An owl banding program in the West Chilcotin will be extending its wing span thanks to funding from the Cariboo Regional District.
For several years, young Northern saw-whet owls have been banded at the Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory (TLBO).
“We normally just did the banding during the last three weeks of September, which is when our normal daytime banding season ends in the past, but because the owls are late migrants they almost certainly peak in early October so now that we are a little more financially secure we decided to see if we could get this funding to go longer,” said the program’s lead bander Avery Bartels.
It will be a pilot project to see if it is reasonable to make it part of the standard banding program to go until mid-October.
Owl populations are four-year cycles in sync with the small rodent populations, which are their main diet.
“We will usually get a big year and the next year will be half or less,” Bartels said. “We are a low-volume station and typically band only about 10 to 12 nights in a given season. The biggest year we caught 60 and we’ve had it as low as seven owls in a whole season.”
Northern saw-whet owls breed as far north as the southern Yukon, but the majority of the ones arriving at the TLBO are from the Chilcotin region.
Bartels said they know for sure that some of them are going out to the coast.
“We’ve had four recoveries of birds banded at Tatlayoko that were recaptured in Victoria at Rocky Point Bird Observatory.”
There have also been a few recoveries on Vancouver Island with owls that were brought into rehab centres. As well, one of the TLBO saw-whet owl bands was found in a larger owl pellet in Eastern Washington State.
From their own banding data, the oldest Northern saw-whet owl he has seen is about nine years and five months old.
The ones they catch and band are usually hatched that summer.
To catch them, Bartels and his assistant Sachi Dell set up mist nets that are 12 metres long by two metres high.
“The birds hit the net and fall into a pocket.”
Each owl is different when it comes to whether they are feisty or not.
“They are variable in their moods. You will get some that are really relaxed and chill and you just take them out and they are fine. Other times you get ones that are always trying to get you with their claws or their beak. It really varies.”
At eight inches tall they are not very big.
In the fall, the Tatlayoko Valley will also be getting a Motus Wildlife Tracking Tower installed that will supply data for international collaborative research. It will be the first one in the entire Chilcotin.
Bartels said they also received funding from the Public Conservation Assistance Fund to purchase some Motus tags they will deploy them on the saw-whet owls which will help them understand where they are going.
“There’s a pretty good array now of these receiving stations in B.C. Quite a few have been set up on Southern Vancouver Island, up the Georgia Strait side of the Island, in the Lower Mainland and between the Lower Mainland and Kamloops, and right along the border from the Kootenays and into the Similkameen.”
The tag range is anywhere from 15 kilometres to 40 kilometres if there is a clear line of sight.
Tags are attached with two little stretchy strings that go under the owl’s legs. The tags then sit on the owl’s back between its wings like a little backpack.
Data is collected on site with a basic computer that is detecting as the birds fly past.
If the Motus tower is connected to wireless the data goes to the centralized data base right off the bat.
“If it is remote, like ours will be as it will be up on Skinner Ridge above the valley, it will mean someone will have to go up there with a USB stick every month or two months to download the data and then upload it on the Motus website.”
Bartels hopes the Motus network will be expanded and they can attract more projects in the next couple of years with researchers from universities around B.C. or elsewhere.
The banding station is located on Nature Conservancy of Canada property about 700 metres north of Tatlayoko Lake as the crow flies.
Peter Shaughnessy, committee chair of the Tatlayoko Field Station, said the banding began initially in 2006 to see if the Tatlayoko Valley was an important migratory route for the owls.
When captured, the owls are weighed, measured, sex determined, and observed for any characteristics.
“All the data from the banding project is entered into a massive national data base called the Canadian Migratory Monitoring Network,” Shaughnessy said. “That is a data base of all the banding stations all across Canada and it’s available for scientists to do research on. This is pretty critical, as you can imagine, with climate change.”
Shaughnessy said members of the public can assist and often there are families at the observatory.
“When the observatory is open, there are school children there, it’s so cool to see.”
Bartels grew up in Taghum, B.C, near Nelson and was always interested in birds.
“We lived on the lake and had eight acres of forest.”
Straight out of high school he travelled and then began doing volunteer work at bird observatories and gained experience doing banding.
“I eased my way into doing birding-related work, doing summertime consulting work doing nest surveys, and then I started guiding tours in Colombia. I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades at the moment in terms of birding-related work.”
He became involved with the TLBO through Steve Ogle who was the one who set it up in the beginning.
Bartels and Dell will arrive in the valley on July 31 to begin getting ready for the banding season on Aug. 3 by setting up the nets and trimming the trails.
Fritz Mueller, chair of the TLBO society praised the efforts of Bartels.
“Avery’s enthusiasm and energy are essential to the program’s success. There’s no way it would be happening without him. He knows birds,” Mueller said.
Bartels has been living in Amsterdam the last four years with his partner who is finishing her PhD there.