You can’t help but be infected with the enthusiasm flowing from Joanne Vinnedge when she talks about nature.
It is a palpable thing, as she describes how exciting it was to see a breeding pair of Cape May Warblers west of the Rockies, a rare sighting she attributed to the location. Spotted in Germansen Landing, the birds were directly in line with the trench, along which lays Williston Lake, creating a path through the high mountain range.
And Joanne Vinnedge isn’t just any birder in the area. She’s also the regional coordinator for the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas, an ambitious seven-year project to attempt to “determine the distribution and relative abundance of birds across British Columbia” according to the project’s website.
Over five years, birders and casual observers will provide information on birds for each 10 km by 10 km square of the province, a huge project for such a large province and one so sparsely populated.
The project will survey and map breeding bird populations, and while Vinnedge is part of the B.C. atlas project, the initiative is taking place across Canada, with the goal of helping to provide vital information on birds and bird populations across the entire country.
Information critical to monitoring and understanding changes in these populations over time and due to environmental impacts such as climate change or habitat destruction.
Vinnedge will be doing a lot of surveying herself, but needs as many volunteers as she can get, given the large size of her region, which stretches from south of the Blackwater River up to Johanson, and the fact she also has to enter the data for the region, compiling it for the atlas.
Volunteering involves the opportunity to get to some remote and interesting places, to spend some time truly immersed in the nature of an area.
There are a total of 435 10 km by 10 km squares she will be attempting to get data for, which will involve 20 hours of birding and point-count surveys of random points to record every bird seen or heard at that point.
“It’s really an interesting exercise,” said Vinnedge. Her region being made even more interesting by the difficulty in accessing much of it, as there are far fewer roads in the northern regions.
In July alone, Vinnedge put on 1,300 km doing surveys, most of which occur in the valley bottoms, where the roads are, so she goes for intensive stints into the backcountry and alpine to cover some of this habitat.
This past June, Vinnedge spent a week in the northern part of her region with three other birders, including the provincial coordinator for the atlas, Christopher Dicarato. The four went up as far as the Johanson area, so her vacation involved hiking around to hit a number of the 10 km squares in less accessible areas to fill in some of the information she needs for her huge region.
She described how interesting it was to travel north through the area, seeing some species drop off as they passed the northern limits of their range, and other species become more common. So far she has picked up sightings of seven new species she had never seen before, which clearly excited Vinnedge.
On Johanson Lake, she saw some Arctic Terns, which she described as “so cool.”
There were Brewer’s Timberline Sparrows, normally a Yukon subspecies, and there were breeding pairs of Common Redpols, a species which normally breeds in the Arctic.
On a recent canoe trip, Vinnedge was also collecting some plants for the Royal British Columbia Museum for a genetic study they are doing of plants.
“Then your holidays are worthwhile,” she said, once again becoming animated as she talks about a particularly interesting find.
On the shores of Thutade Lake, Vinnedge found a small carnivorous plant.
“That was really exciting,” she said, rattling off the small plant’s Latin name.
While the surveying will be coming to an end as the breeding season of the birds is now finishing for the year, Vinnedge will be keying up for a last intense push to the finish for the atlas next spring, in the final year of the five-year survey period.
Any and all information on breeding birds in the region is helpful, according to Vinnedge, who adds casual siting information to her mountain of data, many people she works with at the ministry office give her random sighting information.
As we finish our discussion of her ambitious volunteer project, I find myself asking Vinnedge for a recommendation of a good bird book, and getting inspired to once again pay more attention to the fauna in my travels.
She recommends The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, and I put it on my mental shopping list. Anyone interested in volunteering for the British Columbia Bird Atlas project or to pass on bird sighting information, can contact Joanne Vinnedge at 250-996-5262.