Jan 112018

The annual Christmas Bird Count reveals the ups and downs of bird populations – and always some surprises.

Between mid-December and early January, birders in more than 2,500 localities across North, Central and South America take a break from the holiday festivities to spend a day outside, identifying and counting birds. Dating all the way back to 1900, the Christmas Bird Count is probably the longest-running Citizen Science project in the world. The information collected by thousands of volunteer participants forms one of the world’s largest sets of wildlife survey data.

One of the most interesting trends the numbers show is the decades-long northward march of the Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Northern Mockingbird, Tufted Titmouse and Northern Cardinal. Mourning Doves, for example, were extremely rare in the northern states and Canada until the 1960s, and it was only in the 1970s that their numbers really increased. All of these species used to be restricted to the southern U.S. Their range extension northward is most likely the result of a combination of milder winters and more people feeding birds.

The counts are organized at the local level, often by a birding club or naturalist organization. The count area is a circle, measuring 24 kilometres in diameter. The circle is then sub-divided into sectors, each of which is covered by a different group of birders. The basic idea is to identify and count – as accurately as possible – every bird seen or heard.

Once again this year, two local counts were held – one centred in Peterborough and the other in Petroglyphs Provincial Park. The Petroglyphs Count circle can be viewed at bit.ly/2EfuPt8. Martin Parker of the Peterborough Field Naturalists organized the Peterborough count, while Colin Jones was in charge of the Petroglyphs count.

Ruffed Grouse – Jeff Keller

Peterborough Count

The 66th Peterborough Christmas Bird Count was held December 17 under cold but sunny conditions. Seventy-one members and friends of the Peterborough Field Naturalists spent all or part of the day in the field, while 10 others kept track of birds visiting their feeders.

By the end of the day, participants had found 13,166 individual birds of 60 species. A pair of Fox Sparrows and a Sandhill Crane were new to the count. Both of these migratory species should have left the Kawarthas well before mid-December. At the compilation dinner after the count, Scott McKinlay described his group found and identified the crane. “I saw this bird through my scope from a considerable distance – maybe a kilometre – as it flew low over an open field in full sunlight. It had broad wings and the slow, arching wing beats typical of large herons and cranes. It was clearly brown in colour. I was reluctant to call it as a Sandhill because of the distance and time of year, but nothing else fit. A short time later, I reunited with the rest of the group, who had been surveying the area in the direction of my sighting. Before I uttered a word, they yelled out, “I think we saw a Sandhill Crane!” They described it as being the size of a Great Blue Heron with an outstretched neck, long trailing legs and flying low over a field in my direction. All three were adamant, however, that it was not a heron.”

Sandhill Crane (Wikimedia)

Record high numbers were tallied on the count for Cooper’s Hawk (12), Bald Eagle (13), Red-bellied Woodpecker (16), Pileated Woodpecker (28), Dark-eyed Junco (731) and Northern Cardinal (144). Previous highs were tied for Merlin (3) and Peregrine Falcon (1). The 466 Blue Jays tallied was three short of the previous high of 469.

There were also some notable low numbers. As has been the pattern in recent years, Great Horned Owls (2 vs. 40 in 1992), Ruffed Grouse (17 vs. 82 in 1979) and House Sparrows (181 vs. 2209 in 1981) were conspicuous by their relative absence. It is well known fact that Ruffed Grouse numbers fluctuate a great deal from year to year and even decade to decade. However, the factors responsible for these periodic fluctuations remain poorly understood. Road mortality and changes in habitat, especially south of the Canadian Shield, probably play a role, as well. These include forest fragmentation and fewer early-successional, aspen-dominated forest blocks. Ruffed Grouse are only capable of relatively short flights.

The decline of Great Horned Owls is another mystery. The Canadian population has dropped by over 70% since the 1960s. Collisions with vehicles and high mortality of fledged young due to starvation are acknowledged as playing an important roles. Declines in principal prey species, such as cottontails, hares and rodents (e.g., a big drop in muskrat numbers) may be a contributing factor.

Great Horned Owl – Drew Monkman

The downturn in House Sparrow populations, however, may be the biggest enigma. This is evident across the bird’s range, which includes every continent except Antarctica. The cause or causes are not yet known. In rural areas, it may be that changes in agricultural practices have resulted in fewer nesting sites and less food availability. In northeastern North America, it also been postulated that competition with a relatively new arrival, the House Finch, is a playing a role. However, House Finches have also been declining for a number of years. Only 181 were found this year, which is about one tenth of the record high of 1197.

