Education & Research Projects
Saw whet? An Owl!
The Hilliardton Marsh Owl Banding Experience
Greetings creatures of the night especially those who are hoping to see an owl being banded. Our owl banding season for public viewing starts on the 2nd Wednesday of September, so for 2018 out first night will be Wednesday Sept 12th and will run until the Wednesday after Thanksgiving.
We are open to the public for DROP-IN visits on Wednesday nights from 8pm-11pm IT might mean giving the kids
a day off from school on Thursday morning but the experience will be worth it. We will also be planning Thanksgiving weekend Owl Events, (Watch for promotions on our Facebook page! ) but be warned these are very crowded visits!
If you prefer a weekend or a more intimate visit, this year we are booking private owl nights. Owl banding has become so popular that our public nights have been quite crowded and busy. It has been suggested that booking an evening with 30 of your closest friends makes for a more valuable evening. So this year we are doing just that! During your visit, you can expect to see owls up close, learn about what owls eat by dissecting owl pellets, and generally enjoy a social evening with our knowledgeable researchers! For those who have never been owl banding but have seen us banding songbirds in the spring, owl banding is a very different process than banding songbirds and each migration is unique.
If you would like to learn more about booking a private owl night please
The owl migration usually peaks around the end of September but our owl numbers really depend on how successful the nesting season was which really means how plentiful mice and voles were for the adult owls to feed their young. Early reports from banders that maintain nest boxes where they band the owlets in the boxes suggest this could be a good migration. At the peak of the season, we optimistically expect 20-30 owls on a good night, and on a slow night you can expect 2 or 3 for the evening. The worst nights are warm nights. If you arrive for owl banding and see we have a nice fire going in our wood stove you know we will be having a decent night. Friends have tried to explain to me that like many migrants they prefer to fly when the air is cooler as it gives the birds something more to push against when they are flying. Cold fronts are the gas that drives the migration, warm air makes flying inefficient so the owls choose not to move and bide their time waiting for another front.
As soon as it is dark we start getting the nets up we have nets in three discrete locations. Each location has 7 nets so it takes quite a while to get all of the nets set up ready to catch owls. Our first net check is somewhere around 9 pm just in time for our human visitors to start arriving to see how we band owls. The owls are much different from songbirds to take out of the net because of their relatively long wings, large heads and talons. While not too sharp, the talons are still painful when they grab your finger or palm. Their talons and beaks often get the attention of volunteers and when we are taking owls out of the net there sometimes is the occasional cry uttered when an owl hits a nerve.
To see what a typical owl banding night is like, check out these Youtube videos...
Having experience taking out song birds is pretty critical as owls are quite a challenge. It took me about 5 years before I really began to feel confident in taking out owls. I can recall the first season having to cut the nets many times to get an owl out safely. We started without anyone training us so now I can pass along what I have learned. Lessons for tired volunteers by headlamp usually go very well. Actually my experience is when sleep deprivation kicks in volunteers tend to get silly and giddy so we try to keep things pretty light hearted. The welfare of the birds always comes first and I always tell volunteers that there is only room in the nets for birds and not ego’s
Surprisingly the Northern Saw-whet owl is the most common species caught at the Marsh, with just under 6000 banded to date. The average amount of Northern Saw-whets caught each year is 400, but in 2007, 1,020 owls were banded. There were lots of sleepless nights that year! With a bit of luck we will be able to reach our 6000th sawwhet banded this year. That would be cause for celebration. We started banding owls in 2000 and we were hoping to catch 60 a season so this has been such a wonderful adventure and we love sharing our fortune with visitors.
The secret to catching these owls is to play a recording of their call. This technique is called using an audio lure. The reason we have focused on Saw-whets is because we are part of a group called Project Owlnet and originally researchers attempted to catch owls without using the tape - a technique referred to as passive netting. The result from this work was misleading, and lead people to suspect sawwhets were rare. Through the leadership of this group and the encouragement for other banders to use their techniques, the number of Saw-whets captured and banded has increased dramatically. Project Owlnet banders across North America have now established that Saw-whets Owls are mostly migratory.
