On watch: Migratory sea birds at Point Lepreau
May 14 2015, 07:00 AM
The white-silver kitchen timer beeps; break is over.
Jim Wilson and Gail Taylor monitor the washed-out grey sky for dark spotted lines or V-shaped rows through their binoculars. Jim and Gail are members of the Saint John Naturalists’ Club, a non-profit group that has been sending volunteers to count migrating birds at the Point Lepreau Generating Station for 20 years.
The club chose to build the observatory at Point Lepreau, because of how much further it reaches out to the water than other areas along the southern New Brunswick shore. NB Power has worked closely with the club over the past 20 years to make sure they have safe access to the observatory, which falls on the Station’s property.
“Our relationship with NB Power has been wonderful,” Jim says.
NB Power adheres to an Avian Protection Plan and works closely with the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources to protect and conserve various species of migratory birds- from these sea birds to ospreys- around NB Power facilities during their nesting seasons.
More than just bird watching
When the club decided to build their observatory, information about the species and numbers of sea birds migrating along the southern New Brunswick shore was limited. Now they send the information they collect on these birds to Canadian Wildlife Service – a part of Environment Canada.
The collected data of the past 20 years indicates a 3-4% decline in the number of birds, Jim says. Heavy metals from industrial waste or even small oil spills in Northern Canada are hard to measure, but will have their toll on a bird population over time. A large spill before the New Brunswick coasts could stay for weeks in the bay with the way the water flows and could have devastating effects if it happens at the peak time of migration.
The Canadian Wildlife Services also supports the Saint John Naturalists with recording materials and funding to hire an experienced bird counter for six out of the eight weeks they are counting - starting at sunrise until 10 a.m.
The hired counter guides volunteers in identifying the birds by their body shapes, colours, flight patterns and cadence (the rhythm of how fast their wings move.) Typically the males show off their bright colours, says Jim, while the females have patchy brown feathers that act like a camouflage when they are incubating eggs.
Keeping up with the birds
In intervals of 15 min counting and 15 min break, Jim and Gail spend their morning in the toasty hut while the tide waves roar toward the rocky shore.
“Here, we go, some Scoters are coming,” says Gail and both binoculars turn to the right. First a group of 40 birds fly past the post out front that serves as a mark. Then 50 more, 60, 100. Within two minutes, the number reaches 450 birds. Jim and Gail count by tens to keep up with the constant flow of birds. Then the kitchen timer bleeps. When time is up, all birds that haven’t passed the post aren’t recorded, no matter if it’s a dozen or a hundred. For bird lovers like Gail and Jim, it’s hard to let those pass.
“You never know what’s going to fly by,” says Jim, always hoping for a King Eider, a highly arctic bird that rarely comes down to the New Brunswick shores.
Then he grabs his binoculars as another flock of birds fly by.
See more photos on NB Power's Flickr page