Vancouver Avian Research Centre

.....Research - Conservation - Education
Spring/Summer 2015

The spring period was extremely busy for visitors to the Colony Farm banding station with two bird monitoring and banding workshops, one bird identification workshop, live breakfast TV, Canada's Parks Day events and a host of group visits and monthly Family Days!
There were no weekends when we didn’t have visitors and it often seemed as though people were outnumbering birds as spring migration seemed to stall with only some 1,440 birds caught for banding during April and May.

The lack of birds didn't deter the media though when we were invited to host a very special breakfast 'live eye' for City TV with local TV presenter Thor Diakow.  The crew arrived early to make sure they could get a signal out of the park which they managed to do with a giant telescopic aerial and once set up and sound testing were done they were ready to broadcast Out in the Field with the Vancouver Avian Research Team

Thor as a self-confessed birder was the perfect person to host the show and like all visitors to the station who hold and release a migratory bird was totally captivated by their beauty, their phenomenal travels throughout the year and the ecological intricacies they require to survive. He did a great job of promoting VARC and our public outreach and education programs to raise awareness of environmental issues as they relate to birds.

Despite W.C. Fields famous quote of "Never work with animals or children" the show went off without a hitch and we received numerous messages of congratulation via social media.

Thor below with the 'birds of the morning'...Scarlet Macaw and Yellow-billed Hornbill!

Despite a slow start to spring migration things did start to pick up with the arrival of the first wood warblers like this stunning second year (SY) male Audubon's Warbler in first alternate plumage.

Setophaga warblers like Yellow-rumps have extensive prealternate molts in the late winter early spring which result in both first year birds and adults having molt limits.

The wing below of the second year (SY) male Audubon's Warbler shown above is showing such a prealternate molt limit and 3 generations of feathers.

During its preformative molt last fall, this bird replaced all its greater coverts and the much darker and nicely edged carpal covert and alula covert (A1), then stopped molting.

Here the innermost greater coverts (GCs 4-10) and innermost tertial (S9) were molted this spring (i.e. the prealternate molt limit is between GC three and four and S8 and S9). Thus the three generations are: GCs 4-10 and innermost tertial S9 - first alternate feathers most recently molted feathers from the first prealternate molt this spring (blue arrows); GCs 1-3, carpal covert and alula covert (A1) -  retained formative feathers from the preformative molt last fall (red arrows); and finally, the lower main alula feathers (A2 & A3), primary coverts, and remiges (primaries and secondaries) retained juvenal feathers.

An adult at this time of year would also show a molt limit from the prealternate molt but only 2 generations of feathers - definitive basic feathers from the prebasic molt last fall and definitive alternate feathers from the prealternate molt this spring. Click here to see an example of adult prealternate molt in Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring.

Although lower numbers than normal of many species we did see higher numbers of Orange-crowned Warblers, Lincoln's Sparrows and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a higher number than usual of spring migrants carrying large fat loads presumably due to weather patterns grounding the birds for longer periods in the park before continuing north bound migration.

Birds from top-left clockwise: MacGillivray's Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Lincoln's Sparrow.

We also saw higher than usual numbers of both Anna's and Rufous Hummingbirds and the hot, dry weather resulted in early nesting success and earlier than normal hatch year Rufous appearing.

We did a photo essay on our Hummingbird monitoring program with information on ageing and sexing these small gorgeted Hummingbirds in the hand in our June 2012 blog.

Operation Emergency Peregrine Banding! (As told by Debbie Wheeler) all started with a Facebook message from Martina Versteeg, from O.W.L. (Orphaned Wildlife) Rehabilitation Society.

"Does anyone know Derek Matthews' phone number - we have a Peregrine Falcon that needs banding before being returned to its nest?"

Since I do know Derek's number, I phoned Martina to let her know that he was currently off swanning around England, drinking London Pride, eating bacon butties and bird watching in Norfolk. As I was talking to her, it dawned on me that I actually have all of the raptor banding equipment, since Derek is off swanning around England etc. etc. So, I offered her my services, if required.

Thirty minutes later, I am in my car, heading through the Massey Tunnel. wondering if I got pulled over by the police if they would buy my story of an emergency bird banding under the Knight Street Bridge? Not that I was speeding, or anything. I also wondered if I could get some flashing lights and sirens.........well, it was an emergency.......

I arrived under the Knight Street Bridge, at the end of Bridgeport Road, but couldn't see anyone else there, even though I was supposed to be meeting Bruce, from O.W.L. I was about to make a horrible mistake and approach a dodgy-looking VW camper van in a lay-by just down from the bridge to ask them if they had seen anyone with a peregrine falcon, when a vehicle with an O.W.L. logo on went by. Phew....that was close....

