By Richard McGuire
A little bird, a common yellow throat, is caught in a fine net that’s hard to see unless you’re looking right at it.
Janine McManus, deftly untangles the little bird. These ones are especially difficult to remove from the nets because their wings are so short, she said, as visitors aimed their phones to photograph it.
McManus has been working as the assistant bander during the fall bird migration at the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory north of Oliver.
It was a busy Sunday morning in late September as crowds of bird lovers turned out for a third annual open house to mark Bird Migration Day.
The observatory is open to visitors every day, explained Doug Brown, bander in charge.
But this event was especially busy because it was promoted and there were extra exhibits and people to help out.
The observatory operates between Aug. 1 and Oct. 15, the prime migration time for many small birds making their way south for the winter.
Brown and McManus catch birds in nets strung between poles, examine them, weigh them, put a band on their legs, record the information and then release them.
“Right now we are catching a lot of orange crowned warblers and Lincoln’s sparrows,” said Brown, who became a serious birder at the age of 10. “Those are the two big ones right now.”
But they’ve also caught song sparrows, Wilson’s warblers and common yellow throats, like the one McManus removed from the net.
Then there was the day Brown surprised McManus, giving her a bag and warning her the bird inside might bite.
It turned out to be a larger belted kingfisher.
“I had no idea that he had caught one in the net and he was keeping it a surprise because it was so exciting,” said McManus. “They are big birds with long beaks that are spearing fish and dive underwater to catch fish. It was so different from the songbirds that we’re catching most of the time.”
Where do the birds come from and where are they going as they fly down the Okanagan Valley and pause in the wetlands above Vaseux Lake?
Brown doesn’t have a simple answer.
“Every species is different,” he says. “Some go all the way to South America. Some of them just go down to the southern states and some, like the song sparrows, remain here.”
He’s not entirely sure where they spend their summers, adding that’s one of the mysteries that banding helps to uncover.
Most likely they go to central B.C., he said.
Aside from learning about migration routes, the banding program also provides insights into how successful birds are at breeding.
“Because we are able to age and sex the birds, we find out what the percentages of young and adults are,” he said. “So we can tell how successful they were at nesting.”
Inside the banding station, Brown examines a Lincoln’s sparrow. It already has a band and the number indicates it was just caught in a net earlier that morning. It is simply released.
Brown tells of one bird caught in a previous year that was released only to fly into another net. It kept flying into nets each time it was released – about five times in all.
“It was just not a smart bird,” Brown chuckles.
Most of the birds are just anxious to fly away once they have been examined and banded.
After recording an orange crowned warbler’s information, Brown drops it into a tube leading out of the little banding station trailer.
In a fraction of a second, the little bird flies away and is gone.