At 6 a.m., Acacia Spencer-Hills is out and about, walking through the forest near Pedder Bay Marina in Metchosin.
She’s among a group of volunteers checking 15 nets every half hour set up in the area to catch birds. With each check, Spencer-Hills never knows what she’ll find.
“It’s kind of exciting. Every time you go it’s different. Sometimes you’ll walk up to a net and there’s seven birds in it,” said the 28-year-old. “It’s like opening a present almost. You get to see a lot of different birds.”
For the last 26 years, the Rocky Point Bird Observatory (RPBO) – made up of several volunteers from Victoria – has been capturing and banding birds to track their migrations and learn more about various species.
Two monitoring sites in the Pedder Bay area cover an area of about nine square kilometres. The locations have allowed RPBO to monitor more than 60 different species of birds.
The banders catch approximately 3,000 birds at each station every year. The next few weeks are expected to be the busiest as birds get ready to head south for the winter.
“It’s basically a precursor to any sort of study that you want to do,” said Spencer-Hills. “It’s interesting to see the variations in individual birds. You’ll get two fox sparrows, but their face will look different or they’ll have a different eye colour. It’s pretty fascinating.”
Once the birds are carefully removed from the net, they are taken to one of the two central banding stations where their age, sex, species, wing length and fat deposits are recorded.
At the banding station, Rebecca Clarke-Coates never knows what she’ll find when she reaches into a cloth bag with a bird inside.
“I like to guess, based on the size,” she says, pulling out an orange-crowned warbler. Lying still on its back, Clarke-Coates places a tiny band on the bird’s leg and measures the size of its wing.
“The warblers are very calm. They don’t struggle. It’s nice,” she says.
The group tries to capture banded birds later to determine how well they’re doing. The data is shared with conservation organizations, students and researchers.
One of the most interesting things for Rick Schortinghuis is learning how long the birds live. On one occasion, a rufous hummingbird was captured eight years after it was banded.
“That’s very exciting,” said Schortinghuis. “They go back and forth to Mexico every winter so it comes back to the same house it was banded at.”
In order to find out where some birds breed, RPBO conducted a study two years ago with fox sparrows, placing 30 geo locators the size of a nickel in a little backpack over the bird’s wings to measure longitude.
The group recaptured 10 of those birds and found they were breeding in western Alaska.
In a regular season, RPBO typically sees three to four species that are rare for the region, such as the grey cheeked thrush found last year – the first the group has ever recorded. This year the group caught a magnolia warbler that managed to fly over the Rocky Mountains even though they weigh 11 to 12 grams.
“Having them in your hand is much more interesting than seeing them in the field. I found that saying – a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush is completely true,” said Spencer-Hills. “You see things with them that you’d never see perching in a tree.”
The passerine migration monitoring and banding takes place until Oct. 15. The banding of northern saw-whet owls runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 31. Last season, more than 1,110 owls were banded.
RPBO is volunteer run and almost entirely volunteer staffed. Anyone interested in volunteering can email firstname.lastname@example.org.