Biologists flock to find, and protect, threatened birds in Gatineau Park

·3 min read
The Bobolink is one of two species of grassland bird being studied by the National Capital Commission in Gatineau Park. (Alysha Riqiuer - image credit)
The Bobolink is one of two species of grassland bird being studied by the National Capital Commission in Gatineau Park. (Alysha Riqiuer - image credit)

Student biologists are combing the grasslands of Gatineau Park to tally sightings of two species of threatened ground-nesting birds, the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark, which could protect the land from redevelopment.

Environment Canada labelled the Bobolink "threatened" in 2010, which is one step short of endangered. The Eastern Meadowlark was listed as threatened one year later.

Grassland bird populations in Canada have declined by nearly 60 per cent since the 1970s, according to a recent Environment Canada report.

Catherine Verreault, a senior manager with the National Capital Commission (NCC), said she expects Environment Canada to label Gatineau Park a "critical habitat" for both species of birds, which would make it illegal to destroy any part of the park and would allow for restrictions on development and construction.

Before that happens, Verreault said the NCC needs to know precisely where the birds are nesting so it doesn't approve a project, such as a trail deviation or parking lot expansion, which would encroach on their territory.

"You have to be really patient and observe to make sure you know if they prefer one field or another," said Verreault.

The NCC did the bulk of the research in 2020, but it's sending biologists into the field again this summer to get a clearer picture.

"Sometimes, like in Meech Creek Valley, it's quite open — it's large fields — so it's hard to determine [where the birds are]," she added.

The Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark originally nested in tall grass prairies in southern Canada but human development replaced prairie with cropland, and the birds began nesting in hayfields and pastures. These habitats made a poor replacement.

Alysha Riquier
Alysha Riquier

Chasing birds on bikes

Last summer, two student biologists cycled through 51 sites across the park where the land matched the species' preferred habitat. The work was split between Alysha Riquier and one other field worker.

"Because a lot of sites weren't on the road and we had quite a few sites, we thought electric bikes would be best," said Riquier.

Every morning from June to early August, the students pedalled out from the visitors centre to stop at each pasture and patch of grass on the list, then wait five minutes — ears strained to hear the call of either bird.

If they were met with silence, they would play a recorded call to elicit a reaction. Whatever birds they could hear, they tried to spot with binoculars.

Alysha Riquier
Alysha Riquier

The Meech Creek Valley and Chemin Swamp biking trail are two better-known spots where the researchers set up on their daily trek.

Favourites among birders

The Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark are also draws for the local birding community, according to Jon Ruddy, owner of guided bird tour company Eastern Ontario Birding.

Ruddy said birders are drawn to the unique song of the Bobolink, which he described as reminiscent of the speech of Star Wars character R2D2.

"It has an amazing journey where it goes from southern South America all the way up to our latitude and back just to breed," he said. "And on top of that, it's quite attractive and has lots of character."

Alysha Riquier
Alysha Riquier

The Eastern Meadowlark may not warble like a robot, but birders enjoy its harmony.

"It's very attractive and sings a very beautiful whistling song in grasslands, and often evokes that sense of being in the prairies," said Ruddy.

Because neither bird is a generalist, Ruddy said their health is tied closely to the health of the grasslands. He's heartened to learn the NCC is studying the birds.

"Especially for a park that's so rich in species diversity, it's a step in the right direction," he said.

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