For rural Canadians, fall is a special time of year marked by picking pumpkins and garlic, ogling spawning salmon, and setting out with a friend on an elk hunt or mushroom forage.
But for those like Robson, British Columbia’s Craig Sandvig, it is also a time to look up. Way up.
For the keen birder it is the time of year when hundreds of raptors —we’re talking hawks and eagles, not basketball or dinosaurs — migrate south, and if you’re lucky you just might spot a peregrine falcon or a northern goshawk.
Craig has been living and birding in the Castlegar area since 2009. He went to the regional college, Selkirk, works at a local mill, and he and his wife are raising their three young children there.
He calls the Kootenays home even though it hasn’t always been that way.
His parents were missionaries in Chile, and instilled a love and appreciation for nature in him.
”My parents were passionate about nature and all of creation,” Craig says. “For vacation, we always went camping at the national parks in Chile. I must have been in grade five or six when I got my first pair of binoculars.”
A Blue-Collar Birder
Craig’s love for nature and wildlife is what brought him to Canada.
In 2011, he enrolled in Selkirk College’s Fish and Wildlife Technician Program and moved to the West Kootenays, dreaming of one day returning to Chile and working in the national parks he grew up in.
But shortly after completing the program plans changed.
“We were expecting our little girl,” Craig says. “Back then a lot of the jobs were up north and I wasn’t willing to go up there so I ended up getting a job at the mill.”
For the last ten years, Craig has worked for Kalesnikoff, a lumber mill that was started near Castlegar in the 1930s by three Doukhobour immigrant brothers. He has worked as a labourer and now the company is paying for him to go back to school and apprentice as an electrician.
Even though he isn’t getting paid to monitor wildlife in their habitat, Craig has volunteered thousands of hours finding birds and recording his observations on E-bird, a citizen science online platform that is used by conservationists and resource managers across the globe.
And his coworkers at Kalesnikoff get his obsession.
“A lot of them are big hunters,” Craig says. “They have their own stories and encounters with birds just like anyone who is involved a lot outside. And a few of them are always watching their [bird] feeders.”
Not Just For The Birds
Craig holds his binoculars and scans the skies for hawks. He looks and listens for other birds nearby. He also smells the smoke from the Washington wildfires to the south and BC fires from the west.
So far, fires haven’t stopped Craig too often from finding birds.
“Only maybe on the worst days I wouldn’t go out,” he says.
Even during a bad wildfire year, the spring and fall skies are usually clear of smoke. But as trends in drought, extreme storms, and hotter temperatures rise, we are seeing fires happen both earlier and later in the year, and this year, even in October, smoke has been in the air.
This could not only impact Craig’s passion, it could affect him in more personal ways too.
“Getting out is good for my mental health,” Craig says. “It’s not just the birds, it’s everything that goes with it. It’s the diversity. It’s nature.”
Birds On The Brain
Thousands of kilometres south of Robson, Olivia Sanderfoot is equally as passionate about birds.
Like Craig, her appreciation for nature came from a role model, her grandfather.
“My grandpa lives in rural Wisconsin and he has dedicated much of his life to protecting water along little creeks that feed into the Great Lakes,” Olivia says. “When I was a kid he used to bring me to all of his volunteer gigs to [test water quality] in the streams and help collect data that would inform policy. I thought that was really cool.”
As an ecologist and researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, Olivia is also interested in how the environment impacts birds, and in particular what impacts wildfire smoke has on their health and behaviour. She spends a lot of time talking to bird watchers about it.
“Wildfire smoke is an increasing problem in the Pacific Northwest,” Olivia says. “We know that wildfire smoke makes humans sick, and smoke can make birds sick,too. But we don’t know exactly how it is affecting them and need to figure out more in order to protect them during increasingly smokey summers.”
The world’s eight most extreme wildfires have occurred in the last ten years. In British Columbia, 2017, 2018 and 2021 were the worst fire seasons on record. And because of rising temperatures and less humidity, the trend is set to continue.
Olivia has surveyed the literature and found that the extreme heat and smoke that comes with the hotter and more intense wildfires we are experiencing can have short and long-term impacts on birds.
When it’s smoky, birds may sing less often, lay fewer eggs, or even see their feathers dirtied by particulate matter, which could have negative impacts on the mating, nesting and even hunting abilities of birds.
Through her research and outreach, Olivia hopes to increase awareness of the possible impacts of smoke exposure on the long-term health of bird populations, and the opportunities for birders like Craig Sandvig to observe them well into the future.
Olivia is worried about researchers who conduct field studies during the fire season,
as well as folks whose occupations require them to work outdoors when air quality is unsafe.
“Ecologists do a lot of fieldwork when it is smokey and it’s not safe,” Olivia says. “But we have to get the work done because we care about wildlife and conservation and need to go collect that data. People sacrifice their health and well-being to do that just as people who are required to work outdoors do too.”
There Still Is Hobby Hope
For Craig, birding is good for both his physical and mental health.
The mental health benefits he gets from getting outside outweigh any health concerns from smoke exposure, for now. But he understands that fires and other extreme events brought on by a changing climate could impact his outdoor lifestyle.
“It would be depressing and take me a long time to get over it and try to find a new hobby.”
But he hopes that if people come together things will get better.
“I believe in climate change and try to do what I can but in the end, it’s more of a collective thing.”
Between now and then, Craig will continue visiting his favourite local birding spots when he’s in school or working at the mill. In the spring, he’ll listen for the soft and piercing crescendo of a golden-crowned kinglet. During winter, he’ll scan leafless shrubs for the perching silhouette of a northern shrike. And if he’s dedicated enough, and the smoke doesn’t stop him, something special might come along.