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For the birds: Groups flock to spot feathered friends in Christmas Bird Count

Moose Jaw Times Herald

December 21, 2010.

By The Canadian Press

TORONTO - With one thermos filled with coffee and another with soup, Mark Cranford set out armed with a keen eye and binoculars on the lookout for some fine feathered friends.

But this was more than idle bird-watching. Cranford joined a dedicated group of observers on the Toronto Islands in hopes of spotting and documenting various bird species.

A day earlier, Cranford was among about 45 individuals who conducted a similar search within areas of Mississauga and Oakville, just west of Toronto, with the South Peel Naturalists' Club, where he assumes responsibility for compiling the group's findings.

"Most of those birds were fairly common, and a number of them were a little bit out of range for the time of year, things like Eastern bluebird, hermit thrush," he said.

Cranford has been involved with the Christmas Bird Count since 1993. But the annual event, which has drawn countless birders and nature enthusiasts alike over the years, has been a tradition dating back more than a century.

The Christmas Bird Count was the brainchild of American ornithologist Frank Chapman. On Christmas Day, 1900, Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition: a "Christmas Bird Census" that would count birds rather than hunt them, according to the National Audubon Society.

Prior to the turn of the century, it had been a festive tradition to take part in what was known as the Christmas side hunt. Individuals would choose sides, head afield with guns, with whoever brought in the most birds emerging victorious, says the society.

Toronto was one of the locations that took part in the inaugural Christmas Bird Count, which involved 27 birders and 25 counts held that day with a total combined tally of 90 species, says the society.

Information gathered helps researchers, conservation biologists and others study the long-term health and status of bird populations across the continent. When combined with other surveys, it helps provide a picture of how North America's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past 100 years, says the society.

This year's event takes place over a three-week period, continuing through Jan. 5.

Now in its 111th year, it is the single longest-running and most popular bird survey of its kind, and one operated almost entirely by volunteers, said Mark Carabetta, conservation science manager with Ontario Nature.

In Canada, the event is co-ordinated by Bird Studies Canada and organized throughout the Americas by the National Audubon Society. About 12,000 Canadians take part in more than 380 counts across the country, according to Bird Studies Canada. Approximately 2,100 groups participate across North America, said Carabetta.

"Scientists are able to use the information to note trends," said Carabetta. "If a particular type of bird is in decline, that would probably be picked up during the count."

Around 30 years ago, the bald eagle and a number of birds of prey were in decline, said Carabetta. Scientists eventually figured out this was because the pesticide DDT was having an impact on these birds, he noted.

"Their numbers were greatly reduced and that trend was first observed during Christmas Bird Counts." Cranford said counts are typically done within a 24-kilometre circle where people are generally assigned areas of coverage.

Carabetta said participants typically will have a clipboard for note-taking, a pair of binoculars and a bird guide or two. They may also have a way to listen to birdcalls on a CD or tape to verify the birds they may have heard but not seen.

"It's always exciting to see a bird species that you didn't anticipate seeing during the wintertime, or it's always interesting to see some type of bird behaviour that you're not used to seeing," he said.

Cranford's group was able to bear witness to one such rare treat. For only the third time in 48 years of the South Peel club's count, they observed a barred owl.

"It's a northern bird, at least in this part of the country, it's a woodland bird that generally winters further north, and possibly, with the heavy snow, they've been pushed south this year." Carabetta takes part in counts as well, occasionally getting up before sunrise which is the best time to detect owls, which are nocturnal.

Weather is also a big factor in the counts. "We'll observe certain species in decline or on the increase over the years, but one thing that's important is to understand that it's normal for certain species to go up and down from year to year," said Carabetta. "Often this is dependent on the weather,"Depending on the harshness of the winter and availability of food, some northern species - like crossbills - tend to move farther south," he noted.

Carabetta says another key factor is whether there is any open water or if it's frozen over. For example, when there's still open water on lakes and ponds, you're more likely to see lots of waterfowl, ducks and swans.

The weather conditions can also impact the count observers themselves.

"You're much more likely to be out there all day long looking for birds when the weather is pleasant, whereas if it's cold and snowy you might be inclined to take breaks and not count as many birds, so it's highly variable," said Carabetta.

"It's important that as scientists look at the information that comes in from year to year to be able to separate those normal ups and downs that are dependent on the weather from a longer-term decline that may indicate that there's some sort of problem."

Cranford said while the weather during this year's counts was bit milder compared to some previous years, there was a "raw wind," particularly by the waterfront.

It pales in comparison to the harsh conditions he experienced during a Toronto Islands count in 2004.

"It must have been 20 below with a brutal wind - wind is a killer out there," he said.

"I've been relatively lucky as far as snow. I can think of one time where I spent a good part of the count pushing the car."

With about 40 counts to his credit, Cranford is planning on taking part in at least two more - a Boxing Day count in Hamilton and another near Caledonia, Ont.

The tradition has become much more than surveying various species. "I think it's really a social thing when you get right down to it," Cranford said. "I've developed a number of friends that do the same thing and it's a part of the Christmas season."

Online: Bird Studies

National Audubon Society:

Ontario Nature:

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