Finally, not a single American Kestrel was found on the count. It is estimated that the continent-wide population of this small falcon has declined by about 50% since 1966. Part of the reason may be the felling of standing dead trees on which they depend for nesting sites. Removing hedgerows and brush as part of “clean” farming practices are almost certainly having an effect, too. According to Don Sutherland of the Natural Heritage Information Centre in Peterborough, American Kestrels are still common in parts of northern Ontario, particularly in the Big and Little Clay Belts where agriculture is less intense and there is an abundance of hayfields and pasture.


American Kestrel – Nima Taghaboni

The total tally sheet for the Peterborough count is as follows:   Canada Goose 400,  American Black Duck 8, Mallard 964,  Bufflehead 2, Common Goldeneye 100, Hooded Merganser 1, Common Merganser 7, Ruffed Grouse 17, Wild Turkey 223, Sharp-shinned Hawk  2, Cooper’s Hawk 12, Bald Eagle 13, Red-tailed Hawk 49, Sandhill Crane 1, Ring-billed Gull 9, Herring Gull 121, Glaucous Gull 1, Iceland Gull 1, Great Black-backed Gull 1, Rock Pigeon 1680, Mourning Dove 1088, Eastern Screech-Owl 2, Great Horned Owl 2, Snowy Owl 1, Belted Kingfisher 1, Red-bellied Woodpecker 16, Downy Woodpecker 90, Hairy Woodpecker 62, Northern Flicker 1, Pileated Woodpecker 28, Merlin 3, Peregrine 1, Northern Shrike 8, Blue Jay 466, American Crow 612, Common Raven 9, Black-capped Chickadee 2065, Red-breasted Nuthatch 27, White-breasted Nuthatch 88, Brown Creeper 7, Golden-crowned Kinglet 28, American Robin 181,  European Starling 2227, Cedar Waxwing 115, Snow Bunting 143, American Tree Sparrow 439, Dark-eyed Junco 731, Fox Sparrow 2, Song Sparrow 1, White-throated Sparrow 5,  Northern Cardinal 144, Red-winged Blackbird 2, Brown-headed Cowbird 1,  House Finch 181, Purple Finch 2, White-winged Crossbill 1, Pine Siskin 99, American Goldfinch 424 and House Sparrow 181.  A Northern Harrier, Ring-necked Pheasant and Carolina Wren were also seen during the count period but not on the day of the count.

Petroglyph Count

            The 32nd Petroglyph Christmas Bird Count took place on December 27, in frigid weather conditions. The 24 participants braved temperatures of close to -30 C in the early morning and only -18 by mid-afternoon. Despite the weather, 32 species and 1826 individual birds were tallied, which is close to the 10-year average of 33.5 species and 2,248 individuals. There was virtually no open water, however, and therefore no waterbirds.

Although no new species were recorded or records broken, there were some notable results. An above-average 7 Bald Eagles, 146 Red-breasted Nuthatches, 122 American Tree Sparrows and 134 Dark-eyed Juncos were counted. A Gray Jay was also located in a bog along the Sandy Lake Road south of Lasswade. Up until 2009, this species was recorded annually but since then only observed in 2014 and during the week of the count in 2016. Two other birds of note were an immature Golden Eagle seen soaring over the Kawartha Nordic Ski Trails near Haultain and a Black-backed Woodpecker in Petroglyphs Provincial Park.

Black-backed Woodpecker – Wikimedia

As for winter finches, 41 Red Crossbills and 8 White-winged Crossbills turned up, some of which were singing! These birds will nest in any month of the year if sufficient food is available. This year, nearly all of our conifers produced a bumper seed crop. Crossbills feed almost exclusively on conifer seeds. Two Purple Finch, 114 Pine Siskin, 103 American Goldfinch and 2 Evening Grosbeak rounded out the finch count.

