly, finding those elusive birds, the rare ones, the ones that aren’t supposed to be here – that’s the ultimate thrill.

As an added bonus, this type of find also helps scientists better understand how bird populations move and change over time.

But now, thanks to chronic funding shortages, one of Murphy-Kelly’s two Yukon bird observatories may have to close.

Murphy-Kelly opened the Albert Creek observatory west of Watson Lake in 2001, after realizing that little work was being done to monitor bird migrations in the Yukon. He opened a second observatory at Teslin Lake in 2005. Together, they are the northernmost bird observatories in the country.

“Birds are a huge piece of the ecosystem, especially in the boreal forest,” he said. “Knowing what’s going on, and what’s there, is important.”

For the last 14 years, he and a group of volunteers have observed spring and fall migrations of songbirds, waterfowl, and birds of prey.

They do some of their work just by watching the skies and counting the number of hawks, ducks, and kestrels that fly overhead.

But for the smaller songbirds – sparrows, flycatchers, the odd Blackburnian warbler – they set up nets that catch the birds as they fly through.

Every time they catch a bird, they record its age, sex, wing measurements, and fat content. Then they fix a small metal band around one of its legs, so that if the bird is ever caught elsewhere, they’ll have a record of where it’s been.

Murphy-Kelly said they once banded an alder flycatcher that was caught a year later in Colombia, South America.

These observatories are part of a network of about 30 across the country, according to Murphy-Kelly. Together, they’re building up a long-term database about where different species live, how healthy they are, and how they move.

“All the information is shared,” Murphy-Kelly said. “All the banding data is sent to the banding office in Ottawa. And that information is shared with our U.S. counterparts in Washington.”

But it’s labour-intensive work. Birds wake up early, which means birders have to as well. They have to have the nets up before sunrise, which means getting up at 3:30 a.m. in June. They keep them up for six hours, checking them every 20 or 30 minutes to make sure no bird is left trapped for too long.

Sometimes, some of the birders will stay outside all day to watch the skies as the larger birds pass overhead.

This year, they’ve banded about 3,500 birds so far, and the work will continue into October. On a good day, Murphy-Kelly said, they’ll process over 100 birds.

This kind of work, done in collaboration with other observatories across North America, can yield important information about the health of bird populations.

For instance, declines in songbird numbers have been observed across North America in recent years, likely due in part to habitat loss in their southern wintering grounds. Many bird populations have also moved northward in response to climate change.

But funding has always been a challenge for Murphy-Kelly. He said he’d ideally like to run the Albert Creek observatory on $20,000 a season, and the Teslin Lake observatory on $30,000. But he’s often made do with less than that, scraping together small amounts from Environment Canada, the territorial government, the Teslin Tlingit Council, Ducks Unlimited, and other sources.

And recently, money has become even harder to come by.

“Over the years, we’ve got a lot of government support, but that has waned in the last five years,” he said.

Murphy-Kelly is now seriously considering closing the Albert Creek observatory next season, unless he can secure more funding this winter.

“Albert Creek is in danger of dying,” he said. “Every winter we put a lot of time and effort… writing proposals and rifling them off to the different agencies and crossing our fingers. We’re always looking for new ideas to raise funds. We’re always looking for suggestions.”

Helene Dion-Phenix, one of Murphy-Kelly’s volunteers, said the fact that Albert Creek gets so little funding is “total nonsense.”

“There’s a lot of money invested in such futile things,” she said. “And just a bit of this money would be more than enough to manage these stations for years. I would be very, very sad if he cannot band birds in the next years.”

Dion-Phenix and her boyfriend, Francis Bordeleau-Martin, recently graduated from university in Quebec, and came to the Yukon looking for work experience in biology. She said she enjoys working with birds, because she can learn a lot just by looking at them.

“It’s like a mine of information in front of our eyes. I think that’s why people can spend a whole life studying birds,” she said. “Because they are so beautiful. They look fragile, but they are so strong.”

Dion-Phenix said she hopes to get a bird-banding licence and go to grad school in ornithology.

But for Murphy-Kelly, one of the best things about being a birder is that it doesn’t require a PhD.

“If you know your stuff and you’re committed to contributing to scientific research, then you can go out and study birds,” he said, adding that the observatories are always looking for volunteers.

Murphy-Kelly isn’t a scientist, himself. He has a day job at the extended care facility in Copper Ridge.

But birding is his passion, and probably always will be, provided he can keep the observatories alive. He’s even got a tattoo of a bird on his back – a Blackburnian warbler, to be precise.

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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