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Winter birds late to arrive, annual Christmas Bird Count finds

Veteran birders attribute changes to milder temperatures and fluctuations in food supply

by Camilla Faragalli
Jan. 7, 2024

Birders convened across the Pontiac on several days over the months of December and January to participate in the 124th annual Christmas Bird Count, held by the National Audubon Society and facilitated by local volunteers and members of the club des ornithologues de l’Outaouais (COO).
They were among thousands of people across the country that braved snow, wind and rain to contribute data to bird population research in what is, according to the Audubon Society, the longest-running wildlife census in the world.
“Basically, observers work from dawn until dusk looking for birds and counting what they see and hear,” said Deborah Powell, organizer of the Quyon-Shawville count and COO member for more than 12 years.
Powell explained that during the Christmas Bird Count, birdwatchers track both the number of species and numbers of individual birds seen in predetermined areas.
“Urban areas are walked, and most roads in a sector are driven, with a special eye kept out for birds, and frequent stops are made in areas potentially rich for observation,” she said.
After the event, volunteers submit their data to their area’s coordinator, who then tabulates it and in turn submits it to the Aubudon Society.
Warming temperatures
affecting count
“The unseasonably warm weather across the country during this early winter period resulted in a higher diversity of birds lingering further north than usual,” said Yousif Attia, Canadian coordinator for the count at Birds Canada, adding that as results from this season’s count are still being tallied, it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions.
Sheenboro resident Vincent Agnesi has participated in the Christmas Bird Count for 12 years and has contributed to four of the five held in the Pontiac this season. He saw this trend manifest at the local scale.
“The big difference this year compared to other years was the mild temperature. There was no snow and the Ottawa River was basically wide open,” he said.
“Because there was so much open water and it was still relatively mild, some species lingered longer.”
According to Agnesi, likely thanks to the warmer temperatures, two new species of duck were spotted at the Pembroke bird count that have not been observed in the 46 years since that count started – the blue-winged teal and the green-winged teal.
Agnesi said that while warmer temperatures meant greater numbers of birds that would have normally migrated by the time of the count, there was a notable absence of winter birds.
“Common redpoll on Calumet Island – there were none,” he said. “Evening grosbeaks, there were none. They’re a little bit late, compared to other years.”
Christian Renault, coordinator of the count in the Pembroke area, and participant for about 16 years, said that while this year’s climate would undoubtedly increase the presence of ducks and other aquatic birds, another factor to consider is food supply in the boreal forest.
“We have boreal species coming every so often, especially on years where the food is poor in the forest,” he said. “Usually we have quite a few evening grosbeaks, and this year hardly any. Same with pine siskins.”
“Food crops up north vary a lot,” he added, explaining that cycles between plants will alter the amount of food available in the forest, and thus the timing of the migration season.
Rewards of citizen science
“Involvement in any citizen science activity is a way of giving back to nature by helping to increase knowledge and awareness,” Powell said.
“With the Christmas Bird counts in particular, it is really cool to take part in a tradition that started more than 100 years ago and that so many other people take part in as well.”
“We do it for passion, it’s sort of a tradition, and it’s fun,” Renault said. “You go outside in nature to see what’s there, it’s a bit like a treasure hunt.”
Renault described the thrill of spotting a great horned owl near Petawawa in the early years of his involvement in the bird count.
“We don’t see great horned owls that easily. They’re rare. They’re very quiet,” he said. “And then to have one to sing for me when I was not expecting it . . . It made my day. You get those kinds of rewards, you see.”


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