Lafarge Canada, one of the largest aggregate companies in Canada, has been putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to sustainability.

On September 30, the company hosted their annual Owl Banding Event at the Berrymoor Gravel Pits. Brock Helm, the Land Manager for Northern and Central Alberta, was excited to once again work with Chuck Priestley, a wildlife biologist with STRIX Ecological Consulting, to capture and band some of the Northern Saw-Whet Owls in the region.

Priestley says the Biodiversity Program at the Berrymoor Pit began in 2009. At that time, the Environment Manager of Lafarge got in touch with STRIX and asked if they would be interested in being part of a biodiversity program. Lafarge employees in Berrymoor had noticed a pair of bald eagles nesting along the North Saskatchewan River.

This was the beginning of a program focussed on raptors, birds of prey, in the area.

While the biodiversity program focuses on both American Kestrels and the owls, the event last Saturday was focussed on the owls.

The purpose of banding the owls, says Priestley, is to gather data on their migration habits. “When we first started this in 2010 we were very excited to see that, yes, the Northern Saw-Whet Owls at this time of the year are certainly moving along,” he says.

Priestley says though biologists know that the Northern Saw-Whet can be found across Canada and the United States, they aren’t sure how far north the birds go each year. By banding the owls, they can track where the owls go along their migration journey.

While banding isn’t the most effective way to track the birds, it still works. At one point, the team had caught an owl that had originally been banded in Saskatchewan, so they were able to figure out how far the owl had traveled. Over the course of 1000 days, the owl had traveled more than 600 kms.

Currently, Priestley says the program they have for tracking Kestrels has a live tracker that updates every day. However, hatch year owlets molt their feathers, so trackers can’t be attached to them. Then, as adults, there are some that are too small to handle the weight of the trackers. As such, banding is still the best way to track the Saw-Whets.

Later in the evening, after presentations and supper, Priestley and Helm, along with Sam Priestley who was assisting for the event, went out to check on some nets they had set up in the forest. Beside the nets was a recorder that played the sound the Saw-Whets make, which would attract them to the area. Then, they checked on the nets every half-an-hour to see if they had caught birds.

In total, there were five owls caught that night. “It was nice and steady, they trickled in throughout the evening,” says Priestley.

Once they caught an owl, they brought it back to the tent, and shared the process of banding and recording the information with the event attendees. Children and adults alike were given the opportunity to gently pet the owls while learning about the species.

Priestley’s experience in working with the public was on full display as he actively engaged the children in the practice of recording the owl’s information. He says one of the things he’s passionate about is working with the public and helping them become more interested in wildlife biology.

“In terms of talking about conservation, connections with people and wildlife has always been something I’ve been very interested in,” says Priestley.

Helm and Jessica Sabel, the Sustainability and Environmental Manager for Lafarge Canada, say their biodiversity program includes more than owls.

Helm, who also has a degree in biology, says he and his son love travelling from Edmonton to the owl-banding every year. However, Helm is also proud of the program for tracking American Kestrels. “Any opportunity to interact with wildlife is always welcome,” he says.

By partnering with STRIX and nearby landowners, Lafarge has been able to help ensure the Kestrels will continue to use the area to hatch and raise their young. Priestley and Helm have spoken to landowners with property that Kestrels are attracted to, and have set up nest boxes on those properties.

These boxes also have cameras, and Priestley says the information they’ve gathered from those cameras has been valuable. American Kestrels have been on the decline for many years, and biologists are still trying to understand why.

Through these nesting boxes, Priestley and his team have been able to determine that grasshoppers make up a large portion of the Kestrels diet in the area. They’ve also been able to determine some of the migratory patterns of the falcons using tracking devices. Some of the birds were in Texas at the time of Priestley’s presentation.

Sabel says Lafarge also have other wildlife they are looking after. “A couple of other species we also look at are amphibians. We do amphibian surveys on an annual basis,” says Sabel. She says there are also bat boxes at some of the pits in the Onoway area.

“Right now we have three hives that we are maintaining,” says Sabel. These hives are in Sturgeon County and are a localized program. She says employees have taken beekeeping courses and are involved in the care for the hives. The honey harvested is given out to employees or at events like the owl banding.

Outside of working with wildlife, Lafarge has been working steadily on the reclamation of their pits across the country. Helm says that while aggregate and its byproducts are an essential component in the modern world, they also want to ensure the land they leave behind is still usable.

Their reclamations create many deep water areas alongside viable land. All of it is ready to be used when the company is finished with the pit. In fact, they work on reclamation in certain areas while they are digging in other areas. By doing this, they are speeding up the process and reducing their footprint.

During her presentation, Sabel also pointed out other sustainability projects the company is working on, along with little-known facts.

“We are a global leader in sustainability,” says Sabel. She says she’s worked for a number of companies that talk about sustainability, but don’t always follow the talk with action.

She says there are a number of things the company is doing to reduce their carbon footprint, including trying to reduce emissions by purchasing energy efficient equipment, recycling concrete, asphalt, and water used in their processing.

Sabel encouraged attendees to bring their old concrete and old shingles to recycling centers in the province, as these materials can be recycled into other products.

Any landowners who are interested in helping with the biodiversity program by putting up nesting boxes are encouraged to contact Priestley at

By Amanda Jeffery, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Oct 12, 2023 at 09:35

This item reprinted with permission from   Free Press   Drayton Valley, Alberta

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