I did a quick U-turn, and followed the vehicle, right under the Knight Street Bridge. As soon as I got out of the vehicle, the screaming started. Both peregrine falcon adults were there, on top of telegraph poles right by the bridge, and we could also make out a young falcon sitting off to the right in a tree and another sitting on top of one of the concrete pillars supporting the bridge. Whilst semis, trucks and cars rumbled across over the bridge above our heads, the wildlife under the bridge was just getting on with things. For the peregrine falcons, that included guarding their young and screeching at anyone that came too close.

So, we figured we should get things done sharpish, and got on with banding the newly fledged peregrine falcon. She was not at all impressed by her new piece of bling and gave me an "I'm going to kill you!" look the whole time I was banding her. She was magnificent though, even with her little downy crown of fluff still on her slate grey and buffy head. Her eyes were black pools of malevolence and if I had been a pigeon living under that bridge, I would seriously consider moving to a new location ASAP.

All banded, she was ready to be released. We decided to let her go on top of one the small buildings under the bridge, and as we made our way there, the parents dive-bombed us, slicing through the air, the wind whistling through their wings as they screeched by our heads. It was definitely time to let their baby go! As Bruce launched her up towards the roof of the building a gust of wind blew under the bridge and she found her wings and sailed off into the nearby trees.

Job well done, and we have received reports that a young, banded peregrine falcon has been seen under the bridge, so, fingers-crossed, all's well that ends well.......unless you are a pigeon living under that bridge.........

Great job Deb and great story! (apologies to non-Brits who don't know what bacon butties or lay-bys are!!)

In addition to emergency Peregrine banding Deb also took the lead this spring on a new special species study we are conducting on Tree Swallows using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.

Radio frequency identification allows the unique identification of individuals and automated recording of the presence of tagged birds at fixed locations such as nest boxes.

Tree swallows are familiar birds in coastal British Columbia, but their abundance has declined in the last 40 years due to unknown causes. Since they readily accept nest boxes, Tree Swallows represent an ideal candidate species for the use of RFID technology. The main objective of this project is to to develop RFID capability to study the nesting behaviour of tree swallows in the park. The technology is being used to better understand the connections between adult nesting behaviour, and weather, food availability and nestling growth and survival.

This research is using innovative technology to address important ecological and conservation questions, while fostering new external collaborations and providing students with a significant experiential learning opportunities.

The first stage of this project consisted of acquiring the necessary electronic parts and custom designing and building the RFID readers. Enter Kyle Norris our resident techno genius and all-round good guy who not only does all of VARC's maintenance but who has also designed VARC's remote hummingbird trap-trippers and audio-lure playback system!

RFID is a means of contact-free electromagnetic communication between a reader and a transponder. In this application, a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag weighing less than 0.004% of the birds body mass is attached to the bird and transmits a unique identification number to a reading device with an RFID circuit board and antenna. Every time a bird with a PIT tag comes near the RFID reader, the bird’s identity is recorded along with the date and time of the visit. The resulting data can provide incredibly detailed information about the behaviours of the tagged birds.



Designing the RFID circuit board was only the first part of the puzzle - next came the design of the nest box and antenna. Kyle ingeniously incorporated the antenna in to the design of the entrance hole by winding the copper antenna around a plastic spool the same diameter as the hole. The plastic spool was then inserted in to the entrance hole thereby ensuring every time a tagged bird entered the box the reader would be triggered.

Photos below show the size of PIT tag (below left) attached to the bird measuring 10mm in length and weighing just 80 milligrams (0.08 of a gram) and the RFID reader (below right) showing the plastic spool antenna which forms an integral part of the nest box entrance hole.

That part completed Kyle commenced construction of the nest boxes and housing for the electronics.

The next stage was to construct predator (both Black bear and weasel!) proof posts and nest boxes....enter Kyle again - this time as construction genius bedding posts sufficiently far in to the ground to avoid them being knocked over by the resident black bears in the park and then adding predator guards to prevent stoats and weasels from predating the boxes!

Notice all of the predator guards neatly painted and colour matched nest boxes and boxes to house the electronics...Kyle never does things by half!

The boxes themselves were also custom designed with removable trays to avoid undue disturbance to nests during monitoring and grooved inside front panels (photo below left) to aid nestlings climbing towards the entrance hole! We decided that these boxes were the most desirable residences for Tree Swallows in Vancouver and we only just persuaded Kyle not to add en-suite bathrooms!

All of this effort was rewarded by occupied boxes and successful nests (photo below right). For any researchers working with Tree Swallows we were also able to put together this life size nestling chart showing the development of nestlings from day 1 to day 12/13. There is a very short window of time for banding nestlings, either day 11 or day 12 after hatching. Before day 11 nestling legs are usually too swollen with fatty tissue and applying a band could squeeze and damage the leg. Nestlings older than day 12 should not be handled for any reason as doing so could cause them to leave the nest too soon. We would be happy to provide any additional information on our RFID study for researchers working with this species.

