Homing in on bank swallows, before it’s too late

WEEKEND READ | The countdown is on to save a species once abundant along riverside landscapes. Can artificial sites that mimic nesting habitat be harnessed to reverse the steep decline?

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Yves Gauthier steadies his spotting scope on a tripod and places it aside, allowing him to free one hand and gesture across the water.

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It’s an early spring morning and Gauthier, a 73-year-old amateur birdwatcher, is standing on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Montreal’s east end.

He’s pointing toward a cluster of small islands just under two kilometres away. With his bare eyes, he can’t quite make them out.

But with the use of his scope, on a clear day he can easily see the steep banks along their edges — and the small, active birds he’s watched burrow into them each spring for the last 30 years.

“If you only came here, you wouldn’t think they’re declining, because this colony is holding strong,” Gauthier says.

“But across the province, if you visit other places where they once nested, it’s easy to see: Most of the sites have disappeared, or only a few individual birds remain.”

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Gauthier is talking about bank swallows, the smallest of six swallow species usually found in Quebec.

Like most aerial insectivores — birds that capture insects while in flight — their numbers have been dropping in Canada for decades. In 2017, the federal government officially listed them as threatened under its Species at Risk Act.

In Quebec, their decline has followed an equally steep trajectory. As of this year, it is estimated 99 per cent of the province’s bank swallow population has died off since the 1970s.

Some of the reasons why remain unclear, but threats such as climate change, dwindling insect populations and the loss or destruction of the species’ natural habitat have all played a role.

Those invested in the species’ survival in Quebec concede it’s a lot to overcome.

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But one thing is clear: reversing the decline, or at least slowing it, will need to come through protecting existing colonies, offsetting the loss of habitat, and raising awareness about the species’ needs.

It’s an effort already playing out across the province.


On the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Montreal’s east end: “If you only came here, you wouldn’t think they’re declining, because this colony is holding strong,” birdwatcher Yves Gauthier says.
On the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Montreal’s east end: “If you only came here, you wouldn’t think they’re declining, because this colony is holding strong,” birdwatcher Yves Gauthier says. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

On June 24 of last year, as people around him geared up to celebrate Quebec’s St-Jean-Baptiste Day, Michel Renaud boarded a small canoe on the Rivière Rouge, in the Laurentians.

For roughly six hours, the retired wildlife biologist and two others made their way down a six-kilometre stretch of the river, looking to locate any remaining bank swallow colonies in the region.

The team made sure to note the presence of any swallows, counting the birds and noting their co-ordinates, but also any abandoned cavities where they might have nested in previous years.

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Renaud was participating in a structured effort by QuébecOiseaux, a non-profit organization working on a register of remaining colonies across the province.

“It’s my way of contributing however I can,” Renaud, 71, said over the phone from his home in Mont-Blanc.

“We talk a lot about birds, and birds that have precarious statuses, and everyone says there are fewer than before. But we won’t know the status of the population locally,” he added.

“So, at one point, you need to do the work. Because you can’t protect something you don’t understand.”

Bank swallows are small brown-and-white songbirds with notched tails, known for their aerial acrobatics and near-constant, bug-like chattering. In hand, they weigh about the same as three nickels.

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After wintering in South America, they make the journey back to Quebec and other parts of North America each spring. They traditionally nest along near-vertical river banks or lake shores, where they tunnel into the earth with their bills before kicking out dirt with their feet.

But they’re also drawn to what are considered artificial habitats: sand and gravel quarries, road cuts, or even small hills of soil stockpiled on excavation sites.

Bank swallows have taken to the artificial sites built to offset habitat destruction at the Contrecoeur terminal.
Bank swallows have taken to the artificial sites built to offset habitat destruction at the Contrecoeur terminal. Photo by Patrick Lauzon /Montreal Port Authority

In late April, the federal government released its long-awaited recovery strategy for the species. The 125-document assesses the decline across the country and sets guidelines for stopping or reversing the trend.

The report states the reasons why bank swallow populations have plummeted remain unclear, but notes that multiple factors “are likely having a cumulative impact on the species.”

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Part of the cause is the disappearance of insects worldwide, leaving the swallows with fewer to feed on. More than 40 per cent of insect species are in decline, and the world’s insect population is dropping by one to two per cent each year, due in part to a mix of pesticide use, habitat loss and climate change, studies have suggested.