We have had over 50 owls banded at the marsh that have been discovered by other banders in Ontario and in the USA. Many travel to destinations in the Eastern States. The work of banders has established that Saw-whets are actually the most abundant owl in North America. It is just that they are rarely seen, preferring to hide during the day in the heart of the boreal forest close to the trunks of trees.
In addition to sawwhets we also band long eared owls of which we banded 162 last year (2015) and we have discovered that our area is a very good location for catching boreal owls. Boreal owl migration peaks every four years. The last peak was in 2012 and we captured and banded 202 which was the most in North America that year. We will have wait to see how our Boreal numbers will fair this year in 2017, as the numbers were lower than expected in 2016 which should have been a peak year!
If you are interested in coming out to see some owls please check out the calendar for nights that we have public banding and if you are interested in volunteering for owls please get in touch on the volunteering link on the website. Finally the other place to find out more instant updates will be on the marsh Facebook page and twitter as we will be giving updates of the owls captured to date and weather information.
Unfortunately we cannot band when it is raining as it is too hard on the owls as their body feathers that do not usually get wet can be vulnerable when they are in a net so please check before coming out to avoid disappointment, especially if you have a car full of kids. Hopefully the kids will all need to be bundled up and the night you plan to come out is plus 2 and the kids have all done an owl dance before they come out to bring us good luck. Tell them it is really important that they give a hoot for owls!
In the summer of 2011 Murph and I traveled to West Virginia, Murph to get his Hummingbird banding permit, and I to do some sightseeing! It was here that we met Bob and Martha Sergeant of Alabama who were to spend three intensive days of hummingbird training with Murph. Bob and Martha quickly involved me in Murph’s training. I scribed, made bands, trapped and handled birds, and basically learned more than I could ever have imagined about hummingbirds, while Murph toiled away putting tiny bands on tiny legs. After banding 300 buzzing birds, we returned to our Northern home and managed to band a few straggling hummers before they headed off on their fall migration.
The following summer, after catching some of our own hummingbirds, Murph and I decided to return to West Virginia in mid-August, this time for me to get my permit and for Murph to refresh his skills. Upon returning home I too was able to band my first northern ruby-throats.
Since 2012, Murph and I have spent much of our summer breaks visiting local gardens, outdoor festivals; like the one at the Wye Marsh in Midland Ontario and at our own Hilliardton Marsh Garden party, to band everyone’s favorite bird- The Ruby Throat.
Hummingbird banding has become one of our most successful banding programs. We have had many birds return year after year to the backyards they were banded in. In fact we have had several hummers that were banded as babies in our own back yard, return to the place of their birth the following year to be recaptured by us! It is amazing for me to think that every time I hold a recaptured adult hummingbird that I banded the previous year in my yard as a baby, that this tiny being has made its way to Central America long after the other adults birds in the area have left on their own migrations. It takes flight, all by itself, without the help of its parents or the protection of a flock, and somehow finds its way. This tiny bird in my hand, that visits my backyard feeder, every 20 minutes to refuel, has made a 22 hour non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico to its wintering grounds where it was met by others of its kind to spend a few months feeding, only to turn around and make the same journey back, this time as an adult, to the place of its birth; my very own Northern Ontario garden!
Perhaps our most memorable moment banding hummingbirds happened on Nov 9th, 2013, when we received a call from a lady in Charlton ON, asking, “How do I encourage a hummingbird to go south?” Well, when Murph and I heard this, we knew we were not dealing with a Ruby Throat! We jumped in our car and made the half hour drive to Palmateer Road. We were amazed to see a beautiful female Rufous hummingbird at a snow covered feeder. It took only minutes to catch this incredible bird. After banding her, she stayed around to feed for a few more days before heading south for the winter. We felt honoured that we were able to meet her on her long migration from Alaska (her breeding grounds) to wherever she decided to stop for the winter. This special Hummer is the northern-most banded Rufous in Ontario, and is one of only a few banded in the province. We are hopeful that we will see her again, as Rufous hummingbirds are known to be very dedicated to their migration routes. THE LESSON HERE FOR EVERYONE is…. Please try to leave your feeders out at least until the end of October, as Rufous hummingbirds migrate well after the Ruby throats have moved on. Who knows who may visit your backyard!
