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Bird's eye view

BC Breeding Bird Atlas

A fallen tree stood between birdwatcher Heather Baines and the pile of bumpy rocks that was supposed to be a backcountry road.

Baines, who is a retired physician, was driving up the deactivated forest service road hoping to access the Gold Bridge area north of Pemberton, BC. Her mission: to survey the region for the BC Breeding Bird Atlas, a project that, for the first time, is gathering comprehensive, province-wide data about which places in BC are most vital to our feathered friends.

Her red Ford pick-up bore the war wounds of many 20-point turns on narrow backcountry roads like this one. It was red for a reason – she wanted to be as visible as possible from the air if she were to break down in a place like this.

She stepped down from the truck to survey the situation. After pausing for a moment, she turned back to the truck. This situation called for a portable chainsaw, one of many helpful gadgets she happened to have in the back of her truck, just in case.

She rolled the tree to the side of the road and continued on, but didn’t get far. A few more kilometres along there was an avalanche on the road down to the lake, and that was that.

She planned to try again, but the forest fires and the electrical storms conspired against her, and she never did get up to Gold Bridge last summer. But Baines, who volunteers as the Regional Coordinator for the Pemberton area, managed to log over 400 hours of birding in 2009, and still has three more summers left of the project to explore the area.

This type of birding is more extreme than most, and it’s done with a purpose. Over 950 birdwatchers across the province are coming together in an effort to survey the nooks and crannies of BC, the high mountains and forgotten valleys, places few people ever get to see.

Thanks in part to a $50,000 grant from Vancouver Foundation donors to Bird Studies Canada (the non-profit organization leading this project), the online database is well underway, and is already being used in conservation planning decisions – as a record of what we have, and what we have lost. Peter Davidson, the BC Program Manager for Bird Studies Canada, says the data are a veritable gold mine for governments and consultants when it comes to making informed conservation decisions.

To understand the massiveness of this five-year undertaking, imagine BC as a province of 10,000 ten-kilometre squares – roughly 950,000 square kilometers in total. The BC Breeding Bird Atlas plans to survey as many of these squares as possible from 2008 to 2012.

“So many land use decisions now are made with rather limited data,” says Dick Cannings, a biologist who hosts the CBC’s BC Almanac birding segments, and also works on the project as the South Okanagan Regional Coordinator. “We’re messing with the environment in many ways. Birds are the proverbial canary in the coal mine – surrogates for the rest of the world, because we know a lot more about birds than we know about other animals, particularly mice and things like that.”

Cannings found this project has pushed him into new territory, on a great big birding adventure. He has been involved in surveying 80 squares and done several hundred point-counts, by going to a particular geographic location and just noting the birds that are singing (he can identify birds by their song).

So can Project Coordinator Christopher Di Corrado, who had the opportunity to do 24-hour birding along the Chilkat pass near the Yukon border, as well as outreach and birding workshops in northern communities like Atlin, BC.

While driving with the windows open, Di Corrado heard the song of the bay-breasted warbler, which sounds a bit like a high-pitched squeaky wheel (a well-tuned ear can tell the difference). It was an amazing sound because the bird is on the BC government’s Red List of endangered and threatened species, and according to Di Corrado, is generally an “east-of-the-Rockies species.”

Later, he was camping in the Chilkat pass at 11:30 p.m. and the birds were still singing. A pair of Northern shrikes were chasing a grey-cheeked thrush for a midnight snack. He’d never seen that species before.

“At midnight it starts to get darkish and there were some ptarmigans that started clucking – I was lying there thinking this could be kind of scary – they sounded like gremlins.”

Baines, who can also identify most birds by sound, brings her iPod Touch complete with an online bird guide and song reference, a recorder to capture a song in case she doesn’t know it, a camera, her binoculars, and often her Cardigan corgi, a tiny dog with a large bark that helps her avoid bears.

She says many birds are changing where they go, and their numbers are decreasing – for example flycatchers – so it’s really important to document all this so we can understand what we are doing wrong.

“If we change the world so much that something can’t live here, we’re changing it for us too,” she says.

But the seriousness of the undertaking doesn’t mean she can’t birdwatch in style sometimes.

“I was at Meager Creek lolling around in the hot springs, working hard trying to find band-tailed pigeons, and surprisingly I wasn’t finding any. A forest service guy came and told me to get out of there quickly. I had noticed when I got in that Capricorn Creek did look very brown. He said there was a mudslide coming down and we had better get out of the area or we were going to be stranded. So I did.” Just another day in the life of a dedicated birder. 

For more information on the BC Breeding Bird Atlas project, visit www.birdatlas.bc.ca

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