Other causes affecting bank swallow populations include habitat loss brought on by development and how humans have “extensively modified shorelines and coastlines.”

Rock embankments, for instance, are often installed as erosion or flood-control measures to protect waterfront homes and other properties or infrastructure. They end up replacing the natural banks or bluffs that would be suitable for the birds.

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And while the swallows have proven opportunistic by nesting in sandpits and quarries, those nesting sites remain at high risk of being disturbed or destroyed by pit operators.

The current bank swallow population in Quebec is estimated to be somewhere around 400,000, said QuébecOiseaux president Jean-Sébastien Guénette. That may seem like a lot, Guénette added, “but there used to be 100 times more  —  so it’s a huge difference.”
The current bank swallow population in Quebec is estimated to be somewhere around 400,000, said QuébecOiseaux president Jean-Sébastien Guénette. That may seem like a lot, Guénette added, “but there used to be 100 times more — so it’s a huge difference.” Photo by Patrick Lauzon /Montreal Port Authority

In the short term, from now until 2033, the federal government aims to curb the decline and keep population levels at 80 per cent of what they are today. In the longer term, by 2053, the goal is to establish a stable 10-year trend and keep levels over 90 per cent of those in 2021.

Though at times optimistic, the report is also blunt about the challenge ahead.

“It is unknown if sufficient nesting habitat in natural settings remains to support the recovery of the species,” it says, later adding that artificial settings may slow the overall rate of decline.

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Contacted for this story, Quebec’s Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks confirmed it is working on a guideline for protecting existing colonies on its territory, but could not provide a timeline for when it would be ready.

The current bank swallow population in Quebec is estimated to be somewhere around 400,000, said QuébecOiseaux president Jean-Sébastien Guénette. That may seem like a lot, Guénette added, “but there used to be 100 times more — so it’s a huge difference.”

QuébecOiseaux has gained a good understanding of nearly all active colonies found in artificial habitats. But that’s not the case for the birds nesting in natural settings, hence why the group is organizing efforts like the one Renaud took part in.

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Having a good grasp of where the colonies are, both in natural and artificial habitats, will be key to helping the species in the future, Guénette said.

“There’s only so much we can do, as an organization, in terms of the insects disappearing,” Guénette added, “but when it comes to the destruction or loss of habitat and colonies, there are projects that can protect them.”

When a colony is located in a working sandpit, say, the organization will work with the company to explain how they can cohabit with the swallows and avoid disturbing them during nesting season.

For natural habitats that are easily accessible, the group will erect signs warning about a colony’s presence and meet with neighbours to educate them about how vulnerable the species is.

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“We need to know where the colonies are. And once we do, we can intervene with municipalities, with campgrounds or recreation companies,” Renaud explained. “By raising their awareness, they can then make a difference, too.”

Bank swallows at the Contrecoeur site.
Bank swallows at the Contrecoeur site. Photo by Patrick Lauzon /Montreal Port Authority

Bank swallows are also protected under Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention and Species at Risk acts.

Given this, Environment and Climate Change Canada enforcement officers regularly visit quarries and sandpits across Quebec to verify if there are nesting swallows and alert the companies if so.

Though companies tend to co-operate, said Jonathan Campagna, a regional wildlife enforcement director with the agency, it isn’t always the case.

Since 2017, the agency has recorded 123 violations related to the species in Quebec.

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Last year, an excavation company in Quebec’s Eastern Townships was fined $15,000 after pleading guilty to knowingly destroying two active nests on its land.

During an initial visit, enforcement officers discovered three nesting sites in the sandpit. They met with a heavy machinery operator for the company to explain the need to ensure the work being done didn’t disturb the swallows.

A followup visit the next month, however, revealed two of the sites had been destroyed.

“Our first mandate is to do prevention work, get the information out there and protect the species,” Campagna said.

“But unfortunately, some companies, despite all the advice and recommendations agents give them, they decide to keep the work going regardless.”