To date HMREC banders have banded just under 1000 Northern hummingbirds that have the potential to show up basically anywhere along their southern journey.
We would like to thank our regular Hummingbird Garden Hosts: Jim Runnalls, Deb Murray, Mickey Major, Steve and Lisa Goddard, Anne Sucee, and Cam and Mary Demarce for allowing us into your gardens every summer.
And a special thank you goes out to our Hummingbird Garden Party gardeners and organizers, Deb Murray, Robert MacVeigh , Eileen Fisher, Gee Bradley and Kelly Marshall and all the volunteers that helped them, help us, make hummingbird banding at the marsh SO MUCH FUN!!
The Canadian Snow Bunting Network Project
One of HMREC's most successful research initiatives is our involvement with the Canadian Snow Bunting Network (CSBN). This study was initiated by Dr. Oliver Love; Associate Professor and
Canada Research Chair in Integrative Ecology Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Windsor and is being coordinated by Rick Ludkin of Ruthven Park. This winter will be our fifth year studying the migration habits of snow buntings, and the fourth year that Kern's Public School students have been one of the leading research partners involved in this important initiative.
We are pleased that the past 4 years have wrapped up with some interesting results. This article highlights some reflections written by the students involved in the project as well as important discoveries that have been made as a result of HMREC’s involvement…..
"January 9th was an exciting day for our grade 6,7,8 class. It was a day that we began an educational and fun journey helping researchers all over Canada. For many students including myself it was an amazing experience, where we learned about snow buntings; a small snow bird that migrates north to the arctic or Greenland for breeding. We accomplished more than you could imagine, including a future path for some of us."(Justine La blanc, gr7)
"I am Lea Gaehwiler (gr 8) and this was my second year banding snow buntings. I could still remember the memories from last year and they were all great! Our goal was to catch at least one Horned Lark and to band 1000 birds! Last year we banded 380 birds in three weeks".
"I am Patrick Sadler (gr 6) and I think banding birds is an important responsibility, and Kerns Public school is the only school in Ontario that is banding snow buntings, so I am very grateful."
Why band Snow buntings?.......
"I am banding birds for scientific research. The population of Snow Buntings has declined by 64% in the past 40 years, and researchers want to track the migration and movement patterns of these birds, so we band birds to provide scientists with helpful information". (Steven Vandenboggard, gr7)
How its done….
"Every day before we arrived at school, Ms Goddard would set the cracked corn- filled traps in Mr. Cooke's field. Then we would walk down together to check the traps. We would carefully remove the buntings and place them in bird bags. We then returned to the school where we would band the birds at our makeshift banding station, a picnic table in the playground. Often the Junior grades would come out to watch. Our class would show them how to put a band on a tiny leg, how to tell the males from the females and we would answer their questions. We explained that on each band there are numbers. These numbers are recorded onto a data sheet along with the bird's species code, sex, age and wing length. Later this information is sent to the Canadian Wildlife Service so if another bander gets our bird, they can track down where it was banded. These records also help researchers track the migration route of our bird. As the project went on, and we became more knowledgeable". (Lea G)
Horned Larks, Student Banders, Weekend Banding and Foreign birds!............
Over time students became more involved with the CSBN and began to give up their free time on weekends to help with banding. One particular student; Brodie Neill, became very adept at banding and went on to band Kestrels and song birds when the snow bunting season came to an end.
