October 25, 2018 6:25 am
Updated: October 26, 2018 10:55 am

Docs show NCC’s anxiety over ‘Bluesnest’ media coverage, killdeer chick met untimely death

Ottawa's hottest music festival, RBC Bluesfest, is on hold — all because of a tiny bird and its nest. A killdeer is nesting exactly where the main stage is supposed to be. As Mike Le Couteur reports, two government departments are now trying to figure out what to do.

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It took just 10 minutes for the National Capital Commission to go from shrugging at questions about a bird’s nest on the site of Ottawa’s largest outdoor music festival to pressing the panic button.

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Internal emails obtained by Global News through the Access to Information Act show the Crown corporation’s communications branch was caught off guard by strange requests from CBC and Radio-Canada one fateful Saturday in June but managed over the following week to turn the unique wildlife predicament into Ottawa’s feel-good story of the summer.

READ MORE: A small bird, nest and four eggs hold up Bluesfest

Several hundred pages of correspondence paint a roller-coaster of a week for the NCC and its spokespeople, who found themselves at one point talking down two directors who had requested they ask the public broadcaster to drop its news stories about the unfortunately located killdeer nest.

“It’s too late to try and tell media to stay quiet about it. The thing is too obvious and fencing it off with yellow (caution) tape only attracts more attention!!!” Jean Wolff, the NCC’s senior strategic communications manager, told his colleagues in French.

The documents also suggest the media attention the killdeer attracted made it a bit difficult for the NCC, which manages federally owned lands in the National Capital Region, to find a wildlife group willing to help them relocate the nest and the four killdeer eggs inside.

Buried in the emails is another small but sobering revelation: one of the baby birds actually met a grisly demise as the killdeer family (or most of it) flew the coop on Canada Day morning.

The unlucky chick, not even a day old, was run over by a car as it crossed the road with its parents and siblings.

Media requests about bird’s nest ruffled some feathers

It all began at 8:54 a.m. on Saturday, June 23, when Wolff received an email from a reporter inquiring about “a potentially endangered bird nesting at LeBreton Flats,” located west of Parliament Hill. It turned out the nest was located right where Ottawa Bluesfest planned to set up its main stage, which needed to be ready in time for the music festival’s kickoff on July 5.

“Bluesfest and birds? Never heard of that before,” Wolff wrote back. “You’ll have to go back to your sources and come back to us with more details so we know what to look for to help you.”

“Probably not this weekend,” he added.

Exactly 10 minutes later, the experienced communications manager fired off an email with the subject line “serious HEADS UP” to a group of senior employees at the NCC, including Marc Corriveau, director of Ontario Urban Lands and the Greenbelt.

“This can become serious. Provide us as much info as possible please as it becomes available,” Wolff wrote.

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Wolff’s note set in motion a steady stream of emails, in which the mysterious creature was identified as a killdeer, a shorebird protected under the Migratory Birds Act.

Katie Paris, an NCC director responsible for matters related to the environment, real estate transactions and development, informed the email thread Saturday afternoon that the commission had already applied for a permit from Environment and Climate Change Canada to relocate the bird’s nest.

She noted the killdeer nest was being protected by “a police tape perimeter” in the meantime and appealed to the communications team to keep the situation on the down-low.

“It is important that this not be publicized to protect this bird from onlookers. Please emphasize that to the media,“ Paris wrote.

READ MORE: Name a park: The NCC wants your ideas on what to call Ottawa’s new riverside park

Corriveau backed her up: “Please let’s not publicize.”

“Too late…” NCC spokesperson Mario Tremblay wrote back on Saturday evening. “That should have been given some thought before taping off the site,” he wrote in French.

Wolff agreed and advised the group that he’d followed up with the reporters to confirm the NCC was aware of the nest. News articles would be published the next day, Wolff warned.

This set off a renewed discussion about bringing in a security guard to watch over the “Bluesnest,” with senior management anticipating the headlines would draw crowds to the site. Arrangements for 24-hour security were promptly made, and a guard was stationed at the site by 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, the emails show.

“I am certain that this story will draw the attention of other media outlets,” Corriveau wrote that morning.

NCC struck out several times in search for expert to help move nest

And so it did. By Tuesday, the bizarre story of “tiny bird versus big festival” had made headlines nationally and internationally.

The media attention was such, in fact, that it scared off some wildlife groups in the Ottawa area from helping out the commission with the risky nest relocation, the NCC emails suggest.

READ MORE: NCC closing Victoria Island for 7 years to clean up contaminated soil

“Corriveau’s team have located a small bird expert from Trent University (and) invited her to come to Ottawa to help move the eggs (NCC cannot do this ourselves and seeing media attention, local birding organizations have declined due to risk),” another NCC director wrote on the Monday afternoon.

The commission also tried someone at the University of Ottawa, but that person didn’t have an incubator.

In the end, the NCC scored its permit and secured help from the executive director of the Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary, who made the more than three-hour drive from Minden, Ont., to partake in the painstaking, metre-by-metre relocation. (The expert from Trent also provided support and advice remotely.)

READ MORE: Bluesfest gets go-ahead to move Killdeer bird nest

With help from NCC biologists who built an imitation nest, the relocation to a nearby spot over Tuesday and Wednesday was a great success. By the end of the hectic week, the commission, which didn’t originally want news of the nest to take flight, was calling it an “amazing story” and patting itself on the back.

“This is a good (children book/citizenship) story,” Wolff wrote on June 30, after the NCC learned that three of the four eggs had hatched.

A bittersweet ending? Killdeer chick meets untimely death

The next morning, on July 1, the killdeer parents and the three offspring decided to get out of dodge, which proved to be a deadly venture for one of the chicks.

According to an email update at 10:44 a.m. from NCC environmental program officer Alexander Stone, the parents abandoned the nest and the remaining egg and crossed Wellington Street. The three babies followed suit.

Smush.

“The two other chicks made it across the road,” Stone reassured his colleagues.

READ MORE: Two-month-long Portage Bridge repairs beginning Friday to affect vehicle lanes

This detail, interestingly enough, didn’t make it into a blog post the NCC published in early August about the killdeer conundrum.

“This was an amazing adventure with a great ending,” the post said.

The fourth young killdeer, which hatched a few hours after its family left it behind, was taken in to the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre in Nepean for a short-term stay.

—With files from Mike Le Couteur

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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