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Christmas Bird Count Season Coming to a Close

Janet and Ron enjoy participating in Christmas Bird Counts in the area

Whatever today’s weather brings, there will be 25 or more hardy souls out and about in the Carden Alvar area, scouring the countryside for winter birds.  The first weekend in January marks the tail-end of the Christmas Bird Count season, a volunteer tradition now in its 114th year.

Across North America, over 2300 of these counts take place between December 14th and January 5th, each one covering a 25-kilometre circle.  The results are compiled annually by the Audubon Society, providing an amazing snapshot of winter bird distribution and trends over time.

One of the birds we will be watching for in the Carden count, for example, is the endangered Bald Eagle, which has been making a gradual come-back as pesticide levels drop.  On the Orillia count, which took place December 21st, a record high five Bald Eagles were recorded, and the Carden area may produce a few more, especially if any open water remains.

Our local counts also attest to the growing impact of climate change.  Even in unusually cold periods like this December, southern species such as Red-bellied Woodpecker and Carolina Wren continue to show up as new residents of the Orillia area.  These species are part of a widespread northwards shift in bird ranges that is being tracked across North America.  In many ways, shifts in bird ranges are a meaningful indicator of climate change, since the new arrivals can survive in spite of the inevitable ups and downs of weather patterns.

This year, the Christmas Bird Counts across the eastern United States are providing a special connection to the Carden Alvar.  Volunteers are being asked to carefully document any Loggerhead Shrikes they observe with leg bands.  Those birds would likely have been banded on the Carden Alvar, which is the nesting area for the majority of Ontario’s population of this critically endangered species. One of the great mysteries about these birds is where they choose to winter, so having an army of volunteers watching for them just may help to resolve that important question.

Providing data that can be used for scientific analysis is one of the functions of the annual Christmas Bird Counts, providing one of the best examples of “citizen science”.  But for many of the volunteers taking part, this Christmas tradition is mostly a social event – a reason to get together with others to brave the winter weather and to marvel at how little feathered balls of fluff can survive even the coldest of days.  Some groups indulge in a little friendly competition; North Bay and Edmonton, for example, have a long-standing rivalry on who can sign up the most volunteers for their counts.

On the Carden Christmas Bird Count this Saturday, the day will end with a gathering at the community hall to share in a pot luck meal and compile the results for the day.  There will be serious data gathering, to be sure, but there will also be laughter and sharing and renewal of old friendships.  What better way to start a new year?

Ron Reid is the Carden Program Coordinator at The Couchiching Conservancy.