The total  tally sheet for the Petroglyph count is as follows: Ruffed Grouse 7, Wild Turkey 40,  Bald Eagle 7, Red-tailed Hawk 2, Golden Eagle 1, Rock Pigeon 10, Mourning Dove 9, Barred Owl 1, Downy Woodpecker 25, Hairy Woodpecker 39, Black-backed Woodpecker 1, Pileated Woodpecker 11, Gray Jay 1, Blue Jay 206, American Crow 4, Common Raven 42, Black-capped Chickadee 641, Red-breasted Nuthatch 146, White-breasted Nuthatch 40, Brown Creeper 17, Golden-crowned Kinglet 32, American Robin 2, European Starling 10, Cedar Waxwing 6, American Tree Sparrow 122, Dark-eyed Junco 134, Purple Finch 2, Red Crossbill 41, White-winged Crossbill 8, Pine Siskin 114, American Goldfinch 103, and Evening Grosbeak 2.



Backyard Count

If you are inspired by the Christmas Bird Count and want to contribute to Citizen Science yourself – and maybe introduce your children or grandchildren to birding – consider taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count. It takes place February 16-19 and anyone can participate. Simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count. You can do so from any location. Go to gbbc.birdcount.org for details. To see the results of last year’s count, visit gbbc.birdcount.org/2017-gbbc-summary/




Feb 042017

Port Rowan, ON—A lot has changed since the first Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was held in 1998. Each year brings unwavering enthusiasm from the growing number of participants in this now-global event. The 20th annual GBBC is taking place February 17-20 in backyards, parks, nature centres, on hiking trails, school grounds, balconies, and beaches—anywhere you find birds.
Birdwatchers from around the world enjoy counting their birds and entering the GBBC photo contest. Photo by Ann Foster, Florida, 2016 GBBC. Download larger image.
Birdwatchers count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, then enter their checklists at birdcount.org. All the data contribute to a snapshot of bird distribution and help scientists see changes over the past 20 years.
“The very first GBBC was an experiment,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of the eBird program. “We wanted to see if people would use the Internet to send us their bird sightings. Clearly the experiment was a success!” eBird collects bird observations globally every day of the year and is the online platform used by the GBBC.
That first year, birdwatchers submitted about 13,500 checklists from the United States and Canada. Fast-forward to the most recent event in 2016. An estimated 163,763 birdwatchers from more than 100 countries submitted 162,052 bird checklists reporting 5689 species–more than half the known bird species in the world.
“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to introduce people to participation in citizen science,” says Audubon Vice President and Chief Scientist Gary Langham. “No other program allows volunteers to take an instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations that can contribute to our understanding of how a changing climate is affecting birds.”
Varying weather conditions so far this winter are producing a few trends that GBBC participants can watch for during the count. eBird reports show many more waterfowl and kingfishers remaining further north than usual because they are finding open water. If that changes, these birds could move southward.

Also noted are higher than usual numbers of Bohemian Waxwings in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains. And while some winter finches have been spotted in the East, such as Red Crossbills, Common Redpolls, Evening Grosbeaks, and a few Pine Grosbeaks, there seem to be no big irruptions so far. A few eye-catching Snowy Owls have been reported in the northern half of the United States.

Jon McCracken, Bird Studies Canada’s National Program Director, reminds participants in Canada and the U.S. to keep watch for snowies. He says, “The GBBC has done a terrific job of tracking irruptions of Snowy Owls southward over the past several years. We can’t predict what winter 2017 will bring, because Snowy Owl populations are so closely tied to unpredictable ‘cycles’ of lemmings in the Arctic. These cycles occur at intervals between two and six years.  Nevertheless, there are already reports of Snowy Owls as far south as Virginia.’

In addition to counting birds, the GBBC photo contest has also been a hit since it was introduced in 2006. Since then, tens of thousands of stunning images have been submitted. For the 20th anniversary of the GBBC, the public is invited to vote for their favourite top photo from each of the past 11 years in a special album they will find on the GBBC website home page. Voting takes place during the four days of the GBBC.

Learn more about how to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count at birdcount.org where downloadable instructions and an explanatory PowerPoint are available. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada. The GBBC is made possible in part in Canada by sponsors Armstrong Bird Food and Wild Birds Unlimited.

Kerrie Wilcox, Bird Studies Canada, (519) 586-3531 ext. 134, kwilcox@birdscanada.org
Agatha Szczepaniak, Audubon, (212) 979-3197, aszczepaniak@audubon.org
Pat Leonard, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, (607) 254-2137, pel27@cornell.edu

Feb 022017

When it comes to feeding birds, it’s important to be skeptical of ‘conventional wisdom’. There are a lot of myths out there, some of which might discourage people from putting out feeders. No one with an interest in birds should be missing out on such an entertaining and convenient way to enjoy contact with nature. Feeding wild birds also serves to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for the environment in general. It’s impossible to care about birds without becoming concerned about issues such as climate change and habitat destruction.

