Helliwell Park Bird Walk with Art Martell

About eighty people gathered to catch a glimpse of some of the forest and shoreline birds at Helliwell Park. We sought, listened, and enjoyed their presence under the guidance of Art Martell. Art is an ornithologist and keen birder locally, nationally, and internationally, who has a cabin on Hornby Island.

Our group had several sightings, beginning with a pileated woodpecker by the parking lot. We also spotted and heard a warbler, turkey vultures, oystercatchers chasing off turkey vultures, harlequin ducks, and chestnut back chickadees – a year-round resident and the only chickadee found on Hornby and Vancouver Island. The group also enjoyed seeing a group of seals lying on the rocks near the oystercatchers.

It was a hazy morning due to smoke in the air from wildfires and along with a long dry spell, the birds were quieter than usual. Art informed us that they were conserving their energy. Birds have very delicate respiratory systems and their lungs work differently than those of mammals. They have two small lungs within which are air sacs that keep the lungs constantly inflated. Whatever they breathe is circulated through their bodies.

Although it wasn’t a peak time for bird sightings, Art was able to share a plethora of knowledge with us. He knows a lot about our feathered friends as the volunteer Caretaker for the K’omoks Important Bird Area and active member of the Comox Valley Birders Group (which has a yearly bird count since 1919 in the Comox Valley), BC Field Ornithologists, and Bird Studies Canada. He was also the Regional Coordinator for the BC Breeding Bird Atlas and prior to retirement, worked as a wildlife research scientist and manager with Canadian Wildlife Service. Art was also the first Canadian National Coordinator for the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.

One of the topics he discussed was new to many of the attendees: birding ethics and the problem of smartphone bird call apps. Today, many people are using bird call apps on their smartphones to attract birds. While this may be okay with minimal usage by one person in a large forest, the problem begins when you have an area, such as a park, with many people moving through each day using the apps. Hearing the calls repeatedly, the birds are tricked into believing that there is a competitor in the area. They then expend energy to make their presence known to the “other bird”. Usually, the person playing the call is unaware of the problem and is just enjoying the excitement getting a response back from the bird. However, this response, especially when in a public environment, is provoked by stress. Birds need their energy for finding food, building nests, feeding their babies, and so on. While it is wonderful to become more familiar with the natural world, we also have to be careful not to endanger it in the process.

Another interesting topic covered was the changes in bird migration due to climate change. There has been an increase in particular species in certain areas. For instance, fifty years ago we would not see house wrens here, but with a natural migration northward, they have become more common.

Fortunately,  Helliwell Park provides an important habitat that we can retain for forest birds. Here are some photos from the morning. As you can see, it was a large and enthusiastic crowd!


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