Bird Migration Monitoring at Cabot Head Nature Reserve, Saugeen Bruce Peninsula


At the northeast tip of the Saugeen Bruce Peninsula, under the white bluffs of the Niagara Escarpment, is a wild mix of forests, alvars, wetlands, and lakes, bordered by the rugged shoreline of Georgian Bay. This is the Cabot Head Nature Reserve where more than twenty years ago a volunteer-led, charitable organization called the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory (BPBO) was formed to begin monitoring bird migration.

The reserve boasts many rare plants and habitats but Bird Observatory, as the name implies, focuses on birds. Since 2002, a small team of birders have spent the spring and fall seasons observing, counting, catching, and banding birds of all kinds in this provincially protected area. And birds of all kinds they are. A total of 254 species have been observed at Cabot Head, from waterfowl to raptors to hummingbirds to warblers to flycatchers, etc.! In a spring or fall season, about 150 species are detected. The sheer diversity of birds is explained by the varied habitats of Cabot Head (and the northern Saugeen Bruce Peninsula in general) and by the phenomenon of migration itself. Many birds pass through to reach, in spring, their northern breeding grounds or, in fall, their wintering areas.

Migration follows a well-defined pattern with different species succeeding each other throughout the season. For example, the American Robin, often seen as the harbinger of spring, arrives at Cabot Head in mid-April with the bulk of its passage at the end of that month. With the apt scientific name of Turdus migratorius, it is indeed highly migratory. This most common of birds provides a fantastic show when hundreds of them move through Cabot Head in a day! Mid-May is the time of the “forest gems,” when brightly coloured wood warblers light up the still bare branches of trees and shrubs as if the tropics had moved to southern Canada. And indeed, this is the case. Many bird species we see on the Saugeen Bruce Peninsula spend their winter in Central or South America.

Every bird is a story in itself. As William Blake put it: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Bird monitoring, notably banding, involves opening our senses to that delight. Marking each bird with a uniquely numbered leg band turns a generic instance of a species into a unique individual. Consider the Pine Siskin banded on August 9, 2011 in central British Columbia and recaptured at Cabot Head on October 3rd of the same year, a straight distance of 3,132 km in less than two months. Or the adult, Red-eyed Vireo banded in spring 1998 at the Cabot Head Lighthouse and recaptured at Cabot Head only once in spring 2006. Although the exact routes of its migration are unknown, this single bird likely flew over 100,000 km in its lifetime back and forth between the Great Lakes and its wintering grounds in the Amazon basin.

So much to learn, so much to appreciate and respect, so much to protect.


Stéphane Menu is Bander in Charge, Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory (BPBO)

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