Male Indigo Bunting at nyjer feeder – Greg Piasetzki

The following list highlights some of areas of concern that people have when it comes to feeding birds. I have also included some suggestions to make bird feeding more successful and enjoyable.

1. Over-dependence on feeders. Birds do not depend on any one food source. They need a greater variety of food than feeders alone can provide. For example, studies with chickadees have demonstrated that even removing a feeder in mid‑winter does not result in greater flock mortality than would normally occur in flocks that do not visit feeders. Birds are well able to find other sources of food if feeders are unavailable. Putting out food for the birds can be important during extreme weather events, but birds will not starve if the feeders aren’t filled.

2. Impact on migration: People sometimes fear that feeding birds during the fall migration period might somehow stop them from flying south. Feeders will not keep birds from migrating. Migration is controlled by instinct and by external factors like daylight and weather. In fact, your feeders are providing an energy boost to help them survive these long journeys. I witness the allure of migration every October when hoards of white‑throated sparrows visit our yard. Despite a ready supply of black oil sunflower seed and millet scattered liberally on the ground, all of the birds depart by the end of the month.

Hairy Woodpecker – Karl Egressy


3. Hawks at feeders: It’s true that feeding birds might attract a Cooper’s hawk or even a barred owl to your yard. Personally, I feel privileged to witness the drama, even if a mourning dove or house finch pays the price. The raptor’s presence indicates that the food chain is healthy and working as it should. Raptors are also fascinating birds to observe in their own right. If predation becomes too much of a problem, you can simply take your feeders down for a few days and thereby disperse the smaller birds.


Cooper’s Hawk on Rock Pigeon – Helen Nicolaides Keller

4. When to feed: Many people make the mistake of waiting until winter has arrived before putting up their feeders. The greatest bird diversity at feeders actually occurs in the spring and fall. In early October, for example, a dozen or more species may turn up on a given day. The same can be true in late April. I usually start putting out sunflower seed and millet in late September, when large numbers southbound white‑throated and white‑crowned sparrows are passing through. They are easily attracted to our yards if seed is available on the ground. These sparrows come through again in late April and early May on their way north. Rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings may also show up at feeders in May and are a real treat to see. Grosbeaks are attracted to sunflower seed, while the buntings prefer nyjer seed. By putting out food in the spring and fall, you are also providing a welcome source of energy for the birds’ long flight to or from their wintering grounds.

There is no problem feeding birds in summer, either. I keep my peanut and nyger seed feeders filled all year long. Woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees dine on the peanuts, while goldfinches are a constant presence at the nyger seed. If you live in the country near a woodlot, rose-breasted grosbeaks and their young will often come to sunflower feeders during the summer months.

5. Metal perches: There is no reason to be concerned that a bird’s feet might stick to metal feeder perches in winter. The feet are made up mostly of scaly tissue and are well protected against the cold. Blood flow in the feet is minimal, and sweat glands are completely absent. This means that there is no moisture present to freeze to metal.

6. Peanut butter is dangerous: As far as I’m aware, there is no documented evidence that birds can choke on peanut butter. In fact, peanut butter is high in fat and therefore provides a great deal of energy.

7. Hummingbirds: Don’t wait until the warm weather of June to get out your hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds arrive back in the Kawarthas in early May, when flower nectar is in short supply and frigid weather is still possible. At this time of year, a feeder might actually make a difference to their survival. I also recommend leaving it up until late September, when the last of the hummingbirds departs for Mexico and Central America. Whether the sugar water in the feeder contains red dye is largely irrelevant. The birds don’t need it to find the feeders. As to whether the dye can hurt the birds, the jury still seems to be out. I recommend erring on the side of caution.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds – Nancy Cafik

8. Scattering seeds: You will attract a lot more bird species by spreading seeds on the ground. Yes, you may lose some to squirrels, but at the same time, you will attract some of the many birds that are strictly ground feeders. Who knows? A fox sparrow or an eastern towhee might even show up. I prefer to use millet to spread on the grass and snow; however, I try to scatter it widely enough so that the squirrels can only glean a small part of it. Scattering the seeds near hedges and other areas of cover seems to work best.

