Day 7 of Ostrander Point — David Okines on bird migration
[Report by Paula Peel, South Shore Conservancy]
The ERT panel heard March 26 from an expert who lives close to home: David Okines, Station Manager and Bander-In-Charge at the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory (PETtBO). Mr. Okines gave expert testimony based on his twelve years at PEPtBO identifying, observing and banding birds, and analyzing tens of thousands of radar images of migratory bird activity in the South Shore Important Bird Area (SSIBA).
Qualification of David Okines as Expert Witness
Although Mr. Okines qualified as an expert witness, Bryn Gray (Gilead Power lawyer) and Sylvia Davis (lawyer for the Ministry of the Environment) tried to contain his area of expertise to banding, observing and identifying birds at PEPtBO. PECFN lawyer Eric Gillespie pointed to Mr. Okines’ years of observing birds at Ostrander Point and elsewhere and his expertise in interpreting radar images of migrating birds in the SSIBA. On this basis ERT chair Robert Wright qualified Mr. Okines as an expert in banding, identification and movement of birds, including migratory birds in the Prince Edward County south shore.
PEPtBO Bird Count Records
Mr. Okines’ slide presentation confirmed the SSIBA as a major area for birds along eastern Lake Ontario. Radar images show birds rising en masse throughout the SSIBA and then moving south across the lake. A chart of Daily Bird Counts at PEPtBO tallies 400,000 birds during one five-day period. The same numbers, approximately 40,000 birds each day, would be expected at Ostrander Point and at Point Petre in this same period. Twelve years of recording data confirm over 12,000 warblers during a five-day period in early May. Daily Bird Counts show 35,000 hawks in one five-day fall period. Between 400 and 700 Saw-whets are banded annually at the Observatory.
Mr. Okines explained that in the spring, all along the south shore, birds land, rest and feed, and then move on to breeding grounds where they will nest. However, Mr. Okines noted that something else occurs in the fall. When nocturnal passerines moving south in the fall arrive at Lake Ontario shortly before dawn, the birds will either land on the shoreline or attempt the lake crossing, depending on how much darkness remains. When birds misjudge the time for a lake crossing, they will return to the shore. These birds gradually move up to 5 km inland to feed during the day. In the evening they will start moving back south through the SSIBA and cross the lake. These migrants would be exposed to wind turbines not just once, but three times, during one day.
Gilead Power Cross-examination
Bryn Gray attempted to cast doubt on the phenomenon Mr. Okines described. He argued that the radar does not pick up objects lower than 300 metres. However, in a witness statement Mr. Okines indicated that radar fails to pick up birds lower than 300 feet. Mr. Okines also noted that casual observation confirms data from radar images: these birds can be seen coming back in the morning, dropping from the sky, and working their way towards wooded areas where food is plentiful.
Finally, in an obvious attempt to catch Mr. Okines up, Gray asked Mr. Okines if he considered that the death of a single bird entailed serious and irreversible harm. Okines specified the harm as irreversible to the bird and to the propagation of some species that breed in Ontario’s northern boreal forests or to endangered species such as the Kirtland Warbler limited to breeding near Petawawa.
Ministry of Environment Cross-examination
Sylvia Davis also challenged Mr. Okines on his testimony on the aborted attempts to cross the lake during fall migration. Could Mr. Okines back up the numbers of birds that he was claiming? Might this sequence of events only occur at Point Traverse, where a savannah attracted birds, and hadn’t Mr. Okines referred to this area as a hotspot?
Mr. Okines stated that a combination of radar images and observation shows birds at Point Petre, for example, travelling from three to five kilometers out onto the lake and then turning around, dropping off the radar image, and being seen again in the evening.
Mr. Okines went on to explain that the Kingston Field Naturalists had located the bird observatory at Prince Edward Point because it lies within a 50-km circle around Kingston. (Cornell University Ornithology Lab limits official bird count territories to a 50-km size.) But the same numbers and species of birds could be banded anywhere in the SSIBA.
ERT panel member Heather Gibbs asked Mr. Okines to explain what an Important Bird Area is. He said an IBA is an area designated as important for birds by Bird Studies Canada and Ontario Nature, the Canadian partners of Birdlife International. BirdLife International is the organization that decides if an area meets the criteria. The SSIBA meets several criteria, including the astounding numbers of ducks of several species (225,000 ducks moved through the IBA one morning in 2005) and the numbers of passerines and other birds that migrate through or breed there.
Mr. Wright asked Mr. Okines if there were any recordings of the Loggerhead Shrike. Mr. Okines noted that, according to the Breeding Bird Atlas of Ontario, the last Loggerhead Shrike recorded in the SSIBA was in 2007 near Helmer Road, not far from where Mr. Wright had walked during his recent Ostrander Point visit. Mr. Okines noted that Whip-poor-will and eight other species are breeding in the vicinity of the Ostrander Point Wind Project, although Stantec found only two birds in the area.
About 40 people attended the hearing. As on other days, everyone left with a keen appreciation of how vital it is that the PECFN appeal succeeds.