"On Saturday I had the opportunity to band with Mr Murphy and Mrs Goddard at another snow bunting banding site. And to our surprise, we caught a HORNED LARK! Mr Murphy had never banded a Horned lark in Temiskaming so when he saw it in the trap, he nearly jumped out of his pants!" (Steven Vandenboggard)
"When we were getting the Horned lark out of the trap, Mr Murphy kept saying, “Don't let it go boys!” He was so excited. He said to us,“ It took me 50 years to catch a Horned Lark, and you guys catch one on your first day of banding!” (Brodie Neill gr 7)
"On Sunday morning, Paige, Emma and I went with Ms. Goddard to band birds. That morning there were tons of birds and Ms. Goddard was crazy busy banding them! I thought it was funny because right when we took the birds out of the traps more just walked in! Today was the first time ever that I got band. It was nerve wracking! I banded my first three birds that day! I was so happy! In that same morning, we caught our first foreign bird! It was banded by David Lamble in Arthur Ontario! When other bird researchers heard this news they were excited! It made them re-think their theory of the migration routes of these little birds." (Lea G)
What we have Learned…..
Over the past four years, the CSBN has learned a lot from the data collected by HMREC and Kern’s students who have fittingly branded themselves as, “THE SCHOOL OF FLOCK”
One of the project highlights was catching birds from other banding locations in southern Ontario and Northern Quebec. Two of our banded birds were captured on their way to the breeding grounds in the Gaspe region. This discovery changed the popular theory that our northern birds travel directly north to the Arctic, while the southern birds travel up the Saint Lawrence River to Greenland! The wintering movement patterns of Snow buntings appear wide ranging as indicated by the number of foreign recaptures all over the province.
Another highlight was the incredible number of birds that returned to our sites year after year. One bird recaptured this past winter was a male that was banded our first year of banding, making this particular bird at least 4 years old. This also implies a dedication to a particular migration route.
Another interesting discovery was the high number of Lapland longspurs that travelled along with our bunting flocks. In fact in 2015 we banded more of them than any other banding location in Ontario that year.
BANDING TOTALS TO DATE:
2545 Snow buntings
128 Lapland Longspurs
6 Horned Larks
It has been encouraging to see the interest that this project has created in our followers. We now have many individuals closely watching their flocks for banded birds. We look forward to making many new discoveries in the coming winters.
We would like to finish this article with an email sent from Dr. Love, expressing his gratitude for the hard work and contributions Kern’s students have made to his research…….
” Hello Joanne.
I just wanted to send a huge thanks to you and your wonderful class of absolutely amazing students for sending me your card and the shirt. I wear the shirt with a great deal of pride when I am out speaking with people and working on field research with the buntings.
Your students and the work all of you do is a rare and shining example of how amazing, enthusiastic and dedicated young people can make a huge difference in this world. Your group is certainly the crown-jewel in the Canadian Snow Bunting Network.
Thanks goes out to all of you from all of us.
Duck banding has been an ongoing project at the Hilliardton Marsh. Initially we had a bait banding station which was supported by the Ministry of Natural Resources. Because the marsh encourages high breeding productivity and is an excellent site for migrating ducks to roost the marsh is an excellent and very successful duck banding area. Limited funding and a drop in the success rate of banding due mostly to the increase in the racoon population coupled with the introduction in Ontario of the airboat duck banding program spelled the end for the our annual August duck banding work.
The interesting part of this is that despite stopping banding ducks in 2008 (our last season) we are still getting information about ducks we have banded which is very cool. The downside to having a bait station is that ducks are attracted to a trap using corn or barley or both but that limits trapping to only birds that eat grain. The birds we used to band were mostly mallard’s black ducks and teal and the occasional wood duck
Air boat banding began in 1996 and usually only happens one night a year sometimes the marsh gets scheduled for 2 nights. On good nights the airboat would capture and band what we would band in an entire season of banding using our traps. The airboat has the added advantage of catching other species such as ring neck ducks and common goldeneyes. The airboat program was actually initiated by the United states as most of the ducks they hunt breed in Northern Ontario so having someone band them is a great tool for conservation. The banding done at the marsh is coordinated by the Kirkland office of the Ministry of Natural Resources so if you would like more information regarding the evening they are doing duck banding I would suggest getting in touch with their office.
