Birder and photographer Murray MacKay of Ponoka checks a nest box on his land east of Ponoka.

Birder and photographer Murray MacKay of Ponoka checks a nest box on his land east of Ponoka.

Ponoka’s best bird man

Murray Mackay is a bluebird’s best friend.

Murray Mackay is a bluebird’s best friend.

Who else would make the time to build, stake, and maintain as many as 40 nesting boxes on 63 acres of his own land specifically set aside for wildlife, as well as 100 nesting boxes dotting Ponoka’s countryside.

“At one time I had a trail of 600 through the whole area,” said Mackay, 75, of Ponoka.

His boxes attract both mountain bluebirds and tree swallows.

Mackay also has a licence to band bluebirds to help track behaviours like migration and longevity.

“I had one occasion where I had one male come back to the same box seven years in a row which is really, really rare.”

“You’d be lucky to get maybe two return out of 100 that you band.”

He said bluebirds were in trouble a few years ago, but have rebounded. But bird populations in general have declined over the years.

“We don’t have near the birds on our window feeder we used to have 20 some years ago. Ponoka hasn’t grown. It’s not like they’ve been pushed out,” said Mackay who also attracts birds to his house.

Mackay, whose wildlife photos regularly appear in the Advocate, is rarely without a camera to take pictures of birds who drop by.

Just last week, he spotted some young woodpeckers sitting on a nearby fence waiting for their mother.

“The sun was just right,” said Mackay who snapped about a dozen photos.

His favourite birds to photograph are raptors, especially saw-whet owls, that also nest on his land outside town.

A retired owner of a Massey Ferguson dealership, Mackay has owned the acreage that has turned into his own private sanctuary for about 30 years.

During the winter, he fills bird feeders on the property for the chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

The mostly wooded area, with a small meadow, is a calm oasis that also attracts small critters and bigger wildlife.

Mackay regularly visits his acreage and checks on the nesting boxes on scattered around Ponoka County.

“The biggest hardship is every year you get some vandalism. Somebody will steal your box. Shooting the boxes up. Some people, they don’t care.”

In 2002, Mackay received the Order of the Bighorn, the highest honour the provincial government bestows on conservationists for helping to preserve land near Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury that was slated for housing.

He was also recognized for countless volunteer hours enhancing fish and wildlife habitat through the years in the Ponoka area.

“It’s never ending. You just have to keep working for wildlife because they get the rough end of the stick all the time.”

He likes to remind people about all the natural beauty around them with his photography.

“I’ve got a couple of nice letters from people because of my pictures being in the Advocate. It makes you feel good. They enjoy them and that’s why I put them in. I want people to get out and enjoy nature.”