Peak time for local birdwatchers to spot local rare bird species
Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla - Staff Writer
Eagle-eyed Sioux Lookout residents are spotting rare bird species and so can you. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry’s (MNRF) Management Biologist, for the Sioux Lookout District, Danielle Berube, shared with The Bulletin, “The peak time of sighting of these rare birds in winter is likely between late December and late February during daylight hours, from when they start to settle into the area for the winter to just before they begin to make migratory movements to their breeding grounds in early spring.”
Berube explained that there exist two categories of rare birds. The first group of rare birds are the species that are hard to find due to a small population or certain inherent characteristics of the species. The second group of rare species, known as vagrants, are birds that for whatever reason, be it a storm blowing them off-course, an error or stopover in migration, or some other mysterious calling, they wander far outside their normal range. Berube shared, “Finding these local rarities often requires a concerted effort and/or a good bit of luck, so it’s always special when we do get to see them.”
Berube shared that some of the rare bird species that a member of the public might see over the winter in the Sioux Lookout area include Sharp-tailed Grouse, Snowy Owl, Boreal Chickadee, Bohemian Waxwing, Red Crossbill, and possibly the Evening Grosbeak. “At best, a birder might be able to expect to see no more than ten species of rare birds across the area in the winter,” she added.
Sioux Lookout photographer Michael Lawrence was able to spot and take photos of the Bohemian Waxwing earlier this year by the Sioux Lookout Fire Hall. He shared, “It’s pretty exciting when you see something uncommon or rare. I’ve been trying to photograph nature since getting my first camera as a teen.”
Vagrant bird species that have been seen recently this winter in the Sioux Lookout area, as captured on the Sioux Lookout Bird Watchers Facebook page, are the Northern Cardinal and Golden-crowned Sparrow. Berube shared that the Northern Cardinal is a year-round resident in Ontario, residing in the province south of Lake Huron as well as in a small pocket in the Thunder Bay area. She added that this bird is a relative newcomer to Canada. The species’ range has expanded northward over the years into parts of Ontario, likely a result of an increase in backyard bird feeders, and an increase in habitat due to the warm microclimate of our urban centres and forest fragmentation.
A Red Lake resident and a birdwatcher for over 50 years, Merle Nisly shared that he drove to Sioux Lookout earlier this season especially to see the Golden-crowned Sparrow that he had heard of over social media.
Nisly shared, “I’m always excited about the appearance of rare species, and sometimes I get to discover them first, and share the information with the birding community. That’s the beautiful thing about being part of various social media groups of birders: we share our exciting finds with others.”
Berube mentioned that according to local birder Michael Lawrence the Golden-crowned Sparrow was a very special vagrant sighting in the Sioux Lookout area, given it has only ever been recorded in Ontario 17 times. The species’ distribution is limited to the Pacific coast of North America, extending east only as far as Alberta. She added that most of the bird sightings that we typically have on any given day in any given season can be considered common, such as the American Robin and White-throated Sparrow in the spring, Bald Eagle and Herring Seagull in the summer, and Black-capped Chickadee, Common Raven and Blue Jay in the winter.
Intrigued by a friend’s idea of viewing birds, a local resident and birdwatcher, Dick MacKenzie, eventually started the Sioux Lookout bird watchers Facebook page. Devoted to birds in Northwestern Ontario, it is intended to be an informal forum to discuss birds.
MacKenzie shared, “A few years ago my friend Brad Hyslop declared that for his 50th birthday year he was going to see if he could view locally and identify 50 kinds of birds.
“That idea intrigued me. After compiling my own list of potential bird sightings I could think of only about 30, so questioned if 50 were even possible.
“I bought a bird identification book, a pair of good binoculars, and started a list of sightings. At the beginning I thought I had seen a Warbler one time when I was a young boy, but soon learned that about a dozen different kinds of Warblers lived all around us here. What I once pointed out as a Sparrow, I learned was one of more than a dozen kinds of Sparrows living beside me.
“As my knowledge slowly grew, so did my enchantment with seeing birds and trying to identify them. I shared questions, and excitements, with Brad and with other friends. Eventually I decided to start a Facebook page where we could share information in a central location.”
MacKenzie mentioned, “In addition to sharing bird information, the site has been a home for new friendships, an assist to our annual bird festivals, and a continuing source of knowledge and beauty.” The page has evolved to include hundreds of pictures taken by members.
Berube shared, “Most of these rarer winter birds in the Sioux Lookout area are year-round residents. Like most wildlife populations and species, bird population numbers most likely rise and fall with the production cycles of their food (e.g. plants, berries) or with the population cycles of their prey (e.g. insects, small mammals).” She added that this might explain why residents of the Sioux Lookout area who track bird numbers see fluctuations from year-to-year in any one of the rare bird species mentioned above.
Berube shared, “Rare vagrant birds are likely seen most often during their migration in the spring and fall months. Generally, these vagrants may be spotted if they made an error in their migration path or if they are stopping over briefly to feed or rest during their migratory movements. Most migrations are to and/or from breeding grounds and wintering grounds, which coincides with the spring and fall seasons respectively.”
Local birdwatchers that moved to Sioux Lookout from Dryden in 2005, Merle and Edith Burkholder have been keeping a constant record of the birds that they see around the area of Sioux Lookout. The couple has recorded over 170 bird species in the area of Sioux Lookout since 2013. They also began conducting scheduled local bird walks for interested birdwatchers.
Edith said that they often go on regular walks, while keeping an eye out for any birds they may spot along the way. Merle added, “During the migration we do our walk every day and we often go out in the evening for an hour, an hour and a half and usually that’s for like six to eight weeks of spring.” Edith shared a unique experience from a few years ago when they spotted a Ground Dove in the area of Sioux Lookout. She said, “It was in the fall and I suppose it was migrating and the winds blew it off course. So, you know, it’s just kind of fun to see unusual things every now and then. They’re usually from the southern U.S. and the islands, but one of them was all the way up here.”
The couple shared that some of their best spots for bird watching in Sioux Lookout are Frog Rapids, The Tourist Information Centre, Cedar Bay, by the airport, Hogg road and Otto road.
Berube shared that birds generally maintain a balance of maximizing calories ingested while minimizing calories spent. She added, “They store fat during the short days of winter to keep themselves warm during the long nights. This is why you see many bird species being just as active (e.g. foraging for food) in the frigid minus 30 degree Celsius weather as they might be on a warm, just below zero degree sunny day.”
Berube stated that the public’s observation and capturing of information on rare bird species is a very important contribution to citizen science. Agencies such as the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, eBird or Bird Studies Canada have come to count upon them to assist in the overall monitoring and management of these species within the relevant jurisdiction.
Berube concluded, “There are many ways the public can get involved and contribute. In the Sioux Lookout area, members of the public can get involved in observing and reporting rare bird sightings through the local Sioux Lookout bird watchers group and Facebook page. Birdscanada.org is a good resource for formal bird monitoring initiatives.” Reports of rare bird sightings can also be made directly to the local Sioux Lookout MNRF office.