Nova Scotia

Volunteers wanted for rare bird study on isolated N.S. islands

Applicants must be prepared for long hours, rustic accommodations, physical exertion and severe weather.

Applicants must be prepared for long hours, rustic accommodations, physical exertion and severe weather

David Bell works on Seal Island, where a Motus radio telemetry station is located to track birds when they leave. (Credit: Siobhan Darlington)

It could be a trip of a lifetime or your worst nightmare: being stuck on an isolated island for weeks at a time with no running water or electricity, rustic shared accommodations and potential exposure to extreme weather.

The volunteer application for a study on rare birds warns applicants of the position's challenges: "If you cannot take isolation, communal living, long hours, physical exertion, bugs, the heat, the cold, irregular supplies of fresh food, or primitive working conditions, this may not be the right job for you."

Researchers from Oxford University and Acadia University are travelling to Seal Island and Bon Portage Island to study why rare birds end up off the coast of mainland Nova Scotia and whether they make it back to their fall migration destinations.

Lucinda Zawadzki, a PhD student at Oxford, explains that since rare birds are by definition infrequent visitors, "nobody really has an understanding of why or how they get here."

University of Oxford researcher Lucinda Zawadzki holds an indigo bunting during previous field work. (Submitted by Lucinda Zawadzki)

"There is a lot of speculation around it. People think it may be weather, maybe it's a faulty internal migratory mechanism, but to date there hasn't really been much research done in this field," she said.

Zawadzki is looking for a few volunteers to help her capture rare birds on the two islands and run brief experiments on them.

The team will set up nets to catch the wayward birds and then place each one in a cage until sunset. For an hour at dusk, a camera will record the bird's movements to determine which direction the bird is pointing.

"When a bird is ready to migrate, biologically they get very antsy, for lack of a better word. So you'll see them at sunset, they want to fly in the direction they want to go in," Zawadzki said.

Indigo buntings are one of the rare birds seen on Seal Island and Bon Portage Island. (Submitted by Lucinda Zawadzki)

After being observed for one hour, the birds are released.

The camera's recordings will be analyzed later to determine which direction the bird wanted to fly.

"If it's a different migratory direction from the normal population, then maybe there's something genetic or some other mechanism going on that we need to look into," Zawadzki said.

She hopes to catch about 25 birds on each of the two islands over the course of the study, which runs from Aug. 1 to Nov. 1. Some rare birds spotted in the past include yellow-billed cuckoos and indigo buntings.

David Bell, a master's student in the biology department at Acadia University, uses radio transmitters to track rare birds once they leave Nova Scotia. (Danae Mouton)

David Bell, a master's student in biology at Acadia, has been conducting field work on the islands for about three years, attaching tiny radio transmitters to the birds to figure out where they go after they leave.

He said some indigo buntings are detected heading in the right direction, while others continue to fly in the wrong direction.

Yellow-billed cuckoos were a bit of a mystery because they disappeared off Bell's radar after they left the islands. But last year, the network of transmitter towers was expanded to Barbados and one picked up a signal.

"One bird flew directly from Bon Portage to Barbados in two and a half days," Bell said. "That was pretty exciting."

The summer tanager is one of the rare birds spotted off the coast of southwestern Nova Scotia. (David Bell)

While this will be Zawadzki's first visit to the islands, Bell is already well versed in their charms.

"I really enjoy it out there. I love it," he said.

Seal Island is about 25 kilometres offshore, or a two- to three-hour boat trip from Shag Harbour, while Bon Portage is about three kilometres from shore. Volunteers on Seal Island can expect to return to the mainland about once a month and those on Bon Portage may go every two weeks or so.

Since there are some vacation homes in the area, locals or passing fishermen can drop off groceries, but if weather gets in the way, supplies can run low, Bell said. 

"By the end of the two weeks, you're sort of down to just canned food and rice and flour and stuff. There's not really any vegetables left."

Last year, the remnants of Hurricane Maria brought a magnificent frigatebird to Seal Island. (David Bell)

Weather can range from about 25 C in August to below 0 C in October.

The research overlaps with hurricane season, but Bell said he hasn't experienced one on the islands yet — "unfortunately," he added.

Last year, the remnants of Hurricane Maria brought a magnificent frigatebird to Seal Island.

"I was quite hoping the last few years to have a hurricane hit because they usually bring a lot of rare birds with them," he said. "As long as it's nothing too serious. You know, like a Category 1 or a strong tropical storm would be nice, but anything stronger than that would be a little scary."

Zawadzki said she wants volunteers to commit for at least one month. The deadline to apply to volunteer with the study is July 7.

About the Author

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at