Speaking ‘bird’: get your child started early

In a world divorced from nature, we are privileged that birds let us into their lives in a way no other wild creature permits. It’s because they can so easily escape us by soaring above our heads. And it’s their good fortune that we’re generally well-disposed towards them because of their beauty. 

A beauty that’s wonderfully illustrated in a new book, The Birds of Georgian Bay by Bob Whittam. The pictures alone offer rewarding insight into the relationships birds have with each other and their environment.

But this is much more than a collection of pretty pictures; it’s a good read that opens a window into the world of birds. I will review it  as part of a book section I’m working on for this site. For now, let’s just say that this volume is a must for any home or cottage in our area of Huronia and Georgian Bay.

My interaction with birds tends to be limited to the endless entertainment I get from watching the feeders in my garden. But yesterday I got a wider view, as a participant in the Audubon Christmas Board Count, now in its 112th year, with thousands of volunteers across North and South America and beyond heading out to do a bird census on a selected date between December 14 and January 5.

I teamed up with two others, David and Bill, and we’d had pretty slim pickings on a day that was overcast and chilly. Despite a temperature of only zero Celsius, there was a brisk wind sweeping in from the northwest. Birds are more likely to be out and about their business when the sun's shining and the wind isn’t biting. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it, even though it was given the lie by one CBC team in this area that yesterday had their best count ever for land birds.

As we drove around, we kept an eye open for feeders, because they provide the easiest place to get songbird activity in winter. Alas, feeders were few and far between and many had no seed in them at all. Despite their Christmas lights, those homes were a bleak and empty wasteland for us.  

But in those areas where there were homes with feeders (they seem to cluster, perhaps one sets an example and others follow), it was amazing to see so much exuberant life, with Redpolls, Downy Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Nuthatches and Goldfinches zipping around and generally enjoying themselves.

We were fortunate that our count area in Tay Township included some shoreline. When the water is open, as it is this year, it’s pretty certain that waterfowl can be found to be counted. On our first drive to the end of a road allowance, we spotted four Trumpeter Swans in a distant patch of open water, along with some other waterfowl, and some otters on the ice nearby.

We drove around the shoreline looking for more access. The second attempt brought us closer to the swans that helpfully confirmed their identity by honking. The other birds were Common Mergansers, we decided – three of them. We heard a shot and spotted two people with guns walking in the distance. We couldn’t tell what, if anything, they had brought down, but it better not have been a Trumpeter – they’re a protected species. We put up some mallards from some reed cover nearby and had a better look at the otters. They were fun to watch. 

Working around the shoreline, we spotted Canada Geese at a distance and found another road allowance that got us close enough to count 27 of them. We noted more Common Mergansers, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16… 20… 30… and then as we swept our binoculars to the right, 100... 200… past the line of sight. We jumped back in our vehicle and tried to get closer. There were houses all along the edge of the water and we wondered whether we would have to knock on a door – many seemed empty for the winter but a few had cars in the driveway – to ask the residents if we could go on their property to look at their birds. But then we came to a small beach and public park and were able to walk to the edge of the ice to get a closer look.

What an amazing abundance of birds stretched from one side of the small bay to the other! We squinted through our binoculars. The cold had our hands shaking and they were far enough away that it was hard to pick out identifying signs. But we were so thrilled to see them all. Our most powerful pair of binoculars – Bill’s – provided a magnification of 10, and because of the shake factor, that’s the maximum that’s advised for hand-held optics. For any more powerful magnification, you need a telescope and a tripod. 

We estimated (conservatively) that there were 400 birds, 80 per cent Common Mergansers and the rest, Lesser Scaup, plus a couple of Bufflehead and a Goldeneye. Probably, more duck species. And some Herring Gulls. As resident expert Sid Hadlington said at the potluck dinner held yesterday evening at Wye Marsh, where all the local teams reported their results, you really needed a scope to sort out the waterfowl.

Here’s an important point, though: the Christmas Bird Count would miss many birds if we only relied on visual identification. Sid and other experts use more than one sense to figure out what birds are out there. He can tell a bird from its song, and that’s essential when it come to counting the more reclusive species. It’s a talent I haven’t been able to master despite really trying over the past few years. I’ve listened to recordings, I’ve gone out with experienced birders, to no avail. There are easy ones – the Mourning Dove, the Blue Jay, the Chickadee – the ones that I hear a lot. Some that are more unusual can’t be mistaken: the Catbird, for instance, would make you swear there’s a kitty in that bush. But I’ve worked at learning the calls of marsh birds like the Virginia Rail or the Least Bittern and I just get confused. 

I think it’s like learning a language: if you don’t do it when you’re young, you’ll always be a foreigner. I mentioned this to David as we worked our way through our count area, and he agreed. He was lucky enough to get started more than a few decades ago, spending happy hours as a child roaming through the wetlands around Highland Creek in the east end of Toronto. 'Bird' is something you have to learn early – and then you never forget. For most of our history, almost all human children could learn bird, just naturally. These days, we have to give them the opportunity.

Fortunately, it’s not hard. Ontario Nature is a good place to start. For Huronia residents, there are several naturalist clubs that have outings that can get youngsters started – Brereton Field Naturalists in Barrie, the Midland-Penetanguishene Field Naturalists and the Orillia Field Naturalists.  Get in touch – you can enrich your own life by discovering the natural world, and give your child a gift that will last a lifetime. 

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