While on the subject of Tree Swallows don't forget to check out our stunning image of the month (Photo credit William Murdock)

Continuing on our theme of aerial insectivores regular readers of the blog may remember the story of the pair of Barn Swallows which took up residence in the banding pagoda last year and constructed their nest precariously on a narrow, plastic extension plug above the banding table. As the story didn't end well last year when the nest was predated by a weasel we decided to construct a proper swallow ledge adjacent to the plug just in case the birds returned this year.

We were amazed when they did return and even more amazed to find that the male for sure was a different bird to the one last year which was banded and even more amazed when they ignored the newly installed swallow ledge completely and proceeded to build their nest on the plug again in exactly the same place as last year!

We immediately added a wooded ledge beneath the nest to add some support and are happy to report 5 nestlings which at the time of writing are all doing well!

Still on the theme of Barn Swallows, following a radio interview on the decline of Barn Swallows in Canada which we did for CBC radio, we were contacted by a lady for advice of protecting Barn Swallow nests from predation by crows. She had noticed a steady decline in recent years of swallows nesting at her property and how with fewer swallows to deter crows nesting success had reduced even further.

We suggested trying 3 inch gauge chicken wire (netting made from galvanized wire twisted to form a hexagonal grid) to enclose the area around the nest. Our thoughts were that as long as there was sufficient space the swallows would still be able to access the nest site but the crows would not.

We were delighted to hear back from Linda in July saying that she had followed our advice and was happy to report five babies who all learnt how to fly that Monday!


Colony Farm is well known for iconic birds such as Lazuli Bunting which nest in the park and for other rare and uncommon species like this Western Kingbird....

And this Gray Catbird both caught for banding during this period.

Baby birds in full juvenal plumage started showing up in good numbers in July. Many of these very recently fledged young birds are incapable of sustained flight because their wings and tails are not fully grown in, and are dependant upon parents for food. As we have said before, we always give them first priority for rapid processing at the banding station, and take them back as soon as possible to a location near where they were captured.

On one such weekend virtually every bird banded was recently fledged and we spent the entire time running backwards and forwards in the blazing sun returning birds to the appropriate location. As we have 40 nets covering an area of some 60 acres of old field habitat at Colony Farm we calculated we ran a collective 50 kilometers or more ferrying these baby birds back! Still we see this as another advantage of volunteering with VARC - saving on gym memberships!

Note how different these birds  look from their adult counterparts, all showing many of the characteristics of birds in juvenal plumage namely, streaked/spotted or dull plumage, very loosely textured feathers, prominent gapes and the wispy traces of natal down still clinging to many of these locally hatched birds.

Baby birds are everyone's favourites all scoring 10s on the cuteness scale - clockwise from top left: Common Yellowthroat, American Robin, Yellow Warbler and Pacific-slope Flycatcher.

And a few more - clockwise from top left again: Warbling Vireo, Wilson's Warbler (HY male), Western Tanager (HY male) and Orange-crowned Warbler.
We said how different hatch year birds and birds in juvenal plumage look from their adult counterparts and there couldn't be a better example of that than this baby bird (answer at the end of the blog!)

And as locally hatched birds started to disperse it wasn't long before we were receiving emails and photographs from the public of our banded birds either in or adjacent to the park - this hatch year American Robin was photographed in the community gardens close to the banding station by a member of the public wanting to know what type of bird it was!

And finally a reminder to both birders and banders that VARC will be hosting the 2015 Western Bird Banding Association’s (WBBA) annual meeting from September 4th – 7th.
The meeting theme, Banding across Borders, signifies the power of partnerships across cultures and countries to leverage our collective expertise to affect bird science, conservation and land management.

In addition to great talks and a keynote address from John Reynolds of Simon Fraser University (SFU), there will also be informative poster sessions, workshops and social events.

We have also arranged a number of exciting field trips which will be led by some of BC’s best known birders so we would especially like to extend a very warm welcome to the broader birding community to attend these and/or any of the scientific sessions.

For a conference overview and registration information, please


We look forward to welcoming everyone to Vancouver and beautiful British Columbia in September!

Thanks as always go to all of the dedicated VARC volunteers who during the spring/summer period set alarm clocks as early as 3.45 am to get to the banding station for 4.45 am on their weekends off - none of the work we do would be possible without their help: Alice Sun, Amber Richmond, Andrew Venning, Ben Davis, Ben Diamond, Britney Niedzielski, Carol Matthews, Caroline Feischl, Cathleen Sarmiento, Christine Bishop, Cyril Chan, Daniella Zandbergen, Debbie Wheeler, Freddy Ellmark, Ivand Pulido, Jason Jones, Jeremy Rose, Jessie Russell, Kate Gibson, Kerry Kenwood, Kyle Norris, Louise Routledge, Mark Habdas, Martine Cutbill, Mike Nutter, Monica Nugent, Neil Macleod, Niel Goodman, Rufus McIntyre, Sanjo Rose, Sara Legros, Sarah Chalmers, Sarah Gray, Stephanie D'Agorne and Tiffany Khuu - thank you all!

(Answer to mystery bird - Lazuli Bunting!)

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