Volunteering for Migration Monitoring at CHRS

Field Notes            (October 2009)

Rod Steinacher

The core activities of scientific research are mostly completed by professional scientists.  Whether it is the biologists at our national parks or the ornithologist at the Cabot Head Research Station (CHRS), they are the ones with the training and experience and are the most familiar with the processes involved in doing good science.  Research can, however, be a very involved and time consuming endevour, so scientists often rely on volunteers to provide some of the much needed labour to gather data and help complete projects.

At Cabot Head, the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory (BPBO) monitors the populations of passerines, or small “perching” birds, as they head north to breed in the spring (mid-April to mid-June) and again in the fall (mid-August to the end of October) as they head south, along with the young birds born that year.  This spring, 155 species of birds were detected at CHRS, with about 2,000 individuals of 75 species actually being banded during the very wet and cold monitoring period.  Typically 1,500 to 2,000 migrants are banded during the fall monitoring period and 125 to 150 species are detected.  We will have to wait until November to see what the actual number turn out to be.  The data will be added to BPBO’s website archives at that time.  The migration monitoring information that is obtained is then submitted to the Canadian Wildlife Service and finds its way to scientists, academics, and politicians involved in making resource management decisions.

During BPBO’s Open House in early September, members of the public had a first hand chance to see how monitoring bird migration works.  No one ever seems to forget the thrill of seeing birds up that close for the first (or even the tenth) time!  Migration monitoring is obviously a labour intensive process, involving opening the capture nets half an hour before sunrise and closing them six hours later.  Net rounds every half hour and the banding and gathering of data for each captured bird takes up almost every available moment during that time.  With fifteen open nets to manage and the potential for up to 200 birds to be banded in that six hours, as well as a one hour census route that must be completed every day, this is definitely not a one person show!  The only way an organization like BPBO can carry out an effective migration monitoring program is to utilize volunteers at the Cabot Head Research Station.  Volunteers have come to work at the CHRS from as close as Lions Head and Tobermory and from as far away as Europe, New Zealand, and South Africa.  Stays at the station are typically three weeks to two months, although several local people have found ways to help out for a few days at a time.

CHRS volunteer Glenn Reed (left) records data on birds being banded by station scientist Dr. Stéphane Menu in BPBO’s new banding lab. – photo, Rod Steinacher

At the time of writing, two volunteers were assisting at CHRS.  Matthias Weissensteiner, a 22 year old from Gräz, Austria found out about the program at Cabot Head through an internet search and spent five weeks volunteering at CHRS.  Matthais spent a month bird banding in Azerbaijan (Asia) last year and has been involved in several birding projects in Austria since then.  He is currently working towards a degree in behavioural biology and his work at CHRS will support the ornithological component of his studies.  Glen Reed, a Canadian ex-serviceman and Bosnian peacekeeper, hails from Richmond Hill here in Ontario. He is spending the entire fall at CHRS, having already volunteered for part of the spring migration season this year as well.  Glen has had a life-long interest in nature, especially studying birds and snakes.  He hopes to get his bird banding license in the future and would like to obtain a science degree at some point.

A quick internet search will turn up a wide variety of options that exist for people interested in participating in science or nature projects as volunteers.  Apart from CHRS locally, other organizations in Ontario are constantly looking for volunteer help.  Bird Studies Canada (BSC) offers several projects centered around bird watching, including Project Feeder Watch. This is a survey of North American birds that visit backyard feeders in winter and involves nearly 16,000 participants annually, with their observations then used by scientists to track broad scale trends in distribution and abundance of birds. BSC also looks for people to be involved in monitoring loons and owls and administers the Marsh Monitoring Program.  Environment Canada seeks out volunteers to assist with its Citizen Science programs, which include monitoring local conditions for air, water, land, flora and fauna.

It is important for interested people to become involved in science research in our area. Contributions add greatly to the knowledge base about our local habitat and there is something for almost everyone’s skill levels.  Check out some of the local possibilities (some URLs are listed below) and participate, if you can.

BPBO volunteering: http://bpbo.ca/volunteer.html

BPBO publications and reports: http://bpbo.ca/publications.html

Project FeederWatch:


Bird Studies Canada programs: http://www.bsc-eoc.org/mmptell.html

Environment Canada volunteering:


General links list: http://magickcanoe.com/blog/citizen-science/