Birds flock to Rocky Point

Rocky Point birds

Rocky Point Bird Observatory Society volunteer Ann Nightingale shows the banding procedure used on the birds of Rocky Point including this Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Peter Mallett, Lookout

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

A Department of National Defence property on the southern tip of Vancouver Island is providing researchers with an invaluable laboratory to study the migratory habits of birds.

Canadian Forces Ammunition Depot Rocky Point, a sprawling 500-acre property that houses ammunition storage bunkers, also serves as a unique and virtually undisturbed habitat for a variety of plants, animals, and more than 300 bird species.

Early each morning, from July 21 to Oct. 18, just as the sun rises over the Olympic Mountains and casts its bright reddish-amber glow across the sky, a group of volunteers from the non-profit charity Rocky Point Bird Observatory Society (RPBOS) fan out across the property.

Armed with large nets, binoculars, notepads and cameras, the birders trek the forested areas and meadows and cast 12 bird nets towards the sky.
They have been flocking to the same spot for the past 23 years to monitor the birds because Rocky Point is their gathering place before they make the 18-kilometre flight across the Juan de Fuca Strait to the state of Washington for the winter.

For six hours each day volunteers and two paid banders carefully take captured birds out of bird-catching mist nets and gently place them in cloth sacks – adhering to a Bander’s Code of Ethics adapted from the North American Banding Council protocol.

As the dawn breaks and the call of sea lions can be heard from nearby Bentick Island, volunteer Ann Nightingale points upward to the sky, which teams with life in flight. Five Canada Geese fly across proceeded by a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Seconds later she hears two Red-Tailed Hawks and a Brown Tailed Creeper coming from the forest nearby, recognizing their calls instantly. Nightingale says she became fascinated with birds in the mid-1990s and has been hooked ever since.

“For me it was an epiphany when I discovered these birds are very flight-loyal. It changed the whole way I thought about birds. Their flight paths are not random; they are loyal to their breeding grounds, their wintering grounds and they are loyal to their migration route,” he says.

The scientific data she and other volunteers collects is on behalf of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service and Bird Studies Canada, a Canadian-based migration-monitoring network.

Since their formation in 1994, RPBOS has strived to influence and inform conservation and ecological management practises of migratory birds of western North America. To date they have catalogued over 300 species of birds at Rocky Point, and another monitoring site at nearby Pedder Bay.

From mid-September until the end of October the group also captures and bands migratory owls such as the Northern saw-whet Owl each evening after dusk.

Among the volunteers setting up mist nets is retired Royal Canadian Navy Captain Ken Beardmore who joined the RPBOS eight years ago. He is one of 150 volunteers who contribute a total of nearly 7,000 volunteer hours each year.

Beardmore says prior to joining the society he had always been a plant and animal enthusiast and was looking for something to fill up his days following his retirement. He met Nightingale during a bird walk event hosted by the RPBOS in 2012.

“I was looking for something to do after my career ended and when I met Ann on a bird walk at Pedder Bay her enthusiasm was contagious,” he says. “She became my birding mentor; she is so enthusiastic and knowledgeable and wanted to pass this on to others.”

The mist nets look like elongated badminton nets and it doesn’t take long to capture birds as they emerge from their nesting places and stretch their wings.

It is the job of Beardmore, Nightingale and the other volunteers to delicately extricate the birds and gently place them in small fabric sacks, knitted by volunteers, and take them to the banding station.

Two banders, Christian Kelly and Rick Schortinghuis, record on a laptop computer the bird’s sex, wing chord, weight, body fat composition and the location the bird was captured. Then, using a pair of bander’s plyers, they place a small, individually numbered ring-shaped metal tag on the lower leg of each bird before placing them in the palm of their hands and releasing them back into the wild.

“Everything we do follows strict standards in an effort to ensure the safety and well-being of the birds, and everyone is quite cognizant of that,” said Nightingale.

On an average day the group captures and tags 30 birds. The list of birds they tag and release includes a Swainson’s Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Goldfinch, Chestnut-back Chikadee and Western Tanagers.

While banders and volunteers capturing and recording, Beardmore sets out on a census round. The census round requires one of the volunteers to walk approximately three kilometres around a specified route on the property exactly one hour after sunrise and catalogue all the birds they observe. Beardmore found 42 species of birds on his census round. Both sets of data are key components to the data the RPBOS is collecting.

Rocky Point is one of 23 observation stations across Canada, but the DND property serves as the lone observation site in the entire Pacific Northwest. Schortinghuis marvels at how the Rocky Point Property is becoming more precious as the Greater Victoria area continues to grow.

“There is no public access here and little development on the site, so it has retained much of its natural beauty and a rare eco system,” he says.

Birds flocking to Rocky Point come from as far away as the Northwest Territories and Alaska and some will eventually end up in Central America and South America.

RPBOS are always looking for more volunteers and funding to support their efforts. For more information about membership, upcoming events and how to support them visit their website

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