To date the airboat banding program has been a very successful program for the Ministry of Natural Resources and has added a new chapter to the banding totals for the marsh. It has also revealed that we have a robust breeding population of wigeon and ruddy ducks at the marsh and the marsh is one of the only marshes in Northern Ontario that produces as many ruddy ducks being banded.
It would be nice to get our summer crew banding ducks using a bait station again in the future. The challenge is setting up a system that does not allow racoons to interfere with the trapping process which can be a real challenge. The public used to really enjoy coming to see duck banding demonstrations so perhaps this is something we may once again see at the marsh. To not have duck banding for the public really is quackers!!
In the spring when most people are still sleeping, researchers and volunteers are waking up to get
to the Hilliardton Marsh as early as 5:00 A.M. I often tell people that I wish my grandparents had
gotten me interested in darts or bowling. Nobody told me that birds are most active first thing in the
morning. The majority of birds banded at the marsh are caught and released well before visitors and
school groups arrive at the marsh. I would suggest that about 90% of the birds we band are captured
before 9. By the time we roll the nets at noon we are hardly catching any birds. We have now
banded for 19 springs and will be looking to have some celebrations next spring in our 20th
of banding. We are also hoping to band our 60,000 bird so next year will certainly be an exciting
Banding, or ringing, as it’s known in Europe, is the study of birds by putting a small aluminum band
around one of their legs. The bands have a 9 digit number. The bands are sized according to the
diameter of the birds leg, the band can move freely, Some parents are horrified when I use the
analogy that is far crueler to take their kids to get their ears pierced then it is to put a band on a
bird Nets are opened according to a banding protocol that we follow every spring so that we can
compare the number of birds captured with consistent effort from year to year. We try to have the
same nets up at the same time each year but we are limited sometimes by the number of trained
volunteers that can help out.
Initially while the TERRA program at Timiskaming District Secondary School was running,
students were trained to take birds out of the net. Learning to “extract” birds takes some time and
many weeks of practise to get used to handling birds in nets. For some folks the learning curve is
very short but for some who never get the hang of it they find other ways to help out. Students were
the backbone of the research we were doing but once the terra program was cancelled we needed
to find volunteers who wanted to learn and we were fortunate to have many past students wanting to
come back and help out. When we have enough volunteers we can run 28 nets.
The nets we use are called mist nets. The best description of a mist nets is a net that looks like a big
badminton net but finer. The nets are made from nylon and are tethered in such a way that the net
forms pockets that allow a bird to be gently caught until an extractor comes along to take them out
of the net. Many birds,( more than I like to think about) hit the nets and bounce out but many stay
in the net long enough for us to be able to capture and band. The nets each cost about 120 dollars
and have to be purchased in the USA as there are only a few companies that distribute nets. The
companies will only sell nets to certified banders.
Once birds are taken out of the nets they are placed in cloth or mesh bags that keeps the birds safe
and calm until, we can band them. Most birds are banded and released within minutes. The nets
are checked every 15 minutes so the time a bird’s life is interrupted is kept to a minimum. While we
have the bird in the hand the bird is banded and we figure out the species age and sex of the bird.
Some species you need a wing measurement to figure out the species which is the case for least
and alder flycatchers. The least has a shorter wing but both species look almost identical. Some
species you need a wing measurement to figure out if it is a male or female. It takes only a moment
to measure a bird’s wing. When we do not have visitors birds are released out the window but
when we have visitors we release the birds outside on our deck that we refer to as “the launching
pad.” This is where birds can be photographed and sometimes held by visitors. We allow this to
happen only outside as sometimes an inexperienced person will accidentally let a bird go which is
fine to do outside as we would have done that anyway. I am always impressed with how delicately
and carefully people handle birds and the impact it has on them. The phenomenon of a” bird in the
hand” has been poorly studied and documented but I see the impact it has on young and old and it
is a privilege to be a part of this . We do not allow kids under the age of 10 to handle birds as they
are too unpredictable, mostly the kids not the birds.
