Getting Up-Close and Personal with Birds

Bird observatories offer a close-up look at fall migration.

Searching for a bird in the bush? Why not try a bird in the hand.

With fall migration underway, the Yukon’s two bird-banding stations (known more properly as bird observatories) are now open for visitors and volunteers.

Essentially a small outdoor camp, the Teslin Lake Bird Observatory is operated by Ben Schonewille, and the Albert Creek Observatory, near Upper Liard, is run by Ted Muphy-Kelly.

The stations help monitor bird migrations in the southern Yukon. They also provide educational and training opportunities for students and offer tourists a unique attraction.

Using a combination of mist netting (banding), counts and observations, the goal is to estimate the total number of birds within (or passing though) a specific area during a standardized period of time.

Dozens of birds are caught each day in the fine mist nets erected for the observation times.

With nets checked every 15 minutes, the birds are tenderly removed and carefully placed in cloth bags (hundreds are are made by volunteers), which calms them. They are then carried to nearby tables, gently removed, measured, checked for gender and age, banded – and set free. It takes just minutes.

This fall, the stations will be operating until Sept. 20 with bird banders.

Jukka Jantunen (on-site at Teslin Lake) and Jillian Johnston are joining Murphy-Kelly this year at Albert Creek.

“Collectively, we have banded over 45,000 birds of 82 species at the two stations since we began operating,” says Ben Schonewille, who got hooked on birds working as a student for Murphy-Kelly under the Summer Training and Employment Program (STEP).

The Albert Creek station has been running since 2001, and the Teslin station since 2005. The Yukon Bird Club is the main sponsor, this year, with most funding provided by government and non-government organizations.

Birds large and small have found their way into brief captivity at the two outdoor stations: hawks and owls, woodpeckers as well as hordes of tiny red polls, warblers, sparrows, chickadees and swallows. Overflying ducks, swans and other birds are also recorded.

“It’s exciting … you never know what we are going to catch,” says Schonewille, who, like Murphy-Kelly, has volunteered hundreds of hours at the stations. The pair received this year’s Yukon Biodiversity Award from the Yukon Science Institute.

Where do the birds go?

After coming here to breed, nest and rear their young, they’re headed to southern Canada, the Lower 48 or maybe South America, to winter. (To date, three birds banded here have been recaptured in southern Canada and the United States.)

Climate change, loss of habitat and changing weather all play a role in the migration numbers, which for some species, such as the Olive-sided Flycatcher and the Rusty Blackbird, are declining dramatically.

Families and school groups are welcome, but if possible, giving notice is helpful to ensure there will be enough personnel at the stations to handle the visits.

The banders usually have colourful bird stickers on hand to give to children who may be too young to handle the birds themselves. All get a close-up look, though.

Who knows where there might be another young bird bander, just waiting in the wings.

Jenny Trapnell is the field trip co-ordinator for the Yukon Bird Club. For information on trips, go to or e-mail [email protected] to request a free notice of upcoming events.

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