Dr Darren Irwin studies birds. And the 36 year old Assistant Professor in the Department of Zoology at UBC (Vancouver) has spent the past few weeks staying in Tumbler Ridge, doing just that. Tumbler Ridge, he says, is the perfect place for his work on the Winter Wren, a tiny (but quite vociferous) breeding inhabitant of our forests.
Irwin?s interest lies in how new species develop. Tumbler Ridge is well known in birding circles as the ?place where east meets west?, where species separated for long ages by glaciation now meet again, and may or may not have had enough time to form new species, and may or may not be able to interbreed.
He did his thesis in Eurasia on this topic, and moved to BC two years ago. He knew that populations of the Winter Wren had been studied in New York and the Oregon, and had shown significant differences. No-one had researched in detail if in between these two geographic extremes, there was a slow gradation, or whether this was sudden, or whether there were places where these two differing types co-existed. He next discovered that Winter Wrens at Lesser Slave Lake were quite like the ones in New York, and those in Vancouver were similar to those in Oregon. He needed desperately to find if there was an overlap zone.
While at an hotel in Dawson Creek he googled ?Winter Wren? and ?Peace?, and came up with the South Peace Bird Atlas Project, to which TR birders have been contributing for the past five years. And the website just happened to focus on the distribution of the Winter Wren as one of a few indicator species, complete with a map of the area which showed a significant concentration around Tumbler Ridge.
Driving in to town, he saw the signpost to the Quality Falls trail built by WNMS, and within a short while had found three western types and two eastern types in close proximity. Bingo! He started playing recordings of wren song and was able to catch the jealous territorial wrens is mist nets, measure them, and take blood samples.
Next, his student David Toews was able to sequence the mitochondrial DNA and analyze the song recordings and confirm that these were two different forms of wren. And Tumbler Ridge is the only known overlap zone! Poster displays have followed and an article is awaiting publication in a prestigious scientific journal.
This year Irwin returned with his student and his family. His wife Jessica trained as an invertebrate palaeontologist but now works with him in ornithology, and their daughter Maja is two years old. Dr Irwin says Tumbler Ridge is a great place to bring his family, with a wonderful layout, and he has nothing but praise for the WNMS trails.
By coincidence the Winter Wren is the emblem of TROG, Tumbler Ridge?s birding group, and appears on the cover of the first edition of the Tumbler Ridge bird checklist. Toews and Irwin?s poster on their Winter Wren research won an award for the best poster presentation at the Canadian Society of Zoologists? meeting in April 2006 in Edmonton. A copy of this poster will be made available to the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation and this special bird will then become part of a museum exhibit on natural history. Dr Irwin will be back for more research in May 2007, and will then deliver a presentation as part of the Library / Museum Foundation lecture series.
Perhaps by then he will be able to report that the Quality Falls Winter Wrens of Tumbler Ridge were the crucial factor enabling the identification of a new bird species in North America.