People always ask me if banding a bird has a negative impact on the birds. We had a chickadee one
winter that we recorded recapturing 40 times. So either it liked being taken out of the nets or it just
became part of its routine. We catch many birds over and over again in the same banding season
but the real thrill is when we catch birds in subsequent migrations over the years. Some birds return
to the marsh no doubt to establish breeding territories so it is not a surprise to capture these birds.
Banding ends before the breeding season begins and picks up in the fall when the migration begins
following the breeding season.
Banding is really one tool that can be used to give us a snap shot of the migration and what birds
can be found in a habitat. There are many survey techniques that can also be used. The advantage
of banding is that it allows us to track individual birds and the hope is that a bird we have banded
will find its way into a net of another bander. The other advantage is that it allows us to assess
real numbers. By that I mean if I was doing a survey of birds by sight and I counted 40 chickadees
coming to the feeder in an hour how do I know that I didn’t see the same chickadee 40 times? If
we band 40 chickadees we know we have 40 that are using the marsh. To date we have banded
over 57,000 birds and have banded 139 species that have found their way into our nets. As I say
though banding is only1 tool and there are many species of birds that use the marsh that probably
we will never band or have very low expectations of capturing. These species would require other
survey techniques but would be very meaningful to keep track of. The species that jumps to mind
is the black tern. The black tern spends all of its time in the very middle of the marsh catching small
minnows and using old muskrat lodges to nest in. They are on the Ontario species at risk list but I
doubt that we would ever catch one. I don’t think we would ever try to target them as well because
the chance of another bander catching one would be remote. Some researchers use other devices
besides a standard band but that will have to wait for another article.
If you are interested in seeing bird banding at the marsh or would like to help us out by volunteering
we are starting in the fall September 15th and we will be banding every weekday starting around 9am
We start later in the fall because we are banding owls at night and I need the opportunity to catch
some sleep before visiting school groups arrive. In the spring as I noted we start banding daily May 1st
and band until June 15th. Banding starts at 5:30 and goes until noon. If you are interested in volunteering please fill in the information on the volunteer page and our volunteer coordinator will be
happy to get in touch. Maybe you will be the lucky person to take our 60,000 bird out of the net. If
you would like to learn more about banding please check out our banding blog or see what we have
been up to by checking out the photo gallery. Hope to see you at the marsh in the spring because at
530 in the morning I am always excited to see anyone who wants to help out.
Swallow Box Project
THE IMPORTANCE OF SUPPORTING TREE SWALLOWS:
Why sponsor a tree swallow box?
The Hilliarton Marsh Research and Education Centre’s initiative to support tree swallow populations has been an ongoing one since its existence (and before) AND it is probably one of the most important projects that our readers can get involved with. WHY? According to the last survey in the “The atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario”, there has been an annual decline of tree swallow populations by 2.6%, representing an estimated 25% population loss in the last 25 years. The primary reasons for this drastic decline, as for all other aerial insectivores in Ontario, are likely related to factors affecting their common food source and breeding habitat, such as agricultural pesticide use, and difficulty in finding nesting cavities because of habitat loss.
It has been suggested that tree swallow breeding populations are limited by an availability of nesting sites, and that a tree swallow will readily use artificial nest boxes installed near human populations.
We would like to thank those who have participated in our swallow box initiative by building and installing nest boxes, maintaining nest box trails or by SPONSORING a nest box. For a Donation of 100.00 to this or any other research project, HMREC will donate a Swallow box in your name (or in memory of a family member). A personalized inscription will be placed on our Swallow Box monument along with other sponsors at the “bird house” banding station. Your donation will be used for bird conservation and research efforts. Currently we have over 200 boxes in the area and already are looking into other areas to extend our efforts.
If you are interested in helping with this or any other banding project please send us a cheque (memo: swallow box project/banding research) to:
Hilliardton Marsh REC
PO box 2920
New Liskeard On
OR donate online by clicking on menu option "support the marsh" on our home page and send us an email regarding the project you would like to support.