9. Where are the birds? The number and variety of birds coming to feeders varies greatly over the year. Why bird activity is slow at times is not always clear. However, there are several possible explanations. First, many species such as cardinals and house finches travel in flocks in winter and may only frequent a small number of feeders. Yours may not be on their list. The presence of a raptor in the neighbourhood may also explain why fewer birds are present on a given day. Habitat changes in your neighborhood such as trees being cut down can also have an impact. The loss of habitat is the number one cause for the rapidly declining populations of many bird species. Finally, birds like siskins, redpolls and pine grosbeaks can be completely absent in the Kawarthas some years. This is because the wild foods they depend upon – conifer seeds, birch seeds, berries, etc – fluctuate in abundance from year to year. When there is plentiful food available in their boreal forest nesting grounds, they simply stay put. This seems to be the case this year.


Juncos and White-throated Sparrows feeding on ground – Drew Monkman

10. Window collisions: Feeders do increase the danger of window kills. One way to reduce this problem is to place your feeder within ten feet of window glass. In this way, birds flying away from the feeder won’t build up enough speed to seriously injure or kill themselves, should they hit a window. You will find lots of other ideas for reducing window collisions at allaboutbirds.org

Great Backyard Bird Count    

Every year I like to encourage readers to further the cause of science by taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Launched in 1998, it was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Now, more than 160,000 people of all ages and walks of life worldwide join the four-day count each February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds. In 2016, GBBC participants in more than 130 countries counted 5,689 species of birds on more than 162,000 checklists.

This year’s count takes place February 17-20, which is the Family Day weekend. This makes the count a great activity to do with your kids or grandkids. For at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see. You can count from any location – not just your own backyard. If you’re new to the count, or have not participated since before the 2013, you must create a free online account with eBird to enter your checklists. During the count, you can explore what others are seeing in your area or around the world. Share your bird photos by entering the photo contest, or enjoy images pouring in from across the globe. All the information you need is at gbbc.birdcount.org


Feb 112016

With the El Niño weather phenomenon warming Pacific waters and contributing to record-warm temperatures this winter, participants in the 2016 Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) may be in for a few surprises. The 19th annual GBBC starts tomorrow, February 12, and continues through Monday, February 15. Information gathered and reported online at birdcount.org will help scientists track changes in bird distribution, some of which may be traced to El Niño storms, unusual weather patterns, and accelerating climate change.

The common redpoll is a species that should turn up on this year's count - Missy Mandel

The common redpoll is a species that should turn up on this year’s count – Missy Mandel

“The most recent big El Niño took place during the winter of 1997-98,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of the eBird program, which collects worldwide bird counts year-round and also provides the backbone for the GBBC. “The GBBC was launched in February 1998 and was pretty small at first. This will be the first time we’ll have tens of thousands of people doing the count during a whopper El Niño.”

“We’ve seen huge storms in western North America plus an unusually mild and snow-free winter in much of the Northeast,” notes Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham. This means some species are turning up in unexpected places. For example, a Bullock ’s oriole was seen in recent weeks in Pakenham, near Ottawa. GBBC organizers are curious to see what other odd sightings might be recorded by volunteers during this year’s count.

Though rarities and out-of-range species are exciting, it’s important to keep track of more common birds, too. Many species around the world are in steep decline and tracking changes in distribution and numbers over time is vital to determine if conservation measures are needed. Everyone can play a role. The count provides insight into the dynamics of bird populations and helps to answer questions such as:

  • How how big is this year’s movement of northern species such as pine siskins, purple finches, common redpolls and bohemian waxwings into the Kawarthas?
  • What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban and rural areas?
  • Are any new birds undergoing worrisome declines that point to the need for conservation attention? Any readers who attended the screening of “The Messenger” at the recent Reframe Film Festival in Peterborough will be aware of the many threats faced by songbirds. Increasing the database by taking part in the GBBC is one tangible way that you can help them.


How to participate

A joint project of Bird Studies Canada and Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon in the U.S., the GBBC is open to anyone of any skill level and welcomes bird observations from any location, including backyards, cottages, parks and urban landscapes. The four-day count typically receives sightings from tens of thousands of people reporting more than 600 bird species in Canada and the United States alone. Anyone visiting the GBBC website will also be able to see bird observations pouring in from other parts of the world. Just follow these simple steps.

