A birding evangelist's Big Year

By Maleea Acker, February 2016

Knowing our fellow creatures inspires Ann Nightingale’s passion.

Ann NightingaleWHEN LIFELONG Vancouver Island resident Ann Nightingale started birding in the 1990s, she had in her head American naturalist Ken Kauffman’s words. If people could name 50 plants and animals in their own area, said Kauffman, it would fundamentally change how they fit into the world. A chance opportunity with a co-worker took Nightingale out to Skirt Mountain (now Bear Mountain) on her first birding trip. “It knocked my socks off,” she tells me. Within a year of studying, she could identify most of the birds in the Capital Region. 

Twenty years later, Nightingale, small, red-haired, with dancing eyes and a fortuitous name, tells me, “I’m a birding evangelist.” Her resume attests to the assertion. Nightingale is past president of the Rocky Point Bird Observatory (RPBO) and an 18-year volunteer with the organization. She coordinates Victoria’s Christmas Bird Count, serves on the board of the Victoria Natural History Society, and leads nature walks and gives lectures at various locations around the south island. She also writes her own blog, centering on a passion that bloomed throughout 2015. 

Last December, Nightingale chalked up final numbers for her “Big Year,” shorthand among birders for a year spent identifying and counting as many bird species as possible on Vancouver Island, then writing about them on www.vibigyear.ca. She had aimed for 275. Supporters pledged donations to the RPBO based on how many species she could find. When I contacted Nightingale, she had activated her Spot GPS and I followed her movements around Bamfield, where she was on a last dash to bring up her count. 

Vancouver Island’s bird species are on the decline, as are one in eight worldwide, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. Environment Canada estimated the nine leading causes of premature deaths of birds in a 2013 study Domestic and feral cats are, by far, the biggest threat to birds. 

9 leading causes of avian deathsLack of food can also be an issue. Mosquitos are one of the prime food sources of barn swallows, but as urban dwellers take more care to prevent mosquito larvae from hatching—for fear of West Nile Virus and for their own comfort—their primary meal disappears. Perhaps nowhere is this conflict more on display in the region than at Island View Beach, where local residents have become polarized around the Capital Regional District’s attempts to rehabilitate a native saltwater marsh below a subdivision of high-priced houses. Those who don’t want to slap at their arms on their patios in the evenings are fighting to prevent re-creation of the wetland—prime habitat for many native bird species who, along with frogs and other creatures, will eat the mosquitos. 

The root causes of overall bird species decline, however, are unknown. Findings tend to depend more on volunteers like Nightingale than on funded scientists. The Province collects and uses information gathered by Nightingale and other volunteers, including count numbers and bird banding expeditions. The Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the Victoria Natural History Society (VNHS) and which she has coordinated since 2001, features over 200 participants and is regularly cited by scientists. 

The count, which VNHS President Darren Copley says is the longest standing citizen science project he knows of, has taken place in Victoria since 1958. “It shows us where the birds are in winter, and how they are generally doing,” explains Copley. “Ann has made our area one of the most successful and well-attended Christmas Bird Counts anywhere,” he adds. Counting occurs on the first Sunday after December 13 every year. There is also a bird hotline for residents to call if they see an unusual bird at any time of the year. As the climate changes, the Christmas counts may prove more and more important, showing population trends that could tie into other environmental changes—from survival of native trees during increasing summer droughts, to species’ populations over time. 

Nightingale, a retired university administrator, now spends most of her time volunteering to raise awareness about local native species. On one pivotal moment, she and other volunteers were mist-netting and banding birds at Rocky Point, then fitting them with geo-locators. “We were handling a fox sparrow that had come back for the fifth consecutive year,” she explains. She loves the idea of a bird so tied to its roots and home that it could pass through the same 10-metre spot every fall. “Learning the birds, even a little bit, really improves observational skills, [provides] a feeling of connection and the changing of the seasons. It’s addictive,” she admits. 

Others have felt the same. Joan “JoAnn” Outerbridge’s estate supplied the RPBO with a five-year grant to continue banding and monitoring work. Nightingale and other volunteers lead monthly birding walks at Outerbridge Park in Saanich. Still, says Nightingale, the society is hard pressed to find enough funding for their research. “We have some amazing resources, and [the public] can visit Pedder Bay, Swan Lake and Goldstream with us. But I would like to see some professional fundraisers donate their skills to help RPBO achieve its goals.” Though Nightingale isn’t a formal fundraiser for RPBO or VNHS, she donates all speaking fees she receives. 

Nightingale is happy to have support from a female donor’s legacy; her interactions with the male world of birding haven’t always been as positive. “I’m trying to make this normal for a woman to do,” she says. 

Birding has a history entwined with more than a passion for simple perception. James Audubon shot and killed every bird he painted, and bird-watching’s roots in hunting, of which the modern variation would be “listing,” has lured mostly men. Nightingale, who ignores the occasional insinuation that as a women she is unfit for the stresses of a “Big Year,” wants to be a role model for other women who have an interest in the natural world. “It’s like going into a hunting community,” she tells me, “but I go out to enjoy the day. I haven’t been driven by the numbers as much.” 

Still, the lure of a long-eared owl or a white-winged crossbill can take her far out of many people’s comfort zones. Returning from Winter Harbour, her van struck a rough patch in the logging road and tore the underbody. She jacked the vehicle up, alone, and cut off the hanging pipes before continuing home. 

By December 31, after a month of rain and terrific wind storms, Nightingale had seen 268 species of songbirds, waterfowl and raptors, including more than a few rarities. This number sets a new record for Vancouver Island, and she recognizes that she’s become one of the top birders on the island. 

So do her cohorts. This spring, nominated by the RPBO board, she will receive a Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for her volunteer work. 

“One of my life regrets as an adult was that I had never learned the names of the birds and the constellations,” Nightingale tells me during our meeting in a crowded Tim Horton’s, where she meets with birders or waits for calls of sightings. 

Her words make me remember an old Madeleine L’Engle children’s book I loved, in which a wise creature says to the protagonist: You don’t have to know how many stars there are; you just have to know them by name. Nightingale’s quest, though its roots may lie in the colonial past, echoes this sentiment. Out in the weather of Balaclava Island, near Port Hardy, amidst the frosts of Sooke, or telling me about a Black-throated sparrow sighting while we sip coffee, her passion centres around the journey and the names more than the final numbers.  

 

Ann Nightingale often leads the Rocky Point Observatory Bird Tours on the second Sunday of each month, 9 am, at Outerbridge Park in Saanich. Everyone is welcome. See www.rpbo.org

Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.