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McKellar Island Bird Observatory
on 30 acres of land on McKellar Island

McKellar Bird Observatory John, Noah and his dad studying birds   Lake Superior News
#LSN_Outdoors  John, Noah and his dad studying birds

THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO  -  May 5, 2018  (LSN)  McKellar Island Bird Observatory (MIBO) is a place where people can connect with nature and see an outstanding example of ‘citizen science’. The observatory was established in 2014 by John & Maureen Woodcock on 30 acres of land on McKellar Island in Thunder Bay leased from Husky Energy (see For 13 years prior to this John and Maureen ran the Thunder Cape Bird Observatory and four monitoring stations in Costa Rica for the winters of 10 of those years. They are passionate about birds and love to share this passion and expertise with volunteers and visitors alike. The observatory is run by volunteers and our operating budget comes entirely from donations. Tbay Tel and the Keri Chase Foundation have provided capital for equipment. The city of Thunder Bay donated an old bus shelter for us to use as a bird banding lab.


Blackburnian Warbler in a mist-net Blackburnian Warbler in a mist-net  Lake Superior News

MIBO is a bird migration monitoring and banding station. For a month in the spring and 3 months in the fall volunteers use an array of 20 nets set in a forested environment to capture birds (7 mornings a week, May, August, September & October, weather permitting) following a standardized protocol. Every 30 minutes the nets are checked and data is collected on the birds that are captured. They are then banded and released. By tagging the birds we can keep track of individual birds and get a measure of their survivorship and reproductive success from season to season. The five most abundant species banded are:  Yellow-rumped Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Pine Siskin, White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco. The five most unusual species banded were: Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Tanager, LeConte’s Sparrow, Long-eared Owl and Cooper’s Hawk.


Visitors have the opportunity to accompany us when we check nets and then release one of the birds that has been banded. In addition, each day observations are made of birds not captured and these tallies supplement the banding data. Migration monitoring methods at MIBO follow procedures recommended by the North American Migration Monitoring Council (Hussell and Ralph 1996, 2005) and are similar to methods used at Long Point Bird Observatory (McCracken et al.1993) and elsewhere. Banding birds is an integral part of the migration monitoring program. The main objectives of the migration monitoring program at MIBO are:

A) To collect data suitable for trend analysis with the aim of documenting changes in populations of small landbirds that migrate through northwestern Ontario

B) To provide volunteers with opportunities to learn new skills

C) To engage in public outreach through demonstrations and on-site visits


            MIBO is a contributing member of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network (, overseen by Bird Studies Canada (BSC). Statisticians at BSC compile data collected by MIBO and 25 other such monitoring stations scattered across Canada. Population trends are generated that tell us how our bird populations are doing. Data collected at CMMN stations clearly show that many species of birds are in decline. The declines are most striking in insectivorous species that undergo long migrations. By monitoring populations of birds we are able to identify which species are in trouble and thus focus our conservation efforts.


We offer volunteer opportunities at MIBO from May 1 to June 11, for the spring migration, and from August 1 to October 31 for the fall migration. Skilled & unskilled volunteer help is essential. We train. Volunteers interested in learning bird skills start with scribing (recording data dictated by the bird bander) and advance to working with birds directly (extracting and banding) or making & documenting observations.

Volunteers also help with groups visiting the site, acting as guides. Volunteers help build and maintain trails and work in the butterfly garden. Prospective volunteers may just want to come out once to see what goes on and how they might fit in. Volunteers will need their own transportation to Baffin Street. Please express your interest in volunteering to [email protected].


            MIBO is located on McKellar Island, 10 minutes from downtown Thunder Bay, on Baffin Street off Island Drive. There is roadside parking. A short trail leads visitors across an Alder Swamp (an experience in itself) to the observatory on the banks of the McKellar River. The observatory is open to the public year round, though bird banding only takes place mornings in May, August, September, and October. There is no admission charge but donations are appreciated since this is our only source of revenue to keep the observatory going. You will find photos and updates at


During spring migration we capture an average of 454 birds. In the fall we capture about 2,559. We capture more birds in the fall in part because we operate for 3 months as compared to one month in the spring. Fall migration is much more protracted because the birds are in no rush to leave. In the spring, on the other hand, birds are in more of a hurry to get to the breeding grounds so that they can claim the best territories. We capture more birds in the fall also because there are simply more birds than there were in the spring: in the fall, there are an additional             4 to 10 young birds per breeding pair, making their way south. In our first 4 years of operation we have banded 91 species of birds and have identified an additional 58 species that were not captured. Birds banded at McKellar have been recaptured Wisconsin, Illinois, Arkansas, Florida and Texas. In addition to monitoring birds we have begun a Tree Swallow and Bluebird nesting box program. This year we will have 24 bird boxes in operation.


            Though our focus is on monitoring birds we have volunteers interested in all aspects of natural history. We have established a butterfly garden with myriads of flowering plants on which butterflies feed. In conjunction with this we have started a milkweed patch to provide breeding habitat for the endangered Monarch Butterfly. We have also begun improving the habitat for frogs by digging small ponds for them to lay their eggs in and raise tadpoles. We are restoring wildlife habitat by planting trees. It is amazing how much wildlife there is in this location just 2 km from city hall.


            We have developed a system of trails for recreation use. We already have a following of dog walkers. There is a lovely picnic area beside the river where we are certain there must be fishing opportunities. We welcome you to come out for a walk, connect with nature, and see this citizen science in action.


McKellar Island Bird Observatory,
Program Coordinator, 

By John Woodcock, April 30 2018

McKellar Island Bird Observatory Lake Superior News




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