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Bird watchers from Peel and nearby flock together for the annual Christmas Bird Count

The Brampton Guardian,
By Radhika Panjwani,
December 29 2015

Every year, for some 10 years or so, Mississauga resident Mark Cranford has undertaken a Christmas-time tradition that has nothing to do with the holiday itself.

Cranford, president of South Peel Naturalists Club, joins hundreds of other people across Canada and the U.S. to participate in the Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

The bird count, introduced in 1900 by American ornithologist Frank Chapman, is a volunteer-run survey which help biologists track population trends among birds.

“There’s a social aspect to the bird counts as you get to meet a lot of people,” said Cranford, adding some 50 members of the South Peel Naturalists Club participated in this year’s census, which is run by famed nature group the National Audubon Society. “It’s also citizen science and we’re all contributing to a snap shot of the state of the environmental health (of birds) across North America. The data has been going on since 1900, so it does give you a long-term overview of the state of birds in North America.”

According to Ontario Nature, more than 70 groups in Ontario will take part in this year’s count. Ontario Nature, along with Bird Studies Canada, organizes the CBC in the province each year.

The reams of data collected help scientists chart the pattern of seasonal and migratory species across the western hemisphere and is an important part of Canada’s biodiversity monitoring database, said Bob Kortright, past president of Toronto Field Naturalists and a member of the Toronto Ornithological Club.

Like Cranford, Kortright participated in his 10th bird count this year. He said warmer temperatures this year meant the birds were scattered and were not concentrated around bird feeders, as is usually the case.

“I love watching birds and have done since I was a kid,” he said. “I coordinated the south east corner of the sector in Toronto this year. This is an important initiative because any data set that has to do with nature is important and valuable. You can see trends that you wouldn’t be otherwise confident of.”

In addition to the usual bird sightings – finches, cardinals and fowl – Cranford and his group spotted a harlequin duck and a number of warbler species including a palm warbler, which typically breeds in the Boreal forest and spends its winters in Cuba.

“(The palm warbler) typically migrates through in September, but we still had this one hanging out in Oakville,” he said, with a chuckle.

Kortright observed fewer waterfowl but higher than usual numbers of cardinals, which he attributes to warm temperatures. Other unusual sightings, he said, included a song sparrow, and a red-shouldered hawk, which are typically only seen between March to October.

Armed with binoculars, smartphones, field guides, books and pencils, volunteers are assigned to one of 70 one-day bird counts, which run from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. Beginning at 8 a.m. on their appointed day, they are asked to observe, record and sometimes take photographs of different species of birds in what has been dubbed as North America’s longest-running citizen science project. Each group is assigned a 24-kilometre radius as its observation zone.

Kortright and Cranford both noted that modern birdwatchers are now greatly aided by technology, such as apps that can be loaded on smartphones and digital photographs that allow individuals to capture rare birds in high-resolution clarity.

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