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Solar powers gives McGill Bird Observatory a boost

The McGill Bird Observatory has been outfitted with new equipment that makes it easier to study the thousands of songbirds, raptors and waterfowl that fly over the western tip of Montreal Island every year, providing invaluable data to wildlife biologists on bird migration patterns, breeding patterns, even bird-borne diseases.

Last week, solar panels were installed on the roof of the centre’s observatory, a small cabin nestled in the protective woods of Stoneycroft Wildlife Research Area, a 22-hectare parcel of land owned by McGill and adjacent to the Morgan Arboretum.

The new solar energy system — a $4,000-gift from TD Friends of the Environment — will enable the centre to run electric lights and an electronic scale, now being powered by a less reliable battery source, said Gay Gruner, the observatory’s director.

“It is brilliant in more ways than one,” said Gruner while leading an impromptu tour of the facility late last week. “This solar energy system is going to change things for us.”

More  than 40,000 birds from 112 different species have been banded at the centre. This fall, 90 new volunteers – university and CEGEP students, birders, naturalists and retirees – were trained as banders, observers and in other duties, bringing the centre’s total to close to 300.

The work will now continue with renewed vigour, Gruner said.

In addition to the centre’s summer-banding program, which involves 16 nets set up along a 1.2 kilometre through the MBO property and walked daily, she said, the centre operates a more-limited winter banding program, which kicked off October 31.

That banding program, which involves five nets set up around an audio lure — last week, a recording of a flock of noisy house finch playing from an outdoor squawk box — focuses on some of Montreal’s year-round resident birds, the house finch and also the Northern saw-whet owl.

Last winter, for example, Gruner said, 80 house finch were captured in the outdoor nets and brought back to the cabin in cotton flannel bags so that they could be weighed and banding if not already banded. In the pre-dawn hours in mid-winter, however, she said, it was hard see the feather details that indicate an individual bird’s age, species and sex.

Lights will make all the difference, said Gruner, a former elementary school teacher at École St. Patrick in Pincourt who turned her long-time birding passion into a second career after she retired from the classroom in 2004. In 2008, she became an accredited bird bander under the Canadian Wildlife Services.

In the next two years, Gruner said, she is hoping she and other MBo team members will be able to do presentations in elementary schools and, then, follow up with classrom visits to the observatory.

“On the weekend, a 10-year-old boy was here and you should have seen his eyes light up when he got close to the birds,” said Gruner.

Right now, though, the centre receives no funding from McGill, only the use of the land in exchange for teaching fieldwork techniques to the university’s students, including those studying ornithology, she said.

“We will have to raise funds,” she said.

While Gruner spoke Simon Duval, the centre’s chief bander was working with a house finch collected from the nets outside. After he had weighed the bird in an empty toilet paper roll set atop the scale, he used small pliers to fasten a band with an identification code — 8U — on the bird’s tiny foot. Then, he took the bird outside and, let him fly off the palm of his hand.

“He’s ready to go,” Duval said, unwittingly illustrating how the centre could take off as a public education centre.

ccornacchia@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: @cornacchiaGAZ

2 comments

  1. By Marie-Anne Hudson

    While this article is a welcome one due to its subject matter (nature) and the efforts of our local naturalists (an often undervalued sector of society), I am very disappointed to see major errors throughout the text. Granted some of them are ones that only banders would pick up on, and the author is not a bander, but this could have been prevented had the author checked her facts with her subjects before going to press. Some of the more egregious ones include “daily walks around the nets”. No, this is done every 20-40 minutes depending on the temperature and wind. Saw-whet Owls are not residents, they are migrants. Birds are not banded pre-dawn in the winter; rather, banders wait until mid-morning when it is warm enough to ensure the birds are safer being banded. I could go on. A 5-minute check with the banders who were interviewed would have prevented these errors.

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