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Yukon bird observatories help people help birds

Erling Friis-Baastad Bird monitoring tops the list when it comes to opportunities for "citizen scientists" and other laypersons to contribute to natural history research in the territory, says Ted Murphy-Kelly.

Erling Friis-Baastad

Bird monitoring tops the list when it comes to opportunities for “citizen scientists” and other laypersons to contribute to natural history research in the territory, says Ted Murphy-Kelly.

Murphy-Kelly is a Whitehorse health-care worker whose other life is devoted to birding, to the Society of Yukon Bird Observatories and to managing the Albert Creek Bird Banding Station near Watson Lake. While “at the end of the day” it’s about birds, the story of bird-banding in the Yukon is also very much a human story, he says.

Opportunities for amateurs to stalk and collar large furry creatures are limited, even in the North, but the need for more pairs of eyes to monitor the spring and fall songbird migrations is immense, says Murphy-Kelly. During the breeding season, birds make up about 80 per cent of all land vertebrates in the boreal forest, he says. “That’s a pretty important piece of the ecosystem.”

Murphy-Kelly, who apprenticed as a bird bander in southern Ontario, came to appreciate the human dimension of bird banding in the Yukon early on. After arriving here in 1999, he received generous guidance and encouragement from territorial birders and scientists, people like biologist Jan Adamczewski and ornithologists Pam Sinclair and Cameron Eckert. It was Eckert who alerted him to the wealth of feathered life migrating through the southern end of the Tintina Trench flyway corridor each spring. Murphy-Kelly launched the Albert Creek station there, 15 kilometres west of Watson Lake, in 2001.

“I kind of lucked out. The Yukon lucked out. I could have fiddled around in many other places if I hadn’t met Cameron,” he says.

That luck became a gift that keeps on giving. Volunteers and students hired through government programs were soon signing on the help out at Albert Creek. One of those students was Ben Schonewille, who was born and raised in Teslin. Schonewille joined Murphy-Kelly at Albert Creek in 2003 and was instrumental in launching the Teslin Lake Bird Observatory (which is only open in the fall) in 2005. “Ben caught the birding bug,” says his mentor. Schonewille is now a biologist and the station manager of the McIntyre Marsh Bird Banding Demonstration Site in Whitehorse.

“We’re always looking for volunteers, regardless of their skill levels,” says Schonewille. “We have a number of people who volunteer with us who came and started out and didn’t really know a lot about birds. Now, they are our go-to helpers who help us run the station.

“There’s a young guy in Grade 10, now; Nick Guenette has been helping me out at McIntyre Marsh station for the past three or four years. And we’ve essentially trained him so he can check nets and band birds ... under my supervision, but it was from scratch.” The young birder can boast of having banded a Swainson’s thrush that was recovered in Veracruz, Mexico. (The Yukon observatories’ distance record is an alder flycatcher that was recovered in Colombia.) Schonewille and Murphy-Kelly praise their many other helpers, locals as well as graduate students from the U.S., birders from Mexico and other countries, and enthusiasts from across Canada.

Spring is when many a Yukoner’s fancy turns to birds. The swans set down at Swan Haven. Rare raptors cruise the edge of our forests and colourful passerines drop by suburban feeders. The Albert Creek station opened for bird business on April 23 and runs for six hours each day until June 8. The McIntyre Marsh station is open weekends and holidays from April 26 to May 31, 7 a.m. to noon, as well as during special prearranged hours for school field trips.

Schonewille is especially busy while the McIntyre season runs. Typically, he’s out there by 5:30 a.m. First he opens the nets, which have all been closed for the night. Then, every 20 to 30 minutes, he’ll make the rounds. “The nets are invisible. If you were walking around the marsh and didn’t know they were there, you would walk right into them,” he says. “It’s a fine, soft mesh. It doesn’t hurt the birds at all.”

Obviously, given the size of songbirds - which make up the majority of birds netted - extraction is a delicate operation. Neophyte banders must qualify for the equivalent of a learner’s permit to band under the guidance of a fully certified bander.

Each extracted bird is carefully placed in its own sack, which helps calm them as they are carried to the

banding table. Each receives a small, numbered aluminum leg band. The birds are weighed and measured. Their sex and overall condition are recorded. “Then maybe we take a quick photo. Then we let them go.” Birds banded and birds observed flying by are recorded in the daily estimated total.

“The Yukon’s stations are part of a nationwide network,” says Schonewille. The territory’s banding operations are the furthest north of stations reporting to the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network, he adds. “The work we’re doing ties in to what others are doing across the country.”

The recorded data becomes a resource for those charged with managing or monitoring species at risk, such as members of COSEWIC - Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

The most important audience for all the action at Albert Creek and McIntyre Marsh is made up of non-professionals. “Something we’re really trying to do is make people more aware,” says Schonewille. “A lot of people just come and say, ‘Wow! I didn’t realize we had birds that looked like that here.’” The experienced birders hope to help others become more aware of the challenges faced by our annual avian visitors.

“We’re always putting the word out there that any layperson that happens to be interested in birds and wants to be active in research can come out and learn about what we’re doing,” says Murphy-Kelly. “Sometimes, those people become the most active volunteers.”

Check out the opportunities at

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at