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In late April, Cole Delisle of the Kahnawake Environment Protection Office gave an overview of the concrete panels erected to mimic the sand cliffs that bank swallows usually nest in. “They should be arriving next week and looking for areas,” he said, pointing to the structure.
In late April, Cole Delisle of the Kahnawake Environment Protection Office gave an overview of the concrete panels erected to mimic the sand cliffs that bank swallows usually nest in. “They should be arriving next week and looking for areas,” he said, pointing to the structure. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

In late April, on the outskirts of Kahnawake on Montreal’s South Shore, Cole Delisle approaches large concrete panels nestled into a man-made hill of sand and grass. Standing before them, next to a small pool of water, he does a quick calculation: 26 holes per panel, for a total of 104 available cavities.

“They should be arriving next week and looking for areas,” he says, pointing to the structure behind him. “The hope is they’ll come, feed over the water and then swoop right into there.”

Delisle is giving an overview of the project on Tekakwitha Island. The structure aims to mimic the habitat bank swallows would naturally burrow in, providing a stable home that can’t be threatened by development or other disturbances.

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The panels are built into a bank of sand, giving the swallows the option to either nest in the structure or the land beside it. A plastic geogrid material behind it keeps predators from digging in and getting at the birds or their young.

Completed by the Kahnawake Environment Protection Office, the idea for the project began when the office got word that bank swallows were nesting in a sandpile at a local excavation site. The company agreed to temporarily stall work on the pile, but had to move it by the next summer.

“So we wanted to have something a bit more permanent for them,” Delisle says.

At a cost of roughly $50,000, the idea could be viewed as a gamble, with no guarantee the swallows returning to the area will find it or take to nesting in it.

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But by early June, the bet appears to have paid off: a visit to the site records 167 active nests, a figure that keeps shifting as the summer progresses.

The project is one of several similar efforts across the province. In 2015, the Quebec City Port Authority installed a similar structure, billing it at the time as the first artificial nesting site of its kind in North America.

Three years later, bank swallows factored into the Port of Montreal’s proposed new container terminal in Contrecoeur.

After a federal environmental study, the project was given approval but nonetheless subject to 330 conditions. Among them was to offset the loss of bank swallow habitat the expansion would cause.

Three nesting structures were installed at the site in 2019, and another three were added the next year.

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According to Julie Bastien, a biologist and environmental adviser for the port authority, the number of swallows using them has increased each spring. Today, there are more nested in the structure than in the remaining natural sandbank beside it.

Given the magnitude of the challenge, Bastien recognized it is hard to gauge exactly what qualifies as a success in helping reverse the species’ downfall.

But she believes the project and others of its kind show promise.

“Each species experiencing a decline has its own particularities. Sometimes you know the causes, sometimes you don’t understand them as well — that’s the case for bank swallows,” she said.

“And maybe we can’t help establish the causes. But at least we can participate, on our own scale, by improving their habitats on a local level.”

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Over his five decades of birdwatching, Yves Gauthier collected more than 50 notebooks of observations. His past entries show just how abundant bank swallows, and all birds in general, were back then. For him, the decline is obvious.
Over his five decades of birdwatching, Yves Gauthier collected more than 50 notebooks of observations. His past entries show just how abundant bank swallows, and all birds in general, were back then. For him, the decline is obvious. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

Throughout his more than five decades of birdwatching, Gauthier has always taken care to write all of his observations down: the dates, places, species counts and weather conditions of each outing.

He has over 50 notebooks full of condensed summaries. When he reads back through his older ones today, it’s hard for him to fathom just how abundant bank swallows, and all birds in general, were back then.

Gauthier would see the swallows pretty much anywhere there was suitable habitat. During migration, he says, they would gather by the hundreds or thousands over the Lachine Rapids.

But when asked how he has witnessed the decline through the years, one anecdote stands out.

In the late 1980s, Gauthier had taken to birdwatching at Montreal’s Botanical Gardens. One day, a truck dumped a pile of soil maybe two or three metres high. Before long, bank swallows were already nesting in it.

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To Gauthier, this illustrates just how abundant the swallows once were. They occupied nearly all suitable habitats, to the point of forcing some to make do with what they could.

Today, on the other hand, bank swallows can be hard to come by if you don’t know where to look. Shores that once fluttered with activity sit still. Others have been destroyed altogether, lost to development.

For anyone invested in birds and their survival, Gauthier said, it’s a discouraging reality.

“I know there are a number of factors that have created a domino effect. But in the end, the main cause is still us,” he said. “I have a hard time accepting that.”

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