1. Register for the count or use your existing login name and password. If you have never participated in the GBBC, you’ll need to create a new account. If you don’t have a computer, try to arrange for someone else to enter the data for you.

2. Count birds for at least 15 minutes – or longer if you wish – on one or more of the days. Count birds in as many places and on as many days as you like—one day, two days, or all four days. Submit a separate checklist for each new day, for each new location, or for the same location if you counted at a different time of day. Estimate the number of individuals of each species you saw during your count period.

3. Enter your results on the GBBC website by clicking “Submit Observations” on the home page. Alternatively, you can download the free eBird Mobile app to enter data on a mobile device. If you already participate in the eBird citizen-science project, just use eBird to submit your sightings. Your checklists will count toward the GBBC. Online maps and lists are continually updated throughout the count, making it easy to see how your sightings compare to what is being seen elsewhere in the city, province, country or world.

4. You can also enter the photo contest, win prizes, and share your experiences on the Facebook and Twitter social networks. To follow the reporting in real time on Twitter, use the #GBBC  hashtag.

5. The GBBC website also has special materials for children. In fact, you may want to go one-step further and take part in the count with your children or grandchildren. This would be a great way to celebrate Family Day, which is on February 15.

2015 GBBC

In last year’s GBBC, participants from more than 100 countries submitted a record 147,265 bird checklists and broke the previous count record for the number of species. The 5,090 species reported represent nearly half the possible bird species in the world. As for Canada, 241 species were recorded on more than 10,000 checklists. In Peterborough County, 62 observers submitted 224 checklists, which included some less-common species like the trumpeter swan, evening grosbeak, brown-headed cowbird, Carolina wren and red-bellied woodpecker. It is expected that participation this year will eclipse the 2015 numbers. The weather last February was bitterly cold and tough on both birders and birds.

The evening grosbeak was a nice find on last year's GBBC in the Kawarthas - Gord Belyea

The evening grosbeak was a nice find on last year’s GBBC in the Kawarthas – Gord Belyea

Don’t be shy

Don’t feel intimidated if you’ve never taken part in the GBBC before or doubt your ability to identify birds. In a survey of participants who took part in 2009, more than 36% were doing so for the first time. Only about a third of participants considered their skill at identifying birds to be “advanced or expert.” However, the majority of respondents said that they enjoy watching birds every day and that by doing so they experience a satisfying connection with nature.

Please consider taking part this year, and encourage your family, friends and neighbours to do so as well. Remember, too, that the Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way for kids to participate in a real scientific study as junior citizen scientists and, who knows, begin to develop a life-long interest in the natural world. We need as many new conservationists as we can get.

Citizen science

The Great Backyard Bird Count is just one project in the rapidly expanding field of “citizen science.” This is scientific research conducted in whole or in part by volunteers, usually with no formal background or experience in the area. Citizen science projects make you look more closely and really pay attention to all that surrounds you. Participants can become the “eyes” and “ears” for professional scientists. Increasingly, many areas of science such as conservation biology have a huge need for citizen scientists in order to properly do their work. Dentists are becoming lepidopterists, plumbers are contributing to our knowledge of lizards and grade three students are tracking monarch butterflies. In the process, people feel more engaged with the scientific process and with the natural world in general. Participants also develop a new sense of what a specific plant or animal is going through as human impact on the environment increases.

Clouds on horizon?

A post-GBBC survey done by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology after last year’s count found that only 15 percent of participants in the GBBC are less than 50 years of age. This is troublesome, since it is another sign that engagement with nature is far less common among younger people. Participation on the part of non-whites was also extremely low at less than 10 percent. In a continent as multi-cultural as North America, we have to be concerned that more people who identify as non-white don’t take part. On a more positive note, most participants were very happy with their GBBC experience, and found  counting birds and submitting and exploring data to be enjoyable. Ninety percent said that they were very likely to participate again.

As parents and grandparents, we need to do more to help young people develop an interest in nature. It is also important that we do what we can to reach out to new Canadians and share our love for the natural world. If we don’t, it’s hard to imagine who  tomorrow’s conservationists will be. Who will speak out for threatened species and habitats, when the formative experiences that make for caring stewards are no longer part of so many people’s experience?

