Photo by Dick Cannings
South Okanagan Nature Photo by Dick Cannings Black capped vireo 2
Normally found no further north than central Texas, this Black-capped vireo showed up at Vaseux lake in 2008.

Observatory keeping an eye on bird populations

Most South Okangan residents are aware of the Observatory at White Lake which uses radio waves to study distant objects in the sky. Few however are aware of another observatory which operates in our area studying very close objects in the sky – the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory. This “observatory”, a member of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network, operates only for 8-10 weeks of the year during the fall migration season. This network of 25 observatories (5 in BC) stretches across Canada from BC to Nova Scotia with the purpose of “painting the "big picture" of what bird populations are doing across the northern half of North America”.

While some of these observatories are permanent research stations manned year around by paid scientists, most, including our Vaseux Lake observatory, are temporary tent and trailer structures manned mainly by volunteer “citizen scientists”. But each performs the same basic function – monitoring the migratory bird populations of Canada. Without understanding what is happening to bird populations, it is hard to know whether our conservation efforts are being successful. We also need to concentrate our limited financial and management resources on those species most in need. The Canadian Migration Monitoring Network is one of three major bird census studies undertaken each year. In winter we have the Christmas Bird Count which has been going on for about a century, in summer we have the Breeding Bird Atlas which counts birds on their breeding sites and in the fall, we have the migration monitoring.

Each station undertakes their studies in an identical manner following a procedure laid out in a detailed document. Birds are captured in very fine nets called mist nets; they are then weighed and otherwise documented as to age, sex, amount of body fat (important for birds flying hundreds or thousands of miles), etc. They are then banded with specific bands that will enable other researchers who might catch them elsewhere (such as in Mexico or Costa Rica) to determine where and when they were previously caught.

As one might expect, most of the birds captured are species that are locally expected; some live here year round while others return to the Okanagan or pass through year after year. However, every now and then a real surprise turns up – a bird that is so rare that if it hadn’t been netted, few would believe it had been here. In the late summer of 2008 one of the nearly 1300 birds captured that year turned out to be a Black-capped Vireo. This bird normally lives only in a small part of central Texas and into Mexico. It had never been seen within 1000 miles of the Okanagan. What happened last year – was it blown off course in a hurricane? We can only speculate but it is such rarities as this that keep birders going back time after time to the same places. You just never know what you’ll see.

The Vaseux Lake Observatory is primarily funded by The Canadian Wildlife Service, The Okanagan –Similkameen Conservation Alliance (OSCA) and the Oliver Kiwanis Club. The BC Field Ornithologists, the Oliver-Osoyoos Naturalists’ Club and The South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club also provide some funding. With the exception of the Bander-in-charge, all “staff” are volunteers.

The observatory operates until noon every day from Aug 1 to September 30 and the public is welcome to come in and observe birds being captured and banded. Dogs are not allowed on site and it is strictly prohibited to touch the nets or birds caught in the nets. The observatory is located approximately 1 km north of the Vaseux Lake wildlife viewing area on the west side of the highway.
Nature Wise