The short-eared owl in a meadow.

Oil and gas ‘Bird Guy’ helps save at-risk owls

Preserving a nest of short-eared owls is no trivial matter: for Encana and biologist Mark Phinney.

You could say Mark Phinney’s career was “for the birds” right from the beginning. His interest in winged animals shaped his trajectory from an early age, thanks to a gift from his grandmother.

Mark Phinney is a field biologist working for Encana affectionately known as “bird guy.” Photo: Courtesy Encana.

“My grandmother gave me a bird book for my tenth birthday,” recalls Phinney. “One day, I looked out my window, saw these yellow and black birds, and went to that book to look up what they were. After that, I didn’t stop. I started feeding and identifying birds. I was pretty serious about it by the time I was 12. I paid my way through university doing bird research with Canadian Wildlife Service.”

Raised on the east coast, Phinney went on to graduate from the University of New Brunswick with a Bachelor of Science in Forestry-Wildlife. He has since lived and worked as a professional forester and wildlife biologist in the Dawson Creek, B.C. area for nearly 20 years.

Wetlands, water courses and wildlife

For the past five years, Phinney has worked as field biologist for Encana, focusing on wetlands, water courses and wildlife. Affectionately known by colleagues as the “bird guy,” he also defines his area of interest as the little creatures that others may not pay attention to, such as frogs and mice.

It was his status as bird guy, however, that made him the go-to expert during a unique situation for Encana.

In the spring of 2017, surveyors mapping a lease expansion came across a nest with eggs in the brush along the perimeter of the proposed work area. In line with company protocol, the subcontractors halted work, took photos of what they found, and flagged it for immediate review.

Phinney was called in to the site to assess next steps. He recognized that this was the nest of a short-eared owl, classified as a species of Special Concern under the federal government’s Species at Risk Act. It was up to him to advise how the work should proceed based on his understanding of the animal’s behaviour and in accordance with the law.

Companies in Canada’s oil and gas industry continually work to minimize their impact to wildlife habitat. In addition to abiding by government regulations, companies like Encana participate in multi-stakeholder land-use strategies and environmental monitoring programs, while focusing on improving operational environmental performance and investing in research.

“At the beginning of a project, we all sit in a room—including the geologists, engineers, surface land, construction, and environment teams—and review wildlife and habitat GIS [Geographic Information System] layers and other land data we have for the area to plan the development,” says Tara Bernat, senior Environmental Specialist for Encana. “From there we do field assessments and determine what we may have to manage for depending on the location and timing of construction. We look at everything we know about the area to plan the work.”

Wildlife awareness training, programs help to plan for the unexpected

While thorough project planning goes a long way to avoiding unnecessary or unintended habitat impacts, nature is unpredictable. There are cases where wildlife will be encountered, such as in the owl situation.

“We have to be agile. We can’t plan everything out,” Bernat confirms. “We have wildlife awareness training and programs to plan for the unexpected and know how we can react.”

Encana delayed well-pad construction to allow these short-eared owlets time to mature. Photo: courtesy Encana

Following the discovery of the nest, Encana decided to delay construction of the well-pad until the eggs hatched and the newborn owlets could survive on their own. Following Phinney’s guidance, it was also agreed that a pipeline expansion ongoing at an adjacent site could continue, but activities were required to stop at night to avoid disturbing the birds’ feeding schedule.

To monitor the owls, Phinney set up a trail camera, which operated by motion sensor to capture activity at the nest. It important to keep tabs on how the eggs, soon owlets, were doing, and in the event the nest was damaged or attacked by a predator, the camera would record how it happened.

Phinney also needed to determine how the nest may have been established in the first place, despite the project planning that had predicted otherwise.

“We have a protocol to try to avoid clearing in bird-nesting habitat between May 1 and the end of July, when possible,” Phinney says. “One of the exceptions is cultivated fields, because birds in general would usually not nest there. In this case, because it was a wet spring, the farmer was delayed getting out to till his land, and the natural stubble was still there. It encouraged these birds to nest where they normally wouldn’t.”

Throughout the duration of the delay, which lasted almost three months, Phinney shared regular updates with the construction team about the growth and development of the owlets, including photos from the trail camera. It was important that everyone understand—and see—that while the young owls had seemingly left their nest, they needed to grow and learn to survive properly before development activities could recommence.

“Once owls hatch and are old enough to run around, they go into the nearby grass and hide. They disperse fairly quickly, well before they can fly,” Phinney explains. “Just because they’d left the nest, didn’t mean they were gone. They were just hiding in the grass, still growing up and still incapable of flying.”

Raising this awareness went a long way. His fellow field staff could visit him directly in his office if they had questions. Bernat supported Phinney’s efforts by relaying information to project teams in Encana’s Calgary head office.

It was all a part of Phinney’s personal philosophy to “do whatever it takes.”

When it came to these owls, upholding his philosophy meant visiting the site when the birds were most visible, which was well outside of his regular office hours.

In the evening, from a safe distance, Phinney would stand outside his truck, watching the parents drop food to their babies in the grass. Eventually, he recognized the young owls sitting on nearby fence posts: the sign they were ready to be out on their own. Construction work could begin again.

“[Owls are] more active at dusk,” he explains humbly. “At that time of year, I’d go out at 9, 9:30 or 10:00 pm to see what was going on. You have to adapt to nature’s timetable.”

Becoming a night owl is just one symptom of Phinney’s dedication to helping industry and wildlife coexist.

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • MP
    Mark Phinney Senior Environment Advisor, Encana
  • Tara Bernat Senior Environmental Specialist, Encana