It's essential for the future of conservation to cultivate an interest in nature in young people - Drew Monkman

It’s essential for the future of conservation to cultivate an interest in nature in young people – Drew Monkman







Jan 082016

Between mid-December and early January, birders from across North, Central and South America take a break from holiday season excess to spend a day in the fresh air, identifying and counting birds. Dating all the way back to 1900, Christmas bird counts represent the biggest organized birding event in the world and a holiday tradition for over 50,000 birders each year. The counts first began from a desire to count birds rather than shoot them. In doing so, they gave birth to North America’s modern conservation movement.

Birding is attracting more and more young people. Drew Monkman

Birding is attracting more and more young people. Drew Monkman

There are two counts in the Peterborough area. One is centred in the city itself and the other in Petroglyphs Provincial Park on the north shore of Stony Lake. Both counts cover a circle 24 kilometres in diameter, take one day each to complete and are organized by a count compiler. Martin Parker organizes the Peterborough count, while Colin Jones is in charge of the Petroglyphs count. Working in small groups and covering the circle by car and by foot, birders work from dawn to dusk identifying and counting every bird they see or hear. The count is open to anyone who wishes to participate. If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher.

Peterborough Count

The 64th Peterborough Christmas Bird Count was held December 20th under sunny, mild conditions. Forty-five members and friends of the Peterborough Field Naturalists spent all or part of the day in the field, while four others kept track of birds visiting their feeders. The first party was out at 4:30 a.m. listening and calling for owls.

By the end of the day, participants found 16,558 individual birds, which is a new high. A total of 58 species were recorded, four more than the 10-year average. Because mild fall weather continued throughout December and all of the lakes and rivers in the area were open, a large number of waterbirds were still present, including a new species for the Count, the Cackling Goose. It brings the total number of species found on the Count since its beginning to 128. The first Peterborough CBC took place in 1953.

Cackling Goose (foreground) - Brendan Boyd

Cackling Goose (foreground) – Brendan Boyd

As for numbers of birds, record highs were tallied for Canada Goose (3795), Northern Shoveler (4), Redhead (2), Bufflehead (13), Hooded Merganser (15), Ring-billed Gull (399), Eastern Screech-owl  (4), Belted Kingfisher (4), Pileated Woodpecker (17), American Crow (813), Black-capped Chickadee (2044), White-breasted Nuthatch (138), and Purple Finch (60). Some other notable birds included an Iceland Gull, 5 Red-bellied Woodpeckers, 3 Merlins, 202 American Robins, a Hermit Thrush, a Red-winged Blackbird, and 128 Pine Siskins. As is the case every year, there were also some notable low numbers. For instance, observers only found one Northern Shrike and three Great Horned Owls. The latter is declining throughout its range.

Pileated Woodpecker (Peter Armstrong)

Pileated Woodpecker (Peter Armstrong)

The overall data for the Peterborough count is as follows: Cackling Goose 2, Canada Goose 3795, American Black Duck 3, Mallard 1141, Northern Shoveler 4, Redhead 2, Great Scaup 1, Bufflehead 13, Common Goldeneye 45, Hooded Merganser 15, Common Merganser 54, Ruffed Grouse 8, Wild Turkey 164, Northern Harrier 4, Sharp-shinned Hawk 1, Cooper’s Hawk 3, Bald Eagle 2, Red-tailed Hawk 45, Ring-billed Gull 399, Herring Gull 440, Iceland Gull 1, Great Black-backed Gull 1, Rock Pigeon 1861, Mourning Dove 337, Eastern Screech-Owl 4, Great Horned Owl 3, Barred Owl 1, Belted Kingfisher 4, Red-bellied Woodpecker 5, Downy Woodpecker 86, Hairy Woodpecker 51, Pileated Woodpecker 17, Merlin 3, Northern Shrike 1, Blue Jay 191, American Crow 813, Common Raven 19, Black-capped Chickadee 2044, Red-breasted Nuthatch 13, White-breasted Nuthatch 138, Brown Creeper 6, Golden-crowned Kinglet 6, Hermit Thrush 1, American Robin 202, European Starling 1995, Cedar Waxwing 270, Snow Bunting 308, American Tree Sparrow 253, Dark-eyed Junco 436, White-throated Sparrow 1, Song Sparrow 1, Northern Cardinal 112, Red-winged Blackbird 1, House Finch 80, Purple Finch 60,  Common Redpoll 2, Pine Siskin 128, American Goldfinch 887, and House Sparrow 112.

Belted Kingfisher (Karl Egressy)

Belted Kingfisher (Karl Egressy)

Petroglyph Count

The 30th Petroglyph Christmas Bird Count took place on December 30th. The 22 participants enjoyed clement weather, ice-free lakes and good listening conditions. Much of birding is done by ear, so calm days are best. A total of 40 species were found, which tied the previous high. The number of individual birds (2666) was slightly above average, too. One new species for the count was recorded, which surprisingly enough was the Mallard. Birders found 26 of these ducks on Stony Lake and one on Jack Lake. Thanks to the open water, a variety of waterfowl that have usually left the area by December also turned up. They included a record number of American Black Ducks (10), Common Goldeneye (28), Hooded Merganser (30), and Common Merganser (500, which shattered the previous record of 97). A record high 30 Pileated Woodpeckers were also found. Some other birds of note were 2 Common Loon, 2 Winter Wren (one of which was actually singing!), 51 Red Crossbill, and 8 Bald Eagle. Some common species that occurred in good numbers were Ruffed Grouse (31), Red-breasted Nuthatch (244), Brown Creeper (32) and Golden-crowned Kinglet (49). Finch diversity, too, was excellent with six species recorded. As for low counts, only 5 Mourning Doves, 1 Barred Owl and 151 Blue Jays were tallied. The latter species usually numbers well over 300, but a below-average acorn crop probably explains their relative scarcity. Many jays have simply chosen to migrate south this year in search of more abundant food.

A worrisome miss for the count was the Gray Jay. Prior to 2010, the average count for Gray Jays was five, and they were recorded every year with the exception of 1990. Gray Jays are one of many species that are expected to decrease in number as the climate warms, especially at the southern edge of their range such as here in the Kawarthas. It is also interesting that only one Barred Owl made an appearance, since good numbers of this species have been seen in the area in recent weeks.

The overall data for the Petroglyph count is as follows: Canada Goose 3, American Black Duck 10, Mallard 27, Bufflehead 1, Common Goldeneye 28, Hooded Merganser 30, Common Merganser 500, Ruffed Grouse 31, Wild Turkey 40, Common Loon 2, Bald Eagle 8, Northern Goshawk 1, Red-tailed Hawk 2, Herring Gull 4,   Rock Pigeon 32, Mourning Dove 5, Barred Owl 1, Downy Woodpecker 32, Hairy Woodpecker 37, Pileated Woodpecker 30, Northern Shrike 1, Blue Jay 151, American Crow 11, Common Raven 95, Black-capped Chickadee 660, Red-breasted Nuthatch 244, White-breasted Nuthatch 132, Brown Creeper 32, Winter Wren 2, Golden-crowned Kinglet 49, European Starling 18, American Tree Sparrow 33, Dark-eyed Junco 65,  Snow Bunting 5, Purple Finch 10, Red Crossbill 51, Common Redpoll 18, Pine Siskin 167, American Goldfinch 91, and Evening Grosbeak 1. A Golden Eagle and a Ring-billed Gull were also seen during the count period but not on the day of the count.

Male Hooded Merganser (Karl Egressy)

Male Hooded Merganser (Karl Egressy)

Junior Count

In order to help young people develop an interest in birding, the second annual Junior Christmas Bird Count also took place this year. Organized by the Peterborough Field Naturalists, 16 young naturalists spent part of the morning of January 3 scouring the grounds and nearby trails of the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre on Pioneer Road. The junior event incorporates many of the features as the adult version. However, it is far less rigorous and designed more like a game. The objective is to contribute to citizen science while having fun. This year, the children found 12 species with the help of leaders Dave Milsom, Sean Smith and Martin Parker. The highlight of the morning was 35 American Robins.

Leucistic American Robin (Alan Dextrase - April 12, 2013)

American Robin (Alan Dextrase)


Great Backyard Bird Count is coming!

If you are interested in contributing to citizen science and maybe introducing your children or grandchildren to birding, consider taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). It takes place February 12-15. The GBBC engages bird watchers of all levels of expertise to create a real-time snapshot of the whereabouts and relative abundance of birds in mid-winter. Anyone can participate. Simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count. You can count from any location, anywhere in the world! Click here for details.