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Pelee Island's bird banding season sees unusual dip, but expert says no need to 'raise alarms' yet

Alessandra Wilcox landed a young bird bander's dream job at Pelee Island Bird Observatory this year, but she ended up banding fewer birds than expected.

'It shocked me a little bit,' says bird bander of this year's banding numbers

Alessandra Wilcox, 20, is a fourth year University of Guelph wildlife biology and conservation student. Nearly every weekend for the last six years she's volunteered to band birds. This year, she landed her first job in the field on Pelee Island. (Submitted by Hannah Mittelstaedt)

Alessandra Wilcox landed a young bird bander's dream job at the Pelee Island Bird Observatory this year, but she ended up banding significantly fewer birds than expected. 

Pelee Island Bird Observatory (PIBO) is known to have hundreds of different bird species pass through. So when Wilcox was hired as a field research assistant, her first field job since she started banding six years ago, she was thrilled. 

"Oh my God when I first figured out I was coming [to Pelee Island] for the summer I was like, 'this is what I want to be doing, this is what I want to get into,'" said Wilcox, who is a fourth-year wildlife biology and conservation student at the University of Guelph. 

But instead of interacting with all of the different birds that migrate to the island, Wilcox said this year saw an unusual dip. 

Typically, the station bands between 600 and 700 birds. But this time around, it was half that. 

"It shocked me a little bit," Wilcox said. "Two years ago they had gotten 170 birds in one day ... our top bird day this year was maybe like 40." 

And it's not just Wilcox who thinks this year's migration season on Pelee Island is a bit odd. 

In a summary for the PIBO, her supervisor, Sumiko Onishi, wrote, "it was the quietest banding season which I had experienced in the past 15 years." 

PIBO was also one of about 15 observatories across Canada that did little to no recording of migratory bird species in 2020 due to COVID-19, according to national bird conservation organization Birds Canada.

This means all that PIBO has to compare these recent numbers to is data from two years ago. 

'Haven't lost half our birds over night'

There's a number of hypotheses as to why the numbers were low, but Wilcox said they'll know more information in the fall when the birds make their way back.

Some guesses as to what happened include, bad weather during peak migration, which may have pushed the birds' usual route, species saw significant population decline or a number died along the migration route, Wilcox said. 

But according to Stu Mackenzie, director of migration ecology at Birds Canada, this drop isn't concerning — at least not yet. 

Stu Mackenzie, director of migration ecology at Birds Canada, says it's not uncommon for the banding numbers to fluctuate. He says the dip isn't concerning unless it's a pattern observed over the next few years. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

"We haven't lost half our birds over night," said Mackenzie, adding that the numbers can fluctuate based on many factors. 

"We kind of need to reaffirm bad conditions a couple of times before we can be certain that it's actually what's going on. I know some stations had poor migration this year, now whether that's actually tied to populations or whether it's tied to weather is difficult for us to tell."

Mackenzie operates out of the Long Point Bird Observatory, located at Port Rowan, Ont., and said its numbers were also lower than average. 

In order for him to "raise alarms" over this though, Mackenzie said they would need to see this trend over the next couple of years. 

Day in the life of a bird bander

Despite the fact that Wilcox banded fewer birds, she said she was just happy to get to do what she loves most — though it meant sacrificing good Internet access and any hope of sleeping in. 

Around 5 a.m. every day in April and May, Wilcox woke up and headed in to the station — a wooden structure that was close by to 10, nine-metre long nets that would catch the birds. 

WATCH: Wilcox talks about her job and getting up close with the yellow-breasted chat

Bird bander on Pelee Island talks about her job

1 year ago
Duration 1:22
Alessandra Wilcox describes her role at the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. She also talks about the day she caught a yellow-breasted chat.

Every 30 minutes, she would check the pockets that the birds would fall into and bring any that were retrieved back to the station for banding. 

The catch: she uses her bare hands to hold and observe the birds. Some of them may nibble, but Wilcox says it's an "occupational hazard" she's willing to deal with in exchange for the extravagant birds she gets to come across. 

Her favourite bird of them all is the yellow-breasted chat — a rarity to come across in this area, especially because it's an at-risk species, according to Wilcox. 

"These birds are notorious for being super secretive, super sulky, they're so hard to find, their nests are even harder to find ... they're such wacky birds, they make the weirdest sounds," she said, adding that she was doing her usual net round when she saw one had been caught.

"I'm like 'oh my God, this is the second time I've ever seen this bird and now I get to hold it in my hands and just experience it's close up behaviour, look at all its details," she said. "That was just like a surreal moment for me." 

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