Birders looking for ‘canary in the coal mine’ 

Keep an eye out this weekend for a group of men on the side of the highway, armed with binoculars, and leaning into the woods.

They are part of the annual Breeding Bird Survey, which has been taking place on the stretch of highway between Whistler and Pemberton Meadows for more than 25 years.

The group is following the same route and methodology they’ve followed since the beginning, every year in the first two weeks of June:

Wake up around 3 a.m. to be at the River of Golden Dreams for 4:36 a.m. Look and listen on either side of the road for a total of three minutes, take note of birds seen and heard, then drive half a mile north to the next observation post. Repeat every half mile until the group has covered a total of 25 miles to Pemberton Meadows.

The observations started before Canada turned metric so everything has to be converted to keep the methodology constant.

At the end of the survey, the results are tabulated and sent to Bird Studies Canada, where they are entered into an international database along with the results of hundreds of other surveys.

"It’s been structured to provide a database of information on birds that is for all intents and purposes the canary in the coal mine," explained Barry Janyk, Mayor of Gibsons and a veteran of the bird survey. "Birds are indicator species. They’re indicators of climate change, of habitat change, and quite often their health is related to the health of society in general.

"The information we gather on an annual basis means little. Only when you look at it in quantum, over a period of decades, does it mean anything.

"When we see numbers of a species crash, it has to make you wonder and ponder the reasons that it is occurring."

In his 30 years as a bird watcher, Janyk has seen some species decline and others disappear altogether. The early spring appearance of some species also suggests climate change, with snowpacks breaking earlier and birds leaving their wintering grounds earlier. Habitat is also being lost in wintering grounds, which explains why some species are declining while other species like crows and starlings – "we call them the garbage birds, the birds that seem to do well with development and people" – are thriving.

During the course of the survey the group will usually find between 55 to 60 species, although later thaws and weather can be a significant factor. That’s why it’s important to collect data over decades in several different areas, says Janyk.

"It’s not up to us to interpret the data, that’s for the data gatherers and eggheads at Bird Studies Canada, but you do notice things over the years," he said.

"It’s really up to us to go out with lederhosen, binoculars around our neck, at an ungodly time of morning and collect that data.

"It’s actually a very scientific method we follow, lederhosen aside."

The survey group usually consists of between four and six birders, most of whom can identify birds both visually and aurally, listening for different songs and calls. Breeding birds, including songbirds and migratory birds, are most active early in the morning.

The Whistler Naturalists sponsor the Breeding Bird Survey; putting the birders up for the night and organizing a bird walk in Pemberton to coincide with the survey.

This year The Pemberton walk will take place on Saturday, June 4 at 8 a.m., meeting at One Mile Lake. Last year about 40 people took part, and identified about 50 different species. If you’re new to birding or just curious to know more, this is a great opportunity to learn from some of the top birders in the province. Dogs are discouraged.

The survey group will join the walk when their route is completed